Category Archives: Nature and Animal Attractions

Rock Faces and Sea Views from Chapman’s Peak Drive (2020-07-04) Nature and Animal Attractions | Photo Gallery 18 APR 2021

Covid-19 and its associated lockdowns kept us all indoors for most of last year, and so excursions were few and far between. Cabin fever certainly became a thing, and to stave if off, one Saturday morning in July saw us all hop into the car and tackle the long drive to Simon’s Town and beyond, with the aim of taking in the views that come with a trip along the legendary Chapman’s Peak Drive.

Stretching between Noordhoek and Hout Bay, Chapman’s Peak is the name of the mountain on the western side of the Cape Peninsula, taking its name from John Chapman, the pilot of an English ship that was becalmed in Hout Bay in 1607, and who had been sent ashore to find provisions on an expedition recorded as Chapman’s Chaunce. Chapman’s Peak Drive itself was hacked out of the face of the mountain between 1915 and 1922, and at the time was regarded as a major feat of engineering. Of course, the issue of the numerous (but expected) rockfalls along the road came to a head in the 1990s after it caused a motorist’s death (and subsequent lawsuit), and many subsequent bouts of re-engineering has since taken place to try and make the route safer for visitors. As such the road reopened in 2005 as a toll road (to fund these constant fixes), and to this day remains one of Cape Town’s most famous drives.

The scenery is of course spectacular. With a base of granite, covered in layers of sedimentary rock and sandstone fynbos, the near vertical mountain faces rise up to the one side of you while to the other you are rewarded with the deep blue hues of the Atlantic Ocean, and further on the stiller waters of the ever picturesque Hout Bay.

Passing by energetic (and clearly not risk averse) cyclists and through the odd stone and concrete overhangs, you are eventually afforded a stop at the main lookout point that provides an incredible vantage point across from Hout Bay, with plenty of additional stone steps waiting to be clambered up by those with the energy to get yet another view of this gorgeous landscape.

Chapman’s Peak Drive is an incredible example of the old mixed in with the new mountain pass engineering, and with those incredible classic views on offer, an absolute must do for any visitor to the Cape – plus on this particular day, the perfect way to break out of our Covid-19 cabin fever funk!

USA 2019 – 15 United States Botanic Garden in Washington DC (2019-10-27) Nature and Animal Attractions | Photo Gallery 23 MAR 2021

Situated on the grounds of the United States Capitol, near Garfield Circle, lies the oldest continually-operated botanic garden in the United States – the United States Botanic Garden. Established by the U.S. Congress in 1820, the botanic garden houses an incredible variety of both local and exotic plants, including specimens and seeds that can be dated back all the way to the South Seas exploration of the Wilkes Expedition.

The striking glass and aluminum curves of the gigantic Lord & Burnham greenhouse demands attention, and while you can enter the United States Botanic Garden through the imposing stone facade of the the main conservatory, a lot of people end up in the botanic garden by following the green (and associated tranquility) of the National Garden, which lies on the Botanic Garden’s west border. In addition to the odd sculpture or two that finds itself exhibited in this space, this outside garden includes a regional garden of plants native to the Atlantic Coastal Plain and Piedmont, a rose garden, a butterfly garden, and the First Ladies Water Garden, a water garden in memory of the First Ladies of the United States.

Then there is the Conservatory itself. Housed in the stunning, aforementioned greenhouse, the Conservatory is divided into separate rooms, each simulating a different habitat. Rooms included in this list are The Garden Court, Rare and Endangered Plants, Plant Exploration, Orchid House, Medicinal Plants, Desert, Hawaii, Garden Primeval, Plant Adaptation, Jungle (which is by far the largest room, featuring an elevated catwalk to walk above the jungle canopy), Children’s Garden, and Southern Exposure. The end result is a wide array of many small collections of interesting plants, and I have to be honest, I did break out in a broad smile when I stumbled across the small collection of our local fynbos on display.

The United States Botanic Garden is a wondrous space. Compact enough that it doesn’t take too long to wander through, but filled with so much colour and with such varied plant species (with the odd sculpture and mural thrown in) that you can’t but help meander through with a peaceful mind and even broader smile on your face. Easy to recommend if you are looking for a little break from exploring all that history that is housed along the National Mall!

Watching Table Mountain from up on Signal Hill in Cape Town (2021-01-24) Nature and Animal Attractions | Photo Gallery 10 MAR 2021

Want a view over Cape Town but don’t actually want to walk to get it? Then Signal Hill has everything you need! For non locals, to reach this landmark flat-topped hill next to Lion’s Head and Table Mountain, take the fun little drive up Kloof Nek Road, swing to the right when you get to the top of the road (do not go left unless you actually wanted to reach the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway station), follow the road past all the eager hikers going up and coming down Lion’s Head, shoot past the eye-catching white and green-domed Mohamed Hassen Ghaibie kramat, and then take the final bend, coming to rest in the handy (but tiny) parking lot right on top of the hill.

In the days before radio signals (i.e. this no longer applies), Signal Hill served as the vantage point from which signal flags were used to communicate weather warnings and anchoring instructions down to visiting ships in order to ensure that they were adequately prepared for the typical stormy weather that accompanies mooring in Table Bay. Similarly, ships could communicate back if in need of assistance or other instructions. Moving on, as the local time signal system, Signal Hill is also known for its very special Noon Gun (jointly operated by the South African Navy and South African Astronomical Observatory) which, although now very unnecessary, to this day still happily gives all local pigeons a hearty fright with its booming midday announcement.

As mentioned earlier, the winding road up to the summit runs past a couple of features, like the Appleton Scout Campsite (operatd by Scouts South Africa), several tombs (or kramats) of Muslim missionaries and religious leaders, and of course the entrance to the super popular hike up Lion’s Head. The flat topped Signal Hill itself comes with magnificent views over Cape Town city centre and the Atlantic Seaboard, and also serves as a jump off point for local paragliders, including that of the famous Tandem Paragliding experience which has since become a popular event for both locals and tourists alike. In terms of ecology, Signal Hill also just so happens to be one of the only places in the world where the critically endangered Peninsula Shale Renosterveld vegetation can be found. Endemic to Cape Town, the Peninsula Shale Renosterveld used to be the dominant ecosystem of the Cape Town City Bowl, but thanks to urban development, only a tiny patch on Devil’s Peak and Signal Hill itself remain as the surviving sample of this type of vegetation.

This particularly little visit to the top with Chantelle and the girls came after first a lovely walk along the Sea Point promenade, followed by some picture snapping in the colourful Bo-Kaap. In other words proper Cape Town tourist stuff, which is exactly then why directly following our waltz about in the wind above Cape Town, we shot down to the V&A Waterfront and made it our mission to make it through to the Lindt Studio before it closed for the day. (We succeeded, but only just!)

A Stroll around Door de Kraal Dam in Bellville (2021-01-30) Nature and Animal Attractions | Photo Gallery 09 MAR 2021

The family and I felt like a bit of a walk about Majik Forest in the Door de Kraal suburb of Bellville the other day, so we hopped into the car and headed out to the Northern Suburbs via the R300, making our way up the gates only to realize that under current Covid-19 lockdown levels, the fenced in Majik Forest park was still very much tightly locked up. Disappointed, we quickly moved on to a different option in the same area, the remarkably nearby Door de Kraal Dam.

Situated in the heart of the suburbs, tucked in between Door de Kraal, Kenridge, and Tyger Valley (and just across from the sprawling Willowbridge Mall village), the Door de Kraal Dam is a fair sized man made dam that offers a neat little green space that comes with picnic lawns, a circular walking path, fishing opportunities (this is the only local dam in the area that catch and release fishing is allowed at), and a great variety of birdlife, thanks in part to the many reeds growing around the banks of the dam.

It’s not a particularly long walk, between 1 and 2 km to go around via the path, but it is wide open green space with clear blue skies above and happy dogs being walked all around you.

Walking under the Pine Trees of Paradyskloof in Stellenbosch (2021-01-23) Nature and Animal Attractions | Photo Gallery 05 MAR 2021

Previously, on our way to the sublime Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden on the outskirts of the Paradyskloof suburb of Stellenbosch, we passed by what looked to be an informal parking area in front of a gate that in turn guarded a pine plantation – but which most importantly appeared to freely allow people to walk or ride through it. As it turns out, we had passed the gate into Eden Forest, otherwise known as the Paradyskloof nature area, another mountain bike and hiking mecca for Stellenbosch locals.

Forming part of the comprehensive Stellenbosch Trails system (maintained through a partnership between the Stellenbosch Municipality and the Stellenbosch Trail Fund community organisation) that crisscross the lower ranges of the Stellenbosch mountain, the Paradyskloof gate puts you slap bang in the middle of the trail network that stretches from the University of Stellenbosch owned Coetzenburg rugby fields on the left, all the way across to the vineyards of the Mont Marie wine estate on the right.

The area is littered with well maintained mountain bike trails covering both single and jeep track options, including the popular Mark Gordon created and cheekily named G-Spot MTB Trail, to test your skills out on. Of course, the trails aren’t restricted to people racing about on bicycles either, offering plenty to tackle for the hiker marching about on foot. Fynbos, mountain ridges, views for days, and of course as this particular section of the trails indicate, a Pine Forest to waddle through.

Towards the end of January, Chantelle and I chanced the sweltering Summer sun and took the girls out for a walk under these very trees, which they begrudgingly did and hopefully enjoyed. (Its always hard to tell because the initial excitement wears off pretty quickly and then the bargaining with rewards has to swoop in to save the day). We marched about without aim or any sort of plan, and so didn’t necessarily walk particularly far, but it was a good workout accompanied by some crisp clean air – in other words exactly what one wanted after being cooped up for so long following the various earlier Covid-19 lockdowns.

Walk now complete, we next drove our sweaty selves around Stellenbosch, doing general sightseeing and even popping into Adam & Eve Collab to scope out their newly announced on the side Ceramic painting initiative, followed by a drive out and visit to an even better option when it comes to decorating and glazing your own ceramic creations, the aptly name Ceramic Cafe in Raithby, on the outskirts of Stellenbosch. Naturally the girls are now very adamant that we immediately set aside some time to spend a Saturday afternoon doing this! And then of course the aforementioned rewards earlier proffered needed to be honored, hence the final photo of the girls eating soothing McFlurry ice creams in the very crisply air-conditioned halls of McDonalds at Waterstone Village in Somerset West. (Honestly, at this sweaty point in the day I didn’t actually mind doling out this reward! :D)

Sacred Ibis and Purple Heron at Intaka Island in Century City (2021-02-13) Nature and Animal Attractions | Photo Gallery 03 MAR 2021

Situated about 10 km from central Cape Town, Intaka Island, which is located in the heart of the sparkly, bustling Century City suburb, is a compact 16 hectare semi man-made wetland reserve that is both home and rest stop for a vast number of local bird species, thus making it a particularly popular drawcard for a lot of Cape photographers and birdwatchers (or twitchers as the British would call them).

Historically the land on which Century City is built was always just a patch of impassable wild filled with invasive alien plant species, but during the environmental impact study phase of the development project, it was discovered via aerial flights over the land that this impenetrable wall of Port Jackson actually harboured what turned out to be a vital (though seriously degraded) Cape wetland ecosystem.

Pleasingly, the land developer decided to comply with conservation measures and opted to maintain a part of the wetland system, rehabilitating it in such a way that it became a green lung for Century City, purifying the canals and providing a much needed green sanctuary in what quickly became major commercial and leisure hub for Cape Town.

Visiting Intaka Island is an enjoyable experience, with loads of amenities like wooden boardwalks, benches, restroom facilities, and bird hides, and with an eye on education and preservation awareness, its eco environmental centre plays a pivotal role in teaching children about conservation and green living. As for the island itself, it is completely isolated thanks to the surrounding canals that form such a big part of Century City, and consists of a number of ponds known as ‘cells’, plus a seasonal salt pan as well as a small elevated hill (known as Bird Mountain) that affords views over much of the grounds. The biggest water cell is home to particularly interesting, man-made heronries – big floating platforms filled with sticks on which the numerous herons and sacred ibis then actually breed and live on. (In addition to all the surrounding bird life, the ponds are also home to a number of fish and frog species, providing a valuable food source for many of the birds.)

This particular visit to Intaka Island came about after picking up my brother Ryan to join me on a stroll through the discussion provoking Long March to Freedom sculpture display currently housed on the Century City grounds, following which I decided to first drag him along for a walk through the wetland sanctuary, and then an exploratory visit to the Durbanville Nature Reserve, a little bit further on in the northern suburbs. Now I hadn’t been to Intaka for a couple of years, and one of the striking things that both he and I picked up on was just how much the reeds have grown and taken over one of the wetland cells, so much so that visibility onto that particular body of water is virtually zero at the moment! But other than that, the visit was a pleasant one, the island quiet and thus giving us plenty of time to slowly dawdle about and relax in the bird hides while watching some birds flap about.

Seaforth, Boulders and Penguins in Simon’s Town (2020-07-04) Nature and Animal Attractions | Photo Gallery 02 MAR 2021

Moving about during the various Covid-19 lockdowns of last year wasn’t something done very much (compounded further by the fact that Chantelle and I naturally work from home anyway). However, in a bid to escape the four walls of our lovely little Gordon’s Bay prison, sorry I meant home, we one day jumped into the car and headed out towards Simon’s Town, hugging the coast all the way in our attempt to reach the other side of False Bay.

Simon’s Town, as are most of the little towns dotted around the mountain on the Cape Point side of False Bay, is a very picturesque little town, laid out on a particular narrow strip of land which is bounded by the sea and mountain to either side. Naval activities aside, the big attraction in Simon’s Town is of course its Boulders African Penguin colony, situated on the titular beach in what is considered part of the Table Mountain National Park – thus managed by SANParks as opposed to Cape Nature who run the Betty’s Bay penguin colony with which we are far more familiar.

Stretched over three little beaches, Seaforth, Boulders, and Foxy, the penguin colony (the species of which are currently considered endangered) settled there in 1982, where they have since flourished thanks to both their protected status and the prohibition of commercial pelagic trawling in False Bay which consequently increased the natural supply of pilchards and anchovy – important food sources in the penguin diet.

Boulders beach (so named due to the abundance of granite boulders on and around it) allows you to swim among the penguins, while the excellent boardwalk built around Foxy beach lets you stroll above and between the birds to get a good look at all that sweet penguino activity. Of course, these little tuxedo wearing, very smelly birds are a natural tourist attraction and as such bring in a large amount of visitors both local and international, making Boulders in general quite a good money spinner for the SANParks machine.

That said, this was the time of the Covid-19 pandemic and so the tourists were gone, the beaches shut down, and access to the SANParks facility switched off. Still, luckily for us, the public pathways and boardwalks around the beaches were still open, and so we leisurely strolled upon them, happily taking in the penguins who were quite nonplussed about these strange bemasked people staring through the fences at them and their fluffy chicks!

At the end of our explorations, Chantelle and Emily waddled back to the car (seriously, such a surreal sight to see the ever popular Seaforth/Boulders parking lot empty), while Jessica and I strolled over to have a closer look at the adjacent Seaforth Beach, a narrow 600m long stretch of sandy shoreline surrounded by restaurants, curio shops and sporting a rather nice, shaded picnic lawn – as well as a LOT of pigeons!

USA 2019 – 08 Pandas at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC (2019-10-26) Nature and Animal Attractions | Photo Gallery 22 FEB 2021

So having spent the previous afternoon happily exploring the area around the national mall, taking in architecture, statues and so, so many memorials, I changed the pace a little the next morning and headed out northwest via Washington D.C.’s relatively pretty subway stations, exiting at Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan and then taking the short uphill stroll to stop in front of the concrete lion guarded entrance of the National Zoological Park, aka the Smithsonian National Zoo.

Located at the sprawling Rock Creek Park, the National Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the United States, having been founded all the way back in 1889. Covering an area of 66 ha, this zoo is even larger than the immense San Diego Zoo (40 ha) which I visited back in 2016, and is home to around 2700 or so animals, spread over 390 different species – a fifth of which are on either the globally endangered or threatened species list. (And yes, because this is part of the Smithsonian Institution, entrance to the zoo is completely free.)

So as you might imagine then, with that amount of space and animals at its disposal, the National Zoo demands a fair bit of your time to take a stroll through. The zoo experience is made up of a whole heap of interconnected themed spaces that you can move between, including the various trails like the Asia Trail, Elephant Trails, the American Trail, Amazonia, and Lion and Tiger Hill, as well as big standalone exhibits like the Giant Panda Habitat, the Great Ape House, Think Tank, Cheetah Conservation Station, Gibbon Ridge, the Reptile Discovery Center, the Bird House, Lemur Island and the Small Mammal House. There’s also the children specific attraction The Kids’ Farm – useful if just seeing all these wonderfully exotic creatures isn’t quite enough to hold their attention for the full day!

Discounting the African species which we have enough of back home, the National Zoo definitely held a couple of personal animal highlights for me – like the incredibly floofy Giant Panda, the goofy looking Sloth Bear, and the stoic, powerful American Bison. The Orangutans were delightful (the “O Line” crossing is wonderful to behold), Arapaimas incredibly unusual in shape and size, and of course, just as they did for us back in Kyoto, the adorable Red Pandas totally stole the show.

In addition to all the exotic (for me) animals on display, given that Washington D.C. was starting to move into Autumn territory at the time of my visit, the incredible mass of trees that also call the zoo home were all starting to undergo their colour transformation – leading to an even greater visual experience for me seeing as this isn’t a spectacle that I ever get to witness back home in the Mediterranean climate profile that is Cape Town. (In other words, I took a LOT of time wandering about the zoo with a very big goofy grin on my face.)

The weather was nice and cool, the clouds meant that it wasn’t a sweaty affair, and a little cloudburst served to inject a little extra entertainment into the proceedings. And of course I took photos. Lots and lots of photos…

McDonalds at Poinsettia Park in Somerset West (2020-08-22) Nature and Animal Attractions | Photo Gallery 20 FEB 2021

I am not fond of McDonalds fast food to say the least. If we absolutely do have to have fast food then the oily (but tasty) mess that is KFC could probably be classified as my favourite fast food option, but unfortunately for me, both my wife and kids seem to like what comes out of the Golden Arches’ kitchen and thus every now and then I need to indulge them. That said, if the chance arises to not have to eat it in the fast food outlet itself, then I always try to grab that opportunity with both hands. Case in point – why eat in the admittedly nicely airconditioned and spacious McDonalds of Waterstone Village Somerset West when it is by far more pleasant to just drive up the road and munch on your cardboard patty around nearby Poinsettia Park dam instead.

Situated to the side of the very nice, up on a hill suburb of Heldervue, Somerset West, sits Poinsettia Park, a small strip of green wedged in between suburbia and the big R44 that serves to shuttle traffic between the Helderberg and Stellenbosch. Built around a small dam, this space of green is a relatively popular spot for fishing and family picnics, and also features a small loop which makes it great for getting dogs (and little girls) to stretch their legs a little. These days there is also a brightly coloured outdoor gym in case you are eager to show off some sweaty muscles to whomever is willing to take the time to look.

As for the three of us (Chantelle was back home hard at work in the kitchen on this particular day of out and about adventure), we found a bench, munched on our food, watched the birdlife and the fishermen at work, and then grumpily took a short stroll before chasing back to the car because the youngest one decided that the need for a toilet was now about to enforce itself. (Kids always make everything so fun.)

Anyway, with the relatively busy R44 lying right next door, Poinsettia Park isn’t a particularly quiet and tranquil space, but it is rather pretty to look at, and it definitely does beat sitting in a boring McDonalds, that’s for sure!