Tap into the bounty of Bontebok

2012-06-24 11:57
We find out what makes South Africa's smallest national park so special: bountiful beauty, conservation successes, ghost stories and passionate people. Want to experience it for yourself? Check out the competition at the bottom of the page.

"Shhhh! Listen carefully," Adin Greaves said in a hushed tone as our game viewing vehicle came to halt on one of Bontebok National Parks' gravel roads. Pristine Fynbos veld with dashes of pink Erica here and there stretched out on either side of the car and the mid-morning sunshine gilded the already-magical scene. Our group of normally bubbly and opinionated individuals was suddenly still, everyone pricking up their city-tuned ears to get a good listen to... well, we didn't really know what we were listening for. Someone in the back identified a birdcall and someone else the buzzing of an insect.

We all waited for Adin's verdict.

"Sheer silence. One of the rarest sounds on our planet these days," the sage-old man finally imparted from the front seat, giving us in the back a moment to process the nugget of startling enlightenment.

It was true. Silence, utter silence. Evidently we aren't even capable of recognizing it anymore.

Fortunately places like Bontebok - where silence resounds in all its threatened glory - still exist, and so do people like Adin whose healthy connection to the earth help bring our easily distracted attention back to the things that matter, revive and give life.

Interestingly Adin isn't a ranger, nor is he a park official or a tour guide... he's just an ordinary man who runs a guesthouse in nearby Swellendam with his wife, Sharon, and happens to adore the reserve. In fact, his business card simply states: "Nature Lover, author, inventor."

He started visiting Bontebok in 1996 for relaxation and soon developed an unbridled passion for this, the smallest of the South African National Parks. In 2007 he won a Kudu Award for his contribution to conservation after compiling a glossy photographic guide to the park at his own cost, single-handedly marketing it at the Tourism Indaba in 2006 and regularly bringing groups to revel in its special brand of natural beauty. His relationship with the park management is such that they would often invite him to come and share his insights with visitors, something he gladly does free of charge.

If nothing else, Adin's dedication is indicative of the powerful spell this little patch of Overberg earth can cast if given half a chance.

Conservation success story

Sadly, Bontebok National Park doesn't often get this chance, as it is typically overlooked for reserves that provide more exciting game viewing opportunities.

However, while it may not have the abundance of wildlife most safari fans are after, the few mammal species it does nurture - including the Cape Mountain Zebra and the Bontebok - are pretty special, not to mention the wealth of bird life and rare plant species that have made it a ‘twitcher's' paradise and a botanist's dream.

Ultimately the park as we know it today is the result of a somewhat unsung conservation success story. 
Back in 1931 the world population of Bontebok had hit an all-time low of only 17, all living within the Overberg region. With the species approaching extinction at an alarming rate, a couple of Bredasdorp farmers decided to capture the remaining antelope and relocate them to a protected area on their farms, and so doing established the first Bontebok Park. By 1969 the fruit of their work was showing in the healthy population of 800, and the park was moved to its current location just outside Swellendam to better suited the antelope's habitat needs.

Today the world population of this pied (bont) antelope stands at a somewhat safer, but still vulnerable number of 3 000. Within the park, Bontebok numbers are maintained at about 200, the maximum it can support taking into consideration biodiversity conservation as a whole.

The park is also home to a group of eight highly endangered Cape Mountain Zebra, which might grace you with their presence during a drive... but also might not. These rather illusive cute and cuddly cousins of the more familiar Burchell's zebra seem to prefer keeping to themselves, and roam around the remote parts of the park.

Apart from these two vulnerable species, you can also expect/hope to spot some Grey Rhebok, Cape Grysbok, Duiker, Red Hartebeest and if you're prepared to spend some time being patient and quiet on the banks of the Breede River, maybe even a Cape Clawless Otter. Of the 200 bird species in the park the Denim Bustard, Secretary bird and Blue crane are the largest and most exciting to spot.

While the park may cover an area of only 27.86 km², it is home to a whopping 500 different plant and grass species, including the highly endangered coastal renosterveld, which contains several plants found nowhere else in the world.

Ghostly chieftesses

According to local legend, the park also serves as a sanctuary for a very special specter called Lang Elsie. If you're at all familiar with the park, the name will most certainly ring a bell as the main and only rest camp is named after her.

Well, okay, not after the ghost, but rather the famous chieftess she used to be. This grand dame of the Hessequa Khoi Khoi and her followers inhabited the southern part of the park between 1734 and 1800. As nomads, they moved around quite a bit, grazing their long-horned cows and fat-tailed sheep all the way to the Buffeljags River.

The remains of Lang Elsie's Kraal. Photo Nadia Krige

Remarkable in-tact remains of, what is widely believed to be, her little stone house can still be seen today just a few kilometers away from the current rest camp.

Some of the local park rangers say that on certain nights, Elsie and her followers can be seen/heard taking a stroll through the rest camp and surrounds just to check if things are still going well.

Fortunately nothing of the sort happened on my two nights in the park, but who knows... if you're the ghost hunting type, you may just be lucky enough to meet her.

One of the self-catering chalets. Photo: provided

The rest camp offers 10 self-catering chalets and a selection of campsites, some with electric points, and some without. The chalets with a river view are obviously the most sought-after, and according to park manager, Bulelwa Msengi, number 7 is the prime spot as it has views of both the on-coming and retreating Breede River.

And, okay, I'll tell you... apparently chalet number 10 is perfectly situated to catch a glimpse of Elsie if she does decide to walk.


Because the animals within the park are rather harmless, apart from a few of the snake species of course, visitors are able to cycle, jog and hike to their hearts' content. There are three official hiking trails - the Acacia (1,6 km), the Aloe (3,3km) and the Bushbuck trail (5,4km), but if you prefer something a little less taxing, a stroll through the rest camp and down to the river is more than sufficient.

In summer, overnight guests are allowed to cool off in the ‘swimming area' right by the Lang Elsie's Kraal rest camp, while day visitors can do the same at Die Stroom day camp. Both sites also offer braaiing facilities and plenty of grass and trees for shade.

Fishing, canoeing and kayaking are also popular guest activities, however, you do require your own equipment.

Getting there:

Bontebok National Park is located 5km outside of Swellendam on the N2 and can be accessed easily by any vehicle. Their operating times are 07:00 - 19:00 between 1 October and 30 April and 07:00 - 18:00 between 1 May and 30 September. Check-in starts at 12:00, and all guests are expected report at reception before continuing their journey to the rest camp or Die Stroom.

Check out the SANParks website for more details

Costs: Chalets - Up until 31 October 2012: R775 base rate for up to two adults, R172 per additional adult and R86 per additional child.

Between 1 November 2012 and 31 October 2013: R840 base rate for up to two adults, R186 per additional adult and R93 per additional child.

Campsites - Up until 31 October 2012: between R155 and R180 base rate for up to two adults, depending on where in the camp the site is located, R58 per additional adult and R29 per additional child.

Between 1 November 2012 and 31 October 2013: between R170 and R190 base rate for up to two adults, depending on where in the camp the site is located, R62 per additional adult and R31 per additional child. 

Conservation fees (if you don't have a wild card):

Internationals adults - R54 per person
Internationals children - R27 per child
South African citizens - R22 per adult, R11 per child
SADC Nationals (with passport) - R32 per adult and R22 per child

Thanks to SANParks, HiTec and Swellendam Tourism for a great weekend experience.

Read more on:    sanparks  |  camping  |  travel south africa


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