Every now and then, a flurry of ripples dances towards me across the otherwise mirror-smooth surface of the Bot River estuary as I steer my kayak into one of the narrow waterways. Reeds tower a couple of metres high on either side of the boat, swishing against the hard blue Overberg sky, leaving just enough room to manoeuvre my paddle.
Dip and stroke. Dip and stroke.
Water droplets glisten as they run down the carbon-fibre oar, splashing on to the yellow deck of the kayak as I blade forward through the root-stained water. Behind me, the summer sounds of village life recede as I leave Kleinmond in my wake, gliding deeper into the wetlands stretching along the coast.
It is an easy paddle by any standards; there is no major tidal surge and the dunes and reed beds offer relative protection from the wind as you leave the grassy banks of the river mouth to pass below the wooden footbridge. Weavers, red bishops and warblers make a racket in the reeds, and occasionally a cormorant or heron flaps past while casting a beady eye my way.
It’s only after a couple of kilometres that I need to start navigating; here channels spider-web as the main water-way begins to sub-divide. I stick close to the ocean dunes or opt for the more obvious channels where there seems to be some indication of water flow.
After another kilometre, however, the reeds seem to be getting the upper hand, looming over me to such an extent that it feels like I am at times paddling within the confines of a tunnel. A sudden swirl under the bow spooks me for a moment: ‘It must be either a seal out hunting in the estuary or a huge fish,’ I think.
This is the moment I first hear them; more of a gut rumble than a whinny, but undoubtedly equine. I gently lower the oar and allow the kayak to glide forward, soundlessly emerging into the sunlight on an open stretch of vlei. The mare sees me first and cocks her head to gaze at me, unperturbed. A couple of metres away from her, a foal grazes knee-deep in the water, while a handful of other horses wade belly-deep further back.
They remind me of a herd of Icelandic horses, is the first thought that crosses my mind. The horses are all sporting thick winter coats – it’s May and although they’re wild in the sense that they fend for themselves, the look in their eyes is tranquil. The stallion is the only one that reacts when I get out of the kayak to slowly move towards them through the ankle-deep water.
He tosses his head and twitches his ears, then holds my gaze as he moves purposefully in my direction. I’m not sure what to expect, so I squat down on my haunches in the marshy sand, waiting with bated breath to see what happens.
I sense the huge stallion looming over me just before his shadow blocks out the sun. For a moment both of us are utterly still. Then I feel his warm breath on the back of my neck. He gives a cursory sniff, and I’m enveloped by the wild scent of damp horse. Then, satisfied, he snorts dismissively before trotting off into the vlei to graze on clumps of water grass.
In due course, the foal and mare wander off too, satisfied that I’m no threat. I have only my phone with me to try to capture their grace, but soon I put it away to revel in their presence.
This is exactly what many Kleinmond locals have been doing for decades. According to Professor Frans van der Merwe, a long-time resident who has been observing the horses for almost 40 years, most of the urban legends around how they ended up in the Bot Rivier wetlands are, shall we say, rather fanciful.
One theory is that they’re descendants of horses hidden from the British who used them in the Anglo-Boer War. Another is that they swam ashore when the Birkenhead sank in 1852. But as far as he can ascertain, the truth is that they are descendants of working horses owned by the Delports, who farmed this stretch of land between the Arabella Golf Estate and Kleinmond. In fact, Professor van der Merwe believes these horses may be the ‘very last representatives of what Schreuder (1915) called the Bolandse Waperd, a distinct offshoot of the famous Cape Horse of the 18th and 19th centuries’. But I know none of this history when I sit amid the grazing herd, watching the sun set over the Kogelberg. What I do know, though, is that this is a singular moment I’m sharing with a group of animals that has somehow established a rare and impeccable equilibrium between man and nature.
Professor Frans van der Merwe, who has studied the approximately two dozen horses for the past four decades, describes the Kleinmond herd as feral as opposed to wild. In other words, they are owned by no one and no one takes care of them. These are not like feral horses such as the Mustangs in the United States or the Brumbies in Australia, which are often seen as a nuisance. According to the professor, the horses roam the area from Rooisand to Kleinmond, seldom venturing out of the vlei. They have a happy existence and have no negative impact on the environment.
‘They may, in fact, assist in keeping paths open through dense vegetation, especially through reed beds, which is beneficial to other wildlife,’ he says. ‘One may argue that the horses now fulfill the beneficial role that large wild herbivores once played in this habitat before being exterminated by early colonists and hunters.’ Mostly they die of old age.
Currently the horses are legally classified as ‘unprotected free-ranging game’. Their future depends on numerous factors, such as available space and food resources, as well as policy decisions by Rooisand Nature Reserve and private land-owners in the area. At present, they enjoy the goodwill of all involved. Let’s hope that continues.
Plan your trip
The drive to Kleinmond will take you along arguably the most scenic road in South Africa – Clarence Drive. Turn south off the N2 just after Somerset West (at the base of Sir Lowry’s Pass), and keep left onto the R44 all the way to the Bot Rivier wetlands. Alternatively, for a slightly quicker option, turn off the N2 outside Bot River (onto the R43) until you turn right on the R44 again and approach Kleinmond from the east. The first route via Somerset West and past Rooiels and the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve is glorious so opt for that if you have an extra half-hour to spare.
When to go
The Whale Coast region is a stunning destination any time of the year, but I prefer to visit outside the ‘silly season’. This includes school holidays – especially Easter and Christmas and during the Hermanus Whale Festival at the end of September. Winters can be chilly and rainy, while summer visitors may have to face off against the howling southeaster.
What to do
Finding the horses is not guaranteed, so your best bet is to give yourself a couple of days to explore the Bot River estuary. The two potential openings into the ocean are about seven kilometres apart. The first is on the eastern edge of Kleinmond village and the second is near Meerenbosch and Fisherhaven. An open-water estuary stretches six kilometres inland from the latter mouth to just below the Arabella Spa and Hotel. This section is accessible from the Kleinmond side if you are happy to bundu-bash through the reed beds and drag your kayak in places.
Another option is to ride a horse to see the horses with the Equestrian Centre Overstrand, situated adjacent to the Rooisand Nature Reserve. They offer relaxed outrides in the wetlands and guided beach and mountain rides. R350 per person for one-and-a-half hours, R550 per person for two hours.
You can also go birding at Rooisand Nature Reserve on the edge of the Bot Rivier wetlands. The hide over-looking the vlei rewards twitchers with sightings including African openbill, African grass owl and Hottentot buttonquail. The reserve forms part of the Kogelberg Nature Reserve. Dr Anton Odendal of Western Cape Birding can provide more information on 028 316 1105.
If birding isn’t your thing, try the mountain-bike trails in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, built by the guys from Euodia Cycles in Hermanus and suitable for all ages and abilities. Day permits, available from Euodia Cycles and Wine Village, cost R40.
Finally, hike the River Walk in the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve (one of National Geographic magazine’s top global diversity hotspots) and the Leopard’s Kloof Trail from the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden.
Where to eat
The Red Disa Restaurant in the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden offers hearty lunches and teatime treats, which can be enjoyed on the deck overlooking a water feature, the tranquil gardens and the mountains beyond. Dishes include fish curry, venison pies and hake and chips. Tel 028 272 9946.
The Burgundy Restaurant in Hermanus has ocean views and a menu that includes seafood and generous salads. The seafood pasta with mussels, calamari, prawns and sun-dried tomato pesto with fresh herbs is a winner. Tel 028 312 2800.
Creation Wines in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is known for its food-pairing lunches, comprising nine Creation wines complemented by nine canapés, at its stylish estate. Booking is essential. Tel 028 212 1107.
Where to stay
The Wooden Leg Guest House and Spa in Kleinmond has five double bedrooms, is a few minutes from the beach and has a comprehensive spa. From R450 per person per night, including breakfast.
The Oudebosch Eco Cabins in the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve offer a total escape into nature, with their stackable glass doors opening up to create an outdoor living feel. Choose either Iris or Everlasting Daisy for maximum privacy. From R1060 per unit per night (for two people, R320 per additional person). Each of the five cabins sleeps four.
Four other canoe trips that get you close to wildlife
1. Birders’ bliss: The Sundays River
Drift in a canoe along the Sundays River in the Addo region with wildlife experts from Crisscross Adventure Tours pointing out the abundant birdlife. You may be lucky enough to spot a fish eagle snatch his breakfast beside you. From R450 per person for a half-day tour, including drinks, snacks and transfers between nearby accommodation.
2. Paddling with elephants: The Zambezi River
Wildlife enthusiasts can paddle for up to three days on the wild Zambezi River from the confluence of the Rucko-mechi River in Mana Pools National Park, spotting anything from buffalo and plains game grazing on the banks, to elephant and hippo swimming or wading in the pools. Natureways Safaris support vehicles and staff set up camp every night and supply gourmet bush meals along the 65 kilometres. The trip is not suitable for children under 14 and is open from April to November. From R1497 per person for three days.
3. Makoro Safari: The Okavango Delta
Undoubtedly the best way to explore the Okavango Delta, a makoro (dugout canoe) ride takes you through the region’s fertile shallow waterways with elephants, hippos and other game in close proximity. Trips are led by experienced polers who push the mekoros through the channels and reed beds from its stern with a long wooden pole. Short (two-and-a-half-hour) trips can be taken, or longer half-day trips. R200 per person for the two-and-a-half-hour trip and R400 per person for the half-day trip.
4. Overnight bush paddle: The Rio Elefantes Canoe Trail
A four-day guided adventure through the wilderness in the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park, the Rio Elefantes Canoe Trail is a scenic, easy-going paddle along the Limpopo and Shingwedzi rivers. Starting at the Massingir Dam Wall on the Mozambique side of the park, the trail is known for great aquatic birdlife, large hippo pods and occasional sightings of elephant and buffalo. Overnight accommodation is in bush camps on the riverbanks. From R4950 per person for a group of four people minimum (excluding park fees).
This article first appeared in the January 2015 issue of Getaway magazine.
Please note that all prices were correct at time of publication, but are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please check with them before travelling.