Nestled in the Breede River Valley, just a few hours outside of Cape Town, is a place of peace and tranquility. It may not have the big game appeal or grandiose scenery of some other parks but, like its name suggests, this secluded haven has the rare ability to lift your burdens and lighten your spirits. This place is Vrolijkheid.
Situated just outside the little town of McGregor, it is described by Alison Downie, a member of the Friends of Vrolijkheid society and editor of their newsletter, The Rooikat, as “an island in a sea of orchards”. And while the apple and pear trees that surround the reserve are currently bursting into pink and white blossom, it is the succulent yellow gifmelkbos and the fragrant kapokbos that remind you of the very first inhabitants of the arid Robertson Karoo.
Vrolijkheid is the type of place that takes you back to the smaller things, to what’s right under
your feet. Subtle signs indicate the presence of the shy but abundant residents of the area: the discarded burrow of an aardvark; scratch marks in the fertile red soil, where some beastie has been digging for bulbs; the dry droppings of a common duiker; the furry scat of an anonymous predator; and a flash of brown as a mongoose dashes into the bushes. Caracal, otter and porcupine leave fewer clues, but the lucky few who have spotted them can vouch for their presence.
Perhaps the biggest attraction that Vrolijkheid has to offer is the abundant bird life in the area. With a total of 193 different species in the reserve, the black sparrowhawk, double-banded courser and black korhaan are novelty sightings. Summer brings several migrant varieties, and the white-throated swallow and steppe buzzard are just two of these welcome visitors.
Along with avid birders, Vrolijkheid also attracts hikers and mountain bikers from all over. The Reserve has two main hiking trails. The shorter of the two is the Heron Trail, which takes hikers past three bird hides, situated on the dams and connected by a wooden boardwalk. The trail is dotted with helpful and informative signs, and a Braille trail for the visually impaired is a recent addition to the reserve’s top-notch facilities. There is also a great picnic area at the entrance, and the last of the three bird hides is even accessible to wheelchairs, making Vrolijkheid one of the few reserves in South Africa to cater for the disabled adventurer.
The Rooikat Trail is a more strenuous option, covering about 19km through the Elandsberg Mountains. It has recently been adapted to a trail run, which coincides with the McGregor food and wine festival. This beautiful new run was started only last year, but has been met with great enthusiasm by the community and local trail runners.
The hike itself is quite demanding, taking about 8 hours to complete, and natural water is scarce on the trail. August to October is the ideal time to walk here, taking advantage of the cooler temperatures and spring flowersCurrently, the only accommodation available on the reserve is for educational groups, although there are plans in the pipeline to upgrade these facilities.
There is plenty of charming accommodation in the nearby towns of McGregor and Robertson, however, and timing a visit to Vrolijkheid to coincide with one of the many food and wine festivals of this area is highly recommended.
Friends of Vrolijkheid is a community-based volunteer organisation which supports the aims of Vrolijkheid and encourages the use of the reserve. In connection with CapeNature, this organisation helps raise funds, maintain the facilities and initiate new projects. They also produce the informative conservation newsletter, The Rooikat. If you would like to receive the newsletter or find out more about the reserve, click here.
“The reserve might be small, but it’s worth preserving,” says Alison Downie, editor of The Rooikat.