Approximately three hours from Cape Town, past the lush green vineyards towards the farmlands beneath the arid mountains, lies the Cederberg wilderness: an expansive “mountain playground” that is a prime spot for camping, hiking, rock climbing, and wildlife spotting. Just one hour in this wild and captivating terrain will make you feel like you have driven straight through a portal to another world. Sprawling sandstone formations surround you concealing all sorts of flora and fauna, ancient rock art, and, unbeknownst to many, some of the last leopards alive in the Western Cape. While it is extremely difficult to spot these elusive, nocturnal creatures, they may leave their phantom tracks behind for you to see in the warm, red sand. Read about my experience searching for them and camping beneath their Cederberg stars, and maybe you’ll want to venture out there yourself.
Finding My Wildness in the Home of the Cape Leopard
The bus made its way slowly, and ever so noisily through the winding roads of the mountains. The red dirt followed the beams of sunlight in through the half-open windows, settling onto my skin like a dusty blanket, while countless stones bounced up around the tyres and pounded at the soles of my feet to the beat of an African drum. For miles and miles I gazed anxiously out at the rocky mountain ridges, hoping to get a glimpse of the iconic creature I have only ever dreamed of. But as my eyes traced every slope from the sky down to the reeds and marshes, I grew more and more aware of just how elusive these big cats are. It was the little doe eyes of a pair of klipspringer that reminded me they were even there at all.
When we finally arrived at our trailhead, I looked up at the height of the mountain before me and wished I had the strength and agility of the fascinating Cape leopard that I have learned so much about. The few that are left in the 3,000 square kilometers of rugged terrain are built for these rocky slopes, and are far better at navigating them than I. I mustered all that I could and eagerly set off alongside some equally enthusiastic companions towards the tops of the towering cliffs.
We climbed and leaped and climbed some more, taking brief stops to look out and appreciate the vastness of the landscape. My line of vision was painted with bright blue and orange hues as we entered further into the massive rock cracks set against the clear sky. For hours I scaled walls of solid stone, dragged my body through the sand to squeeze through tiny crevices, and got my fair share of bruises. By the time we reached the top of the mountain, I felt more accomplished and more in tune with my natural self and the earth around me than I ever have before.
The dry, open, and rocky scenery laid out before me in the sweltering 95-degree heat was somehow comforting to me—untainted by the hand of man. I longed to see the shy wildlife of the Cederberg wander out from the distant piles of sandy boulders, even if just for a moment; but with their ability to blend into their surroundings and my poor eyesight, I accepted that this was unlikely.
We proceeded to climb around for a while more, exploring all possible nooks and crannies; I can still feel the texture of the cold, rough rock beneath my hands, dusted with the red dirt that seemingly covered everything, the prickle of the bushes that tried to block your every path, and the relief of finding shade under an over-hanging rock—a sanctuary away from the unforgiving Cederberg sun.
Soon our exhausted and, I dare say, sunburned and sweaty group of hikers made our way back down the mountain to civilization below. We celebrated our five-hour adventure towards the sky with a much-needed dip in the chilly rock pools and far too many bottles of wine. By the time we reached our campsite at the wonderful Oasis Backpackers (truly an oasis with the most knowledgeable and friendly hosts), everyone was eager to have a quick shower before braaiing long into the night. That evening we feasted on steak, chicken, potatoes, veggies, and more, all with nothing but the moonlight to guide us. Not being able to see my plate in the darkness heightened my taste buds and made the meal that much more mouth-watering.
We sat circled as if around an imaginary campfire, passing drinks around for those looking to warm themselves from the inside out in the crisp and cool Cederberg night air. A few of us took off to the other side of the campsite where colorful hammocks formed a semi-circle around an old pool. I wiggled my way into the narrow cloth, trying my best not to swing and flip over. I cannot even begin to describe in accurate detail just how beautiful and mesmerizing the sky was when I finally gazed up.
I’m not sure I have ever seen the stars so bright and clear. As I rocked back and forth in the hammock, letting my eyes adjust to the night and the constellations above, I began seeing the first of several shooting stars. They flew by one by one, leaving a stream of white light behind them for a fraction of a second each. It was hard to wish for something more special than this.
As the night waged on, the moon drifted down behind the mountaintops and my eyes began to grow tired and unable to focus on all the twinkling lights. I took one last look before heading into my tent with my friend, laughing (about what I can’t recall) until we fell fast asleep to the whistling winds. It was at this moment I imagine the leopards were probably already waking and venturing out into the darkness.
The next morning featured a long, bumpy and, once again, quite dusty ride home. I was completely drained from all the heat, the hiking, and the laughs, but I struggled for what felt like hours to keep my eyes open and set on the rocky mountain ranges ahead, lest I miss the incredible sight of a stocky spotted body moving slyly between the sandy cracks.
I recently heard this saying that I adore: “You don’t see a leopard; the leopard allows you to see it.” Maybe one day the leopard will deem me worthy enough. Until then, I find comfort in the fact that organizations like the Cape Leopard Trust are working to ensure they are still out there, watching and thriving in that incredible wilderness, and that the wondrous lands around them are preserved for many years to come. For nature has so much to teach us—about ourselves, and about our world.
Learn more about the Cederberg wilderness here or through CapeNature, and read about what is being done to protect the area’s dwindling leopard species through the Cape Leopard Trust. Then get exploring!