Hiking in Jonkershoek, Stellenbosch, and a Dry Tour
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
We hinted at it in our Cape Town bus tour post, but South Africa was about to go into full prohibition mode. With a scheduled overnight trip to Stellenbosch, the epicenter of wine production in the country, we’d have to quickly reevaluate our plans. Do you still go on a “wine trip,” knowing you can’t drink any wine?
Hell yeah, you do. Though it certainly looked different than our initial plans, we turned a drinking trip into a slightly more active experience. Instead of touring wine farms, we decided to spend the day hiking just outside of Stellenbosch in the stunningly beautiful Jonkershoek Nature Reserve. Great decision!
A Morning Trip to Woolworths - and an Unfortunate Surprise
Stellenbosch is only about an hour from Cape Town, making it a solid overnight trip from the city. Looking for an excuse to get out and explore a new town - and the wine farms surrounding it - we booked a mid-week room. Plan was to head out from Cape Town early, spend the day exploring and drinking wine, and do a walking tour of Stellenbosch the next morning before coming back home.
The morning we were set to leave, this plan was slightly derailed. Woolworths (unrelated to the American one), is a Target-esque store in South Africa - clothes, household goods, and, in certain ones, full grocery stores. Rather than make food, we swung by there to get some prepared breakfast sandwiches on our way out of town. Strolling through the food area, we noticed something strange: the wine racks all had metal grates closed and locked over the bottles.
Chipp to store employee: “What time do you guys start selling wine?”
Employee: “We’re not allowed to sell any.” Chipp: “All day?”
Employee: “Permanently - the president just imposed an alcohol ban…”
Some background (which we didn’t know at the time). For several months in 2020, South Africa totally banned the sale of alcohol during its first pandemic lockdown. The theory was that victims of alcohol-related accidents and violence were taking hospital capacity away from COVID patients. Solution? Just stop the sale of alcohol.
So, as cases ticked back up towards the end of the year - and in anticipation of New Year’s travel and parties - the South African president imposed another ban. Full prohibition - bars, restaurants, stores, everywhere. Timeline? Indefinite.
This booze ban led us to a decision point. Our Stellenbosch plans revolved around drinking wine and exploring different wine farms - a no-go now. But, we’d also already booked our AirBnB and a walking tour the next morning.
Yep, definitely one of those look-at-ourselves-in-the-mirror situations: we can still have fun not drinking, right? Right!?
Some smart guy from history - probably Confucius or Aristotle - left the world an apt saying when it comes to situations like this: if life gives you lemons, make lemonade… Stellenbosch it is!
Hiking in Jonkershoek Nature Reserve and Afrikaans Naming Conventions
But, without a day full of hopping from wine farm to wine farm, we had to decide how we’d spend our trip. Resetting back in our Cape Town apartment, we sat down to do some research. We didn’t know a ton about the area, but we did know that Stellenbosch is surrounded by some absolutely beautiful mountains. Our thought process? Probably a pretty good place for a hike.
With a quick look at Google Maps, we saw that Jonkershoek Nature Reserve takes up a huge swath of land just to the southeast of Stellenbosch. We did a little background reading and realized, yeah, that looks like an awesome place to spend the day. We weren’t disappointed.
After an hour-ish Uber ride from the city (better deal than renting a car or taking a shuttle), we reached the gate into Jonkershoek. As a protected area, you pay an access fee, get a map, and continue on your way.
For us, having never been there (and having done very little research), we didn’t quite know what our way would be, so we asked the guy at the ticket office for some recommendations. He steered us towards a half-day-or-so hike from the gate, up a mountain valley, and, eventually, to a grotto-like waterfall high up on one of those valley walls.
And, this hike leads to a good segue into the Afrikaans language. As the youngest officially recognized language in the world, Afrikaans actually began as a dialect of Dutch. In the early days of the Dutch Cape Colony - what would become South Africa - the language was often derogatorily referred to as “kitchen Dutch.” It was an informal language used by Afrikaners (South African descendants of the Dutch and the French Huguenots) to communicate with African, Malay, Indian and other servants.
In a major shift from this informal, slightly-looked-down-upon nature, the apartheid-era government declared Afrikaans - along with English - one of South Africa’s official languages. Today, roughly 13% of South Africans speak Afrikaans as their first language, with many more speaking it as their second or third languages. And, in the post-apartheid era, Afrikaans now represents one of eleven constitutionally-recognized languages in the country.
That’s a very high-level overview of the language, and now we’ll tie it back in with our hike. Afrikaans in a very literal language, particularly with respect to its use in naming geographic features. For example, Eerste Rivier, meaning “first river,” flows through Stellenbosch. History? When exploring the area outside of Cape Town, this happened to be the first river that Simon van der Stel (of Stellenbosch fame) found. Makes sense.
And, the two waterfalls on our hike? The first one on the trail, well, that’s the Eerste Waterval (“first waterfall”). The second one? You guessed it - Tweede Waterval (“second waterfall”). Yep, pretty straightforward naming conventions.
Irrespective of the naming creativity (or lack thereof), the hike was incredibly beautiful - gradually ascending through a gorgeous mountain valley, with peaks towering over us, until reaching the grotto-like pool beneath the first waterfall. In peak southern hemisphere summer, a dip in the frosty, mountain waters of this shaded pool was absolutely perfect after a long hike!
NOTE: Unfortunately, a few months after visiting Jonkershoek, massive wildfires ravaged the park, forcing it to temporarily close. Volunteers, businesses, and government officials have worked hard trying to repair the sprawling trail network. But, from what we’ve read, it’ll be a long time before the area fully recovers.
A Walking Tour through Stellenbosch
After a quiet dinner back in Stellenbosch proper, we passed out early - exhausted after a long day in the mountains. While certainly not as physically taxing as our hike, we had a nice walk through town lined up for that second morning.
Organized by the town’s tourist bureau, Stellenbosch offers walking tours through its historic center. For a few bucks, you can spend a couple hours walking the quaint streets with a local tour guide / historian - really cool experience. In addition to strolling around on a sunny morning and seeing some neat, old buildings, we got a pretty good overview of the town’s history.
In the late 17th century, a group of Dutch settlers no longer wanted to live under the umbrella of the Dutch East India Company, which administered the Cape Colony at that time. Led by the aforementioned van der Stel, this group of “free Dutch” petitioned the government of Holland directly to form their own local magistrate - separate from the Company. The government approved, and van der Stel became the governor of this new settlement, Stellenbosch.
We had an outstanding guide - gave us plenty of cool tidbits about the town during our tour. In particular, towering oaks line the streets in Stellenbosch’s historic center. We even saw some structures that had to adjust for this growth, building around the huge trees. Apparently, the South African government has declared these oaks as national monuments, meaning they can’t be cut down to make way for construction.
Another interesting piece of the town’s history involves rugby. Despite not being particularly good at the game, Chipp loves it - watching, playing, coaching, and just being around it. Stellenbosch happens to be an absolute mecca of rugby in South Africa, so it was fascinating hearing about that history. In particular, our guide explained that the town had the first racially integrated club in the Western Cape League, the provincial league in that part of South Africa. This is pretty incredible given the fact that apartheid policies made integration in any context a massive challenge, let alone rugby, the second religion to many Afrikaners (who were largely the architects of apartheid).
So yeah, our time in Stellenbosch didn’t unfold as initially planned. But, we had a blast nonetheless - and would certainly be back post-prohibition!