Just 5 kilometres outside of Swellendam just off of the N2 national road, one will find a small yet diverse national park known as the Bontebok National Park. Covering an expanse of 3 900 hectares, Bontebok National Park is bordered by the Breede River to its south and by agricultural development and cropland to its east, west and north.
The rugged Langeberg Mountains rise in the north of the reserve forming a beautiful background to the landscape. Most of the nature reserve is dominated by Swellendam heathland or fynbos which is made up mostly of low to moderate height plants including proteas and a mixture of renosterbos. There are 470 species of plants in the reserve including a number of rarities.
The area in and around the reserve has a rich history with evidence of human habitation being found from all three Stone Ages, including very large hand axes that have been turned up when local farmers have ploughed the land. Both the San and the Khoi tribes lived in the area, but their clan internal-organization disintegrated with the arrival of the British settlers. Swellendam, the town near the reserve was founded in 1746 and is the third oldest town in South Africa.
A smaller area than today's reserve was proclaimed as the Bontebok National Park in 1931 in an attempt to save the populations of Bontebok that once roamed the coastal belt between Mossel Bay to east of Caledon. Though there were once flourishing herds, by the 1900s there were no longer any free-roaming Bontebok and only small populations survived on a few local farms. The numbers dwindled even further in the 1920s when many of these farms were sold. In 1931 when the park was proclaimed there were just 22 Bontebok left and by 1939 the numbers had already grown to 123.
Sadly the population began to decline again until the expansion and re-proclamation of the present day park in March 1961. The park started with a population of only 61 animals in it and today there are over 3 000 of these antelope in various conservation areas in South Africa. There are at least 200 in the nature reserve itself.
Aside from Bontebok, visitors will also find small numbers of Cape Mountain Zebra, Red Hartebeest, Grey Rhebok, Steenbok and Greybok in the reserve. The largest of the 12 carnivores is Caracal, but the most commonly seen carnivore is the Small Grey Mongoose.
Of the 28 reptiles found in the park the most commonly seen are the Angulate Tortoises which are found in the sandy areas close to the river. Walkers and hikers should be aware of the highly venomous snakes found in the area; while the Cape Cobra and the Puff Adder are seldom seen and unlikely to attack unless provoked, proceeding with caution is always advisable.
There are 201 species of birds found in the park including rare vagrants such as the Kelp Gull, Cape Vulture and Western Osprey. On the open plains one might see Southern Black Korhaan and Denham's Bustards and bird watchers should keep an eye out for Black Harrier and Agulhas Long-billed Larks. When aloes flower you are likely to see a number of Sunbird species whose bright feathers are a treat for the eyes.