• NAVAL NATURE: A seagull watches humans in their natural habitat. Picture: SIMON BROOKE

  • NAVAL NATURE: Abandoned buildings in the SAS Saldanha Nature Reserve. Picture: SIMON BROOKE

THERE are many more attractive towns and villages on the Cape’s scenic west coast than Saldanha Bay. Although it is recognised as the best natural harbour along SA’s coast, its landscape is scarred by a giant and ugly steel works and it is home to the Saldanha Iron Ore Terminal, a busy harbour, canneries and a military training base and academy, so it is not a natural leisure destination

However, it’s on the military property that a surprise awaits in the form of the SAS Saldanha Nature Reserve, a wedge of unspoilt land protruding into the sea and creating a peaceful environment that is the antithesis of its bustling surroundings. The reserve combines interesting historical artifacts with fascinating fauna and flora in spectacular surroundings, only 90 minutes drive from Cape Town.

After travelling through the town, we reach the military academy and, once past the sports grounds and miscellaneous buildings, we arrive at a small car park and enter the reserve, making sure there is no sign of the red flag that indicates shooting practice is in progress.

Once inside, one has the choice of mountain-biking or hiking the four demarcated routes, which vary in length from 4km to 14km. The routes were once marked with different coloured stones but many of these have disappeared. However, it is not difficult to find the way and one is unlikely to get lost if following the shore and taking note of the rocky outcrops that serve as beacons.

We choose to cycle the longer route along a sandy but relatively flat track, which passes areas of historical and natural interest. Huge rocks emerge from the ground like giant mushrooms facing the fury of the waves that lash them, sending fountains of spray skywards. In the 1700s, several ships fell victim to the angry sea off North Bay. The Dutch East Indiaman Merensteijn, which was carrying a valuable consignment of silver coins, sank nearby in 1702 and only 99 of its 200 crew survived. Many of the coins were salvaged in 1971, to the delight of collectors who, due to the coins’ rarity and value, rate the Merensteijn as the most important coin wreck off the South African coast.

The Middleburg also had an unhappy end when it was set ablaze here by Dutch sailors seeking to avoid capture by the English in 1781 and went down with an unknown amount of treasure on board. Here, too, in what is referred to as the Battle of Saldanha Bay, in 1796 a squadron of the Batavian Republic anchored and surrendered without a fight to a Royal Navy squadron.

The route then passes abandoned Second World War buildings. Saldanha was identified as a convoy staging point, and in 1942 coastal defence guns were set up.

The original guns can still be seen at the top of Malgaskop, which serves as accommodation for military-academy students. Magnetic loops on either side of a minefield gave early warning of submarines trying to enter the bay, and detection equipment was operated by the South African Women’s Auxiliary Service in two fortified buildings near North Bay.

Levine’s Cottage, originally the home of Stephen Levine, a prominent citizen and co-author of The Saldanha Bay Story, can still be seen. Below the cottage are the remains of two gunnery targets that broke their tow en route to the target area and washed up on shore.

The route then moves away from the sea and circles a salt pan to an area in which game gathers. We spot springbok, which show no interest in our presence, while ostriches seem intent on stretching their long legs at a canter. Bontebok, rhebuck and red hartebees are common, while a range of smaller animals including caracal and bat-eared fox frequent the area but are not often seen.

The trail then makes a gradual climb over the top of Môresonkop, from which point we get a good view of the general area. In the distance, the small Malgas Island is clearly visible. Occupying an area of only 8.3ha, the island is home to tens of thousands of Cape gannets, which cover the island like a white carpet. They can leave the island and may fly for 100km in search of fish — their excellent eyesight enabling them to see shoals at considerable depths. They can be seen catching fish by diving from between 15m and 25m above the sea, folding their wings in and falling like stones.

In 1845, highly prized guano was removed from the island as it was regarded as a valuable fertiliser and much was exported and sold in London at one guinea a ton.

As with much of the surrounding area, the reserve becomes alive with colour in late winter and spring, when carpets of flowers form a kaleidoscope of colour. But the area offers much to the visitor throughout the year as it forms a microcosm of the natural wonders of the west coast.

Its indigenous fynbos and animal life are typical of the west coast environment. The area boasts many varieties of vygie, which flower during winter, including the poeierkwasvygie, oranjevygie, Bokbaaivygie and Hotnotsvygie among many other tongue-twisting vygies. Flame and arum lilies are to be found throughout the year, as are a host of other unusual and interesting plants.

In spring, the reserve is also an ideal area from which to view the visiting southern right whales. The rocky outcrops along the shore provide an excellent vantage point from which to observe the whales as they breach. Similarly, birders will not have to peer through binoculars to see the gannets on Malgas Island, as they are also likely to catch sight of gulls, cormorants and duikers in the reserve.

As there are no facilities in the reserve, it is wise to carry a rucksack or bag with refreshments for the visit.