South Africa can offer the traveler few vistas so serene and gentle as the view down from the coastal hills to the perfectly calm waters of Swartvlei, backed by rolling hills smothered in dark green pine forests, and with line after line of ever-higher hilltops stretching away into the hazy distance until the eye settles on the jagged blue-grey outline of the Outeniqua Mountains.
Swartvlei is the largest of a string of six lakes stretching for over 40 kilometres along the southern coast from Wilderness in the west to the Goukamma River valley in the east. From west to east they are the Touws River lagoon at Wilderness, Island Lake (also known as Lower Langvlei), Lanvlei, Rondevlei, Swartvlei and finally Groenvlei.
The lakes have existed in their present form only for some 2000 years, but they are a result of several million years geological vacillation, as the world swung back and forth between ice ages and interglacial warm spells. Each successive ice age saw a massive increase in the size of the polar icecaps, and as the water froze the level of the world’s oceans dropped dramatically. When the weather became warmer the ice melted and the level of the oceans rose again. Each movement of the sea built up a line of dunes along this stretch of coast, and the lakes were formed by various low-lying areas of land being blocked from the sea by the dunes. Langvlei, for example, is simply an inundated area caught between the dunes. Swartvlei is a drowned river valley. Rondvlei is thought to have been a shallow pan excavated by wind, which has gradually filled with water.
The lakes and the area surrounding them are now incorporated in the Wilderness National Lake Area, and the aim of the National Parks Board has been to zone the entire area in such a way that the goals of conservation and of holiday recreation are both adequately catered for, appealing not only to the nature lover and the conservationist but also to the angler, the board sailor and the yachtsman.
The Touws River lagoon and Island Lake have been set aside for predominantly recreational use. Langvlei and Rondevlei are zoned for wildlife conservation and together form the ‘conservation heart’ of the lake region. They offer an unspoiled world where coastal fynbos mixes with semi-aquatic reeds, sedges, rushes and water grasses, and they constitute one of thee richest refuges for waterfowl in the whole of South Africa: of the 95 species recorded throughout the country, 75 can be seen in this relatively tiny area. This is also one of the few places in the southern African region where both the marsh harrier and the grass owl are known to breed.
Swartvlei is not only the largest of the lakes but also the deepest – and many would judge it the most beautiful, having a distinctive grandeur of its own. Although the reed beds that fill the floodplain at its eastern end are zoned as a conservation area, the main body of the lake has been set aside for recreational use.
In some ways the most interesting of the lakes in Groenvlei. Several thousand years ago Groenvlei was linked to Swartvlei but the two were eventually separated by windblown sand. Groenvlei then converted gradually to a freshwater lake, the only one in the region. Algae growing in the freshwater environment give the lake a greenish tint – hence its name. It was formerly also known as Lake Pleasant. Another consequence of its being fresh water is that it has become home to a large population of the North American black bass, the prized quarry of local and visiting anglers.
At the western end of Groenvlei there is a stylish old hotel and a large holiday resort, both of which retain the old name of Lake Pleasant. Immediately behind the hotel you will find a gravel track that leads south over the coastal hills and that brings you after 4 kilometres to a small parking area overlooking a wild stretch of beach at Platbank – also known locally as Groenvlei Beach. Wooden steps lead down to the beach, which is especially popular with surf anglers.
The N2 runs along the crest of the huge dunes that separate most of the lakes from the sea, and it offers splendid views. But it is also possible to explore the region more intimately by following any of a network of mostly gravel roads leading among the lakes then climbing the forested hills behind them.