Whales and wildflowers: why September is a perfect month to visit the Western Cape

South Africa has so much to offer to travellers throughout the year, and September is no exception. With incredible natural sights and fewer tourists, it's a naturalist's dream.

The Western Cape of South Africa is one of the country’s most popular provinces. You probably already know why: Cape Town, the Garden Route, the Winelands, to name a few of the province’s most famous attractions. You can even go on safari here if you don’t have time to travel further afield. But when is the best time to visit?

High season – the summer months from December to February – is predictably busy, especially over the festive period. Winter naturally see fewer tourists, though the weather can be overcast and rainy. Both autumn and spring have their advantages, but September in particular is a great time to visit and explore Cape Town’s surroundings by car. Here’s why.

Cover image credit: Wine region in Western South Africa – Hannes Tauber

Whales

Between July and October, southern right whales migrate to Western Cape coastal waters to give birth and nurse their calves. As such, this region is home to some of the best land-based whale watching spots in the world.

Whale tail coming out of the ocean

Credit: Whale tail in the Atlantic ocean – Anna_Om

The 900-km/559-mile Whale Coast, which partially overlaps with the Garden Route, reaches from Strandfontein, Cape Town, to Plettenberg Bay. It’s possible to spot whales all the way along this coastline, but the most popular place is Hermanus, 90 minutes from Cape Town, where you can watch southern right whales relaxing and playfully breaching in the shallow water mere metres from where you stand. Head another two hours along the coast and you’ll get to De Hoop Nature Reserve, a stunning expanse of white-sand dunes, fynbos and vlei, or marsh, backed by the Potberg Mountain. Here there are hundreds of whales to see, but far fewer spectators.

Aside from southern rights, you can spot Bryde’s whales all year round, though not as close to the shore, and humpbacks between May and December, as they migrate up to their breeding grounds on the Angolan and Mozambican coasts.

Wildflowers

In August and September, the Western Cape briefly explodes into bloom. The land is carpeted in yellow, white, purple and pink flowers, following the winter rains.

A field of yellow and white flowers

Credit: Spring Wild Flowers, South Africa – AndreaWillmore

Drive an hour up the coastline from Cape Town to see the wildflowers of the West Coast National Park or head three hours in the opposite direction to Bontebok National Park, where the spring flowers are sensational. If you’re short on time, you can always explore the colourful flora of Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.

A great way to take in the spring display is on a hike through wildflower areas – some trails are multi-day routes where you can camp overnight. Try the Postberg trail in West Coast National Park, which takes a couple of days and is just shy of 30km (19 miles).

Shoulder season

Aside from seasonal flora and fauna, travelling to the Cape in September also has some practical perks. Shoulder season means fewer tourists and lower rates. Winter has drawn to a close (spring begins on 1 September) and September brings many beautiful sunny days with an average temperature high of 21C in Cape Town. It might not be beach weather, but it’s a great time to visit if you’re not bothered about sunbathing.

Outdoor adventures

The Western Cape is an outdoor-lovers dream, with countless trails to explore on foot, either running or hiking, on a mountain bike or on horseback.

September is the ideal month to hit the trails, as the rain and mist of winter have usually passed, and the conditions are comfortable and pleasant: not too hot, but clear and calm. The trails are quieter, with fewer tourists around and many Capetonians not yet into their summer hiking or running routines. It’s also lighter for longer, so you can head out in the early morning or later in the afternoon.

mountain top view looking down on a city and the sea

Credit: Table Moutain top – Po Chan

You can feel like you’re escaping the city without actually leaving Cape Town, with Table Mountain National Park offering dozens of climbs and walks of varying difficulty. It’s preferable to go with a guide or a group who are familiar with the trails. Should you fancy something more challenging than a hike, the Cape Town Marathon is held every September, too.