A backpacker I met in Cape Town filled me in on a neat secret…
Apparently, just outside of the city there is an area in Gordon’s Bay called the Steenbras River Gorge — a remarkably private reserve where only a limited number of people are allowed entry into every day. There, those people have access to a hike leading to five refreshingly natural pools alongside a mountainous, yet precarious trail also inhabited by naughty baboons.
Each pool you come across gets bigger and more extravagant than the last. They are called the Crystal Pools and it’s hidden somewhere in the Steenbras River Gorge. The pools are so crisp and clean, that they are perfect for taking a dip on a hot South African day.
Of all my years visiting South Africa, I never knew such a place existed!
Jesse, the backpacker who told me about this, his travel buddy Trevor, and I made it our mission to track down these pools. It definitely wasn’t the easiest thing. A pain in the ass actually. Much of the information we found online was inaccurate and outdated.
As a convenience, I’m here to help any of you to avoid the hassle if you find yourself interested in the Crystal Pools.
The Important Stuff
First, know this. The trek to the pools is a bit lengthy, not so straight-forward, and home to thieving wild baboons. Lots of them. But the rewards are worth the task.
So if you are up for the challenge, then this is how you should proceed:
Access to the Crystal Pools Hiking Trail is only possible from the months of November to April. The rest of the months are cold and rainy.
The only way to enter the reserve is to receive a permit via email reservation. There is absolutely no other way to get around this. Trust me, I’ve tried.
What you have to do is send an email to this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
In that email, you must state your name, your group size, contact number, and the date you wish to visit.
Depending on holidays and weekends, you should receive a reply from the Steenbras Nature Reserve office within a few days either granting you permission or stating that you need to reschedule another day because it’s already booked.
Try to book as far in advance as possible to ensure your reservation.
If your desired date is available, they will send you an email with rather complex instructions on how to pay for the minimal entrance fee of R65 (price as of Dec 2017).
Basically, to process an electronic payment:
The annoying thing about this is that the only way to pay is through a bank transfer or wire. As of this post, there is absolutely no other way. (I’ve tried that too.) You can do this from home at your bank or from an ABSA bank while in South Africa.
After wiring the money to their office, you must prove you did so by emailing them a copy of the proof of purchase or receipt. Once you do that, you should receive a confirmation PDF in a couple of days that you must print out, which is your permit to access the reserve.
You must wire the payment no longer than 48 hours before your visit, as it needs time to process.
(When I did this process, the office didn’t respond to me for over a week! Once they did, they claimed it was because of a power outage along with the bad news that the date I wanted was fully booked. Later, however, when Jesse tried to reserve for that same date, they granted him permission. I have no idea why they said “no” to me and “yes” to him. Possibly other reservations were canceled or they are just as unorganized as the whole process to access the reserve.)
Whew! All this work just to get into a reserve! Now to the fun stuff!
The location of the Steenbras Nature Reserve appears on Google Maps. You may drive yourself there (there is parking available along the highway further along the R44, just past the bridge and on the right-hand side).
Or just take a taxi or a cheap Uber, like we did. Just remember, if you plan on leaving, make sure you have data service to hire another Uber or it’s quite a walk to find any sort of taxi.
The red star indicates where the entrance to the reserve is.
The entrance to the reserve is on the end of this bridge.
And it looks like this.
Present your permit and then you’re free to go!
Now, remember those naughty, thieving baboons I mentioned earlier?
They are lunatics.
You’ll see warnings about them, reminding you to mind your belongings, and if they try to take anything from you, specifically food, just let them have it. They can become temperamental if engaged. They aren’t everywhere, but you are bound to see some prodding in the distance.
Speaking of food, be sure to pack a lunch and bring plenty of water (no alcohol is allowed in the premises). Any rubbish or trash you have must be brought back with you. There aren’t any trash containers along the trail. One of the reasons a limited number of people are allowed each day is to help preserve the natural area. So please be mindful and respectful.
Onward to the trail!
The trek begins fairly straightforward–just follow the yellow shoe prints you will see along the way. Eventually, after about 45 minutes to an hour, you’ll reach the first pool.
The reflection from the pool’s surface.
If you want an easy day, then feel free to stop and take a dip here. If you want an adventure, then skip this one and press on. The pools get better the further you go.
After trekking for an hour or two later among boulders and puzzling pathways, we finally made it to the fifth pool, saving the other pools for the way back. We actually discovered a sixth pool, but it was way beyond our reach and didn’t look as inviting.
The water? Cold, but revitalizing under the sun. It was dark and almost a copper color that created a mystifying effect under the water.
At the end of this particular pool was a series of small cascading waterfalls that you could climb all over and bask in. This place was so unreal!
You’ll notice that there are many places to cliff jump, some as high as 22 meters! It seems perfectly fine to jump from them, all in differentiating heights. So pick your poison! Just know that though these pools are clear, they are a deep black so there’s no telling what’s at the bottom. Feel around for boulders and protruding objects before you make the heroic leap!
The hiking trail to Crystal Pools was an all day thing for us. We arrived there around 9am and left around 6pm. It was terribly easy to get lost, so we made sure to have plenty of time to leave before the sunset.
The Crystal Pools did not disappoint!
If you have the time in Cape Town, I highly recommend you check out these pristine pools. It’s been rated as one of the best treks to do near Cape Town and for good reason! There weren’t many people around and it’s the perfect way to spend a sunny day in the Western Cape with you and your friends.
If you have any questions about the Crystal Pools, please feel free to ask me! I’ll probably be able to respond quicker than those sloths in the Steenbras offices.
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