Swellendam is a small, sleepy town in the heart of South Africa’s Overberg region. It is located halfway between Cape Town and the Garden Route making a convenient stopover between the two. A short stay of a night or two can be spent very pleasantly here, exploring the town’s crafts studios, lovely historic buildings and charming restaurants.

Swellendam was named after the first South African-born Governor of the Cape, Hendrik Swellengrebel, and his wife Helena Ten Damme and is one of the country’s oldest towns.

Flora and Fauna around Swellendam

The region around Swellendam, at the foot of the beautiful Langeberg mountains, hosts an abundance of plant species, including many endemics, and the rare fynbos vegetation, as well as a good amount of wildlife to be seen. A few examples are the endangered bontebok and Cape mountain zebra along with bushbuck, klipspringer, grey rhebuck, Cape grysbok, baboon, mongoose and genet. Birdlife here is abundant, with the most commonly seen species being waterfowl, Knysna woodpecker, crowned eagle, black eagle, paradise flycatcher and narina trogon.

History of Swellendam

Swellendam was founded as a supply stop by the Dutch East India Company in the 18th century. Back then, this town, and the village of artisans and traders opposite it, formed a gateway to the not yet colonised Eastern Cape - and became a convenient spot for explorers and traders to stock up their supplies before continuing on the long way up the Cape’s east coast. Additionally, the Breede River, which flows through Swellendam, was the only navigable river in South Africa in those days. Consequently, the town quickly gained importance, and by the middle of the 19th century, when the British settlers had colonised the eastern districts too, it was a prosperous trading hub.

Due to maladministration by the Dutch East India Company, the people of Swellendam revolted in summer 1795, and declared their town a republic, with themselves being ‘national burghers’. However, this republic existed only shortly, until the British occupation of the Cape. Today, Swellendam is a smaller town in the Western Cape province in South Africa.

Sights & activities in Swellendam

Swellendam has more than 50 provincial heritage sites, most of them built in the Cape Dutch architecture. Furthermore there’s an interesting museum, excellent restaurants, shops, arts and crafts galleries, a unique church and a national park nearby to discover:
  • The Drostdy Museum is an attractive collection of historic buildings set in a lovely landscaped garden. The ‘drostdy’ itself, which forms the centrepiece of the museum, was built in 1747 by the Dutch East India Company, as a residence for the Magistrate. Parts of the original administrative buildings can still be seen at the Old Goal. Having been turned into a museum in 1939, it displays a collection of late 18th / early 19th century Cape furniture. Furthermore you might also like to visit the adjacent watermill, Goaler’s Cottage and Mayvill, a 1853 residence with a pretty Victorian garden.

  • The Dutch Reformed Church in Swellendam is a big, large building with an impressive organ and a permanent exhibition inside. Its most remarkable feature is undoubtedly the striking mix of architectural styles, such as Italian Baroque, French Gothic, and Cape Dutch facades. When we last checked, the church was closed three days per week (Thursdays and weekends), so do double-check the opening hours before visiting!

  • Just south of Swellendam, Bontebok National Park is South Africa's smallest national park, covering only 28km2. Nestled between the Breede River and the spectacular Langeberg Mountains, it forms part of a World Heritage Site called the Cape Floral Kingdom protected area. This national park appeals to enthusiastic nature-lovers with interests in botanics, as well as travellers looking for some short but interesting walks. The park was created in 1931 as a refuge for the Cape’s bontebok, which were, with only 30 individuals left in the wild, on the edge of extinction. Since then, conservation work has enabled bontebok numbers to increase to about 300. Apart from the bontebok, the park is also home to red hartebeest, grey rhebok, mongoose, Cape clawless otter, Cape mountain zebra and nocturnal animals such as caracal, bat-eared fox, cape fox and aardwolf. Nevertheless, bontebok remain the major attraction here and even they can sometimes be hard to spot. Birders might watch out for fish eagle and secretary birds. Other possible activities in Bontebok National Park include biking, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and swimming.

  • Consider Marloth Nature Reserve for some walking with lovely mountain views and rich birdlife –although note that this lesser-known small reserve is lacking a bit of maintenance and information for the visitor. Walk up a lovely short, shaded trail to a small waterfall here!

  • Whale watching is possible at several locations near Swellendam, with Witsand arguably being the most popular one.

  • If you’d like to do some sports, consider a round of golf at the 9-hole course in Swellendam, where the rich green ranges of the Langeberg Mountains in the distance make an exceptional backdrop.

  • For families, and children in particular, it’d often fun to pick their own berries at the Wilderbraam Berry Estate on the western edge of Swellendam. You can also taste products like chutneys and liqueurs here.

  • Amongst other activities are boat trips and horse-riding around Swellendam, arranged by local operators.

Where to stay – accommodation in Swellendam

You can find one hotel, as well as plenty of B&Bs and guesthouses in Swellendam.
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