Cape Town is famed for its natural beauty, and has vast amounts of protected land – both along the Table Mountain formation, and around many of the better places to stay outside the city proper. Wherever there’s plenty of vegetation; there’s plenty of insects and animals. A small number are dangerous, but a little knowledge should prepare you.
Insects and Spiders
When hiking in the outdoors around Cape Town, your most common danger is a quite small insect – the tick. Ticks are small or even tiny reddish arachnids (6 legs) that attach themselves to the skin of birds and mammals – including humans – and feed on their blood. In doing so, they can transmit diseases. One is tick bite fever, which will take 5 to 7 days before you experience symptoms – often including fever, severe headaches and an itchy rash. If you have these symptoms, go to a doctor for antibiotics – it can be a serious disease. Avoiding this and other tick-borne diseases can largely be achieved by your group carefully checking one another for ticks at the end of each hike or day of hiking. Ticks are most prevalent towards the end of summer (February and March).
According to Norman Larsen, the Associate Arachnologist at the Iziko, South African Natural History Museum in Cape Town, only 3 of the many varieties of spider typically found around the city have venom that’s harmful enough to humans to be worth mentioning. Ironically, the large, hairy, frightening ones are relatively harmless (although some can give a painful bite that lasts from 1-20 hours); while all of the medically important venomous spiders are small – under or about 15mm (½ inch+).
The sac spider is a light yellow colour and lives in spun silk sacs during the day (often attached to wall corners or curtain folds) and hunts at night. They’re aggressive hunters, and account for 70-75% of all spider bites. Since that’s usually caused by people rolling onto them in their sleep, you’ll only notice the bite in the morning – 2 tiny yellow bite marks and (after 2-8 hours) a raised, red and sore circle of skin. This will probably also form an uncomfortable ulcer in the centre. You may even experience flu-like symptoms or a mild fever and a headache for a few days. The wound will then begin to heal after about 10 days, but will usually take months to disappear completely. Medical attention is not required but the lesion must be kept clean and covered to keep out bacteria. Another spider, the violin spider, also occurs around houses – but they are not commonly found.
The black and brown button spiders are more dangerous, but bites are fairly rare as they use webs to catch prey, so they don’t move around very much at all. The black is the more potent, but their habitat is open veld, and they’re not often seen. You may encounter the less venomous brown variety. The bite is quite painful, and other symptoms can include muscle contractions, lots of sweating, droopy eyelids, slurred speech and extreme restless. Anxiety is a common response, so you should know that there have been NO deaths recorded from spider bites in over 60 years. You must get medical treatment – the sooner, the better. Putting ice on the bite while waiting will help a little. Once treated, you’ll begin to feel better within half an hour. Nonetheless, you’ll probably be required to stay under observation for 24 hours.
If you’re going to stay in less urban areas like the peninsula (Scarborough, Noordhoek) or the Overberg (Pringle Bay, Betty’s Bay), you may encounter scorpions. In the Cape, more than 95% of cases of scorpion stings result in no more than local pain lasting from a few minutes to about 4 hours. Often this pain can be quite mild, but sometimes a scorpion sting results in intense pain, abdominal cramps, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting, difficulty in swallowing, visual disturbance and sensitive skin. These more serious symptoms can take up to 12 hours to occur. Since they can include breathing difficulty, raised blood pressure and erratic heartbeat – all of which can be life-threatening – if someone has been stung, they should be closely watched for about a day and if the symptoms seem serious, then seek medical help.
However, less than 5% of stings require medical attention, and throughout the whole of South Africa there are fewer than 4 deaths a year. The rule of thumb is the larger the pincers and smaller the tail, the less venomous.
Whenever you’re in less urban settings, help yourself to avoid all of these creepy-crawlies by making sure that you shake out all clothes and shoes before putting them on.
If you take any of the hiking or walking trails around the city, you’ll be in the proper indigenous ecosystem, and might encounter a snake. There have been 36 species of snake counted in the area, of which 5 are regarded as dangerous. But snake sightings are fairly rare, and snake bites even more unusual. In the entire country, only about 15 people per year die as a result of a snake bite.
Snakes bite humans purely as a defence when they feel under threat. If you’re fortunate enough to see a snake, leave it alone! Many bites result from people trying to chase a snake away. Surprises and sudden movements alarm them, so do things slowly – even if you need to back off a little to give them space. Wear ankle-high boots for some protection, look where you’re putting your feet, and walk with your normal tread – they should detect you and move away.
If you, or one of your party, does get bitten: don’t panic. Also don’t attempt any form of “snake first aid” – especially not cutting the wound or sucking it (you could poison yourself and double the problem). Many snakes don’t use poison – and those that do, use different kinds. The correct treatment for one kind of bite can be the very worst thing to do for another kind. Try to keep the victim calm and as still as possible, and don’t give them anything to drink or eat. Get them to a medical facility as quickly as you can. When you’re there, immediately state calmly, but firmly and clearly, that it’s a snake bite so that you get rapid attention. When medical staff arrive, try and describe the snake to them to assist in choosing the correct treatment.
Chacma Baboons are a common problem on the peninsula (Scarborough, Noordhoek) and all along the Overberg coastline (Gordon’s Bay to Hermanus), and occasionally in some other suburbs as well. While they are cute and interesting, they are also extremely strong and agile, and can get aggressive in pursuit of food or if they feel threatened. They will enter cars and homes if they can, and they tend to cause a lot of damage when they do. Baboons have opposable thumbs, like humans, and can easily open unlatched windows and unlocked doors.
If you’re staying in an area where baboons are known to pass through, you’ll need to take the following advice from the City of Cape Town’s Environmental Management seriously. Firstly, never feed them, and try to make all food very difficult to get at. This includes food-related rubbish. Don’t leave a room or car unattended with windows and doors open to the outside (car doors actually need to be locked; several baboons have learned how to open them) – even for a few minutes. Baboons usually move very quietly, and by the time you’re aware that they’re there, they could already be inside. Loud noises and water are the best ways to scare them away.
If they are inside, make sure they have a clear line to an exit, so that they don’t feel too threatened. They will tend to leave by the same way that they entered. Try to avoid eye contact, but sound as confident of your “territorial rights” as possible when shouting. Under no circumstances, attack or injure a baboon. If they attack you, they can be deadly – males can weigh over 30kg (nearly 70 lbs); have long, sharp canine teeth; and hard nails on extremely powerful hands.
The seas around Cape Town do have sharks, and some of the world’s best Great White Shark viewing (including cage diving) happens just 160km (100 miles) up the coast at Gansbaai. Nature conservationists will point out quickly that there have only been 12 incidents in the decade from 2000 to 2009. However, since the number of deaths (3) and serious injuries (4) as a result of these few attacks has been showing an increase, the city takes sharks seriously.
There are shark spotters 365 days a year at Muizenberg, St James, Fish Hoek and Noordhoek, as well as spotters on weekends, holidays and from October to April at Clovelly and Glencairn. They use a system of flags to communicate. A green flag means visibility is good, and there are no sharks in sight. A black flag means that visibility is bad and they’re unsure. Red flags indicate a high alert, and a white flag with a shark on it means that a shark has been spotted. A siren will also sound if a sighting has occurred. Use these beaches and pay attention to the flag system, and you should have no reason to fear an attack. You’re also advised not to go into the water if you have an open wound or if you’re menstruating, as sharks respond to the smell of blood.
Unfortunately, you’ll only come across most other African wildlife at nature reserves. Rangers will explain the rules, but usually they involve remaining in your car at all times and not coming between mothers and their offspring.