The town of Somerset West is dwarfed by the brooding Helderberg, the 'clear mountain' that stands out from the Hottentots-Holland range. On the lower southeastern slopes is the 363 ha Helderberg Nature Reserve, proclaimed in 1960 as a sanctuary for the indigenous flora and fauna of the area.
Well-marked gravel paths, which take anything from 35 minutes to three hours to walk, crisscross the reserve, radiating from the entrance gate in concentric circles and looping back through densely packed erica and protea bushes.
One path leads up to the Helderberg Dome, the highest point on the mountain, but it is recommended for experienced hikers only. Disa Gorge, part of the reserve's water catchment area, is fascinating and beautiful. It has a clear waterfall and a stretch of indigenous forest containing the protected stinkwood (Ocotea bullata) as well as the bushy ironwood (Olea capensis) and red alder (Cunonia capensis).
From January to March, Disa uniflora grows on the higher vertical rock faces of the gorge, while lower down are the enchanting massed blooms of Nerine sarniensis.
Helderberg boasts mesic mountain fynbos (growing in conditions of medium water supply) and renosterbos, but perhaps its outstanding feature is its birdlife - it was awarded first prize by the South African Ornithological Society in 1988 as the most birdorientated (non-Parks Board) nature reserve. So far, 165 bird species have been recorded. They include peregrine falcon, rock kestrel, yellow-billed icite, jackal and steppe buzzard, African goshawk, gymnogene, Victorin's scrub warbler, Cape sugarbird, four sunbirds and many others.
Among mammals to be seen are bontebok, grysbok, steenbok and duiker, while leopard, lynx and honey badger have also been sighted.
Facilities in the reserve include a restaurant (open daily), picnic sites and toilets. In the picnic area is the Basil Maskew Miller Herbarium, which is used as a field museum and also houses a craft/curio shop. An environmental centre is well used by school groups and is also available as a conference centre.
No fires or gas cookers are permitted in the reserve, and mountain bikes are also prohibited. The reserve is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. in autumn and winter, and from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in spring and summer.
The reserve is clearly signposted from Somerset West's Main Street. When entering town from the west, turn left into Lourensford Road and, when approaching from the east, turn right into Gordon Road.