De Hoop – three hours up the coast, friend to whales, well worth the trek: My geography is such that I thought De Hoop Nature Reseve was just outside Swellendam. It is. But I definitely had it confused with the Bontebok Nature Reserve, so was more than happy to be rudely awakened to the beauty of De Hoop, because gorgeous it is (there are also plenty of bontebok here too, for those who appreciate this petite, white rear-ended antelope).
When you turn off the R319 onto the gravel road that enters the De Hoop reserve, you leave behind you swathes of green wheat and fields of bright yellow canola. The stark contrast between this conspicuous agriculture, and the almost immediate evidence of fynbos, all in flower, is dramatic. It also makes obvious how contrived these seemingly benign farms are and how we have marginalised the Cape Floristic fynbos that is so obviously threatened (it’s the smallest but the richest vegetation type in diversity).
De Hoop is filled with such rich biodiversity and rare species of fynbos that it is part of a World Heritage Site. All around you are proteas, ericas, restios and heather – in full bloom. The exuberance of colour in the dying sunlight – for we only reached the gate at the last minute, as usual – was extraordinary. And an incredible introduction to a reserve that for some strange reason, doesn’t make it onto the list of ‘must do’s’ when in the Western Cape. I predict that this will soon change.
Exclamations from the car, as we continued to identify some of the flowers, soon became ecstatic oohs and aahs as we hit a rise and looked over the De Hoop reserve below us. In the distance, to the right, was an obvious vlei on the banks of which a lot of the accommodation in the reserve rests. But the biggest surprise was the incredible sand dunes against the horizon between the fynbos and the beach. If it wasn’t for the sea, I would have thought it was a desert.
De Hoop is not only a nature reserve but also a marine protected area that extends three natucial miles off the coastline of the reserve, and as I did a quick calculation I realised that we were probably in time to see the Southern Right whales at one of the best whale viewing sites in the country.
Justin gives us a personal welcome. He and his wife Jolene manage the facilities of the reserve – they have a partnership with Cape Nature that is a very sound move as it means that both the reserve and the accommodation receive the attention they deserve (a friend of mine entertained me to a description of what the accommodation was like just five years ago. Suffice to say, it has improved).
By now we’re grubby, hungry and tired, and we have a four-year old along who needs his supper. But he’s disappeared up a tree, all thought of food forgotten for the tree top wonderland he finds just outside the reception at De Hoop. The grounds are filled with huge, wild fig trees that have obviously been here for generations, their trunks wide and their branches forming a natural tree house for children. He is in heaven.
De Hoop used to be a farm. There is evidence of old stone walls (the traditional method of the area) that make you think you’ve stumbled into an English countryside movie set, if it weren’t for the obvious flora that you would not find in the dales of England. The fields are filled with yellow daisies, fuchsia vygies and bright pink oxalis (who says you need to go up the West Coast to see the flowers?).
The administrative buildings of the reserve are set in the old farm buildings, some of which are built in the typical ‘lang huisie’ style of the Cape, complete with Cape Dutch gable and thatched roof. Both the conference room – perfect for group gatherings, weddings and retreats – and the original Manor House – now hired out in its entirety as a full board lodging, complete with yellowwood floors and ceilings and three en-suite bedrooms – are in this style. And there is also the old Shearing Studio and Stable Suite, which are perfect for couples on a luxurious and romantic escape from it all.
It is difficult to paint a complete picture of the variety of accommodation at the reserve as it is so diverse and there are a lot of options. Anyone can stay here. Along the vlei that is a Ramsar site (an area of wetland designated as having international importance) with a bird life that includes pelicans, flamingos and any number of other water birds, are a series of four round bungalows, two vlei rondawels, three Opstal Vlei Cottages (with thatched roofs) and ten generous camp sites.
On the other side of the vlei from the original farm are more luxurious options in restored Melkkamer buildings (read: renovated, sandstone, farm style architecture), known as the Melkkamer Manor House, the Melkamer Vlei Cottage and Foreman’s Cottage.
But more excitingly, there is a three bedroomed house and a wee cottage right at the mouth of the vlei, quite some way from the rest of the accommodation and very private, as well as a novelty stay at what is known as Koppie Alleen – a restored fisherman’s cottage with a thatched roof right at the sea in sight of the whales.
We had booked into one of the Vlei village cottages – tin roofed, self-catering, three-bedroomed fisherman’s cottages with views across the reserve to the dunes – they looked so close we mistakenly thought we could walk there (not that you can wander at will around the reserve, you need to stick to the paths unless encountering a puff adder is your idea of fun). We did. Encounter a puff adder that is. Fortunately we were in the car, and he was lying on the road, sunning himself. Beautiful they might be, but you don’t want to stumble upon one of these specimens whilst out walking.
Our village cottage was perfect. Not only had Justin and Jolene thoughtfully placed us in the one just next to an old tree complete with swings for children, but it also seemed to be a favourite with the eland, zebra and bontebok, all of whom wandered through the area during the day, and at night came right up to the walls of the cottage to nibble the grass there.
I’ll give you a tip: go as soon as you can to visit De Hoop. From next month, and in particular across December / January, they get very busy. But during the quieter months you will feel as if you have the reserve to yourself, despite there being a few other guests.
Highlights of the weekend:
- 1500 different plant species, most of which were in flower (it was August)
- the wild fig trees (these are an attraction on their own)
- bontebok, mountain zebra, eland, puff adders, pelicans and birds, birds and more birds
- dancing flamingos
- a talking tree (the tree outside our cottage)
- whales – we lost count there were so many in the bay (more about that in another blog)
- Henry – in charge of the staff and Fig Tree restaurant (what a gem)
- the (almost) deserted beach, despite it being a weekend to sight whales
- utter quiet at night