Rondevlei Nature Reserve – Hippos in the City
Constantia may lay claim to Kirstenbosch (admittedly gorgeous, but over a weekend it is inundated) but Plumstead (well, okay, Grassy Park) has a unique eco spot in the city where you can see hippos, a part of the world where hippos were once a plenty …
Besides, it’s not as if Kirstenbosch made it into the recent Rough Guides’ Clean Breaks – 500 new ways to see the world! Up there with ‘must do’s’ like the Natural heritage at Isimangaliso Wetland Park, Kayak with whales in Plettenberg Bay and take an eco-wine tour (Green Mountain Eco Route), one of the 50 or so clean breaks for Southern Africa was – see hippos near Cape Town.
Photograph: Hottentot Teal photographed at Rondevlei South Africa
It is possible to see big game whilst in Cape Town. Rondevlei Nature Reserve in Grassy Park (that’s just across the M5 from Southfield) boasts the only resident hippo population in the Cape. The two nature reserves lie side-by-side, although to reach Seekoevlei, you need first to drive out of Rondevlei and around to the Seekoevlei entrance gate; they are not connected, unfortunately. But the proximity of Seekoevlei adds an even greater body of water to Rondevlei.
Rondevlei has some of the most spectacular views. Close to the sea here, you are surrounded by water with clear views of the range of mountains that dominate the southern suburbs of Cape Town. This protected area is 2km² of wetland and lake, and a seriously great place to be first thing in the morning, when the sun still glints off spiders’ webs and the calls of water birds rent the air.
It’s also the time of day when people are least likely to disturb you, and you are free to stroll along the pathways that lead from one bird hide to another (six hides in all). Ibis, herons, gannets, egrets, even kingfishers (we spotted one just next to us on a path one morning) make this their home. Aside from the 230 different types of birds, there are also very visible mongooses and other little reptiles, as well as the big guys – hippos (although try as you might, they are particularly illusive, unless you count spotting their fecial matter right on the path as ‘seeing’ them).
No, unfortunately hippos are not the tubby, friendly fellows portrayed in disney movies. The third-largest living land mammal they might be, but because of their tendency to hide-out in the water, hippos (unlike elephants and white rhinos) are particularly difficult to see. Hippopotamus actually means ‘river horse’ with a mouth that opens up to four feet wide, so it’s probably just as well that they prefer anonymity.
They’re also related to camels, whales and deer, interestingly, and spend just about all day in the water (they can stay submerged, if you were wondering, for up to 30 minutes, but usually stay under for around 5 minutes). It’s only really at night, after sunset, that they’ll leave the water behind and come up to the land to munch a few things. They also make more than a few grunting and screaming sounds whilst underwater to communicate with one another, hence their relation to whales.
They eat mainly grasses and reeds (plenty of that at Rondevlei) and are largely nocturnal feeders. And they use their excrement to mark their territories, flinging it around with their tails, which explains the rather liberal doses we found on the path early one morning.
There are two lookout towers at Rondevlei that may give you an advantage over the hippo, allowing you to spot the odd head should it emerge (although we’ve yet to see one). And Imvubu Nature Tours is a community-based tourism company based at Rondevlei that arranges island bush camps, boat trips to find the hippos and a couple of guided nature walks that take you through Rondevlei’s ‘medicine cabinet’ of indigenous vegetation.
Here’s to spotting a hippo!