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Exploring De Hoop Nature Reserve: A Detailed Travel Log
Dodge dung beetles and wave to whales in season at this special Cape Nature reserve
Friday at 2pm: Off-road Ruffians Dodging Dung Beetles
It’s the final stretch before we reach the De Hoop Collection, and the start of 31 kilometres of dirt road. It’s pouring with rain and the track is rocky and muddy, with intermittent pot holes and plenty of lake-sized puddles (a slight exaggeration). We’ve never been happier – Tom’s at the wheel grinning as he slushes through the obstacles in our borrowed Subaru, which makes us feel like hard-core off-roading pioneers conquering the land for the first time. We give a poor Toyota a fake sympathetic glance laced with barely concealed smugness as we fly by, set on reaching the gate for the Cape Nature De Hoop Reserve in good time.
We arrive and sign in, and then make our way through the park to the De Hoop Collection. The last time I was here, I was about eight year’s old, so there’s a sense of familiarity mingled with the delight at being out in nature again. It’s beautiful, with thick bushes and fynbos traversing the loamy, red soil, which is a patchwork of colours in itself. We dodge dung beetles and wave to grazing bontebok as we turn towards reception, where we’re greeted by some of the biggest fig trees I’ve ever seen. Ostriches flaunt their feathers nearby and mighty eland watch us nonchalantly from across the road, completely unruffled by our presence. We get the key for our house and turn towards the Blue Crane Opstal – home for the weekend.
Friday from 3pm – 9pm: Blue Crane, Figs and Sticky Pudding
It’s a lovely, grand house, complete with a swing, balcony and braai area at the back. It’s meant for six, but there are just the two of us, so we scurry between the bedrooms to decide which the best one is, and then collapse on the comfy couches in the lounge area, which is decorated with illustrated birds and elegant furniture from a bygone age. That evening we head to the Fig Tree Restaurant for a three-course meal.
The restaurant is cosy and smells delicious; for starters I have the courgette soup with a Thai twist, while Tom goes for the sesame-coated halloumi with sweet-chilli chutney. Both are tasty, but the star of the show is definitely the slow-cooked oxtail served with cous cous, which we have for mains. It’s tender, melt-in-the-mouth meat with rich, more-ish gravy and fluffy grains of goodness. Despite being very full, we also manage dessert – Tom has the sticky apple pudding, while I obviously opt for the chocolate tart. Satiated and sleepy, we head home to rest before Saturday’s busy agenda.
Saturday at 10am: Steyn the Spa Legend
On Saturday morning, I drift across to the spa to keep my 10 o’clock appointment with the lovely Steyn Jacobs – resident consultant and masseuse extraordinaire. He immediately puts me at ease with his warm presence and sense of humour, and then he explains a bit about how my chosen Bespoke Intuitive Herbal Oil Massage is going to work. To start with, he presents me with two oils to smell to see which one I’m most drawn to. I go for the one with a chamomile fragrance, which shows my body is craving some relaxation. Next he starts the massage, combining essential oils with little bags of herbs, which help to improve circulation and the body’s absorption of the oils. I’m in absolute bliss and I almost fall asleep as he works out the multiple knots in my back. It’s the best massage I’ve ever had and I find it hard to accept it when 60 glorious minutes come to an end.
Saturday from 11:30am – 3:30pm: Red Beaks on the Rocks
After I make my way back to Tom, we decide to set off on a little drive around the park. We meander passed the pristine dunes and find our way to the sea, where the reserve intersects with Koppie Alleen and the Whale Trail. It’s just as I remember it from when I was small – tall dunes surround the coast, which conceals pockets of rocky enclaves with intricate patterns in the boulders and complex tidal pools teeming with mussels and starfish. Shy oyster catchers with bright red beaks swoop over the glaucous blue waves, dodging the frothing surf and occasionally diving into the depths for something tasty. Kids squeal as they dart into the shallow water and couples sun bathe in the covert confines of the rocks. Unfortunately, we’re out of season for whales, but I tell Tom all about the last time I was here, when the behemoths and their calves were right by the shore. We go for a stroll over the dunes, take some pictures and then head back to the car to get back to the reserve in time for our mountain bike tour.
Saturday from 4pm – 6:30pm: Sporty Spice Goes Splat
I don’t know what possesses me to book mountain biking as an activity – we could have chosen bird watching, a guided marine walk, star gazing or a river cruise instead, but no, I wanted to go cycling! I haven’t ridden a bike properly in years and one of my claims to fame is cycling off a cliff along a trail in Germany due to a considerable lack of coordination and a great deal of fear. But I have visions of Tom and I romantically peddling through the park, frolicking in nature and immersing ourselves in herds of majestic eland, so I convince myself this time will be different. Our wonderful guide Esmeralda helps me select a bike, but as soon as I take it for a wobbly spin I realise that the old adage ‘you never forget how to ride a bike’ is made up by some ancient, masochistic liar. Undeterred, we set off into the reserve, and keep up a steady but very slow pace around the track.
We cycle passed herds of zebra and giant eland right by the road, and Esmeralda stops us occasionally to tell us about the park and the different vegetation within it. She’s chatty, knowledgeable and kind, and under her guidance, we learn about different species of fynbos, their reliance on fire, what wild thyme smells like and how restios attract ants as pollinators. She takes us to a view point and we gaze out over the vlei for a while, enjoying the restful stillness of the water, and trying to spot clawless otters in the cavernous banks below.
Our stop is over all too soon, and we’re back on the bikes and I’m wondering more and more why I opted to do this to myself. My bottom is sore, my shoulders ache, my knee feels weird and I’m out of breath. And we’re moving at a ridiculously fast (read that in a sarcastic tone) 4km/hr. The point is I’m turning into an old, unfit person before I even hit my thirties. We start going downhill and I get quite cocky thinking I’ve finally found my inner Stevie Smith. Then I hit a rock and everything spins out of control. I manage to topple over in slow motion and land on my hands, with most limbs OK but my dignity severely bruised. Tom keeps asking me if I’m alright, and Esmeralda puts plasters on my hands as I try to stop my lip quivering to retain some decorum. (So much for trying to impress Tom with my fit, sporty persona – I’m sticking to yoga in the future).
I suck it up and get back on the bike (yes, there’s a lesson in there somewhere), and we make our way back to reception. Poor Esmeralda feels terrible but it’s entirely my fault I’m so uncoordinated; I think I’m the only person she’s ever taken on a tour whose managed to fall off – she told me she even took someone who’d never ridden a bike before once. I sneak home to drown my sorrows in MCC and then Tom and I play a game of drunken scrabble after he cleans my cut hand with alcohol swabs. I’m mildly consoled by the fact that I score 80 points with my first word and manage to kick my highly-gifted-in-vocabulary partner’s proverbial derriere. We think about going out for supper, but I start falling asleep so Tom makes me tea and then I pass out.
Sunday at 9am: Bye Bye Bontebok
I wake up the next day, sore but happy, and we start packing. The sunny skies of yesterday are gone and the clouds are back so we head to reception to settle up and then get back on the dirt road to get to Swellendam in time for breakfast. We wave goodbye to the bontebok and the ostriches and take some final pics of the park before winding our way back over the hill and off into the rain.
Important Information about De Hoop Reserve and the De Hoop Collection
Accommodation: Part of the charm of the De Hoop Collection is the fact that it caters to everyone, whether you’re after a house that sleep six or a quaint camping spot. Camping starts at R325 per site, while the cottages, chalets and upmarket lodges range in price from R1450 to R3000. Both self-catering and fully catered lodging options are available. Be sure to book well in advance as it’s a popular spot and bookings go quickly.
Whales: First and foremost, De Hoop Marine Reserve is famous for playing host to seven whale species from June to November annually. Encompassing a 70-km coastline, there are plenty of spots to view the behemoths from, particularly as the whales use the area as a nursery zone and so come close to shore to mate, calve and nurture their young. There are also dive sites dotted around the region, and some fortunate divers have been privileged to dive with whale sharks in the past. Up to 400 whales have been spotted at a time, and the Cape Nature Whale Trail remains a must-do for most active nature enthusiasts.
Other Activities: Even when it’s not whale season, De Hoop boasts plenty of activities to keep guests occupied. From guided bird and marine walks to hiking and cycling trails, boat cruises, spa treatments and star gazing, there’s something for everyone in both the summer and winter months.
Wonderfully Wild: Remember, De Hoop is a nature reserve, so it’s a safe haven and breeding ground for both fauna and flora species, some of which are endemic to the area. Cape Nature has done an outstanding job breeding multiple antelope species, and the reserve abounds with life in all forms. Respect the environment around you and be wary of the animals – they are not tame. Make sure you close all your windows and lock your doors to prevent baboons from getting into the house, and wear closed shoes when you go hiking or cycling.
By Samantha Corbett. Photographs by Thomas Love
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