De Hoop Nature Reserve is about three hours’ drive up the east coast out of Cape Town . Well, that is if the traffic is flowing, but being squeezed through Somerset West after 16:00 on a Friday afternoon can add substantially to travel time.
Stretching over 34 000 hectares, this World Heritage Site is one of the largest reserves managed by CapeNature – its coastline is a marine reserve (think Whale Trail) and is home to one of the world’s six floral kingdoms, the Cape Floral Region.
Offering a range of accommodation for up to 180 guests that includes something for everyone – from self-catering, to camping, to luxury units – the De Hoop Collection is the first private-public partnership in the South African hospitality industry and has been in operation since 2007.
Having arrived just before the gates closed, we were shown to our luxury suite (aptly called The Vlei) by torchlight. The Vlei is part of the old stables situated in the huge quadrant that faces inwards over a lawn bordered by aloes and home to magnificent Ficus trees, planted in 1956 in truckloads of soil imported from KwaZulu-Natal. Our beautiful room, furnished in the Cape vernacular, had twin four-poster beds, rietdak ceilings and a fabulous huge bathroom with a Victorian bath taking pride of place.
By the time we had unpacked, it was time to make our way to the Fig Tree Restaurant underneath a breathtaking night sky, with the Milky Way in all its glory framing our brief walk. Warmly greeted by the staff and a blazing log fire, we were shown to our table in the newly renovated dining area. The menu offers a choice of two dishes per course and a fabulous wine list from a well-stocked “cellar” in the Silo. Each dish is prepared with fresh ingredients and arrives piping hot – delicious home-style cooking at its best. As a perfect accompaniment, we ordered one of the best bottles of wine I have had in a while – a 2012 Elgin Viognier.
The wonderful thing about arriving at De Hoop after dark is the magnificent surprise that awaits you upon awakening after a regenerating night’s sleep. The surprise is not just the beautiful location, etched in shades of dove grey and olive green atop a pristine hilltop overlooking the fully enclosed shimmering vlei, but the dawn symphony (chorus is too small a word) as the prolific birdlife that inhabits the surrounding wetland greets the day with celebratory gusto (underscored every now and then by the grumpy, tone deaf hadidahs).
Walking out of our suite in the soft morning light, I was immediately greeted by blacksmith plovers, francolins, mousebirds, weavers, sunbirds and a group of female ostriches – and that was only in my immediate vicinity. In the vlei itself, pelicans, flamingoes, coots, grebes, darters, ducks, herons and gulls crowded a mid-water island and the shore. Suddenly the symphony was shattered by the frantic beating of hundreds of pairs of wings as all the birdlife scattered. Looking up into the sky I realised why – a fish eagle was making its emporial way across its territory, and as 70% of its diet is made up of fellow winged creatures, no one was hanging around to become a takeaway.
Walking back to the restaurant past its namesakes, we realised the branches had come alive with a troop of baboons also having breakfast.
Seeing the Fig Tree restaurant in daylight really does it justice. When dining, you can choose to eat from the sumptuous buffet on the patio overlooking the water and have as your companions house sparrows and friendly francolins whilst inhaling the truly awesome setting.
The 16-kilometre-long vlei is a Ramsar site and home to 97 aquatic bird species. We opted to go for the two-hour eco-boat trip to fully appreciate this natural wonder. Ably guided by William (“I do not consider this a job, I consider it an honour”) and escorted every now and then by curious otters, we ploughed our way through the tilapia-rich water and came up close and personal to the birds I had seen in the early morning light. Avian drama erupted in the skies when a lone gull spotted the fish eagle and went in for the attack. The eagle was four times its size – but attitude is everything and we witnessed a “dogfight” of note with David as victor and Goliath disappearing into the horizon.
As the sun set, William cut the engine, served snacks and chilled wine/bubbles and we savoured the perfect sounds of silence, watched all the while by a lone Klipspringer perched on a cliff’s edge.
De Hoop has an entire ecosystem to explore and other activities include guided bird walks, an interpretive marine walk, guided mountain bike trails, viewing the endangered Cape Vultures, a nature drive experience in an open safari vehicle – and for a spot of pampering there is a spa on site.
The Western Cape has a Mediterranean climate and autumn and winter months are some of the most pristine. We visited the reserve in May, with daytime temperatures reaching a gorgeous 19 to 20 degrees and not a breath of wind to ruffle our feathers.
Driving towards the gates on our way home we passed a herd of the endangered bontebok and a family of Cape Mountain Zebra. We stopped to watch a pair of yellow mongooses making like meerkats and standing on their hind legs to better survey their ‘hood.
The speed limit is 40 km/h and I had no difficulty adhering to it as we were in no hurry to leave the De Hoop haven.
Phone: 021 422 4522
De Hoop social media handles: