At the foot of the Potberg Mountains lies an unspoilt wilderness, just three hours from Cape Town. Allison Foat takes us there.
There are a handful of great wildernesses left on this earth, unspoilt environments where humans pass through quietly and with respect. These are the places that steady me and deposit joy into very core of my being.
While in an unapologetic Mother City slicker with a frustrating gadget dependency, I crave frequent forays into nature to regain perspective and disengage from the Internet of Things. Wild places are a prescription for wellness and I’ll jump at any opportunity to go off-grid and find my bliss.
One such place, close to Cape Town, is De Hoop, a hypnotic locale with air as crisp as champagne, space for days and a sense of having it all to myself. As a serial road-tripper, my journey is as important as the destination, and mine didn’t disappoint.
I opted to go via the N2 along one of the province’s most scenic drives, flanked by epic landscapes, famous farm stalls like Houw Hoek, and a number of historical towns such as Grabouw and Napier that warrant a walkabout.
As I closed in on De Hoop, the tar road turned to dirt, several kilometres long, weaving like a caramel thread through the rolling countryside. So much beauty and time on my hands to stop and take photographs; the best feeling.
I mean – who can resist a flock of blue cranes, vintage windmills and carpets of yellow canola? Suffice to say that my three-hour drive was closer to five, and the leisurely pace
set the tone for what lay ahead.
A Wildlife Haven
De Hoop Nature Reserve, a World Heritage Site since 2004, is prime for mountain biking, caving, star gazing, bird and whale watching. For hikers of all levels of expertise, there are also incredible trails, including the world-famous, multi-day Whale Trail.
In its entirety, the conservancy is a sizeable 34 000 hectares and listed as one of the largest in the Cape Nature portfolio, with a number of fragile habitats under conservation. Forming part of the Cape Floral Kingdom, 1 500 different plants are found here.
There are also 250 types of birds and 86 mammal species, including the Cape Mountain Zebra, eland, rare bontebok, yellow mongoose, elusive leopard and non-threatening troops of baboons. De Hoop is also a haven for the Overberg’s last remaining colony of the rare Cape Vultures that roost in the crags of the nearby Potberg Mountains.
From the dunes and vantage points like Koppie Alleen, De Hoop offers the ultimate in land-based
marine safaris, the best you’re likely to experience in Africa. Year round, dolphin and porpoise sightings are common, and July onwards sees the arrival from Antarctica of hundreds of Southern Right whales into the safety of the warm waters of the Marine Protected Area.
The sanctuary is huge, extending several nautical miles out to sea, and from winter up until November, the bay becomes a playground and nursery for these great mammals and their vulnerable offspring. Seeing a whale fluke always stops me in my tracks and in De Hoop I got even more; all the breaching, fin-slapping and rolling I’d hoped to witness – a major bucket-list moment for me.
Migrating pod numbers were lower last year but still, the highest aggregation was in De Hoop, cementing this glorious part of the South African coastline as prime for marine dynamics of the whale kind.
If you love to fish though, scratch De Hoop off your list as no fishing or exploitation of any form is permitted in these waters. This area is a biodiversity dream and the endemic plant life is stunning, dominated by lowland fynbos.
Early morning rambles across the low slopes above the beach were the best, and the new day felt almost ephemeral. Wherever I am in this world, it’s the dawn hours that hold the magic, when everything is so still.
The fynbos was at its most aromatic then and the air “fizzed with the industrious hum of insects moving from flower to flower” to quote Dominic Chadbon, aka The Fynbos Guy. Turning towards the beach below I watched a different scenario play out as a diaphanous mist, hovering delicately above the beach, started to dissipate with the warmth of the sun, as if reluctant to leave. A special sight that felt like it was laid on just for me.
Rock Pool Explorations
There’s no shortage of activities in De Hoop and one of the most fascinating was the rock pool exploration. While there are several accommodation options in De Hoop, I was fortunate to spend two nights at Lekkerwater Beach Lodge.
Meaning ‘place of good water’, Lekkerwater is an eco-property settled unobtrusively on a ridge overlooking a sparkling strip of private beach. Here, resident naturalist Billy Robertson loves nothing more than to take guests on a marine safari at low tide, up onto the shoreline plateaus to show off the inter-tidal life that teems in the crevices and pools.
Spread across flat sea platforms framed by prehistoric rock formations were a number of these translucent ice-blue pools, inter-tidal ecosystems and underwater habitats.
Some are more like shallow ponds while others are deep and wide enough for snorkelling and swimming, often a safer option considering that the currents along this coastline can be unpredictable. I spent ages hunched over the glassy depressions watching starfish glide across the sand and octopus darting between the kelp, and, like a kid, dipping my hand in to feel the soft tentacles of a sea anemone close around my finger.
Like so many wilderness guides that I’ve been privileged to meet, Billy is a man for whom the natural environment is sacrosanct and the way he unpacks his
knowledge of the surroundings is riveting.
In his poem “Wilderness”, Dr Ian McCallum wrote, “Wilderness is not a place, but a pattern of soul, where every bird, beast and tree is a soul maker.” Time spent in De Hoop brings wholeness and to experience it is to encounter the extraordinary.
Words by Allison Foat
Images: Allison Foat, Dook