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At home in De Hoop

OVERBERG REGION, SOUTH AFRICA – Thousands of ostriches and the occasional klipspringer, but not one person to tell us how to get to De Hoop Nature Reserve, a natural and wildlife area located three hours southeast of Cape Town.  Two hours of racing through the hilly South African countryside, flanked by ostrich farms on both sides, and still no sign of the ocean.  My girlfriend Sara and I were beginning to worry that the dirt roads were getting to our rented Renault Cleo – the dirt roads, and my clumsy (left-handed) shifting. Fortunately, brown fields gave way to lush fynbos (Afrikaans for ‘fine bush’), and we were soon sitting on a hundred foot sand dune with binoculars in hand. 

From June to November, Southern Right whales migrate from the frigid waters of Antarctica to the South Africa’s Whale Coast to calve and nurse their young.  The Whale Coast, where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean, may be the best place in the world for whale-watching from shore.  Some coastal cities on the Western Cape boast slightly more sightings than others.  Take the town of Hermanus, for example.  Each day, crowds hoping to spot a Southern Right or Humpback frolicking in the bay gather around the world’s only ‘Whale Crier,’ an oddly dressed man with a kelp horn who has been delegated the responsibility of helping tourists spot whales.  But if you prefer to avoid the crowds, De Hoop offers a serene, secluded environment and an elevated view atop giant rolling sand dunes from which to spot several species of whale – Humpback, Bryde, and most notably, the Southern Right. Sadly enough, the Southern Right was given its name by whalers because they were the “right” whale to hunt – they were high in blubber, slow swimmers, floated when killed and were often found close to shore.  We took a couple of the coastal nature walks, stopping each time we spotted a whale breaching or lobtailing, sometimes as close as 50 yards from shore.  Then we’d continue on after the whale slowly made its way down the shore and out of sight.

Afterwards, we returned to our vehicle to explore more of the 340 square kilometers comprising the reserve.   The driving loops, pocked with craters and strewn with the occasional boulder blocking the road, were an adventure in themselves.  We soon learned that there was a lot more to De Hoop than whale-watching.  Not only is the floral fynbos a botanist’s playground, De Hoop is also a great place to spot wildlife – eland, grey rhebuck, bontebok, caracal, baboon, and the rare Cape mountain zebra all reside in the reserve.  We were lucky enough to spot several bontebok and eland, but disappointingly, no mountain zebra.  Bird lovers will be happy to learn that De Hoop is famous for its birding opportunities, with more than 260 species in the reserve.  Many are wetland birds found within the De Hoop Vlei section of the reserve.

Sara and I were visiting De Hoop as a part of a road trip from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town along the famed Whale Coast and Garden Route.  The trip included diving with great white sharks, surfing in the infamous Jeffries Bay, hiking in Tsitsikamma National Park and exploring the cultural and historic neighborhoods of Cape Town.  Looking back, however, De Hoop Nature Reserve stands out as truly unique, and has become one of my favorite spots on the planet.  If you have more time, there is plenty to do in De Hoop to warrant a few days.  Both camping and cottage accommodations are offered in the reserve.  Otherwise, you can do as we did and elect to stay in one of the nearby towns; we spent the night in the charming fishing village of Arniston.

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