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Diverse Denizens of De Hoop

 | Scott Ramsay Book Accommodation

There they were, like a cohort of submarines. Fifteen southern right whales, some with babies, lay in the turquoise water just a few hundred metres from our vantage point on the sand dunes. Now and again an adult would slap the water with a huge tail and when there was a lull in the wind, we could hear their big, sonorous calls, echoing through the salty water and air. ‘Sometimes we get as many as a hundred whales in the bay,’ field guide Dalfrenzo Laing said with a proud smile, as we stood agog at the spectacle in front of us. ‘This is probably the best place on Earth to watch whales from the land – they love it here.’

I believed him. If I were a whale, I’d come here every year for my spring holiday. The blue-green bay of De Hoop on the southern Cape coast is spectacular. As we faced the sea, a golden dune field extended to our right. To our left, fragrant lowland fynbos stretched to the horizon. And all along the coastline, rocky shores were interspersed with blinding-white beaches and countless rock pools. But it wasn’t always this idyllic and certainly not for the whales. Centuries of hunting almost destroyed the species until the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 ban on whaling saw numbers recover, so that today there are about 10,000 southern right whales in the world’s oceans, still a long way off the estimated 80,000 which once existed, according to Meredith Thornton of the Mammal Research Institute at University of Pretoria. South Africa’s waters are home to 4,000 of today’s global population and every year about 300 come to mate and calve at De Hoop in September and October (during the rest of the year, they travel to the cold waters of Antarctica and the west coast to feed). ‘De Hoop is one of the most important breeding and calving areas in the world for southern right whales,’ Dalfrenzo explained.

The entire shoreline of De Hoop, extending 51 kilometres in length and three nautical miles out to sea, has been a marine protected area since 1985 and is South Africa’s second-largest no-take marine protected area (after Tsitsikamma in the Garden Route National Park). No fishing, boating or exploitation of any kind is allowed and this is one of the reasons the whales favour De Hoop.

‘As tourism pressure increases in other areas such as Hermanus, many whales have moved to the quieter waters of De Hoop,’ said Peter Chadwick, former De Hoop conservation manager and currently head of the World Wildlife Fund and Honda’s Marine Parks Programme, which supports all of South Africa’s marine protected areas (MPAs) to ensure their long-term sustainable and effective management. Together with his knowledge of this reserve’s terrestrial diversity, Peter knows well the benefits of conserving De Hoop’s marine life.

‘The MPA at De Hoop is important for so many different reasons, not only because of the southern right whales,’ Peter explained. ‘There are more than 300 species of fish, including large concentrations of great white sharks which follow shoals of game fish and rays during the summer months – at one time, we counted 22 great whites along 1,5 kilometres of beachfront. We also once saw a shoal of yellowtail harassing and chasing a great white, in the same way a herd of impala would harass a leopard or small birds would a raptor.’

The comparison with animal behaviour on the African savanna is apt. As with Kruger National Park or other large terrestrial reserves, the 26,000-hectare MPA is blessed with an abundance of wildlife. In this case, most of it is under water and mammals include humpback and Bryde’s whales, while super pods of common dolphin, four thousand strong, move through the area in late summer, followed by several thousand Cape gannets which dive into the sea to catch fish. The rare humpback dolphin can also be seen.

Another significant benefit of the De Hoop marine protected area is the recovery of line fish. ‘Before the MPA was declared in 1985, this was one of the country’s prime angling areas,’ Professor Colin Attwood, a marine biologist at University of Cape Town, told me. It was heavily exploited by fishers and, over decades, fish numbers decreased dramatically and the size of individual fish became smaller and smaller. The balance of the whole marine ecosystem was disrupted. ‘Imagine what would happen if most of the lions in Kruger were shot,’ Colin said. ‘Targeting predatory fish has a similar effect.’

The concept of a marine protected area was highly controversial. ‘At the time [the MPA was declared], anglers thought their fishing had little impact on fish stocks, believing line fish moved around so much that closing off a section of coastline wouldn’t make a difference.’ But through an extensive fish-tagging study at De Hoop, which started in 1987 and is still going today (making it the longest-running of its kind in the world), Colin and other scientists discovered that many fish species – including galjoen and red roman – are very reluctant to move from their chosen piece of coastline. ‘Not only has the MPA been a huge success in helping fish to recover,’ Colin elaborated on the study which tracks about 30,000 tagged fish across more than 40 species, ‘but it also provides a breeding ground from where fish eggs and larvae can drift on the currents to other non-protected areas of the coast.’ In a sense, the oceans of De Hoop are a repository of fish, which will eventually help repopulate other non-protected parts of the shoreline that are fished by anglers. ‘Without a doubt, all the evidence tells us that the De Hoop MPA works very well.’

What makes De Hoop so special for the visitor is that the marine life is more easily seen from land than on other parts of the coastline. High dunes and hills make great vantage points to watch the action in the water. Whales, dolphins, sharks and other fish can be spotted regularly. The numerous sandstone rock pools too are filled with marine life – sea anemones, urchins, fish, alikreukeland mussels. Every low tide brings new, fresh wonders to the eyes of adults and children alike.

A wonderful way to experience the coastline is the Whale Trail, one of South Africa’s most popular hiking routes. The 55-kilometre, six-day, portered route starts in the Potberg mountains in the north of the reserve and starts hugging the coastline on day two. The accommodation is simple yet comfortable, and hikers are guaranteed superb views at the end of each day – plus you’re certain to see whales during spring. De Hoop isn’t only about the marine life. There is so much more to it. Just ask Adriaan Witbooi, a field ranger with more than two decades of service. He once spotted a leopard and her cub on the beach near Lekkerwater, a stunningly isolated cottage which can be rented out. De Hoop is one of the last places in South Africa where this remains possible. Adriaan took me to Noetsie, one of the overnight stops on the Whale Trail. He and his team built the quaint A-frame cottages, which overlook a rocky bay with high cliffs and a river estuary that trickles into the crashing waves. We walked a few hundred metres along the coast, past a huge flock of swift terns which took off above our heads. Around the corner, a cave in the sandstone cliffs stood sentry, with scaffolding to the top of its roof. Adriaan explained that archaeologists are studying the area intensively. It was near De Hoop at another cave where a 75,000-year-old piece of engraved ochre was found; this remains the oldest piece of artwork ever found on Earth. Clearly humans have loved this place for a long time, moving for thousands of years along the coast collecting shellfish and living side by side with nature.

The huts and A-frame shelters at Noetsie, where hikers spend the third night on the Whale Trail

The huts and A-frame shelters at Noetsie, where hikers spend the third night on the Whale Trail

Today’s human visitors to De Hoop don’t sleep in caves. On the contrary, some stylish and historical accommodation can be found at Die Opstal, a beautiful manor house and cottages run by De Hoop Collection. While CapeNature manages the conservation side of the reserve, this private business has had great success in converting old farmhouses into superb accommodation. There are several options for visitors, including camping, self-catering cottages and a luxury lodge, as well as an excellent restaurant and bar.

The accommodation at Die Opstal overlooks De Hoop Vlei, which is the centrepiece of the terrestrial side of the reserve. This 18-kilometre long wetland lies very close to the shore, but is cut off from the ocean; this means its salinity changes depending on the amount of winter rain that falls. It was South Africa’s first Ramsar birding site, an international accreditation given to those wetlands considered particularly important to the world. The vlei provides habitats to at least 75 freshwater bird species. Visitors can expect to see significant numbers of red data species such as great white pelicans, little bittern, black stork, lesser and greater flamingo, Caspian tern and chestnut-banded plover.

In addition to hosting the country’s largest population of great crested grebe, the vlei has also in the past been home to as much as seven per cent of the global population of yellow-billed duck and more than 10 per cent of the world’s Cape shovellers. Traditionalists will be glad to hear the sound of fish eagles calling as two pairs often swoop low over the water and you can’t miss thousands of omnipresent red-knobbed coots.

But for many, the most wonderful bird in De Hoop doesn’t occur near the vlei. The last breeding colony of rare Cape vultures in the Western Cape is found on the other side of the reserve in the fynbos-covered Potberg mountains. They make their nests in the cliffs and the best way to see them is from the Klipspringer Trail, a day hike that starts near CapeNature’s conservation offices.

As I made my way to a vantage point, I could hear the whistling of the wind in the vultures’ wings. From this spot, I had an excellent view of the adroit aerial skills of these vulnerable raptors. CapeNature ornithologist Kevin Shaw has been studying the birds for the past few years. ‘Never before have there been so many vultures here. It’s a fantastic success story.’

Vultures at Potberg

Two Vultures

Vultures at Potberg

From the early 1970s to the early 1990s, farmers were poisoning carcasses to rid their farms of caracal and jackal, which would attack their lambs. But the vulture population suffered the most, as the birds scavenged off the poisoned meat. At one stage, there were only 50 individuals in the area. Today, after an extensive campaign to educate farmers and the local community, there are more than 210 Cape vultures and they continue to breed successfully. Ironically, almost all their food is now found on farm land. ‘Remarkably, the vultures don’t scavenge in the actual reserve itself at all,’ Kevin told me. ‘Almost all their food comes from carcasses of sheep and cattle and, because farmers don’t poison anymore, the vultures are thriving.’

If the reserve’s diversity of birds, whales, sharks and other sea life hasn’t caught your attention yet, then maybe the country’s largest and most genetically diverse population of Cape mountain zebra will encourage a visit. These creatures in striped-pyjamas graze among a large population of bontebok and eland near the main visitor area at Die Opstal. As there’s no dangerous game such as buffalo or lion, visitors are free to walk in the veld. The result is highly habituated wild animals, which will tolerate humans more easily than in most other protected areas. There’s a real sense of paradise here – if you remember to watch where you tread (De Hoop’s diversity of species extends to the variety of snakes found here, which include Cape cobra, puff adder and the endangered southern adder).

Eland drinking on the shores of De Hoop vlei

Eland drinking on the shores of De Hoop vlei

De Hoop makes for a compelling visit. Peter told me how there’s always new animal behaviour to see in this unique reserve. Perhaps among the most bizarre were reports of a caracal jumping onto the backs of ostriches, killing them by biting their heads. Ultimately, it’s the rich variety of wildlife and scenery that keeps visitors coming back. From whales to sharks, vultures to zebras, caracals to leopards, this beautiful Cape reserve fully deserves its reputation as one of the country’s flagship protected areas.

Cape Mountain's possible to get quite close to the animals in De Hoop, as there are no obvious predators (except for a few leopard), and they are used to people walking.

Cape Mountain's possible to get quite close to the animals in De Hoop, as there are no obvious predators (except for a few leopard), and they are used to people walking.