August 2014: I was told there were about 600 Southern Right Whales in the bay at De Hoop Nature Reserve, about 4 hours drive east along the coast from Cape Town. I thought they’d added another naught by mistake and meant 60. But they hadn’t!
An informal aerial survey showed hundreds of southern right whales in the bay and from the viewing point at Koppie Alleen beach (meaning lonely hill), I got an eyeful of whale wherever I looked. Huge southern right whales (15-18 metres long) aren’t the most active of sea mammals – although if they do breach it tends to happen several times in a row – but most of the time they tend to just loll around. At least that’s what it looks like from the surface, but beneath the water other things are going on; like mating, giving birth and feeding the strapping baby, who pops out weighing about 1 ton (mama is 30-80 ton!)
“Best Land-Based Whale Watching Anywhere!”
On this occasion there was a good deal of spy hopping, where the whale’s head pops vertically out of the water to have a good look around, followed by thunderous tail slapping. De Hoop offers arguably the best land-based whale watching destination on earth, and the soft white sandy bays extending as far as the eye can see and rock pools full of marine creatures like starfish, anemones, abalone, mussels and periwinkles, make you want to stick around for a while.
I was on a press trip to experience the De Hoop 3-Day Walking Trail which involved a lot of luxury and only a little effort. Luxury came in the form of big beds, white linen and a chef dedicated to people staying in the 4 bedroomed 1906 stone and thatch Melkkamer Manor. It’s the most remote accommodation at De Hoop and is accessed by boat across the 19km long wetland lake (or a 40 minute bumpy drive all the way around). Everything was done for us, all we had to to was put one foot in front of the other and listen to our fascinating young guide Dalfrenzo.
Our Guide Dalfrenzo …..
Young Dalfrenzo is not Italian – he’s from the local very parochial town of Napier. He has several gold teeth and a D embossed in gold onto one of his front teeth (a somewhat dubious fashion statement). Dalfrenzo has become a minor celebrity at De Hoop after a few TV appearances and deserves his fame because he’s a brilliant guide! He has a photographic memory and has been well informed by research scientists who come to De Hoop to study fynbos plants, inter-tidal marine species, snakes, lizards and of course whales. And Dalfrenzo doesn’t just regurgitate facts, he invites interaction and gains in excitement at each new feat of nature he can reveal. His enthusiasm is catching.
There’s no set order for the trails on this 3-day nature experience as it depends on tides, wind and weather, but it includes the following:
I loved the experience so much I’m going back again before the end of the whale season.
De Hoop has many different accommodation options from camping, 2-man rondavels, 2 and 3-bedroom bungalows – all self-catering, or more upmarket Vlei Suites and the Melkkamer Manor House, Foreman’s Cottage and Vlei Cottage, which are all fully catered. There’s a restaurant, bar and lounge and old whitewashed buildings around two massive fig trees, under which many a wedding has been staged.
A moment of limelight must be shone on Chef Marcia Tyobeka, who heads the culinary team at De Hoop and while being a vegetarian, nevertheless produces the most delicious meat and fish dishes. She never had any encouragement to become a chef, but is lucky enough to have God-given ability to create any dish from any ingredient.
Visitors to De Hoop are split fairly equally between South Africans and overseas guests and even out of whale season, it’s a lovely place to relax and take in the surroundings of this Ramsar Wetland area of ecological importance.
Have you been to De Hoop – what was your experience?