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Walk on Air

Article by: Romi Boom from Wild Life Magazine Summer 2017/2018.

dehoop-rockpools-romiboom
The Bespoke Trail at De Hoop is tailor-made for each group of hikers. Over three days the panoramas vary from dramatic mountain ridges and a protected coastline to internationally important wetlands and fynbos hotspots.

I’ve just hiked 1,5km and I’m lying on my back. No, I haven’t pulled anything. I don’t have any blisters. I’m in heaven. Literally.

Wild MagazineTempted by friends’ accounts of their adventures on the famous Whale Trail, I did some homework and discovered the Bespoke Trail at De Hoop Nature Reserve. The hike combines the fynbos and coastal sections of its better-known counterpart with a third element, a lagoon hike.

On each of the three routes, done over three days, hikers set out after breakfast, from the same base, carrying just a small daypack. For those who crave seclusion, there’s the option to stay at the ultra-splendid Melkkamer. I luxuriated in the brand new Cloete suite at Die Opstal, the heart and hub of tourism at De Hoop.

The guided trail is made to measure and each group sets its own itinerary. Depending on weather conditions and the tides, you decide how far you want to walk and in which sequence to experience the superb scenery. Although offered in its entirety, any visitor to De Hoop can forego the trail and hike only one or two sections.

My chosen route stretched over 20-odd kilometres. Mostly it was a breeze, gentle like the ocean’s caress. Once or twice, ascending the Potberg slopes with cautious treads, a huff and a puff. By the third day, my trainers hummed along to a fleet-footed rhythm as we walked amidst herds of bontebok and zebra.

dehoop-vlei-romiboomDay 1 Summit Meeting with Vultures and Sugarbush

The adventure kicked off with a visit to the new vulture viewing deck in the Potberg section of the reserve. Our guide, assistant General Manager Justin Boshoff, cheerily announced that the outing masqueraded as work. In the Western Cape, the only remaining colony of the threatened Cape vulture is found at De Hoop, against the cliffs of the ridge that dominates the skyline. There are now about 200, numbers have doubled in the past decade.

“To raise awareness, CapeNature has been reaching out to locals who now see the vultures as an asset in the area. Farmers have even started reporting sightings to us, together with the invitation to bring our guests to come and enjoy the spectacle,” Justin said.

After a fairly stiff hour’s climb, we arrived at the viewing deck, which overlooks the gorge. The hug of the heavens invites hikers to lie flat on their backs. For want of a rubber neck, this is plainly the best way to watch the vultures catch the thermals. With wingspans of two-and-a-half metres, the birds’ flight is effortless when they soar at a dizzy height.

dehoop-potbergviewingdeck-romiboomHundreds of photos later, you learn that it is possible to get a good image, provided your auto tracking focus is sharp, your panning steady and your exposure spot on. It is tricky to bag the shot when the light changes as the raptors glide in front of the green and brown cliff face, although this gives more context than when the birds are outlined against the sky.

After a packed picnic lunch straight from the chef’s deli, some of our group announced that they had prior appointments for spa treatments and decamped for a pamper session. Only two of us set out on Potberg’s 6,2km Klipspringer Trail, boldly tackling yet another ascent. Winding along switchbacks, the trail consists of loose stones underfoot, alternating with a sandy track on the top plateau and restio-fringed boulders once you have crested the last ridge.

Potberg’s sandy soil, derived from Table Mountain sandstone, is poor in nutrients, therefore most of the fynbos plants, such as ericas, are low-growing. The most striking are abundant yellow leucadendron cone bushes and tall proteas such as Sugarbush, which display handsome flower heads. Myriad southern double-collared sunbirds flitted from one tubular restaurant to the next, far daintier than their decibels suggest. Hyper-energetic, these precious pollinators seldom sit still long enough to pose for a photo.

With eateries in mind, we returned famished to Die Opstal, where The Fig Tree Restaurant, formerly a sheep shearing shed and stables, has been reincarnated as a cosy dining venue. The trail had kicked off with two challenging quests and after equal parts sunlight, crisp air and wholesome pursuit, I fell into the arms of Morpheus.

Day 2 Whale Nursery and Water Wonderland

A massive, snowy white dunefield marks the approach to Koppie Alleen, the starting point for the interpretive marine walk. From up high on the sand dunes, it was soon evident that at least eight southern right whales, mothers with calves, were within hurling distance of the shore. We spotted six more, then lost count as puffs of foam jetted into the air all over the sanctuary.

The chill of early mornings at the seaside was bracing when we started our hike shortly after 08h00, to coincide with the low tide that exposes the coastal rock pools where marine life thrives. De Hoop’s rocky shores have the largest biodiversity of intertidal creatures anywhere in the world.

Guide Megan Liefbroer explained the lie of the land: “The intertidal zone is highly prized real estate. Space is in demand and food is plentiful, because the waves carry organic particles and micro-organisms. Further up the rocky shore the density and variety of species decrease.”

Continuous pounding by large waves means many species have to cling onto a solid surface for dear life. Take the barnacles, for example. They have tough external shells that can resist massive pressure, so you can walk over them without causing any damage. Colourful organisms such as starfish, feather stars, sea cucumbers, anemones and spiny sea urchins find refuge in crystal-clear tidal pools.

“Limpets each cultivate a small patch of rocks known as a home scar, which is, in fact, a garden of algae,” Megan pointed out. “During high tide, each limpet patrols its garden, weeding out unwanted algal growth and sparingly eating the desirable bits. At low tide, they remain motionless, firmly attached to the rocks.”

In keeping with the bespoke nature of the trail, activities until 16h00 were personalised. Some members of our group explored the final coastal section of the Whale Trail, others rode mountain bikes, passing herds of eland at arm’s length, or lingered over lunch in the shade of oversize Natal fig trees.

Everyone regrouped at the boathouse for an eco sunset cruise to explore the 17km long vlei, a Ramsar site of international ecological importance. Large numbers of waterfowl, including greater flamingo, white pelican, reed cormorant, several duck species, grey heron, African fish eagle, African darter and Black-crowned night-heron, tolerated our proximity.

We moored at the jetty in good time for a short walk to 8m high limestone cliffs overlooking the sparkling expanse of water. Not a shabby spot for sundowners! As darkness settled, the smell of potjiekos lured us to the boma and a blazing fire.

[crosshead] Day 3 Sparse Heathland with Scented Fynbos

The stallion was checking us out intently. His three mares continued grazing, unfazed, on tender tufts amidst the heathland of De Hoop vlei. Not in my wildest dreams could I foresee walking up to an endangered Cape mountain zebra. As we got closer, within about 25m, the big boss wandered over to his harem. Protectively. Just in case.

The vlei hike offers two options the 3,5km blue trail and the 13km red trail. Both can be walked as self-guided excursions, using a map to follow the markers, but we were treated to the insight and experience of field guide Esmeralda Langeveldt. How else would we have identified all the little brown jobs, bearing in mind that De Hoop’s bird species number 260? Not to mention her impressive knowledge of fragrant fynbos.

“Smell the wild rosemary,” Esmeralda enthused, crushing the fine leaves of kapokbos to release the scent. “This is camphor. Here we have wild buchu.” Bouquets associated with wellness, soothing and faintly medicinal. Aromatherapy at its source.

The vlei, a landlocked coastal lake, is brackish and was formed when estuarine sandbars blocked up the mouth of the Sout River. The eco-system of the vlei teems with life, separated from the shoreline by mobile sand dunes that stretch over 2,5km. During flood years the vlei can support up to 30,000 birds, of which 97 are waterbird species.

In the dense thickets along the vlei’s edge, Esmeralda heard the birds before she pointed them out: southern boubou, southern tchagra, Bar-throated apalis. Scrutinising the water, she gestured at black-winged stilt and Cape shoveler. The prize sighting of the morning was a buff-brown bird much sought after by visitors from upcountry.

We spotted the endemic Agulhas long-billed lark on sparsely vegetated shrubland, affording us a good look at its heavily streaked lower flanks. The male’s mating display is a tour de force, its song a long drawn-out whistle preceded by a short whistle, its flight a vertical drop until just before landing. Locally fairly common, we saw a few of these charismatic little lovers and came to share Esmeralda’s enthusiasm for this species.

De Hoop Nature Reserve, which has often been called an outdoor classroom, is my kind of school. If only the teachers at my all-girls’ college mentioned that you can get pretty high on a tall drink of fresh air.

Trip Planner

The Bespoke Trail costs R7,900 a person sharing (minimum six guests) and includes three nights’ accommodation, all meals and internal reserve transfers. For details, visit www.dehoopcollection.co.za. Self-catering accommodation at De Hoop starts at R1,200 for a campsite rondavel. Luxury suites at Die Opstal cost R2,350 a person a night, R1,175 a child a night for under 12s. Prices include dinner, bed and breakfast. Entry to De Hoop Nature Reserve is free with a Wild Card.

Contact info@dehoopcollection.co.za, 021-422-4522




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