Vultures, as anyone in nature conservation will tell you, get a bum rap. Far from being the ruthless and ghoulish killers they are often portrayed to be, they do their job of clearing the veld of carrion remarkably efficiently and are a game ranger’s most unlikely ally in the war on poaching.
One of the quickest ways of detecting the presence of poachers in a game reserve, a ranger told me recently, is to watch for circling vultures. Their ability to spot a kill virtually before the blood has cooled means you might be too late to prevent tragedy but you can still react quickly against the perpetrators. They’re the reason, she said, why poachers will often kill antelope or zebra … and poison the carcasses.
The Cape vulture is endemic to southern Africa but has been listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 2015, with a total population of fewer than 10 000 birds.
De Hoop. Picture: Jim Freeman
Despite its name, the species is extremely scarce in the Western Cape and the 200 or so birds that nest in the Potberg mountains within the De Hoop Nature Reserve comprise the last remaining colony in the province. Watching – and listening, you can actually hear the wind whistling through their wing feathers – nearly half a hundred of these majestic birds wheeling above the cliffs where the females lay a single egg a year made the almost three hour drive from Cape Town entirely worthwhile.
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De Hoop is one of the flagships of CapeNature’s fleet of 26 reserves spread throughout five regions in the Western Cape; Winelands, West Coast, Overberg, Garden Route and Cape Karoo. Quite astonishingly, it was the first time I had visited the reserve in more than 30 years (when I was a guest of state arms manufacturer Denel, which operated a section of De Hoop as a missile testing ground) and I left ruing what I’d been missing.
Apart from ogling vultures, De Hoop is a bird and whale-watcher’s paradise as well as a fantastic destination for hikers and mountain-bikers. My three-night stay last month came about by accident.
Earlier this year, I travelled to Stanford between Hermanus and Gansbaai and interviewed William Stephens, owner of the Lady Stanford riverboat operation. He revealed he was also chief executive officer of the De Hoop Collection (www.dehoopcollection.com) and invited me to stay at one of the enterprise’s “properties” as well as sample some of the activities offered on the 36 000ha reserve.
“The De Hoop Collection became the first public-private partnership in the tourism and hospitality sector in the Western Cape when it was concluded in 2007,” he told me over a glass of wine at the reserve’s Fig Tree restaurant.
“I’d been involved in a similar partnership helping to develop and run Madikwe Game Reserve in what is now North West province. CapeNature looked at what we were doing there, liked what they saw and asked us to bid for the right to do the same thing with some of their reserves in the Western Cape.
“Our bid for De Hoop was successful. The deal was that we would put up the capital to refurbish the property and then run it as a concession. “When I say the place was run down, we spent the first three years practically rebuilding nearly 70 buildings.”
The Collection comprises 46 built units sleeping a maximum of 176 people. There are also camping and caravan sites. Rack rates range from R1 500 per night for one of five rondawels sleeping two people (braai place but no kitchen) to R9 600 for the self-catering Melkkamer Manor House that sleeps eight.
There’s a 40% discount for South African residents for all new bookings booked and paid for (excluding event weekends and other special offers) until November 2021.* The De Hoop Collection is a member of Cape Country Routes, a group of independent hotels and country inns between Cape Town and Gqeberha.
There are two other five-star concessions in the reserve but these are run separately from the Collection. My first night was in Grysbok, one of six fully equipped two bedroom self-catering cottages (R2 500 a night) which was perfect for my needs and, because I arrived on a Sunday outside of school holidays, I didn’t have to worry about noisy neighbours.
I was particularly intrigued by the stone walls that separated the cottages from the veld: dry construction is an almost forgotten art and the walls were apparently built by convicts over a century ago. I would happily have stayed in the cottage till my departure. William, however, was adamant I move to the Vlei Suite for the remainder of my visit and, goodness, I’m glad he was!
The five suites are long, high ceilinged converted farm buildings looking out over a large meadow and, in the middle distance, the 19km-long De Hoop vlei which is both a Ramsar (wetland of international significance) and World Heritage site.
My suite was a converted sheep-shearing shed. The nightly rack rate for the suites ranges from R2 100 to R3 500 and includes breakfast and dinner in Fig Tree. The restaurant’s name, by the way, comes from the Natal wild figs that were planted by the Department of Nature Conservation when it purchased The Hope farm in 1956 (CapeNature took over in the 1970s).
The modern history of De Hoop dates back to the 1700s when the land was owned by the Dutch East India Company and parcelled out on loan to former employees known as vryburghers. The first parcel, comprising about 14 500ha, circled the site of the current manor house and was given the name De Hoop (“The Hope”) as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the poor nature of the soil for agriculture.
In those days, farms were circular with their boundaries determined by how far a man could travel in various directions from a central point on horseback in one hour. De Hoop is home to 260 bird species including (obviously) the Cape vulture and what most people regard as the bird having the most evocative call in Africa, the fish eagle.
My favourite, though, is the fiery-necked nightjar and moonlit nights spent outside the suite with a bottle of Leopard’s Leap cabernet sauvignon listening to the speckled ones trilling and bontebok barking were extraordinarily peaceful.
Tranquility is the name of the game at De Hoop and it’s tempting to chill around the opstal (homestead); apart from good food, the restaurant boasts a spectacular wine cellar. However, says William, participating in outdoor activities is essential if one really wants to appreciate the reserve’s magnificence.
A marine protected area extends five kilometres out to sea along De Hoop’s entire 52km, largely pristine, coastline and the reserve is regarded as one of the world’s best spots for land-based whale-watching.
The area’s isolation makes it an ideal spot for southern right whales to mate and calf, and more than 500 animals return to De Hoop each year from the end of May till November. Sightings of pods of more than 50 whales are not uncommon during season.
Other activities include bird and interpretive marine walks, a mountain bike trail (bikes are available for hire), nature drives and an eco boat tour of the vlei. De Hoop is also home to the world-renowned Whale Trail, a five-day slack-packing hike covering 56km from Potberg to Koppie Alleen.
According to CapeNature, the trail as well as accommodation facilities have undergone extensive refurbishment over the past year and hikers can look forward to a safer, more comfortable experience