De Hoop Collection on the eponymous nature reserve in the Western Cape has added a villa to its repertoire, offering pure pampering perfection and privacy on the edge of the Ramsar-listed vlei. By Elizabeth Sleith

De Hoop Collection is a member of Cape Country Routes. Sleith was a guest of De Hoop Collection and Cape Country Routes.



Arena Holdings PTY


Who hasn’t, at some point in life, longed to be a bird? No meetings or taxes or airport security for them — just feathers to preen and skies to soar in. Guide Eduan Oktober has, specifically a fish eagle, his favourite because “he’s a spectacular hunter with a spectacular call and he answers to no-one”. And Oktober knows his birds and more. Leading a walk along the wetland of the De Hoop Nature Reserve, he is full of interesting titbits about this precious pocket on the coast of the Overberg. First of all, there is the hallowed status of the land itself. As one of 13 “clusters” in the Western and Eastern Cape that make up the Cape Floral Kingdom, 36,000ha De Hoop is a Unesco world heritage site, hailed by that body as “one of the most special places for plants in the world in terms of diversity, density and number of endemic species”. Though relatively small in area [1,094,742ha], the Cape Floral Kingdom is home to over 9,000 plant species — making it more botanically diverse than the Amazon rainforest — with more than 6,000 plants growing nowhere else on Earth. Though there are other flora in the kingdom, the vast majority belong to that proudly South African phenomenon, fynbos. Here at De Hoop, the limestone soil supports 1,500 fynbos species — 34 of which can be found absolutely nowhere but the reserve. The entire length of its coast is also protected for 5km out to sea, a 28,000ha marine reserve where no boats or fishermen can bother the myriad sea creatures that thrive here, most importantly the 120-odd Southern Right whales that come to calve every year from July to November. In short, then, there is something far more special about De Hoop than the breathy way in which one says its name. This is a rare country of conservation, all swathes of fynbos and renosterveld, quietly meditating alongside pure blue seas under perfect big skies. WET, WET, WET And then there is the vlei, or wetland, which we are currently admiring. In the simplest terms, Oktober explains, a wetland is an expanse of land covered with shallow water for much of the year. De Hoop’s vlei, fed by the Salt River and several underground springs, covers 780ha, brackish but landlocked as it’s cut off from the sea by a 2km-wide stretch of sand dunes. It’s also a shangri-la for waterbirds. Of the 260 bird species found at De Hoop, 97 depend on the vlei as a feeding and breeding habitat. It is noted by Unesco as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, in fact the oldest Ramsar site in South Africa. With Oktober guiding, we are taking stock of the flocks on the vlei at a spot they call De Mond, the last place where, long ago, the river still flowed into the sea. For every creature that flits or floats across the scene, Oktober offers some detail, most of which spark second thoughts on the fantasy that a bird’s life is better. Take, for instance, the little black flock in front of us, chilling bums down on the water. They are red-knobbed coots, present in “huge numbers” on the vlei. They build their nests on water (algae stops them from floating away), are incredibly aggressive to their own kind and to others, and they kick their chicks out after one day. The only male among us, Oktober speaks with empathy about the dating lives of birds, specifically how tough the males have it. The coots, for instance, are named for the red bubbles the males develop on their heads in breeding season and on which their would-be progeny depend. “Females will choose the ones with the nicest, shiniest knobs,” Oktober explains. The allwoman audience titters. The great crested grebe is another one who must impress — this time with sizzling dance moves. In their courting ritual, the male must perfectly mirror the female’s motions in a “weed dance”. “If he doesn’t do it properly, she shoos him off.” Alas, it’s not that time of year but later we find footage of this ritual online, in which two elegant birds face off, swaying their long necks in a scene that makes me think of snake charming. It is utterly enchanting and I envy the birder who comes here with hours to spend ticking off the cormorants and darters, the flamingos and great white pelicans, spur-winged geese and maccoa ducks, Caspian terns and African marsh harriers and many more that call these lands home. VILLA PEOPLE Just behind us off the beach, though, alongside a giant milkwood tree, is the real reason we are here: to see the latest addition to the De Hoop Collection’s accommodations on the reserve. And it is a very fine nest indeed. Started in 2008, De Hoop Collection’s lodgings are primarily centred around the Opstal area, where there is a swimming pool and tennis court and a scattering of houses, cottages, rondavels and campsites for budgets big and small. All are within walking distance of The Fig Tree restaurant on the edge of the vlei. Across the water, reachable by boat when the levels allow, there is also the Melkkamer area, with three units set up for self-catering and extra privacy. The brand-new offering, called De Mond Villa, also overlooks the vlei, but in a perfectly isolated patch 8km by road from Opstal. It was once a rundown farm shack they called Mole Catcher’s Cottage but a renovation and refurbishment have rendered that humble moniker wholly inappropriate. Now it is a dream of a luxury country house with five double bedrooms (all en suite); a long dining table invented for convivial lunches; and a lovely lounge with windows that capitalise on views of the vlei. Lazing with a book here in the honeycoloured light of a late afternoon feels practically mandatory. There is also a swimming pool for sunny days, a firepit for chatty nights and a fully kitted kitchen, with the added perk of your never having to lift a finger as the villa comes with its own staff, who will magic up meals, wash the dishes and make the beds while you avail yourself of all the finer aspects of (offgrid) villa life. On the hiking front, De Hoop is well known for its Whale Trail, a five-night, 55km slackpacking route that makes its finest jewels shine. The sleeping happens in basic huts, and the trail is notoriously difficult to get onto. Booking opens a year in advance and, as Oktober tells it, the slots are usually gobbled up within a few hours. If you fancy a shortcut with lashings more luxury, De Mond Villa will be part of a new trail under design, which will include parts of the Whale Trail and other De Hoop highlights (see box). For now though, it’s open for nightly bookings with an array of guided activities thrown in. Beyond the birding walk on the vlei, there are nature drives and mountain biking — with 86 mammal species to spot, including bontebok, Cape mountain zebra, eland, and grey rhebuck. We take a sunset eco-cruise on the vlei for more bird watching, and on the guided marine walk at Koppie Alleen, Oktober dodges the jellyfish, hopping among the rockpools to fish out a cast of spiky, slimy invertebrates, holding each one in the palm of his hand for us to poke or stroke before he gently lays them back where they were. VISITING VULTURES We leave the villa early one morning for a 40km drive. Still on the reserve, it’s a scenic trip past bos, bucks and birds, but our goal is the province’s last breeding colony of Cape vultures, nesting high in the cliffs of the Potberg mountain. From the car, it’s a short hike up to a viewing deck, only a 1km distance but a climb so rocky and steep that we emerge at the top short of breath — only to have the last of it snatched away by the incredible stillness. It takes binoculars to spy the motley band of birds lined up on a distant cliff, but now and again one of them leaps off to wheel overhead. The serenity makes it easy to revive the “being a bird” dream. These are, after all, a conservation success story, a population of about 350 much improved from the 40-odd counted in 1995. As Oktober explains, that is especially impressive since a breeding pair — vultures are monogamous — only has one egg per year. Hatchlings that survive long enough face the challenge of having only one chance to learn to fly. At some point, juveniles must simply jump off the cliff. “If they don’t work out how to use their wings, they go straight down into the gorge.” It happens, Oktober says, though many succeed in taking flight. Straight into a tough life of struggling for food sources and dodging predators such as Cape foxes and blackbacked jackals. No, much better to be a human being, we agree, especially at De Hoop, where our hike down the hill for a picnic lunch is followed by a gentle drive back to the villa. Later, there will be potjiekos and stargazing and wine, and a final snuggle into a downy duvet, not a predator or a soggy bottom in sight.