Birding at De Hoop Nature Reserve

De Hoop Nature Reserve is often cited as one of the most beautiful coastal reserves in South Africa, and we couldn’t agree more. The last time we were here it was April 2013, for our wedding, and the scenery looked markedly different. Travelling along the N2 from Cape Town, the landscape was dry and thirsty then, but at this time of year the fields are full of rich greenery and vibrant yellows that make everything look alive and flourishing.

Majestic fig trees in De Hoop Nature Reserve, a prime location for hiking and birdwatching.

The reserve itself is managed by CapeNature, with over 50km of pristine white beaches and sand dunes, as well as limestone cliffs, rock pools, wetlands and coastal fynbos. De Hoop also has wildlife in abundance. It was South Africa’s first RAMSAR site and the 18km-long vlei is home to more than 260 bird species. 

Oystercatchers perched on a rock with the vast ocean as a backdrop.
The black oystercatcher, often seen at De Hoop

And there are plenty of animals to see as well. Eland, bontebok, Cape Mountain zebra and ostriches all roam freely around the reserve, particularly in the main visitor area around Die Opstal, and they are not shy either – there were three bontebok grazing right on our cottage’s doorstep! The baboons are also pretty brazen and can easily open doors so make sure all of your belongings are locked away!  

Part of the beauty of De Hoop is that there is no dangerous game here so you are free to wander the veld. There are plenty of activities on offer, from mountain biking and guided bird walks to eco-quad biking and stargazing. Whilst there may be no obvious signs of predators, the elusive leopard does exist here – according to De Hoop Collection’s CEO William Stephens, 7 adult leopards have been caught on the camera traps around the reserve.

With only a weekend to cram in our wish list of activities, we set off early on Saturday morning to Potberg in search of the sanctuary of the southern-most colony of Cape Griffon vulture. They also happen to be the last surviving colony in the Western Cape. It’s a leisurely 40-minute drive to the eastern side of the reserve with plenty to look at along the way. The fynbos is stunning at this time of year, a carpet of proteas with gorgeous little sunbirds and Cape sugarbirds hopping from one bush to the next. The farmland here is also home to the endangered blue crane and we were lucky enough to see more than 100 along the way! We also spotted a Denham’s Bustard and the Abdim’s Stork (some way out of its normal range), so keep your binos handy and your eyes peeled! 

Potberg Mountain day trails offer two hiking trails to choose from, the Potberg trail is 6.5km long and takes you to the top of Potberg Mountain for views over the Breede River and Witsands. The second trail is the Klipspringer trail which is 6.1km if you do the full circular route past the vulture lookout point. As the weather was looking particularly ominous we decided to head straight to the viewpoint. The trail is rocky and you ascend pretty quickly and it wasn’t long before we spotted our first vultures on a fly-by.  They really are huge birds and in the silence of the mountains, the sound of their wings flapping sounds incredibly loud. They fly past so quickly, and some of them so low, that taking good photos can be tricky and you can easily get caught up in just watching them. We found them totally mesmerizing and it felt like such a privilege to see these magnificent birds so closely. It is definitely worth schedule this into your De Hoop activity list!

This time of year is also peak whale watching season. The coastline along the De Hoop reserve is a marine protected area and extends 3 nautical miles off-shore. Southern Right whales come here in spring (mid-July to November is the best time to view them) to calve and nurse their young. It is not uncommon for more than 200 whales to visit this stretch of coastline. That afternoon the sun was out so we headed to Koppie Alleen to walk the dunes and spot some whales. And we saw plenty – at least 12 – just a few hundred metres from the shoreline, happily lazing in the warm water (well, compared to the Antarctic waters!).  

An image shows a restaurant in Koppie Alleen in De Hoop Nature Reserve, South Africa — a prime location for birding.
Koppie Alleen - a great spot for whale watching

Before we knew it Sunday had arrived and it was time for us to head back to Cape Town. Sitting drinking our coffee on the verandah at the Fig Tree restaurant before leaving, we took our time soaking up the full glory of the De Hoop landscape bathed in magnificent sunlight. Time passes quickly here and with so much to do, we were already planning our next trip back, and next time for at least a week so we can fit everything in!

Wild Fig Restaurant exterior amidst the natural beauty of De Hoop Nature Reserve, South Africa.
The Fig Tree Restaurant

Accommodation at De Hoop

The accommodation and tourist activities (apart from the Whale Trail) are managed by the De Hoop Collection. There is a great mix of self-catering cottages, catered suites and camping, enough to suit all budgets. The majority of the accommodation is situated around the main Die Opstal area, there is a great restaurant here too if you don’t feel like cooking.  The staff at De Hoop are excellent, friendly and smiling plus they really go out of their way to make your stay as perfect as possible!

Across the other side of the vlei – on the Melkammer side – there are three choices of self-catering units, two cottages and the superbly restored Manor House. Right on the edge of the vlei, you are away from it all and at peace to enjoy the tranquility. Heavy rains in the Overberg in early January 2014 lead to the vlei flooding for the first time in many years. The last major floods were in 1957 and 1906! The flooding has submerged a section of the road close to Melkammer so the only way across is now by boat or with one of management’s high clearance vehicles! 

A car travels on a dirt road approaching a body of water in De Hoop Nature Reserve.
The flooded road to Melkammer

If you feel like splashing out (for a cool R55,000 per night!) then you can stay at the new eco-friendly Morukuru Ocean House nestled amongst the dunes.

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