De Hoop Nature Reserve is just a 3-hour drive from Cape Town on the southernmost tip of Africa, and is somewhere every nature lover should add to their wish list. This protected haven of grassy sand dunes, long white sandy beaches, mountains, and a spectacular coastline, where whales breach and play in the season, is rich in biodiversity and host to awe-inspiring sites just waiting to be explored. The stunning 130 square mile reserve is a UNESCO Ramsar World Heritage Site with over 43 miles of pristine coastline. It’s a favorite destination for hikers, cyclists, bird watchers, and whale watchers alike, and is both the perfect stop-over for people touring South Africa’s world-renowned garden and whale routes and also the ideal base from which to explore the incredible surrounding landscape.
The Marine Protected Area is one of the largest marine protected areas in Africa, providing a sanctuary for a vast and fascinating array of marine life and for those venturing outside the reserve, the local area is characterized by quaint towns, blossoming wine industry, and some delightful places to sample delicious local cooking.
The De Hoop Nature Reserve offers the complete outdoor experience — sea, sand dunes, wetlands, an array of rare plants, diverse animals, and incredible birdlife. Go walking, hiking, or bike riding, take a scenic game drive, snorkel in the tidal turquoise rock pools, or simply relax on the unspoiled beaches. There is something for everyone here.
I was recently lucky enough to travel to De Hoop, so read on for more of the things I love about the place and what I’d suggest you do when you visit.
The protected waters off De Hoop have long been a haven for the endangered southern right whale. Every year some 40 percent of the world population of these gentle giants return to these safe waters to mate, give birth and rear their calves. The De Hoop Nature Reserve is an important destination for these creatures. During the season, 120 whales will call De Hoop home and, at the peak of the high season (June and December), as many as 50 of these mammals can be spotted in a day, making the reserve one of the most coveted spots for land-based whale watching in the world. The waters off De Hoop are so safe that the whales come so close to the shore that visitors can simply relax on the sand dunes and watch as these beautiful creatures calve, blow, breach and belly-flop. For me, sitting with a delicious local gin in hand and watching a mother whale and her calf, swimming in the beautiful azure waters, just before sunset, was one of the highlights of my visit.
Other marine mammals, like dolphins and seals, also occur in the waters off the coast here in the marine protected area, as well as at least 250 species of fish, which leads us to my next highlight of this fantastic place.
Explore The Marine Reserve
The De Hoop Marine Protected Area extends 3 nautical miles out to sea from the coastline of the nature reserve. Having spent much of my childhood messing about in rock pools and wandering along the beach, I was right in my element when I joined a guided marine walk one morning. Orange starfish, purple sea urchins, tiny silvery fish, limpets carrying their algae-covered shells on their backs, an octopus cleverly camouflaged in the kelp, even a pair of orange-beaked oystercatcher birds made their presence known. Our 2-hour guided walk explored the coastal rock pool, the fossilized sand dunes, the sandy beaches, and the rocky shores. As we headed back to the lodge we were lucky enough to see a whale breaching and rolling in the waves.
When you’ve had your fill looking down on the critters in the rock pools, you can actually join them. Snorkeling in the large, clear rock pools is one of the best ways to experience the magical marine world at De Hoop.
Experience The Wildlife
De Hoop’s varied habitat supports a diversity of wildlife. The reserve has 86 mammal species, including the rare bontebok and Cape mountain zebra, as well as elegant eland, diminutive grey rhebuck, baboons, yellow mongoose, shy caracals, and, if you’re lucky, the occasional leopard.
There are numerous ways you can get out and enjoy the local wildlife. You could take a traditional game drive in a vehicle, or you could join a guided mountain bike ride or hike. With no large predators, De Hoop offers the rare opportunity to safely get up close and personal with the wilderness. Cycle past the plentiful herds of eland and bontebok, and walk among the beautiful zebras. I was lucky enough to find myself surrounded by a family of ostriches when walking to breakfast one morning — mum and dad with 12 knee-high chicks. They were calm enough to not run from me, but I could see the parents keeping a watchful eye on me, so I kept my distance. If cornered, an ostrich can deliver dangerous kicks capable of killing a lion and I didn’t want to test my luck!
Wander Among The Plant Life
De Hoop Nature Reserve forms part of the world’s smallest and most threatened plant kingdom, known as the Cape Floral Kingdom. Fynbos (which comes from the Afrikaans word meaning “fine plants”) is the dominant type of vegetation here. This is a special and unique type of vegetation that grows in nutrient-poor soils and is well adapted to fire and drought. There are approximately 1,500 different varieties of plant species found here, and a large percentage of them are rare, threatened, and endemic. Of all the species found here, 108 are rare or threatened, 34 are endemic and found nowhere else in the world, and amazingly, 14 species are so newly discovered that they still haven’t been scientifically examined and described.
If you take a guided hike on one of the inland trails you’ll be knee-high in fynbos: yellow, coral, pink, purple, and hundreds of shades of green. You may even see beautiful proteas (the national flower of South Africa) flowering in different sizes and colors.
The smells of the fynbos are something else to experience. On a guided walk or hike you’ll get a chance to smell a multitude of scents, from sweet rose to citrus or even hints of peppermint. These fragrant botanicals are so unique that they’ve been used in everything from perfume to soaps and liquors. Fynbos-infused gin is a definite must-try, and it was the deliciously infused Inverroche Gin that I was talking about earlier when I mentioned whale watching as the sun went down; there was definitely something really special about drinking gin surrounded by the plants from which its amazing flavors and scents had been derived.
Spot Birds On A Guided Walk
The De Hoop wetlands are internationally recognized as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA), and over 260 species of resident and migratory birds are found here. Keen birdwatchers should look out for the endemic Southern boubou and the rare malachite sunbird, and even the least interested of birdwatchers among you will enjoy the sight of a flamingo or watching a fluffy baby ostrich fresh out of its egg.
You can embark on a 2-hour birdwatching walk with a qualified guide around the wetlands. The area is home to more than 8,000 birds; a mixture of waterbirds, shorebirds, and bush birds. Nearby is the Western Cape’s last remaining breeding colony of rare cape vultures and a short but steep hike up the Klipspringer Trail will lead you to the lookout point over the colony — it’s well worth the climb.
Cruise The De Hoop Wetlands On A Boat Trip
Tired out from all the hiking, cycling, and walking, then perhaps relaxing on a boat cruise exploring the De Hoop waterways and wetlands is just the thing for you. You’ll see flamingos, pelicans, migrant wading birds, a fish eagle soaring overhead, or perhaps a sleek cape clawless otter cavorting at the water’s edge. Go out in the morning and enjoy a cup of tea or coffee, or head out in the afternoon with a glass of wine and some savory snacks.
Hike The Whale Trail
For the keen hiker, De Hoop has one of the best hiking trails in South Africa, the 5-day, 35-mile Whale Trail. The route offers coastal and mountain walking, with spectacular views as well as plenty of opportunities for whale watching. There is well-equipped and recently upgraded accommodation every night. Do note that hiking the Whale Trail requires booking well in advance.
How To Get There: The De Hoop Nature Reserve is a 3-hour drive from Cape Town along the beautiful Garden Route.
Best Time To Visit: August to November is whale-watching time, but any season is good.
Where To Stay: The luxurious 5 bedroomed Morukuru Beach Lodge is in an absolutely breathtaking location right on the coast, with panoramic views over the Indian Ocean. With stunning décor and outstanding food, this is the last word in luxury, it’s no wonder Morukuro was voted “Best Resort in South Africa” by Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards in 2020 and 2021.
The De Hoop Collection offers accommodations and dining options to suit every budget and desire. You can treat your partner to a romantic getaway in one of the tucked away suites overlooking the wetlands, families can enjoy staying in one of the historic homesteads, the cozy cottages at De Hoop Village have fully equipped kitchens for those who’d rather self-cater, and there are even camping sites for those who are inclined that way.
Adventure, peace and tranquility, luxury and wilderness, wonderful experiences of nature both land and marine, De Hoop has it all.
Africa’s incredible nature and wildlife is a sight to behold: