By Lesley Stones
The best moment for a photograph always happens when your camera isn’t ready.
I’m zipping along on a quad bike thinking how stunning the bike ahead looks against a backdrop of blazing yellow fynbos. So I look down to grab my camera and when I look up again, the bike ahead is empty.
Its rider has tumbled into a ditch, and I missed all the action. Maybe I should have been more concerned about her than the lost photo opportunity, but she was unharmed because we were going slowly.
Quadding is one of the back-to-nature activities at De Hoop, a large reserve buffeted by Atlantic winds that give everything a raw, untamed hardiness.
It makes it chilly too, especially at 6am before the sun has chance to warm the icy air. That’s when the delightful head guide Dalfrenzo Laing had rallied us for a beach walk. His bright grin and chirpy attitude made the early hour bearable, as he stood on a sand dune and showed us why he’s one of the top marine guides in the country.
Dalfrenzo can make the tiniest creature fascinating, with stories about the sex life of a barnacle and the roaming habits of a sea anemone. He’s so entertaining that I didn’t even mind when the rushing tide soaked me to the knees as we explored rock pools and watched the whales.
De Hoop is about four hours east of Cape Town and Dalfrenzo claims it offers the best whale viewing in the world. He’s clearly in league with the ocean as the whales seemed eager to prove him right, chugging past in steady convoys.
Dalfrenzo is a young local lad from a poor part of nearby Napier, with a cheeky grin made even more dazzling by several gold teeth. He’s a walking Wikipedia about marine life, the fynbos and proteas, bontebok and kudu, the stars and the whole history of De Hoop. Yet his only previous job was a short stint as a petrol pump attendant. When he was made redundant he was recruited for a new guiding course and he’s now one of South Africa’s few qualified Marine Guides.
De Hoop has a less developed atmosphere than many nature reserves, and with no dangerous predators you can hike, bike, quad or just stroll over the springy fynbos to admire the vlei dotted with pink flamingos.
It’s also the stomping ground of Tony Phelps, a field biologist who took me baboon-stalking. It’s an entertaining pastime that should have culminated in seeing a troop of 33 baboons swing past us as we stood outside the entrance to their cave. Tony has named each of them and tells lovely anecdotes about the animals and his odd experiences while researching the troop.
Eventually dusk falls with no sight of the baboons, which must have decided to sleep al fresco.
I’m disappointed as I return to the Melkammer, the mansion my group was staying in, but wine on the patio soon revived me.
Soon Marcia the cook served up kingklip with cape gooseberries on a bed of mash, followed by a generous chunk of hot baked sponge pudding and custard.
She does a delicious breakfast too, with fresh croissants, home made muesli, yogurt and fruit platters, and a full-on cooked breakfast if you have any room left.
The Melkkamer is a sturdy 1907 mansion with four bedrooms. Mine had a vast bed, a desk, a shower and a stand-alone bath, with water heated by gas so it’s not reliant on a generator that only runs from 6pm to 10pm.
It’s part of the De Hoop Collection, which runs the reserve’s accommodation. Its rooms and chalets can accommodate 186 people, but are scattered so far and wide that it never feels crowded.
The main building is the Opstal, housing the reception, a bar, restaurant and a lounge, all painted in dusky pink with high ceilings and wooden floors.
Reaching De Hoop takes about four hours from Cape Town, but we dawdled to make the journey part of our long weekend. On the way we stopped for lunch at Dassiesfontein, a rambling farmhouse turned into a café and junk shop of endless nooks and crannies. There are wagon wheels, an old oven where chunky loaves are baked, a wine shop and a deli, where I saw my first ever bag of waterblommetjies for sale.
hearty dark brown bean and sweetcorn soup for R55, served with thick slices of fresh bread.
Dassiesfontein sits on the N2 between Botrivier and Caledon, but allow more than an hour because all the intriguing items will delay you.
On the way home we stopped at Stanford, a quaint village with an even quainter lack of electric fences and security walls. As a Jo’burger I yearned to at least pinch someone’s wallet, just to perk up the crime statistics.
Stanford looks too charming to be real, like the Stepford Wives meets The Truman Show, and everyone is living in a protected bubble detached from reality.
I should get Tony to send in De Hoop’s baboons – they’d soon liven the place up a little.
* The De Hoop Collection includes a campsite, self-catering cottages, suites and the Melkammer. Cook for yourself, eat in the restaurant or arrange for a cook to prepare your meals. About R770 per night for a rondavel that sleeps two and R1,500 per person for bed, breakfast and dinner in the Opstal. Details from www.dehoopcollection.co.za
Author Bio: Lesley Stones is a former Brit who is now proudly South African.
She started her career by reviewing rock bands for a national UK music paper, then worked for various newspapers before spending four fun-filled years in Cairo, where she ended up editing a technology magazine.
Lesley covered technology for Business Day for 12 years before quitting to go freelance, specialising in travel & leisure writing and being opinionated about life in general. She regularly writes for The Sunday Independent, Longevity, Premier, Indwe, Business Day, Brainstorm and The Daily Maverick website. Her absolute passions are travel, theatre, the cinema, wining and dining.