Travel and Leisure
De Hoop (without the whales)
The capacity to anticipate a future is one of the features that distinguishes human beings from other animal species. No wonder, then, that hope – along with its counterpart, fear – drives most of our activities. It is central to religious teachings (like St Paul describing faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”) and to political creeds (think of Barack Obama’s 2008 US presidential campaign).
Given the risks and rewards shaping that foundational human activity, agriculture, it’s hardly surprising that the names of many South African farms give expression to their founders’ stubborn optimism. But I can’t help wondering what exactly Pieter Lourens Cloete had in mind when he named his Spanish horse stud “Hope Farm”, or De Hoop. What circumstances inspired in him this sanguine expression?
Cloete was the first registered landowner in what is commonly referred to as the Overberg region – east from Cape Town, over the Hottentots-Holland mountains – but he certainly wasn’t the first to farm there. As Fiona McIntosh has noted, this was a “thriving agricultural area in the late 1600s and early 1700s”. It almost goes without saying that Dutch settlers were not the first to occupy the land; there is archeological evidence of human habitation since the early Stone Age. Cloete’s hopeful enterprise was apparently a successful one. What became of him and his horses, we do not know – but, ultimately, his land ceased to be farmland. The nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, and in the 1950s the Cape Provincial Administration bought De Hoop and neighbouring farms with a view to creating a coastal nature reserve.
Many South African environmental conservation stories with their origins in the apartheid era are replete with ironies. This was, after all, a government that frequently took great care to preserve flora and fauna but seemed utterly indifferent to most of its human population. The situation was further complicated when state arms manufacturer Armscor chose to establish a missile testing range alongside the new reserve.
It’s still active – nowadays operating under the banner of Denel – and, indeed, CapeNature are forced to inform hikers on the famous Whale Trail that they may be asked at any point to leave the reserve should there be a munitions test. This is hardly a detail that inspires hope; if anything, it is a reminder of the gloomy narrative of corruption that most South Africans (rightly) associate with state enterprises and, particularly, with the arms trade.
De Hoop is, nonetheless, a governance good news story. In one of the first major public-private partnerships to implement the South African Tourism Planning Toolkit, Carl Trieloff and William Stephens (who built the Madikwe Collection upcountry) struck an agreement with the Western Cape government, according to which CapeNature would remain responsible for conservation but Trieloff and Stephens would establish the De Hoop Collection to manage accommodation and other tourist facilities.
The result is a diverse range of buildings designed to accommodate travellers on a range of budgets, from camping and basic rondawels to luxury rooms in refurbished manor houses (before Trieloff and Stephens took over, many of the structures were dilapidated; some had been abandoned for years). There are also numerous leisure options, in turn creating innovative guiding and hospitality employment opportunities in the local community.
De Hoop is, of course, most strongly associated with whale-watching: in breeding season (late spring), just under half of the global Southern Right population visits the enormous bays defined by the gentle concaves of the southern Cape coast. The five-day Whale Trail, a 55 kilometre hike which winds through inland fynbos, across dramatic cliffs and along pristine beaches, is on many a traveller’s bucket list.
There’s no doubt that the sea-scape here is spectacular, impressive both in its geographical scope and its biodiversity. The protected waters of the De Hoop marine conservancy stretch five kilometres into the ocean. Many visitors, as they survey the reserve from the commanding height of the road near the entrance, have their sights set on the blue horizon where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet. But there is much to discover in the 35 000 hectares of solid ground that lie between the northern edge of the reserve and the coast.
For one thing, this World Heritage Sight boasts more than 1500 plant species (many of them rare and threatened). Game is plentiful – Cape Mountain Zebra and Bontebok roam freely. The biggest drawcard is the huge vlei, 19 kilometres in length, that hosts up to 30 000 birds: flamingos, pelicans, plovers, terns, fish eagles ... over 260 species to keep the twitchers twitching.
On the far western edge of the vlei are a handful of venerable structures, among them the old farmhouse from the days of Pieter Lourens Cloete. These “Melkkamer” buildings (their name a reminder of a different, dairy-farming past) have undergone extensive renovation and are a lot more comfortable than they were in the nineteenth century, but their sandstone solidity bears testament to their age.
The vlei cottage we stayed in had no electricity, which allowed us the simple pleasures of cooking with gas, being warmed by a wood fire and lighting rooms with paraffin lamps. When we woke, some mornings, to mist lifting off the vlei and dissipating into a brooding overcast sky, and we looked at the rough patchwork of brown and green earth spread like an apron around the house, it was difficult not to imagine this was a lake on a heath in the Scottish highlands.
On other mornings, when the sun was bright and the sky clear, and the breeze dropped to a level tolerable even to the most ardent wind-hating Joburger, we would take a boat out onto the vlei and let the birds play tromp l’oeil tricks on us: with the tide out, and the water shallow, they clustered on submerged islands and appeared to be walking on water.
If all this sounds just a little too lyrical, the sublime qualities of the vlei itself are to be blamed. Such vast expanses of water and sky do have a cumulative effect: I learned to allow the mood of the place to shift from cloud to sun, from wind to stillness. The days took on the slower rhythms of the elements.
Goal-oriented city boy that I am, my holidays are often underscored by a counter-productive sense of urgency: see that whale, climb that mountain, etc. De Hoop persuaded me otherwise. There will be time for those things, the vlei affirmed. And that, after all – that “non-anxious trust in the cosmos”, as the poet Guy Butler called it – is a version of hope.
The FM bolsters its feature articles with a "7 Questions" supplement. I asked Sheraaz Ismail, Executive Director for Marketing and Ecotourism at CapeNature, to tell me a bit more about their work:
1. When was the decision taken to pursue a public-private partnership in De Hoop, and why?
During 2000, to enable the organisation to create sustainable revenue streams through its tourism development strategy.
2. Has it been a success?
Yes, the private partner has been on par with their financial projections for the last three years, supports local business and creates jobs.
3. What are the biggest conservation challenges in the De Hoop reserve?
It is a marine protected area, so poaching is a challenge. Invasive alien vegetation is a challenge, but getting rid of it also creates jobs.
4. Tell us more about the "Biodiversity Crime Unit" (BCU).
It is intended to prevent the loss of biodiversity and critical ecosystems through proactive operations and partnerships.
5. What is meant by the term "conservation economy"?The creation of jobs and economic opportunities through conservation and ecotourism activities.
6. What are the other major nature reserves / wilderness areas managed by CapeNature?The Cederberg, Kogelberg-Boland and Swartberg complexes.
7. Which is your personal favourite?
Each reserve is unique and offers a completely different experience. All are World Heritage Sites and a critical part of the Cape Floristic Kingdom.