For seasoned trekkers and occasional hikers looking for some comfort, the five-day slackpacking Whale Trail on the Overberg coast is the answer…
If I had to name my favourite slackpacking trail in Southern Africa it would be the Green Flag-accredited Whale Trail, a glorious five-day hike through CapeNature’s flagship property, De Hoop Nature Reserve in the Overberg, on the coast between Struis Bay and Witsand. The 55km trail is unguided and self-cater, but a baggage transfer service means you can pack your food, wine and overnight gear into supplied boxes and walk with a day pack.
This magnificent meander through a Unesco World Heritage Site showcases some of the finest scenery South Africa has to offer. And if you time it right you’ll see whales, dense fynbos, a colourful carpet of wild flowers, rare birds such as Blue Cranes and Cape Vultures, and game such as the endangered Cape mountain zebra, as well as bontebok and eland. It’s a winner and, with major upgrades to both the trail and the overnight accommodation, it just got better.
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Over the last 18 months, CapeNature has invested millions in refitting the cottages, in particular the kapstylhuisies, the old A-framed, thatched huts at Noetsie. And my word, are these new, airy, modern, glass-fronted cabins, with stupendous views and wonderful new kitchens and ablutions, a spoil.
But it hasn’t been plain sailing. Following flood damage in November 2013 and January 2014, the renovations and trail repairs were barely complete when, in October 2015, disaster struck again. Fires swept through the reserve causing widespread destruction.
This winter I walked the Whale Trail for the fourth time. Having previously hiked in spring, summer and autumn, I’ve experienced the glory of the reserve in each of its seasonal cloaks, but the impact of the fire was profound.
At the end of day one of the trail – a somewhat strenuous walk from the lovely old farmhouse at Potberg, past the Cape Vulture colony and over the 611m sandstone peak – we arrived at the skeleton of Cupidoskraal cottage. No sooner had it been renovated than it burnt down, but we were put up in an equally comfortable abode in the forest, some 500m away.
“The timing was terrible,” said tourism liaison officer, Wynona Didloft. “But the De Hoop staff rallied together to fix up a nearby old farmhouse so the trail was up and running again within two weeks of the fires.”
It wasn’t just the infrastructure that was devastated. The scorched landscape we walked through was a shock after the fynbos-covered hills I’d crossed on previous outings. But every cloud has a silver lining. When we reached Potberg’s summit, the vistas were more spectacular than ever, particularly the uninterrupted view of the Breede River winding its way through the wheat fields in the north, and beyond that the jagged peaks and ridges of the Langeberg mountains. To the south and east, the Indian Ocean shimmered in the sunlight, while to the west golden sand dunes stretched out towards Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa.
As we picked our way down the ridge to our lunch spot at the Melkhout River we revelled in the flowers. With no competition, leggy yellow daisies and striking purple and pink lilies, as well as orchids and other bulbous plants lit up the veld.
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Again, the reserve staff focused on the positives. Conservation manager, Adrian Fortuin, and his field rangers, were optimistic about the outlook over the next few months. “Apart from the interesting array of flowering plants that we might encounter now, we have a unique window of opportunity to tackle the regrowth of invasive alien plants in some of the eco-sensitive areas of the reserve. Getting a handle on the juvenile plants now will save us millions of rands and unlock valuable water resources in the long run,” he insisted.
Day two saw us heading onto limestone hills. De Hoop has 70 endemic limestone fynbos species and is one of only two nature reserves in South Africa where this vegetation type is conserved, so this is a special section of the trail. But the fire had swept through here too. What had previously been green scrub was now charred remains.
Nevertheless, the skeletons of protea bushes set against the bizarrely eroded, grey-rock formations had a haunting beauty and there was still plenty of life if you looked for it. Dung beetles scuttled along the undulating path and we spied bright patches of red fire lilies and other resilient bulbs.
It was eerie, but fynbos is a fire-dependent ecosystem so regular burns (every 12 to 15 years) are vital for its regeneration. A bonus was seeing a herd of bontebok. The white-faced antelope, for which the reserve is famous, had clearly moved in to take advantage of the grazing opportunities provided by the young plants.
By early afternoon we reached the coastal plain, which had escaped the flames. We revelled in the dense vegetation, and stopped to admire butterflies, sunbirds and sugarbirds, and gazed up at buzzards. Tortoises laboured past and rock lizards sunned themselves on the rocks.
It was only a short walk to our home for the third night, the magnificent new cabins at Noetsie. What a place. The setting on a sandy bay backed by a lagoon never fails to enthral me. Sitting out with our sundowners in the quaint boma, we watched a couple of dozen whales frolic in the bay.
Day three started with a glorious walk on an undulating path through coastal fynbos. We were enchanted by the colourful life in the tidal pools below us and explored various caves and protrusions in the cliffs – weird formations sculpted by the waves and the wind. The wave-cut platform in the grey limestone had big, circular depressions, giving it the appearance of Chinese rice paddies.
We scrambled down the chain ladder to explore Stilgat cave (which was actually less exciting than the nearby rock pools where we swam and lazed around) before continuing to the beach from where Hamerkop, the next overnight stop, was in sight. It was a fight for the ‘master bedroom – it has a viewing terrace – but whichever bedroom you end up in, staying in this roomy, double-storey cottage is a delight.
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A useful information board reminded us that De Hoop is renowned as one of the world’s most important nursery areas for southern right whales, and there they were, a mass of great grey behemoths floating just off the coast. From May/June to December, large numbers of southern right whales are seen in the protected waters off the reserve. In the peak season of September, up to 400 southern rights have been spotted there.
In the winter months, humpback whales are often observed on their annual migration route to Mozambique, while Bryde and Minke whales, as well as bottlenose and common dolphins are also frequently seen from De Hoop’s shores. Less frequently sighted species include short-finned pilot whales and orcas.
A big eland bull stared down at us from the clifftop as we walked along the beach the next morning, its presence quite unnerving in this environment of African Black Oystercatchers, cormorants, gulls and shell middens.
The trail then took us away into the coastal fringe, through a stretch of vegetation interspersed with exposed sandy dunes, where numerous tracks in the sand had us guessing at all the little antelope, mice, reptiles and birds that must inhabit the clumps of succulents and evergreen shrubs.
The final day was short so we lingered at Vaalkrans, the last overnight hut. Perched on the top of spectacular limestone cliffs, it was the ideal vantage point from which to admire the coast. As we were about to leave a team of cleaners arrived. “What do you think of the new huts?” I asked Lizelle Witbooi. “Ooh, they’re lovely,” she exclaimed. “Especially Noetsie. But I would want to stay a week there, not just one night!”
Agreeing with her sentiments we set off with some regret. Our magnificent journey was coming to an end and we would all happily have stayed longer in this beautiful place. But the sun was shining, the tide was low and the sea was calm, so we slipped off our shoes and walked in the shallows, stopping frequently to swim and enjoy our final day.
The rock pools – deep, enclosed, turquoise gullies fringed by fern-like seaweed – reminded me of The Dell in Kirstenbosch – a tranquil, safe refuge. The clear water was inviting, if chilly, so we wallowed in the appropriately named Hippo Pools. We passed middens and wondered what of our lifestyle we’d leave for future generations to speculate about.
Finally, the end was nigh. Two attractive beaches linked by a boardwalk were all that remained – and they had day-trippers on them. It was quite a shock, after four days without seeing a soul other than our fellow hikers, and we were reminded of what a privilege it is to walk such a trail. We continued a little further from the end point on to the magnificent dunes of Long Beach to take one last look at the sea and wave goodbye to the whales, and then reluctantly headed up past Koppie Alleen to the shuttle bus.
Whether you’re a seasoned trekker looking for a bit of comfort and time out from heavy-duty backpacking, or an occasional hiker who wants a gentle introduction to long-distance walks, this is the perfect trail.
- Up to It? Although there is a steep uphill on day one, if you utilise the bag transfer option, take it easy and time the beach sections so that you walk at low tide, the trail is not unduly strenuous.
- When to Go: The trail can be walked year round but the whales are seen in greatest numbers from June to December. The flowers are also at their best from July to September. De Hoop has a mild, Mediterranean climate, with rain falling throughout the year and peaking in March.
- Top Tips: Carry a bathing costume and kikoi in your daypack. Excellent, annotated maps of the trail are issued at the gate but it’s worth taking along a bird book, flower book and a marine identification guide. Horseflies can be a menace in the summer so don’t skimp on the insect repellent.
- Up for a Challenge? If averaging 11km a day along the Whale Trail sounds too easy, then how about running the whole route in one day on the Merrell Whale of Trail? The course record is 5:50:23 but competitors have up to 11:30 hours to complete it. http://whaleoftrail.co.za
- Stay On: The De Hoop Collection manages a number of lovely rondavels, luxury cottages and camping sites in the reserve. 021 422 4522, [email protected]
Words Fiona McIntosh
Photography Shaen Adey, Graham Bird, Fiona McIntosh