De Hoop, finding the pulse of nature

 

Are we there yet ?

DSC_0775-01

This 240 km journey from Cape Town is not a jump onto the highway and cruise at 120 for two hours kind of trip.

It is more like a slow process of shedding the stresses and frantic pace of the city. Dual carriageway quickly becomes a single lane that dictates a slower speed.

Urban landscapes give way to open space, and the distances between signs of human habitation increase as the route transforms from single tar roads to long gravel stripes, and ends with a twelve kilometer crawl on a remote dirt track.

A glimpse of the vlei is the only sight that breaks the endless greens and browns of wild veld, Fynbos and the occasional clump of trees.

To the uninitiated, it can look like a vast and desolate expanse of nothing.

De Hoop reveals her treasures in increments. Increments measured in time.

Time spent allowing nature to adapt your busy, city eyes until you relax and look with all your senses and are able to discern the abundance surrounding you.

I recently spent four days in this other world that is De Hoop. Dirty, sweaty excursions contrast with elegant rooms and fine dining, outdoor adventures with calming spa treatments, isolation with new friends from foreign lands. De Hoop is vast enough to allow you to choose all of the above or something in between that suits your personal rhythm.

 

IMG_4697

 

Walking in De Hoop.

From the comfort of the Melkkamer, a spacious stone cottage on its own little island, we set out for a 19 km walk around the vlei.

Following the waterline, this walking requires concentration, stepping over sun-bleached branches, stones and peculiar little peaks created from dried out weeds. The landscape has a distinctly lunar look, white and other worldly.

IMG_4222

An intended brisk walk is interrupted regularly to stop and investigate tracks in the ground, or to gaze out at the baboons, bontebok or birds intent on distracting us.

At one point we have to back track after clambering over dead branches, stumbling on rocky cairns and ultimately ending up knee deep in the water before agreeing that the path has petered out. As I turned back I got the fright of my life spotting this, then I realised what is was and reached for my camera.

Di Brown snakeskin at De Hoop

The shrugged off skin of a snake is caught in the dead sticks and foam from the waves of the vlei. Day made!

We bush whack away from the vlei and pick up the pace on the dirt road. It’s getting hot, lunch time is approaching and we all settle in to our own silent rhythm.

Walking becomes a moving meditation.

A multitude of scents float on the air ,coming from the Fynbos that grows and tangles on either side of the road.

Di Brown  walk De Hoop

Taste the dust, smell the green, see the heat leech the colours from the sky. With each step you hear more, as the sweat coats your body you see more and when the hint of a breeze whispers past you offering a moment of cool relief, you are finally attuned to the pulse of the bush, the heart of the earth, the soul of Africa. It will never leave you, the addiction is forever.

There are numerous short walks all over the reserve, many easily accessed from the accommodation. I can highly recommend the guided bird walk at sunrise or a gentle stroll on the cliff paths above the vlei.

If exploring on foot is not your thing and your legs cramp at the mere thought of a long walk then quad bikes are for you.

DSC_0452-01

The sound of the quad bikes revving is almost offensive after two days of listening to nature. Cautiously we navigate bumps and turns and head into the unknown. The steering on the bikes is quite heavy and the accelerator is very responsive, resulting in some near misses with bushes and a very jerky initial kilometre of riding. We soon get the hang of it and start enjoying the freedom. A warm wind ruffles your clothes and your body vibrates with the thrum of the engine. This is not about speed, but more about covering the huge distances without getting sweaty.

Our first stop was to watch a young zebra and her mum hanging out with a large herd of eland at the water’s edge.

Di Brown Zebra DeHoop

Then we continued into the bush finally ending at a circular clearing high above the vlei. Bikes parked and helmets abandoned, we walk along a narrow path until we can go no further. The views, sounds and feeling of freedom make this the perfect place to just sit for a while to absorb the sights. We are high above the vlei with 360 degree vistas of the natural world. Life is good!

 

DSC_0458-01

 

Returning to the bikes we take a narrow, tangled path down to the water’s edge. Spider webs stick, leaves brush, birds call and fish jump. This little inlet is like a dark, silent cave of trees and undergrowth, complete with a dusty bench covered in bird droppings, multi coloured leaves and scuttling insects. Grunts and rustling sounds emit from either side, unseen creatures, big and small, adding to the thrill of the moment.

This is what unspoilt looks like.

DSC_0461-01

The return journey on the quads is uneventful, bar a stop to watch the comical display of a young male bontebok preening to get the attention of a group of coquettish females. They of course were ignoring him, but he must be admired for his persistence.

IMG_4239

The beach at Koppie Alleen.

Beaches, so varied but I love them all. They are my ultimate happy place. This beach has to be in my top three favourite beaches in the history of my life, and I have seen a lot of beaches in my fifty five years on earth.

The drive from our luxury island to the beach is a long one. Fourteen kilometres of bumping and bouncing up and down a red dirt road, constantly looking left and right as baboons, pelicans, eland, ostriches and gemsbok provide enchanting en route entertainment.

The first glimpse of this beach will blow your mind.

Look !

DSC_0473-01

It has everything. Rock pools and pink caves, wild waves and soaring splashes, a cauldron of fury boils and foams and white sand leads to the rhythmic waves of an ocean swim. The endless horizon disappears as the sky goes from blue to grey before we have time to get cameras ready.

IMG_4321

 

DSC_0529-01

Our marine guide from De Hoop takes us through the rock pools and after a fascinating explanation of the urchins, snails, kelp and birdlife we disperse to explore on our own.

DSC_0546-01

There are rocks to climb, strange formations to photograph and shallow pools to fall head first into while trying to film with a GoPro. (yip, that was me) Thanks Anje for capturing the moment.

Di FALLS IN

A series of spiky, slippery boulders leads to a natural rocky wall where the waves crash furiously before spraying skywards. On the other end of the beach more prickly rocks lead to shallowish pools and a large cavern where the rocks inside are pink.

DSC_0568

Finally, totally high on beach love and sopping wet from my photographic attempts, I head for the sandy bits and wade out into the waves, loving the ocean caresses, not so much the brushes of kelp that my overactive mind was sure were hungry sharks.

This series of three beaches will keep you entertained for days. Black Oystercatchers nest here and are known for laying their eggs in foolish places like the ledges of rock or on the low water mark in the sand. They are very protective and will shout and chase away anyone coming too close.

IMG_4341

They are easy to spot, black bodies with very red legs and beaks, always in pairs and often looking just like a couple having an animated argument.

If you do just one thing in your life, please go to this beach at De Hoop.

These were my top three activities in the vast nothingness that is De Hoop.

The champagne and canapé cruise on the vlei, the picnic spread above the beach, and the three course meal set up on a dried out pan in the middle of nowhere were pretty spectacular too, but those are stories for another time.

De Hoop offers a very broad variety of accommodation options to suit all pockets, from  self catering to extreme luxury with your own personal chef.

You can go wild in the wild, or relax at the pool, have spa treatments and lazy meals at the restaurant.

De Hoop allows you to be your very best relaxed self, whatever that may mean.

For more information on De Hoop visit their website here.

To read about  a digital detox at De Hoop by Anje Rautenbach of Going Somewhere Slowly, click here.

To get totally hooked on this place, watch the video by Lloyd Koppel as published by Xplorio. De Hoop video.

Disclaimer.

My stay at De Hoop was a media visit. Thanks to the De Hoop Collection  for hosting me at the Melkkamer Manor House.

All opinions are my own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The West Coast. Going for gold

I am  finding it difficult to define the West Coast.  

DSC_1294-01-01

The WestCoastWaySA routes all start in Blaauwberg with the iconic view of Table Mountain, the ocean, beaches and seaside living cafes, eateries and sun loving activities showing urban living at it’s very best.

Turn around, and with Table Mountain at your back head north, either on the N7 or the coastal R27 into the heart of the West Coast.

The landscape is one of long straight roads, often flat, sometimes undulating for miles, always offering either a shimmer of mountains in the distance, or the endless yellow of farmlands that contrast so beautifully with the huge sky. Skies that are so brightly blue they seem fake, at other times putting on a show of black clouds that create a dramatic ceiling over your head, or delicate wispy white puffs that move and change as you watch them.

DSC_1334-001

Look left or right and you are bound to see tractors raising clouds of dust, wind pumps creaking in the breeze and farm stalls on the side of the road tempting you to stop for something homemade.

DSC_1315-01

On the coastal route, sand dunes and hills covered by fynbos or renosterveld form a band of colour between the road and the sea. Long left turns lead you to stony beaches, white sandy bays, sheltered coves and wild, windy fishing sites.

DSC_0488

The best known towns are possibly Darling in the interior and Langebaan on the coast, but this region has a myriad of small towns, all with a very individual flavour. There is nothing generic here and I really hope it stays that way.

Tiny mission villages lost in time look up at the same starry skies as seaside resorts and small towns built around the agricultural communities and fishing industry.

DSC_0179

Like any industry tourism has its buzzwords, the latest being the following.

Slow living, referring to a more balanced lifestyle, with a strong focus on food, locally sourced, fresh, seasonal and cooked the old fashioned way.

Authentic experiences ,in a nutshell means avoiding tourism icons and living more like a local somewhere off the beaten track or in a residential neighbourhood rather than a touristy area.

Responsible and sustainable tourism looks holistically at the industry and strives to promote community participation, environmentally friendly practices and ensure long term success. Think job creation, education, conservation, recycling, water and energy efficient, cultural development and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Food.  It’s a “thing”.  These days food is much more than what you eat when you are hungry. Food is in capital letters, it is a massive industry that is hugely photographed, consumed and televised.

DSC_1316-01

So here’s the “thing” about the West Coast. They are on trend, and have been before any of this was a trend. On the West Coast you just do live slowly, eat well, recycle, conserve resources and get on with your life. The buzzwords are, and always have been their lifestyle.

Being remote, any experience here is authentic because they are not on anyone’s bucket list yet.

You will recall your childhood on the West Coast and you will find your granny in these towns. It might be one of her sayings coming out the mouth of a stranger, or items familiar to you from your long forgotten visits to her house, or the stories she told of days gone by that always include a good laugh ,  and often a larger than life character, the kind that are hard to find these days.

DSC_1325-001

 DSC_1311-01

I had a sneak peek into parts of the two new routes launched by West Coast Way SA, namely the Scenic and Berg routes.

Koringberg on the Scenic route intrigues me, and I have yet to set foot in this tiny hamlet.

At the Desert Rose farm stall on the N7, I listened to Tannie Marta, the local Post office lady; talk about Koringberg situated 6km up the road. I think she might be the self-appointed mayor and tourism officer of Koringberg, she certainly knows everything that is presently going on, I doubt there is much she missed of what happened in the past, and she has very clear ideas on how the town should go forward into the future.

DSC_1318-01

I loved Tannie Marta’s stories; I came home and virtually toured Koringberg and the surrounds on Google Earth. I need to walk its street, photograph its moments, talk to its people and absorb its essence. I can’t wait.

Koringberg is just off the N7 halfway between Moorreesberg and Piketberg, and is 118km from Cape Town.

DSC_1304-01

I think it is time for rural and urban South Africa to shake hands and see each other realistically.

The young adults in the rural areas are convinced that success and happiness lie in the cities, while every increasing affluent city dwellers and early retirees are leaving the city in search of a better lifestyle in a small town.

In 2008 tourism was declared the new gold of South Africa. Since then we have been through a global economic depression, but tourism growth has managed to hold its own.

We need to mine the tourism gold responsibly and by supporting and promoting tourism in the rural towns we can do just that. For every urbanite that relocates to a small town and embraces the lifestyle and the community, jobs can be created, city friends can be exposed to the area and a micro economy can begin an upward spiral.  Sometimes all it takes to ignite a creative spark is for local inhabitants to see their home town through the eyes of delighted visitors. There are thousands of wonderful people in our tiny towns who have a wealth of knowledge and passion for their area who are doing amazing things, and we should be supporting them with our custom and marketing them by word of mouth.

DSC_1307-01

 

Creating tourism routes is not an easy job, but it is an important one. It is the first introduction to places we have previously never heard of or considered visiting. West Coast Way SA is doing a sterling job of linking the towns and attractions of the West Coast by geographical location and themed experience. The offerings are diverse but have a very strong food, wine, culture, adventure and nature loving flavour.

With the most Northern point of the routes being only 215km from Cape Town it makes it relatively easy to incorporate more than one route into your holiday planning or visit any of the towns as a day trip from Cape Town.

Everything is offered from relaxed camping to five star luxury, so do your bit for the country and find your personal favourite on the Cape’s West Coast.

 DSC_0122

I am not yet able to fully define the West Coast, contradictory, compelling, creative and surprising  are the best I can do for now.

I do know that you will find the essence of South Africa on the West Coast.

I think we should refer a trip to the West Coast as “going for gold”

DSC_1312-01

 

Do you know Swellendam ?

Stonehill panoramic Di Brown

I know Swellendam

It’s that quaint old town halfway to the Garden Route.

It has some lovely old buildings and is set in a pretty area.

I know Swellendam

I spent an afternoon there once eating huge slices of the best carrot cake ever, followed by ultra-chocolaty black forest gateau at the Old Gaol museum complex.

I know Swellendam

I completed all 7 days of the incredible Swellendam hiking trail. (presently closed) in the Cape Nature Marloth Reserve that is accessed through the town. After living on rice and tuna for the duration of the hike, I had a hot shower and a slap up meal somewhere in the town.

I know Swellendam

I browsed happily for three hours at a morning market on an extended stop off when driving up to the Garden Route.

I know Swellendam.

DSC_4906

Actually, I don’t know Swellendam at all

This fact caught me by surprise after spending just two days and one night in the area.

I stayed at the Stonehill River Lodge , a hidden delight situated twenty odd kilometres out of town right on the Breede River. Who even knew or associated Swellendam with a river?

Certainly not I.

Stonehill Chalet Di Brown

All about Stonehill River Lodge

Family friendly, four star comfort meets nature on a farm, with a river thrown in for extra pleasure.

Eight self- catering cottages configured to suit families or friends of 6 to 8 people are situated in the beautiful gardens of this lush little valley.

Five of the chalets are within ten meters of the river and the other three are set a little higher up affording picture perfect views back towards the town, out to the mountains hazily visible in the distance and down onto the ever turning Breede River.

All the chalets have Wi-Fi, a well equipped kitchen with a dishwasher, although they are serviced daily, a Jacuzzi and a built in braai on the deck, as well as a fireplace in the lounge.

Stonehill tree swing Di Brown

There is no shop or restaurant on site; however the staff generally go into town either in the morning or evening and are more than happy to shop for you if provided with a shopping list and some South African Rands.

All ages can be entertained for days here. A grassy play area includes a trampoline and a jungle gym and 2 fabulous tree swing chairs where parents can relax and keep an eye on the little ones, or you can use the giant chess board to keep your mind active and get a little bit of gentle exercise.

Giant chess close up Stonehill Di Brown

For activity addicts there are plenty of options. Bring your own fishing rods, boats or anything that floats, hiking boots, mountain bikes and binoculars.

If packing all that sounds like too much effort, the following equipment can be hired on site.

Rubber rafts called Crocs can be hired for paddling, and are charged at R125 per person. The river adventures are all guided by Niell and last for about three hours. If the river is high enough there are three rapids to get the adrenalin pumping, but at any time you can jump off the rock which looks easy from the water but seems to double in height once you are standing on the top preparing to leap into space.

The jump rock Stonehill Di Brown

We stopped in the gently falling rain to swim and the water was warm and velvety. Getting out was the difficult part, but the somewhat un-coordinated paddling soon warmed us up again and had us feeling   ready for another dip. All along the route Niell, our guide pointed out a variety of birds, fish, plants and trees and had many stories of floods, fires and the river to share with us.

 

Stonehill Breede river Di Brown

Mountain bikes are an ideal way to explore, and enjoy the marked routes designed and cleared by Niell himself.

Bikes are rented out at R50 for three hours or R100 for a day. I would opt for the twenty four hours as there is so much to explore on the farm.

If fishing is your thing rods are R30 a day and hooks and bait can be purchased as well.

Hike for hours, pause to listen to the birds, look out for the young zebra, the delicate Bontebok, notice the fine details of the intricate fynbos and breathe in the air of a healthy earth.

Cool off at the swimming pool, in the river or your own private Jacuzzi.

Stonehill river vies Di Brown

If you want to take a picnic and make a meal out of exploring the farm, picnic baskets, cutlery and crockery are available, just ask at reception. You do need to provide the food yourself.

Stonehill is an ideal place to immerse yourself in the natural world and to get kids outdoors and away from screens. Apart from all the above mentioned activities the river and bush provide endless opportunities for free range creativity. Sandy spits and shallow waters, little islands, endless pebbles and smooth stones. Build those sandcastles, splash in the river with the kids, walk in the bush and really look at your surroundings. Compete for the first sighting of the Pied Kingfisher, the Fish Eagles, Cormorants, Egyptian Geese, Swallows and Masked Weaver Birds.

Boredom is not an option.

Stonehill morning on the airstrip. Di Brown

Wear yourself out in nature all day, and fall asleep to the sounds of the river, the frogs and the occasional insomniac bird.

If you can tear yourself away from this natural retreat, then head for Swellendam with an open mind.

Breakfast at African Shades  “First we eat, then we do everything else” is the credo these folks live by. Every meal here is a relaxed feast made with the freshest local ingredients and an abundance of love. Our hostess made a brief and smiling appearance before heading back to her creative and happy place in the kitchen.

African shades Di Brown

The Bukkenberg Studio  is where you will find David Schlapobersky and Felicity Potter , always busy and equally ready to chat, educate and sell their works of art. Proudly maintaining the timeless traditions of high temperature, reduction fired pottery, working in porcelain and stoneware.

Bukkenberg pottery Di Brown

Lunch at Woodpecker deli and pizzeria. Sitting outside with a view of an old building and a horse drawn cart is a reminder that this town is steeped in history. We gorged ourselves on a selection of pizza, pasta and wraps while being entertained by the animated owner, Belinda Nesimowski who has created a comfortable, relaxing space in a building that dates back to 1835.

IMG_4976

Wildebraam . They call themselves a Berry Estate; however you should be prepared for a tasting that requires a dedicated driver to get you home.

While their jams, preserves and other bottled delights are indeed the products of delicious berries grown on the estate, the things they do with the leftover juices and skins will literally blow your head off your shoulders.

Wildebraam Di Brown

Averaging at around 25 % alcohol and served in innocent looking, creatively labelled bottles, these tasty liqueurs are both inspiring and potent. I gave up after the third of nine, deciding to merely sniff at the remaining six samples. I did leave with a few bottles tucked away in my bag.

IMG_4965

Swellendam Tourism can provide you with numerous activities and attractions, and that is before they start telling you about the surrounding areas of Suurbraak, Barrydale, Malgas and Cape Infanta, all which fall within the “Republic of Swellendam” whose intriguing motto is “Rebellious since 1795”

I’m slowly getting to know Swellendam and I like it.

Old cart Di Brown

Feel good factors and responsible tourism

Stonehill River Lodge is on my list of places I will return to as they are impressive in the way they have embraced responsible and sustainable tourism.

Water:  they reuse grey water and even have their own mini sewage plant where after rigorous processes, clean water is returned to the river. Storage tanks and guttering are being installed to catch rain water thus lessening the amount of water they take from the river.

Energy: All light bulbs used are energy savers, and outdoor lighting is set to only come on once it is dark. There are no tumble driers, and other appliances like washing machines are only used during off peak times. All geysers and heat pumps are fitted with timers. They employ a company to monitor their electricity usage and make regular adjustments to the way they function based on the data from the detailed monthly reports. Solar panels are on the cards in the foreseeable future.

Conservation and the environment: All cleaning and other products used are fully biodegradable and earth friendly. A dedicated plan for the removal of alien vegetation is an on-going project. Aliens felled over the eight years of operations have fuelled the barbeques and fireplaces of all the units, and the wood store is still well stocked.

The creation of the hiking and mountain bike trails has been done in a way that does not negatively impact on any fauna or flora. Regular controlled burns are carried out to stimulate and regenerate the fynbos that occurs naturally in the area. The animal population are well monitored and numbers are controlled to maintain a healthy balance. The balance is controlled by way of buying and selling stock, rather than by allowing hunting, or culling of wildlife. No interactions between animals and humans are permitted.

Owl boxes have recently been installed in the trees and are just waiting for the first occupants. Owls play an important role in the control of small rodents, and it is a thrill to see and hear one in a natural environment.

There is almost no refuse generated here as all organic waste is chopped up and taken to the worm farm on the property and everything else is sorted and recycled.

Social: The majority of the initial staff recruitment was done in the immediate area of Railton, by way of the local church. In eight years Stonehill River Lodge has lost only two staff members. Staff are well looked after, well trained and upskilled. New staff is usually recruited from the interns provided by the STEEP programme, and Stonehill pride themselves on giving a valuable mentorship programme, ensuring that all interns leave with genuine skills and education.

Staff are taken on outings twice a year and experience river rafting and other activities before enjoying a night in the chalets, and being treated as guests.

How to get there, details and distances.

Di Brown the road to Stonehill

From the centre of Cape Town to the reception area of Stonehill River lodge it is 241km. This makes it manageable for a weekend away and perfect for a long weekend or more if you are travelling from Cape Town.

If you happen to have your own smallish aeroplane ( as we all do ) you can fly in to the grassed landing strip on the farm.

Travelling on the N2, you pass the turn off to Swellendam and continue 11,3km after the Buffelsjags and turn right.   GPS   34° 2’18.09″S   20°32’47.58″E

Travel for 9,5km to the entrance gate  GPS  34° 6’57.39″S   20°31’24.66″E  and a further 1.8km to the reception  GPS 34° 6’24.35″S    20°30’47.35″E

Stonehill entrance Di Brown

It is 21.7km from the lodge to the centre of town.

Stonehill is not wheelchair friendly. That said, any guest arriving in a wheelchair will be offered assistance in getting in and out of the chalets which are all accessed by steps.

Unfortunately due to the wildlife on the farm, no pets are allowed.

Disclosure and thanks.

 My stay at Stonehill River Lodge was courtesy of Big Ambitions PR.

 Activities and meals were kindly arranged by Alison of Swellendam Tourism.

Thanks to hosts at all the venues and to Debbie Nutter, manager at Stonehill for her time and enthusiasm while answering my questions about the reserve and the responsible tourism initiatives.

All opinions are my own.