The De Hoop Nature Reserve is a treasure trove of natural delights, enthuses ELAINE KING after a recent visit:

 Sea urchins really do use their little spines, rather like fingers, to move shells onto the top of them. Rather like milliners except the hats go on top of their bottoms so they don’t dry out and they can expel waste.

“See here and here, they all have shells on top of them,” exclaims Lizo Msululu with enthusiasm that is palpable. He gently picks up an urchin and shows us the tiny organisms that live on the spines. “Urchins are like foster parents to other baby sea organisms,” says Msululu.

I will never look into a rock pool again and not notice these sea critters with their very cool mussel-hats. Or the orange starfish which can grow again from just one leg, but only in protected virgin water like this.

We are on a guided eco-marine tour at the De Hoop Nature Reserve with Msululu. He reminds me of Gerald Durrell as he mesmerises guests of De Hoop Collection on seminal adventures into the rich fauna, flora and sea life that abounds at the iconic reserve.

World Heritage site at De Hoop Nature Reserve

De Hoop Nature Reserve, near Cape Agulhas and three hours from Cape Town on the Southern tip of Africa, is the biggest flagship Cape Nature Reserve (some 36 000 hectares big) and a UNESCO Ramsar World Heritage site owing to its variety of indigenous plants (Cape Floral Kingdom), its marine protected area with more than 250 variety of fish, its birds and nature.

It’s internationally recognised as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) with the Ramsar listed wetlands supporting 260 species, resident birds and also migratory species. The last breeding colony of the rare Cape vulture in the Western Cape is protected at the Potberg Mountains here.

For birdwatchers, seeing a Southern Boubou (endemic to this area), the rare Malachite sunbird, or flamingo is guaranteed while seeing a baby ostrich fresh out of its egg is the cutest bundle of bird fluff you could lay eyes on.

Wonders of De Hoop Nature Reserve

Zebra, buck, caracal and more

There are some 86 mammal species including Cape Mountain zebras, indigenous buck, caracal, tortoise and leopard that rely on this safe home – and this is not just an urban legend or a marketing trick. I will put my neck on the block and say that visitors will spot some of these creatures, especially at dawn or dusk, as indigenous buck and mongoose literally wander fearlessly past the cottages.

Owing to the vast area of the reserve (and the hour-long dirt drive into the reserve) most visitors opt to stay at least a night or longer. Many stay at the De Hoop Collection, which offers international and domestic tourists a range of accommodation from luxury suites to cottages, rondavels and even camping sites. This accommodation business in turn generates revenue for the entire De Hoop Reserve and the surrounding community.

There really is something here for everybody to do, from serious mountain biking, hiking or swimming, and snorkelling in the pools.

The interpretive marine walk is up my alley. Two riveting hours peering into rock pools simply flies (a touch of sunburn later attests to this) as we explore the dunes, sea life and get to grips with this sensitive intertidal ecosystem and how each creature, no matter how small, has an important role to play in the great scheme of things.

“Have a bite of this seaweed. You could eat most of the plants in these pools if you were hungry,” Msululu says, giving me a chunk of kelp to nibble on and some sort of spongy plant to taste. It’s salty, but I can imagine it belonging with sushi or at least some wasabi.

Wonders of De Hoop Nature Reserve

Guided tour

And on the subject of kelp, Msululu (left) demonstrates that it is hollow and then serenades us with a very fine vuvuzela.

This coast is home to 11 of South Africa’s limpet species and they are all endemic. Msululu explains there are basically two kinds of limpet; the fixed dude which farms its own garden of algae to eat and the false/terrestrial limpet which makes a little home and then moves during low tide. “But it goes home to its spot on the rocks when it’s high tide because it needs to hang on,” Msululu enthuses. And blow me down we see lots of small white patches or little scars in the pools – each limpet has its very own address and home in these suburbs.

I spot the first octopus camouflaged in kelp, but Msululu has a trick up his sleeve. “Look here in this pool,” he says and within moments an octopus appears and twines its tentacles around his fingers. Here at De Hoop, all creatures are protected and so the octopus has no reason to fear man and is very curious. “In the Eastern Cape where I come from if an octopus even senses a human they immediately shoot the protective ink and hide – because they are clever and know when to fear man,” he says.

From abalone to protea

The age of an abalone can be calculated. “See the holes on the side of the shell…well this one is about two years old because two of the holes have filled in,” explains Msululu, saying that they only stop breeding when they are 10 years old.

The happy orange-beaked oystercatcher birds mate for life, perhaps because they don’t share food. The male and female eat different diets, says Msululu.

Take a walk with Msululu and discover different species of our national Protea plant. He picks the leaves of a Peppermint Pelargonium plant and pops it into his nose.

“If you have a cold this will fix you… or maybe even fix Covid-19 I am sure… although we haven’t had any of that here,” says Msululu, inhaling the plant deeply.

Photos: Mark Taylor