Wandering the Whale Trail


Richard Holmes

Watching whales from the limestone caves
along the coast of the De Hoop Nature
Reserve, the home of the Whale Trail.

A southern right whale cruises the water,
her young calf huddled beside her.

Pristine fynbos.
(Images: Cape Nature)

• Liesl Brink
Cape Nature
+27 21 659 3446
+27 72 488 6768

Slackpacking in the Cederberg
Walking for Eden, and elephants
Hiking the dragon’s back
Unforgettable SA hiking trails
Garden Route’s new national park

The Whale Trail could easily have been called the Bottlenose Dolphin Trail, the endangered Black Oystercatcher Trail, the Deserted Beaches Trail or the Pristine Fynbos Trail. We saw all of these and more on the five-day, 55-kilometre wander through the De Hoop Nature Reserve, but in the end the best part of all remained the daily whale acrobatics.

Lying 240 kilometres east of Cape Town, the De Hoop Nature Reserve is known as the jewel in the crown of Cape Nature, the Western Cape’s nature conservation body. The reserve covers around 34 000 hectares, but the offshore marine protected area is just as important. Stretching five kilometres out to sea, it is one of the largest protected ocean areas in Africa and provides a sanctuary for an array of marine life.

Marine life like the whales gambolling just behind the breakers, and the pair of African black oystercatchers that keep me company as I grab a seat on a rock to jot a few notes in my Moleskine.

But let me go back a few days.

Despite its name the Whale Trail starts a dozen kilometres inland in the shadow of the Potberg. It’s here that new arrivals settle into the first night’s hut, get briefed by conservation staff about do’s and don’ts for the trail, and get set to tackle five days of wilderness.

Not that the trail is all about hardship. Each of the five overnight huts is well equipped with bunk beds, hot showers, flush loos and cosy living areas. What’s more, you can pay a little extra to have your luggage portaged from one hut to the next, so you only have to walk with a day-bag for your lunch, camera and raingear.

The trail has rapidly become one of the country’s iconic hikes, so popular you need to book months in advance if you want to walk it during the peak whale season from August to October. Even if you walk out of season, when whales are few, it remains one of South Africa’s most incredible walks.

Day one

If the weather plays ball you’re bound to see one of the trail’s highlights a few minutes into the first day’s walk, as you ascend the slopes of the Potberg. The 611-metre peak will certainly get you puffing, but the sight of endangered Cape vultures – Potberg is home to the last breeding colony in the Western Cape – soaring on the thermals will make you forget all about those aching legs.

The summit is worth the huffing and puffing too, offering magnificent 360° views, with the Breede River and Langeberg Mountains to the north and the dazzling Indian Ocean to the south.

You won’t reach the sea on your first day. From the top the path winds its way through unspoiled fynbos, down into the Melkhout River (a great spot for lunch and a swim) and then over one last hill to the hut at Cupidoskraal. Boots off, shower on (or grab a swim in the nearby dam) and celebrate: the most strenuous day is behind you.

Day two

Not that the second day’s route is a walk in the park. Make an early start, as you’ll have 14.7 kilometres to cover, and the first stretch heads straight up the flanks of the Hamerkop. The fynbos is just as stunning as the Potberg, but luckily it’s only 45 minutes to the top and then a long meandering stretch towards the sea.

Take your time and keep an eye out for some of the reserves smaller beauties. Delicate ericas, rustling restios and colourful watsonias – along with hundreds of other fynbos species ¬– hide among the thick stands of protea.

As you drop off the sandstone mountain onto the limestone cliffs, the changing vegetation is the first clue that you’re approaching the coast. Through a riverbed, past a flock of blue cranes (South Africa’s national bird), around a bend and … there it is, Noetsie, the first of three spectacular coastal huts you’ll call home for the most impressive section of the Whale Trail.

As I arrive and drop down my pack a southern right whale cruises into the small bay, her young calf huddled beside her. Just 50 metres from the shore, they skirt the rocks and linger in the shallows for a minute before moving on. Spectacular.

It’s almost as spectacular as the dolphins that use the bay as a playground that evening. Up to 40 bottlenose dolphins glide, leap and hunt through the stormy waters in a grand show of bravado, either for us or themselves. I brave the chilly waters for a quick swim, but the currents can be swift here so I don’t venture deeper than my waist before heading back to the braai fire at the scenic seaside lapa.

Day three

Day three is perhaps the best of the entire trail. You’ll feel your calves working on the steep climbs up and down the eroded limestone hills, but you can rest them in the calm pools of Stilgat come lunchtime, and long flat sections along the cliff-tops allow ample time for spotting whales, dolphins and birds. Apart from oystercatchers, you’ll see white-breasted cormorants, Hartlaub’s gulls, terns, sandpipers and – bizarrely – Egyptian geese along the trail.

The restless sea has eroded the limestone cliffs into fantastical formations, but it has also claimed its fair share of victims. Apart from countless shipwrecks along this coast, the last steps of the day wander past the small granite memorial to Daniel de Wet, washed off the rocks here in 1933. The pounding surf has carved some lovely rock pools to explore at low tide, but it’s a stark reminder to always keep one eye on the sea.

A kilometre from where De Wet met his end, the Hamerkop hut is perfectly situated just behind the dunes. A wonderful two-story cottage, the second-floor deck is the best spot for sundowner whale-watching. Even after dark you should keep an eye out for wildlife; Hamerkop Hut is home to a curious spotted genet, who regularly visits to see what all the fuss is about.

Day four

The penultimate day dawns and a long beach walk lies ahead. But it’s only 7.8 kilometres to the next hut, so take it easy on the soft sand beaches and enjoy the sensation of a beach with no other footprints but your own. The route wanders past Lekkerwater, once the holiday home of former President FW de Klerk.

Keep an eye out for the camouflaged nests of the oystercatchers: they lay their eggs just above the high-tide mark. From sand and up onto more cliffs, you’ll wander past magnificent blowholes where the high tide blasts up through gaps in the soft limestone.

It’s the same limestone the last night’s hut is perched on. Vaalkrans has the most dramatic position of all the overnight stops, clinging to a cliff some 50 metres above surf crashing onto wave-cut platforms. More spectacular sunset spots are hard to come by.

Day five

It takes no more than three hours to walk the final stretch to Koppie Alleen, but leave plenty of time to explore at Hippo Pools, a wonderful network of rock pools where you can cool off before catching the shuttle-bus back to Potberg.

Whether you walk for the whales or the vultures, the fynbos or the wide open spaces it’s easy to see why hikers from across the globe are flocking to this wonderful trail through the Overberg. Dust off your hiking shoes, book some leave and come and wander with whales.