De Hoop is a small, uncrowded nature reserve in South Africa’s Western Cape, where – with no pressure to tick off the Big Five – you have the freedom to discover other unusual wildlife, such as whales and caracals.
It was dusk at De Hoop Nature Reserve in South Africa’s western Cape. We sat at the top of the mountainous sand dunes, the only people in sight, watching a southern right whale and her calf wave their tail flukes from just beyond the surf.
As the sun slipped below the horizon, skeins of Cape cormorants beat a homeward path low over the waves and a small party of African penguins porpoised through the breakers.
Bidding the whales goodbye, we clambered back up and over the dunes to our car, discussing whether we had enough wood back at our chalet for a barbecue.
But no sooner had our vehicle swung out of the carpark than I stood on the brakes. A cat stood silhouetted in the sandy track just 10 metres ahead. Frozen at the point of crossing, it watched us and we watched it back. Even in silhouette, there was no mistaking the tufted ears, short tail and athletic, high-rumped profile. A caracal. My first ever.
De Hoop is hardly one of South Africa’s best known reserves. With none of the Big Five roaming its sandy heathland and rocky hillsides, it doesn’t attract headlines or crowds. But it is a perfect example of the many wonderful small reserves that lie off South Africa’s beaten track, each with its own wildlife surprises. And how often do you see a caracal anywhere?