Natural Born Hiker. My Journey to Mountain Trails.
All it requires is putting one foot in front of the other – plus a commitment and a bit of planning. I time travelled back to the moment I became a hiker, and the three multi-day walks I recommend signing up for immediately.
Hawequa is a Khoi word meaning ‘the man in the mountain’ – and I was ready to meet him. It seemed easy enough despite my having grown up on the immense flatlands of the Free State where mine dumps and the lonesome Koppie Alleen were my only reference point for mountains. Now relocated from Welkom to Wellington, where the Hawequa Mountains of the Cape Fold system towered above the valley I called home, I would often find myself gazing up at the rocky outcrops thinking that I really should take a closer look.
perfect summer’s day, we ventured up Bain’s Kloof Pass. Finding a dirt track shooting inland, I parked the car at the side of the road, donned my sunglasses and hat, tucked the permit into my back pocket, and without a glance at the map I’d been handed, in we went.
It didn’t take long before I realised that we were completely lost. I’d acquired advice from some local friends who’d suggested you simply follow the path up to the Spook House, past the weir, and shoot down to the pool that collected in the river there for a cool swim. No longer than a 40-minute walk they’d said, like the veteran hikers that they all were. Yet we’d seen no remnants of a ramshackle house, not a spook in sight, and – as for the weir – the path to that was overgrown and (to an untrained eye) wholly elusive.
Undeterred, and of course like true fearless amateur adventurers, having lost complete track of time and direction, we soon found ourselves scrambling over bleached white boulders in a slow flowing stream. The eerie bark of the resident chacma baboons mocked us from above, all the while aware that Cape mountain leopard, puff adder and geelslang (Cape cobra) call this land home.
The baking sun was soon more foe than friend, as we continued to carefully put one foot ahead of the next. Thankfully, we were not doomed. After a couple of hours, we caught sight of a waterfall and rushed to fill our water bottles. Carefully peeling back socks from swollen feet with now raw blisters and washing blood from scraped legs and knees, we embraced the silver lining of the day, stripping down for a dip in the inky ice-cold mountain water.
It was about then, as we plotted our exodus from within the engulfing crags, that I made a note to self: always hike with a guide. We did make it out alive, and with a smug and unwarranted sense of achievement and aching limbs, spoke of our brave intrepidness for days afterwards. Since then I’ve regularly reaffirmed that despite a bumpy start and my lack of navigational skills, I am indeed a natural born hiker.
Walks in the Wild
A more recent call from nature found me in Limpopo, among baobabs and wild animals, for the Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trails. Set within a 7 500-hectare private reserve that shares an unfenced border with Kruger National Park and enjoys 42km of river frontage, I thought this was the ultimate walking safari, a chance to traverse one of the most remote regions in South Africa, one with an abundance of wildlife.
Each day we walked for about four to five hours, covering around 10km, with water breaks and plenty of stops to study tracks in the sand and look for the birds we heard calling out as we passed. Each trek offered a chance to focus on the little things while experiencing the rush of adrenaline when chancing upon members of the Big Five.
The experience runs over three days, allowing you the freedom to move with the pace of nature; nights are spent at the small, remote Klein Letaba camp where there are a handful of cute rondavels. Overlooking the Klein Letaba River, it was originally built as stables for park rangers patrolling this part of Kruger on horseback. Since there are never more than eight guests at a time, you feel that you have the whole place to yourself. Light is generated by solar power and kerosene lamp, hot water by donkey boiler, and there is no cellphone reception so evenings are spent around the campfire, where you gather to share bush tales and warmth beneath star-studded skies.
Joining the Chokka Trail in the Eastern Cape gave me the ocean fix I constantly crave. The main attractions during this four-day 62km slackpacking route between Oyster Bay, St Francis Bay and Cape St Francis, include picturesque fishing villages, a rugged coastline, bleached sand dunes as far as the eye can see, a tidal river, protected fynbos, wetlands and a visit to South Africa’s only privately owned working harbour. It offers a completely different look at the country’s coastline. Just an hour from Port Elizabeth, the walk takes you through parts of the Coastal Cradle of Humankind and offers the chance of seeing whales, dolphins, otters and small game like duiker and bushbuck.
As a reward, hikers enjoy a cruise on the beautiful St Francis canals on completion and get to visit the SANCCOB seabird and African penguin rehabilitation centre at Seal Point Lighthouse. You also get the opportunity to combine part of your walk with a beach clean-up which adds a feel-good element to the hike. Beach walking is quite challenging, so the Chokka Trail is suited to slightly more experienced hikers. Funds go to support beach clean-ups and also SANCCOB at Seal Point, Cape St Francis. chokkatrail.co.za
DON’T PANIC, PACK A PICNIC
My sassy overconfidence was about to take a knock when I was invited to join the Green Mountain Trail in the Cape Overberg. Equally intrigued and excited, as the day of departure loomed, the panic became real. Day one read: 18km, the first 9km uphill. Could I do that? Turns out the answer was yes!
Covering a distance of 60km in total, the route winds through forests, fruit farms, shoulder high fynbos and beautifully tended vineyards with bountiful bird and animal life. Accredited guides led us on four hikes – the longest, on day one, measuring 18km – with the aim of not only getting to spend substantial time in nature but also gaining a better understanding of the biodiversity and history of the area, stopping for picnics and photo ops along the way.
We crisscrossed privately-owned land belonging to farmers who are members of the Green Mountain Eco Route – their estates form part of the world’s first ‘biodiversity wine route’, dedicated to getting conservation and agriculture interests to align. It felt wonderful to be out, hiking shoes on, walking stick in hand, starting each morning in a different spot that held the promise of discovery. We made our way through a tapestry of fynbos and fruit farms, while at night accommodation in comfy guesthouses allowed me to fully savour the feeling of legs well-worked.
‘We wanted to create a world-class slackpacking hike,’ says Green Mountain Trail co-founder, Alison Green. ‘We were greatly inspired by our neighbour, Dr Paul Cluver. A big walker who knows these mountains inside out, he developed a route through the Groenlandberg Conservancy which comprises private land bordering the protected Kogelberg Biosphere. People rave as much about our fynbos and knowledgeable guides as about the food and wine they enjoy along the way. There’s such biodiversity across the 60km walked – you not only see it but taste it in the wines which differ from one estate to the next as the soils change dramatically.’ The hike runs from Monday evening to Friday afternoon, when the farms and reserves are quieter, and hikers overnight in four-star country lodges – two nights at Porcupine Hills, and two at Wildekrans Country House, a 200-year-old homestead with a mixture of Cape Dutch furniture and contemporary South African art. greenmountaintrail.co.za
Find it online here (pg 123-129) or pick up a mag when you’re next flying green.
** Thank you to all who hosted me on these incredible trails.
Read more of my published work here.