“Forget not that the Earth longs to feel the touch of your naked feet,” said Galeo Saintz, a poet, leader and trails guide for the Eden to Addo Great Corridor Hike.
“I implore you, please take of your shoes for this, the last kilometer of our lengthy pilgrimage to biodiversity!”
And so, there we stood, bare footed, in the Eastern Cape veldt: twenty-four hikers from all over South Africa; sweaty and tired and fatigued by the enormity of the trail we had just completed.
We were tired of the tents; and tired of the heat. Tired of the cold. The uphill’s and the downs. And of course, tired of Galeo’s constant bouts of unprovoked poetry.
Most of all though; we were just dog-darned tired of standing on our feet.
But it was almost over!
We had walked for 18 days and covered more than 400 kilometers. We had travelled from the moist dark forests of Knysna in the Western Cape to the edges of Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape, and we had crossed no less than seven mountain ranges and passed through six distinct nature reserves to get there.
By all rights, this final bare footed stretch should have been an easy and magnificent climax to our odyssey; a moment of stoic pride, deserving of a rousing chorus of cheers and vuvuzelas. But the solemnity of the moment was lost somewhat when the first wave of ants attacked, pouring forth from the ground to latch onto the sensitive areas between our toes with all the voracity of tiny pit-bull terriers.
As a result, our majestic march was reduced to an convulsive dance, punctuated by base profanities and curses.
But we all got there in the end. Hoorah!
The appropriately named Eden to Addo Great Corridor Hike is a once a year, never to be forgotten slack-packing dream child of Joan Berning and her team of ardent outdoor conservationists.
It begins in the indigenous forest in the Garden Route National Park, enters the Tsitsikamma mountains, crosses several rivers (such as the Bitou , Keurbooms and Kouga) and then drops its participants down into the Langkloof valley.
A hop skip and a jump later, the hikers stride across the Kouga Mountains and proceed through the Baviaanskloof before heaving themselves over the Groot Winterhoek range.
Finally, it’s a comparatively simple stroll across the wide open spaces of Springbokvlakte and into the Klein Winterhoek hills before arriving at the Addo Elephant National Park at the foot of the Zuurberg mountains.
Piece of cake, eh?
The Eden to Addo Great Hike is no stroll in the park, not even for hard core hikers or Swiss Germans, but this tour de force of sturdy quadriceps and carbon fiber poles is made not only bearable, but actually pleasurable by the fact that its all 100 percent catered for.
All baggage, food, tents, and equipment is provided and portaged between camps by a fleet of 4x4s piloted by a team of expert chefs, toilet pit diggers, tent erectors, coffee makers and dish washers.
Even better, there is always a fresh supply of ice cold beers and wine awaiting weary hikers when they slouch into camp each evening at the end of a long days walk.
Every morning at six we arose in a new and beautiful location, be it in a verdant forest or in a valley or next to a tinkling fynbos stream.
We awoke atop tall mountains, and on lowland plains and in rustic little farms.
The variety of scenery was stupendous.
Our alarm clock on each and every day were the birds or else it was Galeo, a mystical man, who flitted like an ethereal faun between our tents either playing whimsical ditties on his flute, or else reciting poetic verses of the deepest profundity.
Not being a morning person, I wanted to kill him at times. But fortunately, he often came baring gifts of cereal bars and wondrous news of hot coffee awaiting at the camp fire.
He was our ‘boot camp’ sergeant. The man who knew when to rouse us, lift us and push us onwards when needed. It didn’t always make him popular though.
But, mornings are glorious out there in the bush, and once the porridge and coffee had settled and the sleep had fallen from my eyes, it was always nice to be up and awake in such astoundingly beautiful places as those we frequented.
“But its not all endless adventure” Joan told me on day 8, as I gasped my way up the side of yet another steep and unforgiving mountain.
“The Eden to Addo hike is all about raising money and awareness for a conservation corridor we hope will one day exist between Addo Elephant National Park, The Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve and the Garden Route National Park.”
The hike attempts to follow what may have been the previous migratory route of Africa’s most southerly population of elephants, the remnants of which now reside in the Knysna forests.
A few individuals (or maybe only one) still survives in the forests there, but whereas these mighty beasts once had the freedom to roam all the way to Addo and beyond, this sadly is no longer the case. Nowadays, a mosaic of farms and fences and alien vegetation has put a stop to all of that.
And the elephants are almost gone.
The dream of the Eden to Addo Corridor Initiative is that one day, through cooperation and partnerships between conservation organizations and landowners, a swathe of protected land will open up a passage for the movement of all manner of species.
“The elephant is really just a symbolic figurehead for our project” said Joan whilst we rested awhile atop a glorious viewpoint
“They might never walk these migration routes again which is a grate shame. But if we do manage to link up these three protected areas, even with small corridors, we at least will be facilitating the movement of other animal and plant populations.”
In South Africa, we are blessed with numerous national parks and nature reserves, the presence of which go a long way towards preserving our national heritage (wildlife)
But alas, its sadly rather naïve to think that nature (in all its complexity) can be conserved merely by erecting a fence around it. And that is, essentially, what a national park is: A large fenced in island of biodiversity surrounded and trapped by a great big unforgiving sea of humanity.
Populations of plants and animals eventually become weakened by inbreeding. And then they die.
“This is why it is essential to link up reserves and parks with corridors” Joan told me “So that plants and animals, insects and seeds and pollen, can move between them”
After enduring many endearing days traipsing through the untouched wilderness of the Tsitsikamma mountains, the Kouga and the Baviaanskloof, the group of hikers, whilst crossing the Springbokvlakte, were confronted 1st hand with the effects of fences on wildlife. A dead and decaying Kudu with its rear legs bound up in wire.
“Once upon a time, there used to be great herds of migratory game in this region” said Joan “But now it is subdivided by kilometers of fences and roads.”
Of course, if landowners are to change their traditions, they must be presented with an attractive incentive or alternative. Not everyone thinks like an ecologist. But with the considerable growth in both domestic and international tourism to South Africa, the idea of a world renowned Mega Park (perhaps one day full of elephants) is likely to attract a great deal of visitors—visitors that will need accommodation, guides, transportation and food.
At present, the Eden to Addo Great Corridor Hike is just twenty-four hikers and a handful of guides traversing a huge area just once a year. But from such awareness raising projects as these, successful and sustainable ecotourism ventures have grown.
Its now possible to do segments of the great hike, ride it on a bike, or simply visit some of the highlights.
On my last day of hiking, I felt stiffer than the desiccated Kudu we had earlier seen on the fence, but I also felt contented and dare I say it, empowered by the huge undertaking we had all just completed. We flicked off the ants from between our toes, and much to Galeo’s displeasure, we put back on our hiking boots and then trotted like energized bucks for the last few kilometers of the trail.
Here, on the banks of the Sunday’s River, we were met with a case of champagne and after much patting of backs and hugs of jubilation, the group settled down to a round of applause and a sincere toast to the beautiful dream that is the Eden to Addo vision.
The concept of linking over 60 parcels of private land with three separate conservation areas may seem like a logistical impossibility. It’s a huge task to be sure; but its not a hopeless one, and with people like Joan and her team of colleagues sowing the first seeds of this brilliant idea, there’s a very real chance that something big will one day grow from this.
Perhaps, one day, great herds of elephants will once again walk free in the Western Cape. Now wouldn’t that be nice.
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