I love hiking as much as the next person; but that all depends who the next person is.
If she happens to be one of those heavy duty gortex boot wearing, carbon fibre pole carrying, long distance speed sprinting sadists who actually seem to enjoy getting blisters and carrying a sixty pound backpack through driving rain for seven days in a row, then perhaps no; I don’t enjoying hiking quite so much as she.
However, if, like me, she is a sensible minded nature lover who prefers to amble at a sedate pace through pretty scenery smelling flowers as she goes, then yes, that sounds like my cup of tea (milk and two sugars please)
I’m not fussy or feeble I’ll have you know, but the idea of eating cardboard flavoured nutrition bars and two minute noodles after an arduous day’s hike just doesn’t cut the cheese.
Gordon Ramsey style meals combined with a comfortable bed and a nice bottle of wine however does not only cut the cheese, it melts it down into a lovely creamy sauce.
Add to this particular mix a delicious hot and frothy Jacuzzi, a steaming cup of real coffee in the morning, a masseuse and a back pack delivery service, and what you end up with is an absolutely wonderful breeze of a hiking trail.
Taa-daa…Introducing the Eastern Cape’s coastal Tsitsikamma Dolphin Trail. It’s the otter trail for sissies (not that I’m a sissy of course…well maybe)
For two days and three nights my team and I (a group of likeminded hikers who didn’t quite fancy the arduous ‘carry your own food and sleep in a bunk with snoring people’ Otter Trail) followed our expert naturalist guide for less than half that distance over fynbos coated hillsides, rugged coastal paths and through verdant forest patches.
We saw louries and cuckoos and vervets and dassies, as well as a whole plethora of butterflies and bees and beautiful flowers. But of course, as its name suggests, the dolphin trail is a place to see dolphins.
And see them we did…hundreds of them, surfing inside the crashing waves and leaping above the surface as if they were celebrating a marine time Mardi- Gras.
The Ocean in this part of our country is a boisterous thing indeed and the waves here crash like angry thunder against jagged cliffs of granite. It smells of salty mist in The Tsitsikamma National Park even in the depths of the forests, and the pounding sound of the surge helped me keep a regular footpace along the winding path.
“Once upon a time” said Sheldon Goeda, our local born guide “We had such a storm here, that the waves reached nine meters high”
I looked at the ocean from our cliff side vantage point and tried to imagine it being any fiercer than it already was. There where explosive spumes and whirling eddies down there amongst the rocks, making the near shore ocean take on the appearance of giant’s washing machine.
“How big are the waves today?” I asked
“Oh, no more than three meters I would guess”
Compared to Tsitsikamma, the Wild Coast (a region situated between the Eastern Cape and KZN border) seemed to me to be inappropriately named.
This here, was as wild as wild can be.
Sheldon, forever on the lookout for something interesting to show us, stopped our intrepid little group frequently so that we could nibble on apples and enjoy the stunning surroundings. He pointed out Right whales on the horizon who pirouetted from the water like overweight ballet dancers and he spotted a bush buck, or duiker or some such edible looking thing which vanished with a snort and a rustling of leaves.
“When I was just a kid” he told us as we sat on a rock watching seagulls dive “I used to come here to swim in the streams and the pools and the sea.”
He must have seen my look of disbelief at that because he then added:-
“Yes it’s true that there are lots and lots of sharks in these waters, but they are the harmless variety…not the big ones with teeth and so we were never in any real danger”
“I wasn’t thinking of the sharks” I replied “By the time those waves pounded you into tomato puree, there wouldn’t be all that much left for them to eat?”
He looked at the maelstrom of water below then and chuckled “Ah, its not always so rough you know. Often times, we can take a break from the dolphin trail and go snorkelling in the rock pools. They are such fascinating places… full of strange creatures and beautiful shells. We sometimes see otters here too”
He then told us that he used to play in the Indigenous forests that skirt the Tsitsikamma mountain range, and as a result he had a good knowledge on the plants and the animals that called this place there home.
“Many of the plants and minerals found here have specific medicinal uses. “ he said “Some cure stomach-aches, some will make you go to the toilet very, very quickly and others, like this one here…” he pointed to a large overhanging boulder stained by something red and slimy “will cure you of a babalass”
He then licked it as if to prove a point….Yuk! I think I’ll stick to Panadol.
Sheldon then went on to explain that Tsitsikamma National Park; South Africa’s oldest, largest and most cherished Marine Protected Area, is an exceptionally important breeding ground for as many as 89 different fish species.
“There is no fishing allowed along the entire length of the park” Sheldon told me “Or for approximately five kilometres out to sea; a law that is being enforced in order to protect the environment for future generations. But the law hasn’t made everybody 100% happy”
In recent years there have been a growing amount of grumbling and protests from communities bordering the Tsitsikamma Marine Reserve; communities that have been asking for the fishing ban be lifted.
However, exhaustive studies have shown that should that be allowed to happen, it would take only a short period of time before the marine ecosystem became a barren wasteland.
Tsitsikamma, you see, is a breeding and a recruitment ground for fish that repopulate areas outside of the park, and without such protection, stocks across the entire region would likely dwindle away to nothing….then nobody would be happy… not the communities, not the thousands of tourists who bring much needed money to the area and certainly not the seagulls who were wheeling around above our heads.
They hovered and circled, eyeing our snacks with beady black orbs, before gliding off out to sea where they plummeted like darts into the waves.
“Not everyone obeys the fishing ban I see” I said pointing at the cawing birds, to which Sheldon chuckled before muttering something about reporting them to the park authorities.
That evening, as the sun dimmed towards the ocean’s brow, we broke from the forests and ambled into the luxurious arms of the Misty Mountain Retreat; a beautifully situated lodge where our bags awaited us along with a cup of tea for me and a frigidly cold beer for my husband.
The distance of our hike had been reasonable, the pace had been slow, the weight I had carried had been minimal, and the scenery had been stupendous….And what’s more, my feet didn’t ache.
After a pleasant evening spent wallowing in a Jacuzzi I slipped under the covers of a comfortable bed and sent out a little thought of sympathy for the souls who were, at that moment, bedding down on the Otter Trail.
No doubt, I wouldn’t be feeling quite so well disposed towards hiking nor the Tsitsikamma National Park if I had just walked, as they had, twenty or more kilometres with a huge pack on my back.
I had eaten quail, they had eaten rehydrated noodles.
But then again I’m sure they were having a lovely time of it too. Who wouldn’t in such a beautiful setting as this; the Tsitsikamma National Park?
The following day was more of the same; an easy ramble across cliff tops and forest paths with the ever constant accompaniment of Sheldon’s commentary and the ocean’s crashing waves.
We spotted frogs in forest streams and Octopi in the rock pools, whilst fish eagles soared and sung songs reminiscent of flutes.
Again, we rested frequently and had time on our hands to sniff at the flowers (which is something I like to do) and long before sundown we reached the Fernery; a luxurious mansion of a place, cemented precariously on the side of a cliff.
Here we were offered the use of gym (I suppose it takes all sorts) which I politely declined in favor of the Sauna.
Another Jacuzzi later (this one outside and overlooking a waterfall), combined with a bottle of fine red wine and a roaring fire and I was soon just about ready for bed. Happily tired from a good days hiking, but not, I must add, too overly taxed.
The following morning, despite the presence of a small blister (heavens forbid) I was raring to go again; but alas, the trail was over and it was time to go home.
And so I picked up my back pack (the first time in three days) and put it in the boot of the car and said goodbye to the beautiful and powerful Tsitsikamma National Park
However, I’m sure to be back again, and you never know; I might just try the Otter trail next time…but then again, if I do that, who’ll carry my bag?
Otter trail bookings
Telephone: +27 12 426 5111
Fax: +27 12 343 0905