Did you know that between 190.000 and 120.000 years ago the world was beset by a horrible ice age, the kind which lowers global temperatures and turns skies into clammy grey blankets?
Our beautiful and typically sunny Africa was plunged into a period of chilliness the likes of which the human race had never known before, and as such, most of mankind either shivered themselves into an icy grave or perhaps came down with a terminal case of weather induced depression.
Whatever! It must have been a bit like living in Scotland (except without the warming effects of whiskey)
Believe it or not, our entire species was reduced to something like 600 breeding pairs, all of whom survived thanks mainly to a balmy oceanic current a few fortuitous caves and an endless supply of mussels near the aptly named Mossel Bay.
But what was it about this rather nice seaside region that kept us alive (albeit by the skin of our teeth)?
Why were the Mossel Bay, Boggomsbaai and Vleesbaai cavemen spared a similar fate to that of the wooly mammoth, saber tooth tiger and Bubblegum music?
Well, according to recent scientific research conducted at the Pinnacle Point cave system, the wily Mossel Bay residents turned to eating shellfish (an extremely abundant food) whilst the rest of the world’s population tried (unsuccessfully) to make do by gnawing on frozen mammals, the majority of which had probably become rare themselves.
Of course, things around Mossel Bay are a little different now from the days when hairy little men (and women) went about prizing shellfish from coastal rocks for a living.
For starters, there probably weren’t any golf courses back then to alleviate the drudgery of daily life, but just like the Mossel Bay of today, there were plenty of open air seafood restaurants to choose from.
And that, in essence, not only saved our species from falling off the edge of the world, but (according to scientists) facilitated the development of our huge and bulging brains.
“Omega 3 oils are largely responsible for the intelligence of what we now call Homo sapiens; the thinking man ” said Andres Swaenepoel, my guide on the relatively new four day ‘Hunter Gatherer’ coastal slackpacking trail near Mossel Bay.
“Its what made us smarter than pretty much every other animal on the planet and considerably more intelligent than we were before we started eating seafood as a means to survive. Previously, we were probably pretty stupid”
I could hardly imagine it. An age when humanity was even more dim-witted than it is today….
“This trail” continued Andres as we walked down from a set of towering dunes to the empty sweeping curve of Vleesbaai “Aims to follow in the footsteps of our ancient forefathers. The great, great, great (Ad infinitum) grandparents of us all”
We had arrived at our umpteenth shell midden of the day, where once again we set about marveling at how old these ancient trash heaps really are.
“The wind and weather shifts these dunes back and forth, revealing and smothering the middens at whim” Andres told me as I picked up a shell whose last holder may have been part of the only tribe of humans on the planet at that time
“We may have been the first modern people to have really contemplated this particular site”
It was quite a powerful place, as were all of the preceding and subsequent shell heaps we visited (and there were a lot of them).
In my minds eye I saw a ring of small leathery men, women and kids sitting around a mound of shells, all happily slurping away on baked mussels. They wore seal skin loin cloths despite the Nordic cold and they spoke in an indecipherable language of clicks and murmuring vowels.
“Unlike other human tribes of the era” said Andres “These people most likely had a lot of time on their hands just waiting for the tides”
We were ambling down an empty stretch of beach that no doubt looked much the same as it had tens of thousands of years ago.
“They probably used their free time by chatting and thinking and coming up with novel ideas”
Black oystercatchers scurried ahead of us whilst tumultuous waves crashed like watery fists against a distant rocky headland.
I once again imagined languid folk sitting around, casually scoffing down mussel pots and using their fish oil enhanced brains to discus chess tactics, suduko, and quantum physics.
It was all fascinating stuff and on reflection, quite profound and humbling.
Throughout the course of the four day hike, we visited numerous prehistoric sites, some of which were littered with stone tool fragments such as cutting implements, roughly hewn axe heads and other similarly fashioned pieces (the precursor to the semi automatic and the nuclear bomb?).
All of it was set to a backdrop of beautiful dunes, rocky and sandy shorelines and fynbos coated hills.
During the evenings we stayed in domed tents or in a quaint little (but somewhat rundown) fisherman’s hut where we cooked communal feasts and discussed the early folk who dwelt in the area.
During daylight hours we walked beaches, dune fields and the rocky shores between our camps as Andres filled us in on his reflections of prehistoric life.
The Hunter Gatherer trail (which covers much of the same area as the well known Oyster Catcher Trail) is an unusual hike insofar as it is not linear in nature.
Participants do not walk to a new site every night but rather take meandering loops too and from two base camps. This means that you never have to carry very much (other than a day pack) and the walking is at such a relaxed pace that there is always plenty of time to meander off on a tangent should something attract the eye of one of the leaders.
This was a good thing indeed, especially because Willie Konani; a walking encyclopedia on traditional plant uses and a veteran trails guide; was forever pausing our progress to educate us on the numerous plants we were passing.
“This little plant here” he showed me by gingerly touching it with a pencil “Is what bushmen and our ancestors used to poison their arrow heads. If a single drop of that gets into a scratch on your skin then you are kaput”
He showed us medicinal plants that got rid of ticks and fleas and ugly women, and plants that would heal stomach upsets, cancers, skin rashes and constipation. There were even a few you could just eat.
Every step that we took on this roundabout amble was themed on our ancestors, and throughout the course of the hike we visited not only middens and stone age workshops but also beach sites where ancient fish traps and been constructed from boulders.
They were so old as to be in ruin and if Andres had not pointed them out to me and explained their workings (they were a sort of corral) then I never would have even noticed them.
We also got interactive from time to time in the form of scouring the tide lines for anything edible (I found a tin of beans) and shuffling for white mussels (a process that involves wiggling your feet under the sand until your toes touch something; preferably an edible shellfish)
On the last day, we left our hiking boots behind and did a bit of exploration by kayak on the Gouritz River; a wide and gentle waterway where fish are still quite abundant.
None of our group had brought fishing permits (something I doubt bushmen, strandlopers or cavemen ever had to worry about) and as such, we were regrettably unable to end our trip with a traditional fish braai on the banks (or even an ancient mussel stew).
We all made do with sandwiches though which at least had tuna in them.
In Summary, The Hunter Gatherer Trail is a fascinating slackpacking hike that encompasses beautiful coastal scenery combined with a deep and profoundly interesting history; one that is relevant, it would seem, to every single human being on the planet
Visit http://www.oystercatchertrail.co.za/huntergatherer.htm for more information
- Tel: +27(0)44 699 1204
- Fax: +27(0)44 699 1951
- Cell: +27(0)82 550 4788