30 April to 5 May 1999
The night before the hike proper was spent in Kalander Hut, within the De Vasselot area of the Tsitsikamma National Park, on the bank of the Groot River. It was a dark night, punctuated by plenty of snoring and characterised by awkward introductions. However, the guys didn’t fail to notice the statuesque Belgian lady, despite the gloom. I would subsequently discover why the special trail soap which I had bought wouldn’t lather while I showered in the blackness – it was still in its plastic wrapping.
It consisted of the 5 musketeers (myself, Stoffel (Chris), Trailmaster Watty, Big Ron of the dry wit, and Wildman Peter of the chaotic rucksack and hairstyle (aka Mike)); a group of 4 from Stoffel’s Plettenberg Bay (Mike, Dave, John and Pippa), and my 3 crazy sisters-in-law (Lillibit, Charlotte and Lorette, with her current squeeze, Nico), and Cecilie, a hardcore, hiking veteran. Add to this a German-speaking tour guide, Reinhold, his partner Ina and two German clients, plus the two Belgian medical students, Katrine and Heleen, and it seemed we were in for an interesting social time. My expectations were to be exceeded.
Day 1: Kalander Hut to Blaauwkrantz Hut (16.6 km)
This would be the longest day of the hike. The start was somewhat chaotic as we blundered around the campsite, in 3 distinct groups, trying to find the path. When in doubt, consult the map.
The trail wound around the indigenous forest of Groot River for a few k’s while we were zapped by rabid mosquitoes, and then proceeded to rise steeply into the fynbos. The path is unfortunately quite well marked by power and telephone poles, but soon reaches a plateau of tall fynbos, well above head height. Peter, in customary head-down, high-speed shuffle mode, missed the sign to Blaauwkrantz as the trail suddenly left the jeep track, but luckily he had us to redirect him.
We soon entered tracts of indigenous forest, known as Platbos, which are being selectively harvested by Safcol. We would later realise that this portion of forest was curiously quiet compared to the higher, afro-montane forests in the foothills, where insects and birds rule. The trail crosses the main coastal roads, and at the crossing under the N2, my sisters-in-law had arranged to meet a vehicle carrying their backpacks. Cheating.
With the group now suitably loaded, we started the gradual climb through the forest. It was lovely. The shafts of sunlight danced through the verdant foliage and the forest inhabitants sang and buzzed. Souls were being soothed.
Peter would invent the Brussels Flop (later renamed the Flanders Flop) as he gracefully swung under a fallen tree. Belgium was already prominent in our consciousness.
As the trail neared the upper plateau, alien pine and plantations started to appear. But as we edged towards the Blaauwkrantz gorge, this was offset by the vistas of the Tsitsikamma Coast. The last few k’s to the hut, through pine plantation, were tiresome and monotonous, but the hut itself, its location and its views were breathtaking. It faces north across the gorge, surrounded on three sides by the jagged peaks of the Tsitsikamma range. ‘I could live here’ I would write in the visitors book, meaning it.
Below the hut is a chain of waterfall-connected pools, pristine and the colour of weak tea. The group vanguard swam and washed in the cold water.
The 5 musketeers shot the breeze on the wooden deck that night as the full moon arced across the night sky. The rest had an early night, obviously a bit whacked. It was interesting to see how the sleeping arrangements were organised amongst the two rooms and the lapa. These would remain fairly constant for the whole trail.
Day 2: Blaauwkrantz Hut to Keurbos Hut (13.4 km)
The trail follows the rim of the gorge, dipping into and climbing out of pockets of forest. Some of these climbs are short, but sharp. Ina’s feet had been shredded by her boots and she was now struggling along in sandals and socks, while Nico, favouring his gammy knee, was being introduced to the pleasures of hiking quite late in life. Luckily, everybody was laid back. There were no organisers, chasers and drivers, nor young macho types, and groups and individuals were allowed to proceed at their own pace. The trail would become a series of happy rendezvous’ and reunions.
The crossing of the Blaauwkrantz, a potentially intimidating undertaking on the sister Otter Trail, will be remembered for the extraordinary pool rimmed by forest. The day was warm and sunny enough for some of us to swim. Watty, Peter and I did our three monkeys routine perched on a rock in the pool, while Katrine and Heleen languidly stretched out on the sunny bank. Idyllic.
The trail then follows the Bene River and then climbs the southern aspect of Klein Benekop to follow the contour through fynbos, which because of the year-round rainfall hosts fewer species than that of the winter-rainfall Cape. However, there is substantial infestation by hakea, some of which has obviously been poisoned. Benebos is magnificent, humid afro-montane forest in which giant Outeniqua Yellowwoods may be found, and where tree ferns frame gurgling streams.
The trail then finally breaches Ongeluksnek and follows a winding jeep track down to Keurbos Hut, in the Keurbos forest. The track passes two rock pools known as Twin Tubs. Big Ron would drily point out in the visitors book that while the twin tubs were appreciated, he missed the tumble dryer. The hut is beautifully situated in a forest clearing on the western slope of the Lottering River valley. It would be the scene of a riotous evening as the the sisters regaled the audience with tales of wildlife adventures in Zimbabwe and Botswana, of Stoffel the baboon (not Chris), and other stories in true Afrikaans tradition. Laughter tears were evident.
A nocturnal visit by a friendly gennet had everyone crowding around a pool of torchlight in hushed excitement. The character ate his share of biltong and dried sausage, and is obviously a regular at the hut. [Peter had spotted one earlier too, at our lunch stop.]
The next day’s long climb up Rushes Pass on the eastern side of the valley, a 300m rise, was visible in the moonlight. Some minds, belonging to pairs of tired legs and sore feet, were quietly contemplating the challenge as they fell asleep.
Day 3: Keurbos Hut to Heuningbos Hut (13.4 km)
While Rushes Pass may have been the subject of some people’s nightmares, the murderous downhill on the other side, down to the Elandsbos River, almost proved their undoing.
We enjoyed a memorable break at the top of the pass, where many photo’s were taken with the stunning Peak Formosa in the background. The day was pleasantly warm and partly cloudy, and the imposing peaks were dappled by cloud shadow.
The steep downhill survived, we relaxed on the banks of the Elandsbos. Some of us splashed in its shallow pools while others simply strove to recover from the toe-crushing, knee-thumping downhill.
The trail becomes a winding, undulating slog through blackened plantation along the logging roads as it skirts south of the ironically named Fynbos Peak, and almost enters the coastal plain leading to Boskor sawmill. It then bears left and steepens up Heuningboskloof. The sudden transition from sterile plantation to the living forest of Heuningbos immediately lifted our spirits. But the dips into streams and sharp climbs up spurs revealed the dead ground between us and the hut, and most were relieved to finally reach it. A swim and a wash in the nearby pool above a waterfall restored us.
Heuningbos is a newish hut in what could be a spectacular setting if it wasn’t for the surrounding, burnt pine plantations. Unfortunately too, its water supply has been cut, the pvc pipes melted by fire we surmise. This fact resulted in numerous trips with the three-legged cooking potjie to replenish the toilet cisterns.
The night brought the first rain of the trail, and the predawn, morning quiet was shattered twice by the wail of the sawmill’s siren. ‘Civilisation’ was too close.
Day 4: Heuningbos Hut to Sleepkloof Hut (14.2 km)
The map reveals two long climbs, each rising and falling about 300m. The first up Splendid Pass to Mostertshoogte (the Mostert family has managed to get a helluva lot of places named after them), wound through burnt fynbos, and the new, green shoots were evident everywhere amongst the tall blackened stalks. Cecilie gave us a much needed botany lesson as we passed her on the way up.
We wondered why the pass went up so high when the crossing of the saddle was much lower, but realised that it was necessary to clear the pines, now happily destroyed by fire, to enjoy the view back to the coast. The fire has rendered the elevation redundant. It is amazing how the fires have only licked the edges of the pockets of indigenous forest. We wonder if, and at what rate, these pockets can expand. One is saddened by the passing of these once great and inpenetrable forests, especially those of the coastal plain.
The trail to Nademaalnek, on the far side of the Witteklip River, rises gradually before suddenly ramping up just below the nek. Everybody was allowed to proceed at his/her own pace, and in the interests of group morale, the vanguard enjoyed lunch in the icy wind at the nek, while waiting for the slower members. Obviously, the weather was changing for the worse and the Plett group were keen to push on as they were skipping the last hut to exit at Storms River Bridge that evening.
A long downgrade along a spur above Koutjieskloof brought us to yet another Garden of Eden. As we approached we could hear the excited, continuous chatter of the sisters. All along the trail this sound had acted as a homing beacon, as they always left early in the morning before us, soon after the German visitors (whom we invariably only met again at the next hut).
Sleepkloof Hut is older and different to the others, having four rooms, but it is just as beautifully situated, facing north across forested kloofs to the mountains and saddles down which threatening clouds were now tumbling. As the rain set in, the sisters once more surprised us by concocting a stunning trifle (also with the aid of ingredients carefully stashed by Trailmaster Watty and Big Ron). Food, thankfully, had been high on the sisters’ list of priorities, and they continually produced little gems from their seemingly bottomless packs.
Day 5: Sleepkloof Hut to Storms River Bridge (3.2 km)
The walk out from Sleepkloof is almost anti-climactic, but our mission was a big plate of bacon and eggs and toast at the Inn. Big Ron dished himself an enormous helping, paused briefly to photograph it before scoffing it down.
The drive back along the Garden Route to Swellendam was regularly interrupted as the sisters stopped to shop at Old Nick’s, Plett and Knysna. Peter wondered out loud how he could possibly be thinking of moving to the UK after having done a hike like that. Too true.
It was a memorable hike, a real destressor. While I had been a bit concerned that the social mix wouldn’t work, I needn’t have worried. We laughed continuously, and nobody made him/herself unpopular or tried to pull rank. My philosophy now is: if its a difficult, strenuous hike (like Oorlogskloof), put a small group of likeminded friends together; if its a trail like the relatively easy Tsitsikamma with big huts, try and fill them with your own group. Including people who are knowledgeable about matters ecological enriches the experience.
A final thought: I am grateful for having married into this warm family from the Koo. I didn’t just gain a spouse, but a whole bunch of crazy sisters-in-law too.