17 …err… 18 – 21 July, 2002

Booking the Whale Trail is hard to do – it has become massively popular.

Potberg summit

Potberg summit

So when I got a booking for the 17th, it looked perfect for the last 5 days of the school holidays. The dates would enable my daughters, wife, friends who are schoolteachers, etc. to go. It was not to be. Firstly, all hiking buddies dipped out, leaving me with potentially the most expensive hike of my life, and secondly, nobody told me the start date isn’t the first day of walking. So we rocked up at Potberg hut, late at night, with the rain bucketing down after a hairy drive on muddy roads, to find all mattresses taken and a full party of hikers wondering why their first night’s rest was being disturbed. My mistake. Luckily my pals hadn’t come – I would never have lived that down. So we spent an uncomfortable night in a cold bakkie.

But it was prescient perhaps, because it rained the next day, and climbing Potberg in mist and rain would have been less than pleasant. We resolved to hike the last two days in one

Breede River from Potberg

Breede River from Potberg

– they looked short enough – so that I could get the girls back for the start of school.

Day 2 – I mean Day 1 – dawns pristine, crisp and clear. The Potberg climb rewards us with spectacular views of the Breede River valley as it emerged from the morning mist. The walk along the watershed alternatively reveals the Breede and Grootkloof, agriculture and fynbos.

After Melkhout River (study the photo of the rockpool on the foldout map, else you’ll pick the wrong stream to lunch at), the second climb to cross the hills to Cupidoskraal is a bit of a slog, making sight of the hut welcome. Like all the others, it’s a great hut – luxurious by hiking trail standards.

Day 2: A short, sharp ascent is followed by a scenic cruise along the watershed down to the limestone hills verging the coast.

Descent to Cupidoskraal

Descent to Cupidoskraal

The day is windless and cloudless. The Klipdrifsfonteinspruit in the valley is but a memory of a spruit. The valley is infested with Port Jackson (Acacia saligna), rooikrans (Acacia cyclops) and black wattle (Acacia mearnsii), a bit of Oz in Africa. It’s a lesson in environmental degradation. Where the rooikrans has been cleared, A. saligna is rising like hairs on a dog.

The approach to Noetsie is spectacular. Two whales are performing only 100m from our lapa. At dusk they disappear – run silent, run deep. The plastic flotsam washed up from the sea is awful. John Dunn and his family of 1915, would have seen a more pristine Noetsie.

Day 3: The cliff-top walk to Hamerkop is reminiscent of the Otter Trail, but arguably even better. Caves, cathedrals and cliffs. And whales. One breaches continuously below us, only

about 150m away. A languid half-twist, a crooked smile, one eye, white belly…smack! They seem to be heading for Noetsie.

Heather and friends claim a klipspringer sighting. I wonder at what malcontents see fit to shatter the glazed, clay trail markers.

Heather on the ecotone

Heather on the ecotone

Hamerkop hut is different again, with its “wolweneus” gable and an upstairs verandah. The accompanying party of 5 (later 6) is excellent company. Gawie has everybody in stitches at will.

The huts are outstanding, even luxurious. Renewable resource and energy use is a feature. Solar power, wastewater and sewerage recycling, rooikrans firewood, separation of waste, etc.

Days 4 & 5: We leave before dawn, having to do two days in one, and finish early enough. It’s beautiful, walking on a deserted beach at first light.

We reach Vaalkrans in the late morning. Vaalkrans

is a stone and thatch fishing cottage, located atop a cliff and cave, and opposite a cormorant breeding colony.

It would be a great place to spend a stormy night. It reminds me of those boys’ adventure books I read once, of smugglers’ caves along the Cornwall coast, the Olde Sea Dog Inn, pints of ale and long yarns. [Three years later I do spend that night].

Unfortunately, we have to press on for Koppie Alleen. As we get closer, the whale density increases. You can hear them blow, a sound like failed whistles.

At 1 o’clock we’re at the vehicle. A truly magnificent trail it was. I will be back, even if it is only to spend a night at Vaalkrans.