Hiking the Tsitsikamma Trail

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Hiking through the South African backcountry has a way of speeding up a friendship. By the beginning of the second day group of seven hikers was laughing and joking like we had known each other for years.

We were about 10 miles into our 40-mile, 5-night backpacking trip through the Tsitsikamma Forest in a part of the country appropriately named the Garden Route.

From the beginning of the first long day of hiking it was clear that our larger group of 14 was splitting into two factions – the speed demons who raced up and down the numerous saddles and valleys and us tortoises who preferred to take leisurely tea breaks and swimming stops en route to each night’s hut.

I’ve never been mistaken for a speed demon so naturally I fell in with the tortoises. (We actually had a different name for ourselves but in the spirit of keeping this blog appropriate for all ages I’ll stick with tortoises.)

It’s not that our group was slow hikers or out of shape for such a strenuous hike; rather, we all shared the same thought that backpacking through such beautiful terrain was equally about the journey and the destination. We wanted to take time to enjoy both. | More photos on my Facebook page

Being the proper hiking group that we were, our days included plenty of tea breaks along the trail. We would pull out the tiny camp burner, heat up some Tsitsikamma water (the name Tsitsikamma comes from the Khoekhoe language and means “clear water”) and enjoy a cup of rooibos tea or coffee.

The instant coffee wasn’t the best but you couldn’t beat the setting. The Tsitsikamma Trail winds through the mountains that parallel the southern coast of Africa. The hike brought us along mountain ridgelines, through a dazzling variety of forests and across about eight rivers.

We often stopped in the shade of the trees that sprung up in the valleys or along some of the wider rivers for a swim.

The highlight of the week (and perhaps a highlight of my entire South African visit) was our two-hour lunch break along the Elandbos River.

The river cut through a large section of flat rock and formed a number of small pools. Mercifully the swimming spot came after a climb and rocky downhill section that just about destroyed my feet and left knee. It’s hard to describe how good it felt to soak them in the cold river water.

We were all experiencing the same aches, pains and blisters and all had to conquer the same hills. To help cope we adapted a communal attitude.

When several of us started to develop blisters after that downhill section, Helen pulled out some medical tape to provide relief. Running low on water? No problem – somebody else in the group would share until we reached the next river. Have a bag of trail mix or biltong? You know it was getting passed around to the whole group.

Even the whiskey Oliver was packing in his newly purchased Spanish wineskin wasn’t safe from the group when we decided to invent a trail drinking game.

Having multiple sets of eyes in the group also helped spotting wildlife and flora along the trail. Leopards live in the forest, although hikers rarely spot them. Oliver, however, was sharp enough to notice a few leopard tracks in a muddy section along the trail.

(I would have loved to spot a leopard and move my “big five” tally up to four. So far the closest I’ve come is seeing these tracks and spotting in Botswana the remnants of a baboon that was a leopard’s dinner the previous night. I’ll have another chance to see a leopard when I visit Kruger National Park next month.)

We also spotted a few baboons climbing trees and spying on the visitors to their home. Thankfully none of them got into our huts at night and rummaged through our packs.

The trail was physically demanding but it was good practice for Cape Argus bike race, which is coming up in just over three weeks. And of course I have to mention that it was a far cry from the snow and ice back home (sorry, Portlanders).


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