By Doug Mattushek - 29 September 2019Views : 1342
This piece was originally published on https://awehbra.wordpress.com/
Our group of eight went back in time to pristine forests for a four day self-supported hike that often left us speechless...
The Outeniqua trail wanders through the ancient forests outside the seemingly perpetually wet Knysna and will treat you to untouched lush greenery on every scale. After a rather mad afternoon rush to escape the clutches of Cape Town’s infamous traffic, we stopped over at the halfway point in Swellendam for the night. We rose early the following day to complete our drive to Harkerville Hut, the end of the trail.
The complete trek is a seven day, eight night journey, but we were jumping in on Day Five. After getting dropped off by our shuttle at the end of a precarious piece of road, we set off on our 11km walk to Rondebossie Hut. We clearly started on a route through Leilievlei Forest not frequently traveled, as there were a plethora of spider webs slung across the path. Not being so brave, we dodged the bigger ones.
When you’re carrying everything you need to survive for four nights, the start is always the most difficult. The heavy pack weighs on your mind as much as your back as you contemplate how you’re going to drag yourself for the rest of the 50-odd kilometre journey if you’re struggling just 2km in. But thankfully, our group’s top priority was tea time. Several a day in fact. So with good weather and plenty breaks, each one alleviated a few grams of weight while adding to our energy.
Our troop arrived at Rondebossie with plenty of daylight to spare and even some extra energy to throw around a frisbee. We also ventured into the nearby pine forest and made a few walking sticks with a handy finger saw that was straight out of a Mafia film.
The fire-pit outside would be the nexus of activity as night one’s dinner team threw their fish on the fire. The wisest of our party even broke out a bottle of red wine, which went straight to our parched heads, blurring the splendid Outeniqua night sky.
Day two was a short but strenuous walk to Diepwalle Hut 13km away. After a small river crossing, we traveled mostly on jeep track for the first half as we meandered up Jonkersberg to our first tea stop. From there, we continued the ascent to the highest point of the hike, providing us views of the Indian Ocean beyond Knysna. The path then winds down the other side and into thick vegetation and welcomed shade. We found a picturesque bed of leaves nestled in between mossy roots and a stream for a tea break.
The party spread out after that allowing us to soak up the sounds of the forest. I was happy to wander alone and I quickly came to realise what a clumsy bunch humans are. Despite being hundreds of metres behind the crew, I could still hear them mulching about and chattering. As they got further away, I stood dead still, turned my senses up to maximum in an attempt to absorb the atmosphere. Like Richard in Alex Garland’s timeless novel The Beach, I too began a game of stalk and creep along the forest trail, losing points for every audible noise and gaining for every bird seen or fine detail spotted. I definitely finished in the negative.
Game aside, what I was really after was a peek at the elusive bush elephant. It’s estimated that over 1000 of these beasts once roamed the Outeniqua area, but they were hunted to near extinction within 200 years of European settlers landing at the Cape. In modern times, sightings have been few and far between, leaving the official estimate at between one and five. Over time, the elephants were forced to adapt their diet and even developed skills to avoid hunters, as they appear to move through the forest in near silence. This almost mythical creature’s existence was proven to us first-hand by a friendly Dutch couple who were doing the full seven nights. They showed us a snap of what could only be elephant dung on the trail from a few days prior.
The day’s hike came to an end at the superb Diepwalle hut, which offered electricity, much needed hot shower and later, roasted marshmallows. Unfortunately, the rolling clouds blanked out the stars and squalls of rain gave us a taste of what was in store for us the next day. In the morning, we took advantage of the quaint coffee shop and ate milk tart for second breakfast as the weather rolled in.
Clad in our ponchos and the best wet weather gear we could muster, a long day three began. The 16km trek to Fisanthoek Hut was undoubtedly the wettest any of our party had ever been in. With most of the stretch under the canopy and surrounded by ferns fit for dinosaurs, we were treated to incredible sights and sounds dampened only by our sodden selves. But tea waits for no-one. At the first decent clearing, we broke out the tea and biscuits to warm our spirits and collect ourselves. Other shorter stops consisted of plenty sugar, stocktake of soaked gear and squelchy boots.
Just when we thought it couldn't get worse, Mother Nature dropped hail on us on the most exposed part of the day. After several minutes of balls of ice clattering against our ponchos and goosebumps beginning to form, a team member blurted out the opening lines of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. We all began to join in and by the time the first riff of rock came, our motley crew were slamming cords on our walking sticks and jumping around in puddles. “So you think you stop me and spit in my eyes”, we screamed at the heavens, cold and dampness forgotten.
The conquering Dutch had a roaring fire going in the Fisanthoek Hut and we crammed in the kitchen, hanging our boots and clothes close to the fire to dry them out. Needless to say, the bacon, tomato paste and noodles tasted extra great that night and we were grateful for whisky being shared.
The hut was on the edge of the forest and provided us with awesome views north, though civilization beckoned to the south. Bathed in glorious morning sunlight, we ate our last oats on the porch as we mentally prepared for the final 12km to Harkerville. It was a stunning last day on the trail and we split up again to get the most out of it. We spotted several Knysna Lourie, their flashes of red beneath their wings a telltale giveaway. Unfortunately, halfway through the final day, drones of cars start to pierce the greenery, pulling you out of nature’s trance.
After scampering across the N2 - yes, the trail takes you across a national highway - we soon dove down into the undergrowth once more and were surrounded by every shade of green imaginable, half expecting JRR Tolkien’s Treebeard to walk out and greet us. Two of our party stormed ahead and by the time we all arrived at Harkerville, we were treated to beers and snacks, a welcomed change in diet. We spent the final night around the braai reflecting on Mzansi’s beauty that had been worth every effort.