Hike the brand-new Plett slackpacking trail
There’s hardly a more beautiful place in South Africa than Plettenberg Bay. Come and explore the indigenous forests and dramatic coastline on a new go! slackpacking trail.
The area around Plett has always been a hiker’s paradise. Okay, always is forever and that’s a long, long time. But it is true that some of the first people to walk the earth, some 160 000 years ago, did so around here. I’m at the Matjes River rock shelter, a 30-minute walk east of the main beach at Keurboomstrand, and I’m looking at an ancient rubbish heap that contains thousands of years of history. It’s a midden, a place where the Strandlopers and their ancestors deposited food scraps like shells and bones from small animals and fish, as well as ash, shards of pottery and bits of tools. Today, this rubbish heap is 30 m long, 15 m wide and 10 m deep, and archaeologists read it like a suspense thriller. The layers at the bottom tell of a time when you wouldn’t have been able to see the sea from Matjes River. The coastline was roughly 100 km to the south, until about 14 000 years ago when the Ice Age blew out its last freezing breath. Ocean levels started to rise and the original cross-country hikers became beachcombers who feasted on mussels. You can see how their diet changed in the different layers of the midden: white sand mussels at the bottom, followed by black mussels and limpets, with brown mussels on top. Scarcely an hour ago I was in the hustle and bustle of modern Plett, enjoying a cappuccino and a croissant. Now I’m looking at a place that hasn’t changed much since the Stone Age! It’s this unique combination of modern convenience and natural beauty that really sets this trail apart. I’m hiking with a company called Venture Beyond. A year ago, they worked with Plettenberg Bay Tourism to create the Plett Trail. The idea was to mix and match various existing hiking trails – along the coast and in the forest – and create a number of multi-day hiking packages. An expert guide would be included in the package, along with comfortable accommodation, delicious food, wine tasting and even horse riding or paddling. I’m here on a recce to test a slackpacking route designed specifically for go! readers.
The walk on the first day starts at 9 am in the parking area at Keurbooms. The Venture Beyond minibus drops us off with our guide for the day, Sarah Hearn. The plan is to hike about 14 km
from Keurbooms to Nature’s Valley, along beaches, cliffs, through fields of fynbos and forests, and even across a river or two. Sarah checks if we’ve put on enough sunblock and that we have water in our daypacks. It’s a balmy, windless autumn day. The blue ocean is on my right and lush green cliffs reach for the sky on my left. Ahead, there’s a long white beach unblemished by footprints. This doesn’t feel like work! We reach the mouth of the Matjes River and Sarah shows us the tracks of a Cape clawless otter that must have crossed the river just ahead of us. Not too far away, African black oystercatchers scurry around the intertidal zone, searching for food. These once-threatened birds with their blood-red beaks and legs are abundant here: a good indication that the ecosystem is still healthy. Sarah tells us that once an oystercatcher has taken a mate, there’s no such thing as divorce or fooling around. They mate for life. After about an hour’s easy walking along the beach, we head inland through a milkwood forest and up a hill covered in fynbos. Then we’re in the shade of yellowwoods, ironwoods and stinkwood trees. Our destination is Forest Hall, one of the oldest and grandest historical estates in the region. A picnic lunch is waiting for us, courtesy of Grahame Thomson and his sister Julie Carlisle, the owners of Venture Beyond. Taking a nap after a self-induced food coma sounds like a great idea, but we’ve still got a full afternoon of walking ahead – through a coastal forest section of the Garden Route National Park. We also have to cross the Salt River before the tide comes in. Still, the temptation is huge to just unpack at one of the many scenic viewpoints and spend the afternoon daydreaming. Instead, we take lots of photographs and we make it to the Salt River with the water no higher than our ankles. We climb the last hill of the day and reward ourselves with a spectacular view of Nature’s Valley, where the minibus is waiting to take us to our accommodation for the night.
Bright and early the next morning, guide Luck’z Mdzeke arrives to take us to Robberg. The whole of the Robberg Peninsula is a nature reserve, with three circular trails of escalating difficulty and distance. Our plan is to hike the longest trail, which
will take us right to the end of the peninsula, around The Point. Luck’z says that it’s about 8 km and should take about five hours. He also tells us that Plett’s beaches have been closed to swimmers and surfers for a few days because of all the great white sharks that have been spotted in the area. If we’re lucky, we might see one – or even a killer whale – hunting Cape fur seals in the aquamarine water below the cliffs. We’re not that fortunate, but we do see a massive elephant seal bobbing around like a fat submarine. He’s far from home – maybe his GPS malfunctioned… Robberg might only be a caracal leap away from downtown Plett, but it’s a wild, isolated place with views that often slam you to a halt. Luck’z is a fount of knowledge and tells us all about the shipwrecks, the geology, the vegetation, animals and birds of the region. We finish our hike around midday and reward ourselves with a decadent lunch and wine tasting at Bramon, the original Plett wine estate. It’s best known for its sparkling wines and has won an array of awards. Peter Thorpe and his wife Caroline bought the farm in 2000. Peter tells us how the land was being strangled by invasive plants, which they painstakingly cleared to plant vines. Their first harvest was in 2004 and they set the trend: Today there are more than 20 wine estates in the region, as the Cape Winelands gradually migrate east. Who knows, by 2050 Grahamstown might have replaced Stellenbosch as the epicentre of the local wine industry!
In this neck of the woods, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to good eating and drinking. The next day, after we’ve done the Circles in the Forest trail in the Diepwalle section of the Knysna Forest with Meagan Vermaas – the official Dalene Matthee guide – we stop at Totties Farm Kitchen in Rheenendal for their legendary Sunday buffet lunch. Even though today’s route was flat and no longer than 4 km, it still took us more than three hours and we’ve worked up an appetite. It’s Meagan’s fault: Her encyclopaedic knowledge of Matthee’s books, and her stories about ellies, yellowwoods, woodcutters and gold miners, could have kept us spellbound for days. As I sip a beer and work my way through a heaped plate of comfort food, I think about all I’ve experienced. It’s one thing to chart your own course in a beautiful place like Plett, but it’s another thing to experience it with passionate guides like Sarah, Luck’z and Meagan. How else would I have learnt that the bidup-bidupbidup sound in the bush is the call of a greenbacked camaroptera, if Meagan hadn’t carefully parted the leaves to show me its hideout? Yes, the new Plett Trail will definitely see me again!
FRESH AIR (top). This cliff path awaits once you’ve walked east along the beach from Keurbooms and crossed the Matjes River. It’s just past the famous Arch Rock formation.
VIEWS FOR AFRICA (bottom). Take a welcome breather and admire the view before you wade through the Salt River, preferably at low tide. The hill on the other side was the final climb on day one.
FOREST VILLAGE (top). Nature’s Valley is the end point of the first day’s hike. Before you descend to the beach, you’ll want to pause for a while and take a few photos of the view.
BAHIA FORMOSA (bottom). It’s easy to see why early Portuguese explorers called this the “beautiful bay”.
MORE THAN A HIKE (clockwise from below left). There’s more to the Plett Trail than putting one foot in front of the other. If you want, you can include a paddling outing on the Keurbooms River or a tasty meal (and craft beer) at Totties in Rheenendal. Along the way, your guides will tell you fascinating stories about a variety of subjects, like the archaeological history of the region and how the giant yellowwoods around Diepwalle inspired the writer Dalene Matthee. Plett even has its own wine route, where a farm like Bramon has taken the lead with its Méthode Cap Classique sparkling wines.