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.

go! - - Vlaggie -

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!

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”.

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.

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....

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