Getaway (South Africa) - - TRAVEL HIKING -

De­spite the bad tan, sore legs and sand in places I didn’t know I had, I ar­rived back from the West Coast with that some­what elu­sive qual­ity in our cur­rent world: hope.

My pos­i­tive thoughts evolved over five days and 61 kilo­me­tres of walk­ing the coast. The Cray­fish Trail, I dis­cov­ered, is about so much more than just walk­ing – the hike im­merses you in an area of eco­log­i­cal and cul­tural di­ver­sity. It’s also home to sev­eral com­mu­ni­ties that are strug­gling to sus­tain them­selves due to the dwin­dling fish­ing and agri­cul­tural in­dus­tries.

The trail is the ini­tia­tive of Daniel Smith

(in part­ner­ship with EcoAfrica) and was born out of his the­sis on com­mu­nity-based tourism and liveli­hoods along the West Coast. The plan, over time, is to move towards par­tial com­mu­nity own­er­ship of The Cray­fish Trail Co.

Rocher­pan is a CapeNa­ture re­serve where the build­ings of the eco-lodge blend into the dusky land­scape. Ar­riv­ing in the late af­ter­noon, we made the short walk to the bird hide over­look­ing the pan it­self, and af­ter­wards to the beach.

We rose early to meet the sun com­ing over the hori­zon – no trees, just a vista of sharp, glint­ing fyn­bos. As we shuf­fled off the sleep, com­mu­nity guides Damien Blig­naut and Pa­trick Ado­nis told us about the an­i­mal spoors pat­tern­ing the sand as we set off along the beach. The first life we saw was a pair of wild os­triches, two com­ple­men­tary dots run­ning into the dis­tance.

It was won­der­ful, walk­ing and think­ing, through that land­scape of sand and shrubs in the scream­ing sun of mid­day, with kelp ris­ing like strands of hair in the wa­ter to glis­ten on the sur­face. My feet moved in rhythm with my

thoughts, as I con­sid­ered them one by one and then stripped them down. It’s like clear­ing wall­pa­per from the mind. Ch­ester van der Heever, a later guide, would tell me, ‘Die see sal al­tyd jou gemoed­stoe­s­tand ve­ran­der.’ (The sea will al­ways change your mood.) Yet it’s not with­out cru­elty, and we passed count­less car­casses of seals on the beach.

Lunch was a de­li­cious meal at the res­tau­rant at Draai­hoek, then we drove the last stretch to Ven­sterk­lip guest farm out­side Elands Bay and in­dulged in a much-needed nap. That evening we watched the sun set from a cave above Ba­boon Point. The cave is filled with San art dat­ing back count­less cen­turies and over­looks a world-fa­mous surf break. Din­ner was back at the farm in a cosy set­ting, with only four ta­bles in a low­ceilinged room with rough stone walls. Be­tween us flowed red wine and talk of the day, be­fore the sa­ti­ated yawns be­gan.

The next day was our long­est, and we were grate­ful to swap sand for some jeep track, but not be­fore we saw the many name­sake cray­fish doppe (shells) lit­ter­ing the beach, and watched Heav­i­side’s dol­phins surf­ing the waves. Then our route swung up along­side the rail­way tracks, where three-kilo­me­tre-long trains carry iron ore from Sishen to Sal­danha sev­eral times a day. A vlei full of flamin­gos lent the wa­ter a pinky sheen.

Steen­bok­fontein farm is a hid­den shard of the past. Kitta Burger, our host­ess, ush­ered us into the din­ing room with its huge hearth, wood-burn­ing stove and old fam­ily pho­tos lin­ing the walls. The farm has been home to six gen­er­a­tions of Burg­ers, dat­ing back to 1833; the house in which we sat was built in 1864. She told us about the wreck of HMS Sy­bille, which struck a reef near the farm at 2am on 12 Jan­uary 1901.

Kitta’s hos­pi­tal­ity is old-school: keen and warm. For lunch we were fed mus­sel soup with thick slices of farm bread, fish­cakes, snoek, crispy po­ta­toes, baked as­para­gus, slaw and stewed apri­cots.

Af­ter much-needed time to di­gest the meal, man­i­fest­ing in a nap, we took a trac­tor ride round the farm. I let my feet dan­gle over the side, swing­ing my legs like a kid as I watched the fields go by. We vis­ited two more caves, also bear­ing marks of the San. Din­ner was an­other ex­trav­a­gant af­fair: lamb potjie, green beans, aniseed sweet potato and koek­sis­ters to fin­ish.

Our new guide for the fourth day was Ch­ester, who ac­com­pa­nied us along the beach to his home ground, Lam­bert’s Bay. Mist hung over a mer­cu­rial sea, so dense we could only just make out oys­ter­catch­ers on the rocks. For three hours we crunched over mus­sel grave­yards and kelp-strewn sand, while Ch­ester told me of the com­mu­nity’s is­sues with drugs and the loss of liveli­hood for lo­cal fish­er­men.

Both his grand­fa­thers were fish­er­men, as is his father, but with the enor­mous com­mer­cial fish­ing quotas and the rapidly de­clin­ing fish pop­u­la­tion, the catches are no longer enough to feed a fam­ily. It seems bizarre that the de­scen­dants of the San, who lived off the land in a way that let it re­plen­ish it­self, should now be de­nied ac­cess to the fruits that once sus­tained them.

At Lam­bert’s Bay we headed for Bird Is­land, ad­ja­cent to the fish­ing har­bour. An­other CapeNa­ture re­serve, it is one of only six sites in the world where Cape gan­nets breed – and the only one where they can be viewed up close. We smelt them be­fore we saw them. From be­hind glass in the hide, we ob­served the chaos that is the in­ner work­ings of a large group of wild an­i­mals. It was a bit like David At­ten­bor­ough live, but with Ch­ester’s (he used to work here) unique com­men­tary.

That af­ter­noon, in our beach­side ac­com­mo­da­tion at Arendzicht, we were treated to a choco­late-and-wine pair­ing and met some fish­er­men pi­lot­ing a new mo­bile app called Abalobi (mean­ing ‘smallscale fisher’ in Xhosa – see box, right).

For din­ner I en­joyed my first vege­tar­ian meal of the trip, cooked by Paula van Rooyen. She was the head chef at a lo­cal res­tau­rant but had to leave when her sec­ond child was born. Her food cer­tainly showed a decade’s worth of ex­pe­ri­ence, and Daniel is hop­ing to start a home­s­tay with her for fu­ture trips.

Our last day started with a drive to the small town of Dor­ing­baai, from where we walked along the cliffs with the fog-laden At­lantic Ocean stretch­ing out to our left; red rock and fyn­bos to the right. Our me­an­der took us to the hol­i­day ham­let of Strand­fontein, af­ter which we re­turned to Dor­ing­baai to visit the old cray­fish fac­tory, part of which has be­come Fryer’s Cove win­ery, pro­duc­ers of the well-known Dor­ing­bay wines. The re­main­der of the fac­tory has been con­verted into an abalone farm, which em­ploys many lo­cals and is part-owned by a com­mu­nity trust. We stole a look in­side, mar­vel­ling at the ou­tra­geous value of these strange shell­fish.

In the Dor­ing­baai Seespens res­tau­rant that evening, I en­quired, just for the hell of it, about any vege­tar­ian op­tions. The friendly wait­ress gazed at me puz­zled and said, ‘Well, we have chicken and fish.’ So I ate my first-ever ‘Hot­ten­tot’ fish, not know­ing whether to baulk or laugh at the name. At least it was lo­cal and sus­tain­ably caught.

Sus­tain­abil­ity, lo­cal en­trepreneur­ship and com­mu­ni­ties work­ing to­gether is, I re­flected later from my pa­tio at Thorn­bay Lodge, ex­actly what the Cray­fish Trail is all about. And projects like this give me hope for our coun­try’s fu­ture. The sun had drawn up all the mist from the wa­ter and as it sank, there ap­peared a glim­mer­ing wake on the sur­face, cre­at­ing a path of light across the bay.

Look out for whales on the left, wild flow­ers to the right, on this cliff path north of Dor­ing­baai.

FROM TOP Cor­morants de­scend on the beaches in great num­bers; it’s not called the Cray­fish Trail for noth­ing – this catch was in Lam­bert’s Bay; a fish­ing skiff’s name wishes hik­ers well on their jour­ney: Mooiloop (go well).

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