Getaway (South Africa) - - TRAVEL HIKING -

For most of the 62-kilo­me­tre Chokka Trail, I daw­dled at the back. It was a com­fort­able place to be. I was set­ting my own pace, savour­ing the soli­tude. I stopped of­ten, bend­ing down to weed out men­ac­ing lit­tle sticks of grass that were em­bed­ded in my socks and prick­ing my an­kles. I spent time stand­ing still look­ing up at the open sky, elated at be­ing in na­ture, my lungs filled with the sea air car­ried by the wind and min­gled with the heat of the sun. I sat down of­ten to peel off my socks and shoes, shak­ing off mil­lions of tiny grains of sand, while my fel­low walk­ers be­came specks on the hori­zon. ‘Ha, I have this all to my­self,’ I mar­velled. And then I would catch sight of my col­league, Matt, strolling along be­hind me, his long-sleeved shirt bil­low­ing in the breeze, the sun strik­ing shards of light over his sun­nies and the me­tal on his cam­era as he looked through the lens, cap­tur­ing the beauty of the East­ern Cape coast­line.

We had met our walk­ing com­pan­ions as we shut­tled from Cape St Fran­cis to Oys­ter Bay to start the first day of the trail, which is an out-and-back, 18-kilo­me­tre walk along the coast to Thys­baai. Af­ter dump­ing our lug­gage at our night’s ac­com­mo­da­tion, Oys­ter Kaya, we col­lected our packed lunch and be­gan to walk along empty shore­line foot­paths and jeep tracks. We passed 2000-year-old Khoisan fish traps (cir­cu­lar rock walls) only vis­i­ble at low tide and the oc­ca­sional ram­shackle beach hut with hang­ing shell dec­o­ra­tions, the kind you’d make over end­less sum­mer hol­i­days.

On re­turn­ing to Oys­ter Kaya, the sun was dip­ping, sea spray rolled in wet­ting my face, and golden beams criss-crossed the air over the land and sea. At this point, I was try­ing to re­mem­ber the names of the six sil­hou­ettes charg­ing ahead of me: the smi­ley woman kit­ted out in gaiters, uh … Lisa! And her friend Fran (also in gaiters) and Phyl­lis. All three had just sum­mited Kil­i­man­jaro. (I made a men­tal note to buy some of those walk­ing poles they held.) And there’s Craig and the young lad, Gareth, with his pretty girl­friend, um, what’s her name?

Oh yes, Ilse. They were all from Gaut­eng and very en­er­getic.

Sit­ting by the fire that night, my body was weary but my spir­its high. I was sat­is­fied with life and ex­cited about day two – the sand dunes. Valiant, one of the bor­der col­lies which had come on our walk, snuck into my room to sleep. Com­forted by the yawns of a tired, warm dog, I closed my eyes.

It was a fresh early morn­ing as we set off. Ban­ter filled the air as we hiked along a foot­path in a con­ser­va­tion area. I was still smelling the le­mon buchu I had picked ear­lier when we reached the top of a sand dune. Glanc­ing up, waves of sand un­folded as far as the hori­zon and dense green coastal thicket lined its sides. I could feel a west­erly wind nudg­ing at my shirt. Awestruck by the vast­ness in front of us, I joked, ‘We needn’t go to Namibia now, Matt.’

Look­ing back over our four-day jour­ney, this was the prize of the Chokka Trail: 16 kilo­me­tres through the long­est dune sys­tem in South Africa, known as the Sand River. Talk about ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some­thing unique. This was it – the curves, shapes, pat­terns and shades of the sand were ex­tra­or­di­nary. For the first three kilo­me­tres we climbed steep dunes and whooped for joy like ex­cited chil­dren as we ran down the other side. Matt likened the land­scape to freshly sculpted ice-cream. Yes, I con­curred, just like caramel soft serve.

Grad­u­ally the dunes set­tled into smaller con­tours and veg­e­ta­tion grew in the mid­dle of this vast cor­ri­dor, even­tu­ally giv­ing way to a wet­land. In sec­tions, gi­ant ze­bra-agates­nail shells lay scat­tered across the ground. On firmer ar­eas they crunched be­neath my boots, splin­ter­ing into frag­ments.

The dunes we saw that day may never be seen again. ‘They change from week to week, mod­elled by wind and wa­ter, so map­ping, mark­ing or even de­scrib­ing this route is im­pos­si­ble,’ said Esti Stew­art, our guide and founder (along with Mag­gie Lang­lands) of the Chokka Trail. She re­minded me of a grace­ful gazelle, her long brown legs plough­ing through the sand. Peace sur­rounded her as she strode ahead, show­ing us the way and point­ing out things not to miss. ‘Look at this faint cir­cle in the sand. It’s made by this strand of grass feath­ered by the wind.

‘We lay in the sun like lizards on Mostertshoek Beach, which glis­tened with bil­lions of tiny shells’

‘Be care­ful here, these are Khoisan im­ple­ments dat­ing back 2 000 years. I first saw them a year ago and ev­ery time I come back I see more pieces. This mov­ing dune sys­tem con­tin­u­ally un­cov­ers and hides things, so maybe they’ll be hid­den in a year’s time,’ she said.

Six hours passed be­fore we even­tu­ally turned east, ex­it­ing the dunes late that af­ter­noon. Civil­i­sa­tion ap­peared in the west, where we could see the gi­ant ro­tat­ing tur­bines at Kouga Wind Farm. As I took my fi­nal step out of the Sand River, I thanked Bokkie and Lindy Lom­bard, our hosts at Oys­ter Kaya. ‘Drink lightly tonight,’ they had warned us that first evening. ‘You’ve got a long hard walk to­mor­row – you won’t make it if you have a hang­over!’ I was also grate­ful for the juicy roast lamb Bokkie had cooked for our sup­per, and the break­fast. ‘How do you like your eggs?’ he’d asked each of us.

Af­ter the dune trek, the sight of my bed­room at Dune Ridge Coun­try House that night was most wel­come. Grandma’s huge feather bed was the fo­cus, the floors were heated and the sherry com­pli­men­tary. Re­stored by such lux­ury, day three to Cape St Fran­cis was a 14-kilo­me­tre me­an­der through coastal forests and thick­ets, and then past Mostertshoek, where there was a hand­ful of in­hab­ited hol­i­day homes on the shore­line. At lunchtime, we lay in the sun like lizards on Mostertshoek Beach, which glis­tened with bil­lions of tiny shells. Matt and I also col­lected pieces of green and blue sea glass for our col­league, Caro, back at the of­fice. ‘You know how rare it is these days?’ she prof­fered prior to our de­par­ture.

In the af­ter­noon we vis­ited Sanc­cob’s pen­guin sanc­tu­ary, on the south­east­ern­most tip of our con­ti­nent. It’s marked by Seal Point Light­house, which booms a warn­ing in foggy con­di­tions. We had a short walk from here along the beach to Cape St Fran­cis Re­sort for our third night’s ac­com­mo­da­tion. Busy with week­enders, we were jolted back to life away from na­ture’s peace and quiet.

Esti’s de­sign of the fi­nal day couldn’t have been more dif­fer­ent. On track to end in St Fran­cis Vil­lage (12 kilo­me­tres away), we started our morn­ing with a pris­tine beach walk that took us via Shark Point. Our mid-morn­ing break was a de­light­ful hour at Chokka Block Res­tau­rant, where Clive Can­ter ed­u­cated us on the ‘real’ taste and tex­ture of cala­mari. With our bel­lies full, we still man­aged to wolf down lunch at St Fran­cis Brew­ing Com­pany (I was very im­pressed with my falafel) and sam­ple its craft beers, all in­cluded in the cost.

To end the four days, we all boarded a boat for a sun­set cruise through the St Fran­cis canals and along the Krom River. A stroke of magic was that Esti in­cluded a fi­nal night’s ac­com­mo­da­tion at Brisan B&B. An­thony Miller and Janet Har­ri­son cooked up a storm in this homely house and made sure we were warm (elec­tric blan­kets). We were re­freshed and ready to drive the long haul (eight hours) back to Cape Town early the next morn­ing.

Walk­ing loosens your brain, mas­sages your thoughts and a kin­ship de­vel­ops with oth­ers, even in si­lence. We shared the land­scape, we shared meals and we shared many of our thoughts. I even shared my shrieks as Eric, Esti’s help­ful hus­band and co-owner of the trail, cat­a­pulted my blis­ters into obliv­ion on day two with a shot of me­thialite.

I learnt to move a lit­tle faster dur­ing the trip but I also learnt that be­ing at the back has its ad­van­tages – like fol­low­ing in other peo­ple’s foot­steps through 16 kilo­me­tres of sand dunes.

Along this path from Oys­ter Bay, we could smell the pres­ence of Cape claw­less ot­ters.

BE­LOW Fos­sick at Thys­baai, which is known for its pro­lif­er­a­tion of frag­ile pa­per nau­tilus shells.

ABOVE The steep de­scents in the dune cor­ri­dor be­tween Oys­ter Bay and Cape St Fran­cis are a high­light of the trail and best tack­led at top speed.

ABOVE (from left) Phyl­lis Gains­ford, Fran Nadar and Lisa Brett at Oys­ter Kaya.

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