YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE RELIGIOUS TO UNDERTAKE ONE OF THE WORLD’S BESTKNOWN PILGRIMAGES. FOR SOME, IT’S A SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE – FOR OTHERS, IT’S JUST A LONG HIKE SOMEWHERE LOVELY!
Sacred pilgrimages or fun hikes? Follow your heart…
If we’re taking a traditional stance, a pilgrimage is, by definition, a journey to a particular place that’s significant to you or your beliefs, in order to seek fulfilment and learn more about yourself along the way. A bit like life, really, but in a shorter time-frame.
These days, those big bucketlist journeys don’t have to have religious undertones – many of the traditional pilgrimages, like the Camino de Santiago (the Path of St James), which ends in northern Spain, still exist, but they’ve assumed a different significance for the Instagram generation. So with boots, backpack and selfie-stick at the ready, let’s explore four of our favourite sacred journeys...
JAPAN: A WALK IN THE WOODS
Sarah Duff explores the contemplative escape of walking the Kumano Kodō
Among the dense forests of central Japan’s Kii mountains are paths that will take you back 1 000 years. Linking a trio of grand shrines, the Kumano Kodō is a network of narrow paths that have been walked by emperors, monks and Samurai warriors in search of spiritual cleansing for more than a millennium.
In one of the most densely populated and technologically advanced nations in the world, these quiet trails, which lead you up and down mountain passes and through forests of uniformly tall cedars and cypresses, provide a contemplative escape.
The spiritual grounding for the Kumano Kodō lies in the fusion of two Japanese religions: Shinto and Buddhism. For thousands of years, the Kii mountains have been considered one of the most sacred places in the country and it’s here that the practices of Shinto and Buddhism found a union in the worship of nature.
The original focus of the Kumano Kodō was to worship at the three grand shrines to which the paths lead, but all along the way there are tiny stone shrines known as oji, as well as paper lightning bolts strung on branches and string to designate the presence of spirits living within the trees, rocks and waterfalls.
While the big shrines themselves are architecturally beautiful, it’s walking on the paths and seeing these simple markers of the connection between spirituality and nature that make the Kumano Kodō feel like a meditative pilgrimage, whether or not you know anything about either Shinto or Buddhism.
Other reasons the Kumano Kodō is so special are the simple pleasures that await you at the end of each hiking day. Every evening you finish your walk in a small, sleepy village, where you spend the night in a cosy, family-run guesthouse. Here you’ll sleep on a futon in a traditional tatami-mat room and feast on multi-course meals of delectable, home-cooked Japanese food. The cherry on the top is the night-time submersion in a natural hot bath – almost all the villages have indoor and outdoor ones – where you can soak your tired muscles in healing mineral water, just like all those emperors and Samurai who’ve come before you.
ALL ALONG THE WAY THERE ARE PAPER LIGHTNING BOLTS STRUNG ON BRANCHES, MARKING THE PRESENCE OF SPIRITS LIVING WITHIN THE TREES, ROCKS AND WATERFALLS.
SA: INTO THE WILD
Tracy Melass explores the mighty Otter Hiking
Trail – the jewel in our local crown, with its heavenly waterfalls, rock pools, river crossings, jagged cliffs, verdant forests and views that last forever
As we reached the bend in the path, I felt the thud-thud-thud in my chest. I stepped into the clearing. My stomach churned, legs turned to jelly. I closed my eyes tightly, opened them again and looked down: the mighty Bloukrans River was in flood.
There was no way any of our group was willing to chance it. Even from that height, I could see the powerful pull of the current and the sea lapping hungrily at the shore’s edge. The river mouth was a mass of swirling water and the advance hiking group’s red waterproof survivor bags – bobbing around like corks – looked close to being washed out to sea. Actually, so did the hikers.
There’d be no Bloukrans crossing for me today. Second time unlucky. I felt a twinge of disappointment… I hadn’t been able to cross the turgid river on my first Otter outing either. All it had made me do – two years later – was pull on my boots, hoist my pack onto my back, curse my stupidity, glow at my good fortune and start all over again.
Because that’s what the Otter does to you. Spoken of in hushed tones, marvelled at in hyperbole, it bewitches you with its impossible beauty and its many challenges. It’s the first big multi-day trail most serious South African hikers hear about and the one where you’re most likely to meet a foreign hiker. Of course, not being able to get a booking, ever (or so it seems) adds to its mystique. It’s the unattainable hiker’s Eldorado. Thankfully, it more than lives up to its promise.
Like every good pilgrimage, the Otter’s physical demands force you to be in the moment, every sublime one of them, every step of the way. Hugging the shoreline as we went, the days settled into a happy, comfortable rhythm: climbing steeply and then descending to the beach or a river crossing. Breaks were punctuated with dips in the surf or rock pools, naps under trees, or snatched moments to gawp at the fynbos and abundant wildflowers, and being mesmerised by the sea’s beauty and power.
But then off we went again, because we had no choice: always pushing our mental and physical boundaries. Steep, winding paths, lung-bursting climbs, boot-shod feet crunching over the forest floors and unparalleled views of the Atlantic. Hiking blends natural glory with that unique sense of one’s own physicality. Five days of heaven, really. Our hearts, full.
ALL IT HAD MADE ME DO – TWO YEARS LATER – WAS PULL ON MY BOOTS, HOIST MY PACK ONTO MY BACK, CURSE MY STUPIDITY, GLOW AT MY GOOD FORTUNE AND START ALL OVER AGAIN.
PERU: CAMINOS DEL INCA
Jenny Handley hiked the Inca Trail – large steps, even larger victory!
It can take up to four days to experience Inca architecture and monuments, ending with the classic, heart-stopping view of iconic Machu Picchu from above.
The Inca Trail was originally designed as a purifying pilgrimage route from which to enter the sacred site of Machu Picchu, but there are shortened versions for the less active, and luxury train trips for the hedonistic who choose to hike only Machu Picchu, rather than the entire trail. The impressive Belmond Hiram Bingham train – with Champagne, local Pisco Sours cocktail and the obligatory Peruvian band – leaves from Cusco, where many acclimatise to the head-aching altitude of 4 200m above sea level with lashings of sacred herbal coca tea.
The snow-capped scenery of the Sacred Valley along the Urubamba River and Anta – the “bread basket of Cusco” – is spectacular and much of the livestock and crops are grown here. The train passes fields of pigs – organic, we assume – to an ancient town called Huarocondo, nicknamed “the Capital of Roast Pork”.
The train twists and turns into the Pomotales Gorge, dropping almost half a kilometre into the little community of Pachar. Next stop, almost halfway, is Ollantaytambo, where you spot the pyramid-shaped peak of Veronica, also known as Willka Weqe (“Holy Tear”).
At Piscacucho, many hikers start the Inca Trail, while at Machu Picchu station, others start their less arduous adventure. A hair-raising half-hour uphill bus trip, switch-backing around hairpin bends, takes you to the entrance of the iconic citadel of Machu Picchu. A limited number of daily tickets, bought in advance online, are available for entry to this Unesco World Heritage site.
Guides show you the best vantage points – and will explain why locals have short, sturdy legs and broad chests, plus 20% additional haemoglobin in their blood to cope with the altitude.
About 70% of the original Inca site remains, with llamas still wandering on the agricultural levels and picturesque lower levels, adorned with flowers like orchids. In the main square of the Inca village is the ceremonial rock where animals were offered to the gods, the Temple of the Three Windows and the famous Temple of the Sun.
Check in at the entrance at 8am to return to the checkpoint by 10am after climbing to the highest point, with large steps at first, followed by a scramble along narrow paths. It’s not crowded until the summit, so expect a palpable feeling of joy and excitement with all the hikers at the top: prove it on Instagram, with a photo taken at the Machu Picchu 2 667,58m sign. Then, with a tremendous sense of accomplishment, you’ll return to the entrance to tick off your name and passport number, having completed your memorable climb.
ABOUT 70% OF THE ORIGINAL INCA SITE REMAINS, WITH LLAMAS STILL WANDERING ON THE AGRICULTURAL LEVELS AND PICTURESQUE LOWER LEVELS, ADORNED WITH FLOWERS LIKE ORCHIDS.
NEPAL: TAKING A BITE OUT OF THE APPLE PIE TRAIL
Sarah Duff is awed by the drama of one of the world’s best treks: the Annapurna Circuit
Starting in the villages dotted among the verdant Himalayan foothills of Nepal and rising 5 416m to the top of a snowy pass, surrounded by some of the highest mountains on the planet, the Annapurna Circuit is consistently ranked as one of the world’s best treks – and it’s easy to see why.
The sheer diversity of startling landscapes of the circuit is hard to beat: terraced rice fields, tangled jungle and red-speckled rhododendron thickets give way to patches of alpine forest and ice-blue rivers which turn into jagged snow- and glacier-encrusted peaks, looming over dramatic valleys and studded with photogenic grazing yaks. Each day’s hike is totally different: you wake up in one kind of landscape and fall asleep in another, feeling as if you’ve travelled hundreds of miles.
But the Annapurna Circuit isn’t just about captivating scenery – the trail also has more culture and history than you can shake a hiking pole at. Along the way you’ll come across ancient Buddhist monasteries built on lonely hilltops and carved into the mountainsides, spinning prayer wheels, stones carved with sacred mantras and atmospheric hamlets where some aspects of life haven’t changed in centuries. Every night you’ll sleep in village guesthouses and replenish your burnt kilojoules with delicious, hiker-friendly food – think curry, Tibetan dumplings, noodles, fried potatoes, yak cheese pizza and, of course, the apple pie after which the trek is nicknamed. You’ll also meet other trekkers from around the world.
The Annapurna Circuit, which ranges in length from 160-230km (there are various options for starting and end points) and takes two to three weeks to complete, is very demanding, especially if you’re carrying your own backpack (you can hire a porter to make the trek easier). The hardest part of it all is the altitude – the topmost point of the trail is higher than Everest Base Camp – and you need to do some research to protect yourself from altitude sickness, but the rewards of this physical challenge speak for themselves.
YOU WAKE UP IN ONE KIND OF LANDSCAPE AND FALL ASLEEP IN ANOTHER, FEELING AS IF YOU’VE TRAVELLED HUNDREDS OF MILES.