A tall drink of Waterberg… Fiona McIntosh slackpacks the Rhenosterpoort in Limpopo and falls for its charms…
Pictures: Shaen Adey and Tim Hartwright
‘Other than the Num-Num Trail, do you know of any slackpacking trails in Mpumalanga and Limpopo?’ came the request from a stranger who had somehow tracked down my email address. I groaned. If I had a rand for every time I was asked that question I’d be rich.
But it’s odd. The Num-Num Trail – a 3-5 day, self-guided and self-catered trail in Mpumalanga’s Skurweberg, on which, in slackpacking-style, there’s the option to have your bags driven around between the lovely camps – has gone from strength to strength. But for some reason there are very few multi-day slackpacking trails upcountry.
There’s the new Kudu’s Valley Trail, which is a real spoil with luxury accommodation and gourmet food; and bag transfer can be arranged on the Thabaphaswa (September 2015 issue) and Stamvrug (June 2015 issue) trails, for example, leaving you free to hike between camps with only a daypack. But as far as I’m aware, there are no other long-distance trails that even offer just luggage transfer, never mind upmarket accommodation and other common slackpacker luxuries.
So it got me thinking. Why are slackpacking trails concentrated in the coastal provinces? Most upcountry hikes, it seems, are either traditional-style backpacking trails with rustic huts – think Magoebaskloof, Fanie Botha, Prospector’s and the other overnight hiking trails managed by Komatie Eco-Tourism – or base-camp hikes where you drive to the overnight camp and then do circular day walks. Land access is clearly part of the explanation. Many of the well-known slackpacking trails such as the Wild Coast Meander and the Oystercatcher Trail are along the coast, on public land. Several, such as the Whale Trail and Cape of Good Hope Hiking Trail, are in national or provincial parks and reserves.
Others, such as the Green Mountain Trail, traverse conservancies (associations between state and private landowners) where the trail developers have negotiated specific land-use agreements – in this case, with a condition that all trails are led by accredited guides. There seems to be little such collaboration upcountry – partly, I suspect, because many of the farms are game farms.
And then there’s the time factor. Most of the trails around Gauteng are geared towards the weekend hiking market rather than those seeking a multi-day hiking holiday in a beautiful place. So driving to a base camp after work on a Friday and not having to worry about logistics for the rest of the weekend makes sense.
“I think it’s also that trail developers up here are a bit behind,” suggested Gauteng-based Tim Hartwright, when I asked if he could offer an explanation. Now Tim should know. The chairman of the Footprint Hiking Club (a family hiking club based in Johannesburg) for many years and owner of Jacana Travel Marketing and Reservations (the largest marketing and booking organisation for hiking and trekking tours in Southern Africa) Tim’s been hiking since before I was born. Having recently published Gauteng Hikes & Walks, he’s now completing his second book, 99 Hikes in Southern Africa. In short, Tim is South Africa’s hiking fundi.
Intrigued, I asked him to point me in the direction of some of the best trails in Limpopo and Mpumalanga, and then started planning a trip ‘up north’ to investigate the current multi-day hiking scene. I was pleased to discover that many of the trails I walked when I lived in Joburg were still going strong, and was even more pleased that there were several unfamiliar ones. “Definitely check out Limpopo’s Rhenosterpoort Hiking Trail,” Tim insisted. So I added that to my list.
Surviving the dirt road from Alma, a small town near Vaalwater, we arrived on the Rhenosterpoort farm in the northern Waterberg after a pleasant three-hour drive from Joburg. Sharyn le Roux and her husband Anton talked us through the trail options as we greedily devoured Sharyn’s home-made scones.
There are two hiker camps so you have the hardcore option of backpacking between them, or using either camp as your base and doing day hikes. We opted for the former and installed ourselves at Dassie Camp to prepare for an early start on the circular, overnight route.
The following morning we spied a couple of kudu lurking in the foliage as we strode out on the trail. A Fish Eagle called from a high perch and, by the time we reached the first waterfall soon after leaving camp, I was grateful to Tim for the tip-off.
This is an absolute gem of a trail that exhibits all that you’d expect from the Waterberg – wonderful gorges, streams and mountains, and game sightings to boot. It had rained recently so the falls were dramatic, with deep, enticing swimming holes. And the bush was lush and alive with the chattering birds.
We climbed steeply out of the forest to a lookout point, from where, to our relief, the terrain changed to easier-angled grassland before a rocky path took us over a ridge and down to a magnificent gorge. Taking off our boots we bathed our weary feet and clambered carefully down the small rock steps and chutes between the pools before continuing to the overnight camp, tucked away in the shade of big indigenous trees.
And what a camp it was, attractively built out of stone and thatch with a cosy braai area. In addition to the luxury of a hot shower, flush loo and gas stove there was an ice box so we celebrated a fine day out with cold beers. With sliding glass doors fronting the sleeping area and a large covered kitchen, it was certainly not your average hiker hut. Very comfortable indeed.
Day two saw us picking up another stream again, crossing it several times before leaving the watercourse for a final steep climb out of the valley to another spectacular viewpoint. We paused to take in the far-reaching vistas, unusual geology and diverse biomes of this rugged landscape, the dense bush and the forest birds so different to the fynbos-covered mountains of my usual stomping grounds in the Western Cape. Then it was down again on a steep, boulder-strewn track before the final gentle stroll back to Dassie Camp.
Although only eight kilometres, the day’s hike had been tough so a final swim in the nearby rock pool went down a treat before we said our farewells.
Sadly, since then, Anton has passed away but Sharyn has kept the flag flying. And Rhenosterpoort is certainly one of the loveliest weekend trails in the country. The trip had been interesting. I’m no wiser as to why there’s a dearth of slackpacking trails, but I can confirm that there are some superb hiking trails in Mpumalanga and Limpopo.
Up to it?
Although the distances are fairly short (12km on day one and 8km on day two) there are some steep ascents and descents over rugged terrain so you need to be moderately fit and agile to do the two-day backpacking trail. Weaker hikers would be better to do day walks from either of the camps.
When to go?
The trail is open year round but spring and autumn are the best times to hike it.
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