Twenty days in the wilderness. A total of 400km along ancient elephant paths, starting from Knysna Forest. The annual Eden to Addo hike through the most biodiverse corridor on the planet is only for bravehearts…
Words: Fiona McIntosh
Pictures: Shaen Adey and Christopher Willis
“There, do you see it?” asks Sarah Ellis, pointing to a small brown butterfly barely distinguishable from the stone on which it’s landed. It’s early afternoon, the time of day when butterflies are most active. The time when we enjoy watching Christopher Willis, a passionate lepidopterist, darting around trying to photograph skoenlappers.
We’ve become increasingly experienced and eager spotters, and he’s snapped nearly 25 species so far. But apparently this one, Murray’s Skolly (Thestor murrayi), is a special. So our merry band of hikers is happy to smell the flowers as Chris documents the beauty.
And the flowers on the fynbos-covered slopes of the Kouga mountains that we’re traversing are a treat. From its start at Diepwalle, in the pristine indigenous forest of the Garden of Eden, the Eden to Addo Corridor Hike (E2A) is an enchanting journey.
Running from the Garden Route National Park, through the Baviaanskloof World Heritage Site to Addo Elephant National Park, this corridor is the world’s most biodiverse, with fynbos, forest, thicket, succulent Karoo and Nama Karoo biomes. But more than that it’s a chance to immerse ourselves in the wilderness, to walk through restricted areas and learn about their diverse habitats. And to better know ourselves.
For Sarah Ellis the 20-day expedition is proving an exercise in perseverance and managing expectations. Even though we’re ‘slackpacking’ in that our bags are driven around and we’re thoroughly spoilt by a professional crew that makes and breaks camp and feeds us like kings and queens, walking 400km on rough, barely-trodden paths, sleeping on the ground and washing in a bucket, in the river or with wet wipes on most nights, is a mental and physical challenge.
“E2A is hugely energising. The scenery and the remoteness are so good for the soul. But having to get up, put on grubby or, worse, wet clothes and then hike for 20-30km through rain or shine for days on the trot calls for vasbyt,” she says.
There are days when our resilience is tested to the max. Early in the walk we had bundu-bashed through head-high fynbos, reaching camp after sunset. Yesterday we arrived exhausted at the Kouga River to find it in flood. Colin Wylie, our resourceful lead guide, quickly resorted to Plan B – a route change that still involved wading through chest-high, freezing water.
Our guides are exceptional, constantly upbeat and eager to interpret the natural landscape. Colin and Sarah Hearn are fundis on the flora and birds, while Athi Diba is a professional tracker.
“I feel the sheer delight of a child while walking through these landscapes,” says Faiza Leith. “Many of the country’s hiking trails were not open to coloured people in my youth. So I’m playing catch-up.” And how. She and Anna signed up for E2A 2016 the day we finished.
Leaving the Kouga we climb up to Drogheda, an abandoned farm in the Langkloof Corridor, where hike organiser, Herman Nieuwoudt, awaits with new supplies. The wine and beer cooler is restocked, fillets are on the fire and an apple pie bakes in the Dutch oven – the gourmet meals that chef Phillip Solomon rustles up from his bush kitchen defy belief. Many of the tracks we’ve walked are old wagon trails, some with fabulous old stonework and bridges, and we’ve developed an interest in the history of the region.
I emerge from my tent in the morning to find thick mist engulfing the valleys. The peaks stick out like islands in a Japanese watercolour. Walking above the clouds we’re startled by vegetation that changes so abruptly. Colourful fynbos, studded with striking yellow daisies and pincushions, suddenly gives way to drab rhenosterveld or forests of tall aloes. We stop often to gaze back along the route at vistas that are one of the most magnificent aspects of the trail.
“Ag nee man (Oh no!),” protests Salomé van Wyk as she surveys the snaking path up yet another hill. Her phrase has become something of a mantra. With the support of fellow members of the Berg-en-Dal Hiking Club – who gamely hiked with her throughout the winter months – the George-based attorney trained hard. She’s found the endless climbs and descents tough, but her sense of humour has kept us all going.
“I’d read a lot about iconic, long-distance hikes like the Appalachian Trail (3 480km) and the Camino de Santiago (800km),” says Salomé. “But I wanted to do a South African hike. E2A fitted the bill perfectly.”
That resonates with me. Since it launched in 2006, E2A has been on my bucket list, largely because it offers a unique opportunity to trek through parts of the country I could never otherwise visit.
Communication with the ‘outside world’ is discouraged on the hike but for the next three days we’ll be totally out of cellphone range anyway. “I’d been hoping to hear the results of my 17-year-old son’s music exam,” says Santjie du Plessis as we head down into the kloof.
Ironically, Santjie is hiking to disconnect. She works for a global company where colleagues expect an almost instantaneous response even though they’re in different time zones. The first thing she does in the morning and the last thing she does at night is check her phone. So the detachment is important. But it’s not easy.
Nick Rowley, the youngest member of the group, is a trader who recently relocated from Johannesburg to the Garden Route. Part of why he signed up for E2A was to regain his fitness after an injury. But just as important was the need to step away in order to get perspective on his life.
The hike has also given us perspective on the challenges facing the natural environment we’re walking through. The E2A route connects three of South Africa’s natural treasures – the Knysna Forest (part of the Garden Route National Park) the Baviaanskloof World Heritage Site and the Addo Elephant National Park. Thanks to the work of Joan Berning, CEO of the E2A Corridor Initiative, and her team, private farmers along the route, have given over sections of their land to conservation, creating a vital link for the movement of wildlife and the preservation of biodiversity in times of climate change.
Joan lives high on a hilltop outside Plettenberg Bay. “I couldn’t stop thinking about the elephants that live almost on my doorstep,” she says. “The road builders that once roamed freely. Private landownership and fencing have restricted their movement so I was determined to re-open the natural corridors that I could see from home.”
After meetings with conservation bodies and private landowners it became clear that the best way to identify optimal routes for those corridors would be on foot. In 2005, as part of his masters on conservation corridors, Galeo Saintz offered to do the recce. The E2A corridor is now a reality, with the annual hike a pilgrimage for biodiversity that raises funds for, and awareness of, this fascinating area of land.
“I didn’t know it would be so beautiful” exclaims Anna Kapp in almost childlike wonder. The oldest hiker in the group, she has completed five variants of the Camino de Santiago. “I needed to get away when my husband died,” she explains. “I hiked the Camino to recuperate. Walking is healthy, so I haven’t stopped.”
When I ask how E2A compares with the famous Spanish pilgrimage her look is almost reprimanding. “The Camino de Santiago is easy, even for novices. It’s along a well-beaten, ancient track and for much of the way there are cafés, shops, hotels and hostels. You can walk at your own pace. This is much tougher” she insists.
But the underlying reason most people sign up for the two journeys is the same. We simply don’t have time in our busy lives to take stock and reflect. Long-distance hikes give space to reassess, rejuvenate and heal. Other than in the big game regions of the Baviaans and Addo, where the presence of buffalo, elephant and black rhino necessitates walking as a tight group, we’re able to walk alone. Which most of us do.
I’m deep in thought when we stop for lunch. As we rest, a couple of mountain reedbuck bound past. Athi quietly points to the cause of their flight. We see a bushy tail, then some dirt being thrown up in the air. Finally the honey badger emerges. “It’s very unusual to see them in the day,” remarks Colin. “I’ve seen them in the Knysna Forest but only at dusk and dawn.”
Our days in the Baviaans exceed my expectations, the route showcasing the diversity of this World Heritage Site, a biosphere reserve that’s home to seven of South Africa’s eight biomes.
For much of the route we’re on a gravel road that winds its way up and down the steep passes. We follow the river through dense thicket and indigenous forest filled with birds. Kudus eye us through the foliage as we walk past in wonder. Back on high ground, we soak in the views and study the ridges of silhouetted black mountains. There are moments of high adrenalin when we encounter buffalo on the trail and around camp. And the colours of the vygies, daisies and other flowers are so intense it looks as if I’ve set my camera to ‘vivid’.
My favourite camp is at Rooihoek, where baboons loot our tents and cheeky monkeys entertain us as we bath at ‘Baviaans Beach’, the white sands set against a backdrop of glowing red cliffs. As darkness falls we sip our G&Ts and listen to jackals calling, then dine in style on the riverbank. This is wilderness adventure at its very best.
A few days later, when Anna leads the rejoicing but footsore group into Addo Elephant National Park, everyone shares Joan’s dream that one day the elusive Knysna elephants will again walk the paths we have trodden. E2A is one tough hike, but it will change your outlook forever.
Up to it?
- Although it’s a ‘slackpack’ and your overnight bags are transported between camps, you need to be fit, strong and resilient to enjoy E2A.