Do the skywalk… The Wartrail district of the Eastern Cape Highlands is also known as ‘The Wild Side of the Drakensberg’. For good reason, as Fiona McIntosh discovered on this stiff but luxurious trail…
Words: Fiona McIntosh
Pictures: Fiona McIntosh and supplied
‘‘The fossil you’re looking for is about 183 million years old,” Phil Harrison from Wild Mountain Adventures informed us as he tested our archaeological skills. Eventually we spotted the fossilised remains of a dinosaur, Massospondylus, protruding from the sandstone rocks. This was the third piece of time travel in as many days, with earlier diversions taking us to a wonderfully preserved San rock art site dating back hundreds of years, and a private museum of hand-operated tools showcasing settler ingenuity at its best.
I’d been blown away by the magnificent scenery and the warmth of local hospitality on my first visit to Wild Mountain Country, when I competed in one of South Africa’s toughest trail runs – the Skyrun. There are no marked paths on this 100km challenge and navigation is key to success so, as a first-timer, I was looking for guidance.
Salvation came in the form of an athletic-looking young man, accompanied by two equally fit women, striding out across the hills, their gait so purposeful I knew they were local. I tagged in behind them and we started chatting. By the end of the race I’d heard enough to convince me that I needed to return to enjoy the views, tumbling streams, rock art and mountain wildlife of this little-known but exquisitely beautiful part of South Africa.
Fast forward six years and I’m finally back on the trail – this time in slow mode, enjoying my creature comforts. The hills haven’t got any smaller so it’s still a stiff walk, but every night there’s a hearty evening meal, wine and a soft bed. Best of all, in the vein of most slackpacking trails, this is not just a hike but a memorable journey from which I returned enlightened and refreshed. Most of the farmers are descendants of the original 1820 settlers, and they love to regale you with stories and often invite you to join them on their day-to-day activities such as sheep-shearing or feeding their cute Hansie lambs.
We arrived at Reedsdell Country Guest Farm, our base for the first two nights of the trail, in the afternoon and were shown to a lovely, old two-bedroom sandstone cottage with a roaring log fire, sun terrace below, farm-style furniture and a big old-fashioned bath.
One of the initiatives on the farm, the Masibambane Knitting Project, encourages local women to start their own business by supplying them with skills training, equipment and an outlet for their products, so we quickly browsed through the knitted beanies, scarves and children’s jerseys at their Woolly’s in Wartrail Craft Shop, before meeting the guides. After a superb meal of fresh farm produce, we sat out under the stars looking at the outlines of the peaks we’d be exploring for the next few days.
Although this is very much a luxury trail, with ever-attendant guides and hosts trying to anticipate your every need, it’s not a walk in the park. In fact the next morning was a bit of a rude start, with a fairly steep climb to Lundean’s Nek, at 2 162 metres above sea level one of the highest points of the trail. But our efforts were rewarded. As we gazed over the mountains of Lesotho and down into deep river gorges we soon realised why the region has been dubbed Wild Mountain Country.
“The Wartrail area, below Lundean’s Nek, was the old border between the former homeland of Transkei and the Cape Province,” explained Kate Nelson, our guide. “Its name comes from the days when King Moshoeshoe of Lesotho and Phuthi chief Moorosi sent cattle-raiding parties over the neck and through Moshesh’s Ford to rustle the stock of the Thembu people living beneath the escarpment around Maclear.”
As we surveyed the tranquil surroundings it was hard to imagine such a tumultuous past – though I dare say there’s still a fair bit of skulduggery in these remote parts that we’re blissfully unaware of!
We continued along the ridge and dropped to a river for a picnic lunch and swim before meandering back to the guest house, weary but content.
For the next couple of days we explored the area at a leisurely pace, meandering along river valleys, listening to the birds, checking out a San rock art site and enjoying the fresh mountain air. Kate soon gauged that our group contained those of a botanical bent, and stopped often to enlighten us about the flora. “This is ouhout, Leucosidea sericea, one of the indigenous trees found in the area,” she explained as we began the steep trek up Halstone Krans.
“It produces nectar utilised by bees and other insects. The wood burns slowly and produces a lot of smoke like old and decaying wood, and this, together with the appearance of the flaky bark, has given rise to the tree’s common name meaning ‘old wood’. Local people hang the branches and leaves as charms to protect the inhabitants of homesteads, and also to make knobkerries. During initiation ceremonies in Lesotho, a young boy would come back from his three months in the bush carrying a large and a smaller knobkerrie, thereby delivering the message to his mother and the village that he was now a man. The Zulu people use a paste made from the crushed leaves of ouhout for treating ophthalmia.”
Thanks to the fascinating commentary and considerate pace, we barely noticed the sustained climb to the top of the 2 464m peak. From the rocky summit a great precipice dropped away on one side and we could see back to Reedsdell, Halstone and down to our next port of call, Bidstone Guest Farm, reached by an exciting route over great slabs of rock shot through with white quartzite and other minerals, and down slopes strewn with delicate little blue moraeas and everlasting flowers.
And just when we thought it couldn’t get better we realised this had all been a build-up to a magnificent finale. The final day took us over hill and down dale deep into Wild Mountain Country. Lammergeiers (Bearded Vultures) soared above the precipitous cliffs, and secret paths led to tumbling waterfalls and through more beautiful pastures of alpine wildflowers, before we rounded off the trail with a swim at a secluded rock pool.
It was a fabulous escape. But I still can’t get my head around dinosaurs roaming around these wild mountains.
Up to it?
This is a demanding, high-altitude trail with some steep climbs and descents that require a good level of fitness – but there are low-level options for those who want a more leisurely walk. For much of the way you are on cattle paths or rough terrain so sturdy footwear is important.
When to go
The trail can be hiked year round, but spring and autumn offer the most pleasant hiking weather.