I’m crawling on all fours under a fallen tree when my backpack becomes stuck. To unravel myself I’m almost flat on my stomach, to no avail. Wriggling in all directions is of no use either. Nor is stronger than usual language, as neither the backpack nor the branches it is stuck to care to listen to my impassioned grunts.
I give another shove and land in a patch of thorns. Still stuck. A final screeching push gets me out from under the tree and on all fours. Back on two feet, I see my smiling brother-in-law Jacques videoing me on his cellphone. I am not impressed.
Suffering and laughing
But that’s how it goes on a hike. You suffer together, but you also laugh together and, if all else fails, you laugh at each other. And with this philosophy we managed to survive the three-night, 42-kilometre section of the Fanie Botha Hiking Trail between Sabie and Graskop, on the Drakensberg Escarpment in Mpumalanga.
The Fanie Botha was one of the first organised hikes in South Africa, originally intended to stretch all the way to somewhere in the Cape, covering more than 1 000 kilometres. This never materialised, but today the trail is a must-do for hikers, and a great warm-up for longer hikes.
My wife Mia, Jacques van Wyk, and friends Estian Cilliers, Lia and Hendri van Zyl and Megan and Jaco Becker are here to hike a section of the Fanie Botha Trail called the President Burger route.
This section begins with a night at the President Burger Hut, then a hike to the Graskop Hut, and finally a hike to the Mac Mac Hut. After Mac Mac it’s back to President Burger. The tramp leads through open grassland, pine plantations, indigenous forest and up and down hills of muscle-straining proportion.
A mandatory swim
But day one begins early in chill mode for us. We tuck into coffee and rusks, paste ourselves with necessary sunscreen, strap on our backpacks and head off at a leisurely pace. It’s downhill, and before we break into a sweat we’re among the rocks at Mac Mac Pools, one of the hike’s highlights.
The pools are a great place for a snack-stop, and a mandatory swim that includes bommies into the clear water from the rocky outcrops above. It’s a treat. In we jump, have our breath knocked away by the cold water, get out, warm up on the rocks in the sun, and repeat. More repeats are wanted but we have to move on. The first day starts easy, but ends with one of the toughest sections of hiking I have completed.
Leaving Mac Mac Pools, we slowly climb through open grassland, where the number of grass species is a highlight of the flora on the route. As an agricultural journalist I am used to spending time talking about grasses
and their pros and cons in cattle farming.
But here, where livestock hasn’t chomped a dent into the veld, there are at least ten species of grass, touched only by the seasons. It looks like a clever hand has planted it to mimic a well-designed indigenous garden.
An impenetrable mist
After the section through the grassland, comes a hellish descent followed by a mad climb. The start of the downhill path begins at about 1 500 metres above sea level and drops to about 1 050 metres in almost two kilometres. This is followed by a steep climb to 1 350 metres. That’s a whopping 450-metre descent followed by a 300-metre climb. With an overloaded backpack.
It’s here that I also realise I need a new backpack. Day one began with a squeak. Luckily not squeaky limbs, but unfortunately for myself and those around me, a squeaking backpack. Squeak when I move my right foot, squeak when I move my left foot, squeak when I climb over a tree stump.
This squeaking was a constant over the next few days.
“Can’t you oil it? Can’t you wash it?
Can’t you squeeaaaak …,” the constant offers of possible remedies for my backpack woes aren’t always heard above the squeaking.
After unravelling ourselves from the fallen tree we rest for half an hour before starting the uphill climb. The steady ascent is a murderer, and it isn’t long before we’re attacking it with hands on knees. The group’s comments about its steepness begin as jokes but soon verge on desperation. The last push is the worst, and we simply stop talking and hammer on to the end. And after this uphill battle, the easy stroll to the Graskop hut is tough because we’re already knackered.
At the hut, the old conversation that rears its head on any hike begins. What is worse? Uphill or downhill. Downhills might be easy, but they break your knees, and uphills, well… they are uphills. As the sun and the day fades, and a drop or three of red wine kicks in, memories of the day’s hills and how we gave it a bloody nose become the stuff of legend.
That night we break the rules and pull our mattresses onto the stoep. We curl up as an impenetrable mist covers the hills that surround us. Every now and then we wake in the dark to hear rain soak tomorrow’s trail.
Suffering in the hills
Next morning, we head back onto the Fanie Botha trail and into the mist that has now settled everywhere. The weather forecast had said we should expect to become wet, and out come the rain jackets and we tough it out. When lunchtime arrives we find a rock or a branch, to avoid sitting in the mud, and tuck into boerewors braaied the night before. The next two days are spent in fine mist and bouts of soft rain that soak shoes and pants.
The remainder of the hike is not as strenuous as the first day’s hilly battle, and there’s time for lengthier stops at waterfalls, or for moments sitting idly next to rivers, snacking on biltong and dark chocolate.
In the mist, the hills and trees appear and vanish as if in a dream, and it becomes harder to establish how far we are walking.
You can download a good map of the Fanie Botha hike but, as some of the plantation areas are now being cut and harvested, the route has changed in one or two places. For the final stretch to our cars we can’t follow the map that we downloaded from the internet, but hear from fellow hikers that there are markings to indicate where a new route will lead us to the next hut.
As the new route has only been marked from the one side we have to constantly look over our shoulders to see painted feet on trees and rocks, which indicate we are still on the right route. We manage not to get lost.
Unfortunately, the last couple of years have seen some neglect of the forestry huts, with many hikers commenting on the heyday, when the huts sparkled and showed no signs of disrepair. But everyone agrees. Suffering in the hills is far better than relaxing in the city, and the Fanie Botha Trail is a good place to do it.