First published in June 2010, this article goes back to the early days of the Garden Route trail, an endeavour that has subsequently expanded into the Karoo and this article will no doubt show you why. It will also show you why a good guide is a timeless boon.
A cheerful, well-informed, charismatic and engaging guide can make all the difference between an excellent hiking experience and a frustrating one. I get very upset with bad guides. In my opinion, they shouldn’t be guiding.
“Its an elephant,” one chap told me last year while I was hiking with him in Botswana. I looked at the man, a credited guide no less, and one for whom I had paid good money, and then I looked back at the elephant standing beside us.
“Is it?” I asked in mock seriousness. “I never would have known.”
The man nodded sagely, unable or unwilling to acknowledge my sarcasm, and off we drove to the next wildlife attraction. That weekend, thanks to the encyclopedic knowledge of my guide, I not only learned what an elephant looks like, but also a giraffe, a buffalo and a lion. I didn’t learn anything about them though.
Guides are not there just to lead you down a path. They should be the interface between the visitor and an area’s secrets and treasures. A good guide can make a bad trail good and a good trail fantastic. A bad guide can make the Egyptian pyramids and the Serengeti migration seem boring.
Mark Dixon is not one of the bad guides. In fact, we were just a few minutes into his 60km Garden Route ‘slackpacking’ trail when I started forming the impression that he might be one of the best guides in Africa; an opinion which remained with me throughout the subsequent five days of hiking and kayaking with him.
Mark has an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world (both local and international) and likes nothing better than to share it with his clients. He hardly ever stops talking but, unlike most chatterboxes, he fails to bore. Instead, I found his commentary both enthralling and entertaining, and by the end of the trail I had learned all about the Garden Route’s diverse ecosystems, plants and animals.
“Watch what the oystercatcher does next,” he instructed our little group of barefoot hikers as we crouched behind a rock not 20 metres away from the bird. “It will wedge that clam into the sand and wait.” And that’s exactly what it did.
“Now, when the clam opens its shell slightly in a bid to rebury itself, the oystercatcher will slip its sharp beak inside and snip away the muscle holding the two halves of the shell together.”
And, on cue, the bird did just that.
“The clam is now doomed. Look, there goes the meat down the oystercatcher’s gullet. Now quick, follow me, I want to show you something else.”
We all gathered around the empty shell which the bird had abandoned, wondering what it was that Mark wanted us to see.
“Wait for it, wait for it,” he said. “Ah, here they come now,” and as if by magic a dozen or so sail-footed snails appeared from beneath the wet sand and moved post-haste towards the scraps.
“They will clean up any clam meat left by the bird and then sink beneath the sand again until something else alerts them to the presence of food.”
And that’s pretty much what it was like all throughout the trail. Mark would bring to our attention some unseen but interesting fact, be it how a caterpillar makes its cocoon, how a dune moves or where a cormorant likes to breed, and then, more often than not, conjure up a demonstration to reinforce his story.
“Watch what happens when I throw this piece of jellyfish way over there by the surf,” he said as we congregated around a huge amorphous blob of translucent rubber. With that he tossed a globlet and, as soon as it landed, yet more snails grew from the ground like miniature zombies rising from their graves. “Don’t you just love nature,” asked Mark; a rhetorical question of course.
Our fully catered Garden Route Trail (with baggage portaging) began with a night in the wooden chalets of the Wilderness National Park’s Ebb and Flow campsite. Fish-Eagles circled above, calling plaintively, while Guineafowl ran around in haphazard circles, complaining about something only they had cause to complain about. A tree full of nesting Weaver birds added their voices to an avian orchestra already somewhat overpowering, and then the Hadedas joined in. All other sounds were eclipsed.
The following morning we took a leisurely stroll through coastal fynbos where Mark, a biologist, ecologist and environmentalist, showed us all sorts of beautiful little flowers and orchids and spiders and butterflies, none of which we would have noticed were it not for his eagle eyes.
“You know that the Garden Route got its name because there were so many flowers here in the old days? Sadly, much of the natural environment has been buried beneath developments and alien plantations. But there are still magical gems left, such as this spot here in the Wilderness National Park.”
For the rest of that day we kayaked up the beautiful Touw River, then walked along forest trails to the foot of a cascading waterfall where we ate sandwiches and muffins. Turacos flitted above us in the branches, as did vervet monkeys and butterflies.
The following day we went along Wilderness’s wide open beaches – a beautiful stretch of coastline if ever there was one, despite the huge amount of development happening in that corner of the country. Opulent mansions were crowded atop the lip of a crested dune; all of them vying for dominance and the best views in town.
It wasn’t long though before we left the houses behind and found ourselves walking through a soft-focus world of fossilised dunes, crashing waves, and pretty coastal fynbos. “We are not trying to cover vast distances on this hike,” Mark told me as we watched dolphins at play beyond the crests of waves. “Its far better that we take our time and really look at what it is we see. Ooh, look! A nautilus shell. Now gather round people, I want to tell you some fascinating facts about the nautilus . . .”
Leisurely we passed the little coastal village of Kleinkrans, then moved on through some of the most dramatic coastal scenery I think I’ve ever seen (even when compared to Tsitsikamma). Orange cliffs festooned with cormorants rose from the sands while thunderous waves crashed against jagged rocks like giant watery fists. It was then but a short and exhilarating rowing boat trip across the Sedgefield estuary mouth before we bedded down for the night in a beachfront hotel.
The following day, as we walked through yet more dramatic coastal scenery, Mark told me how he got the idea of establishing a slackpacking trail on the Garden Route.
“The concept came to me about 11 years ago, after I’d travelled the world and had some profound experiences on hiking trails. I was working in the Antarctic as a fisheries observer at the time and felt I should come home and do something like this before anybody else did.”
Mark told me he loves his job and wouldn’t trade it for the world. “Even when I don’t have clients, I come out here to see what’s going on.” He knows just about every oystercatcher, every rock pool, every tree and every bit of man-made erosion along every kilometre of his route.
The second half of that day we went inland a short distance and into CapeNature’s lush and verdant Goukamma Reserve (a 2500ha park and marine protected area) where we were subjected to yet more stunning scenery and flowering fynbos bushes. The Outeniqua Mountains could be seen rising to the north, while the cobalt-coloured ocean continued to send a light diffusing spray into the southern skies. There were yet more dolphins in the waves.
That evening we had a fantastic fish braai at our CapeNature rondavels, went to bed early and fell asleep listening to the distant, crashing surf.
Day 4 saw us back in a kayak again, only this time we were rowing up the placid waters of the Goukamma River, a lovely stretch of water which meanders past giant sand dunes and rolling rural countryside. The birding was magnificent and we saw a variety of kingfishers, wading birds and all sorts of other feathered thingies. Mark’s commentary accompanied us every paddle stroke of the way.
The final day saw us hiking along the river and back onto the beach at Buffels Bay before heading to our final destination at Brenton-on-Sea.
It had been an awesome trail; an adventure and a learning experience that gave me neither blisters nor backaches. Every night my bags turned up mysteriously at our lodgings, and every day we were treated to Mark’s home-made muffins in our packed lunches (he drives home every evening to bake them).
During the trail I’d felt as though I was a thousand miles from civilisation, and at the end of it I felt relaxed (something you don’t usually expect from a hike).
The Garden Route Trail is a very good trail and showcases the best of the area’s nature and scenery. But the thing that sets it aside from many other slackpacking trails is Mark Dixon’s enthusiasm, dedication and encyclopedic knowledge of the area. Oh, If only all guides were as good!
Photos Dale Morris