Inspired by the Camino de Santiago – the long-distance pilgrimage across northern Spain – the Cape Camino around the Peninsula is equally enthralling…
Words: Fiona McIntosh
Pictures: Shaen Adey
Light falls through the trees of the tranquil gardens at Schoenstatt Retreat in Groot Constantia, where we’re gathered for the start of the Cape Camino. Despite living in Cape Town for nearly three decades, it’s the first time I’ve ventured into this Roman Catholic chapel. Some pilgrims light candles, others wander around the grounds, much to the annoyance of the Egyptian Geese.
“The Cape Camino is inspired by the Camino de Santiago [Way of St James], which my daughter Peggy Coetzee-Andrew and I walked in 2011,” explains founder Gabrielle Andrew. “Our local version takes in the diversity of Cape Town’s sacred sites and natural wonders.”
After two and a half years of research, Gabrielle and Peggy identified a route around the Cape Peninsula, which takes in the City of Cape Town and Cape Point and, by crossing over the Peninsula twice at Constantia Nek, forms the shape of the infinity symbol.
The full Cape Camino route is about 160km long (the Camino de Santiago is about 600km) but it’s designed to be walked in seven sections, or legs, of about 16-25km. Our walk, a fundraising event for StreetSmart SA (a charity that supports the rehabilitation of Cape Town street children), comprises two consecutive legs – Wine to Water from Constantia Nek to Muizenberg, and Whale Tale that finishes in Simon’s Town.
As we wait for everyone to assemble we study the maps. They show the route for each daily leg, with a fact box of useful info – distance, terrain, tips and tricks, refreshment stops and the contact numbers of emergency services, accommodation providers and other Camino partners. Today’s journey to Muizenberg will take us to the kramats (shrines of Islam) and other sacred sites, through the exquisite fynbos of the Cape Floral Kingdom and past some of the Cape’s most picturesque wine estates.
Gabrielle introduces our Khoisan guides Collin Meyer, who works with Transcending History Tours, and Paul Searle, an artist who studied journalism before co-founding Tip of Africa Travel. His speciality is medicinal plants and orchids, hence his moniker the Medicine Man.
“I always wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago but couldn’t find the money,” says Paul. When he heard about the Cape Camino he was determined to be involved. We’re given T-shirts bearing the words Walk your Way.
“As on the Camino de Santiago, the route, the places that you stop to visit, where you stay and the pace at which you walk are your choice,” Gaby explains.
On the Cape Camino there’s lots of choice. There is no determined start or end, rather the suggested legs optimise the logistical support available for pilgrims. And although a pilgrimage is usually considered a healing or cleansing experience, generally undertaken for religious or spiritual reasons, or for some introspection, if you’re just looking for an interesting, scenic hike, you’re welcome.
It’s a short walk to the gates of Klein Constantia wine estate where we stop at the kramats of Sheikh Abdurahman Matebe Shah and Sayed Mahmud, two holy men of the Muslim faith who died on the Cape Peninsula in the 17th century. Their graves, holy shrines of Islam, are two of some 20 kramats on the Peninsula.
From there it’s on to the Constantia Greenbelt, evocatively described by one walker as, “an enchanted forest that leads pilgrims down to the cool seaside”.
Like the Camino de Santiago this is an urban walk, and for much of the way we’re on tarred roads. But one of the beauties of ‘The Way’ is that there are often route options: you can take mountain paths if you feel like more of a challenge. Central to this flexibility, and, of course, important from a personal security aspect, is the availability of qualified local guides that Gaby has identified, many of them Khoisan.
Passing through Buitenverwachting in the heart of the Constantia Winelands, we reluctantly acknowledge that our pace is too slow to allow a wine-tasting detour, and press on to Steenberg Village where the Italian restaurant Basilico is offering pilgrims a lunch special.
Then it’s the final stretch along scenic Boyes Drive – with its spectacular view of Muizenberg Beach and across False Bay to Hangklip and the Cape Fold Mountains – before a knee-jarring descent into Muizenberg to our various accommodation providers. Some pilgrims stay at the African Soul Backpackers next to Tiger’s Milk restaurant, others ‘couchsurf’ with local residents.
The Camino guides, hosts and transport providers come from diverse backgrounds. “I realised how the Camino could raise capacity in the areas that it passes through, so try to share the spoils,” says Gaby. She sees it as a nation-building movement. “One objective is to encourage micro-businesses. This is a massive self-employment initiative,” she insists, referring also to its slogan ‘Peace, Unity, Sustainability’.
Once settled we go our different ways. It’s the Saturday closest to the full moon so those who still have energy stride out with regulars on the monthly Muizenberg Moonlight Meander. Others join the Hare Krishna group of pilgrims in meditation on the beachfront.
The following day on the Whale Tale leg, I catch up with Peggy, who spends much of her time developing the Cape Camino website. “Most people book online, but we can tailor-make packages too,” she tells me. “In the beginning a guy called Eric Bruce, from Chicago, jumped on a plane and walked the Cape Camino. We didn’t even know he was here. It was a mission getting his T-shirt to Chicago. I see the Cape Camino as a new culture for South Africa. A walking culture that clears minds and opens hearts. A culture that connects unlikely people, sparks opportunities and spreads truths about this beautiful world we live in. It’s inspiring.”
A few weeks later, I walk with Lettie Squire-Christie, a visitor from George. Although the route is the same, the experience is very different. As we walk from the winelands to Steenberg Village she’s struck by the inequalities. On the one side of the road is Steenberg Farm with its extensive vineyards, top-notch hotel, restaurants and houses flanking the golf course. On the other, are Pollsmoor Prison and the informal settlement at Westlake Village.
Lettie puts her head in her hands. “This reminds me of my trip to India,” she says. “The rich and those with nothing living right across the tracks from each other.” Listening to her, I reflect that walking gives a completely different perspective to your experience in a vehicle; and that personal observations like these are as spiritually moving as visits to the sacred sites.
“I couldn’t do this walk in a group,” Lettie tells me, when I describe the fundraising walk. “I needed to do it on my own, to connect again with nature.” Having lost her husband 18 months previously, she was trying to find her rhythm again. Hiring guides to walk with her on the Cape Camino offered a safe, inspiring and physically challenging means to that end.
A key site on the route is Peers Cave in Sun Valley. One of the most southerly rock art sites in Africa, this sacred sanctuary was also an ancient burial ground from where, in the 1920s, numerous human skeletons were roughly excavated. Lettie’s Khoisan guide, known as Ishaqua, leads us on the steep path up to Ascension Cave, a place of cleansing in the Peers Cave complex.
A highly experienced guide, and environmental educator for SANParks, Ishaqua works closely with Dean Liprini, leader of the Sacred Site Foundation of Southern Africa, so has a profound understanding of the significance of
Before we enter the caves, he points out medicinal and edible plants – honeybush tea, wild olive, cancer bush and the small evergreen rhus. Impepho (Helichrysum cymosum), which is very important in Khoisan ceremonies, also grows outside the cave.
“Burning impepho allows you to relax and be more in touch with your senses and with your ancestors,” Ishaqua explains. “It’s used by traditional healers to communicate with the deceased.”
He’s a wonderful narrator, who explains that these vast shelters have long been a spiritual place for the Khoisan, visited in times of stress and during rites of passage. “See if you can spot the two stone guardians” he challenges.
We clamber up and around the hard, sandstone rock. Almost translucent, it looks like porcelain, polished by the number of reverent hands that have touched it over the centuries. A short scramble takes us to the entrance of the cave, which is actually more like a big elevated arch, from where we can gaze out the other side over the southern Peninsula.
Explaining the unique alignment of the site, Ishaqua invites us to meditate. We sit in silence for 10 minutes, feeling the energy of the place and the cooling breeze.
He leads us down to the main cave that houses the poorly preserved rock art paintings. We’re horrified to find that the walls are covered with graffiti, and the floor area and approach paths with litter. “This is the only Khoisan Heritage Site for 150km,” Ishaqua tells us, so the vandalism is particularly distressing.
As we pick our way down the rough path towards Fish Hoek, Ishaqua is in philosophical mood. “The environment is changing, the universe is expanding. What about us?” he queries. “We need to reconnect otherwise we’ll be left behind.”
I nod, acutely aware of how the Cape Camino has opened my eyes to the extraordinary spirituality and questioning nature of the many people I’ve met on the journey.
I follow up with Lettie a few months later. The reconnection she made on the Camino has helped her move on. She has joined a walking group and is now hiking regularly. “Did I find my rhythm? That’s still work in progress,” she tells me.
“But the Cape Camino is a wonderful experience. We so easily forget about the gems in our own backyard and where we come from. But by walking the Camino we become aware again, and appreciate.”
In a Nutshell
The total distance is between 130-160km, depending on the route you choose. You can start your journey anywhere along the the Cape Camino but, for simplicity sake, the route is divided into seven legs:
- Wine to Water: Constantia Nek to Muizenberg, 18km. Visit Schoenstatt Shrine, Kramat of Shaykh Abdurahman Matebe Shah in Klein Constantia and Levi’s Garden.
- Whale Tale: Muizenberg to Simon’s Town, 16km. There is also the option to walk via Peers Cave and sleep in Sunny Cove, also a distance of 16km. This means an extra leg of 10km from Sunny Cove to Simon’s Town. Visit Khoisan fishing traps along the coastline, Peers Cave if walking that way, the conservation area in Fish Hoek and Noorul Heritage Museum in Simon’s Town.
- Cape Buchu: Simon’s Town to Scarborough, 25km. Visit Noorul Heritage Museum (depending on where you ended on Whale Tale), Shamballah Buddhist Centre and Scarborough beach.
- Lady Lighthouse: Scarborough to Hout Bay, 20km (excluding Chapman’s Peak). Visit Byzantine Chanting Monks, Kommetjie, Scarborough beach and Touch Wood in Hout Bay.
- Atlantic Sunsets: Hout Bay to Sea Point, 17km (excluding Karbonkelberg extension). Visit Oudekraal, Karamat of Sheikh Ali Sayed Bassier, Maidens Cove, Karamat of Sheikh Mohamed Hassen Ghaibie Shah on Signal Hill, the green belt conservation area and Temple Israel in Green Point.
- Colours and Culture (known as The Way of the Water): Sea Point to Rhodes Memorial through the city, 17km. Visit water points and springs around the City of Cape Town.
- Mountain Shade: Rhodes Memorial to Constantia Nek, 17km. Visit Rhodes Memorial, the living grounds of the Khoisan on the slopes of Table Mountain and finish at Schoenstatt Shrine.
Up to it?
- A once-off Infinity Ticket gives access to the route in detail – maps, sacred sites and places of interest, discounts, service providers and forums to connect with other pilgrims. Tailor-made packages can be arranged.
- Walk as much or as little as you like. Much of the route is on tar – hard on the feet and the mind – but you can hike mountain paths and use transport to avoid less interesting sections or detour to places such as Cape Point that are not on the main Camino Route.
- Dogs are welcome, but if you take routes through any section of Table Mountain National Park you need
a My Activity Permit for Dog Walking. www.sanparks.org