Take a hike along the Wild Coast. The 4 day Strandloper Trail from Kei Mouth to Gonubie River, East London is definitely a hike to add to your list. Richard and Matthew Perkins share their experience with us.
Words and pictures: Richard (father) and Matthew (son) Perkins
We headed out of East London (our meeting point) after some minor car trouble – a custom made immobiliser stripped out as evening fell – and drove through the evening dusk to Kei Mouth and the Strandloper Trail Ecocentre.
Despite the latish hour, we were warmly welcomed by Bryan and Erica Church who opened up the centre and bade us good night with a “see you in the morning”. Fortunately we had bought our braai and beer items before the car trouble so settled down to relax in front of the fire with wood kindly supplied for us.
The next morning Bryan summoned us to the Educational Centre itself with displays of stuffed animals, items on mining history (this used to be a titanium mine area) and an enlarged map of the route we were to hike over the next four days. A detailed overview of the trail with items of interest added in gave us an inkling of what we were in for.
This is real hiking. There’s no slack packing here, but don’t be put off by the “does your medical aid cover helicopter evacuation” question in the information guidelines!
After signing indemnity forms and getting the keys to our overnight huts, we set off from Kei Mouth and headed along the coast to Morgan’s Bay and the first overnight hut at the camping site of Double Mouth.
As there is no electricity at this hut, it was an early (and long) night with candles out at 6pm.
The next morning we set off and after rounding the rock bluff came to our first river crossing. The Quko River was fairly narrow and not too deep at this time of year – winter – but this was our first time so Matthew crossed without his backpack to recce the current and the strong wind blowing downstream. We thought the crossing spot was the best we could find so we carried our packs above our heads and waded across.
With that first challenge behind us we carried on to Haga Haga, along wonderful grassy paths with the sea on our left with plentiful sightings of dolphins and the bush with numerous species of buck on our right. At rest time we just lay back in the soft grass and enjoyed the absolute freedom of the trail.
As the 2nd day is only 9 kilometres, we had time to relax and also have a swim at Fish Bay – although wintertime, the water was warm and refreshing.
At Marsh Strand we mistook the abalone factory for a sewerage treatment works but locals pointed out our error and kindly helped us out with water to replenish our bottles.
The Haga Haga Hotel is the 2nd overnight stop – Dogbox 1 and Dogbox 2 being basic rooms with bunks and en – suite bathrooms – as the hut at Cape Henderson burnt down about two years ago. The hotel welcomes hikers and made for a great stopover with a few frosties and a giant hamburger. An interesting character named Trevor was using the Dogbox rooms as he was travelling from East London to Hibberdene in KZN on his own – a genuine strandloper who lived off the land and the sea, having lost all his possessions when he was washed out to sea while crossing the Bashee River.
The 3rd day is a long stretch of 21 kilometres to Beacon Valley, so we set off at first light and pushed the pace along the lines of a Roman legion’s “forced march” (Refer Caesar’s Gallic wars). The going is tough as the hike is along rocky shelves and 15 of the kilometres are on beach sand. We met some anglers out for a Saturday fishing competition – many were wrapped up in beanies and scarves as a cold wind had come up during the night. We passed Cintsa East and stopped off at Cintsa West for the best toasted bacon, egg and cheese sandwich ever. This was done in 5 1/2 hours with the hut at Beacon Valley only a half hour round the corner, so our “forced march” had enabled us to cover a 9 hour day in 6 hours.
Little did we know this was to come back and bite us the next day – perhaps a more leisurely walk would have been better, in hindsight.
After picking up some braai packs at the little store below the restaurant, we headed on to the rustic but comfortable overnight hut at Beacon Valley. More firewood was waiting for us so we settled in and after cold showers – no electricity – we enjoyed a good braai and a good sleep.
We still had 15 kilometres to go, with the Kwelera River still to be crossed and the final obstacle being the Gonubie River at East London a mental and physical block. The last day was rocky, shelly and sandy beach all the way, quite remote and very little in the way of human and settlement contact. However, we crossed the Kwelera River which had a few surfers making it look easy but getting backpacks across without them getting wet was a challenge.
Then East London came into sight – far away, elusive, behind some off – shore cloud and mist, and she never appeared to come any closer. At midday we seemed to be drawing her in, and eventually saw the famous “Boardwalk” that from our angle looked like a wonderful wooden bridge spanning the river. This was not to be, as the “Boardwalk” runs along the southern bank of the Gonubie River, and we came to the realisation that there was no way out – we HAD to swim the Gonubie!
Heading upstream away from the waves and mouth of the river, we came to a spot which looked the best for a crossing. The water was extremely deep so we prepared our backpacks with double plastic bags and duct tape and headed in. Now the theorists tell you to doggy paddle with your pack in front of you. In reality, the best way is to lie on your back in a backstroke style, holding your floating backpack above you, and kick your way across. If you feel tired, simple pull up on the floating pack and let it carry you like a buoy.
Well we both managed to get across, and took photos in a period of hype and adrenalin. Only later when we were asked if we had seen any sharks, did we realise what we had accomplished. Sharks were the last things on our minds!
After lunch at the Gonubie Hotel we arranged lifts back to Kei Mouth and another night at the Ecocentre.
Reflecting back, this was a great outdoor experience, an opportunity to really be in touch with nature and oneself, to stretch oneself and test one’s abilities, to enjoy companionship, freedom and above all to find oneself.
Things to keep in mind:
- The short 9km on the second day and long 21km on the third day are due to the hut at Cape Henderson having burnt down. This makes the third day quite a challenge for many hikers who could comfortably make an average 15km per day. So a good measure of fitness is required.
- Backpacks can be kept reasonably light 8kg to 10kg as food and drinks are easily available.
- River crossings will be more difficult after rains. Wrap cell phones, wallets and watches in 3 zip locks one after the other and then tape them with lots of duct tape. Heavy duty black bags 35 micron and duct tape should keep your backpacks dry.
- Tel: 043 841 1046 or 084 034 0247