It’s a two-day hike that’s more of a scenic stroll than an endurance event. Which is why Fiona McIntosh took to it solo.
Words: Fiona McIntosh
Pictures: Fiona McIntosh and Mandy Mckay
A slackpacking trail for R200? You must be joking! But it’s true. This delightful hike is self-guided and self-catered but, in the manner of all slacker trails, your bags and cooler boxes are driven to the overnight spot. If you can live with the hardship of having to shop and cook for yourself it’s an absolute gem.
‘Rest a while! Steep climb ahead’ advised the thoughtfully placed sign. I did as instructed and sat down on the nearby bench to soak up the valley bushveld. Not that I’d been overstretched so far; hikers of all age and fitness level will enjoy the Mosslands Two River Trail.
I’d come across it quite by accident when researching my book, Slackpacking. Mandy McKay, a designer at the publishing house that had commissioned the book, mentioned that her mother had a trail on their farm near Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. The two-day hike, which winds along, and repeatedly crosses, the Kariega and Assegai rivers, turned out to be a find – the perfect trail for families or those wanting to take it easy, listen to the birds and sniff the flowers.
The 25km circular route meanders across the undulating hills and river valleys of a working dairy and citrus farm, which has been consolidated from grants of land allocated to British settlers in the 1820s. For much of the trail you walk under the canopy of indigenous trees – gnarled yellowwoods and milkwoods – and among dense mosses and lichens, stopping to swim in dark tannin-stained pools. In the open veld there are squawking francolin, and hares and antelope.
A farm trail has many advantages, not least when it comes to security, and I decided to hike alone. It was my first visit to the area so I arrived early and pent the night prior to the trail in their lovely reed cabin right on the edge of the Kariega River. I awoke to birdsong, and a bushbuck scuttled off as I staggered out for a morning swim. It was wonderfully atmospheric; the early mist was still rising as I set out over the stream flowing from the dam, and onto a narrow track through the forest. Up and down it went before I popped out onto open heath – and almost at once saw a bontebok and calf, the pale colouring of the youngster quite unlike that of its parent.
A couple of large hares fled as I pproached, while mountain reedbuck looked on coyly. I hadn’t expected to see much game on the trail and this was a wonderful surprise. After a couple of kilometres it was back down into the woods, a mystical place with fascinating lichens and ancient trees, before the path climbed again to a viewpoint overlooking steep cliffs. The map indicated that there were interesting succulents on the rocks of the next section, so I spent some time poking around, enjoying the little treasures before continuing to a big pond on which floated magnificent blue lilies – the perfect spot for a dip before journeying on through this fairyland.
The trail climbed again through wonderful aloes to another viewpoint, then followed the high ground to some old stone kraals before heading back to the river. The next pond was even more resplendent with lilies, their heads turned in unison to the sun, and I unpacked my lunch and chilled while enjoying the busy weavers, colourful kingfishers and woodpeckers.
Afterwards, the forest canopy was a welcome respite from the heat of the day and the path was springy underfoot from all the dead vegetation. But then came the warning sign – the steep climb loomed. A very short, albeit rather taxing, section of uphill led to the Old Settler Road – but it was the only time on the hike that I broke sweat.
The path then crossed a field inhabited by a large herd of beautiful Jersey cows – an incongruous sight after such a long time in the bush. The last few kilometres of the day’s walk was along the plateau, then down through magnificent stands of aloes to a footbridge and through the final stand of trees to Medbury Cottage. What a perfect hikers’ abode. Owners Sally and Neil Moss have restored the traditional building, and old photographs on the walls depict the place as it once was. Many of the artefacts of those days are still around – an old reaper-binder, harrow and baler sit outside, and you can still draw water from the original well. There are hot showers and the cottage is spacious, with four bedrooms, a cosy living room with fireplace, and a lovely old barn-style dining room and braai area, and some lovely touches like pot plants, and branches serving as hangers, that give it a homely feel. The setting sun turned the landscape golden and storks came in to roost in an old dead gum tree. Another hard day in Africa.
Day two began with a gentle stroll along the Old Bay Road that meanders along the Kariega River. One of the great engineering feats of yesteryear, it was constructed by Andrew Geddes Bain in 1844, the first road to link Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown, and the original culverts, as well as the magnificent supporting walls along the krantz, are still visible. In those days there would have been a motel and blacksmith every seven miles along this road – serving the needs of the ox-or horse-drawn wagons.
Once over the dam wall, where I could still see the buttresses of the old bridge as well as the remains of the water well (now filled with bricks from the foundations of the old motel that was once there) it was back into the bush and up through forested slopes alive with birds. For the rest of the day the path continued in the same vein, winding around the hillsides, sometimes in the open but often in the shade of the canopy. It was a slow, pleasant walk that allowed me glimpses of vervet monkeys and grysbok as well as Yellow-billed Kites and African Crowned Eagles. By the time I reached the car I felt refreshed and exhilarated. The two-day break had had the same effect as a week’s rest.
Up to it?
This is an easy to moderate trail for nature lovers who want a scenic wander rather than a challenging hike. Although the terrain is undulating there’s not too much uphill, and there’s a fair amount of shade.
When to go
The trail can be walked year-round but April to June are the coolest and probably the best months for hiking.
Apply tick repellent frequently and carry a stick to use as a spider wand.
In a nutshell