Words: Fiona McIntosh
Pictures: Adriaan Louw, Shaen Adey and Petro Kotze
1. The Otter Trail
The old man’s face broke into a smile. “My advice to hikers starting out on The Otter Trail? You have to be healthy before you start, and wear the right shoes.” Popo Scott should know. One of the rangers who built the trail, he’s probably walked it more than any man alive. The trail’s Scott hut honours his dedication, commitment and active involvement right from the start.
“We started clearing the paths in 1967,” remembers Popo, one of the youngest employees in the park at the time, “and the trail was opened in 1968.” The trail celebrates its 45th birthday and relaunch in October, which is when it also gets Green Flag status, and Popo is still there, helping with maintenance. ‘Regulars’ still seek him out in Storms River Village for coffee and a chat. “When we heard we would be building a new trail we felt so good,” says Popo, “because we were inviting so many tourists to this beautiful park.”
And the five-day trail through the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park has surpassed expectations. Drawing visitors from across the world, it’s by far the best known of the country’s long-distance hikes so you’ll have to book well in advance. The terrain is tough, with some boulder-hopping, steep sections and wide rivers to cross, undertaken with packs laden with five days of supplies. But it’s worth the wait, with the rewards more than compensating for any minor suffering.
The trail is remarkably diverse and leads along the rocky coast, along fynbos-covered cliff tops, as well as through the lush, indigenous forest of the Tsitsikamma that has magnificent old trees, dells of ferns, forest birds, reptiles and fungi. It’s a truly beautiful stretch of coast with dramatic rocks, incredible views, wonderful swimming spots and beautifully located overnight huts with showers, braai places and loos with views. The sunsets along the trail are awesome and you’ll often see rare wildlife such as the Cape clawless otter, the Knysna Turaco (Lourie) and more familiar birds, and mammals such as dolphins and whales. There are good reasons why this is a world-famous hike.
So what has changed? Well, the introductory DVD that you see before starting the trail no longer shows hikers in khaki shorts, knee-high socks and external framed backpacks. I exaggerate, but you get the drift – nothing fundamental, rather the new signage and sexier marketing is designed to highlight the attractions of the recently formed Garden Route National Park. So I’m not going to bore you with a blow-by-blow account, but give you some of the highlights you simply mustn’t miss.
And I have a few tips. For example, the first day is short enough for you to arrive at Storms River Mouth Rest Camp and head straight onto the trail, but do yourself a favour and arrive a day early to enjoy the spectacular setting. This is one of my all-time favourite camps, with fabulous chalets and even more fabulous tent sites on the water’s edge. In fact, you could easily spend several days in this glorious spot, enjoying the beaches, the crashing waves, the aloes, the birdlife, the day trails and the boat ride up the Storms River Gorge.
But I digress. The first day’s hike is only 4.8km but don’t underestimate it as it’s largely boulder-hopping – not an easy task with a full pack. Fortunately the crashing waves and the spectacular backdrop are ample distraction, and there’s a perfect lunch/tea stop at the base of a spectacular waterfall fed by the Tweeriviere River, where, on a warm day, swimming in the pools is a delight. This is the point from which day hikers have to return. From the waterfall the path heads up into the indigenous forest for a short way before the final descent to a valley where, far earlier than expected, are the beautiful Ngubu huts.
Day two starts with a bang – a steep climb that just seems to go on and on. But once you’ve reached the top it’s a gentle walk through verdant forest until you emerge to see the rocky outcrop of Skilderkrans. This is a superb photo opportunity, and a great vantage point from which to scan the sea for whales and dolphins, so linger a while and enjoy the spectacular coastline. The next highlight, the beautiful crescent of sand at Blue Bay, is just gorgeous, and one of the few places where, when conditions are right, you can swim off the beach, so it’s really worth the detour. Once you regain the path it’s a steep final climb through the forest before the descent to the Scott hut on the Geelhoutbos River mouth – a very pretty spot where, if you’re lucky, you’ll enjoy a spectacular sunset over the big boulders on the shore.
There are more steep ups and downs on day three as the trail undulates through the forest, along the rocky coastline and across a couple of rivers before climbing to the Oakhurst hut. Bottlenose dolphins often come in here quite close to the shore so keep alert. Before you turn in, consult your tide timetable – you need to plan your start in the morning so as to reach the Bloukrans River at low tide.
Day four is the longest and is very scenic but, inevitably, you are on a mission to catch the tide. It’s about ten kilometres away; about four hours from the huts to the river so, if at all possible, rise early and leave plenty of time so that you can actually enjoy the walk. Clear route markings ensure there’s no difficulty finding your way even if you start before dawn.
The Bloukrans estuary is wide and quite deep on the far side so you might have to wade in waist-deep water if you misjudge the timing or if the river is high. Plastic survival bags come in very handy here – simply put your pack in the bag and keep the opening of the bag upright and float it across. There are a couple of steep climbs before you arrive at the André huts, which enjoy a fantastic location in the indigenous forest.
You’ll no doubt awake on the final day with one part of you glad you won’t have to carry a pack for much longer, the other sad to be leaving such a beautiful stretch of the world. Once you’ve boulder-hopped across the Klip River there’s a steep climb out and the path stays on the clifftop all the way to the viewpoint above Nature’s Valley from where, once you’ve soaked up the vista before you, it’s a knee-jarring descent to the glorious beach. By now you will have fully appreciated Popo’s tip about the importance of wearing the right shoes.
2. Sky High in Lesotho
“Lesotho is a treasure trove of leisure, pleasure and action,” says Jacques Marais. Here’s to a serious case of mountain riding, running, trekking and cantering, as well as all the playing and pampering you can handle.
Lesotho has always been on my travel radar, but in a very so-so way. Call it the ‘girl-next-door’ syndrome if you will, where you don’t really take any notice until one day she walks out in an enticing spring dress and all your synapses go BOOM!
My sexy neighbour moment happened a couple of months back, after I finally submitted to a long-standing invitation to go and recce the Lesotho Sky MTB Challenge route. I obviously expected a mind-expanding ride, but what really got me upside the head was everything else that came packaged with the adventure…
Family-friendly lodges, mind-blowing cuisine, off-the-scale landscapes, infrastructure on par with parts of the Free State, and an Africa-for-Beginners feel that blew away a whole bunch of misconceptions. Forget the stories about rocks thrown at cars on deserted roads, of getting lost for days on back-road passes approximating cattle-tracks, or the perceived lack of tourism oomph because Lesotho does not brim with Big Five beasties.
So there you have it: all of a sudden, this little land-locked country languishing up against the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal became my latest crush. And the amazing thing is, you can go to explore her bountiful charms with consummate ease from just about anywhere in South Africa. You won’t even need a visa to do so!
My journey to Lesotho started from Bloem along what I have to say is an absolute peach of a highway. Minimal early morning traffic, meandering bends through winter grassland, and the occasional bovine wanderer on the horizon, make for a headspace drive, and for once border control did not spoil the experience. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that my entries into and out of Lesotho must have been some of my most painless cross-border experiences yet.
If you’ve never been to Maseru, imagine Paarl, just more haphazard and colourful, and with fewer wine estates. Er…maybe not quite, I suppose, but the capital does strike a pretty good balance between African vibe and first-world intent. Shopping malls, service stations and Spur restaurants rub shoulders with shebeens, chisa nyama stalls and a damn fine coffee shop run by an Eritrean dude with a face like the Dalai Lama, but just ever so slightly less smiley.
My first day with the Lesotho Sky crew (Christian Schmidt and Darol Howes) was a relatively laid-back affair, with a quick burn along their urban MTB time trail route that zooms through the local townships. Cattle-track tripping, donga dashing and pavement cruising eventually got us to Scoopie’s Shebeen, where I was initiated into the pleasures of Africa’s leading brew, Maluti Lager (in quarts, exactly as it should be).
But my story is not about Maseru because, as far as I’m concerned, the capital is but a launch pad into a countryside sure to blow your mind. So, on Day Two, and with some collateral damage due to the session at Scoopie’s, we soon had the 4×4 headed towards Malealea, arguably one of Lesotho’s best-known lodges.
A detour via Morija – with a quick stop at Lindy’s for a pap-and-meat take-away – juddered us onto Gates of Paradise Pass, with 360 degree views across the valleys and imposing ridges rising up in the distance. Once settled into our cosy stone rondawels at Malealea, we saddled up the mountain bikes for a ride back to the top of the pass.
From here, we pedalled a raggedy route looping around the mountain in an anti-clockwise direction. Good riding, despite getting waylaid in one of the villages by some rather dodgy umqomboti home-brew rather early on during the mission. (We decided that the batteries lying around were not there for acid harvesting, but to power a wonky satellite dish).
A few sunset hoicks got us back to Malealea before the light shut down completely, and just in time for a fantastic spread before we hit the sack. What seemed like 15 minutes later, we were up again, however, and ready to tramp off on foot into the surrounding ridges as the sun rose.
We combined some kloofing and scrambling with our run, negotiating huge boulders along the riverbed towards the waterfall. A fantastical duck-and-dive route got us to the falls for some quick photos, before we slogged back onto the plateau to pack for the next leg of our trip to Ramabanta Trading Post.
If you head into the Mountain Kingdom’s interior beyond Ha Ramashabe, you had better be in the mood to face Lesotho’s wilder side. Rugged and rough-hewn mountains top 100%-proof African landscapes, and thin air is the order of the day along the gritty back roads and trails. If you have a donkey, saddle up. And if you can dress in a slit-eyed balaclava and a Basotho blanket, even better, because it gets damn cold. Or, best of all, get on your bike and ride, making sure you don’t see your ass (and I don’t mean ‘donkey’) as you bomb down passes, blast across rivers and grind your granny gear up tortuous passes.
And then, just when you think you’ve had one of your best days in Africa, EVER, you hit the high road to Semonkong, and Lesotho does one of those shape-shifting moves you normally only see in supernatural movies. The rugged ranges morph into golden-bleached highlands seductively nudging up against the pale blue sky; mountain tribe shepherds canter by on horseback, smoking ginormous spliffs; sparkling rivers, resplendent with rising trout in tranquil pools, run through it; imposing peaks crowd in through the haze of a distant horizon.
Imagine the Tongariro Circuit of New Zealand, right here in Africa, but without the annoying Kiwi accent. Bald Ibis contrail high above; biking and trekking trails of truly mythical proportions; a waterfall that plunges an incredible 204m into a pool where there surely lurks a seven-headed Inkanyamba serpent.
Whichever way, you’ll feel the adrenaline uncoiling in the pit of your stomach when you rappel down what is a Guinness Book of World Records abseil. This then is Lesotho’s ‘Place of Smoke’ – named for the eerily beautiful cascade, of course, and where the village Shoprite does not have a parking lot, but rather a series of wooden posts to which you tie your horse while shopping for roll-ups and chewing tobacco.
Come Friday afternoon and the makeshift streets of Semonkong town begin to bustle with all kinds of mountain men, horse traders, matekwane merchants and assorted rabble rousers and, if they wore Stetsons rather than balaclavas, you’d feel yourself time-lined into a Butch Cassidy flick.
And if all of this sounds too wild and woolly for your liking, here’s the ace in the hole … take all of this ragamuffin cultishness and juxtapose it with Semonkong Lodge’s gourmet cuisine. The springbok carpaccio and pork belly with cracked pepper and Thai chilli will make a Cape Town yuppie sit up and drool, and room service includes a wood fire that is magically lit by the time you return from supper.
None of what I’ve written here is legend or myth, or some kind of marketing bull dust. It just so happens that Semonkong is one of the coolest spots I’ve ever been to in Africa, and if I’ve any say in the matter, it will move to the top of your bucket list. Right. About. Now.
3. Fish the Berg
No matter how often I travel through the Natal Midlands on my way to a Berg destination, I am captivated by the lush, peaceful scene – scattered homesteads set among rolling hills, cultivated lands, small plantations and indigenous forests, a landscape dotted with decidedly fishy looking impoundments and streams.
Squeezed for the truth, I would have to admit that it is at the end of these meandering country roads where the greatest attraction lies for me – the many clear streams flowing from the mountains below the Drakensberg escarpment that are home to wild trout. No matter how often I am to visit the Drakensberg, I always feel the excitement and anticipation I would if visiting an old friend. It is a place I’m always happy to be part of.
Our destination this time was the Ezemvelo KZN (EKZN) Wildlife resort at Giant’s Castle. It’s one of EKZN Wildlife’s flagship resorts, situated in a spectacular mountain environment below the prominent buttress known as the Sleeping Giant, with towering peaks so close by it feels like you could reach out and touch them.
The area is rich in indigenous fauna, flora and San art. It is also rich in local history surrounding the expeditionary force organised by the Natal colonial government in 1873 against chief of the amaHlubi, Langalibalele, after he first defied the government and rebelled against authorities. He defeated the British, but was then captured in what was Basutoland, and banished to Robben Island. The full history and places of interest in the area are available at Giant’s Castle Resort.
The camp is beautifully landscaped with flora common to the area and the accommodation is out of the top drawer, yet unobtrusive. It is clear that considerable thought went into the layout and design of the camp to ensure that the impact on the natural environment was minimal.
I must concede that, after the physical effort put into a long day’s fishing in search of trout in high altitude streams, and the hardships often endured, it is most welcome to return to a cosy cottage with all the mod cons, hot water, comfortable beds and a fireplace for those chilly evenings. Giant’s Castle Resort offers all this and more.
A part of the natural charm of this place is the Bushman’s River, one of the most beautiful trout streams I know of. It’s a brown-trout stream originally stocked in 1890, a fact, among others, that’s well documented by the late Bob Crass in his book Trout Fishing in Natal.
To be precise, it was on 7 May of that year that 498 trout from John Clarke Parker’s Boschfontein hatchery were released into the river. Some argue strongly that it is South Africa’s premier brown-trout stream. I pass
on being the judge of this one, simply because I have fished a few other streams that could also lay claim to this accolade.
However, I take nothing away from the Bushman’s. It is a magnificent stream and is certainly up there among the very best of them when it comes to flyfishing. It must be said, though, that if it is trophy or lots of fish you are after, this is probably not your kind of fishing. The trout are small, seldom exceeding 12 inches and anything heavier than a 2wt rod and 7X tippet is likely to be a handicap.
After settling into our accommodation, and with a hearty meal under the belt, Mark Pardey and I prepared our tackle for an early start the next morning. It never fails to amaze me how the fastidious preparation for a day’s fishing can be so absorbing and create such an air of expectancy. Everything is discussed and examined in the finest detail – things like leader lengths and diameters, flies, the weather, the habits of the trout, methods of presentation and much more. Even a debate on the quality of the wine, which gets better by the glass, has its place. These are the rituals appreciated by flyfishers alone.
On Saturday morning Mark and I were up at daybreak. The weather was misty, with feathery caps on the mountains. A weak, hazy sun did its best to brighten the landscape, the majestic high peaks revealing themselves occasionally as the mist cleared momentarily before closing in again. The air at this time is always crisp and it’s just a great part of the day, despite the fact that it’s not always the best time for fishing – generally trout in mountain streams seem to be late risers, only becoming active when the sun touches the water.
Still in shadow, the Bushman’s was flowing cold and fast, regrouping occasionally in deep runs, slowing at riffling turns and cascading through small pockets. We decided to walk upstream, leapfrogging the likely spots as we made our way. Mark won the toss and opted to cast first. There were no signs of surface activity so we selected small, lightly-weighted Zak nymphs to start with. We fished upstream, using short drifts and small yarn strike indicators. Anything but a stealthy approach in such fine and clear conditions is not up for discussion, it’s a must if you are to have any chance of deceiving the wary trout of these streams.
I watched Mark working the run above me and was struck by his careful presentation, his low crouch and the fluid way in which he lifted the line into the backcast and then, with minimal movement, just a flick and squeeze of the thumb on the cork to push the rod forward as he systematically covered all the likely spots upstream. Mark is one of those flyfishers I admire; his patience and attention to detail, and the sensitivity he displays to ensure the survival of the trout once released, are all noteworthy. It’s no wonder the trout came regularly to his fly.
It was the perfect small stream for lightweight rods, fine tippets and flies mostly no bigger than size 16s. The morning passed quickly and by 8.30am we had covered almost two kilometres of the stream above the main camp to the confluence with the small tributary, the Tweedassiespruit. We didn’t take many fish, but enough to keep us focused.
By 9am we were back in camp for breakfast. I recall reading somewhere that when anglers have a poor day there is a tendency to slip into camp unobtrusively, but after a good day you can expect a rather boisterous return — our wives complained of the latter. We had had a wonderful morning on the upper Bushman’s, a delightful piece of water in a place as pretty as you will find anywhere, and decided to enjoy the comfort of the camp during the heat of the day. We only rigged up our lines again after 3pm to try the section of the stream about seven kilometres below the camp at the confluence of the Bushman’s and uMtshezana. Access is from the Champagne Pools parking area on the reserve entrance road and from there it’s an easy walk down to the stream.
It has been my experience in clear, shallow, quick-flowing streams like this, to find that the trout quite often rise readily to the dry fly. Most of the time I don’t worry too much about imitating hatching insects because the trout in these tiny mountain streams are seldom truly fussy – they have to grub out a pretty meagre existence and are opportunistic rather than selective.
As long as you sneak up unnoticed, a well-presented, drab, buggy-looking fly will usually get their attention. And so it was on this day. Some of the takes were so ferocious they belied the small size of the fish, which were displaying personalities reminiscent of a junkyard dog. They had our light rods kicking and bucking in their attempts to break free — some were successful, but quite a few were brought to hand. I have also found that in these waters the initial presentation has the best chance of attracting a strike.
The likelihood of a take on subsequent casts diminishes progressively. It was an eventful afternoon on this equally pretty stretch of the Bushman’s, each of us catching a number of browns and spotting a couple of bigger fish of a pound or more, which we spooked before we could get a fly over them. About 500m downstream of the confluence, in among the browns we started catching the odd rainbow still showing its parr marks. It appears that at this point there is a small population that has established itself – the offspring of escapees from the private trout hatchery just outside the entrance to the reserve. One hopes that they don’t, in time, affect the reputation of the Bushman’s as one of the country’s most premier brown-trout streams.
As the afternoon drew to a close, typical of summer in the Berg, the sunny skies gave way to some ominous-looking storm clouds, the sky as dark as a livid bruise. Far away, the grumbling and groaning that sounded like some meteorological indigestion hinted at the weather preparing for a great event. We decided to pack it in and headed back to camp, arriving just as the first drops started to fall. Fortunately nothing much came of it and we were later able to enjoy a braai under the stars. It had been a good day covering only about four kilometres of the approximately 12km section of the Bushman’s River within the Giant’s Castle reserve area, all of it very fishable water.
I have unfinished business with this stream and will be returning to fish the section between its confluence with the uMtshezana and the camp. Judging by the glimpses one gets from the road high above, it is inviting with many interesting and promising spots. However, it will no doubt be hard-going physically. The stream forms a sparkling thread on the floor of a deep, steeply sided valley, winding its way through many natural obstructions and banks, protected in places by thick indigenous vegetation. As there is no defined path to follow you will need to be prepared for a lot of scrambling. Ideally, I would like to hike this stretch over a couple of days, camping overnight in the valley, but it’s unlikely that the authorities would give permission for this.
All too soon the weekend drew to a close. As we drove out of the reserve gate with a smart salute and courteous wave from the friendly warden, self-titled Prince Charles, the rain came bucketing down. Our only consolation on leaving was that the fishing would have been over for the day anyway – at least that’s what we convinced ourselves of.
I have returned many times to fish the Bushman’s River at Giant’s Castle over the years and have never been disappointed. Today when I walk alone along the banks I recall many of the trout that have risen to my fly, and the memory brings a smile. I sometimes even wonder what I have done to deserve this.
Giant’s Castle Resort is situated at the end of the road below the Drakensberg mountain escarpment, a distance from other resorts. It has therefore become the norm on our weekend trips fishing the Bushman’s River to spend a little time on our way there over a cup of coffee or maybe lunch at one of the quaint restaurants in Nottingham Road.
Some of our favourites are Blueberry Hill, Café Bloom and Barb’s Café. Notties is also the hub of the Midlands Meander, with comfortable accommodation establishments that include Loxley House, our usual overnight choice, as well as many arts and craft places of interest and, of course, flyfishing venues and a range of other outdoor activities and sports facilities.
- Giant’s Castle Resort: 036 353 3718
- Tourism KZN: www.zulu.org.za
Loxley House 033 266 6362
- Midlands Meander: 033 330 8195
For more accommodation options see www.SA-Venues.com