The Eastern Cape’s Chokka Trail has been judged the ‘best beach experience’ in the 2017 Lilizela tourism awards, which recognise and reward local businesses.
Our contributor Judy Bryant, who’s hiked the trail, explains why it should be on your bucket list.
The St Francis Bay area – the second most southerly point on South Africa’s coastline, after Cape Agulhas – offers beautiful stretches of sandy beach as well as diverse inland vegetation that varies from steep sand dunes to coastal forest and wetlands that come alive in the rainy season. There’s plenty of bird life – like terns and waders, oystercatchers and gulls ‒ and also whales, dolphins and otters
The Chokka Trail was developed by former St Francis tourism manager Esti Stewart and conservationist Maggie Langlands, and now Esti accompanies the hikers while her husband Eric handles the logistics. It’s a fairly easy four day, three night slack pack holiday with great accommodation.
The unusual name – ‘chokka’ – refers to squid or calamari. For many years chokka was simply caught for bait, but now there’s a regulated fishing and export industry. You can see the brightly lit up boats out to sea, and also get to taste some delicious samples.
On the first day, you mainly hug the relatively untouched coastline between Oyster Bay and Thysbaai. Out to sea, there are ancient Khoi fish traps, while inland you walk among ancient shell middens. Evening accommodation is at the Oyster Bay Beach Lodge, where Helicia Carstens prepared a delicious casserole while her husband Andries topped up our drinks.
One day two you head into Dune Ridge Nature Reserve, a shifting dune field that the locals call the Sand River. You’ll discover huge snail shells blow into your path, as well as bleached animal bones and stone hand tools. ‘Home’ that evening is the luxurious Dune Ridge Country House, with beautiful rooms, underfloor heated bathrooms and fabulous food and service.
Day three starts off with a walk through a coastal forest before you head into the dune fields, then back to the coast, passing old holiday cottages. Water smacks onto the rocks and spurts up through a well-known blowhole. You’ll discover remains of wrecked ships and a few lonely graves before reaching the Seal Point lighthouse, the tallest stonework lighthouse in the country. Then it’s a delight to watch the penguins swim and play at the Sanccob seabird and penguin rehabilitation centre.
That evening at Cape St Francis Resort we experimented with three delicious versions of calamari – with wasabi and sesame seeds, deep-fried rings, and tubes stuffed with peppadews, mushroom and feta.
On day four you walk across the beautiful white sandy beach of Cape St Francis, looking out for otter tracks, to a private port dedicated to the chokka and other industrial boats. Eric told us more about squid while dissecting one, then we sampled local and imported calamari. The spotless deli had beautiful views of the bustling harbour, and it’s also a great place to stock up on locally-made produce to take home. And the grand finale – a cruise through the Francis Bay canals, past the beautiful white-walled, black roofed holiday homes, ending with lunch at a restaurant right on the canals.