To be honest, I’d never heard of this Amathole hike until my younger sister told us that she’d be doing it with a group of students in November of 2013. My mom, who had unbeknownst to me, had this hike on her bucket list for years now, encouraged my dad to see if they had any availability in the near future (because you have to book a spot on things like the Otter Trail about a year in advance, you know …) Turns out they did. Ten spots starting 29 December 2013. And so, I found myself not hesitating with a resounding ‘yes’ to join them and their friends on this epic adventure. I wanted to get away from Cape Town and its summer wind and tourists for a few days anyway.
As I enthusiastically told friends and colleagues about my December plans, the common reactions ranged from ‘you’re crazy!’ to ‘I loved the Amathole! It’s my favourite hike!’ to ‘It’s beautiful, but tough’. But mostly the experienced hikers would get a distant glazed look in their eyes, twitch their mouth, then meet your gaze sympathetically and whisper: ‘good luck’. Cue gulp. What exactly am I getting myself into? Even my sister’s account was one of treacherous distances, pain and suffering. (She did pull a quad muscle on the first day and was drugged on pain meds for the next 5 days, which might be why). But hey, the scenery is so worth it!
For your historical and geographical education, ‘Amathole’ is Xhosa for ‘the place of many young calves’ (as in cows, not hikers’ tired lower legs) as its protected forests and glades were ideal for raising cattle. It’s located deep in the Eastern Cape, close to places like King William’s Town, Bishu, and most notably, the little village of Hogsback (aka fairyville). No really. It’s like Swellendam and Noordhoek sent their New Age offspring to start its magical, zen, nature-loving, hippie existence there.
We leave Cape Town at the crack of dawn on 27 December and after a very long day of roadside meal stops, service station pit stops, and a lot of sleeping in the car, we arrive in Port Elizabeth where we stay with friends who feed the men beer and the ladies tea. And we all hungrily eat the potjie they make for us. We arrive in Hogsback about four hours’ drive later the next day. This, of course, is after we stop in Bishu at the local Spar to ask them if we can please use their toilet. And judging by their happy compliance and the lack of awkward stares from the rest of their office staff, we can’t be the first white people who’ve asked for this favour. I just laugh…
A backpackers called ‘Away with the Fairies’ (see?) will be our base for the start and end of the trail and also where we’ll leave the Landrover. It’s a fantastic little place with great views of the surrounding landscape and the final hog mountain – which only means something to me a few days later. A staff member is washing his dog in a working bathtub perched on the mountain. Stephan goes in search of a geocache and finds it nearby.
We take a little walk through the main road and have lunch and a little look-around, passing docile cows grazing next to roadsigns. We pay a visit to the ancient Hogsback Inn, admire the blooming hydrangeas, visit a stone church, and I walk my first 700m labyrinth. My parents clearly didn’t get the memo that it’s supposed to be a slow and meditative process since they practically power walk past each other with big grins trying to finish it as quickly as possible. It begins to drizzle heavily and we retreat back to the backpackers and indoors for pizza and wine. I hear someone complaining about the fact that they are playing Alanis Morissette in the bar area. In the other lounge instead, two Capetonian guys with their guitars are jamming away and entertain us with brilliant covers of any artist we request.
It’s an early, exciting and anxious start the next morning. We briefly meet Marinus, one of our fellow hikers – a tall, olive-skinned and zen character who is sitting reading a book while we’re still frantically locking shoes in the car and making last minute ‘should I take this?!’ decisions.
It’s overcast and cool. The arranged shuttle arrives early (around 6am) and as we drive to Maden Dam, I nervously look back several times to make sure our backpacks haven’t jumped out of the trailer bumping around behind us. That’s presently my life’s possessions in that bag.
By now it’s pouring – a miserable way to start our journey.
It’s a scramble for some shelter from the rain as we load our backpacks and pull out ponchos and rain jackets. I can hardly take out my camera to document the start, but we still manage to get some photo’s at the starting point, thanks to Stephan’s waterproof mik-en-druk. This proves to be wonderfully useful in the days to come.
And we’re off. First Stephan in the lead and his wife Karin on his heels. They are just over fifty and very experienced hikers, even having done the Camino in Spain – a 800km pilgrimage. There’s no lack of adventure spirit in their hearts and we’ve done many walks, hikes and fun outings with them. Today they are the two dark green hunchback creatures ahead of me.
Then there’s me. I, as I’m told, have ‘youth on my side’. So no complaining. Somewhat less experienced in the overnight hiking department, but at least I’ve got the Strandloper and Harkerville on my adventure CV. Even if that was 2008 … With my 15kg red and black backpack – which I jokingly referred to as ‘Simunye – we are one’ – I am the middle man.
Behind me are my legendary parents. Just hitting sixty and fit as fiddles with a preference to walk at the back. They are also carrying a lot of wine.
The first few kilometres follow a grassy – and now flooded – jeep track into a wet, enchanted forest. My mom, bless her, finds me a walking stick at the very beginning and the two of us become inseparable for the next six days. I do however, now feel like Gandalf with my giant blue poncho and staff walking with a purpose. Cue segway into the part where I mention that apparently the Amathole forests inspired Tolkien hugely when it came to writing The Lord of the Rings Trilogies. Fun fact, I know. But look, the trees do have faces!
The brochure told us not to be surprised by the mounds of earth that look like slippery fresh dog poo everywhere. It’s just digested soil from giant earthworms. And they are working overtime with this rain. Truly, they are jurassic in size and my parents – never too squeamish – happily pick one up! Ew gross, but totally cool. I touched one too.
I love this kind of scenery and I’m in my element. Birds are chirping in the canopies overhead, countless little streams flow around us, mushrooms peek out everywhere, and the whole place seems to gleam and drip drip drip from the wet weather. Which I don’t even mind anymore. I’m drenched, it’s fine. Except that I get the kind of inner thigh chafe that looks like I took some sand paper to my skin. Ouch.
Our first lunch is rudely interrupted by a downpour and Karin does a involuntary but very impressive wipeout. Shame, at least she didn’t injure herself, which is everyone’s major concern. Don’t get hurt. Please.
There’s still no sign of our fellow hikers and my curiosity about them grows as we carry on walking. We suddenly hit a dirt road with a sign that says ‘cheer up, you’re almost there’. Cruel, considering that according to my calculations we still have another 3km to go. But no, we must have taken the 11km route, because here we are! Gwiligwili hut. A welcome site. Day one, done!
Soaking wet and shivering cold, we’re sad to discover the showers don’t work – something about mineral deposits blocking the pipes – so I opt to just dry off and dress warmly instead. Our sleeping quarters are made up of wooden bunk beds and mattresses and are now decorated with anything that can be hung or draped to dry. My feet have long since escaped my squashy wet shoes and look beautifully white with raisin-like texture.
Not long after we arrive, we discover the identities of our fellow hikers. A group of twelve – nine of whom are slack packing! Imagine my surprise when I discover one of my New Media colleagues is among them. It’s a small world after all. There are the usual awkward social introductions and we don’t get everyone’s names on day one, but they are a nice bunch. They can stay.
The mini gas stoves get fired up and the box wine is cracked open. We’re having couscous with butternut and sundried tomatoes tonight. Yum.
It’s lights out not long after – certainly before 9pm – but only after a good stretch and some Arnica applied to my tired legs. One down, five to go.