AMATHOLE Day 3. Dontsa to Cata Hut. 19km.
My bag is still heavy and my feet are still tender, but I know that by this evening we would have reached the halfway mark. It’s another long stretch of about 19km today, so the morning routine is calculated and swift in order to get going as soon as possible. Karin and Stephan get a proper head start today and my parents are still putting plasters around toes and rinsing plastic coffee cups at the hut while I set off on my own in my usual third position. I’m alone for probably at least half an hour, just enjoying the freshness of the morning air and the surrounding pine forest. I’m hoping to catch up with Stephan soon though. When hiking, the rule is that you are responsible for the person behind you – make sure you can still see or call out to them. This isn’t always the case, but the five of us would stop and meet up regularly if we can’t see each other in the open.
At last I reach a waterfall where I spot them and as I’m distracted by the sight of their colourful backpacks, I walk straight into a protruding tree branch stump with my left arm. Ouch. Five minutes later, my mom does the exact same thing. So for the rest of the week we are both sporting black and blue beauties on our biceps.
There’s a steep almost tunnel-like ascent out of the vegetation (I really don’t think I’ve done a hike with these kinds of climbing ascents!) out onto a plateau of flat rock overlooking the towns and valleys below. It’s pretty high up and stunning and the perfect spot for our morning break. We’re blessed with gorgeous partly-cloudy and mostly sunny weather. This area of the Eastern Cape is notorious for rain and I think we were all a bit worried that the entire journey could play out like day 1 …
The day’s terrain basically consists of flat mountain plateaus of grassy paths speckled with little yellow flowers, ascending into gorges of forest – the type of plants and trees that grow around the streams and waterfalls – and back up onto another plateau or hillside. Rinse. Repeat. I think the diversity of scenery is part of the appeal of the Amathole … and keeps you motivated and sane.
Thankfully too, you’re greeted frequently enough by these streams of flowing water so topping up on liquids generally isn’t a problem. All the huts have fresh water taps too. Good for stocking up in the morning and relishing in at night. Sure, sometimes it has a bit of an earthy aftertaste and I had one incident where I foolishly took a sip from a somewhat sketchy stream and before the purifying droplets did their job and .. let’s just say it was nasty.
One part that is particularly memorable – probably because it is dangerous and frightening – is the zigzag ascent along the one hillside. It’s really steep and the path is almost tightrope narrow, but the real challenge is the semi-galeforce winds lashing at us. You almost don’t want to stop and manoeuvre around for fear of tumbling down the hill. Even stopping for photos is risky. And my mom keeps saying ‘be careful, be careful’. We all need to be.
We’re making slow progress according to the map – which adds to the stress of the hike since you want to reach the hut before dark – but thankfully we hit a stretch of dirt road that ups our speed to about 5km per hour, even if it’s just for a bit. Then more pine tree-lined paths. And forests.
We reach a crucial split where we want to opt for the easier route, but in classic SA style, they seem to have run out of yellow paint to indicate which route is which. No signs, nothing. So we follow the more obvious and challenging ‘waterfall route’. Someone painted ‘1,5km to hut’ on a flat rock and my hope is renewed. Two hours later of climbing up rocks and earth and roots makes me believe it was a lie. Seriously, when is this hut coming into view? That’s all I want. Please.
The painkillers I took earlier are beginning to wear off and the mist, darkness and cold is slowly creeping in. The conversation revolves around us being grateful that none of our friends agreed to do this hike! I’d hate to be responsible for their ‘suffering’ as well.
We’re challenged by several tricky river crossings – something always invokes a fair amount of anxiety in me. If you don’t make that jump or slip on that rock, you’re looking at a serious injury and a big fright. And a wet camera. Thankfully we’re all fairly experienced and team work is a winner in these situations.
And then, we’re out in the open again and I can see it in the distance. Cata Hut. Hallelujah. It’s an odd mixture of relief, joy and apathy as our feet finally hit the wooden deck. I finally get to have my first proper shower (don’t worry, I did wash yesterday too), even if it’s just a cold trickle of water.
It’s easily an hour later before the last of the group arrive – in the mist and almost dark. We listen with worry and genuine relief as they recount their day’s journey and watching the weather turn and escaping wild horses … True story.
It’s New Years Eve tonight and we stay up until midnight drinking and dancing merrily. Yeah right. It’s a classic case of ‘let’s not and say we did’.
It’s Thys and Amelia’s turn to cook for their group of nine and we watch in awe – and ok, maybe a little bit of envy – as they prepare a proper mexican feast. Remember, they are slack packing so those beans and tortillas and party hats didn’t travel 19km today.
I want to laugh and cry simultaneously because my last meal of 2013 includes mince and Smash. But mind you, it’s really delicious and we’ve cracked open the plastic bottles of wine and my own stash of Amarula to get our own jovial NYE party on. And boy is it mild!
The mexican party is a hit and we’re gifted with some glowsticks to wave around. Oddly enough, I fall asleep shortly after without any FOMO (fear of missing out) of the celebrations back home. Because lying down and knowing I’m halfway in this challenging but awesome adventure is enough to celebrate.