AMATHOLE Day 2. Gwiligwili to Dontsa Hut. 19.6km
I awake from my slumber confused as to why we are so close to a road and I can hear motorbikes droning past. Another few minutes go by before I notice the rhythm of this foreign noise. Not motorbikes, no. It’s snoring. Serious snoring.
Not surprising then that we find Sven – the white-haired friendly scientist – in a deep slumber on the floor of the communal room between the two dorms. Banished by his own kind it seems. At this volume, I don’t blame them.
It’s already light and close to 6am – a waking time I’m already getting used to. It’s a long day and there is much terrain to cover. My sister specifically mentioned that today’s stretch is ‘quite flat’ so we are pleased with the promise of ease before the more challenging days.
Breakfast – muesli and cremora with added boiling water – is enjoyed at the high point of the hut overlooking the horizon. Thank goodness it’s not raining again! We do our last cramming of still-damp items into our backpacks, make a stop at the bearable long-drop, and tell our fellow hikers that we’ll see them on the road. It’s not a wonderful start as I realise at the bottom of the slippery wooden steps that I’d forgotten my walking stick. Back I go, and we have to pick up the pace already to catch up with Stephan and Karin ahead. Surprisingly I’m not stiff in the slightest, except for a little reminder in my calf muscles.
We’re straight back into the forest, the floor of which is still very much showing yesterday’s rain. It’s very, very muddy. The rocks are slippery. The roots are slippery. The mud is … you get the point. Sloths and snails are moving faster than we are at roughly 1km per hour. Add to that the backpacks that occasionally still throw out your centre of gravity when negotiating tricky spots. I frequently hear the sound of earth moving, look back, and see my dad sitting on his bum and shaking his head. You gotta roll with the punches.
That aside, the surroundings are still beautiful. Steam rises off the mossy barks of the towering trees. Spiderwebs glint in the sunlight streaming through the leaves. The early mornings quickly become my favourite time of the day. We’re still fresh and energised and everything looks new and clean. And as Stephan says: ‘Fifteen minutes of walking in the morning is an hour in the afternoon’. Very true.
The Amathole trail is hiked literally every day by a group of twenty or less people who sleep at each hut on each sequential night. The path is for the most part fairly clear, but they’ve painted bright yellow footprints on trees and rocks sometimes every five metres and sometimes only every fifty or so metres. For the first few days, they also indicate how many kilometres you’ve covered so far. I like this as it gives me hope and a sense of achievement. I pose for a celebratory photo at the 1km mark. Yay, only eighteen more to go!
Ahead of me, Karin is frequently breaking my walking rhythm as she stops to photograph yet another mushroom. I joke and tell her I’m going to make a bumper sticker that reads ‘Ek stop vir sampioene’ (I stop for mushrooms). Granted, they are very unique and come in all shapes, colours, textures and sizes.
At some point we break away from the forest and reach a clearing of rocks on the ridge of the mountain – overlooking the Keiskammahoek valley – which is a perfect spot for photos and morning tea, which is a Bar-One chocolate. The other three non-slackpacking hikers have caught up with us and Rob, Paige, and Cathy rest at a spot further on. Rob is the bassist in a band called Mac Stanley, and always intrigued us with his culinary creations. His sweet wife Paige is the editor of Clicks Clubcard magazine. Her mom Cathy is the eldest person in the group (but a real trooper!) and lives on a farm in the Karoo. I like them and come to enjoy their company during our time together.
The next patch is probably the first truly unpleasant section. We’re in the sun on this mountainside and the path is narrow and flanked by big rocks, dry bush twigs, scratchy and stingy leaves and even burning nettle. Bah, I’m not enjoying Day 2 anymore.
At least there is lunch to look forward to and brings welcome relief in the form of shade and a little stream to lose the shoes and wash our dusty and damaged legs. A few members of our party are also hanging out there, but set off on their own pace again.
After lunch we finally hit the flat and open stretch that everyone must refer to, which includes a pine plantation and some derelict houses. And while we can see the other hikers in the distance, we seem to have lost the path. I must admit that in times like these I will rely on Stephan or my dad to go looking for the right way while I wait in the shade … I am doing enough walking as it is. Selfish, I know. It’s also a brief moment of reasoning whether it’s worthwhile to throw off your backpack as you expend so much energy pulling it back on again. This time we sit down in the soft grass.
We may have strayed, but my dad discovers a tap and we fill our bottles with fresh, sweet and delicious water. Glorious.
We’re properly out in the open now and our view consists mainly of soft green rolling hills dotted with rural settlements far below. A small speck of a human waves enthusiastically from a distance. We also pass some local ladies who are chilling by the path and greet us with a ‘good morning’ even though it’s definitely afternoon by now.
And then we walk some more. For what seems like hours and kilometres. I can’t tell you what I think about during this time. I don’t remember. But I do start becoming very aware of the pain and tiredness in my feet. Every step hurts just a little bit. The only thing keeping me going is the promise of this amazing waterfall and then the hut shortly after. Will it ever come? Doesn’t seem like it.
But yes, you guessed it, it does. All the others are there already (for what seems like ages) and I’m in that waterfall pool in a flash. It’s freezing but the most heavenly thing and all I want in life right now. Stephan dares me to pull my head under the waterfall and it feels exhilarating.
With renewed energy, we trek up the pine-needle-coated and steep path to the hut. It’s still another couple of kilometres, but we manage to reach the wooden walkway that leads to the hut.
Cup a Soup has never tasted this good. Marinus is stretching on a mattress on the balcony, while Steven tries to build a fire for the showers that don’t work (again). It’s Amelia’s birthday so the night has a jovial atmosphere and Tracey even made cupcakes for them. I briefly join our new friends for a bit of stargazing in the road before I wriggle my tired self into the sleeping bag.