One of the last true wilderness areas in South Africa is undisputedly the Baviaanskloof, a series of folded mountains, canyons and valleys between Willomore and Patensie in the Eastern Cape. It is a botanical wonderland that transforms from Karoo through Fynbos and into pockets of Afro-Montane forest with hints of Spekboom along an east west axis.
It is a landscape that begs to be hiked and thankfully the Leopard Trail provides a 4 day route to indulge avid hikers and explorers.
Based on the western side of the Baviaankloof, the Leopard Trail is a looped 55km slackpacking trail traversing folded mountains and following canyons. But don’t let the slackpacking aspect lure you into believing that this is an easy trail.
Day 1 : Digital Detox
Setting west off from the trail base, the first day starts with a steady climb from 875m to 1035m in the first kilometre along a disused jeep track to a plateau of old wheat fields. It was a cold and windy morning and the combined agricultural disturbance and the fire damage from December 2016 made the 1.5km across the plateau the bleakest section of the entire trail offset only by the surrounding peaks to the south and north west.
Dropping down from the plateau the trail passes through a grassy valley which passes a side path to Gabriel’s Pools before crossing a stream and turning north towards the camp site. The trail then follows the stream with a few crossings, which after the heavy rain 10 day earlier, meant that footwear got wet, especially closer to the campsite.
Shortly after turning north the trail enters the first canyon of the trail. While not narrow, the geology is impressive with remarkable bends of the sedimentary layers dominating the slopes and cliffs. It was here that we saw our first pair of Verreaux’s Eagles which skimmed the south facing cliff and then banked north out of sight.
300m from the camp site mud and sand deposited from the high river levels caused by the recent rains provided a perfect canvass for wildlife spoor and it was here that we saw our first Leopard tracks leading south along the eastern bank of the stream.
While the main route is just under 9km, the side route to Gabriel’s Pools is worth a visit. Leading south from the grave and Tombstone of Gabriel van Jaarsveld, who died at the age of 78 in 1926, you pass the ruins of his mud brick house and a small kraal before working your way up stream to a fair sized rock pool with a 6m waterfall plunging into it.
On the way to the pool you pass an overhang which has some rock art and sadly modern grafetti, some of it over the rock art. While there is nothing spectacular about the art, there is one series of dots comprising roughly 50 dots. Similar patterns and collections of dots can be seen from De Hel and up north of Graaff Reinet. One interpretation of the dots is that they had the function of a census in the period when the clans of Bushmen were persecuted by European settlers from the South West and Bantu from the East. As family groups and clans roamed in search of a safe refuge, they would indicate through the dots how many members were present when they took shelter in a cave of overhang.
We had an early start on the first day and arrived mid afternoon which allowed plenty time for birding and exploring the surrounding slopes and overhangs.
Day 2 : Hill and Dale
It was a pristine sunny, but chilly morning as we retraced our route for 1.5km before veering south west into a wide valley flanked by steep cliffs and a golden swathe of grassland. Named Rheebok Valley, the only antelope that we saw under the azure blue sky was a pair of Klipspringer on the jagged skyline of a rocky slope.
After 4.2km the trail crosses a stream and turns south towards a canyon, Cedar Views. Again, this is a midway day optional side track. Dumping our packs we crisscrossed the stream into a narrow gorge vegetated with Baviaanskloof Cedars (Widdringtonia schwarzii). Though they are considered near threatened, in this and various other gorges on the trail, there were plenty of them to be seen. Some had obviously been killed in the December 2016 wildfire that swept through the Baviaanskloof, but encouragingly there were also plenty seedlings that had germinated.
Compared to the stark and harsh landscape of the surrounding landscape, the gorge was lush with various species of Pellargonium, Arium lillies and even some forest tree species mixing to form a lush riverine refuge on a hot summers day.
After recovering our day packs and continuing east, a pair of Verreaux’s Eagles lifted up from the cliff face, soared above and then glided westwards and out of view behind the ridgeline.
From the Cedar View gorge the trail continues in an easterly direction with a gradual climb along a rock strewn slope to a saddle at 1190m. The fire damage is still evident, but following recent good rains, the geophytes and emergent vegetation are exquisite.
The rock slab above Gabriel’s Pools is a perfect lunch spot on the second day.
From the saddle the trail descends past some dramatic folded rock and an impressive waterfall to reach the southern side of Gabriel’s Pools. On the eastern river bank, a rock ledge next to a series of rock pools makes an ideal location for lunch and a refreshing swim on a hot summers day.
From the pools it is another gradual climb to a saddle before meandering down the valley towards the Riet Rivier. In the wake of the heavy rains along this section we were constantly crossing the meandering stream and at stages the path had become a stream.
At the 13.5km mark the trail splits with a ‘shortcut’ option to the overnight camp while the main path takes a steep climb to overlook the Labyrinth followed by a steep descent to the river, which again swollen by the recent rains forced us to remove our foot wear and wade through.
The final stage to the camp was disconcerting. I had plotted the location of the camp into my GPS which indicated that we were a mere 480m as the crow flies from the river. One kilometre later after another unexpected hill we arrived in camp as the first of the rain clouds arrived. As a result of this, for the rest of the trail the group would ask for two distances, the actual distance and the ‘as the crow flies’ distance.
At the campsite, the hardest part was cleaning the days sweat off in the cold shower. In summer this would not be a problem. But in an air temperature of 9°C and no afternoon sun, it prepared us for the third day.
Day 3 : Humping across the Dromedarus Back
We woke up to rain. We packed up and set off in fine drizzle, hiking through a low cloud base cloaking an eerily quiet and bleak landscape punctuated by vivid flowers and bright rain gear as the group snaked their way uphill. We breakfasted in the rain. We climbed three hills in the wind and rain.
Then, as we crested the first hill at 1170m and peered through the cloudy landscape the next hill emerged and the cloud base lifted slightly.
Then, when the three climbs for the day were over the clouds evaporated, the sun shone down and we turned north into the Noemakloof.
I forgot how many river crossing we had as a single track meandered down the valley to eventually merge into an eroded jeep track.
The valley walls narrowed to a gorge and the river banks were punctuated by blackened tree trunks left in the wake of the wildfire. Yet, at the base of most trunks new growth was resprouting creating a fusion of red rocks and a flush of green shoots with charcoal shadows.
In the narrowest section of the gorge, the fire had been choked and the river flowed through lush woodland for a few kilometers before opening up again to a fire scarred landscape.
It was in the narrow section that we again saw recent Leopard spoor. Initially heading south upstream, the Leopard had reversed it’s tracks and returned downstream. Following in it’s tracks we were all hopeful, though some apprehensive, of seeing the Leopard.
With spoor measuring approximately 50mm, it was most likely a male weighing between 45 and 50kg and would have been the highlight of the trail to see it. But it wasn’t meant to be and we could only let our imaginations embellish on how close we had come to it.
Having rotated dinners each evening, it was finally the turn of the ‘souty’ to show the ‘boere’ how to Braai. Undaunted by the task, Steve, with assistance from Nannie, justifiably demonstrated that flame grilled beef steaks can indeed be executed to perfection by immigrants.
Day 4 : Fond Farewell
Having retired to our tents in light drizzle which later gave way to a clear night sky, we woke to a thin layer of ice entrusting our flysheets. Definitely not the heat we had expected in September for this hike.
Before the sunlight had crept into the Valley or reached the campsite, we had packed up and set off on the final stage of the trail.
Expecting an easy walk upstream of the valley which intersected with the river from the previous day, the first 4km meandered with the river to a narrow gorge. Passing through a rock portal the next 500m was a mix of rock scrambling and rock hopping before getting to the base of ‘Fond Farewell’.
A series of switchbacks, the trail then begins a steep ascent to the plateau with magnificent panoramic views.
The final descent towards the basecamp was unexpectedly steep and hot. North West facing and sheltered from the wind, the heat was combination of radiation from the sun and the rocky slope. Some advice, make sure that you still have water on this section in summer.
Fact File :
Lowest point : 711m
Highest Point : 1193m
Longest stage : 3rd day – 17km
Most altitude gain : 732m – 2nd day
Fire swept through in December 2016
Floods in February 2018.
Heavy rains and snow in September 2018