At 108km, the Outeniqua Trail is one of the longest hiking trails in South Africa.
Traversing through forest and fynbos along the southern slopes of the Outeniqua Mountain range, the trail is hiked in a west to east direction sleeping in hiking huts with a capacity for 20 hikers.
It is in the true sense, a wilderness hike, a trail that removes you from civilization and guides you into the nurturing embrace of nature. Whether you commit to the full length of the trail or opt for stages along it, you will be touched by the primeval essence of the ancient forest and pockets of Fynbos
What it lacks in ranging herds of plains ungulates and accompanying predators, the Outeniqua trail delivers at first a disturbing disconnect from society and then a satisfying solitude to sustain you.
Along its path you are hidden deep within the emerald forest light, occasionally emerging to ford a river or to skim the skyline across a Fynbos shrouded mountain. With each passing tree your senses sharpen, the blurring detail gradually resolving into detailed focus.
Monotonous trunks and towering canopies that began as a busy kaleidoscope of green, disengage into distinguishable entities. Through your reinstated feral vision, intricate colonies of lichens neighbor swathes of moss. Webs arrest shafts of sunlight stabbing through the rambling arboreal architecture.
Then, out of the white noise darts the shuffle of a rodent across the forest floor and the rhythmic chirping of a cicada supporting the arias of the avian choir to complete your re-connection with awareness.
It is as you approach the Platbos hut at the end of the second day that you shed your urban constraints and revel in the wilderness liberty. Here the Outeniqua Yellowwood sentinels tower protectively north of the hut echoing the call of a Wood Owl at dusk. Not only have your senses returned, but your body clock has been reset to its natural rhythm and together dusk and exertion lull you into an early sleep.
Even the soundest sleeper struggles to resist the lure of sunrise to start afresh, energized and eager, for now the trail enters the realm of dwarfs and giants. From the hut you don’t have to venture far along the path to find your first signs of the forests giants. Along the edge of the the forest path you discern the first clues, a cluster of large brown fibrous balls. Either crumbling or with fine fungi emerging form them, they mark the time when last an elephant passed by.
Without fail, every time I have taken guests on that section of trail, the first mound of elephant dung that we find captivates their imagination irrespective of how old it is.
Without fail, every time I have taken guests on that section of trail, the first mound of elephant dung that we find captivates their imagination irrespective of how old it is. A leaf dropping to the forest floor from the breeze caressing the canopy magnifies to the thunder of a charging pachyderm.
With each passing kilometer down to the river crossing, there is evidence of an elephant lining the path. There is an added benefit to the excitement, the final fine turning of your senses through which, despite the load of your pack, in your heightened vision the dwarfs of the forest shape shift from between the leaves and announce themselves in shimmering hues of blues and greens.
The Knysna Dwarf Chameleon, like all others of its clan, is the master of disguise. They are live bearers, the female giving birth to up to five babies. When they are born they can fit on the top half of a thumb, are coated in a sticky liquid which prevents them from falling off the branch until they master control of their legs and prehensile tail.
Males are territorial and I have watched a few joust in an attempt to dislodge a challenger from the battle branch. The loser does end up grappling with a gravity assisted descent to the forest floor. Amazingly, the free fall doesn’t deter them and they rapidly recover and start an erratic and disjointed climb back up.
They are remarkable to see and can even move with agile speed if you approach too closely. Often we will be looking at a bird, like a Green Backed Camaroptera flitting through the undergrowth, and as it passes a tree close by, as if by magic we suddenly perceive a chameleon clinging to the trunk 1m above the ground. Then, when watching birds in the canopy, you hear something drop with a plop, see a leaf shiver and when you check the group there is one reviving itself before embarking on the tedious climb to safety. On a section of 2km at Jubilee Creek we had no less than three fall next to us.
Males in their jousting colours are vivid, panels of green and turquoise, and stand out, easily seen up to 8m above the ground. As bright as they are in life they are dark in death, turning black when bitten by a Boomslang, a process that disrupts their elaborate mechanism of colour.
While you expect them to be restricted to the forest, one of the most remarkable sightings that we had on the trail was on the northern slope of Jonkersberg on the 5th stage between Rondebossie Hut and Diepwalle. It was in April, after the wildfire of 2018 and the slope was barren with a few emergent Restios and geophytes dotting the ashy path. Crossing the path in the blazing sun a small chameleon was heading up the slope, bright green and moving unexpectedly fast till it found some foliage to climb into.
Rivers and Giant’s Highways.
5.2km from the Platbos hut you reach the Homtini River. After rain it can be a challenging crossing, but when hiking in a berg wind in mid December, it is a welcome stop for a swim and to fill up water bottles. Across the river the trail is a steep track before becoming a well worn path in a deep gully which continues up the slope. This is the remnant of an ancient elephant highway that traversed the forest from the dawn of time.
Some of the elephant paths were well known and exploited by hunters who would wait for a herd of elephant to come past and ambush them. The route from the Craggs eastwards to Humansdorp was established along routes of elephant highways through the Tistikamma Forest.
Deeply eroded over time, walking in the elephant path, you can’t but marvel at an era when these sentient giants roamed free through the forest. The demise of the herd is a tragic tale, a blight on human history in the area. From a herd estimated to exceed 400 elephants prior to 1870, hunting pressure and habitat transformation have reduced their numbers to a controversial number ranging between an optimistic 11 elephants to a disconcerting lone female in 2018.
Spotted Ghosts in the Dappled Forest Light.
Usually about half an hour into a forest hike guests will ask me what animals live in this emerald world. I list the usual species, Bushbuck, Bushpig, Vervet Monkeys, baboons. two species of mongoose, Cape Clawless Otter. Then, hesitantly the inevitable question is asked “What predators are in the forest?”.
Casually I will answer, “Otter, mongoose, Striped Pole Cat, Honey Badger, Caracal”, and then the one that get most people scanning the forest, “Cape Leopard”.
While sightings of leopard in the Garden Route are rare, they occur more frequently than elephant sightings. Twelve years of research by Landmark Foundation using and array of over 200 trap cameras and GPS collar monitoring have revealed some fascinating information. Though the same species as the savanna species, they are smaller, between 30 and 40kg.
The have a comparatively relaxed life, moving between 3km to 5km at a time, making a kill (usually Bushbuck) and spending between 3 to 5 days feeding from the carcass before moving on.
While they aren’t easy to spot in the forest, there are spoor, scat and scratch marks that can be easily seen. Nothing sets a group of hikers on high alert more than finding a fresh scat on the path, the air still dank with the scent of the leopard.
In March, approaching Rondebossie Hut, we found a fresh leopard scat on the trail with the scent of the leopard lingering among the trees. The transformation of my guests was astounding, scenting every waft of air, scanning the dappled light with radar intensity and stepping with precision stealth for the next kilometer.
As exciting as a glimpse of a Honey Badger on the trail is and finding elephant dung and pushed over trees, or the marking of a leopard, the true essence of hiking the Outeniqua Trail is the kaleidoscope of all your senses as they are liberated from you anesthetized urban paradigm.
Descending from Jonkersberg into the middle earth of tree fern flanked streams beneath an emerald canopy. Sauntering beneath towering Yellowoods that were stout saplings when Christopher Columbus discovered the north American continent hints at perspective.
From Diepvalle to Fisantthoek is a stretch of timeless forest punctuated by a pocket of Fynbos. Pausing beside the fern shrouded streams and even taking the plunge at the river crossing of the Kleinieland Rivier, you get to feel as if your mind has been transported to an era when life was real. On Kleineiland, a plateau top of fynbos wrapped by lush forest, we found a pile of elephant dung beneath the shade of a Keurboom (Virgilia sp) as Carpenter Bees patrolled the gauntlet of flowers above.
Devoid of human influence, from a vantage point, the panorama of the Outeniqua mountains shimmered in the noonday sun, you are triggered to reflect on what once was.
Each evening, as the sun slips below the horizon and we do our best to harvest the last bit of warmth to dry rinsed apparel before the velvet black of night in drawn out by the emerging bats to envelope the huts, we retreat within the realm of content. In contrast to the savanna, the forest towers silent at night, punctuated by the bark of a startled Bushbuck and the hoot of an owl.
The end is near.
It is with an abrupt shock that, on the final stage, you arrive at the N2, to cross over for the final 4.5km to the Harkerville trail. Once frequented by elephants, the remaining giants have long abandoned crossing the highway to avoid the risk of persecution by farmers and the blur of speeding traffic. But the leopards still slink through the dappled light as ghosts.
On reaching the Harkerville hut most hikers pack up and dash to the nearest civilization to wash and replenish themselves. Yet, with a bit of patience, staying over in the hut is a comfortable option that offers a gradual transition to the modern world. In the boma and beneath the comfort of an expansive tree, the spirit of the dwarves, giants and ghosts can drift comfortably through your mind one last time. Until sunrise.
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