Strandloper Hiking Trail celebrates magical southern Wild Coast
Thunder rumbled over Beacon Valley and we sat on the veranda of our forest hut with the geckoes watching benignly over us and listened to The Rider of Lost Creek on Nic’s phone while I bathed my blistered feet in a tub of water.
Cool air wafted in and our gas cooker hissed beneath a varkpan of water for our tea and the afternoon light dropped another notch, and then the rain came down.
The bush around us quivered as if with joy as the raindrops pummelled the leaves and we broke open our five-star freeze-dried chicken tomato alfredo and dined like kings while we contemplated the final leg of our journey.
We were on the Strandloper Hiking Trail, which runs 60km over four days southwest down the coast from Kei Mouth to Gonubie.
On the first morning after overnighting at the Cape Morgan Eco-Centre and a thorough briefing from trail manager Bryan Church we set out along a grassy path past wild banana trees and humming cicadas keeping an eye out for otters which Bryan had said were often sighted in the area.
At Cape Morgan Lighthouse we turned down out of the forest to the beach and emerged where a spine of gnarled steel and concrete brackets ran over the rocks into the sea.
Sixty years ago this structure supported a pipe which channelled seawater to a nearby titanium mine. The mine failed long ago but the brackets have almost become part of the rock.
Thick mist descended as we approached Morgan Bay over a long beach and a ghostly woman horse rider cantered past.
By the time we sat down on the deck of the Morgan Bay Hotel the sun was blazing, however, and it took two glasses each of Morgan Bay Mud, a delicious home-brewed cooldrink cocktail, to quench our thirst.
West of Morgan Bay on top of the cliffs we strayed off the path and linked up by mistake with the gravel road to Double Mouth.
Which was just as well because at that moment one of Nic’s boots gave out and we were sitting on the side of the road trying to fix it when help rolled up in a dusty bakkie.
Oscar Willemsen usually piloted yachts around the globe for a living but he had been stranded by the Covid lockdown and was on a trans-Africa road trip and just happened to be passing.
He plunged into a cavernous toolbox and whipped out a roll of duct tape and had Nic reshod in no time.
At idyllic Double Mouth we chatted to Xolani Xolo, manager of the caravan park and the surrounding nature reserve.
He turned out to be the uncle of the young woman who had served us on the hotel deck in Morgan Bay, a small but telling indication of the key role of tourism in the area as an employer.
Another example was Victoria Jamani, who I chatted to the next morning while I was filling our water bottles.
She walked every day from Morgan Bay to Double Mouth to get piece jobs washing dishes and clothes for the caravaners.
During the hard Covid lockdown she had zero income because the site was closed to visitors.
Our Strandloper hut was situated on the far side of the caravan park on the edge of the forest, above the beach.
Like the ecocentre it was spotlessly clean, everything worked and there was a bag of braai wood waiting.
We had left our candles behind at the ecocentre but a young member of Xolani’s crew, Ubuntu Madikizela, true to his name, found us some replacements and after dinner by the flickering light I read Laurie Lee's A Rose for Winter about a far away long ago adventure in Spain, before I fell asleep.
On the trail west of Double Mouth we kept our eyes peeled for cowrie “money shells”, Chinese Ming dynasty porcelain shards and red-brown cornelian beads, remnants of the Santo Espiritu.
The Portuguese ship foundered off this coastline in 1608, and these artefacts from her hold still litter the area.
The cowries were used as currency and the beads are made of silicone dioxide, originally mined in India.
We found none of these items but the beaches on either side of the Quko River, richly carpeted with shells and shingle, were treasure enough.
With Strandloper having lost its second night hut in a fire they have partnered with the Haga Haga Hotel.
Late that afternoon we checked into our allotted room there and enjoyed the splendour of a shower followed by the added luxury of a meal in the hotel dining room.
A few kilometres out of Haga the next day the sole of Nic’s other boot came adrift and we used a length of gut from a friendly fisherman to bind it together.
It wasn’t ideal and it was a long way to go but after a difficult time over the rocks we stepped down onto a gorgeous expanse of sand.
Bosbokstrand is surely one of the longest most beautiful beaches in SA.
It stretches 10km in a gentle anticlockwise arc, intersected by the Nara, Kwenxura, Kefane and Cintsa rivers.
We had been prepared to swim them but because of the drought and weak inflow from upriver they were blind or reduced to a stream.
We walked through vast emptiness with just the wash of the waves and company of white breasted cormorants, oystercatchers, seagulls and herons.
Then striations in the sand where fishermen had scratched for mussels started appearing then the anglers themselves and even cyclists. We were approaching civilisation.
At a certain point Strandloper guide John Phakamile, a quiet man with a long stride, came down out of the dunes from where he had been keeping a lookout for us, and he escorted us right through to Cintsa East.
He left us at the Village Bistro where we were welcomed like royalty and served a delicious currie while an assistant was dispatched to try to find us some more duct tape at the nearby store.
There was none but it was getting late and we wanted to get to Beacon Valley before the predicted storm. So we pushed on around the Cintsa West promontory and then into the trees.
I dreamed that night of a squiggle of rocks and sand and the smell of the sea and the forest.
A spider crab danced with a gecko and a single file of Strandlopers, the first people who walked these shores 600 years ago, showed me their bare feet and smiled.
On the last leg of the trail, a mere 15km, we strode past Queensbury Bay and Glen Gariff, waded through the waist-deep Kwelera River, traversed a beach at Rainbow Valley that was covered in large pebbles that clattered loudly as each wave retreated, and finally swam the Gonubie, using our raincovers to float our packs.
We trudged up the boardwalk off the beach and a group of young women in weekend party attire eyed our bedraggled appearance doubtfully and then asked Nic to take a photo of them.
He did so happily, positioning them framed by the magical coastline along which we had forged.
His subjects beamed, flashing their sunglasses at him, and for a moment virtual and physical reality met and it was good.
Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.