Every now and then I get asked to go on an adventure and I might add that they are normally a day out and about experiencing a path, a tree, a flight, a zip line or something like that, but nothing prepared me for this one! I am chuckling as I say this as I never thought I would be this crazy. Unfit, still recovering from breaking my leg last year in a paragliding accident and under no circumstances prepared to hike at all, I agreed to do the Donkey Trail….oops?!?
But opportunities like this are few and far between that missing out on this one would just be bizarre. To top it all, I invited one of my best friends along to join me. “Hi Glenda, bring a backpack, a few warm items and hiking shoes, we are doing this trail into the Swartberg mountain range, it will be fun…” And with complete trust, she agreed.
We met up in Mossel Bay and then meandered our way through the back roads of the Klein Karoo. Our destination, Living Waters, is situated near a little dorpie called Calitzdorp. The dirt road that runs between there and Oudtshoorn is quite a spectacular little track and we romantically gazed upon Red Stone Hills, well-kept farms, old cottages and small communities of waving locals. Historically the Klein Karoo is a rather interesting place and we discussed the wealth created by ostrich feather industry, the Boer war and roosterkoek as we bided our time travelling along the dusty track.
Nearing the home of the Donkey Trail, that is neatly nestled in the Groenfontein valley on the foothold of the Swartberg Mountains, we found ourselves bouncing along a farm road that eventually led us to the old but restored country home of Erika, we had arrived.
It was with an abundance of energy that a young man greeted us, with”Hello, are you Rose?” as he skipped down the stairs. “My name’s Andrew” said the tanned open-faced young gentleman in front of me. “Let me show you to your cottage, it’s John’s Cottage, further down the road” The cottage seems to slant as it is placed on the side of a hill overlooking the valley. The soft evening air of the Karoo greeted us on the small stoep. We took a moment to observe the view before listening intently to Andrew’s packing instructions in preparation for the next days’ travels. Glenda and I sifted through our luggage to find the perfect items to add to our day packs, adding water bottles, cameras and an overnight change of clothing for our stay in the mountains.
These tedious head-scratching decisions built up a thirst and we dropped everything and headed back to the Country Homestead for our briefing, a wise decision! Barging in through the kitchen door and eager to meet up with Erika and the rest of our party I happily received my first glass of wine and just relaxed with some chitter chatter in front of the fireplace, there seemed to be a buzz of excitement as we got to know our fellow hikers while lounging in the comfortable sofas.
Erika carefully outlined the hike and the rules and regulations of the area. There was that feeling of apprehension again as I realised that I have not done any fitness training for a while. I took a deep breath of air and looked around for some reassurance from the team travelling with us, and there seemed to be a comfortable air about, so I made a conscious decision that this would be one damn thing that I would definitely complete, no matter what! Later that evening, while munching away on the deliciously cooked dinner prepared by Johan, I realised that although I might crawl up a mountain at least I wouldn’t go hungry, hallelujah!
Our mellow Karoo evening ended up in laughter as we were challenged to try and squeeze a note out of a Kudu horn. Instruments are definitely not my forte but making an ass out of myself obviously is, this I know now as the evening ended on a “High Note”! Still giggling Glenda and I headed back to our cottage later that evening leaving behind warm good night wishes and lingering smiles. I silently looked up at that mountain lurking in the distance and wondered “How the hell I am I going to get over that…?”
Morning broke, and we made a few last decisions about gear. A chill in the air had persisted through the night and we wrapped up warmly prior to making our way back to the homestead for breakfast. Nibbling on some fruit and dousing the inside of our bodies with warm coffee seemed to be in order before it was time to aim for the donkey kraal.
I was eternally grateful to be relieved of the extra load by our long-eared companions Buddy and Zuma and I watched as they patiently stood their ground while being rigged for the long journey. The start kinda lingered in the air for a bit before Erika addressed us one last time and then reassuringly ended with: “Go to Hell” and we did…
An interesting fact is that this trail is not a new one but one that has been journeyed by many residents from Gamkaskloof renamed the “Hell” after a stock inspector, Piet Botha entered it via the steep pass known as “die Leer” from the western side, he described it as being like Hell to get into the Kloof and the name stuck. The Donkey Trail was the re-opening of the earliest path used until 1962 when the first road was built into the Gamkaskloof. Many went via this path to trade goods, visit friends and family and even to go to school.
Whilst looking up I couldn’t help but have an overwhelming feeling of respect. Life is a breeze in comparison to back then, with this in mind I put my head down and started my climb of 15km up the second highest mountain in South Africa.
The rock-strewn outcrops of the mountain presented an interesting biosphere of plants, insects and animals and every now and then Andrew stopped and pointed out some of the finer details.
The journey was a slow easy one with the slowest person, or Donkey, depending on the moment, setting the pace. The first 3 Hours of the trail was mostly a zig-zag climb up the side of the mountain before heading into a single track path, it then plummets into a gorge, this is where we dislodged our packs and enjoyed the cool spring water, lunch and a breather. The break presented exciting chatter about the landscape and I typically wondered how many souls have passed through it before us?
Do not be mistaken, if I could hike this path backwards I would, as the views are breathtaking and you cannot help but stop and stare at the magnitude of mother nature and her endless panoramic beauty.
During the final hours of the journey, we started to climb, yet again, over the curved escarpment. This led us onto a gentle steady slope before edging the dragons back up into the so-called teacup of the mountain saddle. It was tough and the constant climbing and fatigue of the day had set in, but one foot in front of the other gets you there. By now I was at the back of the pack and with guide Joel by my side we edged out the last of the mountain side step by step.
Bursting with joy that was mingled with exhaustion I reached the top, the smile on my face must have been the broadest it’s ever been, I made it! “Welcome to the top of the second highest mountain in South Africa”: said Andrew and put out his hand for me to shake it. “I don’t shake hands, but a kiss on the cheek will be fabulous thank you” I blurted out. We all laughed and made our way to the waiting others.
It took us another 30 minutes before we reached base camp and the chill factor in the wind hadn’t changed much since we left that morning. I was convinced by now that it snowed the day before, the horizon was slowly sucking up the sunlight and we had to move briskly towards our camp and really was looking forward to exchanging my water bottle for a cup of coffee.
Moving tenaciously along the sunlit grassland I noticed the gentle change of the biosphere in our elevation, we were are surrounded by Pin Cushion Proteas and the Sugar Birds chirped out their screechy songs as they indulged in the nectar of these beautiful African flowers.
It’s so gorgeous up there and it made the last footpath to camp a pleasure. The sight of a freshwater stream, tents poised on the rocky outcropped slopes and bustling camp sure was a welcoming sight. Sebastian handed me a cup of coffee and it was time to relax. My hands enfolded the rustic cup which I quickly brought to my lips and I literally let the warm liquid slide down my throat, this was pure bliss.
Basecamp consisted of 4 parts; A Kitchen tent with an outlook, meal tent, sleeping tents and an outhouse with a view. This is all positioned within the angles of the rocky slopes and is accompanied by a cool mountain stream of crystal clear water which runs along the camp site. This cool source of water is used for drinking & swimming, but very much excluded swimming that night!
The sun set, the chill factor increased, it was a quick bird bath for us out of the small basin filled with hot water to wash off the excess sweat and clean the smelly bits, we splish-splashed our way with minimalistic effort and slipped into our warm gear. It felt good and we headed to the kitchen tent for supper.
With slight amusement I stared at the yummy warm pasta called “Pasta ala Boer” it was just the perfect way to end the day, hungry I wolfed down my food and the worms in my stomach clapped and cheered with each mouth full. I managed to wangle one more cup of java before being given a hot water bottle and sent to bed. We closed ourselves up between the four canvas walls of our tent and wriggled into our sleeping bags for a good night’s rest. The wind restlessly worked its way around our tent, pulling at the corners like a naughty child, noisily howling for all to hear, but we were safe and I closed my eyes and let the warmth seep into my bones, tomorrow will bring another day…
to be continued…..
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