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Off the beaten track in Eastern Cape

Stupid? Illogical? Strenuous? Surprisingly, not at all. The six-day hike was a great holiday, a perfect way to get away from civilisation and a fantastic family bonding experience.

In short, it’s the kind of holiday every family should have at least once.

A good stretch for the family.Beauty of a hike that won't leave you wrecked.Lily Pad Huts: One of the stops on the hike from Port Alfred to Fish River.The Shipwreck TrailTree's no crowd& a site for sore limbs.The historic stone cottage stopover, built in 1848.

The excuse for our outdoor adventure was my wife’s desire for a “family holiday with a difference”.

The reason for Port Alfred to Fish River was simply because we could not get a booking for the Otter Trail before our oldest son would potentially be at university and by then he would probably be looking for a holiday filled with beer and debauchery rather than walking along pristine beaches with his mother, father and little brother.

With a hike pencilled in for the Christmas holidays, mom would not be put off by a little booking backlog and began searching for other hikes in the Eastern Cape. Google threw up the Shipwreck Trail. The idea of a long walk mostly on the beach was not high on my list of holiday destinations, but once it was obvious mom was intent on her holiday-with-a-difference, I checked the website.

Two things quickly made the Shipwreck Trail more appealing: First, the price was ridiculously cheap; then, a little statement on the website in italics made “roughing it” so much more luxurious.

“There is a slack-packing option available. All your gear and food will be dropped off at each hut every day, so that you can walk with day packs.”

Ha! That is like the hiking equivalent of Lance Armstrong’s drug-assisted Tour de France victories – it is not strictly ethical, but it sure does makes things much easier.

The purist hikers will sneer at the concept of slack-packing as they haul their worldly possessions about like tortoises.

For those who have never hiked in style, slack-packing simply means you only have to carry a day-pack with your daily essentials – things like food and drink and a few sweets to keep the youngsters energised.

The only time you have to carry heavy food, clothing and luxuries is when you move your bag from the dropping point to your bed – on the Shipwreck Trail that is usually no more than 30m (beat that, you tortoise-like purists).

The other massive benefit of the slack-packing option on the Shipwreck Trail is the guys who transport your bags also happen to own a shop and a bottle store.

So, if you run out of anything you can always make a plan to have it dropped off with your bags and daily (refrigerated) food supplies (these, of course, include things like cold beers and wine, as well as fresh bread – did somebody say “roughing it”?).

We opted for the five-day, six-night “canoe trail”. The canoe option is a day longer than the normal hike, to allow time for 8km of paddling up the Kleinemonde River to the Lily Pad Huts and back to the river mouth the next day.

We ended up missing the canoeing because heavy rains opened the river mouth and made the lagoon unnavigable, but trail co-ordinator Dave Marais is normally happy to make a plan and simply loaded us in his bakkie and transported us to Lily Pad (well, almost, we still had a pleasant walk through a game reserve to reach what would have been the end of the paddle section).

Lily Pad Huts, a bush camp set deep in a private game reserve, was arguably the best camp site of the trip.

Two communal sleeping areas, piping hot water, a deck with a stunning view and a well-equipped boma made roughing it a complete misnomer.

The other camp sites ranged from a bush camp with a huge fireplace and a somewhat stark brick army-style “dormitory” (converted from an old navy lookout) to a beautiful, well-equipped historic stone cottage built in 1848 and a magnificent tree house perched eight metres above a stream.

The accommodation each day is basic but comfortable with foam mattresses, cooking utensils, water and a few other essentials supplied to make sure everybody gets a good night’s rest after a day of walking.

The hike is not overly strenuous and our party of eight people (two families) ranged in age from 11 to just over 50.

Despite long sections on the beach, even the youngest never seemed to struggle with the distances, which range from 7km to 14km and we never had any problems – barring a bit of dodgy navigation which added a kilometre of two to our fifth day (that is what happens when you rely on me to navigate).

The route takes hikers along the beach from Port Alfred to Fish River, but the overnight stops are always inland – which makes for a nice variation from beach walking.

These detours off the spectacular wide, rolling sand dunes vary from a few hundred metres to get to the first camp to a relatively strenuous 5km hike through beautiful indigenous riverine forest to reach the treehouse for the second night.

There are also a couple of sections of pleasant strolls through rolling farmlands.

The route is marked with sea anchors painted on green wooden boards hung from trees, which works well in the forest and when walking away from the beach.

However, trees do not grow on the beach, so hikers have to rely on landmarks to know where to turn inland and that can be problematic if you lose concentration or put a 50-something with dodgy eyesight (that would be me) in charge of navigation.

But the unplanned detours just added to the adventure and were part of the fun – or so I tried to tell everybody.

Six days of walking out of sight of civilisation, cooking your own food over a fire and showering in rough, home-made bush showers is not everybody’s idea of a perfect getaway, but for the eight of us it was a great holiday with a difference and an ideal way to use up a week of leave.

Are we keen to do this stupid, illogical and strenuous walk again? Without a doubt. - Tim Whitfield, Sunday Tribune

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