East London - Whether to tackle a 70km hike over varied terrain in five days was not an easy decision to make for our group of 13 with the average age dangerously close to 70, but deciding that every year would reduce our chances of completing the expedition we cast the die.
So mid-May found us at Port St Johns awaiting transfer to our starting point at Msikaba, three hours north and on an estuary opposite the Mkambati Reserve.
With accommodation in tented camps at four of the five stop-over points – the other being Mbotyi River Lodge, where we opted to spend an extra night for rest and relaxation – and our goods and chattels transferred daily to each camp, Active Escapes, who organise the trail on behalf of Drifters, had stressed the importance of travelling light and not bringing too many “refreshments”.
That our driver at Port St Johns turned pale at what awaited his taxi and small trailer is evidence that we were determined not to be left high and dry, but oldies can’t leave anything to chance when it becomes necessary to freshen up.
After some crafty and inventive packing, we set off ahead of the scheduled departure time to be able to savour the promised delights of Msikaba.
With the road gradually disappearing as we neared our destination, it was a relieved party who arrived at 2pm to be welcomed by trail managers John and Sharon, who had the unenviable task of cooking for us, preparing our packed lunches and transporting our baggage between camps and were the first of a number of helpful and efficient camp managers.
We repaired to our tents – tucked away in a grove of milkwood trees – and then to the beach and lagoon whose tranquil beauty lived up to all the expectations raised by the pre-trail publicity.
After exploring the pristine area near the river mouth but forsaking the opportunity to canoe up the estuary for views of a vulture colony and the rare Pondo Coconut Palm, we opted to lighten the libations load on the beach.
And after a more than adequate dinner that was cooked and served by our hosts in a spacious boma, we settled in for an early night in our comfortable en-suite tents in preparation for the walk.
Day 1: Msikaba to Lupatana – 16km.
The going was easy as we started out, with the terrain varying from beach to adjacent, level grassy paths until we reached the remote Port Grosvenor Inn – also operated by Drifters – where the first of our packed lunches was demolished.
After examining the site of the wreck of the Grosvenor, a merchantman that ran aground in 1782 and was rumoured to have carried a fortune in treasure that was never recovered, we continued to Lupatana, where a lengthy granite platform causes a never-ending display of towering spray from the breaking waves that can be heard thundering on to the rocks throughout the night.
The setting of our camp in a small indigenous forest was perfect and Drifters must be commended for the sites of all their camps, which are eco-friendly, unobtrusive and blend well with the surrounding countryside.
Day 2: Lupatana to Mbotyi – 21km.
“The longest day” was filled with interest and spectacle as the weather gods still smiled down on us. The trail gradually moved inland to cross a number of gorges, with natural pools tempting the brave to swim in the crystal clear rivers beneath.
Compelling stops were Waterfall Bluff and Cathedral Rock – two waterfalls of only nine in the world that disgorge directly into the sea – and from our lunch eyrie above the latter the views up and down the coast were breathtaking.
Then we trekked further inland through rolling grasslands before making a steep descent to the three beaches that heralded the long walk-in to Mbotyi, observed with suitable disdain by a growing number of amiable cattle that are such a feature of the Transkei coast.
Exhausted but exhilarated, we settled into our wooden chalets set high above the sea and tumbled gratefully into baths before descending on the bar.
The extra day at Mbotyi turned out to be the right call, as not only did it rain, but it was a refreshed group that took up their day packs as the weather cleared the next morning and we prepared to tackle what was euphemistically described in the advance publicity as “more undulating terrain”.
Day 3: Mbotyi to Manteku – 11km.
After a brief section on the beach, we were treated to some serious “up-and-downers” including a section on a cliff face where the few among us who suffered vertigo wished they’d stayed on top.
But with the sufferers receiving support from the rest of the group and the guide, we persevered to the next section of beach and were then canoed across the Manteku River by the camp staff, who had been waiting for us.
Manteku was probably the best-sited camp on the trail, set slightly back from the beach with sea and lagoon views from the boma.
Day 4: Manteku to Ntafufu – 10km.
The shortest day was one of the prettiest, with rolling hills and rocky promontories separated by river valleys.
There was time to relax, take in the views and paddle on some rivers before being canoed across the final one and settling into our last camp of the trail.
Day 5: Ntafufu to Port St Johns – 12km.
The trail took us around more undulating hills with awesome views along the coast until we reached Poenskop.
From here (having taken a circuitous inland route to avoid more cliffs), it was a long descent to the beach and a final 5km pull to the mouth of the mighty Mzimvubu River at Port St Johns.
The leaking rowing boat – without any lifejackets – that took us across the river signalled our introduction to the urban decay that is Port St Johns, but that is another story.
For the present, we were left with wonderful memories of one of the most beautiful of South Africa’s many spectacular hiking trails in a part of the country that is still fairly remote and relatively inaccessible.
Do it before the mostly pristine environment is destroyed by the construction of the all-new N2 which, if it ever comes to fruition, seems likely to line only the pockets of the few and not benefit the many impoverished rural communities in the area.
If You Go...
l Drifters: 011 888 1160.
l Active Escapes: 033 330 6131 or 084 240 7277. They will give you costs – there is a cheaper, self-catering option available – and all the information you need.
l For those who – like us – have difficulty remembering to always keep the sea on your left, take a guide (or maybe two if you are a group of different ages who walk at different speeds) to prevent doing extra kilometres by taking a wrong turn on the myriad paths that criss-cross the area. They (the guides, not the paths) are inexpensive and helpful, and it provides much-needed employment in the local community.
l Don’t walk too fast. Apart from burning up energy unnecessarily, you will miss out on some stunning scenery, and the distances are planned to give you plenty of time to get from one camp to the next with stops along the way.
l If you are elderly, an extra night at Mbotyi is highly recommended. It’s comfortable and the perfect stopover at more or less the halfway mark.
l Spring and autumn are probably the best times to go because the summer months can be wet and very hot.
l Check the tides and try to tackle the beach sections when they are low – it makes it easier to cross all the small river mouths you encounter along the way. - Saturday Star
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