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To hell and back in the Eastern Cape

Eastern Cape - Hell, let me tell you, is a very pretty place… at least, that’s true of the latest manifestation of purgatory to which I have subjected myself over the past half-century.

I don’t know how many times I have said “never again” but I just don’t learn. There’s something about the promise of blisters, aching muscles and locked-up knees that calls out to the (foolish) boy in me. A website injunction that “hikers will require a moderate to advanced level of fitness” serves only to sweeten the promise.

The Alexandria Hiking Trail crosses the largest coastal dune sea in the southern hemisphere, with the regions second highest dunes. Picture: Jim FreemanThe trail traverses a variety of landscapes, including lush farmland.  Picture: Jim FreemanThe Woody Cape hut is a welcome sight after a hard days walk.  Picture: Jim FreemanKnysna Loeries are some of the birds you may hear in the forest.  Picture: Jim Freeman

Hey, no-one has ever called me a wimp. They tend to use words like “idiot”.

My latest descent into post-pubescent silliness involved two days slogging the Alexandria Hiking Trail – a 36km circular walk through the Woody Cape section of the Addo Elephant National Park outside Port Elizabeth, much of it through the largest coastal dune sea in the southern hemisphere.

Said dune sea also contains the second highest dunes in the southern hemisphere – the highest are in the Namib Desert – and it’s quite mind-boggling to conceive that one is actually in the verdant Eastern Cape when struggling up endless mountains of soft, slithery sand.

Looking at photographs from the two days, the scenery is undeniably beautiful but there were very few occasions when I was able to appreciate it at the time. Quite honestly, the two days recalled nothing so much as an old-fashioned army vasbyt endurance march, selection course and punishment session rolled into one and tied up with a ribbon of hellish heat.

The experience begins innocuously enough. Although the trail is self-guided, I’m told that the two people who will be accompanying me are nature conservation students who are doing their practical year at Addo. Buntu and Sam are both 21 years old and are based at the reserve.

They assure me the route is “very tough” but add that they’ve never hiked the trail in the three months they’ve been there.

A minimum of three hikers and a maximum of 12 are allowed on the trail per day. The lower parameter is determined by common sense – if one hiker is incapacitated, one goes for help (cellphone reception is extremely limited) while the other looks after the injured person – and the higher due to the fact that the overnighting hut can sleep 12.

Hikers are given a very handy trail booklet at the start but it isn’t long before you’ll find it almost permanently open at the pages with the route map (ticked off in kilometres, though there is no indication of distance traversed on the actual hike) and elevations. The latter describes whether you’re going uphill or downhill, something that is pretty self-evident on the ground but at least gives you an indication of how long you still have to suffer the numerous and often interminable inclines.

The first such incline presents itself barely a kilometre into the hike. It’s shortly before noon, hot and very humid, when the track begins a 1 500m ascent. It’s one of those disproportionately long climbs because there are a lot of false crests but eventually we enter the Alexandria Forest proper.

There were only two sections of the hike that I can say I really enjoyed and this was one of them, notwithstanding the fact that I nearly stood on a puffadder. Though humid, it was shady and generally downhill all the way to the sea. The birdlife was abundant; hardly a minute went by without us hearing the harsh bark of Knysna Loeries (Turacos), mournful whoops of African Hoopoes and the mocking “move-it, move-it… quick, quick, quick” imprecations of a myriad Bokmakieries.

The birds are, however, rather shy so one hears rather than sees them. I’ve found the Sasol eBirds of Southern Africa mobile phone app a very valuable (and light) addition to my hiking kit but it doesn’t really help if you’re not sufficiently clued up to identify species on call alone.

I’m sure there’s a similar application for plants and trees, and I’d advise anyone to load it before setting out.

Particularly interesting is the Waterboom, a giant yellowwood with a permanent water reservoir at the base of its trunk. At 5km into the hike, it’s one of the few spots on the route where there are tables and chairs.

The Alexandria Forest and coastal dune forest biomes are separated by about 2km of lush farmland (privately owned but hikers have traversing rights).

After crossing the fields and descending to the unspoilt beach, one reaches the “business end” of the day’s walking: nearly half of the entire 19.5km route is carried out through sand.

The beauty of the experience palls rapidly. It’s only when sheer cliffs hem us into the sea and we have to make use of the ebbing tide to proceed that I start to enjoy myself again… timing our darts forward to coincide with the retreating waves and making use of the firmer footing. It also allows us to cool our burning bare feet.

The fun bit comes to an end all too soon and we are confronted with… oh God!… a rope ladder by means of which one is forced to pull oneself up a horrifically acute slope. It would be a piece of cake normally but we’ve already done about 14km in the heat of day and I’m carrying a pack that, with all my camera equipment, weighs nearly 25kg.

Once atop the cliff, we’re given a taste of what’s still to come – today and tomorrow – because we’ve entered the dune sea. The late afternoon sun and wind combine to blow sand-veils across their crests and the two 21-year-olds charge blithely to the top of the tallest one… because they can.

It’s dusk when we reach the hut at Woody Cape and we drop our kit with vast relief. Basic the hut might be – there’s no shower or bathing facilities – but the view is stupendous. At another time of year I would probably be able to sit on the deck and watch whales and dolphins just below.

Our muscles are aching when we rise the next morning. After several cups of tea and having refilled our water-bottles from the rainwater tank, we set out for a day’s walk that threatens to be even tougher that the one before.

Threatens, hell, it damned well delivers in spades.

We have to cover a mere 16.5km but the first seven are over dunes that undulate into the distance ahead of us. It’s only someone who has actually walked through a desert who knows how easy it is to die in one.

The route is marked with posts bearing giant footprints: you start at one and scan the dunes around you for the next and then you make a beeline for it. That’s the theory anyway… sometimes the quickest way is zigzagging and walking along dune crests rather than ascending their sides.

Ironically, one of the youngsters is in much worse state than I. He’s forgotten to bring a hat and he’s been too sparing on the water when he had the chance to top himself up. We’re not yet out of the dunes when he starts showing signs of dehydration and heat exhaustion.

We shepherd him along, resting often (which suits me fine!), especially when we re-enter the forest. The next 2km feel like an almost vertical ascent and at least two of us are gasping for breath not long after we begin the climb.

It feels interminable and it takes almost everything I have not to lock my stare on the feet of the hiker in front of me and trudge blindly.

All three of us look frequently at the elevation graph in our trail booklets, trying to figure out where we are on the uphill and, more importantly, how long it will be before it stops. We’re no longer as assiduous in avoiding bark-spider webs.

The last 2km are the longest despite the fact that they’re relatively flat. It’s already 3pm and we’ve been walking since eight in the morning. Our water-bottles are empty.

The end comes into sight. And there’s a tap…

Jim Freeman, Saturday Star

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