CRACK OF DAWN: The days are lengthening, and are perfect for a brisk walk. Picture: tim rolston

We have just passed the winter solstice down here in the southern hemisphere and with that the promise of the gradual lengthening of days. But progress is slow and it will be a while before any of us really notices the effects.

Right now the night seems to drag on interminably, all too often accompanied by the splatter of rain on the windows and frigid external temperatures which make staying tucked up and warm all the more appealing.

Frequently the dawn is delayed further by low black cloud that acts as a barrier to the day’s awakening, and when venturing out in the weak winter sunshine it is all too easy to be beaten back by the chill wind cutting through your clothing and knifing the kidneys. In short, it is tricky to get motivated to get out in winter – but perhaps more important to do so.

Winter seems pleasant enough to start with, what with warm fires and hearty menus, but then it all begins to take a toll on the waistline and the psyche and it becomes essential to get out there for a brisk walk.

There is an art to winter walking, and a bit of planning doesn’t go amiss, but once you’re out the cobwebs are easily shaken off and the winter mountains offer at least as much joy as in summer. First I was looking for a break in the cold fronts; I don’t mind clouds, but it’s better if it’s not pouring with rain. Then you want a route that isn’t overly committing, so that should the weather take a turn for the worse you can turn tail before risking hypothermia.

So with a recent break in the weather I headed for a most enjoyable walk through Echo Valley and back through the Spes Bona forest above Boyes Drive. The skies were cloudy but it wasn’t overly chilly, and there was, as my mother would say, “enough blue sky to patch a sailor’s trousers”, which supposedly means that it is clearing and not likely to rain.

There was a faint north-westerly breeze that gently ruffled the surface of False Bay and held the hope that I might just see one of the first whales of the winter migration if I was fortunate.

The path starts just above the harbour at Kalk Bay, and after parking I headed up a series of stone steps to the first rest stop at Weary Willy’s pool. I had promised myself that I wouldn’t have a breather until reaching this clearing, although after too much time indoors it was a bit of a struggle to maintain a pace. The damp still air held the scent of the fynbos, and despite my puffing and panting I revelled in it. It was like marching upward through a giant perfumery and entirely different from the smells of the sun-baked earth of summer.

The effort warmed me and I was soon divesting myself of my warm clothing. This is one of the joys of winter walking – the temperatures are actually more conducive to hiking than those of the summer; it’s just getting started that seems a battle.

After the initial shock of the steep climb from the road, the path levels off somewhat and the sandy soil and rough cobbles of the path drain quickly, so that despite recent rains I didn’t get my feet wet.

Not far up the hill you can turn off to Cave Peak and explore, although that is best done with a good guide during the drier months, so I continued up through Echo Valley and the lovely indigenous forest with its well-maintained wooden pathways and delightful fairy-tale landscape of twisted yellowwoods and old man’s beard. It was deathly quiet but for the occasional chirping of the birds and the constant tinkle of water trickling along the stream bed in the shallow valley. In fact by this point I was really enjoying the solitude and exercise, and feeling pleased that I had made the effort to drag myself out of the house.

Having exited the forest I took a short detour from the main path to visit Ronan’s Well, the entrance to a cave system where there is always water. It looks like a fairy grotto, with a sandy floor and green moss-covered rocks, the sound of trickling water seeping from the rocks into a shallow pool echoing slightly within the cave’s confines.

From here it is but a short clamber up over the top to reach the amphitheatre, a wide sandy break among the rocks which serves as a central hub to a number of paths and alternative walks. I chose the simplest route, one that would take me back down through more low forest in Spes Bona Valley and then onwards to the car.

Around this point you suddenly gain a view of the Atlantic coast and the sands of Noordhoek beach stretching off into the distance, with Slangkop Lighthouse at Kommetjie as a beacon.

The boardwalks through the forest were damp but offer far nicer walking than trudging through mud, and all in all it is the quality of the path that makes this such a pleasant winter trail.

By the time I had reached the road once more I had given myself a fair workout but nothing overly strenuous. The clouds had parted to allow a little more winter sunshine to light up the boats in the harbour and I hadn’t even got my shoes wet.

If you are up for a bit of outdoor time and looking for moderate exercise in gorgeous surrounds then you would do well to consider this walk. It will take you two to three hours depending on your pace, offer good footing and wonderful views with little risk of missing the path, and an easy option of turning tail should rain clouds return. - Sunday Argus