A not so benign start
This hike was always going to be one of those hikes during which frequent comparisons would be drawn with our previous attempt. That hike had been particularly memorable for a number of reasons but as hiking tends to spring surprises on one, nothing was a given. Nothing precluded this one from also being as dramatic as that one.
What was more important than continual comparisons with the 2003 outing was the joie de vivre and camaraderie that a hike with a great bunch of guys always engenders.
Day 1 from the Biervlei Hut up to the Windmeulnek Hut is inevitably a tedious one as it traverses from the foothills of the Outeniqua mountain range to its highest reaches. At no point are there vertiginous climbs. Rather it is a steady grinding uphill the whole day as one ascends one ridge after another in a ceaseless succession like ramparts protecting the sanctity of the mountain and its elusive elephants itself.
A benign start lulls one into a false sense of ease. Mainly through indigenous vegetation one strolls with only slightly ascending undulations. Progress is steady and the pace overgenerous. The crossing of a rivulet, the Hoekkraal River, marks the junction with the mountain itself. From this point onwards, the steady inexorable footslog commences.
In 2003, the day had awoken to a steady but soaking drizzle. Some had disdained the use of ponchos or rain jackets in defiance at nature’s feeble attempt at deterring the hiker. Most of us elected to don ponchos ab initio on the cogent assumption that after eight hours of light drizzle, one would be as drenched as efficiently as a swift steady downpour; that is all except one, Werner.
For him the I-am-tougher-than-you-lot attitude disdained such unbecoming and demeaning behaviour. It also buttressed his image as the tough man.
The Hoekkraal River was in spate and uncrossable. After a brief search a channel was discovered where one could leap onto a pinnacle of a rock where Danie caught us. Any misstep in that process would instantly result in one’s hike being terminated at that point. I elected to ford across instead, amide much mirth.
Well before lunch Werner was soaked through not solely from the rain which had long since ratcheted up the rate steadily but due to the strenuous work that was required on our ever-upward trajectory as hillock after hillock presented itself. Each in turn had to be ascended. None were imposing or ludicrously steep, but like a dripping tap, each new challenge took its toll.
Werner elected to go ahead and was not seen again until we reached the furthermost peaks. There perched on the southern face of a mountain gully was the wooden Windmeulnek Hut. Lying mumbling on one of the beds was Werner in a state of shock suffering from hypothermia. Despite wearing all of his spare clothes and curled up like an infant within his sleeping bag, Werner was shivering uncontrollably.
His condition was critical. He could easily slip into a coma from which he would not recover. Disquiet reigned.
With great presence of mind, despite being drained of energy like the rest of us, Gunther elected to chop firewood for a huge blazing fire. Warmed by its heat, Werner slowly recovered and the involuntary shivering abated.
This year, there was nothing as dramatic except for the intervention of six years. During these critical years, Mother Nature had not been kind on us. The ravages of age had taken its toll. All had suffered as seriously on this occasion in spite of favourable weather due to our level of fitness not being at an optimum level. Even Laurie, my usual fitness benchmark, had suffered inordinately from the remitting uphills. Maybe being his first hike was a mitigating factor but nevertheless, he had suffered like the rest of us.
A surprise greeted the weary bunch. The Windmeulnek Hut had been upgraded with a verandah serving as a connection between the previously unconnected rooms. This was a vast improvement of the previous arrangement.
This hut is renowned for its gusting winds as it occupies a cleft between two peaks. Surrounded by buttresses, the wind is compressed into a narrow gorge moaning and wheezing as it does so. Woe betide anyone trying to walk through this gap when the wind is pumping through this narrow aperture.
In 2003, at midnight with the wind abated, it was a calm breathless night with shards of moonlight poking through the light mist. The eerie echoes of an axe man at work resonated through the valley. A steady chop-chop-chop emanated from the distant valley. Together with the impenetrable mist covering the valley floors, it conjured up visions of a quintessential Dracula movie with its sepulchral solitude. I involuntary shivered in my sleeping bag as Norman in an Orson Welles touch whispered conspiratorially , ”They are coming to get us.”
One has a night to recover before tackling the daunting section to Platbos. Not quite as challenging as day one but given the aches and pains arising from of the first day, it requires copious quantities of persuasion for the legs to perform adequately. The instructions did provide a ray of hope is that it did indicate that we had to take a detour as the bridge over the Karatara River had been washed away. But this could just as well be indicative of a more strenous hike.
A silent prayer that day two would be agreeable
What did the morrow hold: what had the previous strenuous day two been replaced with?
In 2003, the second day of the trail started off with a short 300m climb along a ridge line before a steep descent of about 1500m to cross the Karatara River. This is followed by an equally stiff climb of 2500m until a contour path is reached. The path passes several picturesque mountain streams with ferns and a rich variety of fynbos with many different examples of fungi. Lovely views towards the distant coastline can also be seen on a clear day. Eventually the trail descends sharply and the last part of the day takes the hiker along a forestry road until the Platbos hut is reached.
Instead of the trail commencing with a stiff climb up to the highest peak north of the Hut, it was a narrow contour path along a fynbos covered hillside until it joined the forest road to Platbos. In place of the steep precipitous decline to the Karatara River, it was now a slow three kay descent.
This was just what the body needed; nothing too strenuous in order to recover from day one’s depredations. The usual male rivalry had been dissipated on day one’s hills. The pace degenerated into an unrushed amble. Even the irrepressible Walter joined the dissolute mob and lowered his standards.
The existence of the putative elephants was confirmed by the evidence left strewn along the road. No other animals could have faeces as large as this. After finally crossing the Karatara River, the trail detoured into the indigenous forest, winding its way almost contour-like until Platbos Hut was reached.
On all our previous hikes since the late 1980’s, no other party had joined us on the hike. So when this incongruous pair – Herbie, an ex-Army Sergeant Major – and Kitty a 50/60 something wannabe sex kitten, latched onto us, it was rather with a feeling of dismay as if our privacy had been invaded. Fortunately this “couple” was experienced hikers and was rarely seen apart from at the hut itself. Their relationship status was indeterminate with Herbie referring to her as “that other women” Despite this they always hiked together and always shared a room!!
Being a typical iconoclast, he would enthrall us with his stories of the post 1994 SA Defence Force with most comments sometimes being culturally insensitive but nevertheless amusing. Laurie laughed along even though he never understood a word of what was being said.
Their behaviour reminded me of the archetypal marital dalliance with deceit and furtive liaisons being the norm.
Of the pair, Herbie was the garrulous, but not quite rambunctious, partner. In contrast his female companion, Kitty, was taciturn, hardly uttering a syllable. Her clothes belied her age with her sartorial taste being two decades younger than her body’s biological clock. Being lithe and petite, one could scarcely accuse her of emulating the so-called sheep-in-lamb’s-clothing adage as her body belied her age.
Onward to Millwood
Much of the route from Platbos Hut to Millwood is along forestry road. The route is very pleasant and with the exception of the steep downhill to cross the Homtini River which is a misnomer. For much of the year, it is no more than a placid stream with ample rocks to utilise as stepping stones. Then follows an equally steep uphill. The day’s walk can be considered as moderate and benign by Outeniqua’s standards.
In 2003 the Homtini River was not so agreeable. Like a raging miscreant, it created havoc wherever it went. A 75 metre wide torrent faced us; no doubt the result of the copious rain which had fallen over the previous few days. We would cross at the river’s behest. A steel cable strung across from bank to bank indicated that flash flooding was a perennial occurrence. The easiest path across had to be determined heuristically by watching where the others came a cropper. This would not be Sisyphean Task as, once crossed, it was behind us.
The climb out of the gorge is the only one of two vertiginous climbs of the trip. The indefatible Walter surged up these inclines as if it was a slight rise while the rest of the pack cursed and ambled breathlessly upward. The agreed upon lunch spot was the stunningly beautiful Jubilee Creek with its brooks, ponds & wooden tables for the picnic set.
In spite of the guys, apart from Walter, being in a pack, after Gunther and I waited patiently, the rest did not pitch up. After 15 minutes our concerns were raised in case somebody had been injured. Finally they arrived. Don was in some distress & the rest of the bunch was carrying his kit. Fortunately we were only a few kilometres from Millwood and if need be, Don could take residence in one of the showers at Jubilee Creek until we returned to collect him after the hike. Notwithstanding his duress, Don elected to plod on with Arnold in attendance.
En route to Millwood one come passes the historical house Mother Holly’s run by the Millwood preservation society. The tea garden at Millwood again proved to be a magnet with new owners – a dour Hollander, Don, & an effervescent talkative wife. What was their attraction? Maybe like magnets, opposites attract.
Beers and meals are guzzled with abandon, fatuous comments made and idiotic jokes told. Light-headed, weary bodies were dragged the last 500 metres to Millwood, an old two story building with a wood burning stove to heat the water.
Even experienced hikers – including myself – have experienced problems on hikes. This hike was the turn of Don & Walter; Don with a sprained muscle & Walter with a deadly viral strain known only to affect hikers called colloquially lazyitits. Known to only affect the congenitally indolent, it has nevertheless been known to even affect the most determined and strong willed from time to time. This has been the first occurrence within the Club although mild symptoms had previously been experienced by certain members on occasions.
Both elected to proceed no further but rather to await our return to pick them up.
The Deutsches Reich Crumbles through irresolute behaviour
The German contingent is known for its sumptuous meals. Normally these comprise kussler, bockwurst, sauerkraut and an assortment of other German delicacies. This is usually washed down with gallons of beers.
What would inevitably happen is that one of the other members would merrily open a packet of Smash or Toppers only be the victim of the opprobrium of the German contingent. As none except them understand the German invective, the full import of the castigations was never known.
On this hike, at the first hut, Windmeulnek, I caught Walter surreptitiously disposing of a Smash packet into the dustbin. On being questioned as to its origins, he claimed – in a quite blatant manner – that he was merely throwing away a packet that was lying on the ground.
On inspecting his plate, it was seen to have a large dollop of yellow stuff looking surprising similar to the above mentioned verboten foodstuff.
By night number two at Platbos, the game was up when a packet of Toppers was spotted being covertly shoved into the pot.
The whole of Deutschland came to a standstill!!
Verdomde sweinhunde!!!!!!. They didn’t even bring any beers along!
Effect of the change in diet
Gunther must serve as the ultimate proof that the above-mentioned diet does not agree with the German’s constitution. On day 3 at the Millwood hut this fact was graphically illustrated to Kurt and I.
While we were both having a well earned shower – separately of course – in stormed a frantic Guenther in some distress into the ablution facilities. Flinging open the toilet door, he hastily proceeded to disrobe. At that moment a huge explosion was heard with Guenther screaming with paroxysms of disgust & remorse. Fearing the worst, Kurt and I charged – au naturelle – to rescue Guenther only to find him staring wide-eyed at the result!!!!
To prevent a reoccurrence, our Club’s Grundgesetz – Constitution – should be amended to prohibit the eating by the German contingent of barbaric non-Germanic foods such as Smash & Toppers.
Through the Knysna River to Rondebosse Hut
From Millwood the trail rises gradually along a forestry road.
For some distance, looking back, one can see panoramic views of the valley and the picturesque hamlet of Millwood below. The trail eventually leaves the forestry road and dives of into the forest and starts the descent to the Knysna River. The forest is old and eerie but very beautiful with its myriad of plants and fungi. Eventually, after approximately 9 kms, the Knysna River is reached. This and the Homtini River are the two major river crossings on the Outeniqua trail and both have steel cables to assist the hiker across if need be.
In 2003 after crossing the raging river, Werner related the story of how as a 10 year boy, he had cradled his mother in his arms as she was dying. He also related the fact that his father had been a Gauleiter – a district Leader – in the Nazi Regime and why he left Austria as an 18 year old never to return again.
After the crossing, the trail follows the river for some distance with the aid of some chains stapled into the rock and some ladders. Along this section there are some lovely pools of water to swim in. After a while the trail leaves the river and climbs steeply upwards for what seems like an eternity until eventually another forestry road is reached. From here it is a relatively easy walk to Rondebosse hut
Sharing Body Fluids
It was here that I first became aware of this unsavory behaviour. This is a rather delicate topic that requires sensitive treatment due to its embarrassing nature. As an inviolate albeit unwritten rule, the members of Quo Vadis Club have never and will never share body fluids in whatever shape, manner or form.
However on this hike, this sacrosanct & long-cherished concept was violated. Whether consciously or subconsciously Arnold, being the chief chef of the Paikin/McCleland duo, took to sucking the spoon whilst honing his culinary skills much to the disgust of his fellow hikers.
Up Jonkershoek and through a fern forest to Diepwalle
From Rondebosse hut the trail descends to cross the Rooi-els stream and then ascends steeply to the top of Jonkersberg. From the top of Jonkersberg magnificent views of the Knysna Heads can be seen.
In 2003, this whole area was smothered in a thick mist. At least the cool air allowed one to climb with relative ease past an old mining tractor in the heart of the forest. At the summit, one could not see more than a few metres and the usual view of the Knysna Heads was obscured. An untiring Clive decided to clamber onto a huge rock on the pinnacle of the peak. As he did so, his head pocked through the clouds and a stunning panoramic view of Outeniqua Mountains all the way to Knysna was visible. It was worth all the effort to climb this the most arduous of the climbs on this hike.
After the summit of Jonkersberg has been reached the trail descends into probably the most beautiful section of forest that can be seen along the whole trail. The Forest Tree Ferns abound through this section of the forest.
During 2003 this area had been drenched with months of continuous rain. This was reflected in the state of nature. The signs abounded everywhere – the verdant fields, all streams & rivulets becoming torrents and the soggy paths.
The Forest Tree Ferns were particularly stunning with their huge shady leaves forming a tunnel through the forest. Seeping water coagulated to form rivulets all along the path.
Suddenly the leader froze. There contentedly playing in a clearing were a dozen wild piglets squealing in their oblivious delight. Nobody dared move. We froze to the spot. For five minutes this spectacle was enacted for a bunch of rapt hikers. Ultimately a flustered mother arrived to shepherd her charges to safety.
Countless crystal clear forest streams cross the path and thick moss covers stone and tree alike. Eventually the trail joins up with the Elephant Day Walk trail from Diepwalle Hut and leads the hiker upward and onward to Diepwalle.
In 2003 this was not a joyous end to another party’s hike as the dead body of a fellow hiker lay in the grass awaiting removal. He had suffered a stroke. This certainly put a dampener on the hike.
Laurie’s first big one
One’s first big hike is always a true tester as one doesn’t know what to expect. Well Laurie certainly had a formidable tester. After setting a cracking pace on day one he quickly learned the error of his ways by mid-afternoon and was seen taking some unscheduled breaks.
The Outeniqua Hiking Trail must certainly be rated as one of the top hiking trails in South Africa. For me it is the panoramic views of the sea far in the distance, the vistas of the mountains all around, the expectation of an impromptu meeting with a solitary elephant and the unspoilt indigenous forests which abound.
Regardless of these positives, it is always the calibre of the people on the hike which makes or breaks it and in Quo Vadis’ case, they have it in bucketsful.
Sadly for Don, one of the originals, this was to be his swansong as he retired to the hamlet of Greyton in the Cape.