May 31st: Graaf-Reinet, South Africa & Camdeboo National Park
Packing up a frozen frost covered tent is never fun. Winter has seemed to set in a bit earlier here. I again had a short drive of about 140km (86 miles) to the town of Graaf-Reinet. The town itself is set inside Camdeboo National Park, and is one of the oldest European settlements in South Africa. It is filled with tons of old colonial Dutch buildings. It is a town I would call quaint, despite its population of over 30,000 people; it often seems more like a town of a few thousand. I got settled in at an equally quaint home turned guesthouse called El Jardin. An extremely nice old Afrikaaner couple, Terrence and Nita, ran it. The rest of the day was spent running errands to the post office, grocery store, permit office, and bookshop, where I found a cheap used copy of a Drakensberg hiking book for later adventures. The book I was looking for, and subsequently purchased was recommended to me by one of the guys in the Eastern Cape Hiking Club I met in Lesotho titled Around Africa on My Bicycle. Riaan Manser of South Africa wrote it about his amazing adventure circumnavigating the entire continent of Africa on his bicycle by himself. The book made an excellent companion on the many lonely nights of camping, and I highly recommend reading it. I also took the time in town to stop by a couple museums as the town has a good bit of history, both recent and ancient. I first went to Die Ou Biblioteek (The Old Library) museum. Half of this museum is home to a nice sized fossil collection of dinosaur bones found in the area. The other half features exhibits on Robert Sobukwe, a native of Graaf-Reinet, and one of the founding members of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). The second museum I stopped by was Die Ou Residensie (The Old Residency) museum. This was basically a large collection of old photographs, old cameras, and also a rather huge collection of old guns. My interests lay in the photographs but I enjoyed the rest as well. When I came back to the guesthouse Nita told me Terrence had gone to the boys club and would be home at 6:30 and that she would have tea and homemade rusks for me in the morning before I left to go hiking for the day. Nita was also kind enough to pass along the recipe before the end of my stay, so I thought I would share it with everyone.
Nita’s Delicious Homemade All-bran Buttermilk Rusks
Melt 500g (17.5 oz.) Margarine.
Add 2 cups of brown sugar; 2 cups buttermilk; 2 eggs beaten;
1kg.(2.2 lbs.) self rising flour; 1 dessertspoon (2tsp.) of baking powder;
5 cups all-bran.
Place in greased baking pan.
Bake 1 hour at 150°C (302°F).
Cut into squares.
Dry out in oven at 60°C (140°F) for 1 hour
June 1st: Graaf-Reinet, South Africa & Camdeboo National Park
After a quick cup of rooibos tea, a few rusks, and an orange I was off to the trailhead on the south end of town. The first part of the Eerstefontein Trail, just over 2½ km, takes you between the north ridge of Spandaukop and the south ridge of the Valley of Desolation. From there I would head in a huge loop of about 9½ km skirting my way along the edge of the Valley of Desolation, and then through the open plains of the Karoo, and back between the two ridges. I set off from the trailhead about a quarter to eight at a brisk pace to warm myself up in the chilly morning air, taking in all the splendid scenery. It often felt as if the dinosaurs had left, but all the plants remained. I had just wound my way between the two ridges and had followed the trail down into the thicker, denser foliage when I first heard the odd noises up ahead. The sound was a mix between a grunt and a bark, similar to the sound of a choking dog about to vomit. I was perplexed, a bit tense, and excited. There are no large predators that could eat me here, but the park is home to a plethora of other animals, one of which I was determined to find out about very soon.
I proceeded slowly unsure of what I might find around the next bend. To my surprise it was three large Kudu, and to their surprise, a human, which caused them to go crashing through the shrubs next to me. The distinctive calls soon became commonplace as they were always one step ahead of me for the first half of the trail. It was a whole new experience getting to encounter the African wildlife on foot, I got a small taste in Dwesa, but here in Camdeboo I felt much more at ease with the lack of big predators, and the wide open spaces. The animals were much more skittish when approached on foot and my only glimpses tended to be their rear ends while in flight of the unknown intruder, me. The only creature I managed to sneak up on was a roosting owl that seemed just as startled as I as I unknowingly approached him. On foot you get a much better sense of scale as well, not only with the kudu, ostrich, zebra, and steenbok, but of the landscape as well.
At around the halfway point the signage became less frequent and the trail began to thin. I kept following it until it was just a whisper of a line in the tall grass. From the right angle it appeared to be a trail, but as I soon found out these were often more deceptive than informative. The signs were also poorly thought out from the beginning, using green signs on a green pole that was roughly the height of the surrounding green grass. The hike soon turned into a huge game of I, Spy. The game began easy enough in the open rocks and grass where I could easily climb atop a large rock and pick out the next sign or cairn telling me where to go. I would then bushwhack a few hundred feet, and repeat, until I made it to the sign. The trail ebbed and flowed with a few hundred feet of good trail that either ended abruptly or split into four or five other games trails. I continued with this way finding for about 2km or so until I hit the bottom of the valley I was in. The next 2-3km was crossing the flat arid valley floor. The signs seemed to all but disappear, and there were no more rocks to get a good view. I was fortunately not lost at all, as I could clearly see the two ridges I needed to get back between; it was just a matter of getting there. I was able to pick a sign out here and there with the help of my camera lens and binoculars, but in the in-between I went with the good old fashion walkabout. These misadventures often led me to find interesting animals and places, with the most notable being stumbling upon a past nesting area of an ostrich. The ground was littered with bits of ostrich eggshell, which were astonishingly hard and thick. I finally came across a dried up riverbed as I was nearing the ridge I needed to cross. Remembering my previous crossing of the same dried up riverbed on the way in led me back to the trail I need to be on, so I could get out easily. I carried on through the heat of the midday sun the remaining 2½km back to the car feeling quite beat as I added plenty of time and distance to the original mapped trail with all my extracurricular activities to find my way.
The previous night Nita had also tipped me off about the basaar happening at the large Dutch reform church at the center of town were a bunch of people bring homemade food to sell to raise money for the church. I had worked up a mighty appetite and hadn’t had a good home-cooked meal in a few weeks. Nita had recommended the pancakes. I left the trail with pancakes on the mind and made the short drive to the church. It was packed with people but I managed to spot the sign that read pankoek and bee lined it to the stand. It turned out their pancakes are more or less crepes, regardless I wolfed down three of them and a can of ginger beer, which provided me with the energy I needed to finish off my day. From there I soldiered on, driving up the road to the top of the Valley of Desolation to stumble my way through another 1½km of much better marked trail to get to the overlook point of both the entire town of Graaf-Reinet and the Valley of Desolations huge dolomite pillars. I then made my way back to the guesthouse feeling accomplished after hiking somewhere between 17-20km. I was in desperate need of a soak and found relief in the tub as I washed away the day of hiking from my skin. As I scrubbed away with soap I could taste the salt in the bathwater from my sweat and I felt more like an olive in brine then a man in a tub.