I have fond memories of time spent along various parts of the Garden Route. Two of these – cycling the red route in Harkerville forest and golf at Pezula – are almost in the realm of spiritual experiences. To these I can add the Coastal Trail, led by Mark Dixon of Garden Route Trail, which starts in Wildnerness and finishes in Brenton-On-Sea.
The majority of the hike follows the coast, with inland excursions into the forest, as well as some canoeing on the Touw and Goukamma rivers. What makes the coastline unique is the presence of South Africa’s highest fossilised vegetated dunes. These dunes are up to two million years old and record a substantial degree of fluctuation in sea levels – there are even some dunes two miles out to sea!
The trail is usually planned around the tides to make the walking easier. However, this hike had been booked to coincide with a friend’s significant birthday, so much of the walking was done at high tide. Apart from the hard slog through soft sand we also had some adrenaline-rich clambering over rocks amid crashing waves.
Walking gives one the opportunity to observe surroundings at a much slower pace. There was also plenty of time for Mark to share his passion and extensive knowledge of the plants, animals and geology we passed (he holds a Masters degree in Icthyology and Fishery Science and is also a Reiki Master, so has a broad base on knowledge on which to draw).
Walking along the beach brings one face to face with the way in which we humans are screwing up our environment. Plastic, in various forms, was ever-present. Possibly the most idiotic littering was perpetrated by shore anglers. They rely on the health of the ocean for their catch, and yet they happily leave empty bait boxes, plastic wrapping and cigarette packets on the beach.
It is Mark’s view that these anglers have contributed to the proliferation of the small shark species that eat fish eggs. It is perhaps inevitable that they would catch the medium-sized and larger shark species, which are the predators of the smaller species. Due to their irritation at not catching a ‘proper’ fish they kill the sharks for the hell of it, perhaps selling the fins to black market traders. The population of smaller sharks then grows, which means that more fish eggs get eaten. Hence fewer fish can be hatched.
We picked up several other interesting snippets. The diet of the elusive Knysna ‘forest’ elephants comprises something like 120 species, of which Fynbos varieties make up the majority. The implication of this is that the elephants spend much less time in the forest than has been believed. In fact, they largely forage outside the forest, and probably only use the forest for shelter. In his downtime Mark looks for elephants, but hasn’t managed to get closer than fresh spoor and the eery feeling of being watched.
Walking through a forest of centuries’ old Milkwood trees – their trunks and branches twisting every which way – was a particular treat.
In addition to being our super-knowledgeable guide, Mark not only cooked our evening meals, but also made the yummy sandwiches and crunchies (or muffins) that went into our lunch packs. Not content to be the jack of all these trades, the chickpea and alfalfa sprouts were also part of Mark’s labour.
As a mountain biker I get out quite a lot, but it’s not the same as five days of hiking along the beach and through forests. This was a fantastic experience; one that I look forward to repeating, and which I wholeheartedly recommend.