Text Mariola Jakutowicz Fouché Photographs Sean Calitz
A regal pair of Verreaux’s eagles circle high above the crags on the other side of the valley, white Vs distinctive on their ebony backs. They disappear at intervals to tend to their fledgling, christened George after making her debut around the birthday of the youngest royal prince. George is one of the conservation efforts by proud ‘foster parents’ Cha and Tony Davenport of Porcupine Hills at their olive and guest farm in the Overberg, a designated private nature reserve in the Groenlandberg Conservancy.
The farm is blessed with a proliferation of the endangered, non-fynbos vegetation, the renosterveld – likely named for the dull, grey hue of the renosterbos (rhino bush) – and one of the major plant communities of the Cape Floral Kingdom. It’s the starting point of our four-day hike on the Green Mountain Trail, near Elgin in the Western Cape.
While, to die-hard trekkers, the word ‘slackpacking’ might constitute a bit of a cop-out, it is anything but that. The route requires some degree of fitness but, unencumbered by tightly compressed gear in heavy backpacks, slackpackers can move as fast as they wish, and stop often to admire the sounds and hues of this unique heath land.
Water, snacks and wet-weather gear are carried in small rucksacks. No tent pitching or flavourless, quick-fix food here – and what better end to a day’s vigorous exercise than sundowners on the stoep, excellent home-made meals and sinking into crisp 100 per cent cotton percale for a good night’s sleep, knowing that your luggage will be spirited away by hardworking elves tomorrow? Family members not partial to physical pursuits can relax and indulge their own interests by day at the guest houses, and join in each evening’s festivities, when they’re reunited with the rest of the clan.
We kick off with a cooked breakfast and, armed with resolve and a bag each of dried apricots and nuts for the 18km hike up and down the Groenlandberg mountain, we shuttle off to Twaalffontein farm and the start of day one.
Our guide Andreas introduces the terrain to us as we bounce up part of the track in fruit crates, pulled by a tractor. THETA-accredited and a font of information on all things botanical, ornithological and geological, he regales us with years of knowledge gleaned through his passion for conservation. John, our backup guide, is a Bot River local who could walk the trail in his sleep. He presents each of us with a personalised blackwood walking stick, carved from alien trees by the local community. His keen eyes catch details and species, blithely overlooked by most of us.
Andreas’ enthusiasm is infectious, and soon I’m mentally filing away the names of proteas and geophytes (underground bulbs or tubers that propagate flowers) such as the numerous gladioli that we see en route. It’s spring and, despite the distinctly alpine breeze wafting over from the still snow-clad Hottentots Holland range, the fynbos is in fine fettle, awash with colour, and enticing passing pollinators. We’re outmarched by the others, all seasoned walkers in their fifties and sixties.
While forging ahead, fellow walker Dave narrowly avoids stepping on a puffadder, which slithers off to hiss in indignation under the grass alongside the path. Nine kilometres and a great deal of huffing later, we’re greeted by Cha with lunch, a spread fit for royalty.
Andreas waxes lyrical about Protea stokoei, pointing out the hardiness of the species and how it requires fire to reproduce.
The trip back down is just as generous in its floral offerings and, although we spot Cape leopard spoor and scat on the way, for all the telltale signs, we (thankfully?) don’t get to see this elusive feline up close. Palates are titillated that night by an array of Winters Drift vintages, superbly presented by Emy Mathews of the nearby farm Glen Elgin.
The next day is less ambitious, and a 15-km walk takes us, stiff-calved, from Nuweberg through hectares of the vivid red, endemic Mimetes cucullatus (red pagoda), and swathes of golden leucadendrons, offset by pink Erica hirtifolia. I’m amazed by the legions of floral colours and shapes, and I can’t help stopping to garner digital memories every few minutes. The beauty of slackpacking is that I can – until John brings up the rear and gently points me in the direction of a new wonder. No rush in Africa.
At midday, we’re met by Alison Green of Wildekrans Country House in Houw Hoek – with yet another enviable feast, above the vineyards of Oak Valley Estate. Winemaker Pieter Visser tells us about the farm and its initiatives while we enjoy trays of tasty tapas after an aperitif. In our wineinduced torpor it’s tempting to duck out of any afternoon exertion – an option open to anyone who’s ready for a break from blisters or knee trouble.
The many medicinal and practical uses of various fynbos species are pointed out as we walk. Deep red wachendorfia tubers provide a natural dye for locals. The gonnabos (Passerina corymbosa) is an unremarkable, largish bush with a tough bark that peels off its stem in strips – said to be used by the Khoi people as twine for tethering, or even to string their bows. The aromatic Helichrysum odoratissimum (commonly known as imphepho or kooigoed) is a well-known bedding material, insect repellent, protective cleanser, and cough-and-cold remedy. An earlyish arrival at Paul Cluver Wines means afternoon tea under the trees and a sampling of the estate’s bottled fare with a rest on beautiful benches crafted from alien eucalyptuses. And in keeping with lunch, Wildekrans provides a gourmet dinner with chef Annie’s fruity pavlova the perfect foil for herbed, fresh fish, poached in Sauvignon Blanc. And more fine wine, naturally.
The penultimate day, a relatively easy walk through a poplar forest, vineyards and fruit orchards in full blossom, begins with Dr Cluver showing us around some of the estate’s conservation projects and the construction of re-purposed oak-barrel bridges that form part of the Wines2Whales mountain biking route through the property.
After home-made lemonade and an alfresco meal back at Wildekrans, we have the afternoon off, while the ever-energetic British ‘swallows’ (people who spend summer months at home in the northern hemisphere and migrate for the remainder to our warmer climes) tackle a game of boules on the lawns. The historic homestead shows off its rambling garden each November during Elgin’s Open Gardens event, and Alison’s penchant for contemporary South African art and sculpture is evident throughout.
Our last, and shortest, day dawns chilly and damp as the capricious Cape climate prevails. We decide to walk anyway, as the route promises excitingly different fynbos in the Houw Hoek mountains. It follows part of the historic oxwagon route taken by pioneers, and ends at Beaumont Wines in Bot River, where we’re to conclude our four nature-rich days with a farewell lunch and… wine, presided over by owner Jayne Beaumont. At a stony outcrop halfway up the mountain, Andreas picks up stone tools strewn about by ancient inhabitants of the area. Pincushion proteas and the waboom (‘wagon tree’) abound, as does Protea nitida, the wood of which was used by trekkers for their wagons.
The day’s pièce de résistance is John’s discovery of a Bartholina burmanniana, a rare spider orchid sighted only once before by groups in the trail’s five-year existence. Though the fauna extends mainly to Cape leopard, grysbok, klipspringers and duikers, amphibians and insects adapted to a hardy existence in fynbos environs, it’s the flora that thrills. And what a find.
For more information, visit kogelbergbiospherereserve.co.za.
This article was originally featured in the December 2013 issue of House and Leisure.