I hiked the Whale Trail in November 2009. The Whale Trail is a 55 kms trail in the De Hoop Nature Reserve, just to the north east of Cape Agulhas on the southern tip of Africa about 250kms from Cape Town.
Monday 16th November
We all arrived between 17h00 and 19h00 at the Potberg Hut at the beginning of the Trail.
We were two groups of six. Our group comprised John and Janie Taylor and their friends Marjanne Senekal and Leon Hamman. Another couple who were going to walk with them dropped out and so, at a late stage, their places were taken (through an advertisement on the Meridian Hiking Club website) by Shannon van Breda and me. I had not met any of the other five before the Trail. The women were all in their late forties (Janie and Marjanne had been at school together) and the men were all in their mid fifties.
The other group were five engineers and an IT person from Sasol in Secunda, Mpumalanga. This was the third year that they escaped from their wives and girlfriends to do a hiking trail. Lumla, the hiking ranger, arrived at about 19h00 and briefed us on the arrangements. We then set about preparing our luggage for the trip and preparing dinner. The Sasol Six were real men and were going to carry all their kit in their backpacks. We followed the more conventional procedure and carried only day packs with our main luggage being transported for us between huts. We each had to fit our food, clothes and sleeping bag into a 60 litre crate which was just a little taller than two South African Woolworths Shopping Bags for Life. And so we had to cut back. I couldn’t fit that third bottle of wine! We were also permitted to have one cooler box which was packed to the brim.
Dinner was an extravagant affair as we were fearful that we would not eat well for a long time! Our team braaied but the Sasol Six had splurged on crayfish. The wine flowed and the mood was excited. Toasts were made as we got to know our hiking companions.
By 22h00, however, we were in all in bed, ready for the big day.
Tuesday 17th November
The first stirrings happened at 05h30. Subdued voices got louder as the anticipation built. Healthy breakfasts were eaten. And at 07h00 the Sasol Six departed with an expedition photograph to prove that they were there from the start. Our team squeezed those final things into our crates and sat on the crate to get the lid to close. We set off at 08h00, walked through pleasant forest for a short while and then started the long haul up Potberg. It took us two hours and four kms to climb 500 metres to the peak and the highest point of the Trail. There were no steep sections but rather a long steady climb.
There was much huffing and puffing and resting and we were all relieved to reach the peak. We were pleased that the day was overcast with a wind blowing. As we had a tea break we looked down to the Breede River Valley beyond and in the opposite direction, about eight kms away, we could see the sea.
We stopped often to watch birds, insects and flowers and also to rest. The path was well marked and relatively easy to follow. Every now and then there was a footprint tile to indicate the direction as well as distance markers about every four kms.
As we got lower we reached a flowing river and stopped for lunch. After eating John and Janie pulled full size pillows from their day packs and went to sleep. This established the lunch time form for the rest of the trip.
We were pleased to arrive after almost eight hours and 15kms. Most of our group felt tired and happy to arrive. We were greeted noisily by the Sasol Six who were sheltering from the wind on the stoep. The kettle was filled. Rooibos tea bags were dunked. A rusk or two appeared. We deserved it. The showers were kept busy. A few of us had naps before the serious task of dinner was tackled. The Sasol Six baked bread rolls on the braai which they dunked in syrup and shared with us. Wine was poured. Old Brown Sherry was imbibed. Tales were told.
I am told that as trails go, the Whale Trail has amongst the best accommodation. Each hut had a large (except Noetsie) living and dining room with two tables, a two ring gas cooker, and internal braai and plates, bowls and cutlery for twelve. There were no fridges. We were expected to wash the crockery and cutlery and leave it in the drying rack. All the huts had an outside braai. There were two toilets and two showers with hot water.
We used our own sleeping bags and slept in double bunks with comfortable mattresses. The room configurations were:
In many cases there were not full walls between the rooms and in several instances one had to go through one room to get to the next.
So there wasn’t a lot of privacy. Everyone was quite sensitive to giving others space and time to change. There were solar panels to provide power for lighting but no power points for other electrical items. There was no mobile phone reception at any of the huts. Each day, at high points, there were two or three large piles of rocks on the Trail signifying that phones could get reception there. Sometimes there was still no reception. So contact with the outside world was not easy.
Wednesday 18th November
I woke in my attic room at about 06h15. The Sasol Six were preparing breakfast and I could hear the two couples of our party talking in the room below me. There was a dominant sound coming from both parties. And that sound was laughter. Spirits were high. The mood was upbeat.
The Sasol Six departed an hour before us. The hike started again with a long uphill stretch although today’s peak was 150m lower than yesterday.
The day was overcast and windy again. Rain threatened and we pulled on our rain gear, although in the end we never needed it. The way rose and fell, along high places, into valleys, on exposed ridges and through corridors of fynbos.
One section was very easy walking with a gently declining path and we completed four kms in an hour which was the fastest we hiked at any time on the Trail.
But in general the emphasis was on enjoying the environment. There was no pleasant river to have lunch by but rather a grassy place by the path. A troop of baboons barked at us 200m ahead but scattered as we approached. And then the path dipped. We saw the sea down a valley. We crested a ridge and far below, across the bay was Noetsie Hut.
The wind howled. The sea roared. We were delighted to have completed another 15kms in about seven hours.
Meat appeared from the depths of our warm cooler box and, more disturbingly, from the depths of the packs of the Sasol Six. They had frozen the meat two days earlier and wrapped it in layers of newspaper but were probably lucky that the weather was mild. A friendly rivalry grew as to who would bake the better bread. (Both were wonderful.)
The diminishing alcohol stocks were husbanded.
One regrettable aspect of Noetsie was the prevalence of mice. They were everywhere. We had to keep all food packed away and packs off the floor.
Clothing and equipment
We had to be prepared for weather that could be hot or cold or wet. Even on the overcast days we were exposed to sunburn. The sensible ones like John and Janie wore long trousers and long sleeve shirts which protected them from the sun and also, on the very hot days, from horse fly bites. I wore shorts and short sleeve shirts and had to apply factor 30 sun screen to my face and factor 15 to my legs and arms at least twice a day. I still emerged as brown as a berry. Lip protection is crucial. A hat with a wide brim is essential. However silly a pull cord might look on your hat it is essential to keep your hat on when the wind blows. Pimple hats, very floppy brims and hats without pull cords don’t work. A few people had quick drying clothes which they washed and used again the next day. Good boots are essential to protect your feet over distance, on bad paths, downhill and boulder hopping. Good hiking socks are also important. One needs different shoes to use at the huts and to use to explore rock pools along the coast. A few people used Crocs. I used very sturdy hiking sandals (Teva Terra Fi3) which gave me great support when boulder hopping around the beach at lunch time. Your day pack should not be your laptop bag, but should hold your pack away from your back, have easily accessible external pockets for your water bottles and be big enough to carry your water, lunch, snacks, wet gear, warm gear, swimming costume and, in some cases, your lunch time pillow. You should have a camera handy at all times because there are so many memories to capture. Binoculars are very useful. Four of our group used walking sticks, of varying sophistication, to help them, particularly on descents. A head torch is important at the night braai, to read in bed and to light your way to the toilet in the early hours. There was a chill on a few nights but my lightweight sleeping bag was quite adequate. Your sleeping bag needs to be quite small to not take up too much space in the crate. Some form of pyjamas or track suit is important to maintain some modesty in such close living.
Thursday 19th November
We woke to a beautiful blue sky. The wind was still blowing strong but everything was brighter.
Our walk was along the cliff tops with awesome views down to crashing waves and wondrous rock structures.
At times we were right on the cliff edge. We were grateful that the wind was blowing off the sea. If the wind had blown off the land we would have felt vulnerable at times.
Low tide was at about 10h00 so the rocks and pools were clearly exposed to us. About half way on the 8km walk of the day we stopped for lunch at Stilgat Beach. To reach the beach we had to use fixed ladders.
I pulled on my sandals and wandered from rock pool to rock pool. Soon after lunch we saw our whale. This is the end of the six month whale viewing season and we were lucky to see this one. She had a calf with her and was probably waiting for the calf to get stronger before they swam to the Antarctic. She was about 400m offshore and could be seen well by us on the cliff top. She was playing with her calf and at times we could see much of their backs. We often saw their tails above the water and once saw the snout of the calf. It was very exciting. These two stayed in the area for the next few days as we saw them a few times more. We watched them for a long time and eventually moved on.
About two kilometres later we dropped down to a long sandy beach and shortly thereafter came across Hamerkop Hut, nestled in the dunes.
After tea, showers and Scrabble a call went up and we rushed outside to see dolphins playing in the surf. There must have been about fifty of them and they stayed in the vicinity through the night and into the morning. At times we would see fifteen of them surfing in one wave. Absolutely spectacular! There was an amazing sunset and a night sky crowded with stars. I cooked mushroom risotto to great acclaim.
Food and drink
The most significant limiting factor, related to food, was the lack of refrigeration. A lesser, but still important factor, was space constraints. Meat was braaied on the first two nights of the Trail. Thereafter people cooked mushroom risotto, tuna pasta and even paella. The Sasol Six had space age dry packs of chicken and lamb that were made into a meal by the addition of boiling water. Plenty of salads were made and butternut was cooked one night. We had tinned soup. Bread was baked on every night. I had a can of guavas and a can of apricots for dessert. We normally tried to use the meal and bread leftovers for lunch the next day. Cheese and crackers supplemented the lunch servings. I hard boiled eggs on the first night and had one for lunch each day. Breakfast was normally muesli or some form of porridge with long life milk. During the day we snacked on energy bars, chocolate bars, dried fruit, biltong, droe wors and nuts and raisins. Rusks were often had in the morning or when we reached a hut, with tea or coffee. I carried instant coffee but actually preferred drinking tea after the long hikes.
We all drank water constantly during the day and some people had energy drink supplements which they added to their water. Our group carried wine while the Sasol Six opted to carry more intense alcohol like whisky and sherry. Space constraints meant that most people only had one or two glasses of alcohol each night.
Friday 20th November
We woke to a beautiful blue, hot day with only a light sea breeze at cliff top levels. The first six kilometres were along a long sandy beach. This is conceptually very attractive but with a day pack and heavy boots it became quite tiring.
After about 90 minutes Shannon gave a cry as she identified a perfect, protected pool where we could swim safely. And so four of us changed and bravely submerged ourselves into the ice cold water. We quickly emerged having done the proper thing. Realistically this was one of the few places where it was safe to swim. Most of the rest of the coast was too turbulent or ran the danger of back currents.
The Trail then alternated between cliff walking and short bursts of either rock or beach walking.
We meandered, explored, wandered, wondered and watched and eventually after 10.5 kms and about seven hours we descended to Vaalkrans Hut, perched high on a promontory with crashing waves far below us on almost three sides.
As we arrived the Sasol Six were sitting on the rocks watching our mother whale and her calf. The heat drove us to the little shade there was or indoors. As the afternoon drew to a close and cooled we stood on the cliff edge and marvelled at the spectacular sunset.
There was a celebratory mood over our final dinner. Four of our group took their mattresses on to the veranda and slept under a star filled sky.
This Trail should not be attempted if you are not a regular hiker with a good degree of fitness. Not only was the climbing on the first day challenging but the two fifteen kilometre hikes on the first two days were tiring. Conceptually the last three days of between seven and eleven kilometres should be easier but, if you are not fit, the accumulation of hiking every day will wear one down. And all the time there are short bursts of intense climbing. I found the six kilometres of beach walking on the fourth day very tiring. Some people found the descents to be the most challenging aspect for their knees. Other factors like sun, heat, wind and rain can make the Trail harder.
Saturday 21st November
Another beautiful day dawned. We were all up earlier than we wanted to be. Some took their early morning coffee and sat on the cliff above the crashing waves and reflected on our experience. The 7 kms hike that day was easy. We were high on the cliffs for a while and then dropped down to sea level.
We had a choice of a High Tide Trail or a Low Tide Trail and because the tide was low we followed the latter. We inspected rock pools, wandered around huge boulders, marvelled at rock formations, ran from unexpected waves, laughed at the antics of shore line birds, avoided dung beetles, shared some jokes and lost ourselves in the wonder of our world.
As we got close to leaving the beach our whale returned. She lifted her tail into the air and bid us a fond farewell. And so at 11h00 we arrived at Koppie Alleen for final group photographs and some final teasing of our new found friends before we boarded the waiting mini bus to take us 45 minutes back to our cars.
The lady who drove the bus back to our cars told me that the Trail was fully booked in the whale watching months from June to November and from then to mid January. Almost no one hiked from mid January to the end of February because of the heat. Things get busier in March and April is normally fully booked. May is relatively quiet. It is clear that the ideal time to go to get good whale watching in relatively dry and warm weather is October. For the popular months booking needs to be done a year in advance. Ideally one would also time things so that low tide occurs in late morning in the last three days of the Trail. The shoreline is so much more interesting at low tide.
The Trail had a far more profound affect on me than I expected. Because I am fit I enjoyed the physical challenge, particularly of doing it day after day. I loved being deep in the countryside. The views from the mountains and the cliffs were amazing. The ever moving and crashing sea was invigorating. The weather was perfect. The companionship was a great joy. The accommodation was great. The organisation was exactly right. The whales and dolphins were the cherry on the top. The Trail was good for my soul.