The following piece was written by my husband, after a family hiking trip back in 2009. Lily 😉
The first thing you have to get your mind around if you are going to do some wilderness hiking in Africa is that you’re going into bug country.
Big, small, poisonous, some even ooze liquids if you touch them. This is their home and you are the visitor.
The reassuring thing about these bugs is that most of them don’t consider you dinner.
Some do, but most are just busy getting along with their own business. Sure, the mosquito’s and ticks would like a free meal, but it’s a small price to pay for walking through God’s splendor.
Base camp and bugs
We arrived at our base camp on Friday.
It’s a bit primitive, but it has electricity and flushing bathrooms with showers. If you want a warm shower, you need to take some wood and light a fire under the donkey boiler. A donkey boiler is basically a 45 gallon drum with a brick fireplace under it. Like most things here, it’s outdoors, and actually works quite well.
We’re greeted by many creepy crawlies upon arrival at our base camp. Our son, ever exploring, exclaimed;
“Look mom, a frog with feelers!!!”
A giant millipede crawled onto the deck where we were readying our gear. When we inspected it, it coiled itself into a tight ball and oozed a slimy liquid in self defense.
The deck overlooked a small pond, full of frogs that filled the air with their throaty songs. Colorful finches flitted around their hanging nests, along with numerous other birds I can’t pronounce the names of.
Evening came, and we had a braai in the firepit. We cooked sausages and roosterkoek bread. Things must’ve been smelling good, because the cockroaches began to come around to see what was on the menu.
Then this gigantic bug came to see what’s cooking. It’s sometimes called a King Cricket or Parktown Prawn. It was so big that I would’ve had a hard time fitting it in my hand. If I’d had the nerve to catch the thing.
We enjoyed a coffee around the fire before calling it a night.
Cabins That Crawl
We went to bed in log cabins.
Log cabins that were riddled with thousands of wood-beetle holes. You could literally hear the beetles chewing and gnawing away at the internals of our cabin all night.
It was soooo hot that I finally gave in. Keeping the door closed wasn’t keeping any bugs out anyway, so we might as well open the door and at least get a night breeze in the cabin.
Outside, the bats were swooping around catching insects. Some of the bats are tiny, the size of your pinky finger. Others were much larger.
None of us slept well because of the intense African night heat. And because you have the dilemma of either staying zipped inside your sleeping bag and roasting, or sleeping on top and accepting that you’re in bug world now.
Early Morning Start
At 4:30 am my brother in-law woke us – time to get moving.
It’d only been an hour since our son had last complained about not being able to sleep because of the heat. But we’re all excited to get our hike underway, so we got cleaned up and had coffee on the deck overlooking the fog covered pond.
The first order of business was to find the trail markers in the overgrown grass and brush. The beginning of the trail took us through some remnants of the Boer war. There are stone walls and fortress encampments, now overgrown with vegetation.
I don’t know a lot about the Boer war, but it’s amazing to see what was built in the wilds of Africa long ago with no power tools, and little help from the outside world. A lot of back-breaking effort to be sure.
The thunder cracks of rifles from that old war are long since silenced, but the carefully placed stones of walls and buttresses still remain. Walking through, you can’t help but wonder what kind of history your footsteps are taking you past.
The sweat, hardship, fear and homesick yearning of the people that built and fought from these encampments has long since evaporated. But back then, for them, it probably seemed like it would never end.
From here we walked up through bluffs of trees and onto very rocky/grassy foothills that reminded me of the treeless hills that surround the outer edges of the Cypress hills back in Canada.
They go on for miles, with huge rock outcroppings all over the place.
Huge Hills, Evidence of Past Fires, and Colorful Locusts
Hills seem small in the distance.
But when you start walking up them, you are reminded just how small your steps really are. Eventually we got to the summit of a large hill that overlooked the mountains and gorges and forests ahead. We followed the trail markers down the back-slope of the hill into rougher and rougher terrain.
The rock outcroppings got bigger, the treed areas got thicker.
For me, it seemed like we were walking into prehistoric Africa. Evidence of the past years forest and grass fires are still easily recognizable.
Some of the rocks had split and peeled large chunks from the heat of the fires. Many trees still had black burns up their lower half.
Fire is normal in Africa, it usually only destroys the overgrowth after the massive rains in the rainy season.
After working our way into the trees and crossing a stream, we came upon a bunch of large, colorful, poisonous locusts. They have poison glands on their body, and apparently there are enough toxins in one of these locusts to kill a dog, should a dog ever make the mistake of eating one.
I put on my gloves, picked one up, and we snapped a nice pic.
Every hour we stopped and removed ticks from each other, and readjusted our packs.
My pack weighed about 20 kilos (I even packed in some sealed milk, more on that later). My wife’s pack was 13 or 14. Our daughter’s pack was about 7 kilos and our young son’s, about 5 kilos.
After tracing the edge of a deep canyon wall, we started our way down into the gorge. I have to tell you, some of the cliffs and ledges we had to make our way along made me nervous.
A long, long way down to the bottom if you slip.
But the kids were unfazed, just part of this big adventure. Imagine a five year old with a huge backpack traversing along rocky cliffs that give adults trouble, and not a complaint.
All one big giant exciting adventure. Now put rain into the mix, muddy greasy shoes, soaked to the bone and start going through the cliff edges and river crossings. Fun!
Yes, the rain.
About 2 or 3 hours into our trek it started pouring rain. When I thought it couldn’t rain any harder, it really started pouring. Even with rain ponchos, you get completely soaked to the skin.
Our son slipped and fell, knocking his knee against a rock. He got up, crying. But he didn’t want to stop and he didn’t complain. He just kept marching along through the bush, tears washed away in the rain.
At one point I was in the lead, ahead finding the trail markers in the thick underbrush. I heard some crashing in the trees nearby.
A baboon came racing across the trail 10 meters in front of me and disappeared into the trees.
Our daughter was collecting flowers along the way, and by the end of the first day she had no less than 15 different specimens in her collection.
She stepped on a giant porcupine quill and it went through her sneaker and poked her foot. But only a few small tears, she didn’t let that faze her either. Too much to see and do ahead.
We hiked deeper and deeper into the valley of the gorge, following the river as it snaked through the thick trees and rocks.
At one point our daughter nearly stepped on a green snake. Only my sister in-law’s keen eye and quick warning stopped her from stepping on it.
The snake was completely uninterested in us, so I stepped into the stream to get a few pictures of it as it slid into the undergrowth.
My pictures of it didn’t turn out too well and we’ve been trying to identify it.
It may have been an eastern green snake but it could also have been a green mamba or a boomslang. There are many poisonous snakes in this area. Black mambas, puff adders, rinkals, etc.
Through The Gorge
We stopped at the bottom of a large misty waterfall, made our way down further and further into the gorge, crossing the stream several times. Every now and then a break in the tree canopy allowed us to see the spectacular cliff walls that surrounded us on either side.
Eventually it stopped raining and the trail started leading out of the gorge. By now my legs were muddy, scratched up from thorns and bug bites, my socks full of prickly blackjack thorns that poke and itch.
Another stop for some trail mix, a licorice toffee, and tick removal and we make our way out of the gorge and up another steep aloe covered hill.
That part about thinking a hill would never end when you climb it….well, climbing out of a rocky gorge is even more intense and my leg muscles burned almost as much as the shoulder straps from my back pack.
The trail markers are small white footprints painted on a rock. In the areas where you don’t need them, they are easy to spot and in good shape. But in some areas of the trail, where trees have fallen and the bush has become overgrown, they can be very hard to find and we lost the trail a few times.
It would be easy to get lost out here.
Up, up, and up, climbing out of the gorge. Any steeper and we would’ve needed climbing gear to get us over some of those rocky cliffs. The kids just loved it, but my wife and I were very nervous at times.
My brother in-law, his wife, and their daughter are lifelong hikers and none of it fazed them. They’re very fit, always cycling or running or doing marathons and bike races, so it seemed easy for them to keep up a good pace. His days in the military had given him a love for the outdoors and hiking, and he was always joking around and giving out words of encouragement to the kids.
After a few more hours we made it out of the gorge and started hiking through some easier terrain.
Forest, grassy areas, and lots of rocky areas that I’m sure look like a giant rock maze if you saw it from an airplane above. We came across a wild warthog. He turned to see if we were following him several times as he ran away.
It seemed the trail would never come to an end, when out of nowhere stone buildings appeared before us in the bush.
10 hours of hiking and we find our next camp.
You don’t get any bush camp cooler than this.
Stone cabins with tins roofs for sleeping with nice bunk beds. An outdoor kitchen only covered by a tin roof, a stone fire-pit surrounded by stone seating, and bathrooms. Nice, nice bathrooms.
It is very cool when you have spent the last ten hours hiking non-stop through dense bush to find flushing toilets. I have no idea how they built/maintain that place out there.
A Hot Outdoor Shower in the Middle of a ThunderStorm
Again, you need to burn logs under the donkey boiler to get hot water, but the outdoor showers on the backside of the wash building were worth the trek in themselves.
The showers are protected by willow screens for privacy.
How many people can say they’ve had a hot shower in the middle of a thunderstorm with lightning cracking overhead, in an outdoor shower that overlooks a forested canyon in the middle of the wilderness in Africa?!?
There’s a waterfall and small pond right beside the camp. We stood under the falls and everyone was going to go swimming except we found a water scorpion near the shore and the water looked like it was home to snakes and the like, so swimming was canceled. 🙁
There’s no power at this camp, so it’s candle light and lanterns at night, but we had a really nice supper. We made pasta and some more roosterkoek , and since we had carried in sealed milk, we would even have milk for our muesli in the morning.
Such nice cabins. I only had to squish one spider that was trying to make my sleeping bag home. It’s very different when you must light a lantern instead of flicking a light switch. No smart phones. No t.v. or internet. Really, really nice.
I slept like a log.
Morning came early again.
I cannot express to you just how nice it feels to put on a dry pair of socks and a dry shirt after hiking soaked all day. My cargo pants were still wet so I’d have to make due. It’d only take ten minutes on the trail to get soaked again anyway. The smallest luxuries we take for granted out in the real world become huge when you’re 10 hours walk into the bush. Like a licorice toffee or cup of hot coffee. Best coffee you will ever drink.
After breakfast and an extra cup of coffee, we found the markers to the new trail that would lead us out of here. Everyone’s pretty sore today; sore muscles, sore shoulders from backpack straps, sore lower legs from thorn and blackjack scratches. My sister in-law had developed a terrible rash on her feet, and after hiking all day her blisters were brutal.
When your feet are soaked all day, they become like wet prunes, and the skin becomes soft and can peel away with ease. Like I said, dry socks….mmmmmm. 🙂
The first hour on our way out was through tall wet grass that leaves you completely soaked and full of ticks. Then, it’s another long climb up those rocky cliff walls. The climb out of this side of the gorge was a bit intense.
For safety reasons, I took our son’s backpack and strapped it to mine, because it was all he could do to make it up some of those rocky cliffs. After a while I gave up on being freaked out whenever the kids had to get up or along a really narrow rock ledge and just concentrated on doing what needed to be done to get them through as safely as possible.
Some of the rock ledges you have to go across are really narrow. It’s hundreds of feet drop below and you have this narrow ledge of uneven rock you have to shimmy across with your belly hugging the cliff wall. WooHoo!
The Beautiful Sounds of The South African Wilderness
We push forward through gorges, forests and rock mazes that hug cliff drops. The vistas and views are amazing, words can’t describe.
And there’s this sound that literally vibrates through the bush. Tree beetles called a sonbesie (Afrikaans), or cicadas fill the air with their high pitched song. The sound is eerily beautiful; mesmerizing.
There are the birds calling and singing all the time, the ha-dee-da’s for example, but the hum of that beetle is something else. We came across other beetles singing/thumping, like the tok tokkie.
We were right in the clouds as we made our way along the cliff edges, eventually making it to the top of a tall waterfall. We had lunch there, took off our shoes and washed our feet in the cool stream water.
There are these interesting mushrooms called Aseroe rubra, more commonly known as stinkhorns. They’re really cool looking star shaped mushrooms. When they reach full maturity, they ooze a disgusting brown puss that smells like rotting meat, used to attract snails and flys, which in turn spread its spores. More bugs and spiders of every shape, size and color.
We see kudu tracks and dung, but no actual kudu. Finally we make it out of the gorge and forest, back into the sweeping grassy foothills.
We came across a rain frog. It’s small, the size of a nickel, but very strange and cute at the same time. It was raining at the time and so unfortunately no one took a picture. It has this scrunched up little face, like that of a Pug dog or Pomeranian, and this little balloon body. Then we came across this group of plants that look like tiny clusters of broccoli called Lion Spoor.
You walk and walk, and walk some more, and think you’re never going to get to the top of that foothill. By the time you do, you realize that you’re actually enjoying all the aches and pains your body is feeling. Because you haven’t spent the weekend being a couch potato. You’ve been out in God’s great splendor, feeling just what all these muscles were intended for in the first place.
Nothing feels quite so good as making it to the top of a hill and looking back at the trail your feet have carried you through and all that you have seen and done.
We tramped our way through a ranchers field past dozens of cattle and down the muddy road toward base camp. Normally the wet and cool would be a welcome break to the African heat, but dreams of dry socks dance in my head.
My wife and I are walking hand in hand through this misty fog when she tells me to snap a picture of the rest of the group in front of us.
We finally arrive back at base camp and I take off my backpack. I try to walk and just about fall over because my body is readjusting to the equilibrium after removing my backpack.
Our son calls this feeling “float walking” because it feels like you’re going to float into the air or fall over backwards.
We don’t light the donkey boiler now, so I have an ice cold shower. After we’ve all cleaned up a bit, we load up the vehicles and head for home.
My wife drives the first shift, while the kids sleep for the first hour or so. After a quick nap myself, the mood in the car turns to pure goofiness. Laughs and giggles, goofing around and funny stories.
Stinky wet socks are hung outside the car, held in place by the rolled up windows, flapping in the wind as we barrel down the road towards home.
A fitting flag after a super fun weekend!