Eastern Cape's Baviaans Camino hiking trail is a must for plant lovers
This six-day hike from Steytlerville to Kareedouw gives walkers and horse-riders the chance to discover seven of SA's nine biomes, writes Judy Bryant
Perhaps the 153-year-old, twin-gabled farmstead had been purposefully chosen to pamper us ahead of the gruelling routes to come. But as our group tucked into a tender lamb-and-dumpling casserole in the crimson-painted dining room of Noorspoort farm, outside Steytlerville in the Eastern Cape, we could only celebrate our good fortune at starting the Baviaans Camino.
This Eastern Cape trail covers a remote north-south route that traverses the Baviaanskloof and Kouga mountain ranges. Hikers and horse riders share the guided journey.
Our 14-strong group took part in only the fourth Baviaans Camino to be offered since its initial trial in 2016. We ranged from a St Andrews schoolboy to a woman who had ridden here from Pretoria on her Triumph Tiger motorbike, named Trixie.
On the second day (our first day of hiking), we bundled into a converted Unimog and set off through the Noorspoort farm gates. Down a 1950s concrete road, we bypassed plodding mountain tortoises, and headed towards a jagged mountain ridge. Blue cranes stalked the veld and springbok pranced in the distance.
We started our journey on a flat stretch of Nakop farm. "Take your time, this is not a race," tour founder and guide Esti Stewart said.
Soon we were trudging up a track built for the Telkom maintenance vehicle, heading for a tower far in the distance. As my feet slid on loose rocks, I stopped every few minutes to pant, only the glimpses of peeping dassies, butterflies and rare flowers keeping me going.
FINDING SECRET ROUTES
Despite my wildly pumping heart, the unfolding scenery was spectacular. Farmland, wild plum trees and Karoo scrub gave way to succulents, ericas, proteas and renosterbos. Purple mountains encircled the vast valley and raptors drifted overhead.
As we tucked into our lunch packs, Esti shared how she and her husband Eric (who handles the logistics) had become intrigued by the Baviaans. They had pioneered the popular Chokka Trail in the St Francis area, so had enquired about hiking near Patensie. Unfortunately, buffalo roam there.
As luck would have it, they met Hercules van Huyssteen, a renowned boerperd breeder and trainer. Hercules, who has been offering long-distance horse trips into the Baviaans since 2012, introduced them to little-known routes, where seven of South Africa's nine floral biomes can be explored. And so the Camino was born.
HORSES MAKE MAGICAL COMPANY
Having the gentle, sturdy horses with you magnifies the experience. You hear their hooves on the rocks, smell the polished leather and sweat, and as you train your camera on a far ridge, they pass in single file against backdrops of ochre rock and spekboom and towering aloes.
On Joachimskraal farm that evening we heard them whinnying as they grazed in the moonlight. When Hercules rose at midnight and 4am to feed them, we were sound asleep.
LONG WALK TO A POTJIE
On day three we set off past banks of prickly pears glistening with spiderwebs. Vervet monkeys scattered as we began traversing the Kouga range, with views into the Klein Kommando and Tjando kloofs. Some sections had burnt 18 months before and exquisite fynbos bloomed. Over 90 bird species have been counted along the route.
We covered 24km to arrive at Entkrale farm as a faint mist descended. We gathered around a potjie simmering in the hearth.
Luckily the rain held off until we were tucked up in our sleeping bags and tents.
BLISTERS IN THE SUN
On day four our mother-and-daughter duo had such bad blisters that they decided to retire, so a farmer and his three dogs arrived in a vehicle without a bonnet, doors, windscreen or windows.
Advising his passengers to keep their mouths closed so as not to swallow any insects, the farmer lurched off.
We set off in their wake on a relatively easy walk past swathes of pelargoniums and cycads. The air was infused with mint, honey and rose and it became a contemplative walk, the silence broken only by baboons' barks.
Descending into the Nooitgedacht farming area, we found rosy-cheeked farmers' wives serving iced honeybush tea at a table laid with a red-and-white chequered cloth.
"Our honeybush grows wild and has been organically certified for more than 10 years," said Eunice Nortje of the farm Melmont, as we lolled in the sun with assorted farm dogs.
"It gets very cold here, but the snow is good for killing insects."
We tackled our final uphill, then entered a valley and criss-crossed dry river beds packed with white stones. Slender trees with paper-white bark gleamed as the sun set. Were we going in circles?
The horse riders assured us that we were on track. Soon we set up camp on Ragelsriver guest farm at the tranquil Bokmakierie campsite, backed by a massive rockface and overlooking the Joubertskraal River.
YES IT COUNTS
On day five, fortified by scrambled eggs and Kareedouw boerewors from Nooitgedacht farm, we tackled the Moordenaarskloof.
After lunch beside the Kouga River, I had my first horse ride and the sure-footed Noodle carried me through a fynbos kloof and along the old mail trail.
Over a braai that night at Nguniland guest farm, we discussed the planning that had ensured we and the horses had been fed, watered and accommodated so well. Many farming families, campsite owners and home cooks had been drawn into the adventure, creating a welcome source of income for them.
Sitting under a canopy of stars, we also debated the Camino name. Unlike Europe's famous Camino de Santiago, our journey did not offer shrines or a history of pilgrims. Yet the trail's rugged gorges, imposing mountains, silence and serenity provided all the elements to make it a life-changing journey.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
WHEN: April to October
WHERE: From Steytlerville to Kareedouw, Eastern Cape
COST: R7,200 plus R1,500 for horse riders (subject to change). Includes all food and accommodation, excludes shuttle from Kareedouw to Steytlerville, where the trip starts.
CONTACT: See baviaanscamino.com.
• Bryant was a guest of the Baviaans Camino