The Western Cape's Fynbos Trail is perfect for a post-lockdown getaway
This three-day, 26km slackpacking trail wanders through a wonderland of flora and fauna with ample space for social distancing, writes David Alston
About 8km from Stanford on the R343 to Gansbaai in the Western Cape is a nondescript sign that points you towards the Fynbos Retreat, which leads to the start of the Fynbos Trail.
It gives no clue to the treasures hidden in the hills but, if you go, three days and two nights later you will emerge from a wonderland of flora and fauna and reluctantly make your way back to "civilisation", very much the richer for a unique experience.
The 26km fully-catered "slackpacking" trail (with an optional coastal add-on of 10km) was established in November 2011 by Sean and Michelle Privett of Witkrans Farm, which is part of the extensive Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy.
Ably assisted by two accredited guides and some "front-of-house" backup, the team ensure that walkers are well looked after and free to enjoy the many and varied encounters of the floral kind (more than 800 fynbos species have been identified along the route).
DAY 1: STEYNSBOS TO FYNBOS RETREAT (6.6KM)
The trail starts at the Growing the Future Sustainable Agriculture and Life Skills College (where cars are left) at Steynsbos in the Grootbos Nature Reserve. This project supplies most of the fresh produce enjoyed along the way.
It being a Sunday, we were not able to see it in action but the growing vegetables were evidence that the college is meeting its aim of teaching disadvantaged women skills to equip them for employment in the future.
Our group of eight were on our way with our guide Billy Robertson by 2pm, and after a short walk through some coastal strandveld, we entered the ancient Steynsbos milkwood forest, one of only eight of its kind in the world, all of which are to be found in the Stanford-Gansbaai area.
The forest, with some milkwoods (Sideroxylon inerme) estimated to be nearly 1,000 years old, is home to a number of animals and birds not usually seen in the fynbos, such as bushbuck, porcupine, honey badger, Cape batis, paradise flycatcher and forest buzzard. The trail winds out of the forest and up onto a fynbos-clad sandstone ridge covered in bright red pincushions in springtime.
Dropping down to a dam fed by spring water, we then ascended to the Pinnacle viewpoint which, as its name suggests, has spectacular views of Walker Bay to the west and Dyer Island to the south.
Moving down again into the Witvoetskloof Valley and crisscrossing through mountain and limestone fynbos, we passed through another patch of forest containing milkwood, stinkwood and wild olive trees, arriving at our first night's accommodation, Fynbos Retreat, in time for a welcome fynbos drink and some stronger stuff before enjoying a tasty home-cooked meal.
The 6.6km on the first day take approximately three hours to walk and are not taxing for anyone who is reasonably fit.
DAY 2: FYNBOS RETREAT TO WITKRANS (11KM)
After a comfortable night and a more-than-adequate breakfast, we were on our way by 8.30am to tackle The Longest Day.
Starting with a meander through a beautiful valley populated with an extraordinary mosaic of fynbos, we crossed over a stream into the lush Witvoetskloof forest, scattered with magnificent boekenhout (Rapanea melanophloeos), rooiels (Cunonia capensis) and assegai (Curtisia dentate) trees and the like before a refreshing "tea break" at a waterfall, which doubles as a shower in the summer months.
Next we were on to a steep climb out of the valley through limestone hills deposited millions of years ago, and now the home of some rare, endemic fynbos species. We walked up the northern slopes of the Grootberg (omitting an optional climb to the summit, which at 409m is the highest point of the trail), and then wound down its western side followed by a short climb into the Stinkhoutsbos forest, which was damaged by prisoners during World War 2 and then in 2006 by a fire, which burnt over 60,000ha of veld.
Lunch was enjoyed in the shade of a white stinkwood (Celtis africana) tree where a natural dam offers a chance for a swim, and then we all took the opportunity to plant an indigenous tree as part of a restoration project that ensures all species are placed in their correct natural composition and density.
The afternoon walk crosses Flower Valley, where trained harvesting teams can be seen collecting wild fynbos for making bouquets for the local and export market. Our second night was spent at the Witkrans Nature Farm, where another good meal was served by our hosts, preceded by a tasting of the international award-winning Lomond Wines cultivated in the Walker Bay Conservancy.
DAY 3: WITKRANS TO GROOTBOS (8KM)
We made a leisurely departure from Witkrans at about 9am. After winding along the lower slopes of the Witkrans mountain, we entered the Baviaansfontein valley through more pockets of indigenous forest and fynbos-clad hills into the Grootbos Nature Reserve.
The 24ha Grootbos milkwood forest is a spectacular part of the trail, skirting milkwoods, sea guarrie (Euclea crispa) and wild olive (Olea capensis) trees and ending at the upmarket Grootbos Garden Lodge, where we enjoyed an excellent three-course lunch overlooking Walker Bay. After lunch, we were taken back to our cars with our luggage.
Although a self-catered option is available, I would strongly recommend the "full slackpacking", which gives one plenty of time to take in all that the trail has to offer and benefit from the experience of the guides, who are a fount of local knowledge. We felt privileged to have come away better-informed about such a beautiful part of SA, and to be able to reflect on the whole experience by reading A Field Guide to the Flora of the Grootbos Nature Reserve and the Walker Bay Region, copies of which were given to all walkers at the end of the trail.
We were also given a certificate to mark the planting of our indigenous tree, whose growth we have been able to track on Google Earth - proof of an experience that will long remain in our memories.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
As with the whole tourism sector, it is difficult to say when the Fynbos Trail will be open to visitors again. For now, they are taking bookings from October but with the option to switch to any available date in the next 18 months at the same price.
For any current bookings affected by Covid-19, guests have been offered the same option of being able to postpone to a later date of their choice (also without any price increase).
Michelle and Sean Privett say they believe that the trail - which they describe as "an awesome nature experience in a beautiful, private and safe conservancy" - will offer outdoor enthusiasts exactly the kind of joys they are dreaming about in a post-lockdown world.
"We believe South Africans are going to be looking for opportunities to reconnect with family and friends in nature and that hiking and wilderness products are going to be high on the priority lists," says Michelle.
The cheapest option is R1,230 per person - a self-guided and self-catered experience. It includes overnight accommodation at Fynbos Retreat/Witkrans and a map. This is a circular route that takes hikers all the way back to the start at Steynsbos.
The "full slackpacking" option - with guides, porters and meals - is R4,120 per person over weekends (R3,900 in the week).
Pre-Covid-19 booking requirements were a minimum of two people and a maximum of 12. This could change post-lockdown if necessitated by government requirements for social distancing.