This Western Cape slackpacking trail offers walking, wellness and wine
The 50km, three-day Blue Mountain Trail in the Overberg is a perfect blend of exercise, education and delicious dining at the end of each day
Just over Sir Lowry's Pass, an hour's drive from Cape Town, is a slice of hikers' heaven: the renowned Blue Mountain Trail. Regarded as a punchier sister to the Green Mountain Trail — a four-day, 60km slackpacking hike founded in 2007 — the Blue Mountain Trail is a three-day, moderate to hard slackpacking experience covering 50km of the Overberg region on the south side of the Elgin basin.
Just shy of a year ago, exactly one week before SA plunged into Covid-19 lockdown and life as we knew it changed, I had the privilege of experiencing this bucket-list getaway in the Elgin Valley.
This past December, mid-pandemic, I found myself chatting to SAFM's Jetset Breakfast presenter and columnist Michelle Constant, who also happens to have walked the Blue Mountain Trail and the Green Mountain Trail, the latter now twice.
"Walking for pleasure and solace is probably the most ancient gift that our body and health gives us," she said.
"In a time of Covid, hiking, trail running and breathing in our magnificent landscape seems to be the right thing to do. Smelling the earthy and spicy fynbos, hearing the water trickle off the mountain. Everything about the experience is an experience of freedom."
ART, APPLES AND WINE
Founded six years ago, the Blue Mountain Trail begins at the Wildekrans Country House, a
210-year-old homestead at the foot of the Houw Hoek pass. Trail founder Alison Green and the trail "family" — the housekeeping team and guides — greet us with tea before a hearty dinner and a glass of delicious wine.
The Elgin Valley is famed for its rolling hills, carpeted with vineyards and apple orchards — so the three days include a number of generous wine tastings.
Check-in takes place before day one of the trail officially starts. Before settling in for the evening, you can explore the homestead and its wonderfully eclectic art collection, which includes charcoal works by William Kentridge and bronze hare sculptures by Guy du Toit. Alison has been collecting such works for more than two decades. You could also sneak in a swim or take a stroll with the resident hounds — Smeagol and Titan — behind the house, past the rose and olive garden and up the hill, from where you will get a good view of Wildekrans and the neighbouring pear farm.
This is a good idea for two reasons: firstly, to warm up the legs in anticipation of the first day of the trail; and, secondly, to make space for the candle-lit barn dinner on the property which, in our case, consisted of a gorgonzola, fig and pecan nut salad starter followed by tender lamb shanks and grilled, neighbour-grown nectarines with home-made ice cream, all well paired with a smooth red made by Alison's husband Barry.
"I can't recall my favourite wine but there were so many amazing meals," recalled Constant. "One night I was absolutely exhausted, and we had the most delicious soup. It raised my spirits, and I was ready to hike a mountain the next day. And there was also the perfection of a pavlova!"
LACE UP THOSE BOOTS
For the next three days, each morning you will wake up to a wholesome breakfast before being transferred by shuttle to the start of the day's hike — just as the sun throws its misty blanket off the valley.
Be sure to pack sunscreen, a hat, a water bottle, binoculars and a camera or your phone for the glut of photo ops that await you.
There are several seasonal booking options between January and April, in August, and October — the latter said to be the month for fynbos and birding in the Cape. March is a popular time to lace up your hiking boots, not only to enjoy the tail end of summer but also because this is the time of year that the valley is electric with colour, courtesy of the Western Cape's Floral Kingdom — from burnt-orange ericas to bright-pink papery everlastings and the local special, Nivenia stokoei. Commonly referred to as Kogelberg Blue Star or "Blousterretjie" in Afrikaans, this is the flower from which the trail takes its name.
Another great thing about March is that it is harvesting season. The trail wends its way through the valley's orchards and vineyards, which are alive with chitter-chatter from pickers, packers and tractors.
Learn about the seemingly infinite magic of the Cape Floral Kingdom with guide Andreas Groenewald and guide-in-training Nancy Thom, whose hawk eyes made sure we didn't miss a single critter on the trail. Both made sure we stayed hydrated, caffeinated and fuelled, carrying the day's refreshments and in some cases the lunch.
Be on the lookout for the Scarabaeus spretus, commonly known as the dung beetle (very important in southern Africa for removing, burying and recycling dung — eland is reportedly a favourite); and the Aptera fusca, commonly known as the Table Mountain cockroach, which raises its abdomen and squeaks when distressed. There are also chameleons and baboons and, if you're really lucky, you'll see buck and leopards too.
Day two's highlight has to be the picnic spot, the summit of the Kogelberg. Gawk unashamedly at the expansive view overlooking the dark-blue Indian Ocean before ambling down to the day's "finish line", where a refreshing swimming pool, wine tastings and more exceptional food await you at South Hill Vineyards.
Londoners Eugene McConville and Anna-Marie Douglas, with whom my partner and I shared our trail experience, spoke of it as "a memorable mix of educational exercise, fabulous fynbos, beautiful breakfasts, lovely lunches, delicious dinners, and lovely lodging".
Indeed, Green, alongside key individuals in the Elgin Valley community, has curated an experience that is the perfect brew of activity and leisure time. In these days of social distancing, it's also an excellent way to get a dose of the great outdoors.
Constant agreed. "I would recommend this experience hands down. It perfectly matches activity, leisure, solace and friendship — all of which we need, and so much more now. "What's more, the Covid protocols were excellent — staff were masked all the time, there was plenty of social distancing and, given that the walking was outdoors, it was all good."
Today I'm grateful that, while the world was going into a pandemic, we were isolated in the safety of nature and beautiful views. Now, almost a year on, I often catch myself staring out of the window in between work and daydreaming of the Blue Mountain Trail.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
NEED TO KNOW: The Blue Mountain Trail starts with checking in on a Monday at about 3pm. Checkout is on Thursday after lunch.
ACCOMMODATION: Each day's hiking ends with a wine tasting at South Hill Vineyards (day one), Iona Vineyards (day two), and Almenkerk on the final day. On days one and two, guests are transferred back to the Wildekrans Country House, where they overnight.
RATE: R9,600 per person sharing until August 1. Includes expert guides, farm stays, all country-style meals, snacks while walking, personalised wine tastings, a community walking stick.
THREE MORE TRAILS
1. FOR A DAY HIKE: Table Mountain National Park, 5km
For some steep climbs, scenic stops and spectacular views over the Mother City, you could tackle Table Mountain. The easier of two routes to the top, Platteklip Gorge, is a straightforward, slightly more crowded, safe and well-maintained 2.5- to three-hour hike (one way). India Venster, which runs the length of the cable car, is the more challenging and less traversed of the two. It takes 3.5 hours to the top and going with a guide is recommended. Both are about 2.5km one way and start on Tafelberg Road. Hikers can then take the cable car down or hike back via Platteklip Gorge, which will take an additional two hours. Guided hikes, from R900 per person, can be booked through Hike Table Mountain.
2. A SORT-OF SHORTIE: Mnweni Circuit Hike, 42km
Starting and ending at the Mnweni Cultural and Hiking Centre in Bergville, KwaZulu-Natal, this 42km moderate to strenuous two-night hike passes through the Mnweni and Rockeries passes in one of the most remote — and scenic — parts of the Northern Drakensberg escarpment. There are camping facilities and rondavels at the start but you will need to camp along the way. The lack of marked trails means you'll need good map-reading skills and first-timers are advised to go with a guide. Overnight permits cost R60 per person per day. Call the Mnweni centre on 072-712-2401.
3. FOR AN EPIC ADVENTURE: The Amatola Trail, 100km
Traversing 100km and stretching out over five nights, the Amatola is often described as SA's toughest trail. It starts at Maden Dam near King William's Town in the Eastern Cape and winds its way through the Amatola mountains before winding down in Hogsback. Hikers need to be fit and prepared to hike up to 10 hours a day, but hutted accommodation means you don't need to carry a tent. Amatola Trails offers a variety of packages to make the planning easier, starting from R1,900 per person for the full trail. See amatolatrails.co.za. — Sanet Oberholzer