Tramping in the Eastern Cape is welcome spin off for Petone woman, Maria Cunninghm who’s chosen to use her skills working in development for Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) as an early childhood education adviser.
Discovering that I would be living 20 minutes from what the Lonely Planet describes as “one of South Africa’s top mountain walks” was definitely a spur for me to accept my assignment. Once here, I learnt that another VSA volunteer was working on a hiking trail in the famed Drakensberg Mountains. It took me a while to get a crew together for these two tramps but the wait was well worth it.
As well as being a nation of vast arid plains, South Africa is home to some spectacular mountains. I see the Amathole (‘calf’) mountains everyday on my way out to work in Dimbaza township. The Amatola trail is a rugged six-day hike through forests, crossing a myriad of waterfalls. These mountains were the scene of four of the nine wars of dispossession between the Xhosa and the settlers in the 19th century. The original inhabitants were the Khoi and San peoples, often referred to as bushmen.
I did the walk over two long weekends. The first part was with two other volunteers; the second with our VSA field officer, Camille and some Afrikaner friends. I learnt that South Africa is not yet ready for stripey poly-pro with shorts over top and that South Africans carry $2 Shop plastic ponchos and no warm gear. We did, however, get quite a bit of rain and cold, which left us Gortex-clad Kiwis feeling very smug. I’m not sure whether I entirely justified the use of my down jacket, though.
The route traverses the length of the main mountain range, topping out on peaks regularly and dipping into forests most of the time. There are also veldts (fields) where amazing arrays of wild flowers grow – watsonias, clivias, harebells, proteas, lilies, narines, orchids etc. The waterfalls look as if some Zen gardener has been at work and most of them have a small pool to cool off in.
In contrast, the Mehloding trail is veldt walk set under the peaks of the mighty Drakensberg. The trail is a local community tourism initiative and trampers stay at four fully-serviced huts on the way. All the cooking is done for you and you are accompanied by local guides. Seven volunteers made the trip, even Charles (who works as a maintenance trainer on the project) came along for a ‘busman’s holiday’.
The southern Drakensberg is where Lesotho, Eastern Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal meet so the local people are Sotho, Xhosa and Zulu. It was great to stay in the brightly-painted rondavels, eat local food (especially our favourite, steam bread) and be led by knowledgeable locals. My highlights were walking through protea trees and seeing the ancient rock painting.
It was great to get away from it all and not think about my assignment for a few days. Tramping, as those in the know will agree, really refreshes the soul.