Garden Route Walking Festival 2017

I’d never seen anyone pick up and put down a SCORPION so gently. I mean, gentle is literally the last thing that comes to mind when thinking of, never mind TOUCHING, a scorpion. Not that I’ve ever picked one up because I’d be running so fast in the other direction if I ever encountered one live and scorpion-ing in the wild. Which I hadn’t before, until the fourth day of the Garden Route Walking Festival, while the fam and I were clunking our way back up the ravine enclosed by the Brackenburn Private Nature Reserve in Plettenberg Bay.

Mark and Polly, the sweetest couple and our walking guides for the day, had stopped once again to examine the underneath of a log/rock and, much to their excitement, had discovered a scorpion. Mark held it delicately in his palm for a little while, encouraging me (the designated creepy-crawly-phobe) to take a closer look and appreciate its beauty. It had the fattest belly and a tiny tail. Dare I say it, but it was low-key cute. And, really, Mark and Polly’s joint child-like enthusiasm for each and every little creature they discovered along the 3-hour hike was contagious. It left me with a feeling of hope and gratitude (and maybe a sense of belonging, to have found like-minded animal/nature lovers) that there are still people who care deeply about and respect our planet.

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When hiking, take some time to stop and appreciate the little things in nature, like this wild chestnut spotted during our trek through the Brackenburn Private Nature Reserve. Mark cradled the scorpion just as gently as this.

But, rewind four days and our festival experience didn’t kick off with quite the same sense of enthusiasm and general zen-ness. The Garden Route Walking Festival consists of a bunch of guided walks/hikes amidst the various natural environments – from dense forest to pristine beach – that make up the Garden Route, a stretch of South African coast which extends from Mossel Bay to Nature’s Valley (just outside of Plett). The festival took place over the Easter weekend and I registered for a bunch of hikes months in advance. I was all ready and set for a family weekend away of not only indulging in Lindt chocolate bunnies (because its basically a sin not to eat chocolate over the Easter weekend) but also discovering new parts of the Plett area by foot each day to get my nature-fix. But, much to my disappointment, our bookings had somehow been confused and we weren’t registered for anything I’d planned.

BUT! Not to be too put off by a logistical blunder (jokes, the OCD side of me wanted to rage), we decided to stick with the theme: just go for a walk everyday, along a new route each time, even if it isn’t officially part of the Walking Festival.

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Robberg beach offers a flat expanse of sand, especially at low tide, which makes it one of the best in Plett for beach runs and slow strolls.
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In the distance lies Beacon Isle, one of Plettenberg Bay’s most famous hotels.
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Can you see the Robberg peninsula, with its distinct “gap”, in the distance? The peninsula forms part of the Robberg Nature Reserve, and is home to a well-loved hiking trail.
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Especially on stormy days, I love to watch the waves roll in and hit the rocks with a thunderous splash. These rocks, which can be found just in front of the Beacon Isle hotel in Plett, also make for a great viewpoint to spot the dolphins that swim past on their daily fishing trips.
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It’s never too cold or too rainy for a beach walk.

Anyway. So. DAY 1. Since I hadn’t booked a group walk, we headed for a lazy stroll along Robberg Beach, which is always a treat – even with some sporadic raindrops falling on our heads, and dark heavy-looking clouds looming ever closer. The beach extends from the Beacon Isle hotel, and we walked for a couple of kilometres with an uninterrupted view of Robberg Nature Reserve (identifiable by the gap half way between this rocky, green-covered peninsula, appropriately referred to as The Gap) in the foreground.

The following morning, DAY 2, saw us bundled up against the 7am chill and trekking through the muddy trails that slice through the fynbos of Kalanderkloof mountain. The rain which had been threatening to come down in buckets the previous day, had finally fallen, leaving the air crisp and cool, and little water droplets hanging on the leaves around us.

These crystal-like droplets kept catching the sunlight and catching my eye, drawing my attention to the (mostly) red and green hues of the fynbos. In fact, the focus of the day’s walk, which we’d registered for as part of the festival on a whim, was the fynbos. This type of vegetation grows along a small stretch of South African coast, with 70% of the plant species identified as endemic to this region. In other words, fynbos is a well-treasured part of South African heritage.

Kellyn, a member of the Nature’s Valley Trust and our guide for the day, stopped frequently along the way to share her knowledge, while pointing out the different fynbos species with ease, like old friends of hers, noticing subtle differences I would never have picked up. She also pointed out some other “interesting” specimens – like the nest of a (VERY LARGE) spider. While it was fascinating to learn about the plants and their myriad uses (if I ever get lost in the fynbos – which, knowing me, isn’t entirely unlikely – rest assured I’d know how to arrange a comfy bed and also to make paintbrushes out of reed), once she’d pointed out one spider’s nest, I started to notice them all. As I picked my way through the tall grass, the spiky undergrowth scraping at my legs, I couldn’t help but imagine little spider-y legs tickling mine. F*%&#@!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Our guide began our walk opposite the picnic site on the R102 to Nature’s valley (just BEFORE the Groot River Pass), but the official start of the Kalanderkloof hiking trail is at the bottom of Nature’s Valley, opposite De Vasselot campsite. Either way, the trails lead to a viewpoint at the top of mountain, from which you can look down over the entire stretch of untouched beach that Nature’s Valley is known for.

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The rolling, fynbos-covered mountains of Nature’s Valley.
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My dad was absolutely fascinated by the fact that the reeds along this route were used in the past for paintbrushes and darts. Boys will be boys.

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An Erica plant – probably. Also probably should’ve been a better hiking student and listened properly, but was too busy taking photos as usual.
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A beautiful protea.
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Nature’s Valley beach as seen from the top of the Kalanderkloof mountain.

That same stretch of wild beach looked so appealing, the fam and I collectively decided to head there for DAY 3 of the Garden Route Walking festival. I couldn’t find an available official walk for that day, and we rarely spend time in Nature’s Valley even though it’s a mere 20-minute drive from Plett, so why not?

But, before heading down to the beach, we explored the Salt River hiking trail, having noticed it the previous day. It begins at the same picnic site where we’d met the day before for the Kalanderkloof walk. This trail, flanked by a seemingly impenetrable forest of fynbos, leads down to the river mouth of Nature’s Valley. It also forms part of the world-renowned Otter Trail. This was more of a “recon” mission, a chance to suss out the area, so we didn’t complete the hike. After all, Nature’s Valley beach was calling – where hidden coves awaited!

Yip, that’s right, we stumbled upon the most beautiful beach, hidden from view by a rocky outcrop covered in shiny, black mussels. It’s also unreachable unless you wade through a bit of thigh-high sea water. I unlaced my trail shoes, threw them off, and raced through the crystal-clear water to further explore the little alcove, shaded almost entirely by the mountain side. One of Nature’s Valley’s best kept secrets? I think so.

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Be sure to take your camera with when heading to Nature’s Valley – there’s a photo opportunity around every corner (like this one, from the bridge just after the De Vasselot campsite).
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We meandered through the tall grass of the Salt River trail for a while, before turning back and heading to the beach. 
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Forest fungi, found along the Salt River trail. 
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If there’s one thing I love more than a beach, it’s an (almost) empty beach.
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Hidden beach alcoves.
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Spot the mermaid? Nope? Me neither.
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Muscles on muscles on muscles (or, how I wish my abs looked).
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It’s not hard to figure out where Nature’s Valley gets its name from. The tiny village (which is mostly a bunch of quaint houses, two streets and a restaurant) appears to form part of the forest, allowing for the surrounding wilderness to flourish to its full potential. It’s such a quiet spot, with a wide stretch of beach, and is the perfect place to visit if you’re want for a peaceful escape.

And that brings us back round to DAY 4, otherwise known as THE BEST DAY EVER (and not only because I made friends with Cara the donkey who demanded bum scratches by  reversing her booty in my general direction. I scratched an asses ass that day. Yip). Following our short introduction with our guides for the morning (and parents to Cara the Donkey) Mark and Polly, we headed into the dense, indigenous forest of the Brackenburn Private Nature Reserve, just outside of Plett. We gingerly trudged along the steep path as it descended through the trees, taking care not to slip on the leaf-covered ground, while Mark bounded confidently ahead despite his constant chatter, with Polly bringing up the rear with tales of her time as a zookeeper in England. At the bottom of the ravine, snaking through slippery, lichen-covered rocks and edged by soft, green ferns, lay the Buffels River.

We stood by the river for some time, taking in the frequency of the Tsitsikamma forest – the call of birds, the rustle of the leaves as they moved around, the gentle flow of rain water as it glided over the rocks. It’s a constant buzz of little movements. As we walked next to the river, zigzagging across it at times, the next 3 hours were spent in much the same way. We took the time to explore and appreciate the finer details of the forest, the kind of things you might miss if you just speed along without stopping (especially if you’re competitive like me and always want to finish a hike first).

Mark and Polly stopped along the way various times, sometimes just to breathe in the fresh, clean air and share their wildlife stories, other times to delicately lift a rock in the river and discover a crab or point out a furry spider that I had zero idea was hugging a branch about half a centimetre away from my face. They were as excited about the little critters and their discoveries – the crabs, the spiders, the coin-sized frogs jumping around our ankles, the leech, the pill millipedes and even the distinct poop left by otters – as I was about the donkey earlier that morning. And, like I said, I found their endless enthusiasm for wildlife to be both refreshing and relatable. It was a privilege to spend the morning in their company, immersed in their forest world and learning to love its finer details and distinct quirks as much as they do.

While the Garden Route Walking Festival got me excited to further explore the area’s unspoilt, natural beauty, the best part was being able to do so with like-minded people. It made it just that much more of a treat.

Until next time. xx

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Brackenburn Private Nature Reserve encloses part of the Tsitsikamma forest. “Tsitsikamma”means “place of much water” in the Khoisan language, which seems fitting for an area characterised by dense, lush, evergreen vegetation. 
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Trekking along the edge of the Buffels River, with a stick for balance (which proved helpful when the rocks got slippery and the ground uneven).
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Jazz hands or balancing tactics?
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Lichens grow throughout the Tsitsikama forest, weaving delicate tapestries of green and yellow and orange all over rocks and tree bark.
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Oh hey Cara the donkey (can I keep her, though?).
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