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May 2012

One of the problems with many of the classic trails in South Africa is that you need to set aside several days to hike them. So it’s always a bonus to come across trails that really get you out into the wilderness, but that you can complete in a weekend.

The Donkey Trail, in the Swartberg Mountains, is one such trail. It’s a scenic and historically fascinating journey that any moderately fit hiker will thoroughly enjoy. Although the spectacular scenery would be reason enough to sign up, what gives the trail its special character is the donkeys. Following in the footsteps of one of these amiable beasts of burden provides a natural rhythm and a bond between hiker and animal. There’s also a sense of history, of déjà vu, taking you back to the days when there was no road to the isolated valley of Gamkaskloof. When goods were carried over the mountain passes by great trains of donkeys and their drivers.

The trail starts at Living Waters Mountain Estate in the valley of Groenfontein (about 15km from Calitzdorp). You overnight in one of the quaint, renovated historic cottages on the farm and enjoy a home-cooked feast. After breakfast the next morning the donkeys are brought to the lawn in front of the main guest area and loaded up. The friendly beasts, all previously abused animals from the Donkey Rescue Programme in De Rust, thoroughly enjoy being the centre of attention and the petting they receive as the panniers are strapped to their backs. Each hiker can send up to 5kg of personal gear up to the overnight camp.

The trail begins gently but soon you’re on the steep series of zigzags that leads out of the valley. It’s strenuous stuff to encounter so early in the day but if you follow the guides’ advice to take it easy it’s not so bad. You can always stop to smell the flowers or to cast your eyes to the sky looking for the resident black (Verreaux’s) eagle soaring overhead should you need a break.

The path then contours round for a while through rhenosterveld before you arrive at the first of two steep river valleys. The women on the trail are invited to enjoy swimming in the pools of the first river while the men modestly retire to the second stream to bathe. This second river crossing is one of the few places on the trail where there is shade. Consequently it is the lunch spot where the guides unpack a tasty picnic.

Once you’ve climbed out of this valley the scenery changes and delicate flowers line the path. Ahead of you are great folded mountains and, as you round the spur, the wide saddle of Wyenek looks a long way off. Although you’re at almost 1 200m the heat makes the final pull to the nek, past gnarly rock outcrops, pretty strenuous.

Once on the crest a magnificent scene unfolds and your eyes wander across a protea-covered plateau and over the secluded valley of Gamkaskloof. The path follows a tumbling river past waterfalls and rock pools until suddenly you sight the big canvas tents of the camp on a bluff above the river. A big pool lies at the bottom of the waterfall just below camp – the perfect place to shower and bath. Not that you need to venture that far if you don’t feel like it – there’s a basin, a flask of hot water, soap, shampoo, body lotion and towels in your spacious tented suite. Sleeping sheets, warm sleeping bags, pillows and comfortable mattresses on stretcher beds, lights, and flowers complete the accommodation package. It’s a bit like being on a luxury safari.

The mist usually stays till about 9am so there’s no rush to get going in the morning. After breakfast the donkeys are loaded up for their return journey to the farm while you head up the hill towards Gamkaskloof.

After admiring the view from the top you start the steep descent – the views of the hidden valley getting better and better as you lose height. The vegetation changes again. You leave the fynbos and the occasional colourful lilies behind and drop into bushy rhenosterveld.

The trail levels out, rounding a final bend with great views of the aloe-covered slopes and the vegetated valley below. Keep your eyes peeled for klipspringer as you hike. These agile little buck are so well camouflaged that they’re difficult to spot unless they move, but there are a good number around. You’ll often see kudu spoor on the trail too. The animals have wisely decided that using the trail is easier than bashing through the bush. Then, almost suddenly, you’re at the dirt road that cuts down steeply to the campsite. This section of road, Elandspad, was a monumental engineering effort. It drops some 800m into the kloof. You can chose to hitch a ride in one of the support vehicles down Elandspad – but I’d recommend hiking this section both for the views and the fact that travelling down in a car is quite harrowing. This narrow road is not where you want to meet oncoming vehicles.

Lunch is served in the shade of the trees at the campsite before you continue to the overnight cottages. If you don’t fancy the walk then you again have the option off hoping into a vehicle and being driven down the bumpy road to your home for the night. This is in one of the ten beautifully restored old clay houses in the valley, where the guides prepare a celebratory braai.

The drive out in the morning, along the winding, sometimes precipitous, dirt road, is spectacular. The fynbos, game sightings and views keep you enthralled. Descending the Swartberg Pass is another treat. You then follow a gravel road back to Groenfontein. After all that you’ve experienced, it’s hard to believe that you only left the farm a couple of days before.
Contact: +27 83 628 9394, [email protected],
First published in Do It Now Magazine,

Nightjar Travel