Tankwa pan at sunset

Tankwa pan at sunset

I’ve had bikes on and off for the last 15 years.  I love the freedom, the wind in my hair, the open Karoo flats and the power underneath me.  I get a sort of satisfaction.  The dust rises up behind me as I speed into the unknown.  Some times when the city life gets too much I just get on my bike and ride into the Karoo.  No idea where I am going to sleep or what adventures may wait.  Sometimes I plan a route, other times I just go and see where the road takes me.

Camping in a river bed

Camping in a river bed

A lot of the time I ride with a good friend of mine, Uwe.  Like me he loves the openness of the Karoo.  Uwe is a legend and he’s been through Africa on his bike more than once.  He always takes the best droewors (dried sausage); he’s a butcher, the best in Cape Town.  He owns Gardens Continental Butchery, 120 Kloof Street, 021 423 6944.

Uwe the butcher

Uwe the butcher

Spectacular clouds and landscape of the Karoo

Spectacular clouds and landscape of the Karoo

At other times I go by myself to leave the stress behind.  I am a photographer and one of my favourite things to do is to take star-trail photographs with my film SLR camera.  The Karoo night allows spectacular star watching and needless to say, it’s great for star-trail photography.

Tankwa star-trail taken with my film SLR

Tankwa star-trail taken with my film SLR

I’ve had many adventures.  Some people think it’s not much of an adventure, but I live for those moments of unexpectedness.  So, without further ado here is my latest adventure:

I packed my bike one Saturday morning in late summer, got on it and rode into the Karoo.  I had already planned my route to one of my favourite overnight places in the Tankwa Karoo.  I was ready to get out of the city’s hustle and bustle.  I always allow plenty of time to get to my destination because I can sometimes really get lost in my photography along the way.  This happens especially in spring when all the wild flowers are blooming.  This time there were no flowers: the season was over.  The road was quiet and I was enjoying every moment.

About an hour on the dirt roads and I passed a rooikat (lynx).  This is a very shy species of cat and I was surprised to see it.  It disappeared into the Karoo veld as I came to a standstill.  I took off again and stopped at a dead jackal in the road a bit later to take some photos.  I felt sorry for the jackal.  I love their howling after sunset and I often join in.  Sometimes my howling even gets a reply from them.

Dead jackal

Dead jackal

Close to my destination I hit a particularly sandy stretch and had to slow down to a manageable speed.  The roads are normally very loose by the end of summer.  I was surprised to see that this road was that loose as the last time I was there the sand was hard.  At the worst spot I lost control and fell.  Luckily the sand was soft and the bike was fine.  So was I.  I took the panniers off and proceeded to pick the bike up.  I struggled to get the bike out of the really difficult places.  Once I was out I had to walk back to fetch my panniers.  The last couple of kilometres were uneventful and I got to my destination in no time.  I pitched my tent in a dry pan and left to go say hello to some local farm workers I had befriended on one of my previous trips.  I asked them for some firewood and they delivered it an hour or so later.  We had a nice chat and some cigarettes.  I always have lots of questions to ask the locals and they love to tell their stories, they can chat away for hours.  These people fascinate me.  They get by with the bare minimum in this barren land.  It seems like it’s a tough life, but they are always happy and friendly.  Maybe we city folk are doing it all wrong with all our earthly possessions and financial mind-set.  They left for their home shortly after sunset and I made a fire.  I was content with a mug of wine in the one hand and a cigarette in the other, chilling by the fire waiting for the night to set in slowly.  I particularly love the nights in the Karoo with the openness of the landscape and the dryness of the air.  You can only imagine the clearness of the skies at nights and how I enjoy myself taking star-trail photos.  This is the time I take my film SLR out, when everything is quiet and peaceful and the Karoo really crawls in under your skin.

Tankwa friends

Tankwa friends

People ask me if I get lonely on a trip by myself.  To be perfectly honest, I don’t in the least.  I am photography crazy and on such a trip I take loads of photos.  And I always have things to do around camp.  Making a safe fireplace and fire, making my camp more comfortable and on these trips I do a lot of thinking.  I think about life, I make plans for the future, I explore new ideas and I generally allow my thoughts to sink in and make space for new ones.  It does wonders for the soul.

Tough country

Tough country

The next morning I packed and left early for home, just after sunrise.  I decided to take a different route home.  Partly because I wanted to avoid the sandy stretch where I fell the previous day and partly because I had never taken this road on my bike before.  Some would say that this was a mistake but for me this was the best part of my adventure.  About an hour down the road I ran into some loose sand and in places the road was so bad and washed away that I really had to slow down a lot.  After the previous day’s fall this made me a bit nervous.  I carried on.

The next thing I knew the bike was difficult to control and I knew it was a puncture probably caused by the gravel.  Instinctively I also knew the chances of fixing a puncture caused by loose gravel might be slim.  This was at about eight ‘o clock.  I stopped and went through all the motions.  I put the bike on the centre-stand and I put some Tyreweld in it: that did not fix the problem.  I tried to take the wheel off but I neglected to bring the No.22 spanner.  The adjustable wrench slipped and I did not want to damage the nut.  So there I was, on the longest dirt road between two towns in South Africa without any water or cell phone reception.  I knew it might take a while before a vehicle, and potential lift came past.  But that did not faze me in the least.  Very much unlike my reactions would have been two days ago with the city stress still on my mind.  So I blew up my camping mattress and got comfortable in my bike’s shade.  I put my earphones in and before I knew it I fell asleep right there next to my bike.

Stranded in the middle of nowhere

Stranded in the middle of nowhere

Two hours later I was woken up by a taxi.  It stopped but was going the opposite way I wanted to go.  I gave the driver instruction to phone my friend as soon as he got reception and tell him to come fetch me.  I knew it might take another two hours before the taxi got any signal and then it will take my friend at least four hours to get there from Cape Town.  But that was the best I could do at that stage.  The taxi left and I continued my nap.

Another hour later I woke up again.  This time by a bakkie (pick-up truck) going in the right direction.  The driver, Henk, had a No.22 spanner, so we took the wheel off to try and fix the puncture but after a long struggle we decided to load the bike on the back of his bakkie.   But we had no rope to tie it on with and on these roads the bike will fall around on the back and get wrecked.  So I came up with the idea to take some fence wire.  I hope the farmer is not too upset with us for stealing his boundary fence, but it was necessary.

With the bike secured on the back we slowly made our way to Ceres.  We chatted away and the three hour drive passed quickly.

About an hour from Ceres I got reception and phoned my friend.  He had just left Cape Town.  Henk dropped me off in Ceres where I waited for my friend to come pick me up.  The first thing I did was to buy a Coke and some cigarettes.  Then I waited for another hour or so under a tree on the pavement before they arrived.  I got home at six that evening and even after a long day I had a smile on my face.  I had had my adventure.

A special thanks to the locals that gave me fire wood, to Henk for helping me get to Ceres, to the farmer we stole the fence wire from and to my friends Yunus and Victoria for fetching me in Ceres and for being part of my adventure.

As I sit here on my balcony putting my adventure on paper and staring over our beautiful Table Mountain, I can’t help but think when and where my next bike trip will be and what adventures it might bring.

Cederberg

Cederberg

Spring time in the Tankwa Karoo

Spring time in the Tankwa Karoo

Klein Karoo

Klein Karoo

Low clouds over the pan

Low clouds over the pan

Moordenaars Karoo

Moordenaars Karoo

Long shadow at sunset.

Long shadow at sunset.

Speeding away

Speeding away

I’ve done the Otter Trail nine times and I’ll do it again and again and again.  There is only one word to describe it: paradise.  I recommend it to everybody.  The Otter Trail should be number one on everybody’s bucket list.  This guide should give you an insight into all aspects of this trail.

Crashing wave

Crashing wave

Preparation: Preparation should be taken seriously.  Here is a whole list of things to take into account once you have decided to do the otter trail:

  • Make sure you book well in advance.  The Otter Trail is very popular, for good reason.  If you want to go on a specific date you will have to book at least 9 months in advance.  If you are not too fussed about a specific date I would say to still book about 6 months in advance.  If you have less time left till the time of year you want to do it you might be lucky and get a cancellation.  See the “contacts” section for booking contacts
  • When should you go?  It all depends on you and what you want to get from the experience.  I prefer going in summer.  When it is hot you can swim to cool down and river crossings will not leave you with hypothermia.  Also see the “climate” section.
  • Tide:  One reason to take the tide into consideration is because the river crossings can be tricky if the tide is not low enough.  I would recommend planning your booking to get day four on spring tide, or as close as possible to it.  This is of course only relevant if you want to cross the Bloukrans river without getting soaked.  This would also be the safest time to cross.  The only drawback is that you would have to get up very early that morning in order to get to the Stormsriver at low tide.  Spring low tide is always in the morning.
  • Who do you take?  I would recommend taking your partner; it’s really awesome to share this experience with a loved one.  Close friends are a good idea.  You want to be able to get on with the people you go with.  There is nothing worse than having disagreements with your fellow hikers.  And make sure that everybody has got a reasonable level of fitness.  This trail can be tough.  Also keep in mind that each overnight spot have two huts that can sleep six people each.
  • Once you have made a reservation and you have organised people to go with you; can you sit and wait until the start date arrives? No!  You make sure you are as fit as possible.  Most people that have done the Otter Trail would say you do not have to be very fit to do it.  I do not agree completely.  Yes you can do it without being very fit.  The thing is, the fitter you are the more you can enjoy the trail, the nature, the scenery, your chill time after each days hiking and your holiday.  If you decide to train make sure you focus on endurance and strength.  Climb mountains, do long hikes, get your general fitness to a level where you can easily hike on mountainous terrain for three to four hours.  And make sure you get used to your backpack.  Maybe do a multi-day hike in preparation.

Once the start date is getting close:  Make sure everybody that said they are coming is actually coming.  Have a meeting to discuss your menus.  It’s nice to cook together in the evenings.  Work out menus.  For six people you only have to take one stove and cooking set.  Two gas canisters should be sufficient, but take a third just to be sure. One big pot and one smaller one should also do.  You can share things like sun cream, toothpaste, survival bags, etc.  Plan to take the minimum possible.  Decide who will take what and make sure weight will be evenly distributed.  Make sure everybody has got a good hiking pack.  Get these logistics out of the way.  Also see the “food” section and the “what to take” tick list.

Spectacular sunset

Spectacular sunset

Balancing act

Balancing act

Drogonfly eye

Dragonfly eye

Flower

Flower

Mushrooms

Mushrooms

Overnight camps:  Each overnight camp consists of two huts sleeping six people each and a communal lapa.  Each hut and the lapa have a designated fire place with braai/BBQ grids.  There is a flush toilet and a cold water shower at each camp and taps with running water.  These camps are set on the shoreline and the views are amazing.

What to take:

  • Backpack.  A decent hiking pack.  One with its own built in rain cover is the best.
  • Sleeping bag. Mattresses are supplied in each overnight hut.
  • Blow up pillow.  This is necessary if you like sleeping with a pillow and want a good night’s rest.
  • Survival bag.  This is available at any outdoor shop.  It is a big red plastic bag to put your backpack in when crossing rivers.
  • A drybag for your valuables when you cross rivers.
  • A piece of rope to close the survival bag with when crossing rivers.
  • A cooking set.  One big pot and one medium size pot should be sufficient for six people.
  • A gas stove and three gas canisters should be enough for six people.
  • A mug.  Plastic weighs less than metal.
  • A plate and cutlery.  Once again plastic weighs less but take metal cutlery.
  • A sharp knife for preparing food.
  • A light cutting board.
  • A pocket knife can double up as a food preparation knife.
  • Washing up liquid and a washing up sponge.
  • A headlamp.  There is no electricity nor lights at the overnight camps.
  • A book if you want to read or a pen and paper for writing.
  • Matches or a lighter for starting your campfire at night.  Make sure to keep these dry.
  • A camera.
  • Sunglasses.
  • A water bottle.  Water bladders also work well.  No more than two litres is needed, there is water along the way and there are taps at the overnight camps.
  • Two fully charged cell phones per group.  Make sure to save the emergency numbers given to you by SAN Parks at the start.  And keep the phones off to save the batteries.  There is very little reception anyway.
  • Map.  You will receive a map at the start of the trail.
  • Tide table.  This you will also receive at the start of the trail.
  • Duct tape and some cable ties are always a good idea.  You can fix broken shoes, etc. with it.
  • Extra zip lock bags can also come in handy.

Clothes:

  • A rain jacket.
  • A hat for sun protection.
  • A good pair of hiking shoes/boots.  Boots are normally heavy.  Hiking shoes should be fine.  The terrain is even enough.
  • I prefer a pair of socks for each day.  It does not weigh much and it saves you washing your socks each day and hoping they will be dry the next day.
  • Underwear for each day.
  • A pair of flip-flops or comfortable shoes for the camp.
  • A warm jacket.  Even in summer it can get cold at night.
  • Two changes of clothes.  One set of clothes to hike in.  I like running shorts and a quick-dry T-shirt.  A different set of clothes for the evenings.  A pair of long trousers/sweat-pants, a T-shirt and a long sleeve top.
  • In winter be sure to take enough warm clothes.
  • A towel.  The camping towels fold up small and dry quickly.

Toiletries:

  • Toothbrush and toothpaste.
  • Biodegradable soap.  There is a cold water shower at each overnight camp.
  • Sun-screen.  Take a high factor; you will be in the sun a lot.
  • Insect repellent.
  • Any personal medication.
  • Things like shampoo, lotions, creams, deodorant, etc. are optional.  I would recommend not taking any of these.  Everybody will be smelly by the end of the trail anyway.  Remember the lighter your pack the better.
  • Toilet paper.  One roll per person should be more than enough.  I would even say one roll between two people is sufficient.
  • Nail clippers.  They come in handy to cut toenails, etc.

Medic kit:  One medic kit per group.  Your medic kit should at least contain the following items:

  • Headache tablets/pain killers.
  • Plasters.
  • Diarrhoea tablets.
  • Anti-septic.  Betadine or similar.
  • Eye drops.
  • Antihistamine tablets.
  • Dettol.
  • Itchy cream.  Zambuk works and can double up as a lip balm.

Food:  For evenings things like pasta and sauce or tuna and rice are good.  You need a lot of carbs.  It is advisable to take some meat to braai for the first night.  For breakfast take muesli or instant cerial.  Take snacks for lunch time and to nibble on in between.  It is also a good idea to take some fresh fruit or vegetables, just to eat something fresh every day.  You will be surprised how nice something fresh to eat is after a hard day of hiking.  Make sure your fruit does not get squashed.  Also take into account that the trail is five days, but for the first day (if you start after lunch) you will only need dinner and a snack.  And for the last day you will only need breakfast and a snack.  There is a restaurant in Natures Valley at the end of the trail.  They are open seven days a week and make the best burgers.  For what to pack see my list below as a guideline:

Breakfast:

  • Muesli or instant cereal for each morning.
  • Instant coffee.

Lunch:

  • Biscuits.  Saltycracks or Pro-vita are good.
  • Cheese wedges.  Melrose is good and will not go off.
  • Biltong or salami is good for protein.
  • Canned tuna is also good.

Snacks:

  • Nuts.
  • Dried fruit.
  • Energy bars.
  • Fresh fruit or vegetables.
  • Sweets for energy.
  • Biltong or salami.
  • Biscuits.
  • Energy drink powder.
  • Anything high in nutrition is good

Dinner:

  • Meat for the first night.
  • Fresh salad is also nice for the first night.
  • Pasta with some instant sauce.
  • Rice with tuna or some instant sauce.
  • Dehydrated food like Smash is good.  Add some salami or instant sauce.
  • Tea and sugar.
  • Chocolate is great after dinner.
  • Anything light and high in nutrition is good.
  • Take some garlic, onion and chillie to spice your food up.

Transfer:  You can either take two vehicles and then leave one at the trail end and take the second one to the start.  This means that you will have to go back to the start to fetch your vehicle when you finish.  The other option is to get a transfer to the start.  This way your vehicle will be at the end when you finish.  See the “contacts” section.

The trail:  The otter trail is a five day hike with the following distances and durations:

  • Day one = 4.8km (2 hours)
  • Day two = 7.9km (4 hours)
  • Day three = 7.7km (4 hours)
  • Day four = 13.8km (6 hours)
  • Day one = 6.8km (3 hours)

Day one:  The Otter Trail starts at the Storms River.  Day one takes you to the Ngubu Huts. But before you start you have to report at the park office to get your permits, maps, tide table and to pay your conservation fee.  It will save you from carrying lunch if you start hiking in the afternoon.  Unless you want to spend as much time as possible in nature and don’t mind carrying lunch.  About halfway to the huts there is a very nice waterfall with a pool to swim in.  The water is cold though.  The first day is very mild and is a nice introduction to what the trail has got to offer.  It consists of some walking in a forest, on a rocky shore and some stairs in between.  Stop as often as you can to explore.  The fauna and flora in the area are amazing, not to mention the other scenery.  Keep a look out for Knysna Loerie.

Once at the Ngubu huts you can relax.  I like to explore around the huts, it gives me a better chance of seeing wildlife.  The last time I did the Otter Trail we saw an octopus in the puddles close to the camp.  At night watch out for Cape genets, they are very tame and will steal your food from the hut if you leave the door open.

For the first evening a braai/BBQ is a good idea.  Take something to drink.  Once this weight is gone your bag will be lighter.

Falling asleep with the sound of the waves crashing on the shore makes for a great rest.  You have now finished the first day and the trail life begins.

Waterfall on day 1

Waterfall on day 1

Busy bee

Busy bee

Day Two:  Day two takes you to the Scott huts.  Getting up early will not only better your chances of seeing an otter, but it will give you more daylight time to enjoy the scenery.  It is also nice to start hiking early in the morning when everything is fresh.  This is the day you will get a wakeup call if your bag is too heavy.  At the two kilometre mark you can leave your bags on the main path and take a quick detour to Skilderkrans, a quartzite outcrop with great views.

About another two kilometres further and you can take another detour to Bloubaai, a picturesque bay with a white sandy beach.  This is a nice lunch spot.

The first river crossing is on day two, but no need to get wet or even take your shoes off.  Just go a bit up river and hop from rock to rock.

In the sea in front of the Scott huts is a big rock that makes for a great show when waves crash into it.

Long exposure of a wave crashing into a rock

Long exposure of a wave crashing into a rock

Scott huts

Scott huts

Day Three:  About an hour’s walk from the Scott huts you will find the Elansbos River.  This is a nice spot to spend some time and have a swim.  Make sure to get to the Lottering River close to low tide to make for a dry crossing.  This river is very close to the Oakhurst huts.

Elandbos river mouth

Elandbos river mouth

Golden eye

Golden eye

Day Four:  This day is the longest hike of the five days and will take you to the Andre huts.  At the 10km mark you will cross the Bloukrans River so allow enough time to get there at low tide.  If it is spring tide you will have to get up very early and start walking in the dark.  I have only done this river crossing at spring low tide and I never had to wade in more than waist deep water.  Remember to put your backpack in your survival bag for the crossing and make sure to tie it up very well otherwise your bag might get wet.  I cannot stress this enough: if the conditions are not favourable to cross the Bloukrans River; inform the park rangers.  They will pick you up and you can then enter the trail again close to the Andre huts.

The Andre hut camp is my favourite of the trail.  Right in front of the camp is a nice place to swim when the tide is low and the setting of this camp is spectacular.   There is a family of bushbuck that are very tame.  Enjoy your last night because the following day it’ll be back to reality.

Stromsriver mouth at low tide

Bloukrans river mouth at low tide

Andre Huts

Andre Huts

Day Five:  The last day is a breeze compared to day four.  The hike starts with one big uphill and thereafter it is easy going.  Stop at the lookout decks and take in your last day on the trail.  At Nature’s Valley a spectacular view awaits you.  A swim in the sea here is really great.  The last stretch is on the beach.  By this time you will be filled with joy and a sense of accomplishment.  Have a nice hot shower at the Nature’s Valley camp where you left your vehicle.  Remember to leave a clean set of clothes in the vehicle to put on after your shower.  The clothes you’ve been wearing for the last five days will be filthy.  And then head to the restaurant for a great burger and a well-deserved ice cold beer.

It is always a bit of a shock to get back to civilization but the feeling of accomplishment and life being simple will linger for a while.  Keep the memories fresh: remember to take lots of photographs.  I’m sure you’ll be back.

Lookout point on day 5

Lookout point on day 5

Nature's Valley view

Nature’s Valley view

Contacts: 

Climate: 

Links to other articles:

 

I have done the otter trail nine times to date.  Watch out for my update to follow soon.  Happy hiking!

Stars0002

Photography has been one of my passions for a long time. Most of what I know I taught myself by reading books and doing research on the internet.  People always ask me what kind of photography I’m into.  I really try and do everything and I particularly like photography that is not main-stream.  And one of the things I like to take pictures of the most is star trails.

I have never really shared my photography with people.  I always did it for myself.  So today I would like to start sharing something that has been very personal for perhaps too long.

Stars0001

The first thing one should keep in mind is that there are no hard and fast rules or settings, it all depends what you want your picture to be.  Experimenting and playing around with the settings is part of the fun.

You can do star trail photography with any fully manual camera.  The best camera for the job is of course a DSLR (digital single lens reflect) or SLR (film single lens reflect).  I want to provide a brief explanation as to how one can take star trail photos with the latter type film SLR.  It’s a personal choice since I find that there are less things to remember and less things that could go wrong.

When taking long exposures with a DSLR camera the sensor heats up and you get digital noise in your picture.  It differs from camera to camera but in general, exposures of more than 15 seconds create too much digital noise.  This could of course be overcome by technology.  Battery power can also prove to be a problem with DSLR cameras, the last thing you want is a flat battery in the middle of taking a photo.  So without further ado, my preferred way of photographing star trails.

Stars1

Most people with some interest in photography have got an old film SLR stashed away somewhere.  Go look for it, dust it off and go buy some film.  You also need a tripod, the sturdier the better; a remote shutter release; an alarm and lots of patience.

Before you set out to take star trails there are a number of things to take into account:

  • Sunrise and sunset times.  Generally an hour after sunset is dark enough to start your picture and an hour before sunrise should be sufficient to close the shutter.  Remember, the longer the shutter is open the longer the star trails.  I prefer them as long as possible.
  • Moonrise and moon-set times.  If the moon moves through your frame while the shutter is open your picture will be ruined.
  • Moon phase.  With the new moon the sky is very dark and the contrast between star-trails and sky will be more dramatic.  Whereas with the full moon if you make sure the moon will not pass through your frame the light from the moon can light up a nice landscape significantly.
  • The setting where you will be shooting your pictures.  This should be as far away from civilization as possible since light pollution from cities can light up the sky from kilometres away.  This means driving far away from civilization or hiking with your equipment for hours.  At locations close to the sea mist can form quickly and condensation can be a problem, so I would not recommend doing star trails close to the sea.
  • Check the weather and make sure the night you choose to shoot is not going to be overcast.  And if the conditions are right: shoot; the next night might be cloudy.

Other things to take into account include:

  • Autofocus at night can be difficult so it is a good idea to set you camera up before sunset, focus and then put your camera on manual focus to prevent it from trying to autofocus later when you open the shutter.
  • Depending in what hemisphere you are, if you want to achieve circular star trails you have to set your camera up pointing at the south celestial pole in the southern hemisphere or at the north star in the northern hemisphere.
  • A subject closer to the camera that could later be lit up by a headlamp or a flash, like a tree could give some nice depth to your picture, depending on what you want to achieve.
  •  When you plan to keep your shutter open for a long time make sure you use the eyepiece cover to close the eyepiece opening to prevent any unwanted light from entering your camera.
  • Once you open the shutter make sure to keep all lights off until you close the shutter again.  It is always a good idea to set your camera up pointing away from roads that might have any traffic at night, or buildings where someone might put a light on.
  • Aperture.  There is no set rule.  If you want great depth of field use a medium to small aperture.  Remember it is dark and if you want all the available light to enter the lens a bigger aperture is required.
  • Shutter speed.  Set your camera to the Bulb setting and attach your cable release/remote shutter release to prevent any shaking.
  • Film.  Depending on what you want, get the speed of film you need.  Remember the lower the speed of the film the less grainy it is.  I prefer 100 ISO film.
  • Don’t get de-motivated if your first couple of times turn out to be flops.  Play around with your settings or shoot in a different environment.
  • Also remember in certain environments dew could settle on your lens, or in very cold conditions your camera can stop functioning, and of course rain is not good.
  • When you use your cable release/remote shutter release stand close to the camera to make sure you hear the shutter closing.  Often your batteries will run out and that might leave your shutter open.  Also put the lens cap on before you move the camera.
  • Make sure you have enough fresh batteries.

Stars2

It’s a lot to remember, so print this out and take it along.  After a few star-trail shoots you will remember all of these and might add your own things to consider.

Another mission I had been planning for a while and had completely forgotten about.  Recently I decided that I want to start hiking more as there are so many amazing places in South Africa that very few people ever see, and I want to be one of the few.  One afternoon during my annual Summer holiday, after I realised I would not be able to do the hike I’d originally wanted to do, these forgotten plans popped into my head:  I’m going to hike along the Southern most coast of Africa.  I was immediately excited.  There and then I started planning everything.  I was going to visit some good friends in the Struisbaai caravan park for a couple of days and I quickly organised my friends to drop me off at Die Dam holiday resort.  So I started packing and I was on my way a few days later.

I was dropped off at Die Dam holiday resort at 10:30am on the 27th of December.  I had about 30km of almost completely uninhabited coastline to cover during the next two days.  The wind was howling and the sand was blasting my legs but nothing could dampen my excitement.  I had postponed this moment for way too long and finally the time to take action had arrived.  It’s long been a dream of mine to do solo missions, especially in uninhabited territory and preferably unsupported.  This mission is not much of a challenge to anybody with some level of fitness, but to me it meant the start of one of my dreams.  Sometimes we get excited about something and then after a while it starts fading away and we carry on with our daily lives.  I’m going to try my best to keep the momentum of this dream going.

I made sure I was walking during low tide.  At high tide the sand is loose and that makes walking slow and tiring.  With a tail wind and the sand nice and hard, I was cruising the first 10km stretch of beach.  My pack was not too heavy and I had a smile on my face.  A friend from the area told me that I would be able to get some water along the way so I was carrying the bare minimum.  Soon there was not much to remind me of civilization and I felt free.

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The sandy beach ended and the walking became slower as I was crossing rocks and pebbly beaches.  When a fishermen’s path appeared on the hard bank above the shore walking became easy again.  The scenery was spectacular now with huge waves crashing into the rocks.  I was where I wanted to be and the company (myself) was excellent.

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At about the 15km mark I reached Asfontein: a bunch of whitewashed houses in the middle of nowhere.  It’s a beautiful place in an idyllic setting.  I would guess it belongs to one of the families from the area that uses it as their private getaway.  I re-filled my water there and carried on.  I was close to my planned distance (17km) for the day and started looking for a spot out of the wind to pitch camp.  The vegetation now got thicker reaching waist height in places.  From there on there were rock formations, little bays and simply beautiful scenery.  I was relaxed and dreaming the day away.

I got a bit of an abrupt wakeup call when the biggest snake I have ever seen raised its flat head in front of me to announce its presence.  I have actually developed a bit of a liking for snakes lately and was hoping to see some on my hikes.  But I could never have hoped for such a fine specimen.  Confidently and unafraid, this three meter golden brown beauty of a Cape Cobra checked me out for about two minutes and when it disappeared into a mole hole I got out of there quickly.  A bite from this guy would kill me in a couple of hours for sure.  Unfortunately I did not get a picture of the snake.  My camera was in my backpack and I was not going to take my eyes off the snake to get it out.

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Soon thereafter I found a nice camping spot, pitched my tent on a grassy spot and had a quick swim in the tidal pool in front of it.  The afternoon was relaxing, watching the big waves crashing into the rocky shore and I had a chat to a local fisherman coming to check out one of his usual fishing spots nearby.  Later when the wind died down I made a fire and eased into the evening with some sherry.

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I had a good rest that evening, with the soothing sound of the waves as my constant companion.  The next morning I had an early start.  After about 2km I reached Brandfontein and filled up my water supplies at the Albertyn family’s place, a group of stone cottages.  After that the rocky shore made way for a wide sandy beach again.  It was low tide and life was easy.  An hour or so later the shore got steeper and the sand gave way to a loose pebble beach.  This area is called Die Walle and I used to come fishing here with my older cousin when I was still a school boy.  The walking was hard now but the end was getting closer.  I passed a beautiful lagoon and soon after, civilization appeared and I was suddenly in Suiderstrand.  From there I hitchhiked to Struisbaai and quickly got a lift with two youngsters in a white jeep.  I enjoyed the wind in my hair and the scenery flying past.  Mission accomplished.

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Soon I was back at the campsite in Struisbaai and my adventure was over.  It was strangely easy to maintain my adventure momentum as the Otter Trail was next….

I grew up on a farm in the mountains near Montagu and it would snow in the Winter.  Not much, but enough to build a snowman and to have a snow fight.  There are some peaks in the Western Cape that get enough snow for skiing and we even have a ski lift on Matroosberg.  For about the last 10 years I’d wanted to go up Tafelburg after a good snow storm but I never got around to doing it.  Eventually in the winter of 2012 I did it, and here is my story:

I was planning this trip for a couple of weeks, waiting for a good storm to come.  The weather forecast was in my favour, a big snow storm on Saturday and then Sunday the weather would be clear.  So I packed my bag, set my alarm and went to bed early Saturday evening.

At 4am my alarm went off, I got up and by 4:30am I was on the road.  Three hours later my bakkie was parked and I was getting ready to start hiking.  I put my boots on, packed my bag, slung it onto my back and turned around to start.  But only to see that the little stream at the start of the hike has swollen to a waist deep river of icy water pushing up its banks.  So I took my bag off, got naked and carried my rucksack on my head through the icy river.  On the other side I got dressed and started the hike.

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The snow only started at Welbedaght cave halfway up the mountain, it got thicker quickly and became harder to walk.  I saw some deer in the distance and some leopard spoor in the snow.  By now walking was difficult and slow.  I followed the leopard spoor for an hour or so, hoping to see it, but luck was not on my side.

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Next up was the scree slope that proved to be difficult and I made extremely slow progress.  The weather had also started to come in now: the top of the mountain was covered in clouds and the wind was getting stronger.

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At the end of the scree slope there was a wonderland of ice stalactites dripping from a vertical rock face and big ice waterfalls.   I slipped and fell a couple of times and without any crampons it was almost impossible to walk.  I had to use the ice axe I had with me to pull myself up the slope in a few places.  The area above the spout cave was completely frozen with sheets of ice and walking on it reminded me of my first visit to the ice rink: believe me it was not a good memory.  By now the wind was howling and visibility was almost zero so I decided to turn around without summiting.  It was not a huge disappointment, I saw what I had come to see, not being able to summit was a reality and big possibility.

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Some hours later I was standing at the river again, getting undressed to cross it.  The water level has risen and now being warm from the hike the water felt extra cold and I really had to put effort in to cross it.  Exhausted I got in my bakkie and started the drive back home, only to find that the low water bridge I had crossed earlier that morning was now completely under water.  Luckily there was an alternative road that I could take to finish my mission safely.  Tafelburg with my camera after a snowstorm, tick.  What’s next?

Why does a cat have nine lives? In ancient Greek mythology the sun god Atum-Ra gave life to the gods of air, water, earth and sky and in turn produced Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephtys.  These gods were collectively known as the Nine. In order to visit the underworld Atum-Ra took the form of a cat and embodied the nine in one creator, giving the cat nine lives.

Enough of a history lesson for now.  In my lives there have been incidents that led me to believe that I have nine lives. Some might say it’s God or an angel looking after me, pure luck, nine lives, whatever your beliefs allow you.  My star sign is Leo, not that I believe in astrology, but I rather like comparing my experiences with a cat’s nine lives.

The first time it struck me that something more than luck was involved in my survival was in December of 2007 on holiday in Malawi.  I was backpacking the country for three weeks and ended up on Likomo Island for a week with an amazing bunch of people.  Some from South Africa, a guy from India, a couple of Frenchies, two dreadlocked Austrians, a group of international students living in Cape Town and some awesome locals.  We all became one big family for that week and we had the most amazing Christmas I have ever had away from home.  A big sit down feast right on the beach with candles burning, wine flowing and good company.  Let me not drift off.  We were on the island for a week as the Illala, the old British colonial ferry, only made a stop there twice a week, once traveling north and once on its way back to the south.  With not much else to do than lounge around, drink beer and talk shit, I did some exploring of the island that is about 3km across and 7km in length.Lokomo1DSC02743

This particular evening I joined the group of students for dinner and some pub crawling in the town which is on the other side of the island. We enjoyed some good local hospitality, had some of the local brew and mingled a bit with the locals.  On our way back to the backpackers I was leading the way, as I was probably the person in the group that knew the island the best at the time.  The moon was out so I could find my way quite easily without a headlamp, and wanting to enjoy the surrounding scenery I decided not to use my headlamp and rather have my eyes adapt to the dark.  We were walking down the path, that was familiar to me, like the seven little dwarfs, all merrily in a row.  I turned left at a fork in the path.  Turning left was not the way home, but for some unexplained reason I did turn left.  About five steps down the wrong way I turned around, knowing I took the wrong turn.  The person walking behind me also knew the path well and took the correct path at the fork, and at the same time telling me that I took the wrong path.  Virtually seconds later I heard a familiar hiss and the guy now leading us shouting “Stop!”  There was a huge puffadder lying in the path.  Had he not have his headlamp on he would not have seen the puffadder, and would have stepped on it.  We waited a few moments for mister puffadder to slither out of the path and we continued on our way home.

I thought about that moment many times.  Had I not taken the wrong turn that night I would have stepped on the snake and surely would have been bitten.  That wrong turn I made for no reason at all, saved my life.   Maybe I would not have died if I got bitten.  There is a basic hospital on the island.  This incident has led me to believe that I was not ready to die that day.  To date I had more such experiences.

To be continued…….

Back in 2006 I went to Spitzkoppe in Namibia for a climbing trip with my two best friends, Jason and Kevin.  I don’t think any of us has told this story before.  So here it is:

We’ve been climbing partners for a long time, climbing every weekend, after work, any time we could find.  We got drunk together just as often.  Jason and Kevin are both pranksters and most of the time they had me in stitches.  I can write a book about all the shit we got up to together, and maybe one day I will.

We had been planning this trip for a while and we were super excited.  We left after work, and the plan was to drive as far as we could, sleep for a couple of hours and continue.  We wanted to get there as fast as possible.  We only had 10 days and we did not want to waste precious climbing time. We crossed the border in the early morning hours and we decided to nap at the first petrol station in Namibia.  First we tried sleeping in the Landy, but that was not very comfortable.  We would have slept on the grass, but the mosquitoes were out in full force.  Eventually we pitched a tent right there on the grass next to the petrol station and managed to get about 2 hours of sleep.  Spitzkoppe was calling and we set off again in the dark morning hours.

The sunrise in the desert was amazing and we made a couple of pit stops along the way.  First I had to stop to get some beer.  In Namibia you can buy beer at any shop, and for us South African boys it was a novelty.  Driving the long straight desert road with a beer in the hand, what more can a man want?

We stocked up on supplies, did some curio shopping and eventually pulled into the Spitzkoppe campsite by the late afternoon.  Satisfied that we were finally at Spitzkoppe we made a big fire that evening, watched the sunset with a beer in hand, planning our climbing for the days to come.

As none of us had been to Spitzkoppe before the logical thing to do was to climb the standard route up the main peak first, and then take it from there.  And that is exactly what we set off to do the next morning.  Everything went according to plan and we reached the summit without incident, we had some lunch, posed for some pictures with our mascot, Spiderman, and started the descent.

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The descent consisted of a number of abseils one after the other following a direct line down, between abseils we would be hanging off two bolts on the vertical rock face.  Awesome scenery, but it gets a little bit cramped when three of us have to hang off the same bolts. In order to abseil we tied two ropes end to end, feed it through the abseil rings and then abseil off double ropes.  Using this method the ropes can be retrieved by pulling one end down.  As a safety we tie a knot in the end of the ropes, in order not to abseil straight off the ropes in mid-air.  So on our way down, with the three of us hanging off two bolts on a virtually vertical rock face, we started pulling the ropes out.  After a couple of pulls one of us realised we never untied the safety knots.  Thank God one of us saw it, as we would have been stuck when the safety knot could not fit through the abseil rings.  Talking about being stuck between a rock and a high place.  Immediately we felt like complete idiots.  Climbers don’t make mistakes, if you make mistakes you die.  We summoned Kevin to climb up to where we could still see the knot dangling, to retrieve it and abseil back down to where we were hanging, so we could untie the knot, and this time pull the ropes down without the safety knot getting stuck.  Phew, that was close!  If we did not realise in time that we forgot to untie the safety knot we would have been stuck there, in the middle of space, until someone found us there as biltong.

We reached the bottom safely, and lucky to be alive.

The next day we climbed an extraordinarily good route, but we misjudged the amount of water we needed and how much time the climb would take us.  We eventually got down at about 9:30pm in the pitch dark, finding our way through unfamiliar territory without any headlamps and without any water for most of the day.  That was the most dehydrated I have ever been.  Exactly the kind of stuff that gives us character.

After that we all needed a rest day.  We climbed some more routes, visited Swakop, Sossus Vlei and a climbing area on the Orange River, and then headed home. But not without incident.  We ran out of diesel in the middle of the night a few kilometres out of Keetmanshoop.  But we made a plan, we survived to one day tell the story.  That was one trip I will never forget.