When one of your boyfriend’s closest friends asks you almost a year ahead of the time, 'Let’s go on an adventure', the only logical response is, 'Yes please!' But oh, by the way, we’ve made a booking to do the Amatola trail, and oh yes, it’s infamous for being the toughest hike in South Africa and is sometimes even referred to as 'the hike that Health and Safety forgot about'. Hmmm… What a mixture of delight and trepidation!
Hiking 105 km in six days, carrying all your supplies (including water on occasion) is not for sissies. Doing it with a funky ankle, a funky elbow and previously-funky knees needed some serious thought… I knew it would be near impossible for me to predict whether I’d be well enough to do it until pretty much the month or so before the time; but I also knew I’d had a good three years and was the consistently fittest I’ve been since second year university when I was playing hockey five times a week. The explorer in me experienced determined anticipation; the rheumatoid arthritis sufferer in me starting planning, overthinking and worrying.
There’s the obvious hiking equipment that every hiker needs: backpack, camping stove, hat and soap, to name a few. But this hike required good decision-making regarding shoes, socks and food. I know this is a hiking blog cliché, but EVERY GRAM COUNTS!
I was lucky to have a few friends with backpacks to lend me, but settled on a 45L Deuter (thank you, Fanus 😉) that some said would be too small. The truth was, I needed to limit the weight and non-essential extras I carried, so if it couldn’t fit into my 45L backpack, I didn’t want to take it along. Jacques already had a brand new 85L backpack of his own, so we decided we’d pack a few slighter heavier things into my backpack and a few of the bulkier things into his.
(Full disclosure: he did carry our hammock and heavy powerbank for the second half of our hike. Thank you, babe!)
There seem to be two camps when it comes to shoes: one that swears by hiking boots; one that swears by trail shoes. Jacques was of the hiking boots persuasion, but I’ve always found them pretty uncomfortable. I bounced the shoe question off my rheumatologist and physiotherapist and both agreed with me that I should choose the comfort and grip of the trail shoes over the ankle support of the boots. They advised I take an ankle guard along for my weaker ankle just in case. I am super thankful to report that although I carried two knee guards and an ankle guard with me for the duration of the trail, I never needed them!
Food was the next conundrum. One needs to find the balance between carrying lightweight ingredients, but taking in enough calories for a 10-hour day of hiking. Jacques and I tested a few just-add-water recipes at home, but in the end decided to go with Back Country Cuisine for our evening meals. They make a variety of very tasty, super-lightweight freeze-dried meals that serve one or two people. Our five nights' meals for two people weighed just less than 1 kg in total! Our lunches consisted of tuna and crackers, or crackers and cheese, but we did take smoked chicken, a yellow pepper and wraps for day one. For breakfasts, I premixed daily portions of instant oats, powdered milk, cinnamon and cacao nibs in Ziploc bags; while Jacques opted for FutureLife. Our snack choices included nut butter sachets, freeze-dried berries, dried fruit, Energelly Babies, biltong and energy bars. One mistake of ours was to have too few salty snacks. When you’re exercising steadily for 10 hours during the day, you crave biltong or Salticrax.
Training for Amatola is extremely important. Not only is it an absolute necessity to strengthen and condition your muscles in preparation for six days straight of stepping up and stepping down with 12-16 kg on your back, but you’ll also enjoy the trail so much more if you’re fit! We were both already fairly serious about our health and fitness: Jacques focusing on running last year; while my focus was on functional fitness at the Train Station Fitness Centre. We had also been hiking regularly, but tried to step up the intensity and length of our hikes in the months leading up to Amatola.
One particularly memorable training hike involved ascending Table Mountain via the India Venster route, crossing the mountain to Maclear’s Beacon, descending part of the Smuts Track, crossing back over the mountain via Echo Valley, descending via the Diagonal route, and eventually making our way back round via the Pipe Track and through the neck to where our cars had been parked early that morning outside the lower cableway station. It was a 15 km hike, with 850 m of ascent and 850 m of descent, and took us about eight hours. I remember being very aware of my legs fatiguing on that descent down Diagonal and needing to stop regularly to rest my knees, but what a lekker day!
The final stages of preparation occurred during the Christmas rush… Talk about adding to our stress levels, ha ha! We were good about doing most of our browsing and shopping two to four weeks before the Christmas rush, but with our work schedules and travelling to spend Christmas with my family, there was a bit of juggling that needed to be done in terms of time management and logistical arrangements. Our bedroom at Sandbaai, where my family spends Christmas, looked like a bombshell had hit it by the time we’d laid everything out and were ready to perform our test pack!
When we started that test pack, we split our things into essentials, non-essentials and nice-to-haves. Test pack 1.0 resulted in my pack being 16kg (with 2L water on board) and Jacques’s 16kg without any water and before adding the 1kg of pork ribs we’d decided to spoil ourselves with on night one, New Year’s Eve. Jacques was game, but as far as I was concerned, that was too heavy… For both of us… We didn’t have time for a second test pack, but we trusted we’d be able to re-evaluate our choices and scale down with the final pack.
We set off from Sandbaai with all of our gear and our groceries and made our way through the Klein Karoo to stay over at a charming little farm called Verberg Herberg, near Willowmore. What a great decision! Much better to split the trip up than push through in one day and then start on the Amatola trail the very next morning.
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