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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Milton

There and Back Again, an Amatola Tale

Beautiful view on day three of the trail

After much planning and anticipation, and a test pack amidst the madness of a family Christmas holiday, we set off for Hogsback two days before New Year's Eve.

Hogsback is a charming town in the Eastern Cape, and its surrounding landscape is rumoured to have inspired much of Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The mountain known as Hog 3 is also colloquially called ‘Smaug the Dragon’.

Dan Cornick is the man in charge of Amatola Trails and owner of Away with the Fairies, where we spent the night before starting the trail. We arrived on a wet, misty evening to find the rest of our hiking party already enjoying a few delicious pizzas. Apart from catering for hiking groups doing the trail, the establishment also acts as a backpacking lodge with free yoga daily, an outdoor cliff-edge bath tub (no jokes), and an atmosphere that would put the most stressed-out individual at ease.

Away with the Fairies, Hogsback

Dan provided a full hike briefing, covering all necessary logistical and safety information, including where to find water, where to find cellphone reception, when to break for lunch, and when and how to contact him should an emergency extraction be necessary. He went through the full map with us and also provided a GPX file for the trail, which I downloaded onto my Suunto Spartan Trainer Wrist HR watch. (What a fantastic little watch, by the way! So capable, but compact and well-priced.)

Dan's markings on our trail map

Day 1: Maden Dam to Gwiligwili Hut, 13 km, 6 hours, 800 m ascent

Final pack complete, with many non-essentials left behind, we climbed into Dan’s 4x4 unimog-style truck-come-bus, with Dan acting as a human scale as we handed our backpacks to him to place to one side. He does this so often, he was able to 'guestimate' the weights of every backpack, give its owner a cursory glance, and announce whether it was a suitable weight or too heavy. Although I’d aimed to limit my weight to 12 kg, I started out with about 14 kg, but that included 2.5 L of water. After this exercise, we settled in for the 2-hour drive through an Eastern Cape landscape of rural villages to the start of the trail at Maden Dam.

Our hiking group at the start of the trail

Day one happened to be New Year’s Eve. We were all carrying a little extra weight in order to enjoy a decent meal and a drink that evening at the hut, so were really thankful to only have to make it 13 km that day. Our backpacks felt heavy, there were numerous spiderwebs across the path, but we were past the point of no return and were excited about what lay ahead.

My joints felt good and the forest scenery was stunning, but I remember thinking that the paths felt steeper than they looked and I needed to take the hike slower than I’d anticipated. Carrying an extra 14 kg makes a big difference!

Jacques, Bernard and I reached Gwiligwili first and found a great, albeit rustic, little braai facility, a long drop, and a hut with one common area and two bedrooms with bunkbeds. Dan had asked us not to shower at this hut, as the water supply in the tank was low and needed to last for a few groups as drinking water. Jacques and I shared an Epic Wipe: a huge wet wipe that is perfect for hikers, cyclists, campers, and sportspeople. We all enjoyed a very early New Year’s Eve dinner party, Jacques and I having carried pork ribs and a small bottle of Amarula along for ourselves, and were in bed by 9 pm.

Epic Wipedown at Gwiligwili

Day 2: Gwiligwili to Dontsa, 19 km, 9 hours

Four am is very early to wake up when it is not yet part of your routine… That first morning started rather slowly as we were all still getting used to this shock to the system. Having rubbed my legs in with Arnica Ice the evening before, my morning ritual consisted of boiling water for coffee and premixed instant oats, stretching and warming up, and repacking my backpack.

We’d been warned that day two is the hardest day… I’d agree that it feels like the longest day, but I’d argue that day three is actually the hardest. That being said, there were a number of incidents to punctuate the long slog.

First, we found a dead cow right next to the path. Presumably, its leg got caught between the rocks and it fell and broke its neck. The indigenous cattle in the area seemed to roam around as they pleased, using the same trails that we were hiking. We saw manure and footprints of theirs in seemingly impossible places… Super cows, I tell you! (Well, apart from the deceased cow, I guess.)

Secondly, I discovered that my pants and backpack were a terrible combination. Where the backpack made contact with my lower back and bum was the exact spot where the rim of my pants sat. This caused a terribly uncomfortable chaffing and I ended up changing back into my dirty leggings from the day before halfway through day two. Needless to say, I wore the same leggings everyday thereafter.

The third, and most exciting, incident of the day was when Jacques had a close call with a large snake! I was walking along in the middle of the group through a forested patch, when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. My initial thought in that first split second was that Jacques, who was behind me, had pushed down on a branch with his hiking pole, causing the front part of the branch to lift up into the air next to me. But I turned around to see Jacques half dancing, half jumping in the air with a snake entangled between his calves and hiking poles, both parties desperate to get away from each other. The snake managed to disentangle itself and slid off down the mountainside at lightning speed. (Upon returning home, we checked my reptile guide to try and identify the snake. Based on colouring, size, and distribution, our best guess is that is was one of the wolf snakes.)

Oh my gosh, that was a close call!

As you can imagine, we were very thankful to reach Dontsa hut that afternoon. There was time to set up our lightweight hammock under the forest canopy, allowing me to get off my feet and rest my tired legs. We did some laundry, attempted to shower under what can only be classified as a sprinkler, and Jacques very kindly gave me a foot massage with my Arnica Ice.

Hammock in the forest outside Dontsa hut

Highlights from that night at Dontsa included a flush toilet (albeit one with a cistern that needed manual topping up); hearing a Wood Owl; enjoying a very tasty and convenient freeze-dried meal of Tikka Chicken Masala; and laughing at the confusion of the crabs in our torchlight as they scuttled along the forest floor beneath the boardwalk to the toilet.

Tikka Chicken Masala for dinner!

Day 3: Dontsa to Cata, 19 km, 10.5 hours, 1000 m ascent & 600 m descent

By the morning of day three, Jacques and I were a well-oiled machine. We’d sorted out our morning routine, had prepped as much as possible the night before, and were ready to hike much earlier than the previous morning.

A few members of the group decided to shed some excess weight that morning. Didi left behind the reading book she'd brought along and also a lovely puffer jacket, which Willie thought she'd forgotten and kindly packed in, only to hand over to me when he realised she'd left it on purpose. Andries calculated that he'd brought along about 10 packs too many Two Minute Noodles and left them in a neat pile on his bunk, should the next hiking party be hungry.

Our morning started off with a strenuous climb, but was so worth it when we reached a coffee spot with a panoramic view of the valley below and the high-altitude meadow behind us, complete with grazing cows. (How did they get up there?)

Turns out, day three is actually the hardest day. It is long, distance-wise, but is also strenuous as much of your time is spent negotiating narrow trails along the mountainside, walking at a constant angle. This got a bit tiring on my downhill knee and ankle, but I managed. I was just so thankful that the trail was dry that day. I can’t imagine how much more challenging that section would have been if it had been raining, wet and slippery!

I think it was on this day that Bredenkamp picked up the nickname 'Cliffhanger' when he slipped, despite the dry ground, and found himself hanging onto a tree stump with his feet dangling down the side of the mountain in mid air! Obviously this became a fine at the end of the hike.

We’d been advised not to break for lunch until we reached a huge boulder in a forested section called ‘Waterfall Forest’. Waterfall Forest was also meant to be a highlight of the trail, with dripping fairy-tale scenery everywhere… It was so dry when we were there that there was not one waterfall in sight! We continued hiking until we found a shady spot with a pool to swim in and settled down to make a couscous, tuna and basil pesto meal. That break and swim provided much-needed refreshment prior to what awaited us that afternoon.

The afternoon ascent up to Cata hut is steep, strenuous, and in some places downright dangerous. We ascended 400 m in 2.5 km! Jacques was feeling strong and wanted to challenge himself, so he scrambled ahead at a hell of a pace. I climbed at a more leisurely pace, but steadily, taking about one and a half hours to reach the hut. In some places, the trail markers directed me straight up and over a boulder or obstacle and I thought, ‘Really?’, having to place both my hiking poles, brace against them, and effectively pull myself up. Breaking the top of the hill, a most amazing view greeted me.

Cata was definitely our favourite hut. Once everyone had made it up the hell of a hill, we brought our mattresses outside onto the stoep and lay stretching, chatting and making coffee with the beautiful view stretching out below us.

Mattress party on the 'stoep' at Cata hut

We had to have bucket showers that night: really entertaining when you have to wash your hair by turning your upper body upside down, performing a squat and dunking your head into the bucket for a proper rinse! Day three also helped me separate the men from the boys as far as my socks went… Hands down the best hiking socks I had with me were my Bridgedale Merino wool hiking socks: zero blisters when wearing these!

Day 4: Cata to Mnyameni, 13 km, 6 hours, 600 m ascent & 1000 m descent

On morning four, I woke up feeling the most fatigued I have ever felt in my entire life. I felt like a bus had hit me, not due to pain, but rather a feeling akin to my body asking me, ‘What the heck are you doing? Stop it now.' Jacques was an absolute champ that morning! He made coffee and breakfast and started repacking, allowing me time to pull myself together.

Those first two hours of hiking were hard. I felt like I was dragging a blob of lead up that mountainside, and of course, our morning started with a climb! But after pushing myself through that bad start, it was as though my body woke up and realised what it was meant to do and that it COULD do it.

We hiked in drizzly conditions that morning and when faced with a choice to summit Geju peak or take the bad weather route, we followed Dan’s advice and took the shortcut. In order to ensure those behind us knew which route we’d chosen, we needed to leave an arrow for them. The challenge was that with the moderate breeze that was blowing, any sticks placed as arrows would just blow away. I looked around and noted another substance available to us… Using my initiative and Jacques’s artistic finishing touches, we fashioned an arrow out of cow manure, a poef pyl (manure arrow)!

Our 'poef pyl'

The slower group had a lot of fun that day. Bredenkamp, who bears an uncanny yet endearing resemblance to a hobbit and looked quite at home in our surroundings, played musical percussion with his hiking stick on a stretch of rocks known as ‘Meteorite’. Willie took a break to play golf at the edge of a ravine using thin branches and pine cones as club and ball, respectively. A wild (or feral?) horse was also spotted that morning in the mist.

Meanwhile, Jacques and I tackled the 1000 m descent together, starting out fairly quickly, but getting slower as we went along. It was a pretty tough day on the knees! At times, I even tried stepping sideways in a grapevine fashion to use different muscle groups and spread the load and the fatigue. I then experienced my second significant mental challenge of the trail:

Ice bath and mental recharge after my scary slip

On our way down to a lovely swimming pool in a ravine, I slipped on the loose dirt of the forest floor and landed (with the additional 12 kg of backpack) on my knees with them in a hyper-flexed position. At no point was I in danger of falling off a cliff or anything, but that exact type of action had led to a flare-up in my left knee five years prior. I started panicking, out of fear.

Jacques helped me reach the waterfall and pool and I went for a much-needed swim, partly to ice my knees and partly to clear my head. Through deep breaths, a prayer, taking in the lovely trickling waterfall, feeling out my body and realising I was not hurt, I was able to recentre and continue hiking.

Mnyameni was an interesting sleepover. Not only did we arrive to find almost no water in the Jojo tank plus a dead bird in the tank (necessitating a walk back to the river for drinking water and a bath), but while we were enjoying the afternoon on the stoep, we had a large party of unexpected visitors.

We’d been warned that we might come across poachers during our hike. Dan had said to be friendly, greet them, and to leave them to go about their business; they wouldn’t hurt us. Now I’m not 100% certain that our visitors were, in fact, poachers, but I highly doubt that a group consisting of four men and about 100 dogs were simply herding cattle… First, we heard excited barking moments before three hound-type dogs arrived at the fence of the hut. Shortly thereafter, the rest of the group arrived, moving along the fence and past the hut as though it was just a normal day and they travelled that route often. The men acknowledged us when we waved, but seemed very disinterested in us. The rabble of dogs passed the hut, including some pregnant, injured and three-legged members, and in a few minutes, the party was gone.

Suspected poaching party at Mnyameni

Day 5: Mnyameni to Zingcuka, 17.5 km, 10.5 hours, 700 m ascent & 700 m descent

Day five was hands-down the best day! The views were stunning and our morning break included sharing an apple that I'd secretly saved and wrapped in clothing to protect it from getting squashed in my backpack. After a couple of days without anything crisp and fresh to eat, that apple was heaven.

Apart from three members of the group who forged ahead at quite a pace, the remaining six of us took our time, enjoying the numerous rock pools along the way. It was a hot day, so frequent swims, water refills and sunblock reapplications were very welcome.

Jacques patiently put up with more birding on my part, and I was lucky enough to come face to face with a Bush Blackcap that morning. He (the bird) sang beautifully and stared at me in an unconcerned fashion from a branch less than 3 m away from my face, until I eventually moved and broke the spell.

We took more photos that day and enjoyed a very long lunch break next to a beautiful pool where everyone had a swim and some of the guys had their daily baths with biodegradable soap.

Lunchtime break spot on day five

Day 6: Zingcuka to Hogsback, 15 km, 7 hours, 1000 m ascent & 1000 m descent

The next morning, we were faced with a decision: to add about 1.2 km to our route to see the last large waterfall on the trail, or use a shortcut and cut out the additional descent and ascent. Jacques and I experienced FOMO and decided to visit the waterfall, so only caught up with the group a little later.

For some reason that morning, I struggled with my backpack and found it extremely uncomfortable. I hadn’t changed too much when I packed it that morning and even stopped to try and adjust a few things after we’d caught up with the others, but man! It was not pleasant, and I had to rest my back every couple of kilometres.

Despite misty conditions, our group decided to go over the mountain known as Hog 1. We’d seen how the mist could burn off within an hour or two and didn’t want to miss out… But it didn’t burn off, and mist turned to drizzle.

Watery sunshine near the summit of Hog 1

Because many hiking parties were tired by that point, the route going over Hog 1 was even less worn than the rest of the trail, and in places was hard to follow. It was also never a simple path: that whole morning was spent stepping up and over rocks or brushing past thick bushes. Small, evasive actions to miss vegetation and rocks don’t sound like much of a challenge, but add up thousands of these movements, applied to every step forward, and the body and mind begin to tire. I hit a mental wall just after reaching the top of Hog 1 where I felt extremely discouraged and fed up, blaming the bushes and rocks for my discomfort and cursing the path and the fact that it was not straight and easy. We stopped for a much-needed snack and cup of rooibos tea.

Rooibos tea and green beans

We had a bit of a scare when Didi and Chani became separated from the group. We'd come across so many forks in the trail and weren't sure whether they'd chosen the right route. There was even a split that would have taken them away from Hogsback and back over the mountains! Just when we had decided we might need to split the group and go looking for them, we heard them ahead of us on the trail. Phew!

Didi and Chani

The last descent in the drizzle was hair-raisingly slippery. That day we got a taste of what the rest of the trail would have been like had it been wetter throughout our adventure. We were constantly using our hiking poles to steady our next calculated step downwards. Our spirits remained high as we all looked forward to the hot showers and pizzas that awaited us at Away with the Fairies and we enjoyed that last bit of the hike immensely despite the challenges, making jokes about it being ‘nat, glad, maar lekker’. (Translated from Afrikaans, that means ‘wet, slippery, but good’. Ha ha.)

When I caught sight of the board at the finish point, I first felt rather…blank. By the time I reached it and Jacques took a few photographs before the others caught up, I was in tears: tears of thankfulness and disbelief. I’d made it! Safely, without injury and with my joints intact! Only those who have experienced significant bodily struggles can appreciate the wave of emotion I felt in that moment. Later, I felt triumph, strength and happiness, but in those initial moments, I just cried.

Jacques and I at the Amatola trail finish

It was the best and hardest experience of my life so far. A trail like Amatola challenges you not only on a physical level, but also on a mental and emotional one. No matter how well we are at the time, those of us with auto-immune disease always have a whisper in the back of our minds, wondering when our body will next let us down and how bad it is going to be this time. To have conquered this trail and those ever-present whispers, returning to Cape Town and normal life without so much as an injury, never mind a flare-up, is a blessing and more than I could ever have hoped for. I hope my story will be an encouragement to those struggling with auto-immune disease and the challenges that come with it.

The valleys make summiting the mountains that much sweeter!

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