Hiking the Tsitsikama Trail: a glimpse into the past.

I could just make out the bottom of the Bloukrans Gorge in the predawn light, as I sat on a freezing cold rock with my friends waiting for the sun to rise . The fynbos around our hut was alive with the calls of sunbirds and a pair of Victorins warblers, while a Southern boubou hopped between the trees next to the hut. The air around us was just as cold as the rock we were sitting on, yet the clouds are bathed in orange and yellow light, changing colour every minute as the sun rises steadily higher. It was getting to the point when the waiting was getting tedious, but I told myself I wasn’t going to move until I saw the sun appear above the mountains. Then, finally, the suns rays burst above the mountains and  the fynbos and the mountainside they covered almost immediately shone with a warm orange light. Just that one moment was enough to justify dragging  myself out of bed so early in the morning.

This is just one of dozens of memorable moments I had during the course of my 6 day trail through the forests and mountains of the Tsitsikama National Park with 11 other students from UCT’s Mountain and Ski Club.  This trail had been running for 35 years and is often overshadowed by the more well-known Otter Trail that runs from east to west along the Tsitsikama’s coastline.  The mountain trail, on the other hand, leaves the coast behind on the second day of hiking, runs through the forests of Platbos and then runs from west to east through the mountain range and the isolated forests nestled away in the mist soaked valleys.

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Sunrise over Bloukrans (@Callum Evans).

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The view from Pig Heads Lookout of the start of the Otter Trail, the coastal version of the mountain trail (@Callum Evans).

Each night that the trailists spend in the mountains they stay in a different hut. The distance between each hut ranges from 3 kilometres to almost 15 kilometres. Each one is equipped with bunk beds, fire places and bathroom facilities (even showers) and each has it’s own unique view and atmosphere. Bloukrans has perhaps the most spectacular view, with the sheer drop into the gorge and the high mountains surrounding it. Yet the hut at Sleepkloof is positioned in such a way that it has a view at almost eye-level over the canopy of the forest that cloaks the valley, not to mention you can wake up to the bizarre call of the Knysna turaco ringing in your ears.

Perhaps the most surreal experience of the entire trail is walking through the ancient indigenous forests that still cover much of the foothills and the mountain valleys. Despite extensive deforestation in the past and the subsequent planting of pine plantations, large areas of forest were spared the axe and are home to some giant yellow-wood trees. Some of these trees are over 200 years old and their crowns soar high above the forest canopy. They are centres of life and energy in the forest in which in they live. Every time I stood at the foot of one of these trees I felt an sense of awe that I have rarely ever felt.

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Sunlight blazing through the trees in one of the isolated upland forests in the mountains(@Callum Evans). 

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Looking up at one of the giant forest trees scattered throughout the forests (@Callum Evans).

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There were thousands of flowering erica’s in the mountains (@Callum Evans).

Wildlife encounters on the trail are by no means guaranteed due to the scarcity of large mammals in the area, as well as their elusive nature. The dense forests also do a brilliant good of concealing their presence. Often the only knowledge trailists have of their presence are the signs they leave behind, like the spoor of a leopard or the scat of a bushpig. However, bushbuck, vervet monkey and baboon are three mammals that are actually often seen throughout the course of the trail. I was able to have brilliant sightings of all three of them, but perhaps the most memorable encounter I had on my trail was by the coast on the first morning. A pod of bottlenose dolphins spent about an hour surfing in the waves just a few metres from where I was standing on the shore. And if that wasn’t enough we all spotted the pod from a lookout point called the Pigs Head and we could clearly see there was a lot more dolphins than I had thought there were. We could see about 70 from where we were but when Roark flew his drone over the pod, the footage showed that there were about 120 dolphins surfing the waves and spread out along half the length of the bay.

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Part of the massive pod of dolphins we watched from Pigs Head Lookout. This shoot was taken from Roark’s drone (@Roark Robinson).

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Bushbuck ram at Nature’s Valley (@Callum Evans).

I was particularly interested in the birdlife in the area as the trail passed through three biomes, namely coastline, indigenous forest and fynbos, and thus is home to a high number of bird species ranging from martial eagles to giant petrels. Nature’s Valley is perhaps the most accessible and most productive region, due to all three habitats being packed into one valley. I was able to spot my first Knysna woodpecker and black-backed puffback, along with the iconic Knysna turaco, olive woodpecker and giant kingfisher. The fynbos in the mountains has a relatively low diversity of bird life, with the most visible species being sugarbirds and sunbirds. The forest patches that pepper the mountainside are home to more species, like cape batis, chorister robin-chat and blue-mantled crested-flycatcher, but they are hard to spot in the forests for the same reasons as with the mammals. However, they also hold the best chance to spot the almost mythical narina trogon, one of the most iconic birds in the country. I had never seen one before and was lucky enough to spot a pair in the Keurbos forest. The male bird was particularly memorable as he decided to perch barely two metres away from me in the early morning.

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Olive woodpeckers were quite common in the forests (@Callum Evans).

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A black-backed puffback, one of the 5 new bird species I saw on the trail (@Callum Evans).

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A slightly grainy shot of my first narina trogon, an almost mythical bird, which I spotted next to the forest path in the early morning (@Callum Evans).

It’s always a sad experience when we end a trail like this and step back into the urbanised world. After 6 days out in the mountains, the noise and the flair of any town overwhelms the senses. But what I and everyone else who was on the trail with me were left with were some incredible memories of surreal landscapes, beautiful birds and fun times with  friends. The truth is, once I have stepped into a place like this I never really leave it. That is how magical it is.

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Sunrise over Sleepkloof on the last morning (@Callum Evans).

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Star photography at Bloukrans (@Callum Evans).

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Group shot of the whole crew at Heuningbos Hut (@Callum Evans).

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