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A walk on the wild side

The Eden to Addo Great Corridor Hike is an epic, 400km trek through moist forests and spectacular gorges, across mountain ranges and rivers – and it’s all for conservation.

WORDS and PHOTOGRAPHS Dale Morris

Forget not that the earth delights in feeling your bare feet,” announced one of the Eden to Addo mega hike guides while removing his filthy boots and smelly socks. “I implore you, please, go naked for this, our last kilometre of what has been an epic odyssey.”

For 19 days we had walked in the idyllic wilderness between Knysna and the Addo Elephant National Park outside Port Elizabeth, and for 400km we had paced and slogged, resulting in severely bruised and malodorous feet.

“Let us walk this final stretch as Mother Nature intended.”

For one horror-filled moment I thought he was going to suggest we strip and frolic across the finish line in pagan solstice fashion, but thankfully it was only our shoes that had to come off.

I looked down at my calloused and swollen toes – then across at the other 24 pairs of similarly unsightly feet – and could not help but wonder if Mother Nature truly desired such an olfactory and visual assault. I very much doubted it!

But off we marched regardless, shoes in hand, toes in dust, and heads held very high.

The previous 19 days had seen us walk all the way from the moist forests of Knysna, across seven mountain ranges, and on to the baking, open thicket of the Eastern Cape. We had crossed numerous rivers, traversed national parks and nature reserves, and followed more paths and tracks than any of us cared to remember. There had been many ups and downs, both physical and emotional, and there had been elation and suffering in almost equal doses.

We all felt extremely proud as we were about to set foot in Addo, but sadly, the spiritual gravity of the moment was lost when waves of ants latched onto our toes. We danced and swore and hopped and ran – eventually most of us gave up and put our shoes back on. I’m sure I could hear Mother Nature giggling.

No walk in the park

The appropriately named Eden to Addo Great Corridor Hike is an annual, never-to-be-forgotten trail dreamed up several years ago by Garden Route resident Joan Berning and her dedicated troop of scientists, conservationists and naturalists.

It begins in the indigenous forest of Harkerville, part of the Garden Route National Park, enters the Tsitsikamma Mountain, crosses several rivers, including the Bitou, Keurbooms and Kouga, and then drops into the Langkloof. After this, hikers cross the Kouga Mountain and proceed through the Baviaanskloof Mega-Reserve before heaving themselves over the Groot Winterhoek range. Then, all that’s left to do is to cross the arid, open spaces of the Springbokvlakte before summiting the Klein Winterhoek Mountain and on to Addo. Piece of cake eh?

Actually, the Eden to Addo hike is hardly a walk in the park, but it helps that nobody has to carry more than a daypack with them. All bags, food, tents and equipment are provided and portaged from camp to camp by a team of expert chefs, toilet pit diggers, tent erectors, coffee makers and dish-washers. And what’s more, most nights a hot shower is provided, along with a cold beer or two.

Each of the 19 campsites along the route is in a beautiful location. Most can only be accessed by path or on mountain tracks that would make even the hardiest of 4×4 drivers nervous. As such, trail participants get to see and stay in places they normally would never have the opportunity to visit.

It’s a fantastic adventure, but it’s more than frivolous and self-indulgent fun.

“The Eden to Addo walk is a very important way to raise awareness and funds for the Eden to Addo corridor initiative,” Joan told me one night as we sat atop a mountain range amid flowering fynbos. “We are endeavouring to connect the Garden Route National Park, the Baviaanskloof Mega-Reserve and the Addo Elephant National Park via a system of good stewardship programmes aimed at the adjoining private landowners. If we achieve this goal, we will have one of the largest conservation areas on the planet – a place where agricultural practices, residential plots and ecological processes will be able to coexist in a sustainable manner.”

Not so long ago, great herds of elephants moved freely between the Garden Route coast and what is now the Addo Elephant National Park, but over the past few decades fences have been erected all over the place and roads have been built. The herds of yesteryear are no more, but there are still perhaps a few individuals hiding among the manifold wrinkles of the mountains.

“The elephant is our flagship species,” Joan said, “a sort of rallying figurehead for the people who may support us. However, elephants are by no means our major focus.” She explained that the Eden to Addo corridor project was not about individual species, but rather “the preservation of ecological processes”. It’s about the way all things natural interact with each other. “It’s about nature, about its complexities and how these complexities can, and must be conserved.”

A celebration of nature

The hike is an amazingly diverse romp through natural history. Characterised by stunning scenery and superb isolation, it is a great soother for the soul, if perhaps not for the soles. On many occasions I broke away from the incessant chatter of the group and walked alone to better reflect upon the splendour and beauty around me.

Once up in the mountains, among the swaying fynbos plants, the blooming proteas, misty forests and rolling peaks, it’s quite easy to imagine you are in one of the wildest wildernesses on earth. Waves upon waves of crescent mountains roll across the landscape like silent tsunamis. Touraco birds and guinea fowl engage in vocal battles while their more elegant cousins, sugarbirds and robins and the like, flit among the flowers. I listened for elephants. I heard none. But I did catch the throaty sound of a leopard roaring once or twice.

“We’re walking through one of the most biodiverse regions on earth,” said Joan, interrupting my reverie. We were in a particularly stunning part of the Baviaanskloof, where buffalo and black rhino and other big game were present. “The Cape Floral Kingdom (fynbos) has more plant species than the Amazon rainforest,” she continued, her voice a whisper so as not to disturb and potentially enrage any rhinos that may have been lurking nearby. “And the succulent Karoo biome is almost its equal.”

In fact, there are more animal and plant species along the Eden to Addo route than almost anywhere else on the planet. It’s just that most of it is small. “Take time to look at the plants, insects and birds and you won’t be disappointed,” Joan said. And she was right. The beauty was in the detail. The flutter of a butterfly’s wings, the smell of a tiny bloom, the trickle of a tiny mountain stream.

On my last day of hiking, I felt stiffer than frosted laundry, but I also felt content despite the unprovoked ant assault on the soft bits between my smelly toes. We all trotted with renewed energy for that last kilometre until, eventually, we reached the banks of the Sundays River within the Addo Elephant National Park.

Suddenly, our monumental odyssey was at a painfully abrupt end. It was over and even though after all the hard work my body yearned for it to be so, my mind had become accustomed to the freedom of the trail. I was going to miss the camaraderie, and being out in the glorious wilderness in and around the Southern Cape mountains.

The idea of linking a large area of privately owned land with three separate nature reserves may seem an impossible one, but then again, walking 400km in 19 days is also no mean feat. It was Joan’s determination, encouragement and vision that made it achievable, and it will be that same sense of purpose that will turn her concept of a giant, contiguous and ecologically sound landscape into a reality.

Perhaps one day in the not-too-distant future, Eden to Addo hikers won’t just have to watch out for puff adders and spiky plants. Maybe, they’ll also have to keep an eye open for the returning herds of elephants … now wouldn’t that be something?

To find out more about the Eden to Addo corridor initiative 044 533 1623 www.edentoaddo.co.za. The Great Corridor Hike starts in September every year and is limited to 25 people. There is also a shorter hike which departs on the same day but for a duration of seven days only — the Taste of Eden to Addo Great Corridor is from 31 Aug to 6 Sept 2013.