The Tsitsikamma Park, or "place of many waters", offered us the perfect opportunity to explore the beauties of South Africa's Garden Route, with a two day hike around this marine heritage coastline
Doing the Dolphin Trail wasn't really my idea. I like walking, but when it comes to being shepherded along in a group, then I'm not too keen. It is billed as a luxury two day hike along some of South Africa's most beautiful marine heritage coastline in the Tsitsikama National Park, and it doesn't come cheap. Our travelling companions persuaded us to give it a go, however, and it proved to be a great decision. Here's why.
First of all, the Tsitsikamma National Park is part of the ever popular Garden Route. By following this trail you are granted privileged access to areas of indigenous forest and marine conservation coastline where no one else can go. Our adventure began at Storms River with a boat trip up the gorge. Then we swayed across the river on a suspension bridge, before undertaking a steep climb up the cliff on the other side. At the top we enjoyed amazing views from the lookout point. Visitors to the national park are not permitted beyond this point, but our walk had barely begun. Over the next two days our party of eight trekked through areas of indigenous forest, and climbed down wooded ravines. We scrambled over rocks and boulders running along the sea's edge, and then sweated our way up yet another cliff. In all we covered 22km of new and exciting terrain, and there wasn't a soul in sight.
Our guides Ian and Gavin were local, well informed and extremely patient. Adapting their pace to the slowest member - which was me of course - they stopped from time to time to show us an interesting plant, or a conservation feature. Always ready to answer questions, they proved to me that guided walks have a lot going for them.
It may seem effete to have your luggage carried on to the next overnight point, but in that sort of terrain and in temperatures that reached 40C, it was wonderful. What's more our "luxury" accommodation proved to be just that (see below), and it made our three days even more special.
What about the dolphins?
I had read avidly about the wildlife that we might hope to spot on our trek. These included: Southern Right whales, porpoises, dolphins, the spoor of the Cape clawless otter, cormorants, the endangered African black oyster catcher, and the multi-coloured Knysna lourie bird. Whales would only be arriving to breed along the coast two months later in April, but would we be lucky enough to spot any other creatures? Well of course we would. With guides like Gavin and Ian, we weren't going to miss a thing.
Storms River often lives up to its name, but on the morning of our walk the waters were calm, and we were able to take the prearranged boat trip. To our absolute delight a school of dolphins appeared as we headed away from the river mouth, playfully encircling our boat before we turned back to head up the gorge. The Dolphin Trail was living up to its name. The gorge itself was moody and beautiful, with isolated flowers clinging to the rock, such as the flame red Knysna lily. We entered "bat cave", an enormous grotto, occupied by thousands of Mexican fruit bats, or flying foxes. How I wished for night vision.
International visitors to the Tsitsikama pay a daily conservation fee of R88 per adult/R44 per child. You can take the boat ride from the quay beneath the restaurant. It leaves every 45 minutes and costs R50pp. While you are waiting there is a delightful sandy bay for a swim.
As we followed the coast we often spotted white breasted cormorants spreading out their wings to dry. Ian pointed out to us some African black oyster catchers amongst them, with their distinctive orange beaks. On our second day we crossed a sandy gulley named "Otter Alley", but I was disappointed to learn that the Cape Clawless Otter retreats inland during the heat of the day. All we could spot were footprints and remnants of their shellfish meals. Before we left the coast for our final ascent to the cliff top, we swam in a large rock pool. I was first in. Suddenly someone shouted out; they had seen a Cape Clawless Otter. Alas, it had retreated out of sight, towards the breaking waves. As we were changing, we held our breath as the otter climbed up onto the rocks once more, judging that we were no longer a risk. He was much larger than a European otter, and I felt highly privileged to have shared his pool.
At the top of the cliff a flock of sacred ibis, hadada ibis and white storks were feeding in a worm rich farm field. It was strange to think that these spindly legged storks would soon be heading for Europe, just like us.
Storms River Pass
After breakfast on the third morning, our group was taken on a 4x4 drive down the original Storms River Pass. Waiting in the wings was one last surprise; a fleeting glimpse of red and emerald green feathers that was a Knysna lourie.
The Dolphin Trail costs R4200 pp sharing; +27(0)42 280 3588; www.dolphintrail.co.za
It is possible to book any of the accommodation we stayed in for yourself, and I can confidently recommend all three. With each night our accommodation grew more luxurious.
Storms River Rest Camp
We spent our first night at Storms River Rest Camp in a two-bedded forest cabin. It was simple but very comfortable. With a wooden balcony overlooking the sea, and magnificent breakers crashing against the rocks, who could wish for more. Forest cabins cost R620 per night (other options available).
Misty Mountain Reserve
Misty Mountain Reserve has lovely spot on the cliff top with upmarket forest lodges set amongst lawned gardens. There is a swimming pool too - although we all considered the spa bath in our lodges best for relieving aching limbs. A luxury chalet for two costs from R840 per night, and a superior self catering chalet from R1060.
I thought I wasn't ever going to make it to The Fernery, our final destination. When I did, in temperatures of 40C, it felt as though I had reached paradise. Our chalet was the most beautifully appointed forest lodge you could ever imagine. This really was luxury. The food was top class too. I could have stayed there for the rest of my time in South Africa, and I certainly hope to return.
Forest Ferns, Blueliliesbush, Tsitsikama; b&b Chalets for two people cost from R1260 per night.
If you should want to extend your stay in this area, then you are close to one of South Africa's finest hotels, The Plettenberg, with its commanding view over perhaps South Africa's most beautiful bay. Dining here is a wonderful experience(menus from R250). Indeed you could stay at all three hotels owned by Liz McGrath, South Africa's supreme hotelier, if you are following the Garden Route back to Cape Town. As you would expect from hotels in the "Relais and Chateaux" stable, each one is beautifully and tastefully decorated, and has a relaxed yet luxurious feel. Liz McGrath has attended to every detail, and her friendly staff are second to none. At Hermanus you will find The Marine Hotel set on the edge of the cliffs, a perfect spot for whale watching. I particularly like its seafood restaurant, and the light airy bedrooms looking over the ocean. Finally, on reaching Cape Town, why not relax in truly magnificent gardens amongst elegant Cape Dutch buildings at The Cellars-Hoenhort in Constantia. Rooms at all three hotels cost from R2000/2250.
By the way...
If the Dolphin Trail seems too tame, then try the five day 48 km Otter Trail, which also starts from Storms River Camp. The route is intersected by endless ravines and the going is tough. You also get to carry your own luggage, and stay in a series of huts along the way. Make sure to book early, as it is one of South Africa's most renowned trails. I would like to do it myself, but then I've seen my Cape Clawless Otter already.
The Otter Trail costs R100 per person plus daily conservation fees.
National Parks Board :+27 12 426 5111; www.sanparks.org/tourism/reservations