I arrived before Bridget and Andrew, my hiking partners, small back pack at the ready, complete with anti-Sun, anti-bug, water and sandwiches. They arrived 10 minutes later with a 2L bottle of water in a plastic bag and a skaftin (cheap plastic container; e.g. margarine, ice-cream, etc.)containing rolls. Plus a packet of Doritos. Having done the Woody Cape hike with them last year, where each hiker was assigned a set number of loo paper squares, matches, and peanuts individually wrapped, I raised an eyebrow at their hiking apparatus, but kept a stoic silence. Nonetheless.
We set off over a dam wall that pushes back a moderate amount of water and tails off into a glen overhung with trees, closely observed by a brown-hooded Kingfisher. The path up the other side leads into a grassland that is alive with a myriad wild flowers; not the same as Namaqualand…no carpets of daisies; here, these delicate jewels hide behind blades of grass and in the shade of lichen covered stones. I don’t know the names of any of them; I do know that they are exquisite in their unique beauty. It is a biome of startling diversity that is cherished and protected by its owners John and Debbie Ford.
Then Andrew clears his throat quietly and announces that he has brought the Doritos… but forgotten the water. Waiting for him to swap them is easy: we are able to appreciate the birdsong and trees from a shady rock while the same King Fisher checks our progress, or lack of it, from a dead Euphorbia branch. We have set out on a 12 km hike, but anyone with a passion for wild flowers needs only a 300m stroll and three hours, maybe more.
Then an expanse of dense green forest stretches out before us: Euphorbia on the skyline remind Bridget of gawky joggers; some with long necks, ridiculous ears, and too many arms, not quite sure whether they should be going up or downhill. We start the descent toward the Klein Kowie. It is starting to become hot and the mottled shade is welcome. Wild Olives cut regular soft, umbrella shapes into the gentle panorama; Kippersols and Euphorbia muscle through the roundness toward the open sky.
A Jackal Buzzard leans into the thermals and squeaks with lazy Sunday morning pleasure in the empty blue firmament. Everything is verdant and quiet. And then from a distance, the cicadas start…
The descent continues; the shade increases. Strelitzias fan out here and there in the undergrowth. Yellow Woods start to make their presence known. Birdsong abounds; the flash of a red wing across the canopy tells us that the Turaco is at home. We can’t identify all of the calls, but Sunbirds and Warblers are busy. And somewhere near Bathurst, the hadedas are starting their Sunday morning service.
My attention to bird calls is suddenly diverted as I realize I am looking down into the sky and in amongst branches. The forest pool is so still you can easily pass it without noticing. And then a leaf quivers and a medallion of sunlight plumbs the shallow water, shining on pebbles and mossy roots.. I move toward the edge to dip my hat into the water and a tiny frog jumps in before me.
“Handlebar Valley” warns cyclists that if they don’t apply brakes with caution, their handlebars are the last thing they will see before returning to Mother Earth. I am thankful I have none. The way down is hot and exposed, but every now and then the trail invites us out of the heat and under the welcome shade of a Boerboon with its ruby summer blossoms. Lichen grows in fuzzy abundance in the crevasses of tree trunks and rocks. I recall having to teach my Grade 6 class that lichen likes a healthy habitat and how a day later, I had found it growing happily on the side of our bakkie.
Eventually we reach the bottom and walk next to a fence. The path winds quietly around Wild Olive and Yellow Wood. There are other trees too, but we can’t identify them all. One such turns out to be a Prickly Pear that is so old that its trunk is thick bark, while its Gingerbread Man leaves and fat, green fruit stretch for the sky above. We stop in the river bed of the Klein Kowie for lunch. A dry Euphorbia log looks like a good seat until we realize that it is covered in short, hard thorns…the tree may have died, but not its ability to deliver a sharp prick. We sit on the ground chatting quietly, eating our sandwiches and drinking water.
Covid is forgotten. Euphoria.
Then we are on the path again, weaving amongst the trees, between shadows and patches of intense sunlight. The cicadas scream in unison, an unsubtle reminder that we are mad enough to be hiking in mid-summer at midday. Worse is to come: the way up and out, a steep climb of about a kilometre of red clay, baked and caked by the unrelenting African sun. However, our shoes are 4 x 4’s and we keep moving forward slowly, keeping our eyes to the side; stepping respectfully over a busy tok-tokkie, admiring a single purple vygie that has defied the rock-hard clay and bloomed in the middle of the path; inspecting the cross-section of an anthill; inspecting the size of a pile of dung so enormous that we fear a cow might not be the largest ungulate in the area. This leads to swapping stories of coming into close contact with larger ungulates and before we know it, a breeze indicates that we are nearly at the top. Better is still to come.
Another kilometre further, a dam of crystal blue water, surrounded by bull rushes shimmers like a mirage. It isn’t one. Decorum and clothing are tossed aside as we plunge in. The temperature is perfect and we potter about kicking gently or lying on our backs in the company of two turtles who turn an inquiring head toward us, then move off. While drying ourselves, an impressive bank of clouds starts to gather on the horizon over Grahamstown; the temperature cools a little. I train my binoculars onto Bathurst and see the world’s biggest model of a pineapple.
As we walk away from the dam, a strapping Impala ram picks us up in his sights, and isn’t particularly impressed with what he sees. Both parties keep a respectful minute’s silence and then he disappears over a rocky ridge and into some pines.
Bridget is thrilled to announce that she can see the bakkie, but her euphoria vaporises as the path turns down another slope, 180 degrees in the opposite direction from it. However, the digression is worth is. More undulations of natural riverine forest sweep below us and stretch out as far as the eye can see. Another row of jogging Euphorbias dither about on the skyline, clueless about their destination. We wander through bush bursting with vegetal smells that cleanse and feed lungs and spirits. Tiny mushrooms glisten silver as they spring from dry cow pats. Old Man’s Beard on Kippersols and Wild Olives filter the sun and protect multi-coloured lichen growing on branches and trunks.
Then we walk back up into the heat through verdant grasslands, Acacias, and cicadas. The Turaco flashes its wings between the sun and shade again. We regain a farm road and the bakkie has moved closer.
Our final two kilometres take us over a sandstone ridge that offers a variety of so much delicate fauna that we almost don’t see the herd of Impala over the valley and the skittish Oribi which appears out of the undergrowth just near us. A hare’s fluffy white backside bounces away at our approach.
The Doritos are hot and the water bottles and skaftin are empty when we finally open the bakkie doors; however, our minds and spirits overflow with nature being nurtured by the owners of this very special corner of our planet.
Thank you John and Debbie Ford for a wonderful wander through your farm.