My energetic neighbour was scandalised when I declined her invitation to join a party of women walking the five-day Whale Trail.
‘People fly to Cape Town from all over the world to do it,’ she told me sternly. ‘Do you know how rare it is to get a cancellation right in the middle of whale season?’
I listed my reservations: ‘I’m overweight and unfit. I dislike living out of a backpack and getting blisters and sunburn. I’m queasy about things that bite, slither and sting, and you know as well as I do that the Cape mountains are alive with baboons, spiders, snakes, ticks and insects just waiting to feast on my fearful flesh. In principle I’m all for the Great Outdoors, but in practice I’d prefer to observe it from a hot air balloon. In short, I detest hiking, so thank you, but no.’
‘What nonsense! You’ll love it,’ she insisted. ‘The first day is a little tiring, but the rest is easy. The accommodation is luxurious and we don’t have to carry packs because they are driven from hut to hut each day. Anyway, it’s not as if you haven’t done this kind of thing before.’
She had a point. For the sake of a story I have hauled myself up a rock face and abseiled down again. I have camped in dripping fields; I have endured every kind of discomfort trudging for 12 miserable days across northern Spain. Perversely, I keep subjecting myself to exertions other people enjoy when my true calling is to be at home with a book and a nice gin and tonic.
I caved in. I bought a hat, sunscreen and massage oil; and since my pack was being transported, I added the gin, filter coffee and other necessities of life to the load. I told myself that compared to the Camino the Whale Trail would probably be a breeze.
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Half way up the Potberg I remember that I trained to get in shape for the Camino. For this trip I have nothing but a few half-hearted gym sessions behind me, and I am ready to expire. My lungs burn, my legs wobble. Up ahead, my five fit companions bound up the stony path like mountain goats. I fantasise about escape, but the fee quoted by the nature conservation officer to rescue reluctant hikers is hefty enough to force me on.
I stop frequently to catch my breath and admire the view. To be honest, the Cape’s fabled fynbos has never floated my boat. Dusty proteas and straggling watsonias (I call them ‘so-what-ias’) have not moved me until today. But now I’m coaxed along with lavish visual treats: succulent wedges of magenta and acid green; fragile stalks topped with vivid pink, violet and mauve; coppery snowflakes frosted with lilac; waxy gold pincushions; jelly-green bushes with cherry-red tips reaching to the sun. Protruding above the uniform growth are tall bunches of starched white everlastings, which look to me like bridal bouquets from the grave. The image is a portent: I am almost swept to my doom as the wind meets the trail on a high, exposed ridge. I think of The Little Prince standing at a precarious angle on his tiny planet, and wish for more earth under my uncertain feet.
Our overnight hut is clean and pleasant. A hot shower (the ‘luxury’) is a bonus after the 15km slog, even though it is outdoors in the path of a biting little gale. There’s no refrigeration, but tonight the drinks are still cold. Baboons bark in the great bowl of darkness beyond the safe circle of our fire, and overhead, ice-bright stars are strewn across an endless sky.
On day two there’s another mountain to get over, and a downhill scramble that’s hell on the knees. We negotiate a lattice of logs over a squelchy bog, narrowly missing two sluggish puffadders. There’s cell phone reception at the top of the mountain but not down here. What would we do if someone was bitten?
The 14.7km path becomes hot, unattractive and interminable, but it leads at last to paradise: a tiny turquoise bay punctuated with dots and dashes that morph into whales as we draw closer. Two thatched A-frames perch on the rocks. One holds our bunks; the other houses bathrooms and the kitchen/dining area. (It also hides an experienced mouse that during the night will ignore my breakfast oats and drill instead into the side of a carton of custard.)
Inspection of sore feet reveals that I and one of the Fit Five have blisters. She weeps with frustration and disappointment, but I, having had no expectations of athleticism, merely hobble glumly to the beach to soak my feet in the sea.
All ailments are forgotten as we watch the whales cavort in the afternoon sunshine. Time and again they breach, lob tail and roll. For the first time in my life I see two rising simultaneously from the water, one behind the other. They breach a second time, and a third, and a fourth, in diminishing silvery arcs. Ancient cartographers could be forgiven for assuming that the ocean occasionally heaved with giant, serpentine monsters.
From now on we hug the coast, continuing in single file along a cliff path so narrow it barely disturbs the natural vegetation. Sporadic rain and a chilly wind challenge us on day three, and we’re glad that the convoluted hike to Hamerkop is only 7.8km.
A shower revives my body, and dinner and good red wine improve my spirits. My new friends are funny and kind: half way through day four, after falling behind on a 5km tramp along the spongy beach, I struggle up a small precipice to find that they have set up an impromptu ‘spa’. I am treated to a leg massage, which enables them to totter another 5.5km to the last overnight house at Vaalkrans. If I stop I seize up, so I keep moving along the cliff path, encouraged by the promise of picture-perfect scenes around every outcrop: pistachio-green pools scooped from the rocks; waves crashing against cliffs weathered into walls of petrified lace; water swirling noisily into deep chasms and yawning caves; and plumes of foam spouting from rainbow-painted blow-holes. Between each untouched crescent of beach there are rocky promontories fronted by wide, theatrical platforms. Perhaps I’m dehydrated, but I see mermaids down there, combing their seaweed hair and dancing to the music of the deep.
It’s wild and rough and pristine and beautiful, and you have to watch your footing or you could go over the edge. But in the tranquil sea beyond the boiling breakers, scores of whales cruise by in a peaceful parade, dark against bands of lime, rich blue and aquamarine.
The house at Vaalkrans, built above a cave, is ideally placed for whale-watching. We’ve already seen more than we’d hoped for, but for our last evening we’re treated to a special performance by baby whales. They raise their knobbly heads from the water and the more adventurous ones zoom away from their mothers to breach and roll. A little albino is the star of the show, clambering across its mother’s belly as she does a leisurely backstroke.
I drink it all in, delighted to be here, but knowing that I won’t be back. My right knee looks like a pawpaw; I have anklets of broken capillaries and a sciatic nerve winched to snapping point. None of this stops me swimming at the ‘hippo pools’ on the last day, and when a long, orange and black patterned puffadder glides across the path, I find I still have a bit of sprint left in my calf muscles. All the same, I’m not cut out to be a hiker, and this is definitely my last big walk.
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The photographs are gorgeous. Back in the noisy city I look at the images and remember black oyster catchers against white sand; the hiss of the wind and the crash of the surf. I long for silence and limitless blue; for simplicity and space.
I’m not at all interested, but my neighbour tells me there’s a place going on the Otter Trail . . .
Published in Sunday Independent