Yip yip, hai Koos!
“I must always talk to them, otherwise they just sommer stand still,” grumbles Andreas Jantjes, as our wood-and-iron cart clatters its way down the gravel track. Judging by my rattling teeth, suspension isn’t big in these parts.
Yip! Yip! Nee Koos, loop…
The Koos in question is the oldest of four donkeys reined in ahead, and thus the leader of the pack. Where Koos goes; Dixon, Sterling and Witjan must surely follow. Behind us in a cloud of dust is the top of Pakhuis Pass, the strip of tar linking the farming town of Clanwilliam with the empty plains of the distant Karoo. Ahead though, only the rutted tracks and lonely footpaths etched into this distant corner of the Cederberg Mountains, some three hundred kilometres north of Cape Town.
Koos, loop! Koos! Yip! Yip!
The dusty rawhide whip cracks above Koos’ ears, and our cart rattles and rolls a little faster. I’m only too happy when Andreas asks me to get off and walk at a steep section of the trail.
Jantjes has spent most of his forty-odd years in the small mountain village of Heuningvlei, and carts like his have been part of this landscape for generations; four-legged freighters transporting rooibos tea, potatoes and people in and out of these valleys. Today, though, it’s tourists that help the donkeys pay their way.
Although hardened hikers and rock climbers have long explored these peaks and valleys, locals and travelers are now tapping into this wild landscape thanks to a range of slack-packing trails dubbed the Cederberg Heritage Routes (CHR); a not-for-profit project driven by private companies, community organisations, conservation authorities and church representatives.
Which is how I came to find myself squashed beside Jantjes as he urges old Koos along the path to Heuningvlei, our stop for the night. Myself and eight other hikers have signed up to walk the Wupperthal Trail [see sidebar], a 40-kilometre route over three nights that will take us from high peaks to chilly valleys, through mission villages and along sandy paths through pristine Cederberg scenery.
Much of the appeal of the CHR trails is that these are slack-packing routes. My heavy overnight bag, generously loaded with wine and snacks, is transported from one guesthouse to the next; guides lead the way each day; and come evening the dinner table groans with generous meals cooked up by local families.
I’ve dinner on my mind as I walk the last few kilometers into Heuningvlei, admiring the pastoral valley below. Fields of wild rosemary, buchu, rooibos and honeybush tea lie along the river, as smoke curls from the chimneys of charming whitewashed cottages. Flocks of sheep fret their way home to overnight kraals where they’ll be safe from the Cape Mountain Leopards that prowl these slopes.
Taking pride of place at the entrance to the village is the Heuningvlei Backpackers Lodge. Built with funding from local government, and run in partnership with the community, it’s the overnight hub for many of the CHR trails. Four dormitory-style bedrooms accommodate up 18 hikers, with a broad stoep for admiring the mountain views and resting tired feet after a long day on the trail.
As the sun dips behind the peaks, the temperature plummets and a headlamp bobs through the darkness: Dalene van der Westhuizen bearing dinner.
Three square meals are provided each day of the trail: cooked breakfast, packed sandwich and fruit for lunch, and a generous dinner of local dishes; the likes of grilled chicken, roosterbrood cooked over open coals, and caramelised sweet potatoes from nearby fields. To spread the economic impact of the trails meals are prepared and served by local families, and what they may lack in finesse they make up for with generosity and genuine hospitality.
We rise early the next morning to tackle the long climb up Krakadouw Peak; at 1745-metres the highest point in the northern Cederberg. Although not part of the standard trail, it’s a popular extension for fit hikers, and offers superb views from the top. For the less adventurous, day trips to local waterfalls and rock art sites on foot or by donkey cart can be arranged.
The path to Krakadouw is also a chance to chat to Gert Theron. One of the dozen locals trained up as accredited tourism guides, he proudly wears his official badge all the way to the summit.
Born in the southern Cederberg Gert spent years working on farms in the Koue Bokkeveld and further afield, and for him the opportunities from the CHR have been a game-changer.
“There’s not much work in these villages, but now the trails mean I can be here at home with my family rather than away working on a farm,” he says, as we wander towards a grove of Clanwilliam Cedar (Widdringtonia Cedarbergensis).
The mountains here were once covered in these remarkable endemic trees, before the lumberjacks’ saws turned them into roofing beams, furniture and telephone poles. Today, only the gnarled and inaccessible remain, although replanting programmes by local communities, upmarket lodges and conservation body CapeNature are slowly repopulating the slopes.
Past the cedars and out onto the plains of high-altitude grassland, I’m surprised to see a small herd of donkeys grazing far from the village.
“Ja, they like being out in the open,” says Gert. “It’s warmer up here than down in Heuningvlei. But sometimes the leopards take one of the young ones.”
Without giving the foal a second thought he strides off, the summit of Krakadouw in his sights.
The next day we leave Heuningvlei in the honeyed light of morning. Sixteen kilometers of undulating backcountry separates us from the village of Brugkraal, an easy day’s walk allowing plenty of time for tea-stops on the trail.
When it comes to hiking the Cederberg, it rarely gets better than this. The path wends its way over rocky ridges, where twisted wabooms (Protea nitida) eke out a living from sandstone clefts, and down into broad valleys filled with rustling restio grasses. Along the sandy path I spot leopard tracks, no more than a few days old, while off to one side the ruffled soil tells of a porcupine passing in the night.
On a quiet ridge I wait for the group to catch up and unfurl my 1:50 000 topographical map of the region. It reminds me how the social fabric of the Cederberg is written in these valleys. Here along my path is Koupoort, hinting at the bitter snows that descend in winter. Further south there’s Moordernaarsgat and Gabrielskloof. Not far off, the Groothartseerkloof and Donkergat. A lived history etched between the brown contour lines.
Later, I wander alongside Hennie van der Westhuizen, our guide for this leg of the trail. As with sharing the catering between local families, a new guide each day helps to spread the economic largesse through the mountain communities.
Hennie’s one of those restless souls, who has lived and worked from Vredenburg to Gauteng and back again. He’s has been walking these paths for decades, so when it was time to retire he returned to the valley. He found a home, and a wife, and settled down.
“I’ve found my grave here between these rocks,” he says happily, as we wander on in silence.
We break for lunch on the Boontjiesrivier, where boots are unlaced and tired feet soaked in the icy water. The brave seek out deeper water for a swim. The river tumbles down the valley towards the village of Grasvlei, our path running alongside and across the bubbling stream. We skirt the edge of a neatly tilled field, lush with sweet potatoes, tomatoes and lucerne. Old metal ploughs, and the harness for the donkeys, lie in the shade of a tree. No sign of Koos, though.
We trudge the last kilometre to the next village along a gravel road, heads down as tired legs long for a comfy chair at our Brugkraal guesthouse.
It’s an old farmhouse cheerfully decorated, and like all of the accommodation on the trail it’s comfortable, unassuming and brimming with down-to-earth hospitality. Don’t expect bells and whistles, or airs and graces. Over a well-earned G&T – the heavy bags are portaged, remember – we watch a pair of Verreaux's Eagles soaring on the thermals, scanning the rocks for unwary rocky hyrax. A wind is building though, and clouds scud across the sky from the north.
“Ja, tomorrow you’ll have some rain,” says Hennie, as we shake hands and he hops on a donkey cart rattling home to Heuningvlei.
The next morning proves him right, as a cold front sweeps down the valley. The rain is coming at us sideways and a handful of hikers opt to catch a lift to the last overnight stop in Wupperthal. The rest of us, the foolhardy and stubborn, zip our rain jackets a little higher, cast a hopeful glance at the clouds, and step out into the deluge. Wupperthal is just over those mountains, and if poor old Koos can do it, so can I.
Bookings through Cedarberg African Travel
+27 482 2444
Cost: Prices vary according to group size and trail duration.
Budget on R950-R1100 per person per night.