We took a six day hike along the coast and finished up the week in the Port Elizabeth area. The Shipwreck Coast is a beautiful stretch of land along the Indian Ocean that is mostly uninhabited. We went days without seeing another person. We hiked along white sandy beaches with the Indian Ocean to one side and huge sand dunes to the other. Seashells, coral and seaglass where abundant. Absolutely one of the most pristine and beautiful stretches of coastline that I have ever been on.
We had the privelege of being the second group ever to set off on the new trail--really decently priced for permants, etc. and most of the proceeds were going to an NGO set up by our trail supervisor. (I highly recommend this trail for PCVs, anyone reading this, email me and I can get you Dave's information.) Day one was mostly along the coast. We hiked barefoot through the sand and stopped often for playtime in the sand and the water. It was my first experience with the Indian Ocean which I had always heard was supposed to be warm--apparently not when its mixed with arctic waters. Highlight of the day was coming across a giant sea turtle and getting to get up close and personal.
Day two was split between hiking on the beach and then hiking into the bush to a gigantic treehouse, our lodging for the night. It was nice change for my calves that were aching from walking in the sand with my pack weighing me down. And the treehouse was fantastic. I was a little sad in the morning when it was time to go. (That was also the dead dolphin day. His carcass had washed up onto the beach. Not my favorite part of our travels. I much preferred the petrified leopard shark carcass we found the day before.)
On day three we hiked back out of the bush into open pasture land. Cows a plenty, but nice, fat, healthy cows unlike the village cows I've grown accustomed too. The pastures were beautiful and the elevation high enough that in many spots we had a nice view of the coast. Our aim was a Cold War Era, American funded, Soviet Spy Station, operational during Apartheid which would be our night's lodgings. Yes, we all fully appreciated the great irony of Peace Corps volunteers staying there. Before evening set in, the three girls in our party hiked down to the beach for some playtime on what turned out to be one of the most beautiful beaches we were on for the length of the hike.
Day four started with a short hike through beach bush to the mouth of the Kleinemonde West River where our trail supervisor Dave met us with the canoes. We canoed 10km into the Nyala Valley Game Reserve where we took a short hike to the Lilypad Hut, a beautiful bamboo, open-air camp ground set up by the game reserve. On our short hike we came across a baby zebra and had a great photo-op. Since the reserve was non-predator, we were free to walk around. It was an awesome experience to walk freely through the reserve and come across herd after herd of various types of animals--wildebeest, giraffes, nyala, etc.
The next day we hiked back out and canoed upriver against fierce winds. It was definitely not the easy canoe of the day before, but I'll say for myself that I enjoyed the challenge. After the canoe, we hiked along the coast through some beautiful rocky beaches before turning inland. We had already hiked up several sand dunes in previous days (not an easy feat in normal circumstances but especially not with a pack), but the dunes on day five were especially steep. Hiking more often meant crawling up them. But our reward was a beautiful hike through more pasture to the Stone Cottage. The cottage was built in 1854 and had recently been renovated to include a clawfoot tub, shower, stove, all the modern conveniences. Not only was it luxurious for hikers, it was luxurious for Peace Corps volunteers used to village accomodations. From the window, we could look out onto the pastures and watch springbok and impala herds. The whole experience felt like something out of Jane Austen, and I definitely wanted to live there forever.
The last day we hiked back out to the coast past the Fish River Lighthouse to the mouth of the Fish River where the trail ended. After seeing no more than probably ten people for the past five days, we suddenly came upon a crowded beach of swimmers. Our first stop off the trail with our grubby, sand-coated selves was a local pizzeria in Port Alfred. Ah, pizza and beer, nothing better for a first meal off the trail.
The last half of our day was spent driving to Away with the Fairies Backpacker in Hogsback, the supposed inspiration for JRR Tolkein's Hobbit and his boyhood home. We didn't have much time there and were all wiped out, so we missed the amazing hiking in the area. I'm looking forward to going back when my parents come to visit.
Our final day before heading back to site was spent at the Seaview Lion Park just outside of Port Elizabeth. Its a great little gamepark, but the best part was getting to play with lion cubs and then camping in the middle of the lion enclosure. It was an awesome thing to wake up, open the tent flap and have four adolescent male lions staring at me from about 30 feet away--thankfully with a lot of fencing in between us.
I'll hopefully get a lot of pictures posted soon. It was a really amazing trip and a great way to spend the holiday so far from home. Hope every one is having a great start to the new year!