Coast with the most
Judy Bryant has a delicious time slackpacking the Chokka Trail, from Oyster Bay to Cape St Francis.
Oyster Bay to Cape St Francis
Sunday Times Travel
Squid is known as ‘chokka’ in my Eastern Cape home province – and it’s also the name of a four-day, three-night, 62 km trail between Oyster Bay and Cape St Francis. It encompasses stunning coastal, dune, wetland and forest vegetation within 40 000 hectares of privately-owned land.
My daughter and I departed, bleary-eyed, from Cape Town on a 6:00 winter morning flight. Soon we were being whisked through sunny Port Elizabeth’s early morning traffic by Shaun Tessendorf, activities manager of the Cape St Francis Resort.
Our first stop was in the historic Richmond Hill area of the Friendly City, for a delicious breakfast at the resort group’s latest addition, Newington Place guest house. This gracious old home has been sensitively restored by the owners, whose portfolio includes properties in Croatia and Mozambique.
That afternoon we set off from Thuys Bay, initially following vehicle tracks through dense coastal bush. Soon we descended to long stretches of beach and pristine pools, with plump gulls and red-beaked oyster catchers for company. Esti recounted how, about five years ago, keen local hiker and conservationist Maggie Langlands proposed developing a trail.
“The two of us just started to walk and explore. We always wanted to know and find out and discover ‒ then we put it together and we had a route.” Now Esti conducts the hikes, Eric handles logistics, and local lodges ensure warm hospitality and delicious food.
The diversity of natural marine and land treasures is due to a meeting of the warm, south-moving Agulhas and cold, northwards-migrating Benguela currents. Winter showers evolve to summer rainfall, while Cape sandstone contrasts with more fertile shale, once covered in renosterveld.
Stopping for a picnic snack, we spotted a Southern Right whale breaching in the bay. Closer to shore, sea birds circled around an old Khoi rock fish trap. Then we headed slightly inland and traversed a vast midden of discarded seashells. The aromatic smells of fine-leaved lemon and garlic buchu rose up all around us.
That evening we stayed at the beachfront Oyster Bay Beach Lodge, with Helicia Carstens preparing a delicious casserole while her husband Andries topped up our drinks. It was warm enough to sit outdoors on the vast deck, counting the brightly lit chokka boats (17) and seeing a falling star.
It seemed only a few hours later that we were tucking into another hearty meal. “My breakfast feels like I’ve had a hug from the inside,” said my daughter.
Day two challenged us with a mobile dune field, constantly shifted by wind and water. Locals call it the Sand River. “It changes from week to week, and mapping, marking or even describing this route seems impossible,” said Esti. The first three kilometres presented steep dunes: we trudged up the compacted sand and slid down the other side.
Flatter tracts resembled a lunar landscape, with small rocky outcrops. We came across flaked stone hand tools, stark white animal bones and teeth fragments. Hundreds of enormous zebra agate snail shells had been wind-blown into our path: their buff-yellow exteriors, striped with brown bands, had been sun-bleached to a pale cream.
The sand dunes evolved into wetland vegetation, restios and erica-like plants. Drought had dried up the usual pools of water and we reached our next base in Oyster Bay by 2pm, just in time for the rugby fans to watch a game. ‘Home’ was the Dune Ridge Country House, nestled between the vast dune fields and thick coastal fynbos teeming with bird species.
The lodge had been built from local and recycled materials (reed patio ceilings, enormous stone fireplace, wide oregon planks from an old school) lending a gracious, long-established air despite being less than 20 years old. Locally-born, KZN-trained Brandon Hena looked after our every need, lighting a sizzling fire here and hastening with another cold gin there.
A sumptuous bedroom with vast bathroom (toasty underfloor heating) and gourmet meals made me understand why a visiting New York couple, whose bespoke catamaran had been built at the local port, spent four months here.
Early the next morning we discovered another natural treasure: a beautiful section of coastal forest. Then more dune fields, turning eastwards and passing Mostertshoek’s holiday cottages. This area’s known as the Wild Side after the water pounding onto the rocks, spurting up through a large blowhole.
We discovered the rusted remains of HMS Osprey, a Royal Navy warship that came to a sorry end while homeward bound from China. Further on, an old grave was marked out in sea-smoothed stones; and finally we came to the Seal Point lighthouse. Marking Africa’s south-easterly tip, at nearly 28 metres it’s the tallest stonework lighthouse in the country.
At the Sanccob sea bird rehabilitation centre, through a large glass window, we watched recuperating African penguins recovering their strength in an indoor pool. Marine biologist Christina Marques introduced us to 33 permanent residents and long-term rehabilitation patients in another section.
They included Batman, who’s blind, and Penelope, who may become a penguin ambassador. “Some have fused shoulders so their flippers don’t move, three or four have badly scarred fins due to seal or shark bites, so their fur can’t grow and they would die of hypothermia,” she explained.
Next stop was Cape St Francis Resort, where we enjoyed a delicious dinner showcasing squid’s culinary possibilities: “Calamari with wasabi and sesame seeds, with a dipping sauce; deep-fried rings with rice and tartare sauce; and tubes stuffed with peppadews, mushroom and feta – plus chips!” explained Shaun.
On our fourth and final day, we headed for Cape St Francis across a picture-perfect beach, white sand matching the creamy lighthouse, blue sea blending into azure sky. Tracks revealed early morning visitors of Cape clawless otters.
We strolled past mounds of shells and small bays (ideal for a dip), then arrived at Port St Francis. Upstairs at the Balobi seafood market and deli, Eric cleaned the squid and explained the product’s history before we tasted local versus imported calamari.
Shaun then took us on a canal cruise through St Francis Bay. It felt rather like the local equivalent of a Hollywood bus tour, as we glided past enormous white-walled, thatched or black-roofed holiday homes of the rich and famous.
Over a ploughman’s platter at a restaurant overlooking the canal, Esti recalled how she had guided hikers who ranged from families spanning three generations, to a group of women in their ‘70s. “We’ve planned this trail for the modern hiker – a business person, a busy family, friends wanting to enjoy a trip together. You can just take off a few days, fly in and out, and we’ll take care of the rest.”
First published in the Sunday Times Travel, 8 October 2017.
Images by Judy Bryant