Pilgrims in the Baviaans
The six-day Baviaans Camino guides hikers and horseriders through some 95 kilometres of rugged wilderness and quiet contemplation, writes Judy Bryant
Sunday Times Travel
12 August 2018
Judy Bryant (general pics) Peter de Wet (Sunday Times)
Perhaps the grandeur of a 153-year-old, twin-gabled farmstead had been purposefully chosen to pamper us ahead of some of the gruelling routes to come. But as our group tucked into a tender lamb and dumpling casserole in the splendid crimson-painted dining room of Noorspoort farm outside Steytlerville, we could only celebrate our good fortune at starting the Baviaans Camino.
This Eastern Cape trail covers a remote north-south route that traverses the east-west Baviaanskloof and Kouga mountain ranges. Hikers and horseriders share the guided journey.
Our eclectic, 14-strong group took part in only the fourth Baviaans Camino to be offered since its initial trial in 2016. We ranged from a St Andrews schoolboy to a woman who earned our instant respect by undertaking the trip from Pretoria on her Triumph Tiger motorbike, named Trixie.
On our first day we bundled into a converted Unimog and, with a grinding of gears, set off through the Noorspoort farm gates, past an ancient Chevy chassis. We rumbled down a 1950s concrete road, bypassing plodding mountain tortoises, and headed towards a jagged mountain ridge. Blue cranes stalked the veld and springbok pranced in the distance.
Watched by maa-ing black-faced Dorper sheep, we started our journey on a flat stretch of Nakop farm. “Take your time, this is not a race. Rest where you want to,” tour founder and guide Esti Stewart reassured us.
Soon we were trudging up a track built for the Telkom maintenance vehicle, heading for a tower far in the distance. Feet sliding on loose rocks, stopping every few minutes to pant for breath, only glimpses of peeping dassies, butterflies and rare flowers kept me going.
FINDING SECRET ROUTES
Despite my wildly pumping heart, the unfolding scenery was spectacular. Farmland, wild plum trees and Karoo scrub gave way to succulents, ericas, proteas and renosterbos. Gorgeous purple mountains encircled the vast valley and raptors drifted overhead.
As we tucked into our lunch packs, Esti shared how she and her husband Eric (who handles the logistics) became intrigued by the mystical Baviaans. They had already pioneered the popular Chokka Trail in the St Francis area, so enquired about hiking near Patensie. Unfortunately, buffalo roamed there.
As luck would have it, they met Hercules van Huyssteen, a renowned boerperd breeder and trainer. Hercules has been offering long distance horse trips into the Baviaans since 2012, so introduced them to little-known routes, where seven of South Africa’s floral biomes can be explored. And so the Camino was born.
HORSES MAKE MAGICAL COMPANY
Having the gentle, sturdy horses with you magnifies the experience. You hear their shod hooves on the rocks, smell the polished leather and sweat, and as you train your camera on a far ridge, they pass in single file against backdrops of ochre rock, cycads, spekboom and towering aloes.
On Joachimskraal farm that evening we heard the horses whinnying outside as they grazed in the moonlight. When Hercules rose at midnight and 4 am to feed them, we were sound asleep: Eric’s notorious ‘fines’ ‒ shots of sickly-sweet sherry, strawberry or milk tart liqueur ‒ had formed an uneasy alliance with a magnum of sweet sparkling wine and a chocolate cake delivered in a Castle Lite box to celebrate Hercules’ young wife, Anieka’s, birthday.
LONG WALK TO A POTJIE
On day three we set off past banks of prickly pears glistening with small spider-webs the size of five rand coins. Vervet monkey scattered as we began traversing the Kouga range, with unimpeded views into the Klein Kommando and Tjando kloofs. Some sections had burnt 18 months ago and exquisite fynbos bloomed. “Over 90 bird species have been counted along the route,” Esti told us.
We covered 24 km and as a faint mist descended, arrived at Entkrale farm. Its name recalled its central location, where cattle were collected for innoculation. We gathered around the potjie simmering in the hearth and luckily the rain held off until we were tucked up in our sleeping bags and tents. The only disturbance was a loud boom as the wood-fired hot water ‘donkey’ exploded.
BLISTERS IN THE SUN
On day four our mother and daughter duo had such bad blisters that they decided to retire, so a farmer and his three dogs arrived in a vehicle without bonnet, doors, windscreen or windows. It appeared to be fuelled by the murky contents of a two litre Coke bottle.
Advising his passengers to keep their mouths closed so that they wouldn’t swallow any insects, the farmer tossed a dash of brake fluid into the vehicle’s innards and lurched off, the daughter clutching the Alsatian on her lap as a makeshift airbag.
We set off in their wake on a relatively easy walk past swathes of pelargoniums, wabome and cycads. The air was infused with mint, honey and rose and it became a contemplative walk, the silence broken only by baboons’ barks.
Descending into the Nooitgedacht farming area, we encountered a picture book scene. Rosy-cheeked farmers’ wives served up iced honeybush tea at a table laid with a crisp red-and-white checked cloth. Earlier, we’d spotted an overhead cable, and they explained this was used to transport the tea crop down the mountain.
“Our honeybush grows wild and has been organically certified for over ten years,” said Eunice Nortje of the farm Melmont, as we lolled in the sun with assorted farm dogs. “It gets very cold here, but the snow is good for killing insects.”
We tackled our final uphill, then entered a valley and criss-crossed dry river beds packed with white stones. Slender trees with paper-white bark gleamed as the sun set. Were we going in circles? Someone commented that my neon-pink leggings would fortunately be seen from a spotter plane.
The horseriders assured us that we were on track. Soon we set up camp on Ragelsriver guest farm at the tranquil Bokmakierie campside, backed by a massive rockface and overlooking the Joubertskraal River.
YES IT COUNTS
On day five, fortified by scrambled eggs and Kareedouw boerewors delivered from Nooitgedacht farm, we tackled the Moordenaarskloof. Guest farm co-owner Eric Botha had cleared black wattle, exposing ancient yellowwoods. After lunch beside the Kouga River, I had my first horseride and the sure-footed Noodle carried me through a fynbos kloof and along the old mail trail.
Over a braai that night at Nguniland guest farm, we discussed the planning that had ensured we and the horses had been fed, watered and accommodated so well. Many farming families, campsite owners and home cooks had been drawn into the adventure, creating a welcome source of income for them.
Sitting under a canopy of stars, we also debated the Camino name. Unlike the famous Camino de Santiago, our journey did not offer shrines or a history of pilgrims. Yet the trail’s rugged gorges, imposing mountains, silence and serenity provided all the elements to make it a life-changing journey.
Santiago pilgrims traditionally receive a scallop shell at the start of their walk; I will always treasure the worn horseshoe which Hercules gave me on the final day. He said some of these shoes had covered 600 km! It’s a reminder of a remarkable trail that tested my endurance and opened my eyes to the beauty of the Baviaans.
When: April to October
Where: Steytlerville to Kareedouw
Cost: R7 200 plus R1 500 for horse riders (subject to change). Includes all food and accommodation, excludes shuttle from Kareedouw to Steytlerville, where the trip starts.