Monday, May 10, 2010

Tsitsikamma / An Enchanting Mountain Town

Day 99: Hogsback, South Africa
Friday we drove from our campsite in Stormsrivier into nearby Tsitsikamma National Park, which stretches along the scenic and rugged coastline. We started hiking along the rocky shore, where massive, powerful waves thundered with huge explosions of spray and foam. The surf was among the most intense I've ever seen, and the breakers crashed into the rocky outcroppings with such force that sprays of water shot far into the air and the water near the shore turned into a churning cauldron of sand and foam. We continued walking through coastal forest trails, spotting a small antelope hiding among the trees. The forest opened up into another stretch of rugged coastline. The landscape here consists of shards of jagged rock jutting into the air at a 45 degree angle. There were no flat footholds: walking here required balancing on the angled edge of these rocks. After a couple of hours, we reached a waterfall cascading into a sheltered pool that empties into the sea.

Coastline of Tsitsikamma National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Waves crash along the rocky coastline of Tsitsikamma National Park, South Africa.

Plant life in Tsitsikamma National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Lush plant life thrives in Tsitsikamma National Park, South Africa.
On the return hike, we ended up splitting into a few smaller groups. I walked with two of the Dutch women, and we decided to take a pathway leading up and over a hill, avoiding the treacherous sharp rocks. After ascending an endless series of logs that served as steps up the mountain, we began to wonder if we would ever descend again. We had been hiking for too long to turn back, so we trudged along into the thickening woods. As we neared the top, sunbeams illuminated the forest floor, and the ubiquitous chirping of frogs and insects surrounded us in all directions. Unseen creatures scurried into the underbrush as we passed. Luckily, we did not encounter any snakes or other dangerous animals – leopards live in this area – but one of the other groups did run across a deadly puff adder basking on the rocks near the shore. We finally came to a paved road that eventually led back to the truck after a serpentine route down the mountain. I hungrily devoured the sliced meat, cucumber, and tomato sandwiches that have become our staple lunch. After lunch, we set off for another hike, this one much easier and shorter. We walked along a paved pathway, descending to a suspension bridge that crosses the mouth of the Storms River where it empties into the ocean.

The temperature plummeted into the evening, and that second night at the campsite in Stormsrivier was the coldest yet. I cinched my hoodie around my face and crawled deep into my sleeping bag. I stuffed my pillow inside, drew the sleeping bag over my head, and curled up in a fetal position, shivering from the cold. Eventually, my body heat warmed the inside of the sleeping bag, and I was able to rest for a little while, only to be woken up again by dogs barking incessantly throughout the night. In the morning, I could see my breath inside the tent, and I dreaded crawling out of my sleeping bag. A corner of my pillow that was left outside my warm cocoon felt like it had been in a freezer. I unzipped the tent and stepped out into the bracing cold. Wesley and I wanted to collapse our tent as soon as possible so we could warm up with some tea, but the metal tent poles were like ice. We had to warm our numb fingers by the gas stove before we could disassemble the poles.

As we rode toward Jeffreys Bay, the sun shone through the windows of the truck and thawed us out. Jeffreys Bay, affectionately called J-Bay, is one of the top surfing destinations in the world, and surf shops crowded the main street. As Chad had warned us that the temperatures would be even colder in the high elevations in Lesotho and the Drakensberg, we spent our time in Jeffreys Bay buying blankets, gloves, and hot water bottles at the mall.

Kudu, Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
A kudu in Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa
It was another two hours to Addo Elephant National Park, where we proceeded straight into a game drive in the Nomad truck. We saw the usual wildlife – kudu, warthogs, ostriches, an elephant in the distance – but we also saw eland, a large and graceful antelope, for the first time. One of the stranger animals that is fiercely protected in Addo is the flightless dung beetle. We saw a few of these insects rolling balls of dung in the middle of the road, and signs warn vehicles to watch for them to avoid running them over.

We camped for the night in Addo – yet another cold one – and then proceeded to Port Elizabeth yesterday morning. As we approached the city, the bay appeared as a calm turquoise sliver on the horizon. We dropped three people off in Port Elizabeth, decreasing our group to an intimate nine passengers. We continued another two hours and took a short break in the quaint university town of Grahamstown, where I enjoyed a lime shake at a fast-food restaurant. We had lunch at the side of the road by the Great Fish River and then drove the two-hour home stretch to Hogsback. As we climbed in elevation toward our destination, dry brush and thorny acacia trees gave way to lush, dark forests blanketing the hillsides of the Amatole Mountains. There was a majestic view of the surrounding countryside as we made the final ascent to the town.

Café sign, Hogsback, South Africa © Matt Prater
A café sign in Hogsback, South Africa
Hogsback markets itself as a fairy tale forest setting, and artists who base themselves in the small community produce handiwork such as statues of fairies and gnomes. J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, was born in nearby Bloemfontein, and the ancient forest is credited as inspiration for some of the iconic settings of Middle Earth. In fact, many of the locations in Hogsback reference The Lord of the Rings, such as Rivendell Camp Site, The Ring Liquor Store, and an outdoor education center called Hobbiton. Our campsite, Away with the Fairies, features buildings labeled Bag End, Bilbo's Rest, and The Wizard's Sleeve Inn. We set up our tents in a clearing surrounded by trees, and fireflies twinkled throughout the forest as dusk fell, adding to the magical ambiance of Hogsback.

Cottage at Away with the Fairies Backpackers, Hogsback, South Africa © Matt Prater
A cottage at Away with the Fairies Backpackers in Hogsback, South Africa
View from Away with the Fairies Backpackers, Hogsback, South Africa © Matt Prater
View of the Amatole Mountains from Away with the Fairies Backpackers in Hogsback, South Africa

Despite the higher elevation, the climate in Hogsback was more temperate than down at the chilly coast, and I enjoyed a comfortable night's sleep in the tent. We spent most of today hiking in the Tyume indigenous forest, passing streams and waterfalls, dense patches of emerald green ferns, colorful mushrooms, and a massive 800-year-old tree. The forest reminded me of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, except for the monkeys leaping through the trees overhead. In the afternoon, we walked around the town, visiting the historic Hogsback Inn and an esoteric garden of fairy statues created by a local artist.

Fern, Tyume indigenous forest, Hogsback, South Africa © Matt Prater
A fern in the Tyume indigenous forest near Hogsback, South Africa
Berries, Hogsback, South Africa © Matt Prater
Berries in Hogsback, South Africa

Hogsback Inn, Hogsback, South Africa © Matt Prater
The historic 19th-century Hogsback Inn in Hogsback, South Africa

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