The most scenic hike in the world? Article and images as appeared on go2africa.com
by Dominic Chadbon, 9 September 2008
On the face of it, it did seem like a poor proposition: walk up some steep mountains, look at a bunch of plants, and then…er, walk down again. For 5 days.
The mountains in question however were the towering range of twisted sandstones and crunchy granites that run all the way down the Cape Peninsula, starting with Cape Town's familiar flat-topped Table Mountain and ending 5 days later at Cape Point, where the red, wave-battered cliffs plunge precipitously into a frigid, peacock-blue ocean.
And the plants were part of the extraordinary Cape Floral Kingdom, a Portugal-sized sliver of utterly uniquevegetation that stands cheekily alongside such floral heavyweights as the Holarctic and Paleotropical Kingdoms (together comprising 77 percent of the world's land vegetation) and noted not only for its astonishing diversity (9 000 species) but also its endemism (I've seen plants whose range is restricted to a couple of boggy mountaintops).
Put it all together, throw in the mild, sunny days of the Cape's late winter, add an encyclopedia of animals from antelope to zebra and snakes to sugarbirds, and you have the makings of the most incredible coastal hike - and I haven't even got to the views yet.
Oh, I know it's all subjective: the best this and the most that. The chef-turned-celebrity Anthony Bourdain summed it up nicely when searching for the 'perfect meal', admitting that a half-burnt cheeseburger on a Caribbean beach tastes pretty good when you're in the mood for it – it's all about personal experience.
But, standing on a cliff edge surrounded by flowers and jewel-like sunbirds, tracing the line of purple mountains enfolding a bay so blue it seemed painted, it seemed difficult to find a rival walk that is so accessible, with such consistently jaw-dropping scenery and is just so…doable.
The hike falls under the splendidly-pleasing ambit of'slack-packing' - namely, you do the walking, other people do all the work. You only need a day bag and water as your luggage is chauffeured from one overnight stop to the next, and you stay in comfortable lodges and hotels.
I had joined the 5-day hike for the last 2 days. Monday to Wednesday take you from Cape Town to Simons Town viamountains, forests and beaches. Thursday saw me puffing my way up a winding path that suddenly whisks you from the bungalows of sleepy Simons Town into aprimitive lost world of mountain peaks, knife-edged ridges and sudden twists and turns that hurl view after view at you.
ily, I was being led by Steve Bolnick, a legendary southern African safari guide with 30 years experience under his belt, and the creator of this walk. His enthusiasm is obvious and contagious, and I was soon familiar with the geology, history, fauna and flora of the area.
“It's my favourite day of the walk,” grinned Steve as he shovelled food towards my gaping maw on one of our breaks, “it's about as wild as you can get up here.”
Indeed, I had to constantly remind myself that we were only half an hour from South Africa's second largest city. We were surrounded by nothing – well, nothing man-made at any rate. No roads, no pylons, no people – just multi-coloured mountains.
But it was the flora that really got me. Abandoning attempts to remember the barrage of botanical names (oh look, it's another thingy whatsit) I was constantly flabbergasted by the sheer numbers involved. There aremore species of plant in the modest, wind-swept Cape Point Nature Reserve than there are in the British Isles, and the vegetation completely changes with every curl of the path.
“It's all about micro-climates, different soil types, and exposure to sunlight and moisture,” explained Steve. “A north-facing slope will have a completely different flora to a south-facing one.” Altitude plays a part too I noticed, as we climbed the imposing moorland-like Swartkop Mountain, and later again as we descended into a wooded ravine.
After 7 hours we emerged at the once endearingly named Patience Bay (it apparently took a long time to fill a water bottle from the sluggish spring there) and contemplated the final day – a walk down the entire eastern coastlineof Cape Point Nature Reserve looking out over False Bay and the Hottentot-Holland Mountains.. “Must be pretty scenic,” I commented with my customary intuition. Steve just smiled.
'Scenic' doesn't actually come close. Friday was a day of such eye-popping majesty that you begin to groan in resignation at yet another gasping view. A pair of southern Right Whales cruising in the sparkling bay to our left seemed to accompany us as we wound our way towards the very tip of Africa as the path lurched from mountain top to beach and forest to cliff edge – it was relentless, incredible chocolate box scenery and as powerful as anything else I've seen anywhere else in the world.
We had lunch next to a white sand beach so dazzlingly bright it made me giddy, and the adventurous can fling themselves into water so clear that you can see theripples in the sand from a cliff 200 metres above it. Baboons barked, snakes slithered, antelope did whatever it is they do – and after another 7 hours without seeing another soul save a handful of people at the beach, we found ourselves looking slightly out of place amidst the well-coiffured tourists milling around Cape Point next to their coaches.
We earned bemused looks from the cosmopolitan crowds – and in fairness our slightly dishevelled appearance did make us stand out a bit – but we wore big fat smiles on our faces and sat down with cold beers to reflect on the day.
The sentiment expressed by Bourdain ran through my head again: the world's best? Yes it's subjective and it's all about personal experience but in this case the experience is other-worldly and the emotions intensely personal - it's the most beautiful hike I've ever done, and that, for me, is official.