Hitching in Tsitsikamma

Day 671 – 31 December, 2016

Rolling in to Plettenberg Bay (locally known simply as “Plett”) at 7pm on New Year’s Eve when I didn’t know another soul in the town was not one of my better ideas, but as luck would have it, a Dane named Sofie was on this leg of the Baz Bus and she was in the same boat. My typical NYE instinct would be to crawl in bed and pull the covers over my head, but Sofie gently coaxed me into a night out. There was going to be a big celebration at the beach, which sounded perfect. It was a short walk on a steep decline to get to the seashore. We passed luxury vacation homes that were alive with balcony parties and a general sense of revelry. The beach party was looking up and promised to be the most exciting place in town. When we reached our destination, the crowds were thick and police were directing traffic which was backed up for miles. We were expecting live music and a fireworks display at midnight, but almost immediately a rumor passed that the fireworks had been cancelled. A little puzzling and unable to get confirmation from any officials, Sofie and I decided to grab a drink and wait it out. It was approximately 10:30pm. Unfortunately, the only bar in this section of beach was booked for a private party so we were denied entry. Grrrr…. To that end, the rest of the beach was completely dry of alcohol (or any other drinks for that matter). We found a place to sit and watched many of the party goers (those who were more resourceful than we) stumble about after consuming copious amounts of booze that they were wise enough to bring themselves. Still struggling to get any real information about the fireworks situation, we debated leaving early. To watch the mostly sober audience lightly sway to the live hip hop music was a real treat, though, and it helped bide our time. Finally, midnight struck and there were indeed fireworks (like they have in Plett every year). It seemed silly we had even questioned it. Without any reason to stick around, we trudged back up that hill and were in bed before 12:30am. There’s always next year…..right?

With a good night’s sleep under our belt, Sofie and I decided to spend New Year’s Day hiking on the Robberg Peninsula. We had to hire a taxi for a reasonable rate who would drive us to the peninsula and we were to call him on his mobile when we were done. The rate we were quoted was for round trip and he told us we could just pay him when we returned. The hike itself was about 9 km, first walking on a cliff edge before descending down toward the coast and clambering over rocks, then an amble on the beach, and last climbing back up to the parking lot. We saw heaps of seals swimming below the shimmering water; signs warned about the prevalence of sharks. It was a relatively quiet venture with spectacular views, although I ran out of water early on and was pushed to finish quickly only from the intense thirst in my throat. Back in the parking lot, there was a spigot with cool clean water that tasted amazing. Sofie tried to call our taxi driver only to learn that she didn’t have a mobile signal. We asked if the park ranger could try for us and after several attempts, we were told that our driver was busy and wouldn’t be able to retrieve us for more than an hour. The taxi company suggested we should try hitchhiking….

Well, that was a first and certainly not a last. It seemed odd to me that this was a better solution for the taxi company and frankly, neither Sofie or I were very keyed in to this idea either. We waited a while and gave in. Both of us novice hitchhikers, we didn’t really know how to start, although the reality was that every car going past were people on holiday and 90% of them would be driving to or passing through Plett so it shouldn’t really be that hard. We waited at the park gate so cars would have to slow down anyway and looked for those that had room for two passengers. We half-heartedly tried to stop a car or two but we weren’t committed so the vehicles kept driving. On our first genuine attempt, we were immediately offered a ride as if this kind of thing happens all the time. It was a young couple from England that were on holiday from their post with Doctors Without Borders in Malawi. We all laughed at our predicament of being stood up by the taxi company before they dropped us off within a few blocks of our hostel. Piece of cake!

The next day Sofie bravely tackled the Bloukrans Bungee Jump (much respect, girl!), while I prepared to leave for The Crags. I’m still not sure if The Crags is really a name of a town or if it’s an area or if it is some obscure reference to the residents. There was only one place to stay to my knowledge – Wild Spirit. Again, there were plenty of campers, yet I stayed in a dorm that was in a type of bunk house without bunks. A relatively large room with eight individual beds sharing one bathroom and a large balcony under the constant threat of thieving baboons. Because of the baboons, a few dogs were kept on the property and hence there was constant and violent barking. The three smelly English boys I met in Wilderness were in my room again. The disdain we held for each other before was starting to dissipate when they found out how long I had been traveling and suddenly they thought I was cool.  

I could see the appeal of Wild Spirit to some. Dream catchers hung from the ceiling, a collection of musical instruments, books, and games were available for public use, yoga lessons on offer for a small fee, a couple of short hikes directly from the property, and a bar and meals prepared onsite as well. They kind of gave you everything you needed because the only place remotely within walking distance was a small farm store that was apparently understocked. In a way, it was great except for the fact that some people actually never left. Some had been there for weeks and a couple of others had been there for months. It was the black hole of hippies that were their own little community of misfits and souls (some lost, some not.)

After the thieving that had happened in Wilderness over Christmas, I inquired about lockers in the dorm rooms and was told unequivocally that there were no thefts here. I pretended to agree with them, but insisted that it only takes one person and I would like to know if there was somewhere to lock up my valuables. The receptionist assured me that there were no thefts because a week or so earlier, a guest had his wallet and phone stolen but they were returned to him the next day without any money missing….so that clearly proves there are no thefts. Or else he just misplaced them and then found them. Either one…. I wasn’t satisfied with the answer except I had to accept that there were no lockers. In these cases, I usually carried my passport, phone and money with me, leaving only my tablet behind. I would tuck my iPad in my dirty laundry so as to deter people from snooping around. Ah, the life of a backpacker…

The next day I signed on to do a hike with a couple of girls that I met – Julia from Germany and living in Scotland, Cosima from Austria, and Caroline from the US currently living in South Africa and working with animals in Kruger National Park. Wild Spirit offered a round trip transfer for a hike in Tsitsikamma National Park for a reasonable price. The transfer was just the owner giving us a lift in her sedan and telling us it would be best if we hitchhiked on the way back. Here we go again…. She said that she had no way of knowing when we would finish and the time she expected us to finish would be a busy time for someone to pick us up. For real!

Deciding we would worry about that later, we completed a round trip hike that wasn’t unlike the one at Robberg Peninsula. It took us over cliffs, past a lagoon, and to the quiet beach in Nature’s Valley. Iridescent snails slithered in mounds that had been washed ashore. Few people were there for swimming, but a few lazy lovers and a few more family picnics were scattered on the sand. We had been warned that we would need to check the tide schedule before proceeding on the same path. At high tide, the traditional path would be submerged so we would need to take an alternate trail. We had a pizza lunch at the only restaurant in the village and they told us the tide had indeed come in. By taking the alternative trail, we finished much earlier than anticipated and as we were nearing the trailhead, we began discussing to hitchhike or not to hitchhike… I wasn’t entirely opposed to the idea after the easy time of it in Plett, but now we were four people so it would be more difficult to find a car large enough to accommodate all of us and we were reluctant to split up. Meanwhile, we called Wild Spirit and were again encouraged to find another ride. We were tired and thirsty and exposed in the sun, but none of us looked for another ride too enthusiastically. Finally, Wild Spirit clunked up in a beat up old van and acted as if this was completely normal.

The next day I participated in the yoga class before joining these same girls for a short hike to a waterfall directly on the property. The sky was bulging with rain clouds and curious baboons watched us from a distance. Because most of the other Wild Spirit residents had been living there for eons and had been on this hike before, we were the only four trekking to the waterfall that day. It was a pretty average waterfall, but we took turns diving in for some photos in the icy water and it was a fun group to have this place all to ourselves. As we walked back, the rain started. It was refreshing rather than a washout and didn’t deter Julia and I from a couple of other short walks later that day. We walked to God’s Window and The Big Tree and through The Magic Forest. I half expected little leprechauns or fairies to greet us in the forest, but I’ll just let those names speak for themselves.

That evening I bid another farewell to these lovely ladies when the Baz Bus picked me up for Stormsrivier. Imagine my disappointment when I realized the same three English boys would again be in my room at Dijembe Backpackers Hostel. Dijembe was a real gem. The bunks were three high and looked as if they had been carved directly out of a tree, not in a kitschy theme kind of way, but in a rustic i-hope-i-have-running-water kind of way. In all fairness, the owner was super nice and worked harder than I saw just about any other owner work. Breakfast was included in the morning – the offering being raw pancake batter that you could cook yourself and I snagged a couple of eggs from a basket that had been freshly collected. A large angry sheep was tied up in the front yard. After buying new hiking shoes in Knysna, I had been carrying around my old shoes looking for an appropriate place to leave or donate them. I asked the owner if he could find a use and he heartily accepted them. Of course, this was before I noticed other people’s old shoes tossed over tree limbs as decoration in the yard.

In any event, the first day had questionable weather so I stuck close to the lodge, just doing a simple hike with only baboons and barely another soul in sight. And when the weather finally cleared up, I took a taxi to the nearest canopy tours for zip lining over a waterfall and the Storms River below. On one zip line, I came so close to the rock face that I could feel water splash in my face and mouth from the waterfall. Once I reached the other side and unhooked from the line, the guide encouraged me to take a selfie only so I could discover that it wasn’t only water that I had on my face. Every passenger had the same muddy splash so this must be a daily amusement for the guides.

For my last day on this leg of the Baz Bus, my ride was not scheduled to pick me up until almost 7pm, en route to the city of Port Elizabeth. I had the whole day at my leisure. I woke up feeling refreshed and full of energy so it was off to hike in a different part of Tsitsikamma National Park again. I hired a taxi to take me to the park entrance, but had him drop me off before we got too close. The entrance fee is different for pedestrians than it is for vehicles and I would be walking anyway. I began on the Otter Trail. The Otter Trail is a famous trek in South Africa that is a point to point venture that takes about five days if you have the appropriate gear and a companion. I was disappointed to miss so much of the long distance trekking that makes South Africa such an outdoor paradise, but the warnings of not being allowed to go alone echoed in my head. I would be completing only half of the first day’s walk before I would return by a different outlet. It was mostly downhill and shaded which was key. I ran into a mother and two sons going the opposite way that asked if they were headed toward the ocean. Considering I was going down and they were going up, I thought the answer might have been obvious. Also, weren’t they just coming from there? How did they miss it? Anyway, I continued on and they continued the opposite way. Sure enough, after more than an hour of downhill I saw the rock cliffs so characteristic of this coastline. I followed the path, climbing over boulders and narrow wooden bridges until I finally reached the waterfall at my destination. A large pool formed at the base of the falls that ultimately emptied into the ocean. Several people swam and played in the water, while I just dunked my feet and soaked up some sun.

For the return, I had been given the option of walking all the way back via Storms River Suspension Bridge or hitching a ride from the campground. There it was again…somebody telling me to hitchhike. It would have been easy. I retraced my steps along the beach, but passed the stairs that would have taken me back to the park entrance. A little further along and it took me to the campgrounds. There were tons of families and couples passing in and out and I’m sure I could have gotten a ride, but I did really want to see the bridge and it seemed like I would still have enough time to walk all the way back to Dijembe.

The Storms River Suspension Bridge is 77m and hangs only 7m over the churning water below. Kayakers were just emerging from the canyon beyond and approaching the water that was rushing in from the Indian Ocean. As the surf would come in, the water would stir up and push the kayakers backward. There were two other smaller bridges with equally impressive vantage points. I crossed the final bit and began climbing steep rocks on the other side for the final ocean view point before I would venture inland. The sun was in full force and I was absolutely pouring sweat by the time I got to the top. While I had seen a few people on the way down, the viewpoint was completely vacant when I arrived. I took a bit of a rest and for the first time, I realized I was hungry. I had brought a banana and had intended to stop by the campsite to buy something else. I’m a bit puzzled as to how I forgot, but I did and I was famished. I checked the map and there were approximately 4-5 miles still to walk so time to get started while ignoring the rumbling in my stomach.

The trail I would return on was actually a mountain bike trail, relatively wide and flat, and most of it was not indicated on my map. After a couple of false starts down the wrong path, it set me behind schedule. The Baz Bus would be picking me up at 7pm and I was confused as to how far I had to walk, let alone how long it would take me. The walk was nice and not strenuous at all. I was acutely aware that here I was completely alone after I had been told repeatedly not to go anywhere alone. With that said, I never felt any danger, although I sure could have used a distraction from the hunger pains if I had seen more people out there. At one point, I passed three people that I recognized from my hostel. They were headed the opposite direction and luckily, they had an energy bar to spare. They also indicated about how long it would take me to get back which was a huge relief so I could lessen my pace. When I got closer to town, I knew it because there were loads of Segway tours and a few horseback riders. I shoveled in a pizza and a chocolate chip cookie because I thought I deserved it after walking 35,000 steps that day!

It was my last day on this leg of the bus, which was considered the mainstream leg (and the safest). I would be staying in Port Elizabeth that night and leaving the next day for the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape. I was excited and a little apprehensive to see just how wild it really was.

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