Weekend on the Rim of Africa

The Western Cape of South Africa is home to some very impressive mountains that stand as rocky monuments above the cape vineyards and farms. Connecting the Cederberg Mountains in the north to the Outeniqua Mountains in the south-east, the Rim of Africa trail has been born to lead hikers into this unfrequented mountain wilderness. Last weekend I followed the trail’s creators to witness part of the adventure of developing ‘a trail of no ordinary proportions’.

We pulled over on the side of the N1, searching for the tentative hiking route for the weekend. My travel companions, the ‘midwives’ of the Rim of Africa trail, Galeo Saintz and Ivan Groenhof, brought me along to the mountains of the Hex River Valley. Out there I was lucky to see the trail’s development on two fronts: the formalities side of their work meeting with local farmers to discuss land access, and the rough and dirty side of their work scouting an area of trail.

Our Friday afternoon meetings with two farmers could not have been more different. The first took place with a farmer and his two sons in their farm office. All of it went over my head in Afrikaans (a local language), but I could tell the conversation was strictly to the business at hand and well received. Within ten minutes we had arranged for a place to sleep the night and permission to walk on their land the following day and later this year.

The other meeting brought us into a beautiful sunny garden of a fifth-generation farm and lasted over five hours as our conversation frequently wandered over tea and tangents. But for all the joking and tales exchanged, this farmer had read over the Rim of Africa website with a fine-tooth comb and had a quiver of notes and questions aimed directly at his concerns. Once we finally closed our meeting late in the evening, we left dazed with a blend of bewilderment, optimism, and excitement. Clearly, this was just the start of a very long conversation about access to wild places, land zoning, environmental impacts, tourism, long-term conservation, and more.

The vast mountainous areas of the Western Cape are typically owned by farmers in valleys local to the mountains; simply attributed as the mountains create the streams that irrigate the fields. Rim of Africa engages with these mountain land owners (mostly farmers) along the trail’s route to obtain permission to camp or hike on their land. In exchange, Rim of Africa offers to help farmers find ways to benefit from the various options of conserving the land. Every farmer is as unique as their land and each partnership or agreement formed by Rim of Africa is done with lots of consideration.

I learned that many of the farmers are concerned about protecting their mountain lands, but I thought it ironic that few have ever actually walked over their mountains. It takes a unique mix of respect and madness to inspire those of us who do visit the mountains to get up there, and luckily that’s what those who join the Rim of Africa family specialize in.

After a great night of sleeping out under the stars, Ivan, Galeo and I were joined by Mallorie and Liesl (sisters) and Ann. They joined us to practice leading on trail, Rim of Africa style. Without a foot-path to follow, trail leaders must walk with compass and map in hand and a heart and mind-set on tuning into the mountain to find the way forward.

We started walking Saturday morning with an idea of how to get from ‘point a to b’  based on a reading of the map. But maps do not always show you what you will find on the mountain, which we found out later when four-wheeler tracks we were following became over-grown and completely washed out by a river. As Galeo correctly points out, ‘to walk is to know’ and we were there to get to know this mountain.

Mallorie and I chatted as we slowly made our way through the bushes. Passing through this nondescript patch of fynbos, we were both excited by the layers of natural scents carried by the air. A mix of buchu and other plants gave a anise smell to this lovely piece of mountain.

Walking out there I became more attentive to the weather, the falling rumble of the highway noise,  and the cuts from sharp bushes on my legs. I let my heart-rate determine my gain of elevation and walking pace. As I kept stepping upward, I took time to mentally settle any lingering stress from the city to focus at the mountain ahead.

Walking brought us together as a group. Surrounded by big landscapes and souring weather, a simple day hike could easily turn into a dangerous mountain situation. Our hike for the day brought us up a 1,000 meter mountain, with most of it difficult to navigate around large boulders and over blind slopes. The boulders also made it easy to lose track of group members, requiring us to stay close or whistle to find each other after someone passed around a boulder.

A favorite point for most of us on the trail was a gorge that we stumbled onto near the top of the mountain. We knew there was a drop ahead, but were completely surprised by its massive size and grandeur. Our excitement was only surpassed by a growing concern for foul weather as we watched the clouds blanket the mountain where we were headed and the temperature cooled.

We picked up pace and made it to the top before cloud covered all of our navigation references. After catching a quick bearing, we moved out of the reaches of the mists and down the other side of the mountain. Liesl later best described how it felt to be headed down: ‘that wonderful warm feeling of safety and achievement that floods you when you move through a potentially risky leg of a trip —the dark spiral clouds, the jagged landscape, the roaring wind— as if we had just escaped the ragged teeth of a crocodile.’

Walking without a footpath in such large landscapes was a unique experience for me. I’ve spent lots of time hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering, but since most of it was in the United States the trails are clearly marked and well-traveled. Walking here required me tune into the mountain mentally, which also allows for a peace of mind hard to reach elsewhere.

‘Elevation is soul food… It’s like short-wave to the universe.  And usually there is a silence that allows for that oneness, wholeness, completion.  Nature reminds us of our place in the world.’  -Ann

The sun was setting once we found our sometimes washed-out and other-times over-grown four-wheeler tracks which lead us to our rendezvous point for the evening. That last hour of walking in darkness brought closure to our day spent walking and the landscape shrunk to only what was visible in my ‘head-torch’ light.

My day on the Rim of Africa trail hit home how valuable these mountains are: not only to the farmers, wildlife, and ecosystem, but to ourselves as we enter wilderness areas. The Rim of Africa trail protects these mountain regions by supporting farmers in protecting their land through various means. They also enable people to walk the mountains to known the true value of wilderness areas – impressing an ethos of conservation and awareness to nature.

My experience with Ivan, Galleo and the other trail leaders was rejuvenating and inspiring. And all of this from one weekend, I can only dream what walking the entire 650+ kilometer route would be like.