Wilderness wandering

We’re standing on a beach; fossilised sand dunes towering to the left, the clear water of the Indian Ocean lapping gently on our right. Looking ahead, there’s nothing but pristine white sand and the distant rocky outcrop of Gericke’s Point rising from the ocean spray.

“This,” says Mark Dixon, stretching out his arms, “is my office. And I love it.” Spend just an hour with Dixon and you’ll know that ‘love’ is something of a euphemism, and that the Garden Route is more playground than office.

Armed with infectious enthusiasm and a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of the area he’s called home for more than 10 years, he’s the ideal guide for the five-day Garden Route Trail he’s spent the past five years putting together.

Within minutes of welcoming us at the Ebb and Flow campsite in Wilderness he’s talking about the sights we can expect on the trail’s first day – the seven-kilometre Giant Kingfisher trail that climbs up through the indigenous forests lining the Touw river.

Spotting a Loerie along the path, Mark stops to tell us about the emerald green bird that’s become synonymous with the area. It’s a welcome strategy that jerks your attention to the surrounding natural beauty, preventing the tunnel vision which so often comes with walking trails.

Cooling down in the crystal waters of forest rock pools is pure bliss before the return walk towards Ebb and Flow along the same, winding path.

Twisting the track may be, but it pales in comparison to the Serpentine, a river with even more bends than its name suggests. The three-hour canoe trip is a respite for the legs and an opportunity to soak up the sun – interspersed with refreshing plunges into the river and sightings of the myriad birdlife.

Pulling ashore at the expansive Island Lake we disembark for a brief leg stretch and stroll (that, unfortunately, includes a crossing of the N2) to the overnight B&B. Our bags are waiting when we arrive – the trail includes a brilliant portage service that saves you having to cram everything for a five-day trip into a back-breaking rucksack.

In fact, sweaty clothes or sandy sleeping bags are the last thing you’ll have to suffer. The portage service and guesthouse accommodation allows you to combine the outdoor experience with the comforts of home: a hot shower; real food; fresh, clean clothes; and, most importantly in my book, a soft bed.

Back to ‘the office’

Fully refreshed the next morning we hit the beach – the one Mark calls his office – for the gentle 19km walk from Wilderness to Myoli beach. Along the way Mark tells the group about anything and everything that catches his eye (from the oyster catchers to the plough shells scavenging on a jelly fish) – before we get to the rock pools of Gericke’s Point. Filled with colourful sponges and anemones, a dip in the pools makes me feel like an extra in ‘Finding Nemo’.

The undoubted highlight of the second day, the Point is also the only place you’re likely to come across other people – apart from the occasional fisherman who trundles onto the otherwise deserted, and largely unspoilt, beach.

Even quieter and more desolate is the stretch of white sand that kicks off the trail’s third day – a stunner that takes you through three unique regions. There’s the nine kilometre stretch of beach, the dune forest (a dense canopy of milkwood trees not unlike the Tsitsikamma trail) just above the beach. And, a short walk beyond that featuring a sudden change to sparser fynbos vegetation as the trail descends gradually to the Goukamma River – the last obstacle before day’s end.

Mark plunges into the water, swimming across as I – and the daypacks – take the drier alternative on the pontoon. But the water looks tempting after a hot day of walking and within minutes of arriving at the cosy overnight rondavel I’m splashing about in the river. Paradise.

A little over twelve hours (and a delicious potjiekos meal) later, I’m back in – or rather, on – the water as we’re paddling upstream on a second canoe trip. But, this isn’t a repeat of the Serpentine expedition. The indigenous forests on the banks show off another side to this remarkable area, as fish eagles call above us.

Trudging through the village of Buffalo Bay is less appealing, although the names of the holiday homes are worth a laugh and the short, tarred walk is made worthwhile by the afternoon meal at a beachfront restaurant.

The seafood is a good appetiser for the supper Mark whips up at our destination in Brenton-on-Sea – home of the Brenton Blue butterfly and reached after another relaxed beach walk. Mark’s Cape Salmon dish is, like all the other meals provided on the trail, delicious.

One too many glasses of wine makes the steep climb out of Brenton-on-Sea the next morning all the more difficult, but by the time we leave the tarred road behind, a little under an hour later, I’ve eased easily into the walk. It could also have something to do with the change of scenery – the streets and houses replaced with endless fynbos and views of the Knysna lagoon below – as we descend into the private Featherbed Nature Reserve.

Into the fray

Popular with international tourists, like the party from England we join, the reserve offers a tractor tour and short walk that takes in the western Knysna head and a stretch of the lagoon’s shore. Rather pretty scenery but, after a couple of days of virtual isolation, the crowds of people and commercial edge take some getting used to.

The buffet at trail’s end is beyond reproach though and I’m feeling considerably heavier as I climb on to the ‘Spirit of Knysna’ that takes us across the lagoon and to the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe.

As the vintage steam train makes its way back towards Wilderness, the views of lagoons, mountains and forest get me thinking about the past few days. What strikes me first is the variety – both of activities and natural settings – coupled with the benefit of having a full-time guide to tell you what you’re actually looking at. But Mark is more than a walking tour book: as he provides everything you’ll need, including emergency locksmith skills, there’s nothing for you to worry about except taking in the stunning scenery.

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