Goodbye to the Dolphin Trail

Wednesday evening, March 10
Sadly, we saw no dolphins today. (We hear January is the best time for that.) We saw no otters, either, though there was plenty of otter dung. Apparently their practice is to rise early from their dens among the rocks along the ocean, then creep up the streams that trickle down from the bluffs, snacking on fish and crustaceans and whatever else they can find. They ascend for about 1000 feet, chill out up at the top, then make their way back at the end of the day.

Stan also pointed out where porcupines had dug under bushes, seeking tasty roots and ants. Polecats do something similar, and we saw those scratchings too. We failed to spot any bush pigs or snakes, and the closest we came to baboons today was a couple of deposits of their excrement, “You can recognize it because it looks a lot like human’s, ” Stan told us. Still, for all that we failed to see, for as much as much as my (bad) left knee aches at the moment, this two-day hike has to rank among the most memorable of my life.

For one thing, our weather luck was wonderful. It was so hot when we drove from Pt. Elizabeth to the park Monday morning that the air flowing through the vents into our (un-air-conditioned) car felt like it was coming from the heater. An hour after we checked into the park cabin, the moisturizer in the tube in my suitcase was still hot to the touch. But Tuesday (the first day of our hike) dawned much cooler and a mix of clouds and sun made the trekking ideal. Today was even mistier, even foggy at times, but that too felt refreshing. By the time we stopped for our final picnic lunch, distant thunder was rumbling, and we expected we might get soaked in the final stretch before we reached the Fernery lodge. The rain held off, however, until just a few minutes ago. Now it’s pouring amidst thunder and lightning, a goodsend in this parched region.

At the picnic in the woods, where another Fernery employee named Marius had arrived to set up a table filled with homemade bread, gourmet cheeses, cold cuts, salad, and a pudding pie, Marius asked if we usually hike when we travel. Although there’ve been a few memorable exceptions (e.g. the Inca Trail), we had to say no. And the question made me wonder why we’d chosen to do so here. Why escape into nature for two days, when our goal has been to gain better understanding of the people and cultures within South Africa?

Getting to know Stan actually did wind up advancing that goal nicely. Our leave-taking yesterday was emotional; it amazes me what a relationship one can form in just two days. Beyond that, however, I’d have to say I’d suspected the physical beauty of this trail would justify hiking it. And it did. The plant life alone was enchanting — so many plants that are fixtures of life in San Diego — agapanthus, calla lilies, ice plant, society garlic — growing wild here, and so much many more wonderful things I’d never seen.

We climbed up the sides of cliffs so steep I was gasping at the top, followed trails frighteningly close to murderous abysses, penetrated dark, green leafy sanctuaries that Stan called “the jungle,” but then amended, when pressed. True jungles are actually a bit wetter than these “Afro-montane forests,” he said. But they felt jungly, filled as they were with hidden vervet monkeys and baboons, exotic snakes, huge insects.

Best of all, I think, was the second day, when we descended from the Misty Mountain Reserve to the shoreline, which we followed for several hours. Here the sea meets the land not on sandy beaches but at huge black Table Mountain sandstone formations thickly veined with quartz. The layers have been tilted over the eons by almost 70 or 80 degrees, and the edges worn away so that they look not like delicate lines in a block of solid rock, but rather enormous pancake stacks, with jagged, frayed edges. It almost made me dizzy to look at them — as of the world had turned sideways and I had somehow remained off-kilter. The first time we reached a shore like this, Steve and I both quailed. How could we traverse the daunting jumble of rock? We learned the answer as we followed steady, sure-footed Stan: the formations actually provided dozens of footholds at every turn. You just had to take your time and find them.

Stan was off work today, so Marius drove us in a Land Rover back to the park, along a dirt road that 50 years ago was the only way route for vehicles to get from Cape Town to Pt. Elizabeth. It was an interesting drive, through pine plantations and dairy farms, and when we arrived back at the park, we took an even more amazing trip, on a boat up the narrow gorge through which the Storms River flows to the sea.

Now we’ve into the Phantom Forest Eco-Reserve, recommended by our friends the Zatkins. Tomorrow we’ll set off on the Road More Traveled by tourists — along the so-called Garden Route, to the cape wine country for a day, then finally to explore Cape Town until next Thursday next, when we fly home. It will probably be less adventurous than what we have been experiencing. But I’m guessing it still won’t feel like we’re back in Kansas yet.

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