Hiking with Puff Adders

Tuesday, March 9

As I commented to Steve yesterday, we’ve now begun the luxury portion of the program. I had mixed feelings about this, after we’d checked into Tsitsikamma National Park (on the southern coast several hundred kilometers east of Cape Town.) Sure the views from the deck of the park restaurant and from our wood cabin — azure ocean with huge breakers crashing on the dark jagged rocks and shooting white spray high into the air — were the stuff of postcards. And our queen-size bed was clad in a much higher grade of linen than we’ve yet seen on this trip. But I felt like we’d left Africa. Except for the workers in the restaurant and shop, everyone was white, and a very high percentage were old, overweight, and Northern European, folks who obviously took pride in (and spent a lot of money on) their elaborate encampments — not merely tents but also lanais and shaded patios and barbecuing areas. Near at hand were scullery rooms where they could clean their dishes in comfort and self-service machines for washing their laundry.

Today my ambivalence resolved. As luck would have it, Steve and I were the only tourists starting the Dolphin Trail hike this morning, and our guide for the three-day adventure is a black African named Stanley. For more than four hours, he led us up steep escarpments and through primieval forests and along paths that hugged precipices plunging to the sea. Spend that much time hiking with anyone and you can learn a thing or ten. Our conversation was at least as varied as the terrain we hiked through. We learned that Stan is 37, married with four kids ranging from 4 to 14, a fluent speaker of Xhosa, Afrikans, and English. He’s worked in tourism for 8 years and yesterday celebrated his first anniversary of leading hikers along the Dolphin Trail. He confided that his dream was to become a guide on big-game safaris; the obstacle in that path was the tuition. (Schooling to acquire the Class 4 certification needed to do such guiding would be close to $10,000.) We talked about what it means to be “colored” in South Africa (as Stan’s wife is). Tomorrow I’m hoping to probe his view of South Africa’s future.

I also learned that I lucked into the best possible hiking choice for us. The most famous hike in South Africa is a 5-day trek along something called the Otter Trail which starts near the Tsitsikamma park administration building and can require reservations almost a year in advance. It’s also quite basic — full-on backpacking in which you have to carry and prepare all your own meals. While much more expensive, our Dolphin Trail trek allows us to carry only a small daypack. Our other suitcases are transported each night to our lodging, which on this second night is even nicer than our “Forest Cabin” last night. In a few minutes, we’ll go to dinner in the main building and (with any luck) have our best meal so far in South Africa. (Up to now, we’ve consumed a lot of stews, curries, and barbecue. Decent food but unspectacular.)

Stan will collect us tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. and he says it’ll take us almost 9 hours to cover the 10 kilometers to our final destination, set amidst a forest of ferns. Perhaps at some point we’ll swim in a natural stone pool next to the sea. With luck we’ll see dolphins and otters, though I don’t know that either one would thrill me as much as the baboons we encountered this morning, including a solitary male, just off the path and not 5 feet away from where we passed. Hopefully, we won’t run into any puff adders or boom slags, the highly poisonous snakes which Stan says are common in these parts. But even if one bit us, we’d have a 24-hour window in which to seek antivenin. “I think most people who die from snakebites, die because of the fear and stress of being bitten,” Stan declared this afternoon. He sounded confident.

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