Backpack Hike

Amatola Trail
30 Dec 2012 - 4 Jan 2013

Participants: Neil Ransome, Coen Terblanche, Paul van Beek, Cathy Phillips, Penny Allen, Sabine Behr

The Amatola is an exciting six day trail starting at Maden Dam near King William’s Town and finishing near Hogsback. A lot of the time will be spent walking in the indigenous forests, up and down steep mountains and crossing many rivers. There are endless waterfalls, cascades and pools for the hiker to enjoy.

We spent the night before the hike at Terra Khaya in Hogsback, a very interesting eco-friendly backpackers, where everything gets recycled and you can have a bath under the stars overlooking the valley!
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Day one: 15,3km

Shane, the owner of Terra Khaya, dropped us off at Maden Dam, and after the obligatory group photo, we started in high hopes for this six day adventure to take its course. I immediately got tangled in numerous spiderwebs that had made their web across the path so that I ended up holding up my one hiking stick in front of me and destroying the webs as I came in touch with them. It looked like I was in a fencing competition fighting against an imaginary opponent! The Gwili loop was especially over grown, and looked like not many people did this loop. We found a lovely spot at the river with a pool that was very inviting for a swim. The three ladies immediately got changed and jumped into the icy water – it was freezing cold, although it was the middle of summer. The three guys had their lunch and watched from the safety of their rocks, they were not interested in the cold water.

Right from the start we saw many “turds” made by the giant earthworm, which is only found in the Amatola area. We were fascinated by them and were wondering if we would actually see these elusive earthworms on our trail.

It was very humid and the whole day was spent walking in the forest up and down the mountains. The group was struggling towards the end of the day and we took many small breaks. Finally, after the final push up to the top of the mountain, we got to our first hut – Gwili Gwili. The mist had come in. Total time on the trail – 8hrs.

The huts are all similar – wooden structures with bunkbeds and mattresses. Flush toilets or long drops and showers with a donkey to heat up the water.

Half an hour after our arrival, two lone hikers, Lisa and Rob, showed up. They were also from Johburg and we welcomed them in our group and invited them to join us for the following days, which they greatfully accepted and thoroughly enjoyed.

Day 2: Gwili Gwili to Dontsa hut – 19,6km

We woke up at first light and brewed up some coffee and made breakfast. The weather was miserable, drizzling non- stop. We walked through the forest the whole morning, slip sliding over slippery rocks and along wet paths. Suddenly I saw a giant earthworm lying in the path – it was huge! We all gathered around and measured it to be about 2m long. Neil picked it up and we studied it close up. We never saw these earthworms deposit the enormous mounds of wet sand and couldn’t quite figure out whether they pushed the soil up from underground or whether they deposited this from the top! Apparantly, when stretched, they can reach lengths of up to 6m! In total, we saw five of these worms, the first one being the largest.

We came to an intersection and studied the map. The shorter route was going down into the forest and back up to the hut and the longer route contoured around a mountain. We decided on the longer route hoping for some views and walking out in the open. We found some broken down farm buildings, where we got shelter from the constant drizzle for a rest and a lunch break. It cleared up as we walked past settlements and along a path on the side of a hill. Later, back in the forest, it started raining again and didn’t stop until we got to the hut, where we dashed inside for cover. Rob and Lisa had taken the shorter route and had arrived a lot earlier so Rob was busy with the fire already. With the wood wet and no proper firelighters, starting a fire was a mission. We looked at the donkey but realised that we couldn’t heat it up as we didn’t have a spade to transfer coal from the main fire to the tiny compartment under the donkey. It would be another cold wash tonight.

It was new year’s eve tonight so we celebrated the new year early and brought out all alcohol we had - a small bottle of OBS from me and two tiny bottles of amarula from Coen. Neil had some whiskey but none of us really liked it, so he had it for himself. By 8.30pm we were in bed. Rain forecast for the next day was 100% - great!

Day 3: Dontsa to Cata hut – 17km

It had rained all night and had become much colder. We studied the map for today and decided in each case to take the easier route as the rivers were going to be flooded and crossings could become problematic. And so it was at the 4km mark – we got to a waterfall with a river crossing that looked absolutely impossible to cross. The waterfall was coming down in full flood, the water hurtling past us and down the mountain – it was scary. Just as I was thinking we had to bail out, Paul said he had a rope with him! Great! Coen, being the strongest and bravest, tied the rope to a tree on the one side and waded through the river, about knee deep to the other side and tied it to another tree. With the safety of a rope, this crossing seemed doable. One by one we held onto the rope for dear life whilst negotiating through the fast flowing water. Our boots were wet anyway, and if they weren’t, then they would have gotten wet now. Luckily we could keep our packs on. We got to the end of the rope and now a bottleneck occurred as the next part was a really slippery section across a huge rock at a steep angle. We had to wait for everyone to get to this point, remove the rope and tie it to the next section to get across there. We all made it in one piece, and Rob and Lisa were glad to be with us, as they would have had to bail out if they had been on their own.

We were starving by lunch time but the constant drizzle and cold kept us going. We had a quick snack to get back some energy and before long we got onto the jeep track that should lead us to the next hut. However, with all the forest roads, we got confused and took the wrong route. Not knowing exactly where we were, we decided to rather turn back which added about 5-6km to our day’s walking! Finally at 4pm a wet and frozen bunch of hikers arrived at Cata Hut. A group of people was already there, wanting to walk the last couple of days with their three dogs! They made a fire and I spent the rest of the afternoon in front of the hot flames trying to get warm.

Day 4: Cata to Mnyameni hut – 13,5km

The wind had howled all night and blew the clouds away to give us some sunshine. Today would be a shorter day, so we slept in a bit and only left at 8am. A couple of river crossings right at the start and then we headed up the mountain, the wind still pumping! Beautiful views from the top. Eventually we got into another river gorge in the forest, where we had so many river crossings, I lost count. The river was still flowing quite strongly and each crossing had its moments.

Just after 3pm we arrived at Mnyameni hut. We had heard stories about this hut being vandalised and not fit for sleeping there, but didn’t quite know how bad it was. We were told that we had to phone the forestry department on arrival, they would pick us up about 3km further down, take us to the next hut and then bring us back the following morning. We checked out the hut and found the windows broken and the mattresses gone, the bathroom vandalised, but other than that it was still ok. We decided to stay and sleep on the hard floor, as the following day was 18km, and if we still had to be brought back plus walk the extra 3km uphill, it would make for a tough day! Just as well that we did, as we found out later that the forestry department does not bring the people back the following day – we would have been very upset!

We had a great afternoon, dried out our clothes and boots, built a big fire and spent the evening outside, under the great South African sky.

Day 5: Mnyameni to Zingcuka hut – 18,2km

After a very hard night on the floor, we got up very early – no one could sleep, except for Neil! By 6.30am we were on our way already. The day started with a long trek up the mountain in the forest – the mozzies and spiderwebs were back in full force! Once out of the forest, the bundu bashing started. I could hardly find the path, it was so overgrown. We realised that not many people hike this fifth day of the hike after being dropped off at the following hut. We were wondering how long ago hut number four was actually vandalised.

This was a perfect day for swimming and we crossed the river many times. We stopped for lunch, had a swim in the river, and as we started walking again, found the most beautiful swimming spots of all, slightly off the mark on the map! The route continued along the edge of a mountain with views down into the valley. Luckily there was a row of bushes between us and the drop off into the valley – it could be a problem for people with vertigo. Then the route took us steep down this mountain and back into the forest for another couple of kilometres until we got to the hut. There must have been a good party here recently as the rubbish bins were overflowing.

Day 6: Zingcuka to Hogsback – 18km

The start of the last day and a bit heartsore that the hike was coming to an end, but with the prospect of good food in Hogsback beginning to form in our minds, we got moving quickly to get up Hogsback mountain, our highlight for today. We had stunning views going up the Hog with lots of little flowers to admire. At the top we stopped for a breather, and had some locals coming up from the other side on a day hike. The one lady didn’t have a jersey and she was shivering as the wind was pumping up there, so Cathy gave her something to wear which she greatfully accepted. Across to the other side of the mountain and there the whole mountain side was covered in a carpet of Watsonias, we couldn’t believe it. We got our cameras out and started snapping away at these beautiful flowers - I couldn’t get enough of them. We were getting closer to Hogsback and noticed more holiday makers walking around. We met one couple, cyclists, enjoying the scenery. When they saw us, they wanted to know all about the hike and the gear we were wearing. He was walking barefoot with his camera in one hand and his cycling shoes in the other, not wanting to destroy his shoes on the rough terrain – we called him the Barefoot Man!

The path meandered back into the forest again and steep down another mountain side with more waterfalls to view. Finally we emerged on the road and the hard slog of 3km back to Hogsback started. Luckily the Hogsback Inn was one of the first buildings in town and we could take our packs off for the last time and head to the bar for a well deserved drink!


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Photos & Article By: Sabine Behr

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