Monthly Archives: January 2012

Walking the Oyster Catcher Trail

November 2011

Mossel Bay from Ana's Place

The Oyster Catcher Trail was probably the trail that first put the idea of ‘slackpacking’ on the hiking agenda.Readingabout it five or six years ago, was what first stimulated my interest in the idea of comfortable hiking. Amazingly, it has taken me this long to do it, but I was given to opportunity to join a group on the trail last Friday. In summary it lived up to and exceeded my expectations, with the only disappointment being the environmentally disastrous Pinnacle Point Golf Estate that has scarred a section of the coast line – more about that later.

Lighthouse at the Point

On Friday evening we gathered at the impressive Ana’s Guest House in Mossel Bay, for introductions and pre-trail briefing. This certainly set the bench mark for accommodation, with luxury appointments and a wonderful view over Mossel Bay from the second floor balcony. Tim, John, Hans & Ursula were already there, wine glasses in hand. Alex and Camilla, arrived shortly afterwards; having taken the long and scenic route fromCape Town, through Hermanus.

Surfing rocks

Fred ‘Mr Oyster Catcher’ Orben quickly broke the ice, making sure all glasses were charged and asking each member of the party where they were

from: Tim –Ireland (& George), John –Wales, Hans & Ursula (Germany), Alex and Camilla –England & Australia and of course, myself from Cape Town. The briefing was informal and humorous and we were quickly given an overview of the programme for the next few days.

Restaurants with a view,the Point - Mossel Bay

Transport to dinner at the Kingfisher arrived promptly at seven. Informal, with a magnificent setting overlooking the beach, it did not take the group too long to feel as if we were old friends. The menu offered a good variety, with a leaning towards seafood (what else in this setting), but plenty for the carnivores.

After a good meal and a few shared bottles of wine, most of us, having driven up from Cape Town, were ready for the luxury of our duvets.

Day 1

Hans & Ursula - d'bistro for breakfast

The sun streamed through my window by about 5.30, but I still managed to doze for some time after that. The gathering time was 7.45, so there was plenty of time for a slow wake up. We were all downstairs in good time to meet Willie, our guide for the next few days. After a quick cup of tea, he gathered us together for the short walk to ‘d’bistro’, our breakfast venue. Breakfast was substantial, with selection of fruit salad, fruit juice and cereals, plus a delicious scrambled egg filled croissant with bacon and tomato – mmm. Clearly this was not going to be a trail on which we were likely to lose much weight.

Willie holding the star of the show

Orange star fish

After breakfast, we left the Bistro to begin the proper trail. We walked through town to the Point, close to where we had dinner the previous evening. The early young surfers seemed so close you could touch them, surfing straight towards to the rocky headland, but never seeming to be in any danger of surfing onto the rocks. Willie led us to the rock pools and within minutes he had located a huge orange starfish to show us. This together with the crabs, alicricals, sea urchins, etc …… that he found along the way, was start of a fascinating introduction to the rocky shores we would be walking along.

The first day's trail

This section is known as the St. Blaize Trail and is a popular day walk of about 15 km along the coast. Most of it is stunningly beautiful, but there is also plenty of evidence of the damage we humans are able to inflict on the natural environment.

The mangy dassies as Cape St Blaize, are a result of visitors to the area feeding them, because they seem “cute”.

The further away from this direct intervention, the fatter and

Trekking the coast is thirsty work - John & water bottle

healthier the dassies become.

As we move away from Mossel Baythe trail route along the cliff tops gave us spectacular and pristine views of the coastline and the rocky shore below. Willie stopped us occasionally to show us a plant with medicinal value or traditional use, to tell us a bit about the history of the Khoi people who occupied the area before

Willie - telling the hiking trail stories

discovery by European explorers or about the interaction between those early sailors and the local inhabitants.

The big shock of the day for me, was when an imposing fence barrier appeared in front of us as we came out of a short gully. The gate in the

fence was guarded by a uniformed security officer, sitting in a lonely wooden guardhouse.

The cliffs from the beach

Each of us had to sign in at this access point to plush Pinnacle Point Resort and Golf Estate. I had heard about this development and felt a bit of resentment at being forced to sign in to an area that for many years had free access to the public and which by rights should have be public land.

Pinnacle Point Golf Club above the historic caves.

Nothing could have prepared me for the aberration that followed. The bloated houses, designed to stand out in the environment to satisfy some owner’s or architect’s ego, the greens built to destroy beautiful cliff faces, the paved paths designed for electric golf carts to carry fat golfers so that they could hit golf balls into the rough of the valleys between the t’s and the greens. In the cliff faces below are caves and that provide evidence of human habitation dating back thousands of years. The contrast between the natural coastline and the obscene human creation highlights all that is bad in this kind of development and the way in which those developers ride roughshod over any environmental concerns and the rights of others.

Trekking past the historic Pinnacle Point Caves. Occupied over 150,000 years ago

After walking through the ostentatious club house, it was a relief to get away from the artificial greens and back on to a path through the natural environments finally exit past a security guard on the other side, very close to beach level. The negative energy dissipated as we walked the orange lichen covered rocks and on to Dana Bay. Ominous clouds were building on the horizon as a predicted cold front moved towards us. As we approached the small settlement where we would spend the night, Willie arranged for the guest house owners to collect us at the end of the path, for transport us to the overnight venue at Bokmakirie Guest House. Sure enough, Koos was there and with the wind picking up and temperature dropping quickly we were all happy to see the comfort of our overnight venue.

Willie striding it out close to the waves - near the end of day 1

Koos and Ria proved to be fantastic hosts, greeting us with a selection of delicious snacks and hot beverages and ginger beer and making us feel welcome. We had a few hours to kill before dinner and I took the opportunity to soak the muscles in a bath before catching a short nap. The evening meal was equally delicious and between us we managed to finish off a few bottles of local Jakalsfontein wine.

Day 2

Not a good early morning outlook for hiking

Trekking across the beach as the rain lifted

The cold front that we had hoped to avoid set in and when I woke in the morning the outlook was bleak. Where there should have been a great view ofDanaBay, there was only mist and light rain. It was an ideal morning to curl up with a book and stay in bed. But we were here to walk and I dragged myself out of bed and down to breakfast, every now and then looking out the window for positive signs the weather would improve. Willie assured us that the walk to Boggamsbaa iwould only take about four hours, so we had time in hand. The rain did seem to be lifiting and after breakfast we made a group decision to wait until 10a.m. before deciding what to do.

Oyster catchers aren't concerned about rain

The alternative would have been to elect to be transported to Boggamsbaai and wait to see if the rain lifted. For me this would have been disappointing.

By 10a.m. the rain had lightened to an intermittent light drizzle and was looking positive.  After some initial indecision, we all decided to brave the elements. By the time we had packed up and summoned transport to take us to the start, it was about 10.45am. Close to the water’s edge the beach was firm and flat and we were able to set off at a brisk pace. Initially the rain held of but as we progressed it began to drizzle lightly again.

Brown rocks, green rock, the sea and the sky

Tim and John set a brisk pace and we had work to keep in touch, particularly as walking with Willie there was a great deal of interesting information about the habits of the Oyster Catcher. By watching them he was able to identify the range of their territory and where their nests were likely to be. It was almost as if the stretch of beach had been demarcated for them as each couple guarded a section, running up and down and shrieking at us as we approach and calming down as we passed. Willie found a nest to show me, a hollow in the sand concealed behind a natural sand bar, with two large, grey speckled eggs. Not wanting to agitate

Oyster Catcher eggs in the sand

them too much we photographed the eggs and left quickly.

Further along the beach we came across a leatherback turtle, stranded up on the sand. It was obviously injured and Wille lifted it carefully back in to the water. It was too far along the beach to be able to arrange further rescue. It seemed to revive a little in the water and moved off towards deeper water, for nature to take it’s course. Later on in the walk we came across a second stranded turtle. I was convinced that it was dead, but when Willie also lifted this one back to the water it seemed to raise it’s head in gratitude. It seemed to me less likely to survive than the first.

Willie to the turtle rescue

By this time the front runners of the group had almost disappeared in to the distant mist and we had to forego a visit to a prominent shell midden at Nautilaus Bay in order that they did not get too far ahead. The rain did seem to be lifting, but Willie was concerned that they would overshoot path up to Boggomsbaai. Eventually he decided to catch up with them, leaving me to enjoy a more leisurely pace and enjoy the beach walk. The rain stopped completely now, enabling me to enjoy the beach and allow time for my clothes to dry out before getting to the overnight accommodation.

Oyster Catcher on the sand

By the time I got in, the rest of the group had found their accommodation and settled in to dry out. Willie showed me to my cottage, where a fire was already burning in the fire place and a nice little bowl of snacks to supplement lunch. It was only just after 2p.m. and there was plenty of time to relax and enjoy the afternoon. After a leisurely bath to warm up, nice cup of tea and a few more logs on the fire to help the soaked boots dry out, I went out to join Fred for a beer.

Dinner at Boggomsbaai - Tim, Ursula, Hans, Alex and Camilla

Boots are made for warming - ready to hike tomorrow

There was still plenty of time before dinner, so I wandered around enjoying the abundant bird life of Boggomsbaai before dinner. Dinner was a very sociable affair around the table next to the huge fireplace at the Sunbird Centre. Clearly with the size of the logs on the fire Fred was expecting us to dine until the early hours of the morning. Nevertheless, after being entertained by Tim, with his typical Irish gift of the gab and the never ending banter between him and John, we retired at a reasonable hour to prepare ourselves for the longest walk of the trail the next day.

Day 3

The group ready to tackle the final day

Oyster Catcher on the mussel bank

The idea of walking 19km from Boggomsbaai to the Gouritz River Mouth was quite daunting after two fairly easy days. This particularly as the terrain looked quite a bit rougher. After the usual hearty breakfast, we set off through the streets of the sleepy seaside village and headed towards the beach. We had hardly left the Sandpiper Centre, when Willie was already finding a few interesting plants to identify and explain the uses – use this one for a tight chest and this one relieves indigestion and don’t touch this one it is poisonous.

Oyster catcher pair on the tide line

There is the usual variety of closed up holiday homes, some huge and ostentatious and others small and more typical of a cottage by the sea. There were a few that were occupied for by their retired owners, with beautifully kept gardens and features. After the previous day’s rain the air was crisp and clear and it was good to feel the sun. Almost immediately after reaching the beach, the oyster catchers were screeching at us, protecting their territory. There are more rock pools and features on this stretch and we spent quite a bit of time exploring these, with Willie helping us identify the various forms of sealife. We disturbed a seagull feasting on a pilchard, presumably caught close by, but determined not to let go of his breakfast.

Tasty pilchard

Vleesbaai is not far from Boggomsbaai and we soon came across the famous oyster beds of the area. Concession holders were searching for potentially harvestable oysters, with their long iron bars, probing and feeling, looking for good ones and pulling out ones that had not developed to make room for new growth. John and Tim questioned one of the ladies busy with her harvest until she gave them an oyster each to try.

Vleesbaai is reputedly the place where European explorers first came in to contact with  the local Khoe people. Bartholomew Diaz, the Portuguese explorer, looking for a sea route toIndiawas blown round theCapein a storm in 1488. Turning West after the storm abated he made landfall here and was able to barter for provisions and water, before his crew mutinied and forced him to return toPortugal, making landfall at theCapeon their way.

The village is a typical seaside resort, with both small cottages that have been in families for generations and quite a number of larger second

Protect the asset

homes that look as though they can accommodate the full extended families. The path runs along the seafront and along the boeardwalk on to a nice firm path slightly above the shoreline. Willie plant knowledge comes to the fore once more as he identifies various plants found on this route, including some used in the manufacture of poison for use on the arrow tips of the San people for hunting purposes. There are others that have medicinal use or

purely for their scent or insect repellent properties. Also along this path are a few interesting shell middens, clearly indicating human occupation of the area dating back a few thousand years.

The relaxed way to hike

The coastline now becomes a lot more rocky with the trail negotiating uneven terrain, past crevices and rock pools, clambering up short steep terrain and then descending back down, close to where the waves are breaking. Willie stops from time to time to pick a periwinkle out of a rock pool to show us how the trap door opens and shuts, or to identify an interesting marine growth on the rocks. We came across another Oyster Catcher egg lying in the sand, as the angry parents tried to distract us away from the nest. White breasted cormorants watched us from their vantage points on the rocks as we passed by. Occasionally we stopped, just to enjoy the sound of the sea and the might of the breaking waves.

Willie & John - caught by the tide

Trekking up from the beach

Running a bit short on time, instead of following the path all the way around the coast, we took a short cut on a steep path up the dunes, meeting the road just before Fransmanshoek. We descended on to the rocky peninsula with it’s small, white beach on the eastern side. No lunch packs were provided today, because down on the beach a table was set up with cold drinks, salad, a delicious pasta, fresh fruit and even coffee. What a welcome site. Boots and socks came off for a paddle in the sea, before tucking in to the meal.

Tim & John examining something interesting

Buffet on the beach - Fransmanshoek

Fransmanshoek is the site of the wreck of the French Man-O-War,

le Fortune, the story of which is featured in the small museum at the view site. After a quick look around we continued our walk.

Trekking up the sand dunes

Sutherlandia bush with seed pods

From here, there is an alternative of staying on the coast or returning along the road to the top of sand dunes on the western side of the peninsula. To walk along the top of these high dunes is one of the features of this trail, but trudging up from the beach is quite an effort. On Willie’s advice we decided to follow the road and were quite pleased that we did. The dunes are certainly impressive, apart from being unexpectedly different from any of the terrain we had walked up to

Trekking down to the beach

now, they give a stunning view of the coastline the end point of the trail in the distance. Walking along the wind blown ridges, with deep amphitheatres between them, one could have been in the middle of a dessert.   Parts are overgrown by alien stands acacias, but there are also an impressive number of the legendary Cancer bush (Sutherlandia). The occasional sound of chain saws in the distance provide evidence of efforts to clear the invasive species.

Not the three stooges

The little settlement of Kanon, the next landmark on the trail, looks quite a way away along the beach as we descend along the ridge of the tallest dune and back down to the beach to head for Kanon. The beach revealed some interesting rock formations, lots of jelly fish and a few colourful pieces of seaweed. Just before reaching Kanon, Willie showed us a large shell midden set well back from the beach. The number of mussels, limpets, periwinkels and abalone that needed to be eaten to make up these huge piles of shells is quite staggering.

Shell middens - probably thousands of years old

Kanon itself is a small resort with a campsite and bungalows. The canon retrieved from the wreck of le Fortune are on display and it is from these that it gets it’s name. Finally on the last leg of the trail, the path comes close to the coast. The most significant feature of this stretch, as we head towards theGouritzRivermouth, is the amount of flotsam and debris washed up on to the rocks and gullys. Logs from huge trees, roots, branches and all are piled up along the coast, evidence of the destruction caused by the Laingsberg floods, way back in 1981. What impacted was how long after the event, the results could still be seen so clearly. Willie spotted a seagull nest with eggs sitting in a rocky hollow, lined with small branches. The seagulls were disturbed by our presence and became quite aggressive, diving down close to my head as I stopped to photograph them.

Purple rocks - encrouching on the sand

The river mouth is a good deal wider than I expected and the small town on the other side larger than anticipated. The bird life became more abundant, both giant and pied kingfisher being spotted by various members of the group and a jackal buzzard souring overhead. The site of the motor boat that was to take us to the other side of the river was a welcome one, at the end of a long and interesting day. Transport waited to take us back to Boggomsbaai and a welcome beer.

It was a festive dinner that evening, starting withFred Orbanwelcoming us with fresh Vleesbaai oysters and some excellent sparkling wine. Willie presented us all with our certificates and there were special awards for Tim & Camilla. The trail will not only be remembered for it’s great scenery and fantastic trekking, but for the good company, good humour, laughter and friendship.

I retired for the night, happy and comfortable and a little sad to leave. I will certainly return to do the Hunter Gatherer Trail in the same area and

Ancient fish traps

perhaps to experience the slightly less luxury ‘Green’ version of the trail, where all the same facilities are provided, but with hikers doing their own catering.

Oyster Catcher Trail Nov 2011

Frank Dwyer

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