Cape Town’s wild and beautiful Whale Trail is a must – as long as you are fit enough to enjoy it.
By Cathy Eden
My energetic neighbour was scandalised when I declined her invitation to join a party of women walking the five-day Whale Trail. 'People fly to Cape Town to do it,' she told me sternly. 'Do you know how rare it is to get a cancellation right in the middle of whale season?'
I listed my reservations: 'I'm not fit. I dislike living out of a backpack. And you know as well as I do that the Cape mountains are alive with baboons, spiders, snakes, ticks and insects just waiting to feast on my fearful flesh. In principle, I'm in favour of the Great Outdoors, but in practice I'd prefer to observe it from a hot air balloon. In short, I detest hiking. So thank you, but no.'
'Nonsense! You'll love it,' she insisted. 'The first day is a little tiring, but the rest is easy. The huts are luxurious and we don't have to carry more than a day pack; the luggage is driven from stop to stop each day. Anyway, it's not as if you haven't done this kind of thing before.'
She had a point. For the sake of a story I have hauled myself up a rock face and abseiled down again. I have camped in dripping fields; I have endured the rigours of the Camino in northern Spain. Perversely, I keep subjecting myself to exertions other people enjoy, when my true calling is to be at home with a book.
I caved in. I bought a hat, sunscreen and massage oil. Since my pack was being transported, I added gin, proper coffee and a few treats to the load. I consoled myself with the thought that, compared to trekking over the Pyrenees in an all-day thunderstorm, the Whale Trail would surely be a breeze.
Half way up the Potberg I remember that to get in shape for the Camino, I had trudged diligently round Rondebosch Common, carrying a pack weighted with canned tomatoes, my thesaurus and the ironing. For this jaunt I have nothing but a few half-hearted gym sessions behind me and I am ready to expire. My lungs burn, my legs wobble. My five fit companions are already out of view. I fantasise about escape, but the fee quoted by the nature conservation officer to rescue reluctant hikers is hefty enough to force me on.
I stop frequently to catch my breath and admire the view. To be honest, I've never been a big fynbos fan. Dusty proteas and straggling watsonias (I call them 'so-what-ias') have never moved me. But now I am coaxed along with lavish visual treats: succulent wedges of magenta and acid green; coppery snowflake shapes frosted with lilac; waxy gold pincushions; jelly-green bushes stretching cherry-red tips to the sun. Protruding above the uniform growth are tall bunches of starched white everlastings, looking to me like bridal bouquets from the grave. The image is a portent: I am almost swept to my doom as the wind meets the trail on a high, exposed ridge.
Our overnight hut is clean and pleasant. A hot shower (the 'luxury') is a bonus after the 15km slog, even though it is outdoors in the path of a biting gale. There is no refrigeration, but tonight the drinks are still cold. Baboons bark in the bowl of darkness beyond the safe circle of our fire, and overhead ice-bright stars are strewn across an endless sky.
On day two there is another mountain to get over and a downhill scramble that's hell on the knees. Hopping from log to log over a squelchy bog, I narrowly miss landing on a pair of puffadders, only because I am forced to extend my leg into a not-so-balletic grand jete, which strains all my muscles. There is cellphone reception at the top of the mountain but not down here. What if I'd been bitten?
The 14.7km path becomes hot, unattractive and interminable, but it leads at last to paradise: a tiny turquoise bay punctuated with dots and dashes that morph into whales as we draw closer. Two thatched A-frames perch on the rocks. One holds our bunks; the other houses bathrooms and the kitchen/dining area. It also holds an experienced mouse that during the night will drill into and devour a carton of custard.
Inspection of sore feet reveals that I and one of the Fit Five have blisters. She weeps with frustration and disappointment, but I, having had no expectation of athleticism, merely hobble glumly to the beach to soak my feet in the sea.
All ailments are forgotten as we watch the whales cavort in the afternoon sunshine. Time and again, they breach, lob tail and roll. For the first time in my life, I see two rising simultaneously from the water, one behind the other. The breach a second time, and a third, and a fourth, in diminishing silvery arcs. Perhaps this is what inspired ancient cartographers to draw giant, serpentine sea monsters.
From now on we hug the coast, continuing in single file along a cliff path so narrow it barely disturbs the natural vegetation. Sporadic rain and a chilly wind challenge us on day three, and we are glad that the convoluted hike to Hamerkop is only 7.8km. A shower revives my body and hilarity induced by rather a lot of red wine improves my spirits. My new friends are funny and kind. Halfway through day four, having fallen behind on a 5km tramp along a spongy beach, I struggle up a small precipice to find that they have set up an impromptu 'spa'. I am treated to a leg massage, which enables them to totter another 5.5km to the last overnight house at Vaalkrans.
If I stop I seize up, so I keep moving, encouraged by picture-perfect scenes around every outcrop: pistachio-green pools scooped from the rocks; waves crashing against cliffs weathered into walls of petrified lace; water swirling into deep chasms and plumes of rainbow-coloured foam spouting from blow holes. Between each untouched crescent of beach there are rocky promontories fronted by wide platforms. Perhaps I'm dehydrated, but I see mermaids down there, combing their seaweed hair and singing to the music of the deep.
It's wild and rough and pristine and beautiful, and you have to watch your step or you could go over the edge. But in the tranquil sea beyond the breakers, scores of whales cruise by in a peaceful parade, dark shapes against bands of lime, rich blue and aquamarine.
The house at Vaalkrans, built above a cave, is ideally placed for whale watching. We've already seen far more than we'd hoped for, but baby whales put on a special performance as a final treat. They raise their knobbly heads from the water and the more adventurous ones zoom away from their mothers to breach and roll. A little albino is the star of the show, clambering across its mother's belly as she does a leisurely backstroke.
I drink it all in, delighted to be here, but knowing that I won't be back. My right knee looks like a pawpaw; I have anklets of broken capillaries and a sciatic nerve winched to snapping point. None of this stops me swimming in the hippo pools on the last day, and when a dark-patterned puffadder glides across my path, I find I still have some sprint left in my calf muscles. All the same, I'm not cut out to be a hiker, and this is definitely my last big walk.
Back in the noisy city, I look at the pictures and remember black oyster catchers against white sand, the hiss of the wind and the crash of the surf. I long for silence and limitless blue, for simplicity and space. I'm not remotely interested of course, but my neighbour tells me there is a place going on the Otter Trail ...
· Published in The Sunday Independent, March 2006