Responsible Travel Article

South Africa Walking Adventure

by Harriet Nimmo

 

Cederberg Heritage Trail

Just three hours’ drive from the metropolis of Cape Town, the Cederberg is a spectacular wilderness area that has recently been declared a Unesco World Heritage site due to its natural beauty and scientific importance as part of the Cape Floral Region.

The Cederberg Heritage Trails were founded in 2007. A community-based initiative aimed at providing employment opportunities to the local communities who have farmed this harsh landscape for generations, it has a variety of routes and durations graded according to level of difficulty.

I was one of four women who left behind jobs, husbands and kids to embark on the Wupperthal Route – a four-day, three-night slack-packing adventure.

 

Slack-Packing

On Day One, we started our adventure at the top of the Pakhuis Pass – one of the highest points in the Cederberg. There we were met by two local guides and their donkey carts. We loaded our packs into the carts, and with shoulders hunched against the biting wind, and a click off the tongue to gee up the donkeys, off we set…

Our first day’s hike was 12km, and we were able to hitch a ride in the donkey cart if we needed a rest. We marvelled at the spectacular rocky mountain landscape opening up ahead of us as we descended the rough track. The donkey carts joggled along behind us – each cart pulled by three pairs of donkeys, who all seemed in good condition and well looked after. A 13th donkey trotted freely alongside – this apparently was the ‘spare wheel’.

We arrived late afternoon in the beautiful, remote settlement of Heuningvlei. This is one of a ring of outlying hamlets around the main Moravian Mission village of Wupperthal.

Our guide, Gert, introduing us to his neighbours

 

Community Involvement

We were met by local guide, Gert, whowelcomed us and showed us into the Heuningvlei Guest House. Formerly an old school, it is a single-storey, whitewashed building with a thatched roof and bunk rooms. Dinner is provided by the village, and two delightful women arrived at a pre-arranged time, with baskets of casserole dishes. The meals are simple affairs – meat and locally grown vegetables (the vegetarians in our group just did without the meat) – and you are welcome to bring your own drinks.

The same two smiling women appeared with our breakfast of homemade bread, jam, eggs and bacon – and handed us each a packed lunch. Very few of the community members speak any English, so it is a definite advantage to have someone in your group who speaks Afrikaans. But it’s amazing how much can be understood with a smile and positive attitude.

We left our overnight bags packed, as these are transported by donkey cart to your next destination, so you only need to carry a day pack. Gert collected us, and off we set for Day Two’s destination – a 16km, six- to eight-hour walk away. It was probably one of the most spectacular walks I have ever done, with incredible rocky landscapes as far as the eye could see – a true wilderness experience.

Our second night’s destination was the even smaller hamlet of Burgkrall. Walking past the houses, Gert introduced us to his friends. Such a friendly community, despite the abject poverty. It made us realise the impact and value of the income generated by the Heritage Trails’ employment opportunities. Our accommodation tonight was in a simple but spotlessly clean and comfortable house, owned by the neighbours Regina and Evert Manual. Regina welcomed us with her kindness, together with homemade biscuits – and our bags were waiting for us on arrival. Another simple dinner, and another early night – with each of us piling on the blankets to keep warm.

Heuningvlei Guest House

 

Cedar Tree Nursery

The region is named after the endemic Clanwilliam cedar tree (Widdringtonia cedarbergensis). Most of them have long since been logged, so much so that this is now a critically endangered species. On our third day, Gert showed us the pioneering cedar tree nursery in Heuningvlei, run by the local community. We walked to a small cedar plantation, where an experimental irrigation system is being trialled as part of the same community program. We were also privileged to see ancient cedar trees in the wild, with their contorted trunks – what stories they must have witnessed over the centuries.

 

The Elusive Cape Leopard

The Cederberg wilderness area is one of the Cape Leopard’s last strongholds. The leopard is increasingly threatened by habitat loss, direct persecution and snaring, and the Cape Leopard Trust is actively working with the local communities, advising how to best protect livestock and running environmental education programs. We passed camera traps, set up to try to identify individual leopards via their spot patterns. We were also thrilled to see fresh leopard spoor (footprints), and marvelled at Gert’s tracking abilities, as he showed us tracks of a male leopard, and later a female with a cub. He explained while leopards pose a threat to livestock, by using dogs and corralling the sheep at night, communities can protect their flocks. Gert said, ‘It is so important the leopards survive here – they are a part of nature, and keep other predators, such as caracal and jackals, in check.’

 

Wupperthal’s Social Upliftment Projects

On our third day, our final destination was the Moravian Mission Village of Wupperthal, where we stayed in another simple bunk-house for our final night.

We spent our final morning, visiting the Rooibos Tea Co-operative. This anti-oxidant-rich, caffeine-free tea is now popular around the world, as well as in South Africa. Seventy-five small farmers from Wupperthal and surrounding communities are moving from wild harvesting to sustainable organic cultivation of the tea. This has recently resulted in them gaining Fairtrade status for their tea, bringing the impoverished farmers a better market price. You can buy different flavoured rooibos teas, and watch the tea-harvesting process (depending on the time of year).

Our hosts in Burgkrall

As well as tea, you can also visit the Red Cedar shop in the village to buy organic rooibos cosmetic products. Red Cedar is a locally owned initiative, and the toiletries contain Cederberg-grown rooibos extract and other natural ingredients such as honey, shea butter and aloe, and are fragranced with natural essential oils rather than synthetic aromas.

Both these shops provide unique, locally grown products that make great souvenirs and provide further opportunities for visitors to support the local communities.

 

Responsible Tourism at its Best

The Cederberg Heritage Trail is a fantastic initiative. The stunning hike is in a spectacular wilderness area just three hours north of Cape Town; it’s very well organised and offers a rare opportunity to engage with local people. You really feel your tourist rands are being spread as widely as possible to the impoverished communities – which is responsible tourism at its best.

 

  • To support this initiative If you would like to get more involved than just signing up for a hike, help is required with marketing, refurbishing a guesthouse, hospitality training and marking out the trails. The Langkloof community is also looking to offer houses for accommodation, but need help to upgrade their bathroom facilities to provide hot water. Email Michelle Truter at chrtrails@gmail.comto find out more.
  • How the income is spent Eighty-five per cent of all the money paid by clients goes to the service suppliers; for example, road transfers for the hikers and donkey carts for baggage transfer, and to the community members providing accommodation,meals and cleaning services. Ten per cent goes tothe booking agent to cover administrative expenses and 5% is used for marketing. Community members can also take out loans (at 0% interest) to improve their guesthouses, build donkey carts, make harnesses, etc.
  • Tipping policy There is a no-tipping policy – to avoid conflict and ensure that all community members, whether ‘front of house’ or behind the scenes, profit equally from the income derived from the trails. However, if people would like to make a donation, they can make a transfer to the Heritage Trails bank account and this will be shared with the communities.

 

For more information, see www.cedheroute.co.za or email chrtrails@gmail.com

 

Harriet Nimmo and her husband drove a Toyota Corolla around Southern Africa 23 years ago – digging it out of the Makgadikgadi Pans, Mana Pools and the Kalahari.  Since then she has conversed with chimps and gorillas, stayed with the Afar, cavorted with lemurs and tracked desert elephants.  She and her husband finally jumped ship and relocated from the UK to South Africa in 2011. Their most recent sojourn saw them driving from Cape Town to Nairobi, and finally settling in a small bush town in Limpopo.  Here Harriet helps save elephants and rhino, as well as co-founding the Wild Shots wildlife photography conference. In her previous life, Harriet was CEO of the international conservation communications NGO, Wildscreen and founded ARKive.org.