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Text and photographs by Elsje Dijkstra.

Source: This article was taken from the March 2011 issue of Getaway

‘It was awesome,’ declared Elsje Dijkstra (nine) of her first-ever hike, the Whale Trail in De Hoop Nature Reserve.

Left in the dust by the four young hikers in her party, Catherine Hofmeyr settled for taking photos on this spectacular coastal hike in the Southern Cape.

Oystercatchers. plovers, sculptured sandstone formations and a rising tide kept things interesting on the beach stretches from Hamerkop

How many metres is this hike? asked Francis as three families and one brave couple without youngsters were packing our day packs, amidst feverish excitement, at Potberg Hut on the first morning of our Whale Trail adventure. ‘It’s not metres, it’s kilometres,’ corrected his sister Alessandra, ‘and we have to walk over 50 of them in the next five days.’ Francis was obviously sharing my trepidation.

Around 10 years ago, soon after the trail opened, I walked it for Getaway (see January 2002). Those were the days before portage was an option, so we carried everything, including all cooking and eating utensils. It was tough. Now I was on the trail again, only this time I had Tom, my eight-year-old son, as well as Francis, Elsje and Alessandra, aged eight, nine and 10 respectively, for company. The big question on all our parental minds was: would they cope?

We needn’t have worried. As we set off up Potberg, the four friends jostled their way to the front and there they stayed for the next 54 kilometres, blazing the trail with an energy I wished I could still muster. Their diminutive figures were often dwarfed by the towering fynbos or lost against spectacular seascapes. They climbed rocks, jumped when the whales did, explored sea caves, played endless games of ‘skop die blik’ each evening, snorkelled and swam . . . but they rarely complained. It was, in every respect, a magnificent family experience. But why trust the word of a mom. Elsje Dijkstra kept a daily diary and these were her – not always favourable – impressions of her first-ever hike.

1st day of the walk

Potberg to Cupidoskraal, 15 kilometres The longest, toughest day of them all, long stretching roads of stone, long downhill mountains. It was terrible. At the lookout point we had tea and saw a dead buzzard (bird). Then we eventually had lunch – there was a river to cool our feet and a lot of food. Just six more kilometres, then finally we made it but it was worth it. There was a dam. We all shouted as we saw the gleaming water of the dam. Look, I said, as I saw a boat sunk in the shallows. Let’s pull it up – so we did. There was a whole in it so we covered it up with our hands, it was great fun. Tip: Carry insect repellent for the horseflies on Potberg.

A piece of driftwood transforms Francis into a Blue Bull; was a shark responsible for the deep cuts on this dead dolphin?: awesome snorkelling in a protected lagoon on the fifth day: Tom gets acquainted with ‘staligtightes’;

2nd day

Cupidoskraal to Noetsie, 14,7 kilometres We started at 09:00. It was tiring and hard but we survived. We saw a lizard and a dead genet. Eventually we came near our hut but we had to model for the camera. Could we hurry up, 1 need the toilet. ‘Go in the bush,’ they said. But it was not that kind of toilet. After that we raced down the hill and finally we arrived at the hut which was on the coast with climbing rocks and sea all round.

Noetsie to Hamerkop, 7,8 kilometres Up the hill again and walked for a while. Then we came across a rope ladder to the beach where our lunch break was. After we snacked on stuff we went and climbed the rocks. Come look, Francis and Tom said, there is a cave – a huge one. We climbed up into the cave with stalagmites and stalagtites and tunnels. Then we found another cave with a whalebone. When we got to our hut we played on the dunes and we built a little fort from driftwood. Then we went to bed.

4th day

Hamerkop to Vaalkrans, 10,5 kilometres We walked on the beach for quite a while and we came across FW declares house (FW de Klerk’s erstwhile holiday house, now let as upmarket holiday accommodation – CH). We saw lots of oystercatchers, which are threatened. We stopped for a tea break and collected rocks and eight kilometres further we stopped for lunch. Eventually we got to Vaalkrans. There was a big rock to look at whales from – it was fantastic. The best thing is that it was the last night so we got all the sweets that were left over. We got marsh-mellows to roast on the fire and chocolates. We also saw dolphins.

5th day

The interpretation of contour lines on the trail map took a bit of explaining on the first day’s ascent of Potberg. However, the kids were undeterred by the relatively steep path winding through the fynbos to the summit overlooking the Breede River. OPPOSITE: Elsje leads the climb out of Stilgat, a highly recommended detour for lunch and snorkelling on the third day.

Vaalkrans to Koppie Alleen, 7 kilometres We walked with loads of beaches on the way. We got to lunch … IT WAS AWESOME, it really was. There were rock pools to snorkel in and swim and a big beach to run around on and lots of shells to see. Then we started heading to Koppie Allean. We travelled back by bus. I enjoyed the walk. I saw loads of whales and I think you should do it too. Tip: If stung by a blue bottle, apply toothpaste or juice from a sour fig.

Travel planner
Getting there

The trail is in De Hoop Nature Reserve. From Cape Town, take the N2 to Caledon where you turn off onto the R316 to Bredasdorp. Exit Bredasdorp on the Swellendam Road and turn right onto the gravel road signposted De Hoop and Potberg. After 40 km, take the turn-off to De Hoop. Potberg is about 20 km further.

Booking and costs

Contact CapeNature on tel 0861 -227-362-8873/021 -659-3500, Website. The trail is usually booked up to a year in advance. Bookings are limited to groups of six or 12 people. Children must be eight or older.

The trail costs R1 000 a person. Luggage portage costs R300 a 60-litre container (provided by the trail authorities). Tip: Phone after the 14th of each month, when bookings reopen after people have reneged on their deposits.

When to go

Southern right whales are seen from late June till early December. Prime months are September and October when the spring flowers are at their best. There is little shade on the trail, so the summer months can be very hot.

Facilities

By hiking standards, Whale Trail accommodation is luxurious. Each overnight cottage is fully equipped for self-catering and has braai places with grids. Firewood is provided. There are bunk beds, solar-powered lights, hot showers and flush toilets.

What to take

Take all food, bedding and clothing which can be portaged (maximum of 14 containers or cooler boxes per group), but you will need to carry a day pack with lunch, plenty of water, swimming gear, warm clothing and sun block. Also take a torch, binoculars, camera, snorkelling gear and aquatic sandals.

About the trail

The five-night trail covers 54 kilometres from Potberg to Koppie Alleen in De Hoop Nature Reserve in the Southern Cape. Hikers drive to the first cottage at Potberg where vehicles are left in secure parking. A shuttle returns you to Potberg at the end of the trail. Day one is entirely inland and is the longest and toughest. Day two starts inland and ends at the coast at Noetsie. Days three, four and five are shorter and follow spectacular coastal cliffs and dunes with some beach walking and good snorkelling pools. Hikers, especially children, should be moderately fit.

Whale Trail aside, De Hoop Reserve has a variety of excellent accommodation for before or after the trail. If you can’t get a booking on the Whale Trail, try a guided walking or mountain-biking trail instead. Contact De Hoop Collection on tel 021-422-4522. Website.

Five other great trails for kids (most are portaged)

Wild Coast Meander: There are three options on the Wild Coast, all with hotel-type accommodation: the Meander, Amble and Pondo Walk.

Oystercatcher Hiking Trail, Mossel Bay: A spectacular five-day, four-night trail along the Garden Route coast that’s open to all ages.

Dolphin Trail: A kind of mini Tsitsikamma Trail for kids older than 12.

Umfolozi Trail, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve: Kids need to be older than 14, but they’ll have a wonderful experience.

Hoerikwaggo Trail, Cape Town: This trail can be done in full or sections, depending on your kids’ ages.

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