Plaatbos forest and Storms River Pass

The Tsitsikamma is one of my happy places. It is where I go to recharge my soul and get close to nature and that is what we as a family did a couple of week ago. It wasn’t a comprehensive charge, but a quick visit one just to breath in the fresh Tsitsikamma air and get away from lockdown at that stage.

One of our stops for the day was the Plaatbos Forest section of the Garden Route (Tsitsikamma) National Park next to Storms River Village. The nice thing about Plaatbos is that it’s right by the village so you can take an easy stroll from your accommodation, it offers free and easy access, and there are various beautiful walks in the indigenous forest. 

You can either follow the different marked trails (green – 5km, red – 7.5km and yellow – 8km) through the forest or just walk along the historic Storms River Pass. 

The Tsitsikamma (or Zitzikama as it was known back then) was first surveyed by the famous pass buyilder Thomas Bain in 1879. He found it consisted of almost impenetrable forests and steep gorges eastwards of Plettenberg Bay, but he followed the ancient elephant trails through the forests to find the best way to traverse these gorges. Using convict labourers, the pass through the Storms River gorge was completed by 1884. By then the village was surveyed and laid out around the Duthies of Knysna’s hunting lodge which became an inn for travelers using the pass and still exists as the Tsitsikamma Village Inn today.

Walking through Plaatbos is more than just enjoying the indigenous forest with its trees and streams. If you keep your eyes open you will spot the little things. New growth on a fern, a little frog in a stream, fungus and mushrooms growing under a dead branch, a butterfly making its way from flower to flower or a Knysna loerie overhead in the treetops.

Suddenly I feel like hopping in the car to go and plug in my soul.

Things to do in Port Elizabeth this summer – Grab a backpack and take a hike

There is an Afrikaans folk song that goes, Dis heerlike Lente, die Winter’s verby… (It’s time for Spring now that Winter has passed – doesn’t quite roll off the tongue the same in English though) which means Summer is fast approaching.  Longer days, better weather and spending more time outdoors over weekends.  Plus the holiday season is coming up quicker than my sausage dogs when I open the fridge.  With an eye on said better weather and upcoming holiday season, I was invited to participate in the “Things to do in Port Elizabeth this Summer” Blogathon.  There really is a lot to do in and around Port Elizabeth – Port Elizabeth Daily Photo is evidence of that – and rather than writing a blog post featuring all the usual suspects of Addo Elephant National Park, Route 67 and the Donkin Reserve, SAMREC, Kragga Kamma Game Park, The Boardwalk, Bayworld, restaurants in Richmond Hill, history, township tours and more, I decided to focus on my nine favorite nature trails (in no real particular order) around the Bay.  Yes you read correct, 9 trails, because I like to walk.  The ideal outdoor activity for the upcoming summer. And it’s normally free or just about.

Before I start though, remember to always take out what you take in, only leave footprints behind, don’t forget a hat and sunscreen, make sure somebody knows where you are walking (in case you get lost and don’t return when you were supposed to) and always keep in mind that it is safer and recommended to walk in groups. So here we go. 

1 – The Humpback Dolphin Trail – Beachfront Boardwalk

Port Elizabeth must have one of the best city beach fronts in South Africa.  It is clean, beautiful, not over developed and a pleasure to explore on foot.  The walkway along the beachfront stretches all the way from the Kings Beach parking area to the lollipop beacon taking in sites like McArthur Pool, Bayworld, Humewood Beach with the old slipway, Shark Rock Pier, The Boardwalk and all the surf sites.  It’s nothing strange to take an early morning stroll or jog along the beachfront and see a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins swim by.  Port Elizabeth and Algoa Bay is the Bottlenose Dolphin Capital of the World after all.  Beyond the beacon the boardwalk leaves the main beachfront behind and follows the coastline towards Cape Recife.  Very few people actually know that this section is called the Humpback Dolphin Trail and gives you some of the best uninterrupted views of Algoa Bay the city has to offer.  
Good for a nice easy early morning walk or jog or late afternoon with a ice cream in hand     

2 – Sacramento Trail

If Port Elizabeth’s hiking trails had to choose a head boy then the Sacramento Trail would probably have been it.  The popular kid, a good all rounder, sporty, slightly academic and not bad looking to boot.  The Sacramento Trail is an 8 km return hike from Schoenmakerskop to Sardinia Bay and back.  Probably PE’s favorite trail, the Sacramento offers some of the best coastal views around and is also a photographer and any nature lover’s dream.  Rugged coastline, sandy beaches, hidden coves, fynbos, wetlands, flowers and as an added extra, Khoi middens hidden among the dunes.  And have I mentioned the awesome views? 

One of the great things about the Sacramento Trail, named after a Portuguese ship that sank here in 1647, is that even though it is an out and back trail, you can walk out along the coast and back along the top of the vegetated dunes (adding to those great views) on the bridle paths.  Spot is also welcome to tag along as long as you keep him on his leash.
The best time to do the trail is early morning followed by breakfast at the Sacramento Restaurant. The start of the trail is also a great spot to enjoy sunset from. 

Sacramento Trail map 

3 – Coastal Fynbos Trail

Very few people realise that Schoenmakerskop is also home to a second great trail.  The Coastal Fynbos Trail starts to the east of the village at Sappershoek and is located on the land side of Marine Drive.  Because of the bad soil quality, slightly lower rainfall, underlying rock and salty winds the vegetation along most of the trail consist of… you guessed it, fynbos.  Fynbos, also known as the Cape Floral Kingdom, consist of over 9 000 species of plants and the Coastal Fynbos Trail is particular attractive in spring when a lot of these are flowering.  The full circular trail covers about 7 km although there is an shorter 4 km option available if you’re still only a “middle distance” walker.
Not quite the Sacramento Trail but a very good alternative if you have done the former before and looking for something different in the area  

Coastal Fynbos Trail map

4 – Cape Recife Nature Reserve – Roseate Tern Trail

The 9 km Roseate Tern Trail through the Cape Recife Nature Reserve is probably the most diverse of all the trails around Port Elizabeth.  It offers a mix of coastline where you can see see the remains of shipwrecks on the reefs, reclamation ponds full of water birds, vegetated sand dunes giving some shelter from the sun, the remains of a World War II observation station and barracks, the historic Cape Recife Lighthouse (built in 1851), various marine birds along the coast, an unofficial nudist beach and SAMREC.  The South African Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre plays an integral part in the conservation effort to save the endangered African Penguin and is the ideal spot to start and end your walk at.  The centre also has a coffee shop where you can refill your tank before heading off to your next activity for the day but hopefully not before taking a tour to learn more about our tuxedo’d feathered friends. 

Make sure you don’t forget your binocs and bird book in the car as the variety of birds along this trail is amazing.

Roseate Tern Trail map

5 – NMMU Nature Reserve – Grysbok Trail

I’m sure that as soon as this post hits the interwebs and goes viral you will start to see some comments between all the positive ones on Facebook going something like, “… blah blah unsafe…”, “…waffle waffle dangerous fishcake…”, “…troll troll take your life into your hands…”, “…muffle puffle I live behind bars and have no life and how dare you go out and enjoy yours…”.  For all those doom prophets and anybody else looking for a totally safe and secure environment to go and walk in, I have the perfect option for you.  The 830 ha NMMU Nature Reserve is fully enclosed with only access from on campus.  The Grysbok Trail offers two easy flat loops of about 2,5 km and 3,5 km or a combination of the two through coastal thicket and fynbos with the opportunity to see some game along the way.
Try out the GPS treasure hunt game of Geocaching.  The trail has about 35 caches hidden along the way.  Or just keep an eye out for some donkeys in pajamas. 

6 – Baakens Valley – Lower Guinea Fowl Trail

The Baakens Valley isn’t just an excellent hiking area, it has also become very popular with trail runners and mountain bikers.  The Baakens Valley truly is Port Elizabeth’s natural urban gem and really deserves more people venturing onto the Lower Guinea Fowl Trail, one of the best trails around.  Although you are at times barely a hundred meters from the nearest house it feels like you are miles away in the middle of nature with the river on one side, wind in your face, wild flowers in bloom all around, guinea fowl calling in the bush nearby and the rush of city life slowly flowing out of you. The one thing that really counts against it is that it is a 7,5 km one way trail between the 3rd Avenue Dip in Glen Hurd and Settlers Park, so make sure your transport is sorted and waiting for you when you finish walking.
There are a number of entrance / exit points along the way with shorter loops one can take around Walmer, Dodds Farm and Wellington Park if you just want to go for a quick stroll.
7 – The Island Nature Reserve – Bushbuck Trail

Hiking along the Bushbuck Trail one would be excused if you suddenly started thinking that you are on the Garden Route somewhere.  The vegetation on the western side of Port Elizabeth is very different from the south and east and consist of Alexandria coastal forest boasting indigenous tree species like Outeniqua Yellowwood, White and Hard Pear and White Milkwood.  It really is the ideal place if you need to plug your soul into the forest socket every now and then for a recharge. You also don’t need to be a hard core hiker to venture onto the Bushbuck Trail with five distance options catering for everybody from the family strollers (900 m), gentle walkers (5 km), long distance guys (7,5 km) and the ultra day hikers (a full 16 km combining all the trails).  If you phone in advance and ask very nicely, one of the ECPTA rangers may just be able to accompany you on your hike as well. 

The Island has some really neat and well maintained picnic and braai spots where the non-hikers in the group can hang around while you are out enjoying nature.

8 – Van Stadens Wildflower Reserve

The Van Stadens Wildflower Reserve truly is a hikers paradise.  The 500 h reserve can be found about 35 km west of Port Elizabeth and probably is the best place around to go and see Proteas in the wild.  The nice bit about it is that there are different flowers blooming just about all through the year so there is always something to see.  Van Stadens also caters for one and all when it comes to the variety of trails with easy short walks through the fynbos, past the dams or to the Arboretum and bird hide on the plateau or longer walks along the Forest and River trails that lead down into the gorge.  Some of the trails and picnic spots also have great views of the magnificent Van Stadens arch bridge. 
If you don’t enjoy walking don’t stay away.  Most of the plateau area of the reserve is accessible by car so just pack a picnic basket and go throw open a blanket at one of the view points or picnic areas.

9 – Sleepy Hollow

When I first heard the name Sleepy Hollow, images of the Headless Horseman waiting for me down a dusky forest path immediately jumped to mind.  I’ve been several times over the last few years and have yet to see any ghostly horses or pumpkins being flung my way.  Sleepy Hollow, located a few kilometers off the Blue Horizon Bay road in the Maitland River valley, is magical though and the only trail out of my list that is on private land.  The trails are fairly short but it’s quite easy to get yourself lost (not literally but rather figuratively) exploring the old abandoned mine tunnels, swimming in river pools, rock hopping up to the waterfall, watching the Knysna Loeries and foofie sliding into the Sleepy Hollow swemgat surrounded by cliffs and forest.
Take a tent or hire one of their caravans and spend the weekend at the campsite
That, I know, was a mouthful and like any good infomercial I can say, “But it’s not all…”  There are a number of other nature trails I haven’t even mentioned.  The Maitland Nature Reserve Trail, Aloe Trail, Flamingo Trail, Lady Slipper, Groendal, Van der Kemps Kloof and others.  Add to that the heritage trails of Route 67, the Donkin Heritage Trail and the South End Heritage Trail and there is no reason for you not to want to strap on your boots, grab a backpack, fill your water bottle and pack a few sarmies.  What are you still waiting for?  

Disclosure – This blog post is part of the #SharetheBay Port Elizzabeth #Blogathon 2016 campaign in collaboration with Cheap FlightsNelson Mandela Bay Tourism and Travel Concept Solution.  I keep full editorial control over the post because nobody’s going to tell me what I like and not.

Below are the posts of the other eight bloggers that took part in the #Blogathon

A path inviting you to explore

I had 30 minutes on my hands yesterday afternoon and did a quick detour to Mangold Park to find a new Geocache on the edge of the Baakens Valley.  From the parking coords at the bottom of a cul-de-sac there were two paths splitting off.  A paved one to the right which I had to follow to find the cache and the one in the photo to the left.  Obviously the call of the cache was strong andf I hurried down to do it, but on my way back I took a sharp right onto the path.  The narrow path surrounded by green undergrowth and leading under a number of flowering Coral Trees was just too inviting not to take.  It is normally used by mountain bikers but definitely one that is probably a nice little excursion for trail runners and casual strollers as well.

An Express Holiday In(n) Umhlanga

Everybody knows I like to explore and in South Africa we really have so much to discover.  So when an invitation to visit Umhlanga and bring the Damselfly along came from the Holiday Inn Express Umhlanga, I jumped at the chance to see a new place and share it with my wife.  With two nights in the hotel it meant that we had a whole day to explore the coast around Umhlanga Rocks on foot and really take in what this very popular beach destination has to offer.
Waking up Saturday morning we were met with a gale force wind when we opened our hotel room balcony door.  “Oh no!”  Not the ideal beach weather but nothing short of a hurricane would have stopped us getting out there to see what there was to see.  We grabbed a taxi from the hotel and he dropped us off behind the Breakers Resort which is the last hotel on Lagoon Drive on the northern side of town.  From there we followed a short path down to the beach and hit the sand.  Or more like the sand hit us, but the wind was from behind and our sails were set.

Our first Umhlanga destination waited for us a few hundred meters up the beach.  The beautiful Umhlanga Lagoon.  Umhlanga is a Zulu work which means “place of reeds” and the river and lagoon is definitely where the name originated.  Umhlanga Lagoon isn’t just a stunning scenic spot, it’s also a well known… erm… come closer… *whispering* unofficial nudist beach.  Yes you heard me, don’t pretend like you didn’t sit up when I said it.  Or rather you read it.  So just to repeat myself quickly in case you didn’t, Umhlanga Lagoon is a nudist beach.  Something I found out a few years ago when I got curious about the state of naturism in South Africa and did a little bit of research.  I wasn’t expecting many nudists to be hanging around (excuse the pun) with the gale force wind as you won’t just end up with sand in every possible crevice, but also have the skin sandblasted off your… Ja, you get what I mean.  I have to add though that there was a guy who arrived just before us and when he reappeared from behind the dune he was wearing his birthday suit.  It didn’t last long though as he was heading back fully clothed before we even turned around.  I’m sure he’s still trying to rinse sand out everywhere. 
We weren’t keen to walk back along the coast right into the wind so veered off the beach and onto the trails leading through the adjacent Umhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve.  The reserve covers 26 hectares from the end of Lagoon Drive up to and including the lagoon and river mouth.  As soon as we hit the trails it was as if the wind had just died on us.  Totally sheltered we took a leisurely stroll back towards Umhlanga Rocks along one of the paths, passing a few other people along the way.  Clearly this is a very popular spot for a walk for young and old looking to break away to nature close to civilization.
At Breakers we left the trail and followed the beachfront walkway between the buildings and the beach.  Still fairly sheltered against the wind it was a nice refreshing walk with a lot of restaurant options to get something to eat, vendors to buy something from to take back home as a gift and sea views.  Lots and lots of sea views.  It’s not difficult to see why Umhlanga is such a popular destination.  We walked as far down as the iconic Umhlanga Lighthouse, built in 1954.  The circular concrete tower, painted white with a red band at the top, stands 21m high and must be one of the most recognised lighthouses on the South African coastline.
A little backtrack from the lighthouse brought us to the Umhlanga pier with it’s curved “ribs”.  The interesting part about the pier is that there is a large underground box culvert used to take storm water down to the sea with the pier being built on top of the extension taking the water out to a deep water channel 80 meters from the beach.  The wind nearly took us even further out but we just had to take a walk down to the end of the pier to enjoy the view.  From here we headed away from the beach to go and find something to eat and wait for our taxi back up to the hotel.

Staying at the Holiday Inn Express on Umhlanga Ridge meant that we were literally two blocks away from the Gateway Shopping Centre and we took a walk up to the mall on the Saturday evening for dinner.  Gateway is more than just a little collection of shops under one roof with a huge amount of retail stores, entertainment and restaurants to pick and choose from.  After a little retail therapy and a look around the Wave House we found ourselves a spot to enjoy some good sushi and wine before moseying back to the hotel.  
Umhlanga has a wide range of accommodation options with the ones down on the coast being more expensive than those up on the ridge.  We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Umhlanga (do go and read my review) and the fact that it wasn’t right on the beach didn’t effect our holiday at all.  In actual fact it’s very nicely located to enjoy both the beachfront as well as the Gateway Shopping Centre, has great views, very spacious and comfortable rooms (mush more so than what I was expecting), always friendly staff and all in all a very good choice for an express holiday in Umhlanga.

Disclosure: We were invited for a weekend at the Holiday Inn Express Umhlanga by the InterContinental Hotels Group and they carried all the costs for the weekend.  They asked for a blog post to be written but had no editorial input in the content of the post. 

A blooming nice display at Van Stadens

 
The West Coast and Namakwaland is famous for their spring flowers while a number of reserves in the southern Cape, one of these being the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites as it is where the Cape Floral Kingdom occurs.  Living in Port Elizabeth it’s not always possible to do the trek west to go and view flowers but a few weeks ago I realized that it’s not  necessary.

About 40 kilometers west of Port Elizabeth is the Van Stadens Wildflower Reserve, a 500 hectare open space next to the Van Stadens River gorge.  The reserve covers the gorge’s southern wooded slopes, a large plateau to the east and the northern river banks, each with its own vegetation types.  The reserve is covered in various hiking trails ranging from a short 500 meter trail to longer ones up to 11 kilometers.  Some of the trails are also suitable for mountain bikers while there are also gravel roads accessible to cars in the plateau section.  The flowers, especially the flowering proteas, in the reserve is stunning at the moment.  Enjoy the display. 

More information about the reserve can be found on their listing with Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism or with the Friends of Van Stadens.

Our own secluded Baviaans valley

One of the best parts of exploring while traveling is discovering hidden gems.  Some of these hides are figuratively, as in somewhere (either a place or establishment) off the beaten track that the hordes haven’t discovered yet.  Sometimes you find places that are literally hidden though.  One of these I found on our weekend at Baviaans Lodge recently.  A walk along a stream up one of the valleys near the lodge brought us to a breathtaking spot with a river pool, sheer cliffs on both sides and a small waterfall cascade.  This is my kind of place.  Somewhere to go and plug in your soul for some recharging.  Do click through and read the whole post as Baviaans Lodge is the ideal recharging spot even if you don’t walk up that valley. 

A reminder that we live in a wonderful world

We live in such a rush every day that most of us tend to forget what a beautiful world is out there.  Add to that all the bad news around and I think it becomes a case of people spending more time indoors “hiding out” than getting out there and experiencing nature.  Earth Day was celebrated on 22 April and I spotted this video on an Earth Day blog post on the Getaway blog.  How can I not use it in a post as well?  Watch it and allow David Attenborough to remind you that we live in a wonderful and beautiful world.