South Africa is blessed with a spectacular coastline. From mangrove lined estuaries in the north east to the stark beauty of the west coast and endless stretches of white sandy beaches or striking rock formations in between, it is a favourite playground for outdoor enthusiasts and sun-worshippers from around the world. But, like a mousy English lit student working her way through college by donning a dominatrix outfit at night and beating Japanese business men into submission, it also has a darker side. The seas off the South African coast are littered with the carcasses of ships that have met a wet and salty end here and too many families have an empty seat at Christmas because someone turned their back to the ocean at the wrong time. Strong currents, rolling waves and dramatic, jagged rocks make this a coastline you should take seriously. It also means that it is spectacularly beautiful. And, fortunately for us, vast stretches of it have been protected and made accessible to those nature lovers who prefer donning boots and a backpack and exploring our natural heritage on foot.
One such route is the Saint Blaize hiking trail in the Southern Cape. Starting at The Point in Mossel Bay in the east, this 13.5km hiking trail winds its way west along the cliffs, through the Pinnacle Point golf estate to Danabaai in the west and can also be hiked in the opposite direction. Parking is available on both ends. You should either leave a car at the end or arrange for a shuttle service to return you to the starting point (check the web for details). On The Point side, the hike starts in the parking area below the Cape St. Blaize lighthouse and Khoi San cave – if you’re tripping over begging rock dassies you’re probably in the right place. Please do them a favour, respect that wild animals should remain wild animals and don’t feed them. A fed dassie is a flattened by a Fortuner dassie. On the Danabaai side there is a small parking area on the shoulder of the road next to a St. Blaize trail information board. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it. To get there, just keep left on Malva road after entering the town until you find the spot. White oystercatchers (painted on the rocks, not standing there with bibs and pointers) mark the route along the way.
Dramatic cliffs, seas in shades from turquoise to indigo, a wealth of flora and rock formations in every autumnal shade imaginable make this an extremely worthwhile way of spending the 6 hours required by the average person to complete the hike. The route can be mildly challenging in places and therefore a moderate level of fitness is required. What is moderate? Well, I am currently at an all time fitness low. After three minutes (I am not kidding) on a stepper I need copious amounts of water, a few pulls on my inhaler and a little lie down on the couch. I could finish the trail without actually throwing a complete frothy by the twentieth uphill, but it would’ve been considerably easier if I’d spent more time exercising and less time eating this past December.
There is a lot to see on the way. The waters off the Southern Cape are one of the best places in the world to whale watch and pods of dolphins often make a splashy appearance. Also keep a look out for seals and, if you’re lucky, the menacing dark outline of a great white shark – there are plenty here. On land, look out for dassies, bushbuck, steenbuck, geckos and lizards, mongoose, porcupines, tortoises, snakes and a wealth of different bird species – many endemic. The flora here is predominantly fynbos. What makes this particular floral kingdom such a joy is that it is not just pretty to look at, but gives you a full sensory experience, even when it isn’t high flower season. Brush the leaves of plants as you go and let the scents of wild rosemary, buchu and other medicinal plants envelope you as you walk.
Although the route is very well maintained and feels akin to strolling down a lovely, level, sandy garden path at times, it isn’t all smooth going. There are areas where the trail is nothing but loose rock and you will need to clamber a bit in the odd section. Unless you have reinforced kankles, it is advisable to wear sturdy hiking boots with soles that can handle the jagged rocks. As with all sensible hikes, takes lots of water, sunblock and a hat – there is virtually no shade. A hiking stick will also come in handy to handle the steeper climbs, especially if you have gammy knees. You can stop off at the Pinnacle Point club house and refill your water bottle or have a bite to eat – they are very accommodating to hikers. (There is a boardwalk at Pinnacle Point that leads down to cave PP13B – one of the most significant archaeological sites in the world because of its importance in helping us understand the origins of humanity. The site documents the earliest evidence we have of people exploiting the sea and using pigments – 164 000 years ago.)
Watch where you’re walking and be aware that it is completely possible to trip and fall down a cliff – sadly, it has happened. Look out for snakes – especially puff adders that like to bask in the sun and are unlikely to get out of your way before you step on them, ruining their day and therefore yours. Cell phone reception is available along the entire route, but if you’re going alone let someone know where you are, just in case. Every episode of “I Shouldn’t be Alive” ever started with “I was just going for a little stroll…”. Despite its close proximity to developed areas, you are out of site of civilization for long stretches. When you get to Pinnacle, look out for flying golf balls and putting golfers – you really do get very close to the action at times and you don’t want to be blamed for a three putt. And lastly, if you decide to take a dip in one of the inviting rock pools along the way, be aware of the tides and currents and err on the side of caution.
Although the trail doesn’t end at the beach, the white sands of Danabaai are only a few hundred meters further on. Parking down here instead of the road means you’ll finish the walk with your feet in the sea and your bum on soft sand while you cool down.