We walk in beauty
The Kalanderkloof trail yields an unobstructed view of the Groot River mouth and surrounding national parkland. Photo: Alamy
Along the country's fabled Garden Route, Alistair Morgan finds stunning wildlife, a wild coast and scarcely a soul in sight.
Two things hit me as we descended the winding forest pass into Nature's Valley. I'd opened the car window to get a better view of the enormous trees that rise up from the lush floor of the Groot River valley when I was struck by the aroma, a delicate bouquet that was vegetative, moist and primordial.
The second thing was the silence. Apart from the sound of the car engine, there was nothing but an eerie quiet. It made me wonder if all the birds and animals had suddenly ceased their daily banter just as we were passing.
The steepness of the pass and the proximity of the trees gave the sense that we were flying down through the treetops. At the bottom of the pass, we "landed" next to the Groot River lagoon. A couple of turns later, we found ourselves in a village of about 300 wooden chalets embedded in pockets of natural forest.
Nature's Valley is the only residential area inside any of South Africa's 21 national parks. The Tsitsikamma National Park, pronounced "tit-sea-karma" (from the Khoisan words tse-tsesa, meaning clear, and gami, meaning water), surrounds the village on three sides, and the Indian Ocean takes care of the fourth (the reserve extends five kilometres out to sea).
It was late July, mid-winter in South Africa, and though the temperature was still in the low 20s, most of the chalets appeared to be uninhabited. In summer, we were told, it's a different story and you need to book well in advance. But we had heard winter was a great time to visit, with a cooler climate (for hiking), the presence of whales all along the Western Cape coastline, and cheaper accommodation. We had flown from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, and our plan was to drive our rented car back to Cape Town along the Garden Route. Nature's Valley, less than two hours along the N2 highway from Port Elizabeth, was our first stop.
We made our way to the only shop and restaurant in Nature's Valley, where we had arranged to meet Maureen, through whom we had rented a chalet for a week. It was on the outskirts of the village, in the forest, and was comfortable, but not overly luxurious, with a fireplace, which we were grateful for at night. At the store, we had picked up a booklet containing maps of forest trails. We immediately set out on a walk to Pig's Head, a rocky outcrop overlooking the lagoon. We took a path into the forest, where our arrival was announced by the gruff barking of baboons.
After much huffing and puffing (and, fortunately, no baboon encounters), we made it up the steep path to the top of Pig's Head. The view of the lagoon mouth, the village and the ocean was magnificent. Behind us, the Tsitsikamma Mountains rose from the coastline. A crowned eagle soared over the lagoon and, in the distance, we could make out the Robberg Peninsula at the far side of Plettenberg Bay.
That evening, ravenous, we made a beeline for the only restaurant, the Village Inn. A rustic, simple place, it had wooden booths inside and tables and benches under the trees. One of the trees appeared to bear fruit with an uncanny resemblance to hiking shoes. Dozens of them dangled by their shoelaces from the branches. It's a tradition for people who complete the Otter Trail, a five-day coastal hike ending in Nature's Valley, to leave a shoe in the tree.
The next morning, as I stood making a pot of coffee in the kitchen, I saw a bushbuck doe on the lawn outside, staring at me; she was as unfussed by our presence as we were fascinated by hers.
Plettenberg Bay is a 30-minute drive away and home to the Lookout Deck and Restaurant at Lookout Beach. Winter is whale season and the views from the deck would make Captain Ahab weep. While we lunched on tender calamari and prawns, two southern right whales splashed about just beyond the breakers.
Back in the forest, we decided on a walk to the Salt River lagoon and mouth. The trail took us over a steep, forested hill. We emerged to find ourselves on the edge of a small, whisky-coloured lagoon surrounded by a crescent of pale sand. Given the beauty of the place, we were amazed to be the only people there. At first, the water was shallow, but nearer the mouth, it became deeper and the current stronger. I could feel myself being gently pulled out to sea. After weighing up the pros and cons of bumping into a shark, I swam back to the shallows.
Later in the week, a cold front moved in. Rain splashed through the forest canopy and - feeling the effects of the previous days' walks - I was only too happy to make a fire in the lounge room and settle down with a book.
The rain cleared by lunchtime and we ventured out for a walk on the beach. As we walked back to the chalet, my girlfriend toyed with the idea of being pampered at the local spa, while I looked longingly at the canoes on the lagoon. But there was no rush: we still had five days to fill.
Getting there Qantas has a fare to Cape Town for about $1975 low-season return from Sydney, including taxes. Fly Qantas to Johannesburg (14hr) and then South African Airways to Cape Town (2hr 10min); see qantas.com.au. Melbourne passengers pay about the same and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect. South African Airways also has a fare flying Qantas to Perth to connect. Australians do not require a visa for tourism for a stay of up to 90 days as long as they have onward or return tickets and at least two completely blank pages in their passports.
Staying there Nature's Valley Properties has chalets sleeping four from 850 rand (about $90) a day. Phone +27 82 772 2972, see naturesvalleyproperties.co.za.
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