Eland Hut (Overnight hike) – Part Two

I have never been able to sleep well while camping. Even though the mattresses are comfortable enough and I wasn’t cold, I struggled to sleep. And I was feeling particularly exhausted. I was experiencing my deepest sleep at about 6am when Doug woke me up with coffee. It was still dark, and I felt a little confused. The sunlight slowly hit the valley, but it was bitterly cold.

After a quick breakfast of a banana and a fruit bar, we packed our gear and hit the trail. 50m from the hut we saw our first game. Some kind of buck. I’m not good at identifying game, but I do know what a zebra looks like and we saw some of those too.

The bokkies we saw.

Zebra!

My feet weren’t feeling great, but I thought “stuff it, I’m going to walk and I’m not going to be a whiny bitch”. No matter how bleak this all sounds, I was having a great time. I even carried Charlie’s pack for a while – to get a feel for a proper back pack. Despite the additional weight, it was much more comfortable than the thing I was hauling around. That settled it, I needed a proper pack. But my more immediate concern was walking.

So that we didn’t walk back the same way we came, we looped off the trail from the previous day and headed towards the Blesbok hut.

Eland

One of my favourite things about hiking is that every time you hit a different side of a hill or mountain, the vegetation changes. We set off more eland and the sun was out and it was another absolutely perfect, sunny winter morning. I even forgot about my sore feet. But by this time the skin had come off the blisters and I think I was just immune to the discomfort.

Me with my awesome hiking buddies.

Charlie, Doug and I also settled into a kind of hiking hierarchy. Charlie spends most of the time in front, bounding along the trail effortlessly. I’m always moved by how Doug looks at her with pride and love and grins boyishly as he says “Charlie … she just walks … Never complains, just walks”.

Charlie walking, briskly. This pace is my goal.

I’m usually in the middle of the pack. And because of the extended time together, there is less conversation and more walking. This suits me great because it lets me get into my head. I’m outside and not really thinking, but somehow I am thinking.

Doug keeps a steady pace at the back. This is probably the most effective strategy, because he catches up without strain on every hill.

And then there’s more coffee, more snacks, more game, more beautiful scenery and I’m happy on the inside and feel like I could walk forever …

A Kiepersol on the way to Diepkloof.

… Until I hit the wall 3km from Diepkloof, the most beautiful place in the world. I tried not to whine, I didn’t want to complain, but I hit a point where I really just couldn’t. My hips were sore, my feet were throbbing and the last few km seemed like an obstacle I just couldn’t face. This happened halfway up a hill, and with encouragement from Charlie and Doug I kept going. We would rest at the top of the hill.

But by the time I got there, I had hit my stride again and felt like I could do it. That feeling lasted for about 500m. I had run out of water again, I was uncomfortable and tired and weeping on the inside. I kept myself going because I was hungry again and I really wanted a burger. And a bath. And I would have done anything to be horizontal.

Charlie… Charlie, wait…

All of a sudden Diepkloof was a few hundred metres away. And I felt incredibly pleased with myself. For a relatively unfit individual, I had just completed close to 30km of walking over rough terrain and I didn’t die.

But a few things became very apparent to me. I need to accumulate significant mileage in order to enjoy the Otter Trail. I need tougher feet, because I do not enjoy having blisters. I need a proper backpack. And I love hiking and will do it a thousand times over, even if I hurt every single time.

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Eland Hut (Overnight hike) – Part One

Approximately 30km over two days

Accumulated Mileage: 42km

My return to the Suikerbosrand was for an overnight trip. A hike to the Eland hut, with a sleepover and an almost round trip past another hut and back to Diepkloof.

Having learnt my lesson regarding socks on the previous hike, I was wearing the thickest pair of woollen hiking socks I could find and the added prophylactic of plasters on my heels and toes. At this stage I didn’t have a proper pack yet, but I managed to fit my supplies into the little pack I did have. I tied my sleeping bag to the bottom and was all set.

Charlie and Doug are experienced hikers and know things (I know some of those things now). They also have gear I’ve only ever seen in stores and catalogues. They were kind enough to carry most of the weight (but I’ll probably pay for that in the future) and that was really convenient for me, because I packed all my food in plastic containers, which is a rookie mistake: too much additional weight.

Charlie with her pack at the trailhead.

The trail to Eland hut is not as strenuous as the Bokmakierie trail. The initial incline is easy enough and then it’s relatively level all the way to the Springbok hut (our coffee stop). It didn’t take very long to cover the 6km to the stop and I was feeling fresh and happy. I was experiencing some chafing on my feet, but I read on the Internet that moisture is a leading cause of blisters, so while we had a little break, I aired out my feet in the extremely mild winter sun.

Springbok Hut

I have come to doubt the accuracy of these markers.

I have to hand it to the Suikerbosrand team. The huts (those that are open again) are incredible. Each one can take eight to ten campers, has a lovely lapa area for braaiing, a toilet and running water. They are clean and well maintained. I didn’t know what to expect except for ‘basic’, but after seeing Springbok I was super excited to spend the night at Eland. But that was still 8km away. My math skills kicked in and informed me that we had completed just under half of the trail.

But the landscape…

The overnight trail section of the reserve is not open to day visitors. So we didn’t see another soul (except for a ranger guy that was probably checking the trails). There is also abundant game. Before we hit the 10km mark we had seen pretty much everything except for kudu. At one point we startled some eland and they bounded into the bushes not more than 20m from us.

And that’s where I became acutely aware of the chafing that was now an angry blister in my shoe.

“We’re nearly there, Legs.” My companions said. Okay, I can do nearly there. But in Doug talk nearly there means 3km. That’s ¼ of the trail. That’s not nearly there, that’s a lifetime on a blister. But I wasn’t going to give up. In my mind we were ‘nearly there’.

Doesn’t sound like much, but it really is when you really just want to do a little camping.

About 1km from the hut, the water tower becomes visible. Instead of being a motivating factor, my heart sank. It looked so far away. And the blister now felt like a hot coal in my boot. I thought about crying, but was distracted by a troop of baboons . . . and I made it.

Charlie tracking strong 1km from the hut.

Hiking gives me an enormous appetite. So first order of business (after loosening our sleeping bags and hanging our clothes and boots out in the sun to air and dry) was lunch. It was just past 2pm and I could have hunted a bokkie even with my aching foot if there hadn’t been food available.

Eland Hut

I had made sandwiches, hardboiled eggs (that turned out to be soft-boiled, yet still delicious), Charlie cut up some oranges and we feasted happily in the sunshine. Doug helped me drain my blister and we lazed around until it was time to start the fire. We snacked on smoked muscles and crackers, enjoyed some sundowners and had another feast of Italian bratwurst, chicken kebabs and spuds. By 8pm we were tucked into our sleeping bags, listening to jackals calling and I tried to manufacture some zzzs.

Inside Eland Hut

The braai area

Prologue

Bokmakierie trail: Approximately 12km 

When my mother passed away in May 2013, it threw me off course a little. Parents are easily taken for granted, no matter how rocky the road you walk with them might be. But the world waits for no one, and, as things slowly returned to normal for me and my routine kicked in again, I found myself with little time to think things through properly, and a part of me was not even going to that sad place where I miss my mother.

So a few weeks after my return to Johannesburg, my dear friends Charlie and Doug called me up and invited me on a hike in the Suikerbosrand. I guess I look like I can handle a trail, and perhaps that’s why they call me Legs (a nickname I am rather fond of).

I thought it was an excellent idea; so did my housemate, Emil, who decided to come along. They are exceptional company and I’ve always enjoyed a good walk. And having done a fair amount of hiking in Clarens where I grew up, I thought to myself: how hard can it be? I also assumed it would be an easy 5km stroll through the highveld – a pleasant way to spend a Sunday morning.

I did some basic prep work the night before. I baked some muffins for the halfway snack, filled the water bottles, got my little backpack out, dusted off my hiking boots and went on a quest for my woollen hiking socks. They were nowhere to be found. But hey, what’s 5km? Socks can’t be such an important part of the experience.

The Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve is 40km (or a 30 minute drive) outside of Johannesburg. I had been meaning to go for years, but finding people to walk with is like finding a taxi that will give you a gap in peak traffic. It just never materialised. However, Charlie and Doug are regular and experienced hikers. They head out to the Suikerbosrand at least once a month, sometimes for overnight trips. So I finally found some hiking buddies.

Pick one!

We arrived at the trailhead at about 8:30am. It was a misty morning and rather fresh out, and it was around this point that I saw the signs for the trail and realised we had committed to a 12km hike. I’m good at maths, so I know this is a lot further than the 5km I originally had in mind. But since I grew up in the mountains, I thought it would be easy.

Emil, Doug and Charlie

My hiking philosophy is that when you commit to a trail, you are committed for the entire distance. No matter how sore or tired you are, you must finish. The only time you are allowed to back out if is you get hurt badly enough to require medical attention.

An easy start on a tar road creates false hope of an easy walk.

And so the journey of Bokmakierie began. The first few 100m are along a tar road, the trail then veers off to the right, through a little kloof and then it’s a rather steep incline for about 1km. When you’re not trail fit, going up is tough. Hell, it’s tough even when you are moderately fit. I was neither. But I do know that it’s best to just push through it and not pause too often as you ascend.

The trail levels out after the initial climb. It was at this stage that I realised that my socks were very impractical for walking. They were not quite as high as my hiking boots, so the top parts of my boots were chafing me above the ankle and I was starting to experience some discomfort. I kept going because Doug promised coffee halfway and that it wasn’t much further.

One of the gorgeous scenes on the trail

Even though the trail was now either level or downhill, it felt like hours before we finally got to ‘Hard Rock Café’ where Doug and Charlie usually take a break. So after hot coffee from a thermos flask, some rusks and muffins I felt refreshed and ready for the next half of the trail. Although it wasn’t the halfway point. That was about 5km in. I didn’t know it at the time, but now my mathematical ability has calculated that the break was just under halfway.

But as we started on the next incline (mild compared to the first one) I could feel a blister forming on right big toe. On top of that, the chafing above my ankles was starting to really hurt and it dawned on me just how important thick woollen socks actually are. But I was enjoying myself. I was outside, the sun had come out, the conversation was good and in the moments where we walked in silence, I felt the thickness in my head lifting. The strain on my body and even the discomfort of my feet all felt really good.

The Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve is really a remarkable place. There are no predators that could pose a threat to hikers and there is a huge amount of game. The herd of zebra, eland and springbok that we saw were so used to seeing people that they just continued doing their thing instead of fleeing into the bush.

One of the easier bits of the walk.

In my estimations we were about 3km from the end of the trail at this stage. And I was starting to struggle a little. I was tired. The rocky ground I had been walking on for the past 2km had aggravated the blister and my legs were feeling fatigued. I had finished my water a few km back and I was thirsty and uncomfortable. But the hiking philosophy prevails, so I pushed on, whining as little as possible, because it’s not really anyone’s problem and nothing can be done about it.

As we got to the top of the last koppie and I could see the Diepkloof camp and I was relieved. This would not be the last time that the rather simple buildings and packed parking looked like a palace. I couldn’t wait to sit down and take my boots off, but I felt pretty chuffed with myself. And I felt lighter on the inside than I had in weeks. Despite all the hiking I had done before, I was properly hooked.

“Legs, we’ve booked for the Otter Trail next year and have some space, would you like to join us?”

Sure, I felt sore and tired, but if serious hikers think you can handle a trail that runs over several days, you’ve probably earned some walking stripes. “Yes please!” It’s not even a question.

“We’re also planning an overnight hike here to Eland hut next month, if you would like to come along? It’s a much easier walk than the one we did today. And you walk well, Legs.”

Even though it would be the middle of winter I agreed again. Might as well get back into camping and carrying weight across distances. The blister on my toe was now the size of a R2 coin and was throbbing badly and for a moment I thought I might be making a mistake … But I could take precautions the next time and walk blister-free. So it was a date. The weekend of 17 July we would be back in the reserve for an overnight adventure.