(First published on The Incidental Tourist)

“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt” – John Muir

Though I crave regular time in the great outdoors, I’d never considered myself a natural born hiker – until recently.

Invited to join the four-day Green Mountain Trail in the Overberg and learn more about the admirable conservation efforts being undertaken in the area, the fully-guided hiking route had us traversing Cape Nature’s Hottentot Holland Nature Reserve, private farmland, and the Groenlandberg Conservancy, as we searched out the little things that matter and allowed time for introspective appreciation of nature.

The Green Mountain Trail

The Overberg is an area that feels familiar to me, having made countless visits to the coastline that runs from Rooiels to Hermanus, De Kelder and Gansbaai, as well as Arniston and the inland towns of Napier and Caledon. Yet this is a part of it I had never been to and I was delighted to be invited to explore on foot. It offered a different perspective, the opportunity to look down and across valleys towards familiar oft-driven highways and newly discovered mountain paths.

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When initially contacted to join the Green Mountain Trail, I was equally intrigued and excited to be able to spend time out in nature learning more about an area that I have grown to love over the years, and the effort being made by the special people conserving it. Yet nothing could have prepared me for the beauty of the surrounds, the warmth of the hospitality that we experienced from start to finish, the excellent accommodation and exceptional guides who brought it all to life for us. All enhanced by the group that I shared it with.

Covering a distance of 60km in total, the route winds through forests, fruit farms, shoulder-high fynbos and beautifully tended vineyards, with bountiful bird and animal life for company along the way. Each morning after an early start, we were led by our accredited guides Evan and Jeff to hike the 18, 16, 14 and 12 km respectively, gaining a better understanding of the biodiversity and history of the area, stopping for picnics and photo ops along the way.

The first nine kilometres are uphill!

Despite being somebody who walks everywhere all the time, I was not sure that I would manage the climbing, especially on days where the first nine kilometres are uphill, yet I did with some ease, just learning to slow to a pace that was manageable when tired. It felt fabulous to be out and about, hiking shoes on, walking stick in hand, starting each morning in a different spot that held the promise of discovery.

Time in nature is such a gift to oneself, soul food, a reconnection with the things that matter and a reminder of the need to protect our most precious environment, especially in such a phenomenal setting. Yet for me, the trail gave more than that.

Making our way through a tapestry of fynbos and fruit farms, the luxurious four-day slackpacking experience takes you through otherwise unavailable working Elgin farmland. We crossed privately-owned land, all belonging to members of the Green Mountain Eco Route, who share the vision to conserve the environment and promote responsible tourism. This is the world’s first biodiversity wine route, which is impressively dedicated to uniting conservation and agricultural development in a mutually beneficial manner.

Nature’s detailed and colourful way

We focused on the little things while out on the hike, on a couple of days a light drizzle enhanced the colours of the flowering fynbos that engulfed us in their shades of pinks and pretty yellows. A variety of creatures greeted us each day, from cute toads to ground beetles, one lonesome crab, baboons playing up ahead and snakes we encountered on the footpaths. There were countless brilliantly painted sunbirds, eagles, buzzards, head bobbing lizards, scary looking spiders, out of the ordinary cockroaches, dragonflies and chameleons, as well as proteas, kissing cousins, orchids, ericas and more.

Eighty percent of the Cape Floral Kingdom is made up of fynbos, two thirds of which occurs only in the Western Cape. Fynbos includes proteas, ericas, restios, as well as geophytes, daisies and legumes. The Green Mountain Trail takes you through the Kogelberg, a 100 000 hectare area that is home to 1 900 of these plant species – the densest in the world. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site there are several endemic species that we were lucky enough to see on our walk. The ericas were in bloom, the king proteas pushed proudly through the ground and pin cushions added colour to the landscape.

Did you know there’s a plant called the ‘kissing cousin’ which we found with its dainty flowers reaching across the walking path? Lucky for me, as I passed I felt a gentle brush against my cheek.

 

Apple-growing country

The Elgin and Botrivier area is known as ‘the place where apples are grown’ given the extensive apple production in the area. We walked past pickers and growers on the trail and stopped for a picnic on the edge of an orchard’s neat rows, and of course indulging in apples with our meals and as snacks when we got hungry between stops.

Accommodation in the country

The first two nights were spent at Porcupine Hills Guest Farm which is found at the end of a long dirt track off the van der Stel pass that connects Botrivier and Villiersdorp. A working olive farm with various types of guest accommodation and well-equipped guest cottages, it is situated on the larger Diepklowe Private Nature Reserve.

Arrival has you feeling like you’ve come to stay with friends, with home-cooked meals served around a communal table, land to walk and views across the towering kloof. You may even catch a glimpse of the black eagle that nests on the cliffs directly above the homestead. The farm is home to a large expanse of renosterveld, an endangered feature in the Cape Floral Kingdom, and some truly gorgeous dogs.

Wildekrans Country House

After a wonderful stay, we were moved to Wildekrans Country House where Alison Green, the creator of the trail and activist for the Groenlandberg Conservancy, was our host. Wildekrans is a historic 1811 homestead situated in the village of Houw Hoek and overlooks a large garden where carefully placed sculptures and art pieces line the path that leads to the river.

The house is furnished with antiques and filled with contemporary South African art. Our room was warm and had fluffy throws and big comfy cushions to sink into after a day of hiking. We were treated to tastings of the local wines, and delicious food in the old barn, with the fire adding to the relaxed ambiance. When staying there definitely ask Alison to take you on an art tour around the garden and tell you more about the longstanding family history that the property has enjoyed.

Alison serving her homemade lemonade as we arrived back from a day of walking.

Food and wine indulgence on the different farms

Fresh air and good walking can certainly build the appetite, and we were endlessly spoilt with excellent wine tastings, delicious treats and wholesome country cooking at the farms we visited and guest houses we stayed at.

Each celebrating the diverse offerings of the area with seasonal fresh fruit and locally grown ingredients. Of the most delicious dishes were the melanzane, tomato and carrot soup with freshly-baked farm bread and the best apple pie, which was served straight out of the oven.

Coffee breaks with freshly baked scones that we enjoyed along the way

 

All the farms we visited are family owned and have their own story to tell. Beaumont has the region’s oldest wine cellar and is steeped in history that dates back to the 1700s. Oak Valley as one of the largest farms in the area is best known for its fruit, cut flowers, beef cattle and excellent cool climate, wines. It also produces acorn-fed, free-range pigs, who are fed from over 4 000 oak trees that are found on the property.

A household brand, Paul Cluver covers an area of over 2 000 hectares and is the largest farm we visited on the Green Mountain Trail. Half of the estate has been set aside for conservation, with the farming of apples and pears, ecotourism activities and the wooded amphitheatre in which they hold outdoor concerts part of the rest.

The best reward at the end of a 60km four-day hike was a lunch and wine tasting under the oak trees at Beaumont Wines, the option of a swim in the dam and time cuddling this gorgeous resident pups.

As with most experiences, the time was richly enhanced by the people we shared it with. The guides Jeff Groenewald and Evan Kortjie who gave generously of their knowledge each day, encouraging us up and down those hills, keeping us company if we fell behind, serving steamy hot coffee on early morning stops and entertaining with stories out of the region, as well as endless lessons in conservation efforts being made.

Favourite moments on the trail from beginning to end and everything in between

  • Heading into the mountain each day to discover my heart’s happiness
  • The rich and diverse life that we encountered, from the delicate praying mantis to a baby berg adder bravely crossing the path, each playing a vital role in the fragile ecosystem
  • Taking lessons in Stone Age tools – after we discovered one – from our guide Jeff who paid homage to the prehistoric men and women who walked these trails before us
  • On the higher reaches of the walk on the last day, we caught sight of a solitary klipspringer perched on a rocky outcrop across the kloof. Protected in his world. Black eagles soared overhead, having returned to their nest after a fire burned the area a few months previously
  • Having my daughter Lemor join me on the trail; it really is the best way to spend quality time together
  • The incredible guides and genuinely warm hospitality of all who hosted us. Evan’s enthusiasm and excellent knowledge matched so perfectly to Jeff’s love of nature and history – and the fact that he sang to entertain us on a couple of the stops
  • The fact that I had been nervous about the distances and yet managed so well, reminded me how much I love hiking and need to pursue more opportunities to do so.
  • We had supplied our measurements and were each gifted a walking stick on the night before the hiking trail started, which I relied on heavily as I tackled the distances over the four days. Created by a community project called ‘Walk with an Alien’ who make walking sticks from alien vegetation
  • The foresight, energy and wonder of those who imagined and created the Green Mountain Trail and their endless efforts in preserving this pristine and beautiful area and all the life and promise it holds
  • This is truly one of the best things I’ve done in years
With my daughter Lemor at the end of the 60km trail.

The essential details

The trail runs from a Monday evening to a Friday afternoon, when the farms and reserves are quieter and privacy and exclusivity are better guaranteed. For more information take a look at their website Green Mountain Trail, or email [email protected] .

Also, do follow them on Instagram and Facebook for further green mountain inspiration. The Green Mountain Trail is a moderate walking trail with distances varying between 11kms and 18kms each day. The effort level, as gauged by Slackpacker South Africa, is set at 3,5 with 5 being the most difficult – but don’t worry, you can do it!

Special mention to Michelle Hodgkinson for thinking of me and inviting me to join the hike. You knew better than I did how much I would love and appreciate the opportunity, and while I panicked somewhat about whether or not I would make it, you reminded me that I was born for the great outdoors. Michelle walked the trail with us and took many of the pics included in the post, you can contact her for any media queries.

Green Mountain Trail booking process

Should you be interested in joining the trail simply go to their website and inquire about availability and dates. You can join as an individual hiker, couple or even book as a group of family or friends.

Either way, it will be special and you’ll spend the time with like-minded nature appreciating people. The current rate for the trail is just under R9 500 per person sharing and includes two highly qualified and knowledgeable guides, four nights in four-star accommodation, all meals, trail snacks, personalised wine tastings, a community walking stick and the experience of a lifetime.

All linen and bath towels are provided and your luggage is transported on the day of the move from Porcupine Hills to Wildekrans Country House. Should you have particular interests, fitness levels or food preferences they will gladly accommodate you – as they did my vegetarian diet.

On booking, you will be supplied with a comprehensive and extremely useful packing list and itinerary. All you need to do is allow yourself to be fully immersed in the beauty of the green mountain.

Time in nature is such a gift to oneself, soul food, a reconnection with the things that matter and a reminder of the need to protect our most precious environment. Especially in such a phenomenal setting.

 

Note** They also run a Blue Mountain Trail nearer the coast that I hope to do one day. Accommodations are perfect options for charming country retreats and can be booked anytime and separate to the hikes.