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The Dolphin Trail 
Text: Sasha Gilmore, pictures: Dale Morris.

An alternative to the Otter Trail that's much easier going and shorter, but no less spectacular. 

I love hiking as much as the next person, but that all depends who the next person is. If they happen to be one of those heavy-duty-specialised-boot-wearing, carbon-fibre-pole- carrying, long-distance-speed-sprinting sadists who actually seem to enjoy getting blisters and carrying a 30Kg backpack through driving rain for seven days in a row, then perhaps no; I don't enjoying hiking quite as much as they do.

However, if, like me, they are sensible Nature lovers who prefer to amble sedately through pretty scenery smelling flowers as they go, then yes, they sound like my cup of tea (milk and two sugars please).

I'm not fussy or feeble, I'll have you know, but the idea of eating cardboard-flavoured nutrition bars and two-minute noodles after an arduous days hike just doesn't cut the cheese. Gordon Ramsey-style meals combined with a comfortable bed and a nice bottle of wine, however, not only cut the cheese, but melt it down into a lovely creamy sauce. Add a delicious hot and frothy Jacuzzi, a steaming cup of real coffee in the morning, a masseuse and a backpack delivery service, and what you end up with is an absolutely wonderFul breeze of a hiking trail.

Taa-daa ... introducing the Eastern Cape's coastal Tsitsikamma Dolphin Trail. It's the Otter Trail for sissies (not that I'm a sissy, of course ... well, maybe).

For two days and three nights my team and I (a group of like-minded hikers who didn't quite fancy the arduous carry-your-own-food-and-sleep-in-a-bunk-with-snoring-people Otter Trail) followed our expert naturalist guide for less than half the distance of the Otter Trail, hiking over fynbos-coated hillsides, along rugged coastal paths and through verdant forest patches.

We saw turacos and cuckoos and vervets and dassies, as well as a whole plethora of butterflies, bees and beautiful flowers. But of course, as its name suggests, the Dolphin Trail is for seeing dolphins. And see them we did ... hundreds of them, surfing inside the crashing waves and leaping above the surface as if they were celebrating a marine Mardi Gras.

The ocean in this part of our country is a boisterous thing and the waves crash like angry thunder against jagged cliffs of granite. It smells of salty mist even in the depths of the Tsitsikamma forest, and the pounding sound of the ocean helped me keep up a regular pace along the winding path.

"Once upon a time," said Sheldon Goeda, our locally born guide, "we had such a storm here that the waves were nine meters high:"I looked at the ocean from our cliff-side vantage point and tried to imagine it being any fiercer than it already was. There were explosive spumes and whirling eddies among the rocks, making the ocean near the shore look like a giant's washing machine.

"How big are the waves today?" I asked.

"Oh, no more than three meters, I'd guess:"

Compared to the Tsitsikamma, the Wild Coast seemed to me to be inappropriately named. This here was as wild as wild can be.Sheldon, forever on the lookout for something interesting to show us, stopped our little group frequently so that we could nibble on apples and enjoy the stunning surroundings. He pointed out Southern Right Whales on the horizon, pirouetting from the water like overweight ballet dancers, and he spotted a bushbuck, or duiker or some such edible-looking thing, which vanished with a snort and a rustling of leaves.

"When I was just a kid," he told us as we sat on a rock watching seagulls dive,"I used to come here to swim in the streams and pools and sea:" He must have seen my look of disbelief because he quickly added, "Yes it's true that there are lots of sharks in these waters, but they are harmless ones, not the big ones with teeth, so we were never in any real danger.""I wasn't thinking of the sharks," I replied. "By the time those waves pounded you into tomato puree there wouldn't be much left for them to eat."

He looked at the maelstrom of water below and chuckled, "Ah, it's not always so rough, you know. We can often take a break from the trail and go snorkeling in the rock pools. They are such fascinating places, full of strange creatures and beautiful shells. We sometimes see otters here, too."Sheldon has a good knowledge of the plants and animals in the indigenous forests of the Tsitsikamma mountain range, where he used to play as a child."Many of the plants and minerals have specific medicinal uses," he said. "Some cure stomach aches, some make you go to the toilet very quickly, and others, like this one here (he pointed to a large overhanging boulder stained by something red and slimy) will cure you of a babbalas:' He then licked it as if to prove a point. Yuk! I think I'll stick to Panado.

The Tsitsikamma National Park South Africa's oldest, largest and most cherished marine protected area, is also an exceptionally important breeding ground for as many as 89 fish species."By law, no fishing is allowed along the entire length of the park," Sheldon told us, "or for about five kilometers out to sea. This is to protect the environment for future generations. But the law hasn't made everybody 100% happy."

In recent years communities bordering the Tsitsikamma Marine Reserve have grumbled more and more about the ban, asking for it to be lifted. However, exhaustive studies have shown that if that were done, the marine ecosystem would soon become a wasteland. The Tsitsikamma coast, you see, is a breeding and recruitment ground for fish that populate areas outside the park, so without it stocks across the entire region would dwindle away. Then nobody would be happy - not the communities, not the thousands of tourists who bring much-needed money to the area, and certainly not the seagulls that were wheeling above our heads. They hovered and circled, eyeing our snacks with beady black eyes, before gliding off out to sea where they plummeted like darts into the waves."Not everyone obeys the fishing ban, I see," I said pointing at the cawing birds, to which Sheldon chuckled before muttering something about reporting them to the park authorities.

That evening, as the sun slid towards the horizon, we broke from the forest and ambled into the luxurious arms of the Misty Mountain Reserve, a beautifully situated lodge. Here our bags awaited us along with a cup of tea for me and a cold beer for my husband. The distance we'd hiked had been reasonable, the pace had been slow, the weight I'd carried had been minimal, and the scenery had been stupendous. 

What's more, my feet didn't ache.After a pleasant evening spent wallowing in a Jacuzzi, I slipped under the covers of a comfortable bed and sent out a little thought of sympathy for the souls who were at that moment bedding down on the Otter Trail.The following day was more of the same: an easy ramble along cliff-tops and forest paths accompanied by Sheldon's constant commentary and the crashing sound of the ocean's waves. We spotted frogs in forest streams and octopuses in rock pools while fish-eagles soared above sounding like flutes.

Again, we rested frequently and had time on our hands to sniff the flowers (something I like doing) and long before sundown we reached the Fernery Lodge, a luxurious mansion of a place, cemented precariously on the side of a cliff.Here we were offered the use of a gym (I suppose it takes all sorts) which I politely declined in favour of the sauna.Another Jacuzzi later (this one outside and overlooking a waterFall), combined with a bottle of fine red wine and a roaring fire, and I was soon just about ready for bed. Happily tired from a good days hiking, but not, I must add, overly taxed.

The following morning, despite having a small blister (heavens forbid) I was raring to go again. But, alas, the trail was over and it was time to go home.So I picked up my backpack (the first time in three days), put it in the boot of the car and said goodbye to the beautiful and powerful Tsitsikamma National Park.I'm sure I'll be back again and, who knows, I might just try the Otter Trail next time. But then again, who will carry my bag?


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