The Cederberg Heritage Trail: It’s a donkey thing

IT is official. I lost my heart to a star in the Cederberg. The problem is, I am not sure exactly which of the many stars that I encountered on a recent four-day hike through the region laid claim to it.

Chances are I surrendered it early on to Clanwilliam Living Landscape Project’s dashing young David van der Westhuizen, who – during the first stage of the newly-established Cederberg Heritage Route – guided our party of six along the Jan Dissels River on the outskirts of the village, and captivated us with his knowledge and enthusiasm for rock art and the history of the region.

Cederberg rock art sites – there are hundreds of them, though not all are accessible to the public – are exceptional in that they provide marked evidence of the trance-like state of the artists who created them and their proclivity for shape-shifting and metaphors. In half-animal, half-man figures, and depictions of ceremonies and rituals, there are indications of symbolic and/or spiritual meaning that we may never comprehend. And did you know that, according to San lore, the praying mantis created the eland by lovingly pouring honey over its body?

The insect, at least, knew where his heart was.

It is possible though, that I tumbled head-over-hooves the next day when I met Jackson. He is one of 20 hale and hearty donkeys that hauled three carts packed with our luggage for more than 20 panoramic but precipitous and potholed kilometres from Pakhuis Pass to the tiny settlement of Brugkraal.

Jackson and his long-eared, shaggy-coated colleagues – steered and sweet-talked by drivers Johannes Ockhuis, David Swartz and Gerrie Theron, and strapped together in traditional harness to quaint old carts – tread the same stony tracks that their equine ancestors did centuries ago, transporting goods and folk to and from the white-housed little mission villages, farms and major routes in the area.

Perhaps though, the donkey didn’t do it and instead, I readily handed my heart to our hostess, Regina Manuel later that night when – with a smile as wide as the nearby Biedouw Valley and eyes as bright as the Namaqualand daisies that densely carpeted the veldt alongside the route – she presented us with a variety of eight delicious and different hot dishes. This, despite a dearth of electricity due to the disability – for three days prior and inclusive of our stay – of Eskom. Or maybe Regina’s neighbour, Benjamin Zimmerei stole my heart when he arrived, guitar in hand, to enthusiastically regale us with a jovial melody about, what else but…the donkey cart trail from Pakhuis Pass.

On the other hand, I know I felt my spirit soar (and heart fly away?) the next day when, high up among the gigantic and curiously fashioned red-orange rocks in the heart of the Cederberg Wilderness Area, we saw a pair of black eagles wheeling smoothly against the brilliant blue sky. Then it missed a beat again, I am sure, as we gazed in awe when our guide for the day, Donovan Hesselman pointed to the fresh spoor of a leopard in the dusty path ahead of us. Later that day, distracted by four fat dassies that watched us lazily from their rocky sun bed on the boulders above our path, I failed to notice a pair of fleet-footed klip springer that apparently leap across the grassy plateau above Grasvlei.

If however, the eagles did not take flight with my heart, then I am certain that I fell for Tannie Noss (Maria) Solomon that night when – cold, tired and hungry – we misguidedly stumbled into her neat and cosy guesthouse in Heuningvlei and she welcomed us warmly, regardless of the intrusion. (We were actually scheduled to stay in other accommodation in the village.)

Possibly though, I lost my heart – the day after – to the burbling Dwarsrivier that tumbles down the shady Krakadouw Pass and which is abundantly fringed by bracken, lance-leaved myrtle, wild almond, palmiet rush and yellowwood trees. Or perhaps I gratefully gave it to that day’s guide, Abraham Jantjies when – pulling his beanie tightly over his ears against the cold – he pointed out the first sighting of our accommodation for the night in the Boskloof valley below.

Or perhaps I lost my heart that night to the most profuse and brilliant galaxy I have ever tipped my head back for.

The Cederberg Heritage Route began when a group of Cape Town-based, long-time hiking enthusiasts, led by Denis Le Jeune and Peter Hart, suggested to Cape Nature that the organisation develop a portaged, multi-day “slack packing” trail in the northern part of the area, catering particularly for individuals and groups with interests in the unique flora and fauna, geology, botany, rock art, history, culture, heritage and archaeology of the region.

Besides facilitating a new kind of access to the area and its people, the plan was to help promote sustainable eco-tourism by inviting communities to provide overnight accommodation and catering, transport for luggage, guided walks and other appropriate services for hikers. The overriding objective was that revenue from the Cederberg Heritage Route would directly benefit local communities.

The result was the establishment of a voluntary not-for-gain association with a written constitution, whose founding member organisations include the Moravian Church at Wupperthal, the Wupperthal Tourism Association, Western Cape Nature Conservation Board, the Clanwilliam Tourism Association and the Clanwilliam Living Landscape Project. The beneficiaries are David, the rock art expert; Jackson, the donkey’s owners and drivers; Regina and Maria, the hosts at the guesthouses; Abraham and Donovan, the guides; Benjamin, the musician; and several other people and their families in the area who some how contribute to the extraordinary experience that is the Cederberg Heritage Route.

While the four-night trail, which I – in case you missed my point earlier – thoroughly enjoyed, is for the more robust hiker, the three-night trail on the Cederberg Heritage Route is suitable for walkers of average fitness. It is ideal for a long weekend in the mountains in that you in Clanwilliam arrive in the late afternoon in where you settle in. The following morning you are guided on a two to three hour rock art walk to a couple of the rock art sites. After a picnic lunch you are transferred to the top of the Pakhuis Pass where you meet the Heuningvlei donkey carts. You walk along the jeep track to Heuningvlei with occasional optional donkey cart rides. The following day you are guided on a magnificently scenic five to six hour walk up and over the Krakadouw pass and into the Boskloof valley where you stay overnight before departing the following morning.

The five-night trail offers, in addition to the four-night route, an optional hike up Krakadouw peak, which the highest mountain in the northern Cederberg plus a hike all the way to the picturesque mission village of Wupperthal. The final day includes the Sevilla Rock Art trail, which covers nine separate rock art sites during a three-hour hike back to Clanwilliam.

Indeed, I lost my heart to a star in the Cederberg. In fact, I fell in love at least twice a day on the Cederberg Heritage Route. But, as a hiking companion told me during the trip, I am robust and so, happily, I will leave my heart there – to be visited regularly in years to come.

The writer was the guest of the Cederberg Heritage Route.

This article first appeared in The Weekender in August 2008. The photograph was taken by myself.

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Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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2 Responses to The Cederberg Heritage Trail: It’s a donkey thing

  1. 2summers says:

    Hi Penny, I just stumbled upon your post and enjoyed it immensely. I just completed the three-day Cederberg Heritage Route itinerary and also blogged about it. Here it is if you’re interested: http://2summers.net/2011/11/02/rock-art-and-donkey-carts/.

    Looking forward to checking out the rest of your blog!

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