3 fabulous (and free) trails

Being close to nature – especially walking through it – is the number one way that I sustain myself.
dolphins
We spotted dolphins playing as we neared the end of the Sacramento Trail

It clears my busy head, fills me with energy and lifts my mood. Whether it’s the physical exertion or closeness to the wonders of the Earth doesn’t really matter – it’s probably both, and more.

You can feel deep down that it’s good for you. Scientists know that walking in nature has all kinds of benefits. One study (there are plenty) showed that it can prevent dementia, improve memory and protect against diabetes, among other things.

Almost every day, I walk on the beach or in the forests of the Kwelera Nature Reserve because #him and I chose to make this our home (smart, aren’t we?). Now and then, I explore new slivers of wilderness.

And in the past six months, I’ve walked three fabulous short trails in three provinces of my beautiful South Africa. Bonus: they are all free, maintained and managed by municipalities, sometimes with partners, to protect nature and allow people to enjoy it. This is an example of municipalities doing good work.

Sacramento Trail, Nelson Mandela Bay, Eastern Cape

burned tree
Skeletons of fire and new growth on the Sacramento Trail

We (#him and I) tend to do things back to front so we started the Sacramento Trail on the other side – the high sand dunes of Sardinia Bay beach – and walked to its start-end at the village of Schoenmakerskop. Actually, there is no right or wrong side, just a more common start-end. And whichever way you walk this trail, it’s spectacular.

We also chose to walk it in the middle of a heatwave, but a smidgeon of sense told us to do it in the late afternoon.

The trail is named after a Portuguese galleon, the Sacramento, that was wrecked here in 1647. You can learn a bit about this at a monument close to Schoenmakerskop.

Sacramento trail
Heading towards Sardinia Bay beach on the Sacramento Trail

It’s an 8km circular trail, which means that you walk one way along the beach and swing back on the top of the vegetated dunes (or the other way round).

We set off along the beach, stopping to dip our toes in the sea and regretting not wearing our bathing costumes. The vibe is relaxed: people walking their dogs; families picnicking on the beach; children swimming; couples strolling along.

The beach path takes a fairly straight line – which is not the case for the dune path. We wiggled and winded up and down, round and round again, on our return to Sardinia Bay, although we think we took the “wrong” turn at a “trail-trail” sign.

Sacramento trail
The start-end of the Sacramento Trail at Sardinia Bay beach

The dune path is definitely longer and more taxing. But it’s worth every step. There is rich birdlife (we spotted drongos, barbets and several eagles), aloes and an abundance of flowers. New vegetation is creeping through the skeletons of a fire that swept through the area a couple of years ago.

Looking out to sea from the dune, Sacramento Trail

At last, we reached a bench near the end of the trail and were rewarded with the sight of dolphins gliding and carousing across the bay. We did not sit (truth: we feared we wouldn’t be able to stand up again) and pictured cold wine and beer waiting for us.

Umhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal

Umhlanga Reserve
One treads carefully when one crosses the lagoon

We lived in Durban for 12 years and somehow got to this beautiful reserve only after we left the city. When we did, heavy rains had washed away a chunk of the M4, which cuts through the reserve, at the entrance to the walking trails.

The reserve includes two walks and we did them both. “Umhlanga” means “place of the reeds” in isiZulu, and both walks start with an amble through reed beds where thousands of weavers make their nests.

The short walk links up with the busy promenade and backs onto a resort. This kind of urban busyness is not really my cup of tea, but the walk is pleasant, lined with big red coastal milkwood trees and thick undergrowth that includes plenty of clivia and patches of gloriosa daisies in bloom.

The longer walk – about 4km return – is another story. It winds through a lush coastal dune forest – the kind of “lush” that I associate only with Durban. Some of the trees I recognised were milkwood, indigenous hibiscus with yellow flowers that turn red with age, and stinkwood.

I expected this longer trail on the doorstep of the city to be busy and was pleased that I was wrong. But humans are odd animals: at least half of the few we encountered were playing loud music as they marched through this haven. It doesn’t take many to make a crowd.

About to pop out on the beach at the end of the longer trail at the Umhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve

The trail swings across a bridge to take you over the Ohlange lagoon – we were not the only people who stepped across with great caution – and then climbs up the dune to pop you out on the beach. We could have walked back through the forest, but we chose to walk along the beach. Later, we learned that if we had turned left at this point, we’d have landed up at a nudist beach. Durban has all kinds of surprises.

Fernkloof Nature Reserve, Hermanus, Western Cape

Fernkloof Nature Researve
Stunning view, through proteas, of Hermanus from the Fernkloof Nature Reserve

I had set my heart on visiting the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden at Betty’s Bay, but my friend, Leanne, who knows more about plants than most of us, advised me to wait until my next trip to the Western Cape. The garden was still recovering from a devastating fire in January 2019.

She suggested, instead, an amble through Fernkloof. And I’m so glad she did. Parts of Fernkloof burned too, but it is recovering well. And it is enchanting, starting with a hut where specimens of the plants in the reserve are on display. There is need for such a display here. Fernkloof is home to no less than six of the seven endemic plant families of the Cape Floral Kingdom – the famous fynbos.

There are around 60km of trails and walking paths here and we did barely a 10th of that. Nevertheless, we spent a pleasant few hours walking. We passed many varieties of proteas, some in bloom, to reach a waterfall in the kloof of ferns that is the heart of the reserve (a kloof, by the way, is a ravine).

Then we walked, like goats, upwards on a path that hugs the side of the mountain – at the same time, distracted by the incredible floral displays that cushion the path. Suddenly, stunningly, it opens to birds’-eye views of the town and the sea.

Our time in Hermanus on this visit was limited, and so we had to wind back down the mountain before we felt we’d had our fill of this paradise. We know that we’ll be back, perhaps for the Wildflower Festival at the end of September.

Hermanus through the kloof
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