Num-Num Hiking Trail
Is there any better feeling than lying flat on your back after a hard day’s hiking, watching particles dance in the blue sky, far away from home and deadlines and responsibility?
I need to wash a pair of smelly socks and sort out my backpack, but there’s no chance of this happening any time soon. I’m a gecko in the sun, basking on a boulder near God’s Window Camp. Not that God’s Window. We’re in Skurwerand and down there is a river called the Bankspruit – the halfway point on the Num-Num Trail near Machadodorp.
The trail is named after the num-num shrub (Carissa bispinosa) with its red berries, packed full of vitamin C. It’s a short route: 38km over five days. But it sounds easier than it is. From the knees down I look like an extra from Saving Private Ryan – my feet are bandaged and swollen.
I retrace the day’s walk. It was one of the shortest but toughest days on the route. Albert Bossert, the guy who designed the trail, clearly tried to squeeze as much as he could out of each kilometre. The overnight camp might have seemed a stone’s throw away this morning, but to get there we had to go up and down and through a knee-knocking valley.
The chores can wait. Right now it’s time to count clouds.
7,2km Day 1 The Knee test
Usually hikers start the Num-Num Trail with a night on the Pongola Express, an old train that has been converted to accommodate hiking groups. But it’s the Easter weekend and there’s another big group of people tackling the trail, so we decided to beat the crowds and start the hike on day four. Then we’ll do day five, followed by day one, two and three.
Tonight we’re bunking down at Candlewood Camp on the lip of the Bankspruit gorge.
The trail opened last year. It stretches across three farms: Wathaba, Bermanzi and Five Assegais Country Estate. I’m tagging along with a group of 12 hikers and they’re all keen to explore. We get a fire going and everyone introduces themselves for my benefit. “Hello, my name is Craig and I’m a hiker,” one guy jokes.
After dinner we hit the sack, but I hardly sleep because of a barrage of snoring coming from somewhere in the dorm. I’m not at my best the next morning, but all my grumpiness vanishes after a mug of coffee and Cremora.
We pack, unpack, repack and hit the trail to Wathaba Camp. Less than 100m along the path we come to a steep decline with loose stones. Time to put the hiking poles away; on this stretch you need both hands.
If I were a 4x4 this is where my Old Man Emu shocks would kick in, but I have to make do with my cantankerous old knees instead. An Nguni bull bellows on the other side of the valley and I respond with an even louder groan.
No one is in a hurry; after only 2km we stop for our first tea break. Jokes and comments about each other’s hiking gear fly around. The slopes may be tough on the knees but the scenery makes up for it. There are waterfalls, yellowwoods, cabbage-trees and knobwoods along the way.
The steep undulations continue until we reach Wathaba Camp next to the Schoonspruit. We drop our bags and head to nearby Wathaba Rainbow Falls – a spectacular sight well worth the extra walk. There’s no electricity at Wathaba, so we go to bed early. No snoring tonight, thank goodness, just the soothing babbling of the river.
6,8km Day 2 The Name Game
It's early. I warm my hands on my coffee mug and think of the confusing place names on the route: God’s Window, Pongola, Mac Falls. None are the real deal. Did the trail designers run out of inspiration?
Today we’re going to hike 6,8km. We can actually see the Pongola Express, our end destination, from here – which means there’s going to be a serious detour along the way.
The path between Wathaba and Pongola (traditionally the final day of the hike) is another series of up-and-downs. For every five steps in a horizontal direction, it feels like you take 20 in a vertical direction first! The mood is also dampened by the R541, which leads to Badplaas. Nothing spoils a cup of tea on the trail like the squealing air brakes of a truck.
We reach Mac Falls (no, not that waterfall) and dip our feet in the icy water. It’s slippery to get across. Fellow hiker Craig Wedge stands in the water so his fiancée Bridget Owen can step on his feet and get across safely. Yes, folks, when it comes to hiking, chivalry isn’t dead.
Craig pays the price for being valiant later, however, when his Columbia boots rip loose at the stitching. Luckily he’s brought a spare pair of takkies.
After some more zigzags and one heck of a climb, we reach the glorious Pongola Express. What a great spot! At the end of the dining car an old menu is displayed on the wall: barley and asparagus soup, crumbed steak with butter sauce, pot roast, veggies, Swiss roll, cheese, biscuits and coffee. All for R3,12!
It’s a cruel joke. Our hiking fare is nowhere near as delicious as the meals that were once served on this train.
To spend a night on the Pongola Express is to take a (stationary) journey back in time. Just a note to tall people: The compartment beds are tiny.
7,4km Day 3 One detour after the next
The section from the Pongola Express to God’s Window is probably the toughest part of the Num-Num Trail. We start off by crossing the R541, then we fill our water bottles in a small stream on a hill behind some farm workers’ cottages.
And then… say hello to the strangest bit of trail design ever. The path turns sharply upwards and we huff and puff up the hill. At the top it carries on for a few metres then drops down steeply again, almost back to where we started. Huh?
Like the rest of us, Driekie Jacobs, an anaesthetist from PE, isn’t impressed. “I prefer walking from point A to point B,” she says. “Not this.”
Luckily the trail improves quickly after the meaningless detour. We reach a wall of red rock that offers cool shade. Then we turn away from the wall and meander through the strange rock formations of the Skurwerand.
God’s Window camp is straight ahead… if you had wings. Another detour looms. My heart sinks into my Hi-Tecs. Almost. Because these rock formations are something special. It feels like walking among ancient ruins.
God’s Window is one of the best camps on the route. The four huts are hidden among the rocks, giving you a sense of total isolation. There’s electricity, the beds are comfortable and there’s a cosy kitchen and a well-stocked honesty shop. A beer costs R15, a bottle of red wine R50.
After my afternoon nap on a rock I have a refreshing shower. From the guys’ bathrooms there’s a great view over the valley.
We end the day with Uno and Pasta & Sauce. The blisters are seen to and we’re off to bed.
During the night the weather takes a turn for the worse. Rain pummels the hut and it feels as if the wind will rip the roof off.
9,4km Day 4 Seek and Ye Shall Find
When I wake up I’m relieved to see the roof is still very much attached to the walls. I head to the kitchen to make my usual oatmeal and coffee. Fellow hiker Jan Spies offers me a rusk and we sit outside and admire the view.
Jan tells me he and his wife are expecting their first child. The best part about hiking, besides experiencing nature, of course, is the bond you form with people.
We pack our bags and set off. Because of the previous night’s rain the path is very slippery. Within 10 minutes I’ve already landed on my backside… twice!
The path takes us down into a small forest of iron plum, red plum and dogwood trees. When I feel hot, I just shake a branch for a shower of cool droplets.
The climb out of the kloof is no joke. The blisters on my heels are raw and painful. Panting and groaning, I finally make it to the top, where the view reaches all the way to Swaziland.
This area has a quality to it you don’t find elsewhere. The greens are somehow more green, the orange-red cliffs somehow more… prehistoric. I should really visit the Mpumalanga escarpment more often.
At a sign that reads, “Last water for 2km” I dip my head into the stream and refill my bottle. I feel inspired, and find my hiking rhythm on one of the rare flat sections of the Num-Num.
The path leads onto the escarpment above the Bankspruit. The way down to the river is easy and I even jog-walk at times. But go carefully: When you get to a fence next to a stream, don’t take the path parallel to the fence. If you do you’ll enter a grass jungle.
After about a kilometre without seeing any brown-and-yellow trail signs, I have to backtrack.
Back at the spot where the fence and the stream meet, look left. Hidden in the grass is the right path. It leads to a suspension bridge, which sways under the weight of my ungainly backpack and me.
Keep your wits about you on the other side of the bridge, too. The path splits in two: left to Bermanzi Camp, right for the next day’s route.
The last kilometre of today’s hike is the hardest of the whole trail. “Steep” doesn’t come close to describing it. I’m surprised to hear myself utter a few swear words.
At last we reach the plateau and I feel like a champion! We don’t talk much as we dump our bags at Bermanzi; the wry smiles say it all. After a rejuvenating shower I find a quiet place to read. You generally reach the overnight hut early in the afternoon, so it’s a good idea to bring a book.
It’s our last night on the trail. I should be glad, shouldn’t I?
6km Day 5 Burger Craving
I’m happy to say that the section from Bermanzi to Candlewood Camp is easy. Proper easy. It’s only 6km long and there’s not much climbing to be done.
We start off with a descent through Die Skeur, a narrow gap between rock walls. The path basically follows the Bankspruit all the way to Uitkomst Falls. What a sight! Standing in the spray at the foot of the waterfall, I feel very small indeed.
At last we arrive back at Candlewood Camp. The hikers who got here first were kind enough to light the donkey boiler so we can enjoy a lukewarm shower.
Everyone gets cleaned up and we pose for a group photo, then we hit the road to Milly’s restaurant on the N4 and devour some hamburgers and chips. Back to civilisation.
Back to where you can’t lie on a rock in the middle of the day counting clouds.
Know before you go
Best time to go: During winter it can get quite chilly, and in summer it’s wet. Spring and autumn are the best times of the year to hike.
The trail: The Num-Num is a five-day trail over 38km. It’s a circular route, so you leave your car where you begin the hike, either at Pongola Express or Candlewood. The parking area is safe.
The slackpacking option: There is the option of having your gear transported from camp to camp. It costs R300 per crate for the five days – crates are provided.
The accommodation: There are five very different overnight camps. All have braai facilities (and wood) and running water.
- Pongola Express. On which other hike can you spend the night in a beautifully restored train carriage? The beds and compartments are tiny, but the time-warp experience makes up for it.
- God’s Window. One of the highlights of the route. There are four huts and the beds are big and comfy. The loo with a view is great, and so are the “canyon showers” – they’re outside, mounted against the rock walls.
- Bermanzi. The ugly duckling. A fire destroyed the original cabin and the trail owners have converted stables into accommodation with basics like electricity and running water. A new cabin is being built.
- Candlewood. The braai area in front of the kitchen is a great place to spend an evening sharing travel tales with your fellow hikers. There’s electricity in the kitchen, but if you want to enjoy a hot shower you need to feed the donkey boiler. The two rooms are a bit crowded, with 10 bunk beds in each.
- Wathaba. Cool, spacious and comfortable. You’ll want to linger here. There are two camps: Bottlebrush Haven and Kiepersol Camp. There’s no electricity at Bottlebrush, where we stayed, but the toilets and showers are neat.
Essential gear: The weather can change in an instant, so pack a proper rain jacket or poncho. Waterproof boots will be an advantage. Also pack slops or Crocs for lazing around at the overnight huts and wear gaiters if you like to hike in shorts. Don’t forget your swimming trunks.
Cost: Five-day hike R855 per person; four-day hike R744; three-day hike R573.
Contact: 013 256 9263; www.thenum-numtrail.co.za