Slackpacking in the wilderness
“Come slackpacking with us,” our South African friends said to us last month when talking us into a 5-day hike along South Africa’s Wild Coast. Porters to carry our luggage, warm beds and hot meals at the end of each day in cozy inns along the coast, and a constant guide at our side so we wouldn’t lose our way (even though it’s hard to lose one’s way when walking along a coastline) – the “Wild Coast Meander” did indeed sound like a laid-back adventure.
On the day, we wrestled for eight long hours against gale force winds; however, we didn’t feel very slacking. We doggedly put one foot in front of the other, hoods tightly cinched around our faces, and legs stinging from the whipped-up sand. Silently we trudged on, sometimes in pairs, sometimes single file, conversation impossible in the howling wind. But any self-pity was stifled when gazing at the backs of our porters, a group of middle-aged women from local villages who uncomplainingly carried their heavy packs, some of them only wearing flip-flops.
Thankfully, most days were pleasantly warm following frigid mornings, as is typical for winter in Southern Africa. The pace was leisurely and the terrain easy, giving us plenty of time to admire the scenery, stop for pictures, or have our guide point out birds and animal tracks. Occasionally he would dig under a bush in the hillside and reveal a “miden,”a large mound of seashells discarded by the Khoi-San Bushmen who roamed this land in ancient times.
The Wild Coast, a stretch of South Africa’s Southeastern coastline along the Indian Ocean, is not so much wild because of its untamed wilderness, but rather because it has never been developed. What was formerly the nominally independent Republic of the Transkei, one of the “bantustans” or homelands established by the South African apartheid regime to foster their policy of “separate development,” is now part of the Eastern Cape, a rural and impoverished area of the country. Much of the farmland along the Wild Coast is held as communal property by the Xhosa tribe and can only be leased and not purchased by private citizens, which is why commercial development is practically nonexistent.
For five days we walked over open pastures, traversed wide sandy beaches, and climbed through dense forests teeming with birdlife without ever encountering another soul. The only signs of human habitation we encountered were an occasional rondavel on a distant hillside, a rickety suspension bridge, and scattered groups of cows wandering onto the beach for reasons unknown. Where the rivers were too deep to cross on foot, we clambered into “ferries” consisting of a canoe and a ferryman collecting the equivalent of 20 cents as his fare.
The family hotels we stayed at along the route were welcome oases at the end of each day. Each featured more cliché-inspiring views than the last, and our accommodations were always spacious and elegant. But the feature most appreciated upon arrival was, unfailingly, the bar. We would have paid a fortune for that first glass of Chardonnay, but when we added and divided our entire bill for drinks, boat rides, and–yes!–massages at the end of the week, it came to around $80 per person. Travel in South Africa, once you’ve paid for the flight there, is incredibly affordable.
One of the biggest pleasures of our hike was the gratuitous whale watching from almost every vantage point. Whenever you managed to take your eyes off the molehills or boulders in front of you and turn them to the horizon, you’d glimpse a big splash of a fluke or spray of mist shooting up into the air. Our South African friends who remembered vacationing there as children were certain there had been no whales in those days. Even though whaling was banned by South Africa as far back as 1935, it has taken this long for Southern right whales and humpbacks to make these waters their breeding grounds again.
When the end of our Meander approached after a rather modest 35 total miles, we all agreed that we’d happily continue to walk all the way around the Cape of Good Hope to the windswept Skeleton Coast of Namibia, especially if we’d continue to be wined and dined like royalty and trailing our entourage of porters.
I’m definitely a convert to the slackpacking cause. Nowhere are you so pampered as on an adventure in Africa.