I only had part of a day to visit South Africa’s stunning Tsitsikamma, part of the Garden Route National Park, but it was unforgettable. The park is ideal of outdoor adventure types. It has lots of campsite options and trails, and plenty of flora and fauna, including a fine representation of Cape fynbos – the vegetation of the Western Cape.
With our limited time, we decided to explore the Waterfall Trail, an oceanside trail that ended, predictably, with a waterfall. However, the path to that waterfall was slightly more grueling than what I had envisioned for a day in the park.
Notes and precautions
The short version, it’s a challenging three kilometre hike. The slightly longer version, two kilometres of the hike is spent crawling up and over rocks. Wear sturdy shoes and take a backpack, snacks and plenty of water. There is little shelter along the way, so check weather conditions and plan accordingly. Bring sunscreen and a hat, as the sun is scorching hot.
The trail starts out easy, allowing hikers to stroll in a leisurely fashion, blissfully unaware of what is to come. This early part of the trail is narrow, with mixed terrain, some stairs, a few forested areas and a couple of spots which require nimble footwork.
However, that’s nothing compared to what’s next. After about 500 m, the dirt path disappears and it’s nothing but rocks for the next two kilometres or so.
Even the first part of the rocks isn’t so bad. It’s fairly flat with only a couple tricky areas. Until you get to the climbing.
It’s technically not rock climbing, but it’s also not-not rock climbing. There are boulders to scramble over, loose rocks for stairs, narrow rock face ledges. It’s pretty exhilarating. The trail is pretty well-marked with spray painted arrows and feet so hikers can easily stay on the path of least resistance. It’s not like you can go off trail – it’s ocean on one side and rock face on the other – but you can end up on a trail to nowhere if you’re not paying attention.
Good news! There is a brief respite from the climb and heat in the form of a seemingly endless cave.
I encourage hikers to stay as long as possible, because the scramble to the finish can deplete your energy. As you get further along the trail, the more friendly and helpful oncoming hikers are. They’ve survived, after all, and they know you’re going to be okay. “Just another 25 minutes or so!” “Just under a kilometre to go!”
Once you’re ready to cash in your chips and assume the “waterfall” in question is, in fact, not there, you’ve made it to the end of the trail and it’s spectacular.
My friend and I navigated the last few piles of rocks and joined some other hikers at the base of the waterfall. Despite the day’s heat, there was a lovely cool mist floating around. This is a great opportunity to take off your shoes and dip them in the water while enjoying a light snack and preparing for the return trip.
If you’re lucky, like we were that day, you’ll get a second reward in the form of a large pod of dolphins swimming by.
If you’re exhausted after the trek out, I have bad news, there is no way to get back except to hike out. That said, I found the journey tiring, but at least I knew what to expect. It’s the same route and there are plenty of opportunities to be the friendly hiker telling people “Not far now!”
For me, the biggest highlight of the return was passing this pile of rocks a second time. Like many, many people before me, I had picked up a small rock to on the trail to add my piece to the pile. I have no idea if it means anything, but it was nice to think of my little stone joining so many others who had complete (or survived!) the journey.
As the day wore on and my water ran low, I saw the happiest sight of all: the end of the rocks and a return to the “easy” part of the trail from a couple of hours earlier.
After successfully completing the hike, I was tired and hungry, which is an understatement to this day. At the same time, it was also an unforgettable accomplishment: surviving a couple of kilometres of rock climbing along the Indian Ocean while being cheered on by dolphins.
At least that’s how I tell the story now.