For some weeks before my friend Biddi and I set off to do the Donkey Trail in the Swartberg near Calitzdorp, my friends made snarky comments about our taking the easy option of ‘slack-packing’. I didn’t mind – I’ve done my share of ‘real’ backpacking, including tough hikes like the Fish River Canyon and the Swellendam Trail (that one in a driving blizzard), and if I now have the money to pay R3 000 to be thoroughly pampered on a 2½-day trail, that’s my business.
For that kind of money, we hikers would be required to do nothing beyond hike: donkeys would carry our personal belongings, and staff would set up and break down camp, and feed us.
Food is, as anyone who’s hiked knows, very important when tackling a trail. On a trip where you’re required to carry everything yourself, the relative weight of foodstuffs to its necessity becomes crucial: a tin of smoked oysters may be costly in terms of weight, for instance, but its treat value after hours of heavy slogging can’t be overestimated. Ditto chocolate, biscuits, cheese, chips, peanuts, and small portable camping gas stoves that can be fired up on a riverbank to make a welcome cup of morning or afternoon tea.
What I was most looking forward to – given that we’d have donkeys to carry everything, and a staff complement of four to attend to the every need of the eight people in our party – was reaching camp at the end of the day and having to do nothing other than pour myself a glass of wine and wait to be served a fabulous dinner on a mountaintop under the stars.
But that’s not what happened.
Perhaps we should have been alerted to the possibility of things going wrong organisation-wise when, pressed for time on our car journey from Cape Town along Route 62, we opted to skip a visit to Warmwaterberg in order to make it to the base camp, Living Waters, at 5 o’clock, the time specified in the literature for our ‘safety and packing briefing’. This turned out to be wholly inaccurate.
We’d stopped for a quick lunch at the Wheat & Berry in Montagu, so we were also looking forward to a slap-up homecooked dinner at Living Waters at the specified time of ‘approximately 7 o’clock’ – another complete inaccuracy. (We didn’t know it then, but the bobotie we had at the Wheat & Berry, with its many thoughtful added extras such as homemade chutney and hot rolls, would be by far the best meal we’d eat in the next four days.)
At Living Waters, we were greeted by the manager, Hans, and shown to our cottage. It was very beautiful but lacking in several basic things, including a bath towel each (there was only one), a dustbin, and hot water. These may seem little niggles but when you’re forking out over R1 000 a day, you expect some attention to detail. (The other six people in our hiking party, whom we had yet to meet, also had no hot water; they also didn’t have tea or coffee in their cottage, although they did repeatedly ask for it.)
By 7 o’clock that evening, our entire party of eight was gathered on the verandah of the Living Waters farmhouse and keen to get briefed, get fed and get to bed. As it turned out, we didn’t sit down to dinner until well after 9 o’clock, by which stage we were all pretty pissed – although we’d all brought our own wine, our hosts declined to provide a single morsel of food in the way of snacks during the almost three hours we hung around waiting for dinner.
I can’t attest to the quality of the meal we were served: it had been eight hours and a bottle of wine since I’d last eaten, and by then I would have gladly gobbled up a donkey.
So it was a fairly disgruntled lot who met at the farmhouse the next morning to set off on our trip – none of us had slept enough and most of us were hungover. Snacks in the form of Jungle Oats energy bars, fruit and sachets of Game drink powder were laid out on a table for us to stock up on for the day’s walk. I’d normally never touch Jungle Oats energy bars, which taste to me like packaging pulp, but with some hard hiking ahead, I scooped up four of them to put in my daypack. ‘Um, I think it’s one each,’ Biddi said. And would you believe, she was right – there were eight of us, and there were eight Jungle Oats energy bars.
If I was unhappy about that, you’ll understand how much lower my spirits plummeted when I realised that we wouldn’t be getting a cooked breakfast. I’m no fan of cereals, which I consider the world’s most unappetising and boring foodstuff, but there was no option that morning, so I reluctantly shovelled down a bowl of wood shavings, rabbit droppings and old man’s scabs, which I tried to disguise with lashings of yoghurt.
And, finally, we were off! The first day’s walk is pretty hard going – it’s about 15km, most of it uphill, and some of it almost vertical. What makes it worth it is walking through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world – and we were lucky with the weather, which was hot but not boiling, and as we climbed higher, a lovely breeze blew occasionally.
Having made short work of my single Jungle Oats energy bar, I was looking enormously forward to lunch. I imagined we’d stop somewhere near water, and the guides would produce from the donkeys’ panniers a fabulous little feast, laid out picnic style for us to graze on at our leisure.
But that’s not what happened.
We did stop at water, but it was steep river crossing, densely overgrown with bush. I wondered why the two guides who’d gone ahead with our equipment for our first night’s campout, hadn’t taken half an hour to cut away some of the branches – it would have made little difference to the vegetation but a huge difference to the 12 beings (8 hikers, 2 guides and 2 donkeys) who were forced to perch awkwardly in small prickly spaces.
‘Lunch’ was a blue plastic lunchbox each, their contents hot from the morning’s hiking: a white-bread cheese-and-lettuce sarmie, a boiled egg, a few small pieces of biltong, 3 cherry tomatoes, a box of juice, 2 Quality Street chocolates and a sucking sweet. I felt like crying. I hate white bread; I don’t like boiled eggs; I don’t like biltong; and the Quality Streets were the ones that are always left in the packet after Christmas because nobody likes them.
Although I could have done with more of a rest there, there was nowhere comfortable to sit, so more or less as soon as we’d emptied our lunchboxes, we were off again.
The afternoon’s hike was very tough, and I was hugely grateful to Charlton, the guide who brought up the rear and kept me going with continuous encouraging chatter as I battled up and up and up. Again, what made it worth it was the scenery – views over serried mountains to valleys far in the distance, and swifts swooping around below us.
By the time we got to the evening’s camp, just over Wyenek (about 1 500m), I was tired, filthy, starving and longing for a glass of wine. I couldn’t wait to sit at the long table that had been set up for us by the vanguard, and nibble on snacks while waiting for a slap-up meal.
But that’s not what happened.
The ‘snacks’ on the table – the only edibles provided by our hosts between the time we arrived at the camp and when we ate at about 6pm, many hours after lunch – were, inexplicably, a bowl of prunes. Yes, prunes. If the other members of our party hadn’t produced some chips and peanuts that they’d cleverly brought along of their own accord, I think there may have been a mutiny.
And ‘dinner’? A bowl of mushy pasta topped with warmed-up tinned tomato sauce; dessert was tinned pears (pears!! even tinned peaches would have been better!) and Ultramel custard served straight from the box.
Disgruntlement had, by this time, set in pretty solidly, and it wasn’t happy campers who climbed onto their stretchers that night. I was additionally irritated by the sleeping-bag ‘linen inner’ (according to the literature) that turned out to be made of the shiniest nylon I’ve ever seen – I immediately broke into rivers of sweat, and had to abandon it.
The next morning dawned misty and cold – the perfect weather for drinking hot tea or coffee while waiting for breakfast. Our guides had, unfortunately, slept in (!!), so we were left to scout irritably around the kitchen tent to get hot drinks going for ourselves. We comforted ourselves with the thought that we’d be setting off on our last day after a slap-up breakfast.
But that’s not what happened.
After another round of unappetising cereals heavily disguised with yoghurt, we packed up. This wasn’t anywhere nearly as straightforward as it sounds: the logistics of the donkey transport, which was returning to Living Waters that day while we hiked onwards, meant some careful choosing of what went back with the donkeys (and which would therefore not be available to us that night or the next day) and what we chose to take with us (which meant cramming our daypacks with toilet bags, pyjamas and clean clothes). It seemed to me to be unnecessarily complicated, and I don’t understand why the donkeys didn’t just travel with us to the end.
Equally inexplicably, but possibly because the grumblings of discontent – not to mention empty tummies – had grown rather loud, on this morning, the guides set out a range of snacks, including peanuts and Bar Ones. Just the thing we’d needed the previous day, while climbing well over a thousand metres!
Anyway, finally, we set off on our last day’s hike. Again, this was incredibly beautiful, a mini-rollercoaster of several valleys before we reached the road down into Die Hel. Hans was waiting there to collect us in a vehicle – Biddi and I opted to drive down into Die Hel while the other six walked.
Here, according to the literature, we were to enjoy ‘a picnic lunch in the shade’.
But that’s not what happened.
In spite of a combi and a bakkie having come that morning all the way from Living Waters – and therefore, one would assume, be capable of bringing supplies including fresh and delicious food – we were once again each provided with a blue plastic lunchbox, only this time the offering was even more sparse: the same white-bread cheese-and-lettuce sarmie (but the bread was, by this stage, a day old), a few sticks of dried-out cucumber, a juice box, the rejected Quality Street chocolates… We did also score one small packet each of Lays crisps – by that time, we were all so treat-deprived that the chips really seemed like a luxury.
We did have a pleasant braai that night in Gamkaskloof, provided for by the guides, but, once again, for the not-inconsiderable cost-per-person of the trail, I expected more than a few grilled sosaties and chops and a modest range of salad options.
Breakfast the next day was precisely the same as on the three previous mornings – despite the fact that in Gamkaskloof we were in accommodation with full kitchens including stoves and fridges, and therefore with the obvious capability of providing a fried egg and a couple of strips of crispy bacon. And, later, on the +-4-hour journey through the mountains back to Living Waters, we did stop for snacks – only, these were provided by Biddi, who had bought practically the whole supply of Gamkaskloof café’s Simba chips.
Hans, the manager, did admit, when pressed, that various organisational things had gone wrong, and that the food was generally of a higher quality (and, I’m hoping, that there’s usually more of it). It’s a shame he didn’t tell us this up front, so that we could apply some understanding to the situation. As it was, it just seemed to us that the Donkey Trail people had made a big fat profit out of the eight of us. Our combined fees for the hike came to a whopping R24 000; I’ve done some simple sums, and I estimate the food bill for the entire trip didn’t top R2 000 (and that’s being generous). Add to that a liberal allowance for payment for the guides, park fees and accommodation in Gamkaskloof, and allowing for various other costs such as petrol and so on, you’re still looking at Living Waters putting in the region of R12 000 in profit for the long weekend into their pockets.
For anyone wanting to do the Donkey Trail, I’d strongly suggest you phone ahead and have an in-depth conversation with the management about what you can expect for your fee. Because, on reflection, I’d far preferred to have done the trail in the old-fashioned way, carrying everything I required on my own back; alternatively, I’d love to have had the guides (especially Charlton) along, and the donkeys, but I’d have insisted on planning and packing the provisions myself.