I ended my wonderful stay at Farm 119 by venturing off into the Outeniqua forest on the other side of the fence. The forest is home to wild baboons, stealthy leopards, and the infamous knysna elephants. The elephants of this forest are born with a hatred and fear of humans because of a long history. They're rarely seen or heard (though their poop is quite common) and its usually better off that way. All that said, the forests around Knysna are common places for hikers as well as a major logging site in South Africa. I was more concerned with getting lost than having an encounter with any of the creatures of the forest.
I started off an hour before noon. It was great to be off again and on my own. The forests are beautiful, filled with a variety of trees, vines, and ferns. Shortly into my trip it became apparent that the family's dog, Mushroom, had decided to follow me. I turned her back only to have her reappear half an hour later. She was quite aware that I didn't want her with me, hanging back just out of site or moving quietly in the woods around me, making appearances once every hour or so. The trail rose out into an open pine forest filled with ferns and it was here that I finally met up with the Outeniqua trail I was looking for.
My goal was to travel along this trail as far as I could to George and then perhaps all the way to George if I could find decent trails. For the first day since I wasn't in a hurry (and where I met the trail was about halfway between the two huts) I decided to head the opposite direction to the Millwood hut. All along the trail there are little huts for hikers to stay at and they are quite nice. They often have reservoirs of rainwater, bathrooms, showers, a wood fireplace or cooking area, and lots of bunks.
My decision proved to be a good one. A couple of kilometers before the Millwood hut the trail came to a picnic site with a stream and a paved road coming in. Some kids playing there informed me that some other people were at the Millwood hut and had dogs with them. Not wanting to have to deal with that I back tracked a little ways back in the woods and set up camp with my hammock. I SMS'd the family from the farm to pick up the dog from the picnic site in the morning and went about cooking. The first night in the woods was quite exciting, all the forest sounds, especially the wind occasionally roaring through the canopy were quite fascinating. It was kind of nice to have the dog with me. Poor Mushroom was hungry and a little distressed, but she dug herself a bed under my hammock and settled down.
In the morning the pickup went without problem, Mushroom was very happy to see her family, and I was on my own for real this time. Within an hour of hiking I was back to the fork where I first met the trail and here it became apparent that the trail was designed as a 1-way hike. Meaning that all the trail signs and markers only told you were to go next, not where you were coming from. The whole forest is a web of different paths and roads. Some of them are just firebreaks, some of them are single-track hiking trails, others are logging roads of various quality and use. At various points this was an issue, but in general I became pretty good at figuring out which path the trail sign was intended to be read from. Sometimes I'd have to put down my pack and go a little ways up a trail looking for markers just to make sure. This was all made even more interesting by the fact that sometimes the markers were faded, or that there was lichen on the trees was grew very similarly to the 'footprint' trail marker.
My second day took me to the Platbos hut where I had the entire place to myself. This would be true of the entire trip actually as I never saw another hiker the entire time. I arrived at the Platbos hut just after noon, did some yoga, took a nice shower, and then hung out, read and enjoyed the beautiful weather. The hut was right next to some active logging sites, but fortunately it was Sunday and they weren't working. Where this did make things interesting was in finding the next trail.
There were clear signs to the Millwood hut, but not signs for 'back to Windmeulnek hut.' So part of my afternoon activity was to find the path. A little wandering turned up a road that had the footprint markings on it. I felt satisfied and had a nice evening meal of plain rice (as I did every night). My breakfast of plain oats was filling if not exactly satisfying and I set out around 730. After a little ways on the road I stopped seeing the footprint markers. This wasn't uncommon, often there'd be several in one area and then none for a long stretch, but when I came across a fork with no sign I became a little worried. I went forward and found a 4 way intersection with no sign, back tracking turned up nothing as well. I did however run into a logger who informed me that I should just follow the road along the mountain.
Fortunately the Windmeulnek hut was way up on a mountain saddle and visible from Platbos. Also this entire stretch of the forest had been burned down in 2007 and so I could see the whole area and the network of roads going through it. I figured if I stayed high on the logging roads I'd be alright. I started out on a logging road that went away from Windmeulnek, but up to a pass and looked promising. Fortunately at the top of this pass I found signs for the Outeniqua trail. The rest of the day was a beautiful and long hike along the side of the mountains. There were beautiful views of the forest, coast, and farm land in the area. The vegetation was flourishing since the fire and there were lots of flowers everywhere. It was a grueling day though and the end was a long uphill climb to the saddle where the hut sat. 20+ km and 9 hours of hiking... I was exhausted when I arrived at 430.
When I got to the hut one of the first things I noticed was a sign at the head of the trail saying 'Closed for Maintanence.' Oops, well maybe if they marked their trails both ways I would have known! There were some sketchy parts on the trail, but in general it was OK. And it was mostly just sketchy because of my 30kg bag on my back. There was a forest route to Platbos that was open, but I hadn't found trail markers for that either.
The Windmeulnek hut was amazing. Gorgeous views in both directions, nice big windows in the bunk rooms let in lots of light, and, as usual, I had the place to myself! Being exhausted, a little sore, and having supplied to last me several days, I decided to spent two nights at the Windmeulnek hut. Beautiful sunsets in the west put me to bed and beautiful sunrises from the east greeted me in the morning. I had a wonderful time relaxing here and did a little bushwhacking peak climb as well.
The hike out from Windmeulnek was mostly uneventful. Back in the forests, steady downhills, some uphill, lots of even land for 16 km. I got out onto a gravel road at the head of the trail around noon and within a few minutes a car pulled up and asked if I wanted I ride. They gave me a lift all the way to the National road just 18 km from George. From there I hitched to George with a guy who was a mechanic for small engines. Then I caught a ride into town with two tourists from Pretoria. They dropped me off at Steers (a local fast food chain) where I enjoyed my first beef in a month and had a nice big pile of fries. The Steers was just a couple blocks from the friend I had stayed with earlier in George, so a short walk later found me sitting where I am right now.
All in all it was an amazing and beautiful trip. I'll get photos up eventually. Next I'm heading to Stellenbosch to see the beautiful wine region of South Africa and then I fly to London on the 25th from Cape Town. And so will begin my European adventure.