- Away Hike
15-17 March 2018
On offer was scenic beauty; varied terrain; wooden ladders, gangways, ropes and physical challenges; caves and rock art; tunnels; waterfalls, fascinating history and charming accommodation. We added a fun group of 21 members, including two experienced hike leaders Mark and Bev, and the combination turned it into a memorable hiking weekend for all of us.
Close to the small Free State town of Paul Roux, Holhoek is about 310 km from Johannesburg, approximately four hours in driving time. The most popular route is via Villiers, Reitz and Bethlehem on the R26 but you can also reach the farm on the N5 via Bloemfontein, Winburg and Senekal. One group more fully explored the area by travelling to Harrismith on the N3 and then took the R712 to Golden Gate and Clarens, enjoying time out in both, before joining the R26 at Bethlehem.
The access road from the main road to Holhoek is only 17 km but it was slow going. The road was quite rutted which is why 4 x 4s are recommended although some hikers did manage it in regular cars.
ON ARRIVAL, FRIDAY
Most of the group arrived late afternoon on Friday, 15 March, welcomed by flashes of gold as the setting sun connected with patches of sandstone embedded in the cliffs that surround the property. (After a storm on Night Two, the early morning light turned those same expanses of sandstone into what looked like sheets of ice on the kranse.)
The farm, with its original sandstone farmhouse, was previously owned by an American who, together with a paraplegic farm worker and a trail developer named Tian Strydom, was responsible for establishing the trails. It’s a 20 km, two day, figure 8 base camp hike that includes a 4,3km wheelchair-friendly option.
As is tradition with away hikes, our festivities kicked off with Happy Hour, a braai and the sharing of past trail tales. Spirits were high among the group of 21 that gathered under the lapa on the first night: Mark, Bev, Kim, Ryan, Olga, Hanneka, Gert-Johan, Thérèse, Brigitte, Siphiwe, Tony, Liesl, Bets, Tom, Lindiwe, Errol, Rosemary, Di, Ina, Frank, and myself – Cynthia.
DAY ONE, SATURDAY, 13 KM
We set out at 8am in front of the bass-filled dam on the trail that is marked with standard footprint icons as well as signage indicating landmarks, and historical and archaeological points of interest.
Group photo, Errol is missing, he took the pic.
Holhoek is rated a “moderate” hike although in the beginning, passing through Critter Creek, Strutt Straights, Tree Bridge and Waterfall, you might be lulled into thinking it’s going to be easy. Wrong! Sure, there were several log gangways, a metal bridge, and embedded rungs in banks but it was tame stuff. There was even a huge chameleon-shaped rock formation to distract you. But, that soon changed. Rocky Road heralded the start of more challenging terrain; none more so than the descent via gangways, rope crossings, ladders and tunnels to Hidden Valley. And, as every hiker knew, down meant there was an "up" looming!
The first phase of getting to Hidden Valley.
Waterfall, Table View (a giant flat surface perfect for a break), Sandstone Village and Fairy Falls, the halfway mark, followed.
Tom and Ina at one of the many waterfalls on the trail.
There are five caves on the trail and the San Rock art is particularly well preserved with many drawings of eland which were considered to have magical powers. Some of the caves are believed to have been inhabited by Iron Age farmers, Sotho-speaking people. We also came across the ruins of several houses, probably dating back to the first white settlement of the farm, as well as game in the form of wildebeest, kudu and zebra.
The last legs of Day One proceeded through Witnek Cave, Braveheart Crossing and Waterfall Cave, where several hikers opted to have a dip. Finally, Rory’s Rock and its 21-rung ladder led us to ground level. It was just after 2pm and it had been an exhilarating five-hour adventure. Some hikers called it an “obstacle course” which was also an apt description!
Ladders and more ladders are part of the challenges.
Later, braai masters Tom and Gert-Johan prepared the perfect coals for the mostly meat-eating contingent and afterwards two teams battled it out in a game of 30 Seconds proving that hikers are a knowledgeable and a competitive bunch.
DAY TWO, SUNDAY, 7km
A two-hour wind and rain storm in the early hours of the morning failed to put a damper on things and the physical impact on the trail turned out to be minimal. The group started out at 7am leaving from behind our thatched accommodation with the first hurdle being the 21-rung ladder at Rory’s Rock which had been our final challenge the previous day. Unsurprisingly, fresh legs were more efficient scaling those rungs.
A long stretch of the trail followed the edge of a cliff with chain ropes and fencing to hang onto as we headed to Botha’s Cave, used as a shelter by late Prime Minister PW Botha’s mother during the Anglo-Boer War. We did not find Alice in the area sign posted Wonderland but instead a mini rain forest, courtesy of the overnight showers.
Mark, Olga and Brigitte at Botha’s Cave. Frank, behind, in blue.
En route to the Wall we stopped to watch a herd of sable antelope and then moved onwards to our last signpost, Lodge View, where we imbibed the wonderful vista of the region and in the distance, our base. Day Two was a hugely varied morning hike taking just over three hours. We clocked back in at the lodge just after 10am.
Hike leaders Mark and Bev and Lodge View.
The base camp used on both nights can accommodate up to 54 hikers. It comprises a double story thatched house that can sleep 14 hikers on each floor, two thatched huts both with six bunks (12 beds) and a twin-bedded paraplegic suite. The modern, hot-water showers and flush loos are in the middle of the accommodation.
The main house at the hikers’ accommodation.
The kitchen has excellent facilities - two fridges, a freezer, a twin plated gas hob and the largest kettle I have ever seen - and the lapa, which looks out over the dam and the setting sun, features two built-in braais. In the middle of the structures is a lightening conductor, vital given all the thatch.
Cell phone reception is intermittent; the best location was opposite the dam in front of the lapa.
Every away hike has in-the-moment experiences that linger long after aching limbs are no more - and Holhoek was no exception. For us, it was watching the lone lama emulate the sheep it lives with, Ina’s enthusiastic attempts to get us to see the natural dolphin image in the black surface of an overhang, and playing the board game 30 Seconds using an array of light gadgetry because Eskom’s load-shedding affects even the smallest of dorps. It also included the introduction of hiking parlance to relatively new hikers (myself included). We learned, for example, that Holhoek is classified as a “technical hike” due to the number of chain ropes to grip on to at the edge of cliffs, and that it is an area with an abundance of “garden furniture” – hikespeak for natural rock formations that provide seating and placement surfaces for backpacks and food during important banana and lunch breaks!
All in all, it was an awesome hiking weekend. Everyone in the group gave Holhoek the thumbs up, with a resounding: yes, ja, oui, sim, German ja and Да!
GPS Co-ordinates: S28 25.129 E28 02.025