The Hunter-Gatherer Hiking Trail

The small clan sat close around a driftwood fire, sheltered from the sea breeze by a mud wall. Smoke stung their eyes as they poked at bulbs and tubers baking in the coals. Flames sizzled as fat dripped from meat. Their stomachs growled. It had been a long day of beach-combing and they’d returned empty-handed. Tomorrow they would move camp to look for oysters in tidal pools and bird’s nests on the rocks. The grizzled elder roused himself and addressed his family. ‘Could someone fetch me another beer?’ he said. ‘My legs are finished.’

A few weeks before, I was wondering what to do with my teenaged sister and well-aged father when they came to the Cape to visit. Dad’s idea of a party is sitting in the sun with a book. Aimée apparently visits South Africa for the splendid scenery in our malls. A long-expected family holiday that produced nothing but sunburn and shopping bags seemed a waste, so I contacted Fred Orban in Boggomsbaai.

Fred is founder of the Oystercatcher Trail, a 47-kilometre hike along the coast from Mossel Bay to the Gourits River Mouth, which was voted one of the top five walking trails by Getaway and included in the book Unforgettable Walks to Take Before You Die. I remembered the state my dad was in when I dragged him up Lion’s Head, and thought it might be too much to ask.

Fortunately, Fred has developed another trail he calls the Hunter-Gatherer. Aimed at small groups and families, it can be adjusted to individual fitness and energy levels. Also a four-night slack-packing trail, it covers a section of the Oystercatcher’s route, but since accommodation is more basic it’s more affordable too.

Two days are spent beach-combing and rock-hopping, and a third kayaking and fishing. The trail is less about covering distance than understanding how the ancient wanderers of this coastline survived, and allowing the hiker ‘to make real contact with the sand, the rocks, the sea and the great Gourits River,’ according to the programme Fred sent me. Perfect for bookworm dads and shopping-mad sisters, I decided.

The coming of the clan

We arrived at the campsite in Vleesbaai to be greeted with beers and boxes of food. It came as a relief that we wouldn’t have to live on nuts, berries and our non-existent fishing skills. Fred introduced our guide, Cobus Mostert, and invited us to choose a clan leader. The clan leader sets the pace and decides on the distances the group will cover. The clan leader also portions out the food, making sure there’s enough for each day’s meals –  part of the trail’s emphasis on learning to conserve resources. Because I’d got them into this, my family chose me.

Our debut as hunter-gatherers involved hunting for the matches and gathering the meat from the fridge. At least one of the ancient skills has been kept alive over the millennia: there’s nothing our ancestors loved more than a good braai. Star-gazing and story-telling proved an excellent substitute for television. When the fire and conversation died down, Fred and Cobus gave us maps and instructions, then left us navigate the night by the stars.

The first day’s route took us down towering dunes past a rocky bay where a French ship had washed up so long ago that all that remained was a name, Fransmanshoek. The stones were pink and perfectly egg-shaped, speckled and seamed with white. They tinkled musically as the tide came in and hid a natural spring of fresh water that once quenched the thirst of the foreign sailors and, long before them, indigenous hunter-gatherers.

At Kanon, we stopped to admire waves hurling themselves at the point, sending up great fountains of spray. Heavy seas had churned the windward bay into a thick lather of foam and we ate lunch watching the lunatic bravery of surfers at Snuifklip.  Before we turned back to the campsite, we found an abandoned oystercatcher’s nest with fragments of ink-spattered eggs.

Soft sand and sore muscles

Lichen-gilded rocks gave way to golden sand beaches on the second day of the trail. Cobus joined us to point out pairs of oystercatchers and the spoor of civets, duikers and porcupines that come out onto the beach at night. He also took us to secret sites of untouched middens, where we found stone tools and pottery shards among the shells, looking like they’d been dropped just yesterday.

At the top of a rusty red dune eroded by alien rooikrans was a tool making ‘factory’ where scores of flint stone implements in various stages of completion lay half-buried in the sand. The hunter-gatherers’ prey were also still in evidence: we followed a trail of sandy calligraphy to a geometric tortoise seeking shade under a scraggly tuft of grass; when we reached the top of another dune, two grysbok bounded away below us.

Scaling mountains of soft sand took its toll on our citified muscles, so it was a relief to reach our next camp – a homely pondokkie set in succulent fynbos. There was a recipe for pot bread pinned to the wall and we spent the rest of the afternoon learning the art of baking without an electric oven. Dad turned out to be surprisingly good at it.

Resting our legs seemed like an excellent plan by day three. Fred gave a short demonstration of how to kayak, followed by my dad’s equally educational demonstration of how not to. Once dad had stopped going in circles, our little clan floated slowly down the river, trailing a fishing line in the hope of catching supper.

The only sounds were my father making pirate noises and my sister chanting ‘left, right, left, right’ in the vain hope of getting me to paddle in sync with her. Conversation around that night’s braai would be about our aching arms and the crunchiness of Dad’s latest pot bread. Despite the fact we’d caught no fish, couldn’t scale sand-dunes and still needed matches to light a fire, I thought my family made a rather fine tribe of hunter-gatherers.

A lost lifestyle

Humans have spent most of their existence as hunter-gatherers. For at least 70,000 years, we hunted meat and gathered vegetables. People only started farming around 12,000 years ago, and some say things have gone downhill for us ever since. Hunter-gatherers were healthier than early farmers, who were shorter and didn’t get enough protein. Farmers’ teeth rotted more and they caught diseases from domesticated animals. Hunter-gatherers didn’t have to work as hard and had a more equal society since they relied on sharing each other’s resources. However, due to population pressure, over-hunting and a cold dry ‘snap’ that lasted a thousand years, most humans had to abandon the hunter-gatherer way of life.

Evidence of the ancients

The hunter-gatherers of  the South Cape coast were pre-colonial Stone Age people who lived off  the bounty offered by the sea shore. Accurate information about them is sketchy because there are no written records or ruins, but many of their middens remain along the Garden Route. These are the heaps of shells found on sand dunes that were discarded after eating, along with remnants of stone weapons, pottery shards and tools. Fish traps more than 2,000 years old are also found along this coast, and were built to collect live fish during the spring tide. Stone Age middens and fish traps are protected by the National Heritage Resources Act and it’s against the law to disturb them or remove any artefacts.

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