Just off the beaten track of the Midlands Meander, a precious place lies hidden in the folds of the Dargle Valley of KZN.
This highly-endangered and fragmented mist-belt forest is considered one of the five rich floral regions of Africa.
‘The R103 is not the only Midlands Meander,’ said Julia Colvin as we – a group of 10 hikers of various backgrounds and fitness levels – sat together in the shade, digging into her delicious homemade trail mix. The R103 is the well-trodden Midlands Meander route of crafts, cuisine and country comforts, but there’s a different kind of saunter on offer in these misty hills.
A luxury hike, the Samango Trail, is Julia’s latest offering from her travel company, Spekboom Tours. Inspired by the big impact this little succulent plant has on its environment, Howick-local Julia specialises in making adventure a little easier in (and on) KwaZulu-Natal. Working closely with the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s Biodiversity Stewardship Programme, five landowners from the Dargle and Lidgetton valleys partnered to establish a provincial nature reserve. Using two cosy accommodation bases between these valleys, the three-day Samango Trail zigzags between private land, said nature reserve and locally-forged conservancies, granting slackpackers access to special corners of the countryside.
According to information from the Dargle Valley Conservancy (one of the oldest in the region), forests cover less than 0.25% of Southern Africa’s surface area. From the beginning of the hike, we were ensconced in this tiny percentage. And as we walked quietly beneath the canopy, Julia shared the secrets of the Samango Trail.
‘Caracals are found in this area because of chicken farming, and servals too. The forests are also home to oribi and the tiny blue duiker,’ she said. Not only is this precious indigenous mist-belt forest home to the shy samango monkey, it also harbours the endangered Cape parrot.
On day two, our trail had us wading through grassland. ‘Red grass is specifically favoured by oribi. You wouldn’t think so, but these grasslands are more endangered than the forests.’ Then Julia led us knee-deep into the Lion’s River as we made our way to Blesberg, a working cattle farm with great sprawling views.
On our final day, we had one last dip into the forest. Walking past tall lemonwood trees, Julia observed: ‘When a tree dies, it has only done half its job.’ She was referring to the ongoing cycle of nature, but that small remark deeply echoed her business philosophy: tread lightly, support local and eat better for the environment.
Fitness Factor 6/10. There is no scrambling but days on the trail can be long and there are some uphills.
Verdict This is a great-value long weekend away. The circular hike traverses the farmland hills the Midlands is known for, but includes scenery few get to see, and supports local businesses. I loved meeting the farmers and spying samango monkeys through the trees. Julia serves locally-sourced, mostly vegetarian food. Meals were sumptuous – Thai green curry, pear-and-saffron ice-cream and, for breakfast, creamy oats with chopped dates and spiked with whisky! The overnight accommodation is in farm cottages offering wonderful hospitality, enchanting views and bucolic surroundings (think farm dogs, mooing cows, clucking chickens, and homegrown veggies).
Cost R4, 200 pp for three days, which includes guiding, meals and lodgings. Ten per cent of proceeds are donated to local conservation projects.
The details There are set dates for the trails; this year it’s 19–22 March, 2–5 May and 26–29 September. Each hike can take maximum 14 people, who share cottages but will have private rooms. The hike starts and ends in Dargle; walking distances average 12 to 15 km per day, and luggage is transferred for you. Don’t forget to pack binoculars to see the many birds and monkeys up close.
Book 0768190615, spekboomtours.co.za
Images by Melanie van Zyl