The Sh-Amatole Trail

WARNING – If you are considering walking the Amatole Trail, I would highly recommend reading this blog post to the end. I believe there are some SERIOUS SAFETY CONCERNS you should be aware of.

Way back, when still in South Africa, having got my starter clutch on the bike fixed in Port Elizabeth, we headed directly north to a little place called Hogsback, 3-days ride away.

Someone, sometime, suggested that the forests around Hogsback have a Tolkienesque quality and was his inspiration for the forest of Mirkwood in Lord of the Rings. Who knows if that’s really true; although Tolkien did apparently visit the area as a child. But it is true that the Amatole forest is thick with undergrowth and the air heavy, hemmed in by giant trees that block out sun and make you feel hobbit-sized as you stumble along the barely visible trail, tripping over tree roots and slipping on rocks.

One of the many unnamed waterfalls
One of the many unnamed waterfalls

I had read online about a 6-day, 100-kilometre, hike along the Amatole trail. It sounded like a great way to get some exercise (sitting on the bike for days on end is no way to keep fit) and to see the surrounding countryside.

Sunrise on day 4
Sunrise on day 4

To hike the trail requires buying a permit, which includes providing you with a map, and allowing you to make use of the huts along the route, thereby negating the need to carry a tent. We booked this through the people at the ‘Away With The Fairies’ hostel where we were staying beforehand, as they have set up a company to provide services along the Amatole trail. By this, I mean, providing the permit, map and dropping you off at the start point. The evening before we started, when shown the map of the route, we were informed, somewhat hesitantly, by the lady owner, ‘I feel I need to tell you, there was an incident on the trail. I feel I have to mention it, just so you know. Someone was robbed a while ago.’ Me and Jimmy looked at each other – we had heard that in the Drakensberg that it was not totally uncommon for Lesotho shepherds to sometimes visit the caves where groups would camp and relieve the hikers of their mobile phones in the night. I presumed that this lady meant something similar. There are always risks while camping in remote areas. We said, don’t worry, we’ll be careful – thinking that we’d not take more valuables than needed and make sure we kept them safe at night. “Yes, I would feel very guilty if something happened and I hadn’t warned you of the risk beforehand,’ she continued. ‘OK. Don’t worry,’ we said, ‘Thanks for letting us know.’ Only, she hadn’t really let us know…

Wood fire at the first hut
Wood fire at the first hut

The next day, ready to leave, sat in backseat of the vehicle that was going to take us to the start point, the husband owner came over to us and wished us an enjoyable walk. Then, he hesitated, wanting to say something and equally not wanting to say it…’I think I need to warn you there was an incident…’ He clearly looked very awkward having to bring this matter up, so we waved it off by saying not to worry as his wife had already mentioned about it. He looked relieved not having to continue the conversation. So we waved goodbye and off we went.

Only later did it become clear why he was so anxious.

On the first day we saw no one. On the second afternoon, we passed two men carrying shotguns slung over their shoulders with several hunting dogs in tow. We said hello as we passed. The older man asked if we were hiking the Amatole trail, to which we said yes, and he gave a weathered look of disbelief – not that we were walking so far, but that we should be bothering to. He walks to find food; we were walking for fun.

It was then that it dawned on me that these two locals, indeed any locals, having seen us, would know that we were on a 6-day trail and would know exactly where we would be staying each night – in remote huts. Wild camping – when you’ve no idea where you’ll be sleeping until the moment you stop to pitch your tent, so no one else knows either – is infinitely safer. That’s how I’ve always camped while hiking. That, or in a proper campsite. Now, whole villages along the route could have been informed of where we were to be and would know we’d be alone with no immediate help at hand. Those huts – a novel luxury to me – no longer seemed quite so appealing.

The following nights we slept with our belongings right beside us, keeping one ear alert for unwanted company. I began to wonder exactly where and what had happened during the ‘incident’ we had been sort-of-warned about…

After the 6-days, back in Hogsback, the owners were away for a few days, so instead I looked to the internet to see if there was anything written about that ‘incident’ and how others had reviewed the trail (because, although I’ve not mentioned so far, the trail, we felt, was also very poorly maintained and poorly marked and the map provided inadequate – several times we struggled to find the way, and one day necessitated a 6km backtrack to take an alternative route because the one we were on came to a dead-end that even after 40 minutes of scrambling over slippery rocks and through thick scratchy scrub beside a waterfall in dimming afternoon light we still could not find a way marker or hint of a trail.)

Amatole Forest
Amatole Forest
One of the well-marked yellow footprints
One of the well-marked yellow footprints

But back to the ‘incident’ – turns out it involved 4 masked, armed men, robbing a group and raping one of the women… yes, you read that right – RAPE. Not simply someone stealthily relieving hikers of their mobile phones, but armed robbery and rape. I have never felt so deceived.

OK, so neither owner explicitly lied, but by allowing us to believe in a minor incursion is as good as not saying anything about all. It seems to me that by mentioning to us of an ‘incident’ they, in their minds, had absolved themselves of any guilt if something had happened to us, because they had ‘warned’ us of the dangers.

Only the previous week, a locally-organised walk had been cancelled due to ’safety concerns’. OK, so I read this online, and those safety concerns may not have been to do with this ‘incident’, but if that were the case, what were these other safety concerns?

I was left with so many questions – were the culprits caught? what measures have been taken to ensure future hiking groups are safe? As far as I could tell, this would involve increased patrolling of the trail (we saw no one except the two hunters the entire time until within a couple of hours of Hogsback where the forest was being logged), and informing hikers of the risks.

In my opinion, reluctantly mentioning an ‘incident’ but not giving any details is not informing. Had we been told there had been armed robbery and rape on the trail, only a few weeks before, I don’t think we would have done it.

Yes, I know, we did the trail, made it, had no major problems – but it could have been so different, as it was for an earlier group. A walk should be memorable for the beauty and simplicity of it, not for the emotional and physical scars it leaves imprinted on body and mind.

The trail could be good, if maintained and patrolled so that it is safe. As it currently stands, hikers should be comprehensively warned of the risks. And anyone who does do the trail, I would highly recommend taking a machete and wearing trousers and long-sleeves. I was covered in scratches from the thorns and brambles of having to fight through the undergrowth and have a scar from when I slipped and hit a rock (we both slipped and fell a few times, so this wasn’t a one-off). And don’t expect all trails to be passable, and accept that you may have to backtrack and take alternative routes thereby increasing your walking day by several hours. That previous groups have had to be picked up early from the trail because they couldn’t or wouldn’t continue, says more about the state of the trail than the experience of the walkers – in this situation at least.

Link to another report (scroll to comments for note on robbery/rape): https://hogsbacktimes.wordpress.com/2014/01/02/amatola-hiking-trail-report/

All that said, it wasn’t a bad 6-days, and we did get a few good views and here’s some photos to show for it…

You can see the rest of the photos here:

It’s a shame that the way we were deceived about the trail has soured my experience of it. It was advertised as challenging – but by that I expected lung-busting climbs and long days. It was actually quite easy in that way. The challenge was finding the trail and staying on it and having to make long detours because the trail wasn’t marked or had fallen into disrepair, and trying not to get caught up in the brambles and thorns and scratchy scrub…