Walking for Eden, and elephants

19 March 2009

Walking is much more than a way to get from A to B. It’s a meditation and a pilgrimage.

The late Boudewijn Wegerif, a Swede who walked from Stockholm to Cape Town in 1999 to protest world debt, called walking “brain aerobics.” He maintained that the regular movement of your left leg and right arm followed by right leg and left arm – continued for a couple of hours – increased the connections between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. He would have known. Stockholm to Cape Town is a long trek.

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Of course, in this day and age, walking is probably the least efficient way to get from one place to another – unless they’re really close. So there has to be another reason for anyone deciding to walk the 400-odd kilometres between Kranshoek in the Knysna Forest to Addo near Port Elizabeth. And there is. South Africa’s Eden to Addo Mega-Hike is a pilgrimage – a pilgrimage to biodiversity.

The hike is offered once a year, usually in September, as a “slackpacking” trail. What this means is that trailists carry only the essentials in a day pack, and all their gear is taken from camp to camp by a back-up vehicle. Added luxuries are the fact that your tents are erected for you, and meals provided. So like any good pilgrim, you can concentrate on the mission at hand.

Natural migration

The mission is to understand the need for, and importance of, conservation corridors in general, and this one in particular. In the past, conservation areas were established for a variety of reasons, mostly good. But often they were too small to allow for natural migration, so the pressure on the reserve’s resources would become excessive, and necessitate some rather creative management strategies.

This has been recognised by conservation authorities in the last couple of decades so reserves in the southern Africa region – and indeed all over the world – are being consolidated.

Successful local examples include the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park, made up of the Kruger National Park in South Africa, Gonarezhou National Park, Manjinji Pan Sanctuary and Malipati Safari Area in Zimbabwe, and the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique; and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park that straddles the border between South Africa and Botswana. In fact, fences between conservation areas are dropping almost as fast as the value of the Zimbabwe dollar.

The hike traverses a unique as-yet unproclaimed corridor stretching from the tangled, green coastal Afromontane Forest biome of Knysna in the Western Cape to the game-rich Albany Thicket of Addo in the Eastern Cape, passing through a range of farms and reserves belonging to about 60 different landowners.

While all the stakeholders are in favour of the idea of a conservation corridor, it’s not that easy to implement. Which is why the Mega-Hike was established. As well as being a great way to spend about three weeks, it is also a fund-raising project, and offers participants the opportunity to interact with a variety of conservation specialists who share their knowledge on the trail.

It really is about the conservation, not the walking. All profits go directly to the Eden to Addo Corridor Initiative, a non-profit Section 21 company.

Going postal

Galeo Saintz, who leads the hike, pioneered the route in 2005 with the specific purpose of finding out whether there was a hikeable route between Knysna and Addo.

He set off alone and posted light, dehydrated food, spare camping gas cylinders and fresh socks to himself at post offices in towns he’d never heard of. He was joined on sections of the walk by friends – and even one complete stranger, who really liked what he was doing so decided to keep him company.

The upshot was that he managed to track down his supplies in the tiny rural post offices, and found it was possible – if rather strenuous – to hike the route. The next year, 2006, the escorted Eden to Addo Mega-Hike was launched with 24 participants. The 2007 trek was cancelled as Saintz was sick, and no one else knew the route, but the 2008 one went ahead without a hitch, with 18 hikers walking the full distance, and six opting for one of the shorter one- or two-week options.

“The long-term strategy,” Saintz says, “is to make it a self-guided trail, but it’s wild country and, with so many landowners, it will take a lot of planning.”

The hike straddles five distinct biomes and links three major conservation areas. The existing parks and reserves are the Knysna Protected Area, the Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve and the Greater Addo Elephant National Park. These together protect patches of Afromontane Forest, Mountain Fynbos, Succulent Karoo, Savanna Grassland and Albany Thicket. All these biomes are transition zones that overlap – and even shift from year to year with varying rainfall.

The trail takes participants from one biome to another, linking seven mountain ranges and peaks over the 19 days. Daily walking distances average about 23 kilometres, with the shortest day being 12 kilometres and the longest about 35 kilometres, so this is not an easy hike. The terrain is mountainous and there is little flat walking, and where there is, it is far.

The views are stupendous, the air is invigorating and the constant change in scenery and vegetation offers an intellectual challenge equal to the physical one.

Some not-so pretty aspects of the hike include climbing over fences, fighting through thick stands of invasive alien trees, and coming across gin traps and other indications that the proclamation of this corridor really is a priority. Fireside debates are long, interesting and – while not acrimonious – can get quite robust.

Mysterious elephants of Knysna

It is surmised – with some good evidence – that the trail loosely follows old elephant migration paths. And this raises an interesting question.

The elephants of Knysna, the only really wild elephants left in South Africa as there are no fences keeping them in a designated park – and certainly the most mysterious, elusive and endangered – are dwindling at an alarming rate. Strong evidence suggests that only one matriarch and a few younger individuals remain. But they are genetically isolated, and almost certainly destined to die out.

Conservationists tried translocating a couple of elephants from Kruger to Knysna a few years ago, but those poor Lowveld animals took one look at the tangled forests and rushed to hide out in the much safer-looking surrounding farmlands. That didn’t work out and that plan was abandoned.

So there’s no hope for the Knysna elephants. They’re on a one-way trip to extinction – to join the dodo and the quagga. They say extinction is forever, but perhaps, just maybe, if the corridor is opened the elephants may start exploring ancient migration routes, and who knows.

It’s a ridiculously optimistic and romantic idea, but that’s what a pilgrimage is all about – faith. And hope. It’s about putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, for a cause, for a dream, and for a better future.

The 2009 hike runs from 4 to 23 September. There are only 24 places. Book now.

First published by MediaClubSouthAfrica.com – get free high-resolution photos and professional feature articles from Brand South Africa’s media service.