How a hiking trail becomes sustainable travel.
It’s a bitterly cold morning deep in a kloof beside a rocky riverbed in the Eastern Cape. We emerge from our tents exhaling steam. The tops of the indigenous trees have only just started to catch the light. We need to be on the road by 8am if we’re to walk the allocated 27km over mountain peaks, across rivers and valleys today.
Luckily, someone was up in the dark to make a roaring campfire fire and brew moerkoffie. We sip the coffee from tin mugs and tuck into the spread of freshly scrambled eggs, fried sausage and roosterkoek; not the rusks and instant oats typical of breakfast in the middle of nowhere. Once we’ve eaten, we fill up our water bottles with Baviaans spring water, slip our lunch and snacks into our day packs and set off. Bags, tents, food, drinks, mattresses, and equipment will follow later in the Landrover.
We’re walking the Baviaans Camino, a 95km trail crossing the Baviaanskloof and Kouga mountain ranges and six biomes in four days. The trail starts in Steytlerville in the Klein Karoo and ends in Kareedouw, near Plettenberg Bay. Walking the camino is the only way to see this region of South Africa, as almost the entire route winds through private land. It also exemplifies sustainable tourism.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation sustainable tourism “takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.” The Baviaans Camino treads lightly on the environment, puts money into the pockets of people who live in the area and soul into the hearts of those privileged to walk it.
Esti and Eric Stewart started the Baviaans Camino in 2016 because they love the Baviaans, they knew the farmers making a living on these remote mountains, and they wanted to create something that not only allowed visitors to experience this extraordinary place, but that would also provide direct income to the owners of the land. Their friend and business partner Herclé van Huyssteen and his wife Anieka had been running horseback trails in the area for a few years. Together they wanted to create a journey visitors could do on foot or on horseback.
They named it a ‘camino’ not because it passes by religious sites, but because it lets you cover a lot of kilometres over many days and it gives you time with your thoughts. No matter how much you have to say, when you spend eight hours on a trail every day, you’re bound to end up in your own head for some of it.
The most important rule of the Baviaans Camino is to tread as lightly as possible. Everything we brought in, we took out. Instead of bringing two support vehicles, there’s only one, with a trailer. The small size of the bags you are allowed to take, teach you how little you really need for a week. As far as possible, lunch is packed in paper instead of plastic.The trip is limited to 12 hikers, which includes a maximum of five on horseback. The organisers are the only ones with permits to use these trails so it will never become over trodden, littered, or commercialised.
Sustainability goes beyond caring for the environment. Many local hiking trails are low impact, but what really makes the Baviaans Camino a sustainable tourism initiative is its focus on economic development and community support. Esti and Eric know each of the farmers whose land we cross by name. Many nights we stay in their farmhouses. The owners braai, make potato salad, bake roosterkoek (grill cake), or deliver fresh, hot lasagnes to our accommodation. At 7am the next morning, breakfast is delivered. They are paid directly for their services, ingredients, accommodation and trouble. It’s a welcome source of income in a region suffering a persistent drought.
Another element of sustainable tourism is allowing travellers to experience the local culture. On the third day we walked through a honeybush tea plantation – a tea unique to this region – and as we turned a corner, tired after a long day on the trail, two women stood next to a little fold-up table with four flavours of iced honeybush tea to quench our thirst.
It’s the iced tea, the homemade chocolate clusters beside the road, or having your drink of choice ready and waiting for you after the day. It’s the potjiekos and the endless supply of plasters. Sustainability sometimes feels like it’s about ticking a long list of boxes, but sometimes it is about the detail, and about taking care. Esti, Eric, Herclé and Anieka are the caretakers of the Baviaanskloof. Both of the place and its people.