Samango Trail

Julia Colvin of Spekboom Tours, a nature-based, ecologically minded, adventure tour company, has spent many months getting to know local landowners and exploring the Dargle hills, so was thrilled when a large group of people turned up to try out her new route – The Samango Trail.

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On a sparkling Saturday morning, Julia led the group from Lemonwood cottages in the beautiful Dargle valley into the indigenous mistbelt forest, to follow a trail that wound through the old trees and dense understorey, then out into the bright sunshine of the grasslands, rich with a variety of wildflowers.

In the forest above Lemonwood

It was hard to say which was more absorbing – immersion in the cool lushness of the Kilgobbin forest at Crab Apple Cottages or walking in the clear air of the grasslands up on a high ridge of Old Kilgobbin and Carlisle Farms that provided panoramic views of the Midlands landscapes below.

Walking down to Lidgetton Valley

Walking slack packing style with a convivial group of people, breaking for snacks along the way, a picnic lunch at Pleasant Places, and stopping at Lythwood Lodge for afternoon drinks, was both relaxing and invigorating. It was lovely way to get in touch with diverse natural habitats, enjoy the fresh air and even drink clear natural water from forest streams.

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Many hikers stayed the night in the farm-style cottages on Blesberg Farm, where we gathered for an evening braai and array of delicious salads on the broad veranda of the gracious farmhouse.

In a presentation in a comfy lounge, Julia Colvin shared with us her vision for Spekboom Tours “We wish to work closely with conservancies to get school groups and communities to also experience the natural treasures that exist in the area.  Previously humans have tried subdue wild places and as a result some people argue that society is experiencing a nature deficit disorder. Exposure to green spaces helps to moderate our mood and improve our attention span. If we see ourselves as separate or removed rather than interconnected to nature, we will lack the compassion and motivation to do what is right for the planet. It all starts with an awe and appreciation for what we have in our own back yard.”

After supper, Wade Whitehead, CEO of FREEME KZN Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, filled us in on the latest releases that form part of FREEME’s ongoing Blue Duiker Reintroduction Project in the Dargle Forest. Raptor specialist Tammy Caine followed up with her well-illustrated presentation on forest raptors in the region, reminding us how the indigenous forests are at the heart of a complex and fragile eco-system.

Early on Sunday morning, everyone gathered at Blesberg farmhouse for breakfast.

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With the farm dogs in tow, we set off through the forested area, crossing a spectacular water feature built by previous owners the Molly and Murray Campbell.

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Then it was over a stone wall and out onto the grassland.  Grasslands cover approximately 30% of SA are are seriously transformed with only 3% of the original area protected. Frosts, fire and grazing maintain the grass dominance and prevent the establishment of trees.

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There were not a lot of flowers in this grassland, but we were pleased to find Pachycarpus natalensis.

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It was hot in the sunshine, but a brisk breeze and the sight of water cooled us all.

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The hills beckoned, so we didn’t linger for long. We spotted three oribi bounding out of sight ahead of us.

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The resident cows were curious about all the unexpected visitors.

r cattleWe were pleased to note that the small grassland streams were flowing, although not strongly.

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We climbed the hill to the lone old oak tree that has provided shade for generations of picnickers.

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Enjoying 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside.  Snow on the mountains to the west,

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Across the valley to Lidgetton, Curry’s Post and Karkloof

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South towards Inhlosane and Boston.

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Scilla nervosa flowering in the spots that the cows can’t trample. A small night adder slithered under a rock nearby.

r scilla nervosaThen we headed down towards the forest at Lemonwood,

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thankful for the shade and fresh cold water in the forest streams.

r happy forest hikers

Walker Yvonne Spain commented “It was a fantastic weekend. The mix of people was serendipitous. Everyone really seemed to click with each other, and it was a very happy social time. For me, the most commendable aspect of this initiative is that it is sensitive to the surrounding community of farmers/landowners and young people from disadvantaged communities. Your picture of the group around that big tree moved me, as did the knowledge that a percentage of your turnover is directed to developmental organisations. Participants in Spekboom hikes can know that they are really walking the talk and are part of thoughtful eco- tourism.”

Julia hopes one day to connect all the conservancies in the Midlands from the Kamberg and Nottingham Road to Hilton – giving people an opportunity to explore the biodiversity that occurs on private land, and benefiting conservation efforts by charging trail fees.

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Spekboom Tours donates 10% of the profits to local conservancies, makes a point of serving locally sourced mostly vegetarian meals, supports the local economy by using small homestays and allows people to experience a way of living which is sustainable, creative and rooted in environmental principles.

Dargle Conservancy is very grateful for the substantial donation towards the Dargle River Project received from the proceeds of this hike.

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Dawdling through Dargle

It is the first day of a Meandering the Midlands cycle tour (organised by Spekboom Cycle Tours) and thankfully the Dargle mist and mizzle has faded and we are greeted with clear blue skies and gorgeous wintery light. Perfect for exploring the Dargle Valley.

Christiano and Simone, our German visitors, stand gingerly beside handsome Friesian horses (instead of their bicycles). The Midlands is fast being discovered as a place offering cycle tourists not just trips focused purely on the bike and the end destination, but rather journeys filled with unique cultural and natural experiences. One of these forms the start to our trip – a Horse Play session masterfully facilitated by well-known horse guru, Carlene Bronner. Unlike the simple react and response mechanisms of a bike, our guests will spend the next hour discovering the art of  horse communication using subtle body gestures as a cue for gentle persuasion. Although the couple confess that they were not familiar with handling horses, it was amazing how, with new found respect and understanding, they quickly eased into the experience and had their horses eating out of their hands (admittedly the tufts of green grass may have helped).

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After a hearty farm-cooked breakfast, we hopped on our bicycles and headed for the Nelson Mandela Capture Site using quiet country back roads. As a local South African, who has pored through each page of the ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, Julia felt well versed in the life and times of our Tata Madiba and was rather surprised that the museum tour at the capture site offered many more fascinating insights into the life of our great statesman. Brilliantly guided by the enthusiastic Ayanda.  Under no circumstances were we allowed to ride down the path to the impressive sculpture of Mandela’s face. “After all” quipped Ayanda, “it’s not called a long walk for nothing”.

cyclist at mandela capture site

We then made our way through a network of forest paths to the Caversham Mill restaurant overlooking the Lions River. Tucking into a well-deserved signature trout dish, we marvelled at the thought that once this great valley was a royal Zulu hunting ground abundant with lions and elephant. On shooting the last lion of the region, this river was ironically named Lions River.

Later after climbing up through the hills of Lidgetton, we enjoyed panoramic views of the Dargle valley. Authentic Italian wood-fired pizza washed down with Lions River craft beer at everyone’s favourtie Il Postino Pizzeria was a fitting end to our day. Bellisimo!

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On our final day we welcomed the opportunity to gently warm up tired legs with a stroll through the Dargle mist-belt forest lead by its passionate and knowledgeable custodian, Barend Booysen. With Barend’s charming stories of Zulu myths, local legends, and impressive botanical knowledge of these indigenous trees, the secrets of the forest were revealed. It is inspiring to hear how a group of Dargle landowners had taken stewardship into their own hands through the formation of Dargle nature Reserve under the Biodeiversity Stewardshipo Programme. Short term gains in destructive cattle farming and other agricultural practices needed to be sacrificed for the long term survival of these rich and biodiverse forest and grasslands.

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“For me the highlight of the walk was spotting the Samango monkeys playing in the Cape Chesnut trees”, beamed Simone. Samango Monkeys are the only true arboreal monkeys left in South Africa. Unable to adjust their lives to the rapidly changing world. If we lose these precious pockets of Afro-Montane forest, the Samangos could disappear with them too.

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Leaving Dargle behind, we headed across the hills to the cycling mecca of the Karkloof Valley – a network of world class trails. We selected the well-marked 15km Falls loop that swept us through the plantation on immaculately sculpted paths to the iconic Karkloof waterfalls. The beautiful falls in full flow provided the perfect backdrop to our final picnic spread of local Midland’s cheese, cured meats, artisan bread and cold beer.

“When we signed up for a bike tour, we did not know what to expect” remarked a satisfied Christiano. With all the cultural, ecological and historical diversity the Midlands has to offer, as the Spekboom Tour’s logo says, “expect the unexpected”.  In Dargle, that is certainly true.

Spekboom Cycle Tours is a member of the Dargle Conservancy and donates part of profits from these tours to Conservancy Project. Why not join one?  Find out more here.

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