Hiking through the origins of human thought in the Southern Cape

Hiking through the origins of human thought in the Southern Cape

‘On this intertidal shelf, you can forage for 90 minutes and collect more than your daily energetic requirements’

We had arrived beneath the pastel tomes of sunset to the house, perched on the cliff edge. From its 360° view shed, we could watch the sunset over shimmer between glowing orange to peachy pinks over the mountains and the reflections of the cloud pulsing on the ocean behind.

Highlights

  • The Garden Route and Southern Cape is a must for every traveller
  • The natural beauty and evidence of Strandlopers (cave inhabitants 60k-164k years ago) is fantastic
  • Our human impact on historical artefacts, wildlife and the ocean is apparent
  • Preserve the evidence of our ancient human origins
  • Make sure your plastics don't land up in the ocean
Mark compile and conduct guided hiking and birding tours. Contact him to arrange yours at gardenroutetrail.co.za

Strandloper Project Coastal Expedition Video

‘In fact’, Dr Jan Devynck continued, ‘this section of coastline offers the highest yield of calories per unit effort of foraging in the world.’

This was one of the reasons that we were hiking this coastline. As a team of six, we had a daunting 11 days of hiking ahead of us. Our primary purpose was an expedition to survey the coastline between the western border of Blombos Nature Reserve and Wilderness for fishing debris and plastic pollution. Our other reason for the expedition was to explore a remote section of coastline with limited access restricted by unpassable privately owned land.

The cradle of human cognitive thought

Our choice of this section of coastline in South Africa was simple. The shoreline of just over 400km of coastline in the Garden Route is considered to be the cradle of human cognitive thought. The oldest artwork attributed to modern Homo sapiens had been recovered in the Blombos Cave complex. At 73,000 years old, the ochre line patterns demonstrated the first inklings of our modern thought processes.

Booking.com

150km east of Blombos, archaeological work at the Pinnacle Point Cave complex, under the stewardship of Dr Peter Nilssen, offers evidence of modern humans referred to as Strandlopers, inhabiting the caves between 164,000 and 90,000 years ago. Shell middens of varying proportion can be found along the entire shoreline of this region, testimony to the high content of shellfish in their diet. Research suggests that the development of our brains which led to our cognitive prowess can be attributed to the high consumption of shellfish, the high levels of phospholipids in this diet, crucial building blocks for our modern brains. In short, if you wish to take a journey through our development of abstract thought, this is the place to do.

Getting to Blombos was a short drive west from Stilbaai along a district road, a bumpy 3km ride along a jeep track and a 500m walk to the beach. The coastline was a gentle slope with Fynbos giving way to grass which bordered onto a rocky shoreline, sharp rocks with the distinctive rust orange lichen of the southern Cape.

Image

The Blombos Nature Reserve and Cave System

At the high water mark, we started with our first plastic pollution transect, one of 42 over the next 11 days. When we had finished, somewhat disturbed by the extent of pollution, we headed east along a seldom-used fisherman’s path. The start was easy, a mix of rocky shoreline, pebble beaches and a small sandy bay which led up a fossil dune beyond which was a scalloped cliff-lined section.

We had been advised to take a high line till ‘Die Oog’, a fossil dune arch that flanks the Blombos Cave system. The higher line fluctuated between an undulating path and a narrow ledge. Crossing Die Oog and descending to sea level we got our first look of the Blombos Cave, the oldest art gallery in the world.

Surveying the landscape, a bay with the caves 100m up the slope, it seemed the ideal place for our ancestors to linger and be creative. With easy access to forage in the intertidal zone, fresh water close by and shelter in the caves it was an obvious choice for prospective thinkers to settle in.

Sadly the primary cave has had damage through vandalism and theft and has been secured with an impenetrable steel structure so we weren’t able to visit the cave.

Blombos to Jongesfontein Hike

Our destination was Jongesfontein and we still had 15km to go. Leaving the cave area we had more cliff paths till we reached sea level. We had been on the lookout for some fossil trackways, evidence of herds of elephant, ungulates and long extinct wildlife that migrated across the region in bygone eras.

The trackways of this coastline are numerous and reflect the regular shifts in the coastline as sea levels changed forcing the shoreline to retreat across the Agulhas Bank, at a time nearly 100km from the current shoreline. Across this bank, a vast savanna extended over the horizon and herds of African wildlife migrated across the plains in search of food. The numerous trackways, described by Dr Charles Helm as some of the most prolific in the world, date between 60,000 and 130,000 years old. Sadly, erosion causes large blocks with fossil trackways to be exposed and within a few years, a 120,000-year-old trackway of some extinct beast can be lost forever.

Image

Focusing on fishing debris and plastic pollution we didn’t see any trackways for the first 50km, but did find a few remarkable galleries between the 50km and 70km section of the hike. Amazingly prolific, the first ones we saw were elephant trackways. We had stopped to photograph a set when Melinda let out a sigh of relief. She had seen some a few kilometres before by though that her was imagination had been playing trick on her.

Approaching Jongesfontion the cliff retreated slightly inshore and we again had a variation of rocky shores and sandy bays till nearing Stilbaai. Before reaching the KouGou River at Stilbaai, we reached the long sandy bay in which ancient fish traps are located. Constructed with rocks, they are a series of linked tidal pools which are covered at high tide and exposed on the spring low tides. Fish would be trapped at low tide and harvested for consumption, though with the pools extending up to 100m in length and 20m to 30m, it would still have been a challenge to catch the contained fish without additional ingenuity. The age of the traps are not clear, but they function at the current sea level and look as if they are a recent construction project instead of the archaeological site that they are.

Image

East of Stilbaai and Grootvergaderingkop

East of Stillbaai the beach stretches for 15km to the base of 60m high cliffs. From here the route gets tricky and for the next 15km you have to plan to hike on a low tide, particularly for a 5km section around Grootvergaderingkop where most of the route is clambering over tumbled blocks at the base of the cliffs which are worthwhile lingering over as there are both incredible marine invertebrate life and aggregations of fossil trackways.

There is a second set of archaeological fish traps, though they are less distinct than the Stilbaai set. What does distinguish them from the others is the proximate location of an enormous shell midden. Towering over 3m high and exceeding 15m diameter at the exposed base, this is a midden of note composed of glistening sun-bleached shells. At first glance, the bulk of shells are Giant Turban or Alikreukel (Turbo surmaticus) with the darker mix of the Tiger and Pink-lipped topshell (Oxystele tigrina and O. sinesis respectively).

Foraging food like our ancestors

Initially, in line with our expedition’s name, we had planned to forage one meal per day as our ancestral Strandlopers had but the demands of surveys, slower hiking speeds and the lack of suitable sites close to our overnight locations, we only did so on one day. Melinda had harvested 14 Alikreukel and I had the duty of carrying them for the next 12km which gave me an insight why a large midden would be close to the source of where the shellfish were harvested. 

Image

It was with a huge sigh of relief when I offloaded my pack that night, but we still had to prepare them. Interestingly we did not determine if the Alikreukel had been cooked to simply removing them from their shells, but we had to boil our haul for at least 10 minutes before we could get them out of their shells to eat. The 14 were definitely only sufficient as an entre´ for the six of us. While, according to the research of Dr Jan DeVynck, a person would only have to forage in the intertidal zone for 90 minutes per day to acquire a daily energetic quota, it would obviously require skilled knowledgeability to both collect and prepare the food each day.

Gourikwa Nature reserve to Fransmanshoek Conservancy

Leaving the midden the beach again became sandy stretches punctuated with rocky sections till the Gourikwa Nature Reserve. From there the route was flatter with a mix of rocky coast and bays to the western boundary of the Fransmanshoek Conservancy.

Image

Hiking the Garden Route

From there, a long 7.5km curved sandy beach stretched to the peninsula of Fransmanshoek. Idyllic, the beach was unfortunately at the end of our longest day, a tiring 27km before yielding to the last 2km rocky path for the day.

We had planned to do a dive to survey for snagged and discarded recreational fishing tackle at the point, but with dusk closing in as we arrived we had to postpone till the following morning.

The forecast was for mid-morning rain, but eager to dive, we spent 45 minutes exploring the reef before continuing with the hike. There are two options to walk from the peninsula to Vleesbaai, either along the gravel road or along the shoreline. We chose the latter which turned into a mix between boulder hopping across flat sections and bouldering up and down rocky outcrops which slowed us down considerably.

Fransmanshoek to Glentana is a 70km stage with 20km rocky cliff top from Dana bay to Mossel bay flanked by sandy beaches. Compared to the remote shoreline to the west, from Vleesbaai the density of coastal development increases with houses jousting to the best seascape. Then at Glentana, it opens up and the shoreline becomes challenging rocky cliffs to Wilderness approximately 36km to the east.

Human Origins

Having scrambled from the beach to the cliff top St Blaise trail after leaving Dana Bay, we headed to the point of Human Origins for a tour of the primary cave with Dr Peter Nilssen and resident guide Christopher. A profound insight into our human ancestry along the coastline, the cave was only studied in earnest after it was identified as a place of significant archaeological value during part of an environmental impact study for the golf course development on the plateau above it. Unique to this site is that the shell midden at the back of the cave and the flow stone formations in the cave can be correlated in geological time, which has made it a study site of international significance with remarkably accurate assessments being possible for the middle stone-age era. The oldest human records in the cave are dated at 164,000 years old and demonstrate advanced cognitive development.

From Glentana the Wreck is the usual beach hiking destination but further east not all the coastline is accessible, due partly to private land ownership and partly due to rugged shoreline. Beyond the wreck the progress is clambering on narrow cliff ledges, crossing gullies and boulder hopping as you ascend and descend continuously. The reward is a section of gaping caves that pit the cliffs. We would have liked to spend more time exploring the caves but the incoming tide forced us to keep going to the Malgate River.

The Malgate River was the first of three gorges that we would have to cross to get to our destination and was the easiest. Approached from the west, access along the shoreline, while tricky was possible. Continuing eastwards required climbing up a path to the top of the cliff and making our way to Herold’s Bay along jeep tracks, country roads and cliff top walkways.

East of Herold’s bay is where it got difficult on two counts. Firstly, and most probably the hardest, was the seamless tracts of private land and steep cliffs. We had spent considerable time tracking down owners, requesting permissions and planning routes where none existed. The second challenge was crossing the Gwaing and Skaapkop River.

Image

The Gwaing River was easy to exit up the public road. It was descending down to the river from the west that was challenging. Chris had scouted the route for the descent before we started the expedition and had shown us a few photos of the initial descent to a ledge. ‘From there it is an easy scramble down to the river to cross it’ he casually remarked.

For Lisa and Louw, the first 15m down to the ledge was anything but easy. Edging their way down the sloping ledge to the start of the easy scramble, they accomplished on their butts. At 60m above sea level it was not going to be an ‘easy scramble down’. Guiding Louw, it took Chris 45 minutes to reach the river. Lisa decided that it was beyond her abilities and headed back up for a transfer around and to meet up with us later.

Approaching George and Wilderness

Yet it was the Skaapkop River which stopped us in our tracks. It was tricky finding a route down to the river. Our main concern was personal safety. Most property owners flanking the river cautioned us with tales of violence from a criminal element living in the Pacalsdorp and Thembelethu neighbourhoods south of George. We had been advised to have armed escorts for this section and not to carry valuables. Ironically it was us that were regarded with suspicion by a labourer as we prepared for our descent into the valley to cross the river.

Reaching the river we had to turn around. The river was a rapidly flowing stream of effluent, the reek of sewerage obvious 20m away. Just too deep and too wide to jump across we decided not to risk infection. Our legs were lacerated from bush whacking through fynbos the preceding two day and I was not prepared to rick unnecessary exposure by fording through municipal effluent.

Our core objective was to survey plastic pollution and fishing debris along the shoreline. Here we were, 2km inland faced with heavily pollution water with no prospect of gathering any data from the shoreline. We were also 1km from our destination for the day, but we opted to turn around and hike back to where a support vehicle could collect us. We had been devastated with the plastic pollution, particularly single use water bottles, on the first day. But here we were being turned back by urban pollution in a river. As we left we noted the Bushbuck and Bushpig spoor that led to the river, wildlife that had no choice but to slate their thirst from this travesty of environment conservation.

On the 25th May we started our final stage of the expedition by hiking to Victoria bay along the abandoned railway track, passing through the tunnels and walking across the railway bridge spanning the Kaaimans River before descending to the beach at Leentjies Klip and taking the last 2km to the Touw River Mouth.

Mark Dixon
Mark is a marine biologist and nature guide looking for ways to protect marine biodiversity from fishing debris and plastic pollution.
Image
Image