So we grabbed our hats and a bottle of water, and headed off into the mountains.
It was 10h30, and the sun was shining cheerfully. The man had told Richard that there was an ‘easy hike’, which was well signposted with yellow Perspex squares with a black circle enclosing a pick and shovel. Although this didn’t sound at all like the walk his wife had described to me, my dear hubby was so full of enthusiasm and trudged up the steep hill with such confidence, that I followed meekly.
The walk was indeed well signposted, and it seemed to circle around the top of a hill called “Nol se Kop”. We encountered a couple of old street signs dating back to the days when there was still a real little town up here, and a detailed description of what it had looked like.
Now, though, there was nothing left of the town. Just dense fynbos all around.
We were walking along a gravel road that was probably used fairly regularly by the man with the tractor when he took visitors on a tour of the mine.
So theoretically, we could have been driven along here, rather than getting all hot and bothered trudging up the hill. But it was great exercise, and the perfect way of working up an appetite for the delectable scones that I’d made sure would be awaiting us on our return!
The road curved up and up, to the edge of a hillside, from where we had glorious views across the entire Outeniqua Mountain Range. The wind was really howling up here, and we had to clutch tightly onto our hats.
After a while, we came to an intersection. We were just about to turn right to descend the other side of Nol se Kop, out of the wind, when I noticed that there was a sign, which said – temptingly – “1 km to mine and back”.
“Hm,” we pondered, “what do you think? Does it mean 1 km down and 1 km back, or 1 km there and back?”
It turned out to be the highlight of the walk.
The path was really narrow, winding between trees and shrubs, with the longed-for indigenous forest becoming progressively more dense and overgrown the further we descended into this little valley. It was very steep, but whoever had constructed and maintained this little gem of a path had carefully stabilised it with wooden planks wherever possible, and there were exposed tree roots to give further stability to ankles and knees that were becoming wobbly from the strain of descent.
About 10 mins down, Richard spotted the entrance to a tunnel, roughly hewn into the mountainside we had just climbed down. Wow! This was one of the two so-called ‘adits’, which is a type of entrance into an underground mine that is more or less horizontal. Adits are usually built into the side of a hill or mountain.
The entrance was high enough for him to stand in, and so he went inside a metre or two, but it was so dark and the stones so slippery with moisture and moss, that he soon came back out. The air that came out of the tunnel was as icy-cold as the air in one of those large walk-in bottlestore freezers. It gave me the heebies.
The path continued further down the valley, until we were really deep in the forest. 10 mins later, we had reached the end. And a second mine, consisting of what was probably a slightly longer and larger tunnel into the mountainside. It too was cold, dark and slippery, with a musty smell of decaying vegetation.
I sat down on some mossy rocks for a bit, drinking in the energy of this extraordinary wilderness, while Richard scampered up and over boulders and rocks like a happy mountain goat, looking for gold nuggets.
On the way back up the steep steps, I almost stepped on a small snake, which curled itself up tightly for a moment, as I held my breath, and then slid down into a hole in the ground. It was tan-coloured, with a black stripe along its belly, and was probably about 10-15 cm long. I tried to look it up in the encyclopaedia afterwards, but couldn’t find it, so I don’t know whether it was venomous.
At last, we were back on the main gravel road, sweaty and out of breath from the steep climb, but completely blissed out. From then on, it was an easy brisk walk along the gravel road, down the completely wind-still and thus very hot eastern side of Nol se Kop and around to the south, where we had started off.
Somewhere we chanced upon a little reservoir at the side of the road. We splashed our faces, necks and arms with refreshingly icy mountain water and, feeling reborn, marched energetically down the hillside.
We came to the turn-off to the Bendigo Mine, but weren’t sure whether this was a circular route that would take us back onto the main road again, or whether it was another ‘there-and-back’ scramble down and up the mountain, or whether we had to go past there in order to make it back to Mother Holly’s Tea Garden. You see, that’s the problem if you don’t have a map!
So we stayed on the main road and strode out energetically until we reached the welcoming arms of ‘Mother Holly’. She gave us a huge smile (probably relief that we hadn’t gotten lost) and, on the recommendation of a middle-aged couple at the next table, we revived our depleted energy stores with a pair of absolutely superlative scones, accompanied by butter, jam and cream.
Ahhhh, now that’s the life for ya.
We discovered that the couple at the next table owned the Forest Edge Nature-Lovers’ Retreat further down in Millwood Forest. After they had polished off their own scones with tea, they left amidst much laughter and “hope to see you’s” to welcome three honeymoon couples that were due to arrive at their place today. I mentioned to the friendly ‘Mother Holly’ that we had seen elephant dung on the road, “but surely there aren’t any elephants here, right?”
They told us that the couple who had been sitting at the table outside earlier this morning had in fact been tracking a herd of elephants through the forest for the last three weeks in the hope of filming them. But the elephants were so well-camouflaged and so quiet in the dense forest, that they just couldn’t get close. They only found the herd on Wednesday, and managed to shoot some great footage.
We were also told that the elephants had pulled up all the signboards and trail markers on the nearby hiking trails 2 weeks ago, and that a group of hikers had gotten a bit lost. So the boards had been replaced in the meantime. Phew!
“But they aren’t aggressive,” she said. “When you’re walking through the forest, you make so much noise, that they can hear you from far away, and they’ll just stay completely still, so you won’t see them or hear them.”
“So they could have been down in the valley near those two mines?”
I saw afterwards that this walk, which they called the “Miners’ Walk”, was the same as the “Millwood Circuit” described in Best Walks of the Garden Route by Colin Paterson-Jones. The circuit was 5.6km long, with an additional 1km detour down to the adits (mines) we’d visited.
It had taken us almost 2 hours in total, and we had left out a visit to the main goldmine with its informative displays of mining machinery and other items rescued from the settlement on Nol se Kop, and we had not visited the cemetery, which apparently is also a must-see.
Next time, we’ll do the guided tour.
And that was the end of our Birthday Weekend in Knysna!