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article imageOp-Ed: Tips to ensure family hiking trails don't turn into trials

By Sharon Davis     Apr 18, 2010 in Lifestyle
Durban - Family hiking trips – those do-it-yourself walking holidays – require a lot of planning and preparation, but they generally cost significantly less than conventional holidays and leave you with far richer memories.
We set off from the car park in high spirits, making the last final adjustments to our pack straps as we strode out on the three kilometre stretch of tar, before diverging at the U-turn in the road to follow the first of many well-worn footpaths into the Drakensberg wilderness.
It was a little after 2 p.m. on an overcast winter afternoon, and my teenage boys set a cracking pace up to Sherman's cave, our first overnight stop in the Cathedral Peak area – and I quickly realised that I had underestimated their strength when distributing the loads.
Here I was a 40-something pack horse with 18kgs on her back breathing raspishly and labouring on tired legs behind lithe youth with about 13kgs each. Who out of courtesy (and in fear of the severe safety lectures) waited periodically for me to catch up.
Two hours into the most stunning scenery, with the mountain formations of Cathedral Peal and Bell towering above us in the distance, the enthusiasm of youth began to tire… and then I got to lead, and even wait… before we arrived at Sherman's Cave just before sunset.
Duties assigned, we set up camp, collected water from the stream running down from the plateau above, and made supper by the light of out headlamps. Evening entertainment was 'a short game of shadow puppets before we settled into our sleeping bags for an early night.
For the boys it would be an early sunrise start to make the most of the morning cool as we set off up – ever upwards - through Orange Peal Gap, up Bugger-Me-Gulley to the gap in Cathedral Peak, with fresh mountain air, stunning views and tired legs.
Sunrise from Sherman s cave in the Drakensberg mountains  KwaZulu-Natal  South Africa
Sunrise from Sherman's cave in the Drakensberg mountains, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
Sunrise from our cave was spectacular, and we set off early as planned. But the hike up the exposed ridge was tough - and Donald, at 15, was starting to take strain. By 9am we had gained significant altitude but Donald downed pack and refused to move, complaining of breathing difficulties.
We rested a while, consulted as a group, and decided to head back down – there were other less strenuous walks we could do. It was a good reminder that when hiking, as in life, the pleasure should be in the journey, and not the destination.
We ended up spending three nights based at Sherman's Cave, explored the other caves in the area – and successfully made it up to Cathedral Peak and back the following day without the burden of our packs – with enough time to watch a fire break burn, drink hot chocolate, roast marshmallows and try to catch hail stones in our camping mugs.
When planning a trip with children (even teenagers) it is necessary to plan flexible routes. Not only will you, as parents, be carrying extra weight, but those seemingly inexhaustible young people, do actually tire a lot quicker than adults.
Appreciate at the outset that you might not be able to go as high or as far as you might like to. Be prepared to compromise, rest often, and select a route that matches the interests and abilities of your family.
It also helps to involve the entire family in the planning, teaching them to read maps, and to stop and admire points of interest (and fascinating creatures) along the way. Make it fun, play games, sing songs, and offer incentives like a sweet of biscuit when they get to a certain point.
Hiking with children, from babies to teenagers, will require you to carry extra gear, and a large capacity pack is essential. You will also need to monitor their energy and attitude, as well as the amount they eat and drink – and be ready to make alternative plans if necessary.
For children able to walk on their own, have them carry at least a small pack with a snack, some water and a water proof jacket – and attach a safety whistle to blow in emergencies. They can blow a whistle for much longer than they will be able to call for help, should they get lost.
As a safety precaution, teach your children to always stay in sight of you and remember the potential hazards from sunburn and have them wear hats and use suntan lotion.
It will also help to read up about the area you are going hiking. Familiarise yourself with the trail and the likely weather conditions for the season in which you are planning the hike. Find out the distance you are planning to walk and ensure that you leave with sufficient time for your family to cover the route.
It is a good idea to acquaint your family with the sort of activities they will encounter on the trail in a comfortable setting. Go camping in your back yard. Start out with short hikes near home to build up condition and endurance – and to get your family used to the shoes and gear they will be using. Cook dinner in your camping pots, go for an evening walk with torches and head lamps, test trail meals before you go, and most importantly - wear-in trail shoes to avoid blisters on the hike.
It is also a good time to introduce your family to bush lore and to teach them to be quiet (or at least quieter) out of respect for entering the home of the animals – and that way, they will get to see and learn a lot more.
Hiking with your family should be fun – and all it requires is some planning and common sense. It is even possible with very babies and toddlers, carried in special carry packs – but here you might want to involve some friends to help carry the extra load of children and gear.
Hikers in South Africa are spoilt for choice. Our countryside is nothing short of spectacular and you will be amazed at the profusion of trails – from day hikes to multi-day trails - once you start looking.
The Tsitsikamma National Park on the Eastern Cape's Garden Route is a place of staggering beauty as well as one of the most popular hiking areas. It is the place to head to if you are looking for a quiet and secluded escape with languid lagoons, long soft beaches and plenty of good walks. Here you can listen to the whispers of ancient forests and admire the profusion of huge Outeniqua yellowwoods and hear the call of the Knysa tauraco.
For intrepid hikers there are three multi-day trails:
The guided Dolphin trial is an expensive luxury option (with porters and fresh meals included) covering 17km in two days.
The 60km Tsitsikamma trail, South Africa's first accredited hiking trail is a six-day walk through the heart of the Tsitsikamma mountains, fynbos and forests – with an optional portage service.
The five-day, 42km Otter Trail is probably the best known hike in South Africa, and is often booked-up an year in advance. The route takes one through the rise and fall the costal terrain from beach, through forests, to mountains blanketed in fynbos, back down to the beach again … from Storm's River Mouth to Natures Valley. Possible viewing highlights include the rare African Oyster Catcher, Blue Duiker and Cape Clawless Otter.
KwaZulu-Natal's Drakensberg is another very popular venue with a profusion of self-guided trails and spectacular scenery spread over the Northern, central and Southern Drakensberg ranges. You don't have to walk far to get away from it all and can aim for high ridges and peaks, or simply explore your own hidden valley.
The Fish River Canyon and the Magaliesberg are other popular hiking areas, but wherever you are based, you will that with a little research (or contacting a local hiking club) that there are a profusion of trails right on your doorstep. All you need do is choose one that matches the capabilities and interests of your family.
Then it’s a simple matter of plan, prepare and pack – after which all that remains is to have fun along the way.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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