19-24 September 2020
Num Num Trail – now called High Five Hiking trails managed by Escarp Adventures.
Being desperate to get out and at the same time not sure about interprovincial travel, we settled on finding a five-day trail close to home (Jozi).
We could not have made a better choice!
I have hiked all over South Africa and in many places in the world and I cannot recommend this trail enough. It is simply perfect. It has everything – views, water, waterfalls, climbs, descents, varied flora, lots of fauna, comfortable accommodation and it is a breeze to organise and get to while at the same time on arrival you feel like you are away from it all within minutes.
We were guinea pigs for a slightly changed route. What was previously the Num Num trail is now under new management with some new land owners joining and others falling away.
From Johannesburg it is an easy 3-hour drive on the N12 and through Machadodorp to arrive at Pongola Express – our starting camp.
This camp is made up of two train carriages that have been modified to include bathroom facilities, kitchen and braai facilities and a lookout deck. Out of all the camps this was my least favourite, as the beds on the train slope at a funny angle and I could not find a comfortable way to sleep. The train was also a bit stuffy and smelly. My advice would be to bring your own mattress and sleep outside on the deck or the grass – you can leave the mattress in the car, as the route is circular.
PE – Pongola Express
AK – Aloe Kaya
MK – Mount Komati
BM – Bermanzi
CW - Candlewood
Day 1 PE to AK
The next day (first day of hiking) we were very excited to get going and were greeted by a magnificent sunrise over the valley. We chose the slackpacking option – something I would recommend for this trip. Although distances are short, the terrain is very steep in places and hiking requires technical skills, strength and fitness. So, the less you carry, the easier it is. And you can plan your meals to eat well every day as there are fridge/freezer facilities at each camp (except Candlewood).
We headed off at a moderate pace, this day was pegged at 6 km – we measured closer to 8 km. We took about 4 hours to reach Aloe Kaya, including a break.
The day starts level, leaving the Pongola Express camp through the bottom gate and waking along until you cross the tar road. From there it is a bit of an ascent to reach the top of the first hill.
On the top you walk along for a little while and then descend slightly to walk along the ridge through thick indigenous forest for most of the way. It involves a bit of scrambling and path finding, but it is well marked and the shade makes the heat quite bearable.
Around 11h30 we decided to have a lunch/tea break under a rock face. Feeling refreshed and a little cooler, we headed to Aloe Kaya – only another 30-minute walk from our lunch spot.
There is no river or water along this route, so we were very excited to reach Aloe Kaya and have a swim in the big dam at this camp. The dam is about 1 km from the camp, take some snacks and a towel/blanket and have a picnic and a swim.
Aloe Kaya has several houses with bunk beds and a communal house for cooking/eating. It is beautifully situated on top of the mountain with lovely views – especially from the bottom set of toilets – be sure to check those out! There is warm water and solar power – make sure you have an outdoor shower – very refreshing.
Pieta, the owner of the farm spent the evening with us explaining tomorrow’s route and other highlights in the area.
Day 2 – AK to MK
After a very windy but good night’s rest we decided to take the long route on our way to Mount Komati this day. We started down the hill on the Bladdernut Trail. This follows the river in the kloof with thick indigenous forest and scrambling over rocks. Plenty of pools to cool off along the way.
We headed on and eventually climbed out of the kloof and up the mountain to reach the top where you have 360-degree views. This first part of the trail was quite steep and slippery in the kloof but well worth the detour. At the top of the mountain we followed the signs to Mount Komati (MK). Here the trail leads through amazing sandstone rock formations and crags.
It is quite exposed but once you are on your way down on the other side of the mountain, there are shady areas and even a small cave that could be used for shelter in an emergency.
From here it is steep down through indigenous forest. Slippery and ladders at a few spots to help with the descent. But absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. The path again follows the river down a gorge and eventually you emerge on the grasslands. Here we were greeted by Zebra and Wildebees who followed us for a bit before disappearing in the veld.
Another kilometre or so downhill on a zig zag path and you reach the river in the canyon. Then an easy kilometre or so along the river in the canyon. Plenty of swim spots here, but worthwhile to push onto the Mount Komati camp and wait for a swim in Amos se Gat. Or if you have time – do both! This was a long day for us – we left around 8h30 am and reached Mount Komati at 4 pm. Adding the extra loop on in the morning took the distance from 8 km to around 12 km. We had lunch at the small cave and this was around half way both time and kilometre wise for us.
Mount Komati camp is slightly more luxurious than Aloe Kaya. There are three houses with bunk beds as well as a communal bar/lounge area. A separate kitchen is fully equipped. Beautiful location in the valley overlooking the mountains as well as awesome swimming spots.
Day 3 – MK to BM
We were warned about a steep ascent leaving the MK camp. We were up bright and early and were greeted by drizzle and heavy fog and significantly cooler weather. This was perfect for us and it made the climb up very manageable. It is a long climb, but the path zig zags and is really good so it makes for easy waking.
We made the climb in about 1,5 hours and reached the emergency shelter cave after just two hours of walking.
It was quite chilly and we were all starting to become a bit wet, so we had a quick tea and a break at the emergency shelter cave. Then swiftly moved on down the mountain to find the path to Bermanzi. Here we became a bit lost as the path is only marked with “Oom Paul” markers but going the other way. We found a marker showing BM that took us along a river down towards the escarpment. But then we lost all markers and the path and had to back track a little. Once we were back tracking, we could see the signs going the other way.
When we had found our way again, we decided to have a short rest for lunch as it had cleared and we could find a dry place to rest. After refreshments we headed off along the escarpment.
At one point the path takes a steep down turn from the escarpment and it feels like it is not possible to go down such a steep ravine. Turns out to be quite manageable. Due to the wet weather it had become quite slippery and much concentration was required to reach the bottom of the canyon. The path winds through indigenous forest and crosses the river a few times. Scrambling and a few bum slides are required. We called it the Bladdernut Waltz . Although slippery we were very grateful for the cooler weather!
After about an hour of descending we reached the river in the canyon. From here it was another hour along the river before finally crossing the river and starting the long climb up towards Bermanzi. This climb for us was much more exhausting than the initial climb up from Mount Komati. At this point we had been walking since 7h30 am and were starting to feel quite tired.
It is a beautiful ascent through indigenous forest and the path is steep but well maintained. It took another two hours but then we reached the top and made it to our camp. Bermanzi camp is quite large with several rooms and bunkbeds. The communal kitchen has a fridge and a welcome Anthracite stove. We used this to warm the room and were quickly thawed and dried from our day’s effort. This camp is very rustic compared to the other camps. But it has all amenities – hot water, fridge, stove, microwave, braai/fire pit area. Due to the fog we could not see the view, but it is on top of the mountain and overlooks the valley.
This was our longest day at 14 km, walking from 7h30 am to 16h30 pm.
Day 4 - BM to CW
After OB’s and card games and an early night we all woke well rested. It was still foggy when we set out, but soon the weather cleared.
Attie, the owner of BM described the way very clearly for us and we took a meander back down into the gorge.
The indigenous forest is absolutely amazing in this area. The walk down is not very steep and the path is well marked. After some up and down meandering you reach the river. Then the path follows the river and there are several crossings via bridges. This is absolutely amazing and worth taking a slowly paced walk.
We stopped off for swimming along the way – the water was absolutely freezing, but a swim was so refreshing! Eventually you leave the river for a little while and walk towards candle falls.
We were very lucky as the rains had not come yet so the river and waterfall were fairly empty. We could walk right up to the bottom of the magnificent falls. Once you scramble up from the river the view of the fall is absolutely amazing! The walk to the falls is short - around 6 km, 3 hours.
We decided to have an extended stop here. You can see the CW camp from the falls. It is quite a steep climb and takes around 45 minutes to reach the camp from the falls, so well worth spending time at the falls. Unless you prefer to walk up to the camp and come back down to the falls later. This day was a shorter walk – we reached CW camp by lunch time even with the extended stop.
Candlewood camp was my favourite of the camps. It has two huts with bunk beds and a communal kitchen area. Everything is immaculate and well maintained. The view is absolutely breath taking and we sat for many hours on the stop just taking it all in.
There is electricity here – lights powered by solar but no plugs for charging electrical equipment. Hot water can be done by donkey shower.
Day 5 – CW to PE
The last day is the shortest walk – we did it in 3 hours. It is about 6 km. We were all very reluctant to leave the beauty of CW behind.
But eventually we set off up between the huts to the left. This takes you through an area filled with Aloes and beautiful sandstone formations.
After some time of walking along the cliff edge, the descent begins and you are once again in thick indigenous forest. The path here is quite steep in places but does wind quite a bit as well. Smaller pools and waterfalls along the way make for spectacular scenery. A few ladders to climb up and down.
Eventually you leave the woods and then it is a short descent towards the tar road. Cross the tar road and wind along until you reach the river below PE. Then only 500 m back to PE camp. Time for a last dip and then off home.