Wilderness log cabin by Stephen Cunliffe

Whether your taste in adventure is mild or wild, you’ll always find something to do at the Wilderness Section of Garden Route National Park. By Stephen Cunliffe

A growing reputation for outdoorsy adventure activities was why my wife and I found ourselves in the charming area known as the Wilderness Section of the Garden Route National Park. After a leisurely stroll along the beach the afternoon we arrived, we would spend the next few days systematically exploring the park’s five well-maintained walking trails. With varying distances and degrees of difficulty, there is indeed a half-day hike in Wilderness to suit all.

The Brown-Hooded Kingfisher Trail is an out-and-back walk, meandering along the Duiwe River in a steep-sided valley below aloe-caked rocky crags. Inside the indigenous forest, with sunlight dripping through a dense canopy, it is hard to see the wood for the trees, but there’s an  short climb to a viewpoint overlooking the forest.

It was so serenely quiet atop the ridge I found it impossible to believe we were barely a kilometre from the N2 highway. The distant bark of a baboon snapped me from my musings in the nick of time to see the red wing flash of a Knysna turaco as it abandoned its perch. The trail terminated a kilometre further up the valley at a small, secluded waterfall and icy rock pool. An idyllic spot to escape the midday heat.

By contrast the Pied Kingfisher Trail is a completely flat and shadeless 10km circular route across the fynbos-surrounded Serpentine floodplain, along the beach and onto the boardwalk alongside the Touw River. It is well suited to an early morning jog or mountain-bike ride. The kingfisher-dominated stretch of trail along the Serpentine is a highlight.

Wilderness hiking by Stephen Cunliffe

Wilderness offers a variety of hikes for young and old, idle and energetic.

The Cape Dune Molerat Trail is a seldom-used sandy, circular trail through fynbos and beautiful proteas that begins by climbing over the hill behind Rondevlei before tracing the route of the Wolwe River into Swartvlei. We took advantage of the great picnic spot nestled in the shade of a giant red currant next to the river to enjoy a packed lunch of biltong and sandwiches. Upon completion of the hike, we popped into the Rondevlei bird hide to recuperate in the company of an overwhelming menagerie of herons, egrets, gulls, cormorants, ducks, grebes, teals and coots.

The Woodville Big Tree Circular Walk comprises a short, easy trail through thick indigenous forest. Without doubt, the most impressive nature walk is the popular 7,2km Half-Collared and Giant Kingfisher loop trail that follows the tranquil Touw River upstream to a scenic waterfall. Making use of a newly constructed 2km long boardwalk, this shaded forest walk took us through a densely wooded valley with giant yellowwoods. The pristine terrain afforded a close encounter with a stately bushbuck ram and regular glimpses of brilliantly coloured kingfishers and turacos.

On the return journey, we detoured onto the more challenging Bosduif Loop, a strenuous route straight up the mountainside that took us past a couple of spectacular lookouts. It was a sweaty uphill slog, but the panoramic vista overlooking the Touw River valley was well worth the effort to get there. Upon returning to Ebb and Flow Rest Camp, we were in unanimous agreement that this hike has deservedly garnered a reputation as the top Wilderness walk.

Wilderness quiet by Stephen Cunliffe

Taking a break to soak up the quiet of the forest.

Paddling away

After all that hiking, we decided to rest our weary legs and hire a canoe from conveniently located Eden Adventures on the outskirts of Ebb-and-Flow Rest Camp South. We stashed our valuables in waterproof buckets in the shiny yellow canoe and then effortlessly launched onto the Touw River.

Initially, we set off downstream across Wilderness Lagoon to the beach at Touw River Mouth. It was a pleasant paddle with an abundance of waterbirds and waders on show, as well as a relaxed large grey mongoose. But it couldn’t compare with the trip upstream into a steep-sided valley of pristine indigenous forest. When rocks blocked our upstream progress, and having enjoyed the Touw River Waterfall hike so much the previous day, we temporarily abandoned the canoe and transferred to the latter half of the Giant Kingfisher Trail for a paddle-waterfall walk combo that is near impossible to beat.

For those with strong arms and a full day at their disposal, I would unreservedly recommend the rewarding paddle along the narrow, reeded channels of the snaking Serpentine to a picnic site at Island Lake. This is the longest canoe excursion available, offering an opportunity to escape the crowds, appreciate the area’s prolific birdlife and immerse yourself in nature.

A host of other pulse-racing pursuits offered by Eden Adventures might also tempt more adventurous souls. Perhaps a unique, spray-drenched abseil alongside the thundering Swart River Waterfall into a bobbing boat waiting in the Kaaimans Gorge below, or kloofing during the warmer summer months? The half-day Cappuccino Canyon is ideal for first-timers, while the full-day Eden Alley kloof offers the initiated adrenaline-pumping jumps and longer swims.

Wilderness waterways by Stephen Cunliffe

The waterways at Wilderness can be explored by canoe.

Getting high

Deciding I needed to end my Wilderness adventure on a high, I approached Fly Time Paragliding about a flight over the park in a tandem paraglider. The steep hills and favourable air currents create perfect paragliding conditions, with the Cloud Nine launch site above Sedgefield and Map of Africa above Wilderness deservedly acknowledged as offering some the most consistent and scenic flying to be found anywhere in South Africa. But, as I discovered, paragliding across the park wasn’t an option as paragliders float at the mercy of the wind and air currents. However, there was another option.

Imported from Belgium earlier this year, the para-trike, with its relatively quiet four-stroke petrol engine, is a motorised paraglider that takes a pilot and passenger of up to 110kg. My pilot, the amiable Jörg Bueble, took me soaring past the five lakes and adjoining waterways of Wilderness section before heading back up the coast to Sedgefield. Sitting with my legs dangling in midair, enjoying a bird’s eye view over the Wilderness, it was a heart-stopping finale to four magical days during which I had happily lost myself in Wilderness.

Wilderness from the air by Stephen Cunliffe

Flying high above the Wilderness section of Garden Route National Park