This two-day trail in the Eastern Free State provides a relatively easy hike through the rugged mountainous scenery so typical of the region, as well as the chance to see artefacts that give you a glimpse of times long past. By Frances van Rensburg.
“We thought the Vrystaat was flat!” gasped the kids as we trudged up yet another ridge in the beautiful sandstone gorge on the Kututsa Trail, situated between Fouriesburg and Ficksburg.
Setting right this misconception and experiencing the beauty and serenity of the Eastern Highlands of the Orange Free State was in fact our reason for heading southeast from Pretoria to escape for a blissful two days from the rat race.
The Kututsa is a relatively new trail, catering for 30 hikers. It opened in December 1991 and stretches over three privately owned farms, Franshoek, Gilboa and Rustler’s Valley.
The area is known as one of the most picturesque in the Eastern Highlands and the trail covers 26 kilometres round a mountainous sandstone valley at the foot of the Witteberge, with the Malutis of Lesotho only a few kilometres away.
The first night’s accommodation is either in the Franshoek Mountain Guest House (for smaller groups) or in a huge sandstone barn (for large groups, such as ours was). Both are on the farm Franshoek, owned by Christian Findlay.
On arriving at the barn, we were enchanted by the huge oak trees. Our host later informed us that they were planted by the first English settlers in the area at the turn of the century.
The barn was indeed a novel dwelling for city slickers: beds of hay were arranged in groups along the walls, with long tables set along the middle and, to add a festive touch, yellow and pink spiral candles had been placed on the tables. The scene evoked delighted laughter from everyone who set eyes on it.
Fresh water is obtained from a tank next to the barn, and at the back a shower with hot and cold water (compliments of a donkey boiler which is lit late in the afternoon by Joseph Makanete, the friendly caretaker) provides double facilities to wash the travel weariness and the dust of the city from your body. A toilet huddles to one side between poplar trees.
Cooking facilities – which are outside – consist of a braai grid, ample fire wood, kettle and saucepan.
Accommodation on the second night is in the huge sandstone cave called kututsa by the Sothos, which gave the trail its name. The cave could probably sleep 1 000 people and there, too, soft hay beds wait to receive the hiker’s tired body.
Other facilities include two toilets, three big cans of water for cooking, and cooking facilities similar to those at the barn.
There is a rock pool for swimming (not bathing), and in the dry season you have to stock up on water at a point just before the cave.
Our host dropped in before sundown on the first evening to see whether we were comfortable and to mention some interesting facts about the area and the trail. The highlands are not only scenic, they are an archaeological treasure trove.
At the spring near the cave the fossil of an early inhabitant of the area, which dwelt there in the Triassic period, is to be seen. This fellow, a dinosaur called massospondylus, belonged to the subclass Archosauria from which today’s crocodiles and birds are descended.
In his heyday old massospondylus grew to about six metres. It is possible that he was able to stand on his hind legs to reach the succulent plant material that was his diet, but he probably reverted to all fours for walking. The fossil is thought to be 170 million years old, but the Bushman paintings that abound in the area are somewhat more recent.
Another interesting and mystifying feature of the trail is the rondals that you can see on the first day, and right on top of one of the ridges on the trail is a particularly well-preserved rondal.
Christian gave us directions to find it, since it is situated slightly off the route, asking us to take care not to disturb any
thing on the site. We looked forward to viewing this intriguing feature; the builders of these igloo-type stone dwellings scattered round the area remain a mystery.Birders will have a field day, for approximately 143 birds have been identified in the region, the most noteworthy of which is the bush blackcap which, according to Roberts’, is a rare sight here.
Game is also plentiful and we kept a lookout for exotic fallow deer, blue wildebeest, blesbok, springbok, grey rhebuck and mountain reedbuck, although the chances of seeing game when walking in a large group such as ours, especially when accompanied by children, are scarce to say the least.
At a certain point we were to look out for a sheep-dip that was hand-carved out of sandstone in the old days, and also for an old road with wagon tracks cut into the sandstone. It is clear that the pioneering trekkers and farmers of earlier times were a tough lot.
With all this information to sleep on, we went to bed early; the next day we had 18 kilometres to cover over broken terrain. Our morning wake-up call was a clattering shower of acorns on the tin roof, delivered by one of our insomnia-ridden fellow hikers who felt he had been sitting alone at the fire for long enough.
We left at 08h00 and soon approached a fine sandstone arch that must be the Eastern Highlands answer to the Wolfberg Arch in the Cedarberg. Next to it is a rock formation resembling a sphinx gazing over its domain, the slopes at its feet dotted with the pale blue-green of the mountain cabbage tree Cussonia paniculata.
Our group followed the clear markers and, after some climbing and following of contours, entered a secluded valley where in more turbulent times stolen cattle were hidden. It is on the right-hand ridge top of this valley that the rondals are to be seen, including the one that has stood the test of time exceptionally well.
Although the top of the ridge is fairly barren, these dwellings lie in a dense stand of proteas, and a strange, eerie atmosphere reigns. Legend has it that the inhabitants were cannibals, and we found ourselves involuntarily watching our backs.
Continuing along the route we started looking for water because it was hot and almost everybody’s water bottle was empty by that time. It had been a very dry season, as it had been everywhere else in the country, and springs and streams that usually offered plenty of clean, fresh water were simply dry.
As we carried on up the valley some of the stragglers found water of doubtful cleanliness, but they filled their water bottles all the same. At the head of the valley waited a steep climb, up and round sandstone slabs, but the view we enjoyed from the top was ample reward.
Proteas were dotted everywhere, such as the highveld (Protea caffra), lipped (P subvestita) and silver proteas (P roupelliae). We also saw red and lilac erica in flower. The end of March was too late to see the variety of bulbous grassveld plants in flower, but here and there some red-hot pokers Kniphofia sp were still to be seen.
We found ourselves on top of a ridge running between the secluded valley, with broken sandstone outcrops on the one side and the fertile Caledon River Valley, with its cultivated fields, on the other.
As a backdrop to the patchwork quilt of fruit orchards and wheat and maize fields in the valley, the impressive Malutis towered in the background. Splendid blue-and-white thunderclouds were building up on the mountain crests, providing an unforgettable sight.
Our party contemplated this breathtaking view over lunch and then carried on along the ridge. Following the markers, we walked through fields of waving red grass along the escarpment, enjoying splendid views of the Malutis. Consulting the map, we were not surprised to see that that particular point was called Malutizicht!
Then the group came to a sudden halt, milling in confusion round a route marker that was not standing proud on its pole, pointing the way, but lying on the ground. We picked it up, realising we could point it whichever way we wanted and be none the wiser, and we milled some more.
What with all the talking and pointing and milling and arguing, our thirst became more acute. We had still not encountered water, and desperate noises started rising from the children’s midst.
The map that accompanies the trail instructions is a good one, and we decided to carry on as we were going. On the downhill path we found beautiful, cool, clean spring water in a small ravine, quenched our thirst and filled our water bottles to the brim. This minor exercise in discomfort made us realise how easily we take food, water and shelter for granted.
Coming upon the place where holes were chipped about 30 centimetres deep in the rock face to give the oxen and their wagons a better grip in the struggle up the mountain, we were once again amazed at the determination and perseverance of the pioneering folk who tamed the land. And the sheep-dip excavated in the sandstone was quite a piece of work, not to be finished in a day or two.No longer far from the cave we followed the trail through a bushy grove of oldwood trees Leucosidea sericea. In mountainous areas the presence of these trees is taken as an indication that the streams are suitable for stocking with trout. So you may perhaps be able to supplement your hiker’s diet with a nice little pan-fried trout in years to come.
On reaching the cave we gaped in awe at the huge sandstone overhang that was to be our shelter for the night. It is true that 1 000 people could sleep there – as must 1 000 sheep at an earlier stage, judging from the droppings.
The hikers got their quarters organised for the night. At the back of the overhang enclosures were built as shelter from wind or wind-driven rain, and it was here that stoves and pots and pans were produced and the evening meal started.
Over sundowners we contemplated the events of the day, a luxury made possible by the fact that Christian had brought our cool box full of goodies to the cave, together with the cans of water. He is quite willing to transport backpacks to the cave as well, but we wouldn’t succumb to the temptation. It’s not quite in the spirit of hiking, is it? The cool box, however, was something else. . . .
We watched the monstrous shadows our campfire cast on the roof of the cave and marvelled again at the wonderful forces of nature that had created such a magnificent scene.
Huge slabs and boulders lie spread along the length of the cave where part of the overhanging roof has collapsed. We were told that the latest rockfall had occurred in about 1940 and wondered – a little uneasily – when the next one would take place!
The little ones started disappearing to snuggle down in their sleeping bags soon after dinner – the rigours of the day had taken their toll.
After some quiet talking and coffee we also went to sleep, although it was still fairly early. Tired limbs and leaden feet made us realise that city dwellers travelled far too much by car.
The next morning we woke to the soft vooo hoo of a spotted eagle owl, and after breakfast we went scouting in the vicinity of the cave.
A little higher are another two caves, beautiful rock pools and a dry waterfall. The vegetation in the protected kloof differs a lot from that of the exposed mountain slopes, and two interesting species occurring here are the Cape holly Ilex mitis and Cape beech Rapanea melanophloeos.
Shouldering our packs we left the cave area and the kloof and climbed out onto the ridge behind the cave, enjoying lovely views of the beautiful valley in which the farm Franshoek lies. Traversing the kloof we had the opportunity to see the cave from above and were once again amazed at its sheer size.
On the way we encountered blue guarri Euclea crispa and several Rhus species: the nana berry Rhus dentata, common taaibos R pyroides and broom karee R erosa, the last-mentioned being a very valuable tree in consolidating the soil, its removal often being followed by serious erosion (hence its scientif
ic name). It features in rain-making ceremonies in neighbouring Lesotho, and the branches and leaves are suitable for thatching and for making rough brooms.
The last stretch after coming down the mountain follows a well-worn goat path round the top of a hidden valley, ending at a neglected bird hide next to a dam.
Preparing brunch in the shade of the old oak trees and relaxing awhile, we discussed the highlights of the trail.
We could not help being concerned about the way some stretches of the trail did not take into account the danger of soil erosion. The soils of the Eastern Free State, especially on steep slopes such as those we were encountering, are notorious for their vulnerability to erosion, and footpaths should not lead straight downhill without taking protective measures.
It is evident that urgent steps will have to be taken to repair damage already done, and the trail is not even two years old! We hope the authorities concerned will be receptive to suggestions, and obtain expert advice on how to rectify matters.
Some of the group had to hurry back to civilisation and prepared to leave for Pretoria, while the rest retired to Franshoek Mountain Guest House for a well-earned afternoon nap. They spent the night at the lodge before returning home, and reported having had a wonderful time.
They enjoyed a wonderful dinner – good country fare, enough to satisfy hungry hikers’ appetites. The next morning, after a hearty farm breakfast, the children enjoy horse riding, (the cherry on the top for them) to end a weekend of healthy relaxation in the clear, clean mountain air of the good ol’ Vrystaat!
We agreed that the Kututsa was a beautiful and most enjoyable trail, and vowed to hike it again. After a good rainy season it will be even more beautiful and we’d like to experience the bounty of its streams and waterfalls.
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