Shipwreck Hiking Trail: Pure slackpacking magic!

2020-01-19 11:25 - Hanlie Gouws
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coastline with crashing waves on rocks

We were getting the roosterkoek ready for the braai when Neil walked into the Lily Pad boma.

“Leave that and come see some magic,” he said.

A short walk away from the hut it was pitch dark - and then the swarm of fireflies arrived. Hundreds (my imagination says thousands), blinking on and off, on and off in the dense Eastern Cape forest. It was night four of the Shipwreck Hiking and Canoe Trail and it just kept getting more magical.

But wait, I am getting ahead of myself here. Let me start at the beginning, when we met Dave Marais, the original Boy Scout, in the dining room of our “headquarters” in Kleinemonde for our pre-hike briefing. It is obvious that this is not just a job to him. He is as happy as you are that you came and your happiness is what counts to him - your money is just a bonus.

He arrived armed with maps and info sheets and a long list of birds you can tick off as you spot them. He explained the route of the six day, five night trail from Port Alfred to the Fish River that winds over vast, empty beaches, windswept dunes and through thick coastal forest and up and down the Kleinemonde West River.

And off we went, in the back of Dave’s bakkie, to the start of the hike at the Port Alfred Pier.

SEE: West Coast Crayfish Trail: Hike in comfort and meet the locals along the way

At low tide, the beach stretches on forever and in the off-season you will most likely have it all to yourself. Over the six days we encountered four fishermen and a family of four on the beach.

Day 1 – To Milkwood Hut

It does not take long to leave the town behind and Neil, Jasmin, Louise, Jonathon and I soon had the beach to ourselves. Neil timed the tides perfectly, so the walk – in bare feet almost all the way – was perfectly comfy on the hard sand and in the shallow surf. It is easy to fall into a rhythm and walking becomes meditating.

Too soon we spotted Dave’s marker and headed inland up a sizable dune. We got a bit lost, but found a huge leopard spoor on the crest of the dune before spotting the right way and following the anchor signs through the forest to Milkwood hut. Day one is fairly short, so we had ample time for a stroll before starting the fire to get our first braai pizza done.

At low tide, you can climb up the Three Sisters, the three large rocky outcrops. Here you can just sit and watch the waves crashing until the sun touches the horizon and it gets too cold to stay. 

Day 2 – To Tree Houses

The path leads back down the dunes to the beach and all the way to Rietriver. From the riverbank you get a little taste of the vast birdlife: kingfishers, cormorants and darters, herons and spoonbills proliferate here. The trail crosses the road and then enters a magical forest, leading to the Treehouse, our next accommodation.

It is like being in Rivendell with the Elves! The deck is high above the ground in the canopy and after a wash in the river we headed for the hammocks on the deck and watched the full moon rise over the winter solstice.

The path from Tree Houses to Three Sisters leads through dense, magical forest on the riverbank. Keep your binocs close, as this is a great day for bird spotting. 

SEE: New Addo hiking trail your latest reason to plan an Eastern Cape adventure

Day 3 – To Three Sisters

Back through the forest, over the road and onto farmland we go. Just beware of the bulls (and the electric fences)! Three Sisters hut is an old radar station about 20 minutes away from the actual Three Sisters: three rocks poking through the surf. Great place to watch the sun set!

Following the shipwreck anchor signs. Three Sisters hut is about 20 minutes from the beach, just behind the dunes.  

Day 4 – Paddling to Lily Pad

A short walk takes you over farmland to Kleinemonde West, from where the canoe trail starts. I was a bit worried about paddling 8,5 km upriver, but once we got going, I didn’t want it to end. It is fairly easy going and you can glide soundlessly over the surface to get a closer look at the birds or sit back and watch the pair of fish eagles patrol their territory. When the river gets too congested to continue, you abandon ship and hike through a private game reserve to Lily Pad hut. On the way we saw giraffe, zebra, nyala, kudu and impala and the aloes were in full bloom.

(If you hear someone screaming bloody murder at night, fear not. It is just a tree hyrax.)

Slackpaking means you don’t have to live off smash and Toppers. You can style it. This was starter number 1 at Lily Pad on the game farm. We had braaibroodjies of some sort every night, fancy salads and jelly for dessert.  

Day 5 – To Stone Cottage

The trail leads back to the canoes and Dave is there to welcome you back to Kleinemonde after the paddle. From there, it is still a 10km hike along a beach absolutely littered with shells and up a sneaky high dune to Stone Cottage, a 1840s Settler home where electricity and a hot shower awaits.

This cottage is kitted out with everything a hiker needs, and is the cherry on top of a wonderful day’s hiking and paddling.

Yes, life is that good on the Shipwreck Trail. We didn’t see any shipwreck, but we were happy that the cold front hanging ominously over the ocean at Riet River behind Jonathon stayed out and never bothered us. 

SEE: #LoveSA: More hiking trails receive Green Flag accreditation in Garden Route's Wilderness

Day 6 - Ending at the Fish River mouth

You will wake up with a long face on the last day. After such a comfy night you feel ready to start the hike anew and not to end it! The trail follows a farm road to the Fish River Lighthouse, and from there you follow the beach to the Fish River Mouth and up the river to the Diner where the fish is fresh and the portions ridiculous. Dave arrived before we’d licked your plates clean for the trip back to our house and a bit of a debriefing. All he wants to know is if we’d enjoyed it.


Almost at the end, we made our way down the last dune down to the beach at Fish River Point Lighthouse. From there the beach takes you to the Fish River Diner, where Thea and Hendrik are ready to serve up a feast.

Shipwreck Trail Essentials You Need to Know

Hike cost: R1 000 per person from April 2018

Lift to the starting point and back to your car/accommodation-  R100 per person

Slackpacking option: The price depends on the petrol cost at the time of hiking, and the size of the group. But it's worth it... Charlie keeps your beer cold and your meat frozen and makes sure your food and gear reaches the hut before you do.


+27(0) 82 391 0647 +27(0) 46 675 1321 

Don't forget:

  • Slipslops or Crocs for the crossovers between the beach and the forest
  • A proper drybag for your camera and binoculars
  • (For winter) A warm jacket and at least a -5 °C sleeping bag
  • Shorts for canoeing and a change of clothes for the hike to Lily Pad and Stone Cottage
  • The fastest gas stove you can find for coffee and tea in the dunes

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