Nestled between Oyster Bay, St. Francis Bay and Cape St. Francis, lies a valley of dunes that meets forests of coastal thicket and golden beaches that stretch as far as the eye can see. By foot, visitors can explore this area of the Eastern Cape on a one of a kind hiking route called the Chokka Trail.
The Chokka Trail is the brainchild of husband and wife duo Esti and Eric Stewart, both avid nature and sport enthusiasts. Eric got to know the broader St. Francis area through mountain biking between the neighbouring farms while Esti curated the 62 km hiking route accordingly.
The trail, that's won three consecutive Lilizela Rewards, is fully catered for and hikers can enjoy the luxury of slackpacking while simultaneously challenging themselves with walks of up to 18 km's a day. As of recently the trail is also open for backpacking for travellers who want to rough it out.
Meet Esti, Eric and the Chokka Trail team below and see some of the majesty that this route holds:
Finding your feet on the Chokka trail
Not many hiking routes in the world sport more than one landscape, but South African routes often boasts with a diverse array of natural settings. With a rugged coastline, sand dunes, a tidal river, lush fynbos and wetlands , the Chokka trail is no exception.
Here's what hikers can expect from four days on this route:
Day one - 18 km (or less)
The first day's hike is an out-and-back route that'll take hikers from their accommodation at the Oyster Kaya to Thys Bay and back.
A highlight on day one's route are the ancient fish traps which were built over two thousand years ago by the KhoiSan. These are visible during low tide from the winding road that hikers follow all along the coast. The combination of fynbos and
Day two - 16 km
The second day's route leads hikers from Oyster Bay to a valley of dunes called the Oyster Bay Dune Bypass System. This endless body of sand, more commonly known as the Sand River, literally transports hikers to another world where they can lose themselves for kilometres at end while tackling the peaks and troughs of the dunes.
On either sides of the Sand River, a blanket of coastal thicket hugs the dune valley giving the route a few nice spots for shaded breaks. Either or both Frikkie and Esti accompany hikers on day two to make sure they find their way out of the dune valley to their second night's accommodation at Dune Ridge Country House.
Day three - 15 km
In contrast to the previous day's barren dunes, the third day’s hiking starts with a tunnel trail through a lush indigenous coastal forest. Henry Maarman, a guide at Dune Ridge Country House, took us through the forest to showcase the vast array of plant species from old man’s beard to mushrooms that flourishes in the forest. The route takes hikers along the coast, to Seal Point Lighthouse and finally to the Cape St Francis Resort, their final accommodation.
Take a walk with Henry through the indigenous coastal forest below.
Day four - 13 km
On the final day of the Chokka Trail, hikers make their way from Cape St. Francis to St. Francis Bay where highlights include Shark Point, Port St. Francis (the working harbour for the chokka fleet), an actual chokka tasting and a farewell lunch.
To finally wrap up the Chokka trail, hikers are taken on a well-deserved sunset cruise on the St. Francis canals. After four days on your feet, the cruise is a great way to sit back, relax and reflect before heading back to the hustles of life.
Let’s talk about Chokka
For many people the word “chokka” resonates with bait for fishing. But in St. Francis it’s a famous asset: calamari.
Esti tells us that the Chokka industry is truly at the heart of St. Francis Bay and a pivotal part of the town’s economy. Naming the hiking route accordingly was therefore a no-brainer for Esti and Eric.
On the fourth and final day of the Chokka trail, hikers enjoy a calamari tasting at local restaurant Chokka Block which overlooks the harbour and, if you’re lucky, a sea of docked chokka trawlers. Clive Canter, owner of Chokka Block, takes visitors through the calamari tasting himself. With his 28 years of experience in the seafood industry, he manages to delve into the deeper details of the South African calamari industry while simultaneously keeping you gripped with a fresh ink-fish at hand.
Clive gives visitors a chokka cleaning demo where he starts with the whole ink-fish and then slowly takes it apart bit for bit. A fascinating part of the ink-fish that's a crowd favorite is the spine which almost resembles fairy wings, as Clive calls them. This feather-like cartridge was even used as a pen by sailors back in the day alongside the ink found in the fish. Today, the ink is famously used for risotto dishes and more recently, breads and pastas, as Clive explains in his demo.
Clive, who’s originally from Mauritius but grew up in Durban, explains that South Africans often think that because we’re surrounded by ocean all the seafood we eat comes from South Africa, but that’s not the case. “Most of the calamari we eat is actually from South America while our own calamari is blast-frozen at sea and shipped off to Europe and other countries,” he says.
But once you’ve tasted SA's local calamari you’ll never want to turn back. The intricate difference in taste is the foundation on which Clive’s calamari tasting is built and visitors get a first-hand chance to experience both local and imported rings and compare the two for themselves.
The distinction in taste and colour between local calamari and imported calamari lies in the membrane that surrounds the squid. Imported calamari is treated with chemicals to preserve them for exports. These chemicals eat away at the natural skin membrane that surrounds calamari and gives it a slightly yellowish colour. This membrane is in fact packed with a burst of sea-salt flavour that makes local calamari so irresistible, according to Clive.
Although it's a highlight on the Chokka Trail, the calamari tasting isn't only limited to hikers and any visitor to St. Frances Bay can immerse themselves in this truly authentic experience through reservation at Chokka Block.
Hikers can embark on this route anytime of the year, weather permitting, and simply need to request and check the availability of dates. Find more information on the rates and dates of the Chokka Trail here.
If you plan on tackling the Chokka Trail, keep in mind that it's less than 90 km away from the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area, Gamtoos Valley, the Tsitsikamma, as well as Addo Elephant National park and the Sunshine Coast.
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