Report courtesy of Hettie Randall. Photos contributed by Hettie Randall, Este Shearar, Libby Deyzel, Margret Kirsten, Penny Purchase and Sylvia Varty

[CLICK ON PHOTOS TO VIEW FULLSIZE - or view pics in accompanying SIMPLEVIEWER Presentation]

Coming out of Covid lockdown and the associated limitations and restraints on exercising and socializing, being on a trail with like minded ladies in the beautiful countryside of the Eastern Free State, was euphoric.

The Sungazer Pilgrimage offers various routes, from 11 days to just 2. Carolee, our subsequent leader, read an article in the Go Magazine on the Vinnige Willemien route over 87kms and 4 nights and in June the word went out - it was a fixture to MHC members. 10 of us took up the challenge and started training. Approximately 22kms a day on hard roads and in intense heat, no one could have imagined just how demanding this challenge was to turn out. Having said that though, our eldest hiker was 78 (Margret Kirsten) and the youngest was 61 (Ali Engelbrecht), we had an average age for the group at 67!! some far fitter than others!! but we were a team, up at 5am to leave by 6 we walked together, worked at it together, laughed together and have all come home much richer for forged friendships and engraved memories.

Ali had made kindness rocks which we left at each overnight stop. Hopefully kindness will be kindled in whoever finds them.

We spent our first night at Dunlin B&B in Paul Roux, a quirky museum of collectibles, too awesome to describe. The couple who own Dunlin have been collecting antiques for 50 years! Quite incredible. We had supper in a converted shed now serving delectables in the name of the Pink Tricycle. Just delightful.

Day One had us taken to the start by taxi to the Slabberts Farmers Association Hall. Surrounded by the beautifully carved sandstone of the Malutis which was to follow us for the entire trip. With the unfamiliar weight of our water supplies and already high temperature, it wasn't long before we stopped for a breakfast break. We had chosen to do slackpacking, so our main bags were transported to our next overnight. On the way back, the driver checked our water supplies and then waved us off, we were on our own from here! The first day is always the worst as they say!! We made use of every tree along the way, shade and a brief sit down was so welcome.

4kms from our destination, we came across a dam with lovely trees and a carpet of clover, it looked and felt like an oasis after a long, dry and dusty road. We stayed awhile, relaxing and cooling off, watching a nest of Coots, as parents changed shifts.

Reluctantly we loaded our packs and set off on the final stretch to our next overnight stop.
Willowdene Guest Farm was ready for us, old sandstone block farmhouse with huge rooms and the ever present wrap around veranda, just gorgeous. Our meal already prepared, with breakfast and lunch in the wings all waiting for us to help ourselves, what a feast!

Day 2: The new day brought celebrations as both Carolee and Este shared their birthday on the 26th, having been born a few hours apart!! We set out early, hoping to avoid the midday heat, already fancying the celebratory champagne that would be waiting with the evening meal. Our walk that day was to be the longest at 24.6kms. We pushed through the first 10 and came upon a small grove of trees, which was quickly put to use without argument as food packets were unpacked and breakfast was had, despite the fact that the shade was being shared on the other side of the fence by a piggery, complete with mother and babies as well as grumpy dad and his harem of young ladies. All in a day's hike!!

Uitzicht Game Farm was well worth the distance, after finally climbing up the 3.5km driveway, we reached our accommodation under the steady eaves of a rock infested kopje looking out over the valley below. The young and not so young, hot and exhausted, jumped into the swimming pool fully clothed to much raucous laughter. This was to set the stage to what was going to develop into a very festive evening. Our hosts had baked a triple layer chocolate cake and arranged our huge table with fine dinnerware including a large vase of beautiful orange roses from the garden. We sang the happy, happy song as is appropriate, in competition with a magnificent electric storm that rocked the hills and valley below us. A storm so welcome as the farmers were desperately waiting to plant in fields freshly ploughed or recently seeded. It seemed the perfect occasion to be rejoicing.

After devouring a banquet with fizz a-plenty and with bellies aching from laughter, our numbers slowly peeled away until the lodge was left quiet with only the odd grunt of contentment.

Day 3 dawned fresh, with the smell of the rain still poignant. It was thankfully slightly cooler. Today stands out for all of us as today 3 of our group found a little African Stonechat, soaked in a huge road puddle and clearly waterlogged, unable to fly. Sylvia carefully lifted him out and after a while as he recuperated he flew onto Este's shoulder and then onto the top of Ali's Sungazer flag, where he tightly hung on as the wind whipped the flag around him as Ali retraced her steps to a Willow tree, where he was lifted into the branches by Este. He twittered off up into the branches higher up, apparently well recovered from his 'taxi' ride on the flag. He has become our mascot.

The road was interesting as we had reached the fertile valley floor with fruit farms along the route, cherry trees heavily laden, sheep flocks with little ones running frantically bleating next to their mothers, handsome horses with remarkable markings and today I saw the biggest Brahman bull ever!! Farming here looked prosperous...

As we approached Emden Guest Farm, we heard what sounded like gunshots echoing off the Krantz around us. It sounded like target practice and we all had our versions of why this would be necessary... but we found out later, that this was deliberately done to scare the birds off the fruit harvest! It was not in readiness for battle after all... In fact, the next morning after leaving the farm, we saw one of the beaters responsible for these loud bangs. It was manmade!! Literally he was slapping what looked like a flattened hose onto the ground between the trees, it resulted in an incredibly loud bang.

At Emden Guest Farm, we were greeted to the milk shed that was to be our accommodation, through a dining room that looked as if it had materialized from the pages of a wedding magazine, complete with a chandelier and white roses in big vases!! The 'barn' had 14 beds on pallets, each with a pedestal again adorned with vases of roses, everything in white, from the roof there hung different sized white Chinese lanterns and outside on the soft generous lawns a blanket with big cushions and garden chairs laid out to receive our weary bodies. Such hospitality was at times quite overwhelming.

We all changed into costumes for the pool dip today as the family were home and children on holiday!! followed by a yoga stretch and relax workout from Carolee. Supper was sumptuous!! Then came the morning

Day 4: Our last day was memorable in its own way with the road taking us through working farms, over stiles across railway lines and through the forest to finally reach Malutizicht Guest Farm just as a storm was about to break. Another long but rewarding day. Our hostess was a lady named Evelyn, who had worked on the farm since a young girl. She had seen ownership change faces several times and was now in charge of the Lodge as the current owner was not resident. A beautiful old building, again with a magnificent veranda and boasting an indoor pool and resident peacock. There was a second house with several rooms and lounges where the other half of our group took up the bedrooms. The two houses were connected by a tunnel!! How clever! We were entertained for a short while by Andre, our farmer/neighbour/luggage transfer man, who told us interesting and amusing stories about the area.

We were left with tons of food, everything laid on for us to braai which Carolee very capably stepped up to do. Dinner that night was again a feast, with lots of laughter but with a tinge of regret that we were going back to reality in the morning, our magic bubble was about to be popped!

Nothing on this trail warrants anything but high praise for organization and hospitality second to none. I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone. It is absolutely worthwhile.

Hettie Randall

From the team:

Carolee Joy Thompson: (aka our Leader)

I have travelled quite a bit, done many hiking trails, but don't think I have EVER laughed so much and enjoyed so much in one short week!! We certainly were a bunch of crazy characters, but that was the fun of it. So hard to pick a highlight.......loved the video of Ali's puddle challenge. Loved the Free State scenery and have restored faith in our beautiful, if ailing, country. The Sungazer Camino organizing was superb, from the transport, accommodation, food and attention to detail. Can't fault a thing!

Ali Engelbrecht (aka Pink Panther)

A pilgrimage is a journey, often into an unknown or foreign place, where a person goes in search of new or expanded meaning about their self, others, nature, or a higher good, through the experience. It can lead to a personal transformation, after which the pilgrim returns to their daily life. Wikipedia My questions about my inner self, at the start of the pilgrimage did not necessarily get answered. However the answers to questions I had not asked became clear. No matter how fit or strong your body is, your mind and emotions have to be stronger. A journey of self-discovery and realisation of my 'can do' personality. The sun (hot as hell), the mountains (splendiferous), the scenery (stunning) and the company (fantabulous). The fun, laughter at one another and at ourselves, the encouragement and the tribe spirit made the pilgrimage a memorable one.

Astrid Fraser

I had Sungazer on my vision board since June when still recovering from my dislocated / frozen shoulder. My wish came true when 2 weeks before the trip there was a cancellation and I filled the space . I trained for 10 days walking the promenade as I was concerned that I was not fit enough. It was everything I had imagined it to be. The organisation and co-ordination by Renee, the wonderful meals and accommodation. The hospitality received from the Free State farmers was amazing. A highlight being the scenery, wide open roads with very little traffic. The farms we passed were all neat and no junk around. Lastly and most importantly the group gelled from the first night and such laughter and frivolity was shared and had by all. Happy memories will remain with me forever!!

Christine Harris

Thanks so much for getting me involved in the "Sungazer" and the amazing women I had the privilege of sharing such a special time with. It was awful coming back to work so soon, back with a bump. I have not laughed as much as I did last week for many a year.

Este Shearar

For me the Sungazer was about two things: the camaraderie in our group, and the scenery. What fun the 10 of us had together. Not a single demure person in the group, ha ha, each of us with her own distinct and strong personality. So many laughs, fun chats, sunshine and warmth together. There was a genuine feeling of sadness for all of us when this walking trip came to an end. Besides the walks there were the four quite divergent guesthouses for our night stays, where we enjoyed spectacular views, and spectacular hospitality. What a treat! The scenery.... hours of finding yet another new vista over the next hill (they were easy hills! ), those amazing sandstone mountains and cliffs, yet another farm gate with beautiful sandstone pillars, verdant grass after recent burning of the veld, and those luscious willow trees everywhere. Sheep, cherry trees, cows, a beautiful duiker and a resident peacock at our last guesthouse. And then there was the special way in which Carolee and I enjoyed our shared 63rd birthday on 26 October. A chocolate cake that looked like it was gonna swallow all ten of us, beautiful roses, "happy birthday" song by our mates and raising our glasses together, definitely a birthday to remember! Last but not least - get to Emden after a 21 km walk, splash around in the pool a bit, and then do yoga! Way to go!!

Libby Deyzel

For me this whole trail was the most amazing adventure with the greatest bunch of ladies - full of energy, fun and laughter. The fact that we were in the most magic places with beautiful scenery, far from the madding crowd in our own little bubble, made it so special. We could have been on a different planet - perfect peace and tranquility. We managed to find great spots for our breakfast and lunch stops. One lunch break by a little dam where we were able to lie in the clover whilst watching Mr. and Mrs. Coot taking it in turns to sit on the nest. Another lunch break by a pigsty. The last day we were fortunate to find another dam for our lunch break. We were kept hydrated along the way by Mauritz and Andre bringing us cold water.

It was great that we were able to complete the hikes each day with time to relax at our destinations. The banter, laughter and camaraderie of the group, the concern for the blistered feet, aching muscles and heat rashes - everyone had a remedy to help, for our wonderful hosts and hostesses. We swam in our hiking clothes, did a fantastic display of Jerusalema for our birthday girls - Carolee and Este - and laughed till we dropped.

Thanks to all the ladies for making the trail so memorable and special. Most important - we had fun!!!

Margret Kirsten

The magnificent scenery and the excellent weather, although hot, was an absolute plus and to me a real highlight,
The struggle to get over the 'finishing line' at the end of the FIRST day at Willowdene Guest Farm, I imagined, was like finishing comrades marathon, just in time. A miracle!
The accommodations and the food were a wonderful treat after each day. The owners so welcoming to us. Hospitality at its best.
The camaraderie could not have been better with all the chatting and laughter. In all, a fantastic trail which would have been so very different in rainy weather. We have been so lucky. It certainly made happy memories for me.

Penny Purchase

My highlights of the hike -
golden sandstone buttresses,
green weeping willows,
fields of green wheat,
well maintained farms and first class guest houses.
The people - the warmth and generosity of the Free State farmers and folk,
- the band of strong women hiking together,
- the jokes and laughter, especially at dinner,
- tired legs attempting the Jerusalema.
Some handicaps: October was an exceedingly hot month to hike such long distances each day. We had to hunt for shady spots to rest and re-fuel. The gravel roads became a bit tiresome, but when we found grassy verges, they were welcome. The last day's hike through farmland was very pleasant.

The hike experience brought home to me the beauty of our country and its diverse people, whether hikers, farmers, guesthouse hosts, Afrikaners, English, Coloured or Sotho. An awesome experience.

Sylvia Varty

An amazing walk, beautiful scenery, providing a great sense of freedom and space for reflection. It was such a relaxing time of fun, laughter, great camaraderie and new friends. Outstanding hospitality.
The Sungazer Camino is a must!!