Take a Hike: Vernon Crookes
If you’re looking to get into hiking around this beautiful province of ours, Vernon Crookes is a good place to start. DJ Fuego Heat gives a break down on this easy day hike.
Day hikes are rad. They’re easy to organise, you generally don’t need to make too much of a mission to get there and they’re a lot more accessible to people just starting to hike, or looking to get into it: the perfect Sunday activity. Within an hour from Durban there are a number of reserves that offer day hikes and 80kms south of the 031 is one of my favourite. Vernon Crookes is an Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Reserve near Umzinto. It was named after sugar industry mogul, Vernon Crookes, in the late 60’s on land owned by Reynolds Brothers (Illovo). Crookes had served as a managing director for the company. The Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve was declared in 1973. I like Vernon Crookes for a couple of reasons:
1. It’s close. I love the Drakensburg but travelling 3 hours there and back for a day hike is an undertaking.
2. Being a coastal reserve, there isn’t too much of a change in altitude throughout the hike, i.e. it’s pretty easy so you can bring your homies that aren’t too outdoor orientated.
3. The reserve is home to, amongst other things, blue wildebeest, blesbok, zebra and loads of birds. In terms of reserves that allow for unguided walks, Vernon Crookes has one of the best selection of game.
A good plan is to buy your snacks the day before so you can get an early start. We plan to do this for every day hike, although we’ve only successfully managed to implement this plan once. This meant we were at the shops at about 8:00 when the messages started coming through. The noncommittal nature of the day hike means you’re definitely going to lose a few members before you even get on your way. Hangovers and cloudy skies are the main perpetrators with the occasional “Sorry, I forgot that I had this thing”. Today was no exception, with the cloudy skies, pounding heads and fading memories claiming their victims. Don’t take it personally.
At about 09:30 our diminished crew of 4 arrived. The route is pretty well marked, taking the Park Rynie off ramp from the N2, turning right, travelling just over 12km, turning right again and travelling a further 6km. The last few kilometres are on dirt road which isn’t too bad unless you’re in a low clearance car, which we were. This meant slow going but it’ll be super chilled in any regular cab. There is a R30 entrance at the gate so bring cash. We usually park at the picnic site and begin from there. Take the first left after the second dam. The first dam is more of an oversized puddle which also has a left immediately after it that leads to a 4×4 path – ignore that unless you’re in a 4×4 and amped for some off-road jols. After the second dam, the picnic site is the cluster of trees about 700m on the right.
Vernon Crookes has two different paths that can be done: an inner loop and an outer loop. The outer loop is about 6km and the inner about 2km. Both are well marked. The picnic site used to have a framed map of the area and paths but this has since been removed. Luckily your entrance includes a brochure with a map. We decided to start with the outer loop. This path starts on the main road, just after the dam. It loops around the dam before crossing the main road. The trail then leads you through the middle of a grassy flat before opening out onto a large rocky flat. This spot is perfect for a breather.
To find the path again, head to the lower left-hand corner of the rock flat where the path turns towards a wooded gully. There is a fork just after you leave the flat. Take the right as the left leads to overnight accommodation. Any form of stick would be beneficial (but by no means vital) for this part of the hike as the path is exposed and at an elevated angle. This means wet, wet= slippery. On several occasions, muddy bums were narrowly avoided by last minute clutches at branches, vines and any other objects within arm’s length that offered some form of stability. Once in the gully, the trees made a nice reprieve from the wind.
You then rise out of the wooded area over a grassy ridge and down into a similar gully. Rising up from this you round a long grassy ridge. At the end of this ridge is a perfect spot to picnic and take in the view. Unfortunately, the wind and occasional precipitation threatened so we decided to wait until the end of the trail. The path then joins the inner loop where turning left will join up with the beginning of the outer loop near the dam and turning right will take you back to the picnic area. We took the right path, through another shaded gully and headed back to the picnic spot.
The picnic spot has ablutions with running toilets, tables, and chairs and there are also braai areas so it’s a pretty dope spot to chill if you want to make an afternoon of it. Our main objective was to find some reprieve from the wind so we headed inside the wooded area. Here we found our sanctuary to feast. Food is probably my favourite part of day hikes. I hate the term “bring and share” as it always invokes flashbacks to Sundays spent at church functions but it is what it is and it works best – everyone throws their food into a pile and then pigs out. Younger me would have gone with an orange and a pack of tomato chips. Nowadays, my personal favourite is salty cracks with cottage cheese, biltong, and gherkins. Fancy schmancy I know, but, despite my physical appearance degenerating with time, the taste buds that survived the years of nicotine abuse know what’s up so deal. If you do decide to use the picnic spot as your lunch spot then the bonus is that you don’t have to carry anything with you. The downside is total lack of rad views. We carried everything with us and then looped back to the picnic spot anyway. This is what is commonly referred to as a waste of time and energy.
Following lunch and some chill, we decided to hit the small loop. Not much to say about this. It’s a small loop. It’s kind of like the bigger loop but just, well, smaller. If you’re reeeeeeaaaaally unfit then you should probably start off with this one. It is super chilled and even has a halfway spot next to a stream that’s pretty rad for some snacks. This path goes through the low-lying land just below the picnic spot. Some of this trail would have already been done with the outer loop (if you started with that path) so you shouldn’t have any trouble starting off again.
My previous trip to Vernon Crookes was still fresh in my mind: walking past 30 or so blesbok only to round a corner to find a herd of wildebeest. This outing had been totally different and, on returning to the picnic site for the second time, we had still seen nothing more than some distant birds and a handful of skinks (some lizards. Google it). We wanted big game so we decided to follow the dirt road that looped around the dam from the picnic site.
Just before we reached the dam we spotted some wildebeest in the distance, obscured by thicket. This was a morsel, a taste, barely enough to whet our wildlife palates and get the game juices flowing. I needed more than that to be satiated. We rounded the dam and boom! Finally! A few meters off the road was a herd of zebra that included a number of foals, and a rogue wildebeest. We spent about 10-15 mins watching them feed before they made their way into deeper thicket.
The weather had been undecided the whole day but now seemed to have made up its mind and it wasn’t going to be pretty. We bundled into the car and hurtled back to the 031 as the sky darkened. By 14:30 we were home, a cup of tea in hand and a morning well spent, despite the variable weather.
I highly recommend Vernon Crookes for anyone wanting to make their first venture into hiking. Using a combination of dirt roads and paths, up to 16km can be done in a day. The routes are made up of a number of smaller loops which means that if you’re pap after 2 hours, you can tap out. You also don’t need any technical equipment, just some takkies and a cap. It’s pretty, it’s close and has maximum animal reward. Do it. Just make sure you check for ticks when you get home.
If you’re looking for something more strenuous, check out Fuego’s write-up on the Marble Baths.