If someone were to ask us on day one if we were ready for a 520-kilometre hike, we would have convincingly lied: ‘Yes’. Honestly, we weren’t confident that we had what it took. We had certainly never hiked that far before, hung a bear bag or spent a month in a tent in a forest.
Thankfully, somewhere along the trail we grew in competence and confidence. Our growth happened gradually, too slow to pin-point an exact date or kilometre marker – it was something that we would only realise in retrospect.
Two sections. Three States.
We hiked two sections through 3 states (7 if you ask Americans, who love getting technical). The first two weeks took us from Springer Mountain, Georgia, the southern terminus of the Appalachian trail to the Nantahala Outdoor Centre in North Carolina. After which we spent another two weeks hiking through Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, to a small town called Harpers Ferry. We hiked a total of 520 kilometres over 30 days (a few rest days off-trail included). Each day we averaged 18 kilometres and gained and lost the height of Table Mountain in elevation.
Starting out green.
The Georgia section that leads through the Chattahoochee National Forest is often referred to as the ‘Green Tunnel’. The backlit forest canopy and thick underbrush was electric green, and so were we. We still had so much to learn.
This was the most remote section and we didn’t see many other hikers on the trail. The few we did run into left a big impression, especially their willingness to offer help and advice. Richie Skipper, who has hiked this section before, and his son Phillip started their hike on the same day as we did. Richie took pity on the two wide-eyed South Africans and showed us how to hang a bear bag, taught us a few nifty tricks about how to get water from poor water sources using leaves, and introduced us to our new best friend: Mountain House Meals. <3 calories! (You can order the local equivalent here. Goodbye two-minute noodles. You’re welcome.).
We also met an energetic full-time nurse, part-time tri-athlete from Iowa, named Julie, who thought that a good first hike would be to take on this section of the AT, solo. Julie was just as happy as we were to run into company. The five of us ended up hiking the first few days in one another’s company, happily getting used to the unfamiliar night sounds together.
Growing in confidence. Growing in Competence. Getting wet.
In North Carolina, with 126 kilometres under our belts, we started taking things in our stride. We estimated food quantities better at re-supplies, got faster at pitching camp, covered more distance each day and shed some weight by getting rid of unnecessary gear.
Cue Hurricane Joaquin. (Pronounced Wa-keen. Actually, we still have no idea how to pronounce it). We suddenly found ourselves on the receiving end of seven days of relentless rain. Some days it rained 82mm, twice the Johannesburg monthly average. We had to quickly add “keeping gear dry” and “pitching a tent in pouring rain” to our list of newly acquired skills.
The rain made the scarce views even more precious. When the clouds lifted they exposed sprawling green forests, broken up with pops of yellow and red. The first signs of Autumn.
Nine days into North Carolina, the flood warnings and the promise of dry clothes convinced us to cut our hike short by three days and drive 600 kilometres north to Waynesboro, Virginia.
Getting our feet under us
By contrast to North Carolina, Virginia is comparatively flat. Also, considerably drier. Aside from one rainy day, we had fourteen near-perfect hiking days.
Shenandoah National Park has abundant wildlife and a big Black Bear population. We ended up seeing 9 bears, a mix of adults and cubs. Some even left slobbery nose prints all over the metal bear box used to store our food – an unnerving sight to wake up to!
That said, we felt at ease in Shenandoah. We weren’t hampered by our own physical limitations anymore. Our only limitations were the amount of daylight hours and us getting transfixed by the scenery. To top this off, fall had arrived just before we did and was in full swing.
We ended our hike at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry. For through-hikers this would be the halfway point of the 3200 kilometre journey. As a little piece of poetic justice, the exact documentary that convinced us to go in the first place was being screened at the conservancy as we walked in.
Train for the second half by hiking the first
To us, this was a journey of slow but evident progress. Too slow to notice at the end of each day. It’s only when we looked back over a month that we noticed that the entire forest had changed around us from green to yellow, to a sponge painting of highlighter orange and fire engine red. It’s only when we hiked the previously-unattainable 30 kilometre days that we realised that we had gotten fitter. It’s only at the end that we remembered that we thought that we couldn’t do this.
You can see extra pictures and read the full hike write up for each section here:
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