In the early hours of the morning I am woken up by the rain pouring down on our tin roof, and overflowing out of the gutters. The weather forecast had predicted a 30% chance of rain, and only 1.78mm of it. "Go on," I say as I snuggle deeper into our goose-down winter duvet, "rain and get the 1.78mm done and out the way." I also console myself that if it is wet and freezing at the start, it can only get better from there. And so with the Pollyanna part of me firmly intact, I go back to sleep.
The alarm goes off and I spring out of bed. This is it! Tuesday 31 May 2011 - the first day of my walk. I ablute, put on my walking kit, HTH the pool, make some coffee and breakfast, and do the final pack up. Ania Barma (a student friend of my son Jonathan who has kindly agreed to look after the dogs and house) is up to see me off and takes a photo as I walk out my front gate. It is still dark and there is a bitterly cold wind blowing, but when I look up I see stars! The rain has gone. I get an even fresher stride to my walk as I head down the familiar road where we have lived for the past 25 years.
The pack feels good on my back and hips. It's a fairly recent acquisition, but has already become an old and trusted friend from recent walks on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain. And I'm carrying lighter than I can ever remember. Much of this is because Gwenda is not with me. We have a policy of 'equal effort' in these sort of circumstances and so I normally carry 'our' stuff and some of 'hers' as well, to balance our respective physical strengths. But I am also trying a minimalist approach myself this time. I carry only one change of underwear, socks, shorts and shirt. I also have a beanie and fleece top for the cold, a hat for the sun, a waterproof top for the rain, and thermal long johns and vest to sleep in. I have a warm inner for my sleeping bag as I don't know where I might be spending most nights, as well as a sleeping mat. Food-wise I have packed only a kilogram of muesli that I've pre-mixed with sugar and powdered milk and need only add water for a tasty healthy meal. I also have some energy bars and jelly-babies. I'm somewhat sobered, however, by the carrying price I'm paying for technology. I have a rather bulky Panasonic digital camera, which has an electronic charger, spare battery and spare memory cards. I also have a cell phone which has its own charger. Lastly I have a tiny iPod shuffle which I've grown to absolutely love on ultra trail-runs, but it too has its own charger which needs to be included. Finally there are the normal toiletries, first aid kit and maps.
I have asked my good trail-running mate Mike Loewe to walk the first hour with me. On our training runs we have shared our various dreams and schemes and he has been wonderfully enthusiastic and supportive of my pilgrimage project. He is exactly the kind of tonic and positive send-off that I think I'll need. When I asked him a week earlier if he'd be so kind as to be up before dawn on a freezing winter's morning to accompany me, the response was typical of the big man: "It'll be my honour". We had arranged that he'd be ready and waiting at his home when I walked past at 06h30, and at exactly the affixed hour I receive his sms, "At my post, pilgrim". I abandon the beautiful picture I am trying to take of the dawn light over the St Aidans College turrets, and hurry on to meet him.
Mike is also a free-lance journalist, and he has been itching for a while to help me publicise my project. I hadn't felt ready though and had been keeping him on hold, but now felt that I owed him something in return for his support and so had given him permission to write something on his blog-site 'Makana Moon' once I had gone.
It's good to stride out of town with Mike and a fellow journalist buddy of his, Dave McGregor. These early morning departures on trail-runs, hikes and ultra-marathons have a special character and flavour of their own, and I savour again that unique mixture of excitement, trepidation, expectation, camaraderie and adventure. It's cold, but nothing like the winter Rhodes Run in the southern Drakensberg mountains last year, where we began in what the starter described as "a balmy minus six degrees centigrade". We chat as we walk, a combination of journalistic interviews and shooting the breeze, and my personal paparazzi shoot me from every angle, trying desperately to get me, the countryside, the dawn and the disappearing town into each picture. Just before the Monastery, Mike hands me his cell phone and says "Radio Algoa" and in my surprise I bumble a few inane comments to a voice called Bennie whom I imagine to look like Frazier Crane.
And then I am on my own. Just me and the road, and the countryside all around me. The wind is now a head-on bitter gale, and I stride briskly into it to keep warm and probably to keep pace with my naïve enthusiasm. The old railway line is right next to the road and as I take a photo I can't help wondering at the juxtaposition of a train system that is dying and alien vegetation that is flourishing. Surely this should be the other way round? What will it take for our society and our leaders to see things like this, and to do something in a meaningful way? I worry about the short-term careerist visions of so many of our political leaders, and wonder how long it will take for such people to gain a belief and trust in long-term systemic and sustainable practices.
I pass the Brooks' Family farm and reflect on the parents' conviction and commitment to embark on a mixed-race relationship and marriage in the 70's and 80's. I am reminded that it wasn't just the Nats that kept apartheid alive and well; it was also 'ordinary' people like myself who made up the local community and looked askance. I am challenged by the quality of their love for each other in such a social and political environment, and chastened by my prejudices.
Mistywoods Farm on my left and I think of the Schafers and how much Marc loved living out in the country. He is a 'free-range' man who needs space in which to move and live, and I could breathe it in the air here. He and Jean had given me such a thoughtful gift when they came to wish me well last night: a lovely card explaining that the attached money was to be used to buy the biggest hamburger I could find when I reached Knysna! I warmed at the thought.
Just over the railway line crossing an Eco-Estate suddenly comes into view. It seems to consist of only one house so far, and I'm not sure if this doesn't belong to the owner. What is so 'eco' about this place? Is it just another useful tag for a developer whose real priority is something green which goes into his pocket? At the same time I resent the cynicism that I'm beginning to feel in myself towards so many ventures whose claimed objectives are so appropriate for the greater good. I don't like living in a community and society where as a starting point we distrust each other's motives.
Big vistas open up all around me - north to the Winterberg range rising out of a slight blue haze, and south to the green plains that make up Lower Albany to the sea. Some early blooming aloes splash their crimson flash into the bushy mix of wild olive, boerboon and keipersol, and a deep purple glows from the roadside brush. To walk is to slow down, and I am reminded that the crunch is not so much what the site offers as much as the sight we bring. I consciously try to be open and to notice.
A bakkie drives past and suddenly pulls up next to me. The chap winds down his window, puts out his hand, shakes my paw and says, "Hey I've just heard you talking on the radio. Hell that's lekker what you're doing. Give it horns, boet!" I couldn't ask for a greater vote of confidence from a local farmer - 'giving it horns' refers to the signal shown by an umpire to indicate a six, something highly revered in the district Pineapple Cricket League. I feel truly honoured as he hoots and speeds off.
The destitute Atherstone railway station has a Kolmanskop character about it. One can almost see the ghosts of people moving about their daily business as the train plies its trade between Grahamstown and Alicedale. The smart zinc waiting room is filled with people of all ages, and the proud 'station-master' struts along the platform, deftly dodging the bundles of hides, piles of wood, clutches of chickens and cans for the creamery. The noise of people and animals and steam train fill the air, and you can smell the coal, the sweat, the steel and the crap. I take a picture of the mirage and move on.
I think I've gone out too hard. In my eagerness to get going I've overdone it and I'm hurting quite badly in my left leg. It's concentrated in my shin muscles, where I've never hurt before, and has spread quickly to my ankle and foot. It's a sign to ease up and I stop for a break and a rub. The egg sandwiches I made at home are comforting as I huddle in the sun for warmth.
The open vistas disappear as I find myself hemmed in by huge game-fences on either side of the road. I can't help but wonder who has been fenced in, the animals or the people? It is quite claustrophobic and I heave a sigh of relief when after a while I emerge into more open countryside. I feel a renewed empathy for animals in zoos, especially those designed for the big open spaces. I also feel a repeated revulsion for the lifestyle of so many in this country, caged in or out by security gates, burglar bars, locked doors, booms, electric wires and passwords. I breathe in the fresh air and enjoy the space.
On the hillside above the railway line a beautiful stone wall appears, and runs on for at least a kilometre. Meticulously crafted without any cement, it is an historical piece of installation art despite its creators never intending it nor realizing it. Every stone has its own pattern of colours and texture, and yet each becomes an integral part of a larger whole when it takes its unique place in the mosaic construction. Unlike so many modern 'things' that become garbage once they lose their utilitarian value, the wall stands out proudly as if its true essence and purpose is only now being revealed. I catch myself saying "thank you, wall" and hope no-one is watching me.
St Cyprians Church nestles under huge Norfolk pines, close to the high stone bridge where the railway crosses over the road. Once housing the engineers who built the railway line in the mid-1800s, it now belongs to the small Anglican farming community in the area, and its graveyard bears testament to their ancestors of the past two hundred years. Like so many country churches, its survival is under threat as the congregation dwindles to a handful of hardy and nostalgic souls. Farming communities have changed dramatically over the past forty or so years. One farming family and staff living off one farm is now the exception. Most farmers have either bought up more farms to become more economically viable, or sold up. And many of the new landowners do not come and live on their farms, at least not permanently. They are businessmen or 'week-end' farmers who can afford the dream hobby of owning a farm without having to make a living out of it. A final nail in these churches' coffins is the amount of mobility enjoyed by those still on the land. No longer do they need the local community for their social lives. Driving 50km into town can be a daily occurrence rather than the special monthly expedition of years gone by. There are greener (and less demanding) pastures beyond the local country club or church.
As I sit in the quiet Church grounds enjoying another egg sandwich, I think what a lovely first overnight spot this would be for future pilgrims. Secluded in its own intimate little bushy valley, it offers the kind of peaceful ambience that is so appropriate for a pilgrimage, especially at the beginning when one is easing oneself into a more mindful way of being.
On my way up to Highlands Farm, I pass the plaque indicating the old 1820 Settler wagon trail that used to meander through here. Patrick Billson has kindly given me permission to follow this trail through his farm and one of his staff, Nikile, guides me to a place where it emerges from the marshes and heads over the hills. I am surprised at how moved I am by the experience of walking along the same trail followed by some of my ancestors when they arrived in this far-off land on their big adventure almost two centuries ago. What I find particularly meaningful is that it all probably looked very much like it does today, take away some fences and dams. As I trundle along the deeply rutted but grassed up trail, I imagine their thoughts and actions as they looked around at these rolling hills and valleys, and pondered their futures. Similarly, I wonder who watched them from afar, or led their ox-wagons, and what they made of these new inhabitants, and what they thought of their new future.
I finally crest a hill, climb over a game fence, and stroll down to the Wilmot's farm at Boekenhout. Rob is preparing to shear some sheep before the upcoming stock sale, but leaves off to make me some tea and settle me in. Thereafter follows one of the most glorious hot baths I've had in a long while. I am tired, sore and stiff, and starting to get cold, and that hot tub takes on heavenly proportions. That evening I enjoy a comforting evening of good food and company with Di and Rob, 'neighbour' on the farm Brynn, and American visitors Bill and Barbara Tedro. They're all very interested in and supportive of my walk and project, and it is a good way to end my first day out.