I eat the last of my egg sarmies – thank you Jacky – and head out into the magical pre-dawn world. Everything has that refreshed, almost reborn, aura. It is as if the world is saying “come, let’s start again, let’s give it another shot, we’ve got another chance”. And because I am also the world, I breathe in this spirit of hope and step out to embrace the new day.
Round a corner and I’m suddenly standing face-to-face with a beautiful bushbuck ewe. We’re both rather surprised and just stare at each other without moving. Delicate dabs of black and white shine out from her brown furry neck, and her well-rounded thighs and tummy bear testament to the good times the valley is enjoying. She takes exception to my fat-ist thoughts however, lifts her nose disdainfully and skittles off.
The flowing streams are a mixed blessing when you’re walking. On the one hand they gurgle delightfully in a hundred-and-one variations of tone and pitch, but they can also be really difficult to cross without taking your shoes off. To their credit, however, they often rest languidly under the trees and Monet’s beautiful reflective ponds at Giverny are recreated with an Eastern Cape touch.
The next farm-house is all closed up, but I meet Johan who lives humbly in the end of an outbuilding. His kitchen sink is attached to the wall outside his front door, and it seems as if his sitting area can’t fit inside either. He lives here on his own and there is obviously little need to shave or worry too much about one’s personal appearance. The cigarette seems to be a permanent extension of his hand, and it’s hard to tell where the smoke comes out of his head. It seems to whisp out of his nose and ears at the same time.
Johan tells me that there is no short-cut up the mountain to the Zuurberg Pass and I’ll have to walk all the way round on the road. That’s an 8km loop! I’m determined to find a way up, and just after the road goes under the power-lines I find what I’m looking for: an Eskom maintenance jeep-track sneaking off into the bush. I gleefully jump the officious gate and head upwards. After about 15 minutes I top out into an opening of lush green grass up to my thighs. Once again I bump into a bushbuck, this time a magnificent ram. Dark haired and dignified, he stands his ground for a moment and looks me in the eye. I silently apologise for offending his partner. He seems to accept it, and we part amicably.
Not long after this I lose the track and find myself hopelessly stuck in a thicket of thorns. It is at this exact, isolated moment of orienteering ineptitude that my mate Mike phones and asks, “Where are you?” “Stuck in a bloody tyholo” I grump at him. But it is good to chat to him. I marvel at the incongruence of being miles from anywhere, stuck in the bush all on my own, and yet at the same time having a pleasant chat to the outside world. I try to imagine Oates (from Scott’s South Pole team) beaming out to a world-wide TV audience, “I’m just going outside and may be some time”. It’s a strange world we live in.
An hour after leaving the valley road I am at the top of the ridge. No, I’m at the top of the world! I can see forever. To the east, I look back three days to the dimly outlined Highlands hills. To the west, I peep forward three days to the peaks of the Cockscomb mountains. Have I really walked that far? And turning around … Am I really still going to walk that far?! I am absolutely thrilled to have found a way up the mountain and I can see future pilgrims resting here joyfully as they take in the stupendous views.
It’s a short stroll along the ridge and then I’m on the Zuurberg Pass road to the Hotel. For the first time I take out my little iPod shuffle that my daughter Jayne so thoughtfully gave me a few years ago. I share much of Joseph Addison’s sentiments in his Song for Cecilia’s Day (1692) in which he writes “Music, the greatest good that mortals know, And all of heaven here below”. In ‘normal’ life, music has the capacity to transport me onto another plane, but when it combines with a lived oneness with nature (and a healthy dose of endorphins!), I move into a trance-like state of pure joy. I remember my first trail-run, called the Midnight Hell Run, which started in Die Hel in the Swartberg Mountains at 9pm (so that we could encounter the ghosts of Die Hel at midnight!). In the early hours of the morning, out of the valley and all on my own en route to the Ou Tolhuis, I put on my iPod. It was a full moon, the gigantic tumbled down boulders glowed like fluorescent ice-bergs in a surrounding sea of dimness, and every now again as I ran across a chalky strata of rock, the ground lit up around me as if I had suddenly stepped under a heavenly spotlight. And it was all set to beautiful music. And it wasn’t a movie, it was for real.
Appropriately for this journey, the first song that comes up is Leonard Cohen’s ‘If it be your will’. Based both musically and lyrically on a synagogue prayer recited on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, it is probably his most spiritual song. It took him a long time to write because the lyric and melody are so simple that he felt that if he made one false step the whole thing would collapse. He regards it as one of the best songs he has ever written, and as I walk along my hand-crafted road above the deep dark valleys, I savour anew the gift of the moment. And I thank him. And Him.
I arrive at the Zuurberg Mountain Inn just before noon, order a coke and decamp on their lovely stoep. Ah the pleasure of a real pack-off rest. A friendly olive-skinned man walks out and we start chatting. He waves the waitress aside and tells her to put the coke on his account. We chat more. His name is Neville and he is managing the whole resort. We move on to tea and scones. I meet his gentle wife Celeste and we talk more, about my pilgrimage, about their projects, about life. Why don’t I stay and have lunch with them? We share more, connect more. We talk of meaning in life, of purpose, of dreams, of calling. I’m inspired by their approach to life, their commitment to a higher cause, and their faith in its unfolding. We haven’t known each other for an hour, and yet there is a connection that goes beyond that. I deeply appreciate their openness to let me in, and their trust to reach out. We part as friends, vowing to stay in touch. I am lighter in spirit but heavier in debt as Neville has also arranged a carefully-wrapped and luxurious platter of cold meats, cheese, eggs etc for me to take with me. What kindness. I feel as if I am being treated as a real pilgrim of old, and am humbled.
Across the road I meet Danie and Annetjie who manage a Church accommodation camp of self-catering wooden cabins. They are very welcoming and the rates are reasonable. I am excited that this is a very real possibility as an overnight stop for the trail.
At the Zuurberg Addo Offices I introduce myself to the staff and we ncokola about the footpath down to the Narina bush-camp. They are happy that I have already discussed the matter with Megan Taplin at the Main Camp, and wish me well. Yes, I must take the left track at the first fork, and right at the next, just as I’ve checked out on my maps and Google Earth. But when I get to the first fork, the sign clearly says Narina Bush-Camp to the right and other trails to the left! Now what? I decide to go with the official signs and conjure up all sorts of reasons to doubt the rest.
It is a glorious walk. I come across a few herds of rooihartebees and am fascinated by them. They are clearly alarmed at my presence, but at first don’t seem to know quite what to do, milling around in confusion. This gives me a chance to look at them more closely and I marvel at their eccentricities. Their faces are somewhat elongated, the eyes are more like a goat’s than an antelope’s, the horns suddenly point backwards at the top, and the animals’ creator has used broad brush strokes of black and white with gay abandon on their reddish-brown bodies. Of course once I take my camera out they disappear with a flick of their tails.
The hills are dotted with cycads and the valleys fall away into dark blue-green depths of mystery. This mystery takes on ominous dimensions, however, when I realize that the track is heading more north than the south I had envisaged, and I eventually stop and take out my map. Yip, the topography confirms my fears. I’m on the wrong path. I should have turned left at that first fork, despite what the sign said. Why didn’t I take the trouble to consult the map then? Because I’m a big boy who can make his own navigational decisions and doesn’t need to check it out. Pathetic. Feeling somewhat let down by myself I turn around and head back to the fork. Once on the correct path I note all the topographical signs that confirm this as the correct one, and in my relief I ease up and forgive myself. It’s a lovely walk down into the thick indigenous bush of the valleys, ducking under branches and stepping over roots and rocks. This is the path that Narina caretaker Michael had described to me on an earlier visit, and sure enough it emerged from the forest at the exact spot he had shown me.
I have an overdeveloped capacity to imagine the good possibilities of life, and so in my mind I had pictured a hail-fellow-well-met group of people at Narina who tell me that there is a spare bed in one of the tents, and I must join them for the braai cos they’ve brought too much meat! I am a bit sobered to find the campsite deserted, but nevertheless spend a very pleasant half hour enjoying an orange and remembering the happy family birthdays we have celebrated here with both Jayne and Jonathan. I chat to them all and then move on as it is getting late and I don’t have any accommodation arranged for the night.
A couple of river crossings slow me down as I have to take off my shoes each time, and then dry my feet carefully before putting socks and shoes back on. I meet Michael at one of the crossings and we bulisa like old buddies. I thank him for telling me about the footpath to the Hotel and how much it has helped me. As I head down the hill past the remote police camp at Slagboom Dam, the light suddenly fades and the cold begins to set in. I catch a brief glorious view of the Cockscomb peak in the dusky distance and quickly take a photo before it disappears. At this moment Nicole Whyte from Kirkwood phones to ask how I am and where I am. Yes it is getting dark, but no I don’t yet know where I am spending the night. It is good chatting to her and their home waits like a welcoming haven for the next night. But first I need to sort out this night.
I walk up to the Slagboom farmhouse just as darkness sets in. Not a soul around. I shout but there is no response anywhere. Oh hell. I need to look around quickly for some shelter before it is totally dark. As I am scouting around I think I see a light in the house. I call out again. Another light comes on and the door opens. I quickly shout out who I am and that I am not a danger and … “kom binne” she interrupts me as if she needs no reassurances. And this unquestioning hospitality epitomizes the rest of my stay with this wonderfully warm, unpretentious, loving family. I have no problem with calling him Boetie as he is as brotherly as all the chaps I call bhuti back home. I struggle a bit with daughter Hes-Mari until I ask her to spell it for me. But I battle to call Elizabeth ‘Boy’ as she is apparently known by everyone, because she is beautifully feminine and motherly. And ‘Elizabeth’ suits her so nicely. We hold hands for grace before dinner, we share the family meal, and then we laugh together in the lounge as we watch Noot vir Noot. My clothes are washed and dried, and I sleep in a bed specially made up. I’m made to feel as if this is a home for me too. For the second time in the day, I am blessed beyond deserving, and I shed a tear in deep humility and appreciation.