While tucking into a scrumptious bacon and eggs from Nicole, I share my thoughts with Nicky. He agrees with my reasoning and kindly offers to lift me as far as the Cockscomb range. This will allow me to skip today’s planned section and spend the day walking Monday’s trail. In so doing I should be ready to cross the mountains tomorrow, a day earlier than originally envisaged. I’m sorry to be missing out on the proposed route through the Tibsraeneys’ orchards, across Johannes de Xs veld, and through Sydney Daniell’s cheetah breeding farm. They had all generously helped me work out a route from Kirkwood to Steenbokvlakte and I was looking forward to trying it out. I would also not be ambling along the lonely vlaktes of Arthur Rudman’s Blaaukrantz domain nor meeting Charlie Boston at Mannetjies, but I am at peace that I am doing the sensible thing for now.
Caring maternal women are a joy in a man’s life, and Nicole puts together a wonderful parcel of left-over braai, bread, salad, droewors, biltong and fruit for me. No sign of Mike or Jock, so it doesn’t look as if they’ll be joining me today. Nicky and I cross the R75 that connects Uitenhage and Graaff-Reinet, float over the vlaktes, join the Uitenhage-Steytlerville dirt road for a bit, then head into the hills. Nick is a keen mountain-biker and despite having lived near here all his life, he does not really know these back-roads and is excited by the possibility of exploring them on his bike. I am relieved that this trip is also of some value to him as he is doing me a big favour and missing out on precious Sunday morning family time with Nicole and daughter Jenna who is home for the week-end. Eventually a locked gate blocks us and we say our goodbyes.
The bush is like a garden, a lush indigenous garden. Time after time I look left or right and think, wow that’s beautifully landscaped, everything being perfectly placed to form a rich tapestry of colours, shapes, and textures. The collection of greeny-red aloes on the ground have soft bluey-green succulents in front, bright greeny-yellow bushes along the sides, white stones and brown mottled ground in the middle, and a mixture of green and brown shrubs and trees behind. I think of Gwenda and Jayne at the Chelsea flower show in London, and here I am being treated to something at least as beautiful, and it’s all happened of its own accord. I keep stopping to look, to marvel, and to take photos. Being totally on my own in this desolate place also offers an added dimension to the experience. It seems to allow nature to be, to realize its own identity, unmanipulated or imposed upon by human presence. I try to let this soak itself into me, to open myself to be impacted upon by it, rather than the normal other way round. I cannot help but feel that we’re all – aloes, sneezewood, birds, soil, me – somehow an integral part of something bigger, and that we’re all important in this oneness. It’s one thing to think this in a philosophical sense; it’s a humbling blessing to actually experience it.
I’ve also fallen in love with trees all over again. It is, however, part of a long-standing on-off relationship of infatuation that unfortunately lacks depth and consistency. Just as Marius confesses to Cosette in Les Miserables, “Oh God for shame, I do not even know your name”, so must I embarrassingly admit in the presence of these trees that I do not even know their names. How seriously do I really ‘love’ them when I haven’t even taken the trouble to recognize them and greet them individually? As I hum those beautiful musical lines, and thrill yet again at the exhilarating modulation as the chord sequence goes from Bm to Bb, I challenge myself to come down to earth and learn more about these remarkable citadels of nature.
I’m later heartened to hear that the sneezewoods are making a comeback after centuries of exploitation. Yes I do love the sight of an old fence held up by a long line of crooked sneezewood poles –and certainly in contrast to the later clinical metal rods - but it’s good to know that the trees are regaining their rightful place in this environment. Like a dog, nature is usually amazingly forgiving and starts giving again as soon as we stop preventing it doing so.
Strange looking contraptions start appearing in the veld. A pole, about four metres in height and studded with metal rungs, is topped by a platformed metal box just big enough to hold a person, and all is held in place by wire guys radiating down. On closer inspection I see little holes in the box sides, and with a sudden shudder of revulsion I realize what these things are. But don’t get too indignantly self-righteous, bhuti. You love biltong, especially kudu biltong, and until you either stop eating it or go and kill your own buck, hold back on judging anyone else. At the same time that horrifying picture of the 1980 security forces’ Trojan Horse flashes before my eyes.
I shake my head and focus on the magnificent gorges to my left that lead into the mountains, and think of my mate Keith James and others who regularly climb here. I recall coming here to Tygerhoek myself as a student and doing some memorable pitches. In particular I still have a clear image of finishing a climb late one afternoon in the narrow gorge, and then abseiling down through the darkness almost into the campsite fire itself directly below. These are intimate playgrounds where you can lie in your sleeping bag and watch your buddies climbing the walls all around you and above you.
There has been a lot of rain in these areas lately and muddy footprints and spoors abound. Once again I am appallingly ignorant and illiterate, and cannot read the daily news written at my feet and presented around me. It’s all very well being open to the world, but I am simply uneducated in this situation. So yes I can oo and ah at what I see and what I hear, but I cannot appreciate it on a more informed level. One of the gifts of education for me is to be able to rise above a situation and see a bigger picture of relationships, processes and meanings that connect the various constituents and environment and allow greater understanding and insight. A more informed person would recognize the animals from the spoors, relate these to the ecology of the environment, interpret it all in the context of local agricultural practice and impact, and in general read an encyclopedia of information all around them. In a very real sense, I am walking through here half blind, seeing a small fraction of what is really out there. A botanist would see so much more. But then so would a geologist. And a zoologist, and an entomologist. And a philosopher, and a gqirha. What does it take to really see in life, and how much can I prepare myself with my limited energy, time and interest?
Back to the mud. There are a few huge paw prints around a dried puddle, and the romantic part of me thinks leopard while the cynical part goes for boerbul. I don’t see any obvious claws and I really like the idea of there being free-roaming leopards in these mountains, so I choose that option. It gives an added dimension of excitement to the walk and I play through a few different scenarios should I actually come across one of the beautiful beasts. They all end up heroically with camera footage to prove it. Ah, the refuge of dreams!
I recognize the jeep-track that I had initially planned to take over the mountains to get me into the Gamtoos Valley and the Baviaanskloof. I’m pleased to see that it doesn’t look that enthralling and I look forward to seeing the more rugged route that runs right next to the Cockscomb Peak, the highest point of the Grootwinterhoek range. The contours on my map are tightly packed here and suggest a far more interesting clamber. A few more kilometres up the road and an inviting rough track leads off beyond a locked gate. Ah, this must be it! Can’t wait to get climbing, but that is tomorrow. For now I must walk a bit further to Willow River and meet Hannes Rudman and his family. We have chatted on the phone and Hannes says he knows the path well that I want to take.
As I approach the Willow River group of farmhouses, I pass a small cemetery on my right. Like the family photographs at Springvale, here lies the farming history of this place. It is like an open-air pop-up walk-through family-tree, and under each branch lie the actual remains of each member. I wonder what it must be like to be farming here today, living and working in the footsteps of your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents …nurturing the fields they tilled from the rocky veld, resting under the very trees that shaded them as they surveyed the land they were developing for their children, and their children … you. Is it a wonderful sense of belongingness and rightness, and/or is it sometimes mixed with feelings of entrapping destiny? But hey, aren’t we all children of our past, and parents of our future? The challenge is to make the transition.
Hannes and his family welcome me in. Would I like a cold coke? I pinch myself to see if I have died and gone to heaven. Seldom has the sparkling black stuff tasted so good. Charmaine is in the kitchen preparing the Sunday roast as I explain to them what I am doing. Like so many others who live in the countryside, these people are the salt of the earth and the next moment I am taken to my wooden cabin and I must please come back later for the Sunday dinner.
The cabin is magnificent, right at the entrance to Pinnacle Gorge. I sit on the verandah eating my delicious left-over braai – thanks Nicole – and gaze up the bushy valley, past the silver windmills, to the rock faces of brown and white, spattered here and there with yellow and green algae. The sun comes out in brief moments, in spots, and highlights a part of the scene, producing a flash of colour as it hits the yellow rocks. What a glorious overnight camp this would be for pilgrims! It could also offer a wonderfully peaceful rest day before crossing the mountains. I clamber up the gorge, between nature’s cathedral spires, until I find the one after which this chasm is named. It is an amazing column of rock reaching up from the floor of the narrow gorge, somehow having survived millions of years of erosion all around it. I can see why this is a kind-of -sacred place for rock-climbers.
It has been overcast all day, and now a few drops of rain come pattering down. I think the weather will be all right tomorrow, but I can feel something brewing and I’m keen to get over these mountains as soon as possible.
The Sunday dinner is all such an affair can be on a rural farm – roast mutton and chicken, potatoes, veggies, etc. I’m not holding back but am disappointed that I can manage only a small second helping. Such a spread deserves greater gluttony. The sons Maurice and Armand do their best to honour their mother’s efforts. The family apologises that they are coke-aholics and offer me some more of the ice-cold beverage. I assure them that at this moment in my world their vice is a virtue. I also praise Hannes and his boys for having built such a great wooden cabin, and they in turn are keen for us to find a way to establish an overnight stop here for the pilgrimage. As much as I savour the food, so do I warm to the family affection which I feel here. Eastern Cape farmers are traditionally big-hearted but powerfully chauvinistic, and I am particularly inspired by the loving and respectful way in which Hannes treats Charmaine. What a fine example to his sons and to people like me.
I walk slowly through the dark up to my cabin. I have been walking for six days now, and am still not doing it effortlessly. After a period of hard walking I start hurting. I am reminded that the daily distances of the pilgrimage must be very do-able and comfortable for most people, otherwise physical survival becomes one’s main priority, and this is hardly what a pilgrimage is all about. I’m wanting this pilgrimage to offer participants the opportunity to explore the bigger questions of life, and one of these is not “Where’s the next stop?”!