One of the great things about walking/hiking like this, is that one wakes up early but totally refreshed. Having gone to sleep at about 8.30pm, I wake up at about 5.30am with nine hours of peaceful sleep in the tank. It’s still pitch dark of course and very cold, but I’m rested, wide awake, and ready to go. And today is going to be a big day. I can feel the excitement quietly stirring inside. These are big mountains, I’m on my own, I’ve never been here before, and I need to cover about 40km if I am to reach any potential shelter on the other side. Let’s do it!
After a quick koppie koffie down at the farmhouse, Hannes kindly drives me back along the road and drops me where the track heads off and up. I have permission from the farmer to walk here and jump over the locked gate and begin the big climb. It is still dark but the stars are out and the dawn is just beginning to announce itself in the east. I pack my head-torch away so that I can see a bigger picture, even if it is all somewhat dim. I have learnt from many such uphill slogs that the trick is to shorten your gait, keep up an easy steady rhythm, and let your imagination take you wherever. Before you know it you look back and down and cannot believe how far you’ve come. Of late I have learnt to use a pair of trekking poles in trail-runs through the mountains, and this four-wheel drive now helps me enormously as I pump uphill. I cannot help stopping continuously, however, to admire the world opening up behind me. When I was a child visiting my old aunt on her farm, we used to get up at a ‘normal’ time and she’d greet us with “Too late – the best part of the day is gone!” She was up at 4.30 every day and always saw the day break. As I climb up into the dawn, I can understand what she was saying. This is indeed a most glorious part of the day, offered to us every morning of our lives, and mostly we spurn it.
Before long I am high up the ridge and peering down into Pinnacle Gorge on my right and Hannes’ farm far below. With every step I am feeling more at home on this mountain and quietly revelling in the wild solitude. I am well aware of the potential dangers but at the moment they have a friendly face. There are very few snakes out in winter, and while Hannes had confirmed that there are leopards around here right now, I doubt I’ll have the pleasure or fright of coming across any. The weather is looking good, at least for the next few hours. I could take a tumble and twist an ankle or break something, but I’m sure that I could drag myself to help if I had to. The biggest danger is actually getting lost and not finding my way off the mountains. But I have checked the route very carefully on Google Earth and with Hannes and his sons, and think I know exactly where the forks in the trail are and which ones to take.
I approach the first top ridge and Cockscomb Peak looms majestically above me just to the right. It is awe-inspiring and richly deserves all the attention it draws from hundreds of kilometres around. I am told that three of the caves around it have been made habitable by various interest groups, at least one having a fridge, a stove, table and chairs, beds, a shower and a flush loo. I’m not sure what I think of such 21st Century cavemen arrangements. I just hope they don’t try drawing on the walls.
The track across to the next, slightly higher, ridge is my personal ‘Walk of the Gods’. To balance the peaks on my right, huge valleys and gorges open up on my left, and in the middle I am walking through a garden of fynbos. Delicate little splashes of colour prick the thick greens around me and the odd flowering protea proudly flashes its inner beauty. All of this is accompanied by the most uplifting music in my ears, and I move onto another plane. At times I find myself spontaneously giving out huge deep-bellied ‘aha’ kind of laughs of overwhelming joy, as if I’m experiencing something so unexpectedly amazing yet ‘right’ that I have no choice but to respond from my very gut. These are the ‘peak experiences’ that we mostly just read about in transpersonal psychology books, and I realize anew how incredibly special and real they can be. I feel like praise personified and thank you, thank you, thank you becomes my instinctual mantra.
At the top of the next crest the world just opens up in front of me – first the green irrigated fields of the Gamtoos Valley, then beyond it white Jeffreys Bay and the blue sea, and to the right the endless ripples of the rugged hills of the Baviaanskloof! Whoa. I stand in stunned silence at the magnitude of it all. What a world we live in - or can live in if we choose. Times like these have a way of putting everything into some kind of perspective. I decide to simply let it soak in without trying to unpack it too much. Sometimes intellectual analysis can take us further away from understanding rather than closer to it.
I sms Gwenda in London to tell her where I am and that I’m fine, as I know that she is worried about me today. She is relieved but I pick up a feeling of vulnerability on her side, and I suddenly burst into tears. Sobbing, I tell her how much I love her, and I have this sudden aching longing for her. A moment ago I was full of confidence, feeling I didn’t need anyone, that I was powerfully one with the world. Now I am a weeping woes. What is happening? Slowly I realize that while I am responding to the insecurities I picked up in Gwenda, I have also been opened to my own. I hate getting lost and not knowing where I am or where I am going, but I don’t take kindly to weakness, especially in myself, and so have kept these feelings of vulnerability well under control – until now. Yes I am crying for Gwenda, but I’m also giving voice to those scared little parts of me that seldom get any recognition from ‘strong’ me. I am clearly facing a few demons here in the wilderness, and I haven’t acknowledged it enough to myself. I still have a lot of work to do in accepting and embracing my weaknesses.
This is also the crux of the actual trail. I look closely and yes I find an overgrown smaller path that heads off to the left, although it deceptively goes slightly uphill while the bigger track goes off downhill to the right. I take the path less travelled and it happily follows the dotted lines of the trail on my map. I am somewhat intrigued at the enormous relief that I feel, but savour the great lightness of spirit. The proteas are shoulder high in many places, and I need to weave my way through them. Only a few are in flower and I can only imagine what this must be like when they’re all in bloom.
Down down the path meanders through endless fynbos, flowers, rocks and views. Off the spurs and into the grassy valleys, it’s a big ask on knees and ligaments. But today I am strong and the legs are in great shape. Hardest day so far yet no strain or pain. The trekking poles are as useful going steeply downhill as they are for uphills, although more for balance than power. The path crisscrosses a lazy stream which poses real problems to a booted walker. I blunder about in the impenetrable grass thickets in an attempt to avoid crossing the water, and at one stage stop for a breather, plant my stick down to give me balance, only for it to disappear into the depths below me. I’m standing on an overhanging clump of grass, delicately bouncing above a large freezing pool! Sllloooowwwllly retreat.
The path eventually emerges onto a little grassy plateau above a small settlement. Time to enjoy a nice juicy orange as I gaze down on the scene below. All’s quiet, but then a man emerges from a small building and heads for the leafless copse down the valley. This is a secret signal for all the hens and chickens in the vicinity to leave off peck-pecking and fall into line behind him. And so here’s this modern Pied Piper mooching along with a long tail of smartly strutting fowls attached to him. I don’t know what happened next as they disappeared out of view, but I imagine them picking up some geese, a donkey, three sheep …
After many awkward crossings over very wet and muddy swampy ground, I finally reach the Elandsrivier road, exactly five hours after starting out. I have crossed the mountains and am elated that it is a very feasible and magnificent route for the pilgrimage trail. I find a soft warm piece of grass on the side of the road and treat myself to my first real break of the day. There is something delightfully childlike about lying in the warm winter grass in the veld. As adults we tend to sit in picnic chairs or on a rug while the kids have all the fun and romp on the grass. I curl up next to my pack and soak up the sun above and the soft strands below.
It’s about another 20km to the Gamtoos Valley road and I’m quite prepared to catch a lift whenever a car comes past. I consider just waiting right here because it’s so pleasant, but decide to at least make a start on the next section. There’s a derelict farmhouse just round the corner and I realize that future pilgrims cannot be expected to walk much further than this from Willow River. I see no other option than to negotiate with the owner, even if it is just to secure use of the verandah for a night’s shelter.
It’s a long, long walk down to the main road. After the high of crossing the mountain, I feel a little flat and trudge along somewhat unenthusiastically. The road is utterly deserted. No farm-houses nearby, no cars on the road. So much for hitching a lift. There are lovely open views in front of me, though, and it is almost all downhill. As I pass the Telkom Tower I think of my friend Richard Grant who has turned off here to cycle through the Grootrivierpoort further north. It looks a wonderfully neglected road and I make a note to explore it sometime later.
As if sensing that I need something to stimulate me, the fates send me three bizarre sights over the next hour. The first one is a colourful billboard advertising an eco-centre, with a picture of grinning manne on quad-bikes. Blimey. The next is a huge atomic bomb cloud of smoke that rises into the sky like a mushroom in the south. Uitenhage entering the 20th Century? And then later, a 3D Salvador Dali painting appears at my right: a black and white cow standing on a mound of bright oranges, with the blinding sun behind. I shake my head and keep walking.
I eventually meet the tar road just as it is getting dark. I’ve been walking fairly hard for about ten hours and I’m feeling ready to stop. When I pass the first driveway I turn in and head towards the house. Johanna meets me as she drives up and kindly invites me in for tea. When her husband Craig arrives I quickly introduce myself but with a wave of his hand he says he knows all about me from the radio. They phone around to neighbouring guest-houses for me, but when this yields no success they generously offer me their caravan in the yard. Later over plates of pasta we chat about the challenges of citrus farming in the valley and the politics of packing houses – private or cooperative. Craig offers me fascinating insights into a field about which I know very little. It’s been a very good day, but it’s finally also good to put it to bed.