Awake before six and I start my morning routine. It has become something of a ritual now and provides a reassuring and familiar start to a new day which is probably going to be filled with the unknown and the unexpected. The first step is to put my contact lenses into my eyes. The next is to Vaseline my feet, carefully massaging the lubricant into each toe and around each heel. This seems to have done the trick so far as I don’t have a single red or raw spot on my feet, let alone any blisters. I have learnt from hard experience that it is really important to get the sequence of these first two rising steps right – putting in contact lenses with Vaselined fingers is not fun!
From the night before, my pack is completely empty and the various constituents lie in their specific plastic bags in neat rows next to it. My clothes have their own bag, as does my raincoat, the electronics, the beanie and sleeping thermals, the muesli, my toiletries, etc. When your pack is your home, everything needs to have its own neat place. The next step is to dress, roll up sleeping bag and put it and sleeping kit into their respective bags. Before packing, however, it is best to first fill up the water-bladder and stick it into the special back pocket on the pack as it is difficult or impossible to squeeze in once the pack is full. Once again, if you don’t get the sequence right, you end up with problems. When the bladder is in, it is then a simple matter of packing in all the bags in the right order: sleeping bag at the bottom, then clothes and then the heavier stuff higher up. Right at the top is my raincoat and padkos for easy access. In the top lid outside pocket I keep my hat and oranges, and in the side pockets are energy bars and iPod and some money. In my camera bag around my neck and immediately accessible I have also packed my cell phone and maps for the day’s route. And finally, hanging from the outside of the pack from karabiners and safety pins is the previous night’s washing that needs drying in the sun while I walk.
Joanna offers me tea but I am keen to be out the electronic gate at 06h45 when Craig leaves to collect his citrus pickers for the day. It is darker than usual, heavily overcast and cold. Rain is clearly coming. I pass the Padlangs café which will be a heavenly must-stop for future walkers coming off the mountains. It is obviously closed up at this hour, but I later come across a little general dealer store which the owner is entering just to get something, and who kindly lets me in to buy a yoghurt and some fruit. It is one of those delightful remnants of the 1950s that has a little bit of everything under one small roof. The Marie biscuits are next to the Vim which sits under the plastic fishing net, and on the counter on the traditional glass jars filled with half-penny sweets.
As I pass the gently aromatic orange orchards on either side of the road, I look closely at the shape of the trees. Last night Craig was telling me about the importance of proper pruning and I was fascinated to learn that this has changed dramatically over the last decade or so. I can remember the top gardening books advising us to prune the tree into a kind of bowl or glass shape. Apparently the latest practice is to cut them to look more like Christmas trees, a radical shift in design accompanied by a conceptual somersault in justification. I couldn’t help wondering yet again how we are to know what is best, or what is right, or what is true? In this instance, we knew what was ‘scientifically’ argued and proven to be best. Now suddenly that no longer holds and there is a new ‘truth’. It reminds me of theoretical models and world-views upon which we wage academic wars, but later seem able to discard quite easily when a more seductive/convincing/popular one emerges on the scene. And yet we have to stand on something in order to be able to make a stand and then be able to step out in action. It seems that we just need to do so very tentatively and humbly, in the awareness that we don’t have any final answer or truth, that we have not reached any form of godhood in understanding, and the only conviction needs to be the commitment to the ongoing struggle and openness to other possibilities. And part of this openness is not to become so immersed in our own world that we create our own language and culture that prevents a relationship with whatever or whoever is unfolding truth. I find this thought both challenging and liberating, and smile at the orange trees in appreciation.
Further down the road I stop to greet a man sitting in his bakkie. We start chatting and he asks if I would like to see his packing-house. It is a magnificent affair and I am suitably impressed. When I explain to his daughter what I am doing, she becomes very excited and says that her fiancé in the orchards had just said to her that they must do the Camino. Promising to be back for coffee and further chatting, I go to the orchards to meet the fiancé. He is indeed very interested and we have much to discuss but ‘father-in-law’ is keen to take me back. I tell the young chap to join us at the packing-house where I’ll be talking further with his fiancé. But driving back father doesn’t stop at the house and keeps going. When I explain that I was to return to his daughter, he smilingly says that they have lots of work to do and wouldn’t be able to take time out. He drops me a few kilometers further down the road. Bless you, brother!
I pass a new orchard across the road. It is row upon intersecting row of white sticks, like a kind of Flanders Fields. I have a deep hatred and heart-ache for war, and feel a real sense of relief that this is indeed a field of living trees and not wasted humans.
It has started raining and my legs are tired and hurting. I suddenly feel that I’ve had enough. As I walk I wonder why I should carry on. I know most of the rest of the route. The trail so far has been magnificent, and will continue to be so. And I think I’ve got my answer to what kind of calling this project is. In some senses, I’ve now had my pilgrimage. I can never repeat this experience; people have treated me like a real pilgrim, but this can’t happen again. It has been the journey of a life-time, but I’ve now done it. I’ve been alone, walking, being, for over a week, and I feel I don’t want to overdo it. Nor, at this moment at least, do I want to do it again. Part of me feels that I’ve lived the dream, and now I can move on to something else. But another part of me says that the service, the responsibility, hasn’t even begun yet. Up to now it has been my pilgrimage, my experiences, my learning. If I stop now, it has been about me. And a touch indulgent. Taking it from here is going to be an unselfish action, the giving back. It has been such a privilege, such a gift – what do I do with it? I think I need to make it possible for others. That’s the calling that I have. And I trust it more because in a way it isn’t what selfish me wants. That part of me says you’ve had a wonderful time, now find the next lekker thing to do. If I continue with the project, I do it for others.
I also feel that the wonderful people I have met have given me the answer. They have responded to the idea – and to the real-life pilgrim in front of them – with such compassion, love and support, that there must be something good in it. It has struck a chord that has resonated within these people, and they’ve literally taken me - and what I represent – into their homes and hearts.
It’s a long, hard, cold and wet walk. I’m soon on dirt – or should I say mud – and into Die Poorte. It’s normally a beautiful section of the route, the river and road companions in the valley, and above the magnificent trees and cliffs competing for one’s attention and awe. But I see little today because the rain falls in misty showers, and my head is down to keep the rain off my face and prevent it trickling down my neck. I eventually hitch a lift with an agricultural consultant and he takes me to a farm in Cambria. It also operates as a guest farm called Kudu Kaya, and soon I am ensconced in a little wooden cabin under a giant Yellow-wood tree.
After a hot shower and many cups of tea and coffee, I slip into a comfortable bed as the rain continues to plop-plop out of the tree and onto the roof. Apparently heavy rain is predicted for the next few days, and at this very moment I am not looking forward to heading out for another long, hard, cold and wet day. Come morning I know I’ll be up and out, but I will feel free to get lifts whenever I feel like it. I know the Baviaanskloof, having cycled through it twice and driven through many times. I’ll see how it goes. I’ll still head for Knysna, but maybe in an easier way.
I use the evening hours to compile my first cryptic crossword. It takes me almost as long to draw up the grid and fill it with words as it does to compose the clues. I’ve given it quite a home-related theme and look forward to passing it on to my family.
I’ve noticed an interesting thing these past few days. No, it’s not that I talk to myself, that’s normal. It’s that I speak English when I’m walking during the day, and Afrikaans for the domestic activities at night. I decide not to try and analyse it, and just let it be.