It has rained all night, but when I wake up it is just the plop-plop of the giant Yellow-wood dripping on the tin roof. I enjoy the last of the complementary coffee and tea and step out freshly into the waterlogged world. My energetic striding is short-lived however, as the stream between the cabin and the main house has risen to about knee height during the night.
Keeping shoes and socks dry in these circumstances is no small feat. Everything is sopping wet, so there is nowhere to sit. You balance on one leg, with your pack on, and carefully take off the opposite shoe and sock, making sure not to fall over and put your clean, dry, fresh sock into the mud. You need to get this right, twice. On the other side of the river it is even trickier. Your foot needs to be clean and dry before putting any sock on, because a wet foot usually means blisters. So you find a stone at the water’s edge, stand on it on one leg, clean the other foot in the water, somehow dry it, put on the sock, and then add the shoe. The stakes are high; the slightest overbalance and an unshoed socked foot goes squelch into the water and mud. The whole process is deceptively demanding and difficult, especially with a full pack on your back.
At the house I meet Helene rushing out, on her way to Jeffrey’s Bay. I briefly tell her about my walk, and she immediately tells the maid to make me breakfast. The fried eggs and toast hardly touch sides as I chat to Merwe the son, who is helping run the farm and guest accommodation. He popped in to see me last night too and we had a good gesels as we discovered various connections in terms of travel and people. We discuss pilgrim accommodation possibilities – they have a big house to rent which can take many people, and Die Ou Skoolhuis nearby can also take biggish groups of overnighters. I’m encouraged by this and look forward to following up at a later stage.
As Merwe kindly takes me to the boom gate at the entrance to the Eastern Cape Park section of the Baviaanskloof, he points out the carbon farming that is taking place here. Apparently overseas carbon-producing companies pay local landowners/authorities to plant spekboom on their behalf. These bushes absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen and in this way compensate somewhat for the damaging outputs that they pump into the environment. Earlier I was fascinated by the novelty of olive farming in the Eastern Cape, but this blows me away. If a farmer had told me twenty years ago that one day he hoped to make money planting spekboom for overseas industrialists, I would have called him crackers. I wonder how many other ‘crazy’ ideas there are out there that are just waiting to be vindicated.
Merwe drops me at the boom gate, and I ponder my situation. Apart from overnight accommodation at the Park’s Bergplaas about 10km from here, there is NO shelter for more than 50km. All indications are that there are more big rains coming. It thus makes little sense for me to start walking. I will need a lift at some stage, and I may as well wait here where I can get some shelter in the guard’s hut when the rain starts up again. There is a truck going to Smitskraal but there is no shelter there and little room in the vehicle, so I let it go. There will be more lifts coming through.
A team of men is building a wooden construction next to the hut. They welcome me into their space and we gesels lekker. Every now and again their loooong drill bit gets horribly bent and the poor operator looks like he is about to take off with his little engine and propeller, but only after having almost decapitated all those around him. A quick strong straightening of the bit across the knee, and they’re off again.
It is three hours before the next vehicle comes through – and it is going the other way! It is a Park’s bakkie from Geelhoutboom, however, and once the driver has done his business in Patensie he will be returning and promises me a lift then. I continue to pace up and down the road, becoming increasingly frustrated. Walking can be hard and yesterday I was ready for a break, but this waiting seems worse. Eventually, six hours after having arrived here, I jump on the back of the returning bakkie and we hare off.
And so begins the most frightening part of my entire trip so far! Being alone in the mountains was child’s play compared to this. There I might die; here I am definitely going to die. There is but a passing acquaintance between the tyres and any grip under the mud, and yet we burtle forward at intoxicating speed. I decide to hand over any non-existent responsibility I have for the outcome of this existential experiment, and stand up and thrill at the experience. It is utterly glorious! I am astride a bucking bronco that is thundering through the wilderness, oblivious of whatever is underfoot, and thrashing mud and water in every direction. What more could a little boy want? And everywhere frightened animals scatter from our path. The place is teeming with bushbuck, and they burst out from every tyholo. Huge kudu bulls toss their might horns back and gallop off between the trees. A pair of buffaloes snort, kick up their heels at us, and crash through the bushes. I’m freezing cold and wet, but I’m a child again and I’m loving it! Yee-hah!
In the middle of all this, we detour slightly off the road to an old farmhouse called Doornkraal. It is deserted but it has the potential for an overnight stop for the pilgrimage trail.
All we need is a roof over our heads, ablutions and some water. I didn’t know there was any possible shelter in the Park and am very excited about this possibility, right in the middle too. I must come back and chat to the relevant authorities.
We eventually emerge from the Park and I am dropped at Piet en Griet se plaas at Zandvlakte. Piet, his son Johan, and a group of overseas students are sitting in a shed having a braai, and invite me in. It is good to get warm and dry, and even better to enjoy some hot and tasty wors. The students are from the Netherlands, France and Brazil, and are doing research into sustainable agricultural practices in the Baviaanskloof. They discuss with Piet and Johan what is happening in the valley amongst farmers, and how they are approaching various challenges. It is encouraging to hear the emerging priorities and consensus between academics and farmers, and a genuine attempt to find a more healthy balance between economics and environment.
I snuggle into bed as the rain is gaining momentum, keen to get a good night’s sleep. Today has been a frustrating day and tomorrow I’ll be stepping out no matter what the weather.