A still clear winter’s morning has a special edge to it. Everything is touched with a sprinkling of dew, maybe even frost in places. As the sun comes up, so do tiny isolated wisps of smoky mist arise from the grass and bushes. It’s as if everything has been cleansed with a freezing cosmic spray-on that magically gets rid of yesterday’s impurities and prepares the world for today’s events.
On my walk back to the farmhouse I pass an Anatolian dog looking after his flock of sheep. He runs out at me, barking protectively, and tells me in no uncertain terms that this is his family and I had better not even think of getting any closer. I assure him of my innocent intentions and express my deep admiration for his caring qualities. Behind him the lambs bleat at their mothers and I can’t help wondering how cold they must be! It’s still freezing and they have only very thin coats to keep them warm. Brrr.
Last night we had arranged that I would return to the Bo-Kloof Plaaskombuis for some breakfast, and Anina cooks up a storm for me: two eggs, bacon, sausage, toast and four cups of tea. I’ve become rather hooked on my tea this trip and can’t seem to get enough of the stuff. We discuss various farming and family challenges, as well as my pilgrimage project. They are very willing to explore overnight possibilities for future pilgrims and I look forward to following up on this at a later stage. Quintis shows me a wooden cabin that Peter Hatting (of Tree-House fame) is making for them, and it has all the trademarks of that phenomenally creative craftsman. Gwenda and I recently overnighted in his Tree-House at Speekhout and I rate it as one of the finest places I have ever stayed in. It is actually in a tree, and I especially liked the retracting roof above the double-bed so that one could sleep under the stars while enjoying the luxury of mattress and duvet.
It is almost 40km to my intended stop-over, but I will take whatever lifts I can get. All that water kept my feet wet yesterday and I can feel some big blisters developing. The road is magnificent – smooth and wide. This is going to be a wonderful stretch for cyclists doing the pilgrimage. Most of the farms have notices proclaiming them to be leopard friendly, and the Landmark Foundation is clearly working hard in the valley. I just hope that they are not working too ‘hard’ as I’ve picked up from the farmers that some of them feel rubbed up the wrong way, alienating them from the leopard cause. Well, maybe not from the cause, but from the project promoting the cause. It seems as if, not matter what one becomes involved in, human relations are a central factor. If a project needs x amount of energy/time/effort to succeed, I wonder what percentage of that x is taken up by ‘unnecessary’ people dynamics? I wonder if we don’t often spend at least half our social/psychic resources just sorting the ‘in-between’ out. Which means that if we could take personal responsibility for our own ‘unfinished business’ and not lump it on others or into our relationships with others, we could collectively achieve twice as much as we currently do. A challenging thought.
It’s a long walk to Vero’s Restaurant, although I do appreciate the naturally-eroded pizza oven in the red sandstone on the left, and later the bergvenster in the lichened rock on the right. The coke at Vero’s is al fresco, cold and very good. I must be their only customer today as I’ve yet to see any vehicles on the road, and I’m served with great aplomb. I struggle to get going again, but I have no option.
Just ahead I see a donkey cart pull out of a farm road and we wave greetings. Too late I realize that it was a potential lift. Damn! But then another donkey cart comes clippety-clop up from behind me and I grab my chance. Please will they take my pack while I run beside them? Ja ja meneer. All goes well for the first couple of kilometres, but I can’t keep up the pace. Reluctantly I ask for my pack back. “Nay, jy moet inklim!” is the spontaneous response. And so I enjoy a relaxing roller-coaster ride with these delightful men off to a funeral in their Sunday best. I get sprayed all down one side as we cross each stream but it is worth it. Another two energy bars go to a good cause.
I am totally amazed that there are no vehicles whatsoever on the road. And here I am priding myself on being flexible and prepared to take lifts. In fact, it has got way beyond that; I am actually praying for a lift! How much of today’s long stretch am I going to have to walk? I dare not stop as the impossible – no cars – might actually happen.
The scenery is still beautiful and I try to take inspiration from it. I pump up the ruggedly beautiful Nuwekloof and cannot help but be impressed all over again. It is so narrow and deep in some places, that there is no room for separate road and river, and so they have simply cemented the canyon floor from wall to wall. I look down at the pool where Gwenda and I swam many years ago, and cherish the memories. I’m also able to savour the thought that those days are not necessarily over.
The veld is full of purple heather and Gaudi-shaped spires dot the landscape. If only I could appreciate it in a gentle, leisurely way.
The road eventually forks, Willowmore to the right, and Uniondale to the left. A sign-post says 1km to Vaalwater where I plan to spend the night. I am hurting badly but anyone can grit their teeth for one last kilometre. The countryside is suddenly uninspiringly flat and grey. To make matters worse, the ‘1km’ stretches to 2km and ultimately to 3km. By the time I reach the farm, I am a wreck. Unfortunately I don’t feel very welcome; there are a number of signs that say ‘beware of the dogs’ and ‘enter at your own risk’. I’m not safely seated in a vehicle and approach the farmhouse somewhat warily (and wearily!). After a few shouts a man emerges from the house. He isn’t at all interested in what I am doing, and simply tells me what the accommodation will cost me. And no there is no food available. In a bit of a pique I ask him how far it is to the next accommodation. It is 13km away and yes they do have food. Well thank you I’d rather go there, tot siens.
I’ve hardly walked a few hundred metres and I am already questioning my decision. What am I doing? It is 15h30, another 13km will take me almost three hours, and I am in absolute agony! What am I thinking? Apart from anything I need to make friends with Vaalwater as we’ll probably need it as a pilgrim stop-over. As I mull over the situation I realize that I was clearly a bit peeved that the chap had made nothing of my efforts or what I was doing, and nor was he prepared to do me any favours in terms of accommodation. But why should he? And it’s not as if he was in any way unpleasant to me. Have I developed some sense of entitlement from all the wonderful kindness that I have received so far? It is not a nice thought. I find it hard to forgive myself for my arrogance, and every agonizing footstep rubs in my bigheadedness. I tell myself that if I want to be able to forgive others, I have to start with myself, but this talking is a head-thing and it often takes a while for the heart to catch up. So over the next few hours there is some serious internal chatting going on but fortunately I get on pretty well with myself and we eventually make peace.
As darkness and cold descends I come to a fork in the road. According to my map I go left to Uniondale, but the sign says right to Uniondale and the road shows that the traffic clearly goes that way. Feelings of déjà vu and memories of Addo. In the fading light I see a farm about a kilometre down to the right, and hobble off to it. The place is dark and deserted. Oh hell. I ring the bell. No response. So this is to be the end to my day. I look around for a place to sleep but see no immediate shelter. And then George appears, friendly and welcoming, and shows me to an outside guest room. Amazing how one’s world can change in a flash! One moment I’m preparing myself for a bitter night out; the next I’m unpacking on a duvet.
The evening is spent chatting to George and Denise in their warm kitchen. I enjoy a hot chicken pie for supper, downed by coke and coffee. We discuss matters close to our hearts, where we are, and where we are going. Another special evening in which total strangers become friends. Denise kindly washes and tumble-dries all my dirty clothes and when we finally pack it in for the night, I have two clean sets of everything. George is very open to converting a Hunters’ Lodge on the farm into accommodation for pilgrims, so that is very encouraging.
Back in my room I take another look at my feet. They are not a pretty sight. I have deep ‘thick’ blisters on both heels and under the balls of each foot. I can hardly walk. I had no intention of walking as far as I have done, and always thought I would be able to get lifts for much of the way. I would never have guessed that over the 80km I have walked this past day-and-a-half, not one single car would pass my way.
It is still over 50km to Uniondale. The strange sense of urgency is still with me, but I cannot imagine being able to walk this far tomorrow. Surely at least one car will come my way? But that is tomorrow’s challenge, and for now I am in a soft warm bed.