Today might be a huge challenge, so I’m up early to give myself every chance of handling whatever unfolds. It is over 50km to Uniondale, though, and if I don’t get any lifts I am in serious trouble. But cars must surely travel along this road, so I should be able to get a lift.
I tuck into two bowls of cornflakes and two cups of tea, and put the rest of the breakfast in my pack for lunch later. It is still pitch dark and bitterly cold when I step out, but I can make out my way along the road. Just as well no one can see me as I am hobbling horribly as I struggle to get used to the discomfort of pressure on my poor feet.
I haven’t had any cell-phone reception for more than three days and in my eagerness to have contact with family and friends I climb a little hill near the road to gain some height. I become child-like in my glee as the phone suddenly starts peeping repeatedly to indicate incoming sms’s. Before reading any of them though, I excitedly phone Jonathan and Benji in Cape Town. It is wonderful to chat to them and I am so heartened to be in touch again. Only once we have finished chatting do I realize that it is 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning, quite a while before their waking time! In their typically generous supportive way, they hadn’t let on though, and had simply shared my pleasure of being in contact again. It is also good to get messages from Gwenda and Jayne and friends and I walk out into the brightening dawn with a renewed lightness of spirit.
The gently cleansing morning sun fills the countryside with colour and warmth. Even the karoo bossies take on a rich hue as they are touched by the orange light and I catch myself admiring a renosterbos that all my life I’ve regarded as good for nothing. The air is still and the dams offer a dramatic double-take of the beautiful scenes behind them. This freshness soon fades, however, and then it is just me and the road stretching out endlessly ahead. Five times I thrill at the sound of an approaching car; five times I sigh in disappointment as I see it coming from my front and thus going the wrong way. In an attempt to keep my sense of humour, I imitate Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and plead with God and the heavens for some justice – surely out of five cars could not at least one be going my way?!
I’m digging deep already and realize that I’ll really need to nyamazela to get through the day. But I’ve been in this position before, so know I can do it if I have to. In February I completed the 270km Wild Coast Ultra, a find-your-own-way trail-run from Port St Johns to East London, and it demanded every ounce of energy, concentration and endurance I had. I now draw on these and other extreme experiences and simply knuckle down to the inevitable with quiet acceptance and assurance. I don’t often find myself in such dire straits, though, and take a langarm self-portrait for posterity.
Around about midday I come across Hartebeesrivier farm. It is like a little farming village with its complex of houses and sheds and outbuildings, and I pop in at the main house. A young chap called Rynaard farms here on his own, although his widowed father lives in a separate house in the ‘village’. Over a welcome pot of tea he tells me the history of the farm and his life here. There is a lovely guest cottage which is used for family, but he is open to the idea that it could be available for the pilgrimage. This is encouraging as there don’t seem to be any other overnight possibilities at all on the 50km stretch from Verberg to Uniondale.
It is still 27km to Uniondale and I bargain my way along: on the top of that rise, I can have a short rest; at that far point I can have something to eat. There is nothing too spiritual going on in me; I am just focused on physical survival. I think of my Mom who is 87 and in constant pain from a degenerative spine and legs, and wonder if her days are like this at times. I have this idea that as we grow older we need to balance our decreasing physical abilities with increasing spiritual development, but maybe this is easier said than done. I am reminded again that the daily distances of this future pilgrimage trail must be very manageable for most people. A challenging day now and then is fine – even good – but a relentless hard slog is not fertile ground for pilgrimage contemplation.
I’ve now been going for almost two weeks, mostly on my own. Apart from some evenings and moments during each day, I’ve been miles from anyone. But I’ve got to the point where I don’t feel alone, and I’m certainly not lonely. There’s a strange kind of oneness feeling with everything around. It is as if I’m a part of everything else, and hence not alone and not on my own. I recall the great theologian Paul Tillich once writing that it is as atheistic to proclaim the existence of God as to deny it. According to him, God is not a being; God is Being itself. This suddenly makes so much sense to me. At a very deep level I have this incredible sense of oneness with Being, with all that is around me. Because of my religious and cultural upbringing, my personal access to God is through Jesus, and I am in constant communion with Him throughout each day. But is this my road to Emmaus? Am I realizing only now how Jesus is sharing the journey with me?
On my maps I have plotted a short-cut across some farmlands onto a back road to Uniondale. As I walk I see a couple of gated off-roads in the vicinity of where I imagine the short-cut to be, but I am too far gone to risk choosing the wrong one. And then I hear the only vehicle going my way in the last two-and-a-half days – but it is a motor bike! Never mind, when he stops to chat to me I’ll tell him that I’m willing to hang on if he is willing to load me up behind him. I stop, turn around, and wait expectantly for him. My reward is a real-life experience of the Doppler Effect that we studied in Physics at school – iiiiiieeeeeeeeuuuuuuuoooooooaaaaaa – as he speeds by. To be fair, he did slightly raise a finger in greeting and there was a hint of a toot from his hooter. I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry, but do manage to chortle at the nature of choices that I am facing.
I eventually reach the Uniondale-Willowmore tar road at 4pm. Yes, there are cars and I’ll surely get a lift here. After 15 minutes I accept that I have to continue walking as it will soon be dark. I’m really hurting but it is a simple choice. Three kilometres later a god-sent bakkie stops and I scramble onto the back. Three seconds later I think the bakkie is indeed God-sent to summons me into the next life at 150kph! I knock on the roof to be dropped off on the outskirts of Willowmore. The backpackers is at the other end of town, but I cherish the fact that I still have a whole life-time to get there. I buy a coke and shuffle down the main street. The fading sun catches a little church between the trees and I stop to let it soak in.
It is a great relief to finally find the backpackers, but everything is dark and deserted. I phone the cell number painted on the gable, but there is no reply. Nay, moennie worry nie, say the passersby, the owner is always around somewhere in the dorpie. Half-an-hour later he does indeed arrive, and I settle in. There is no-one else in the dormitory, so I spread myself out. After a glorious hot shower, I sit back on my bed and savour the feeling of giving my body and mind permission to relax. It has been a tough day and the letting go is extra special.
After a short while I take stock of my situation. My feet are in bad shape, and I realize that it wouldn’t be fair to ask much more of them. It is still about 100km to Knysna, via Avontuur and the Prince Alfred Pass, and I’ll get whatever lifts I can. Yes I know I’ve said that before, but I’m sure these roads will have more traffic. With a bit of luck, I should be in Knysna in two days, and then it’ll be a quick lift to some dear friends in Plett who were our neighbours in Grahamstown.
Now to check my left eye that I’ve been conveniently ignoring for the past few days while trapped in the Baviaanskloof or walking out without cell-phone reception. Blimey, there’s something seriously wrong here. If I close my right eye and look straight ahead, I am totally blind in the bottom right hand quadrant of my visual field. There is just a huge patch of blackness. I phone my optom mate Trevor and tell him that I have lost 25% of my vision in my eye, and describe the characteristics. Without hesitation he says, “Bhuti, you have a rapidly detaching retina, and need to get specialist attention urgently for there to be any hope of saving your sight”.
I chat to the backpacker owner and he phones around for any lifts out of Uniondale. We learn of a minibus taxi leaving for George at four o’clock the next morning. I try to phone friends in George who can then take me to the eye clinic in Knysna, but none of them are at home. And then I think of the supportive friends back home who told me before I left that if ever I am in trouble, I must just phone them and they’ll come for me no matter when or where. As loath as I am to bother them, maybe this is the time to call on them. I phone my good mate Marc, and despite it being 9.30 on a Sunday night, his simple immediate response is, “George, I’m on my way”. What a mensch! He picks up our friend Mike and the two of them head out into the night for Uniondale, 400km away.
Me, I pack up my things and snuggle deeper into my sleeping bag to catch a little sleep. My pilgrimage is over. Or is it? Once when chatting to our wise friend Felicity Edwards about walking the Camino in Spain, I had voiced my concern about not completing the pilgrimage to Santiago in the time we had available, and she quietly said, “Don’t worry. You never actually finish a pilgrimage. You’ll realize that it becomes a way of life, and there is no end-point”.