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Before Leaving

It had all seemed to fit into place so neatly. Gwenda, my wife who is a clinical psychologist, was going to London to deepen her professional understanding of sand-play therapy with a mentor, and I was to be alone at home. Furthermore, I was on academic sabbatical leave from my university, and so had wonderful freedom of movement and time. It all made so much sense for me to lace up my trail shoes, put a pack on my back, and head out on the proposed pilgrimage route.

Map of the route on the passage wallMost of me thrilled to the idea. I had pasted my maps together and stuck them on the passage wall, and every time I walked past I stopped to imagine some part. What an adventure to walk out of one's home like a pilgrim of old, and stroll off to some exotic place hundreds of kilometers away! And yet, in the quiet of the nights leading up to my leaving, I felt distinctly unsure. Did I really need to do this? In fact, did I really need to do this whole pilgrimage creation thing at all? It is a daunting undertaking and the more I got into it the more the challenges seemed to mount. Why did I need to take on this sort of thing? Wouldn't life be much easier and far more comfortable if I just settled for less? Here I was preparing to walk to Knysna, 550km away, along desolate back roads and paths that I don't really know, with only three nights' accommodation organized, in the freezing cold of winter, all on my own. I was suddenly not the self-sufficient, self-confident adventurer that others usually see.

But on another level, I knew it was the right thing to do. I had slowly been getting the message from various people that I needed to get out and get walking. Kate Clow, who has conceptualized and created the acclaimed 500km Lycian Way walk in Turkey, put it like this in an email to me: "If I were you, at this stage I should get out and walk the proposed line of your route. Walking is a physical activity - if the route is not physically satisfying it will not be a success. You will find that there is both an art and a science to route-creation. The science is to create achievable daily stages using whenever possible existing paths and interesting natural features - but with a purpose/direction and a demonstrable effect of achieving a string of targets. The art is 'creating' the high-points of the route - a sudden view, a total change of pace, a social experience with shepherds or villagers, an opportunity to swim, etc. You can determine the science to a large extent from maps; the rest is art."

Route map on passage wallI had recently found the website of long-distant walker Chris Willett and his writings had resonated with something within me, and so I contacted him for some guidance on my project. Like Kate, he strongly urged me to get walking myself: "A long walk has a way of bringing life in to focus and I encourage you to find that path for yourself. Before you worry about presenting that to others, or even sharing it with others, go out and do it. Find what it means to you only after you have done it, not before. From long experience I know that what I think I will get out of a journey is rarely what I actually get out of it.  That is, at least in all the things that truly matter.  A pilgrimage is an intensely personal experience. You can share it with others only once you understand it for yourself."

And when I had expressed my doubts to my good friend Hennie van der Mescht, he had just waved them aside and said, "Come on boet, you're living the dream! You'll love it."

I had three main reasons for doing this walk at this time. Firstly, I wanted to establish/cement relationships with the people on the proposed route. Like so many things in life, relationships come first, and the other things flow out of these. Some of the people I had already met on previous visits by car, and I looked forward to strengthening these early friendships. Others were still total strangers to me, and I hoped to make connections and be able to share my pilgrimage dream with them.

Another aim was to check out the envisaged route. Was it good to walk? Did it provide the opportunities for more mindful and soulful journeying? On a more practical level, is it walkable - are the roads and paths accessible? More and more farm roads are being locked behind chained gates or simply fenced off, especially by game farmers, whether they have been officially 'de-proclaimed' or not.

The third aim was a rather personal one, and that was to finally determine whether I was doing this Project for the right reasons. I had experienced my attraction to this work as a kind of calling, but whose calling? I have sometimes found that our egos can masquerade as high purposes. To put it bluntly in my world-view, was it a God-calling or a George-calling? Or if it was a mixture, was the differential weighting a healthy one? I have sometimes listened to sacred texts with envy as they have spoken of God speaking to a prophet or some other holy one. I have often wondered how God spoke to them and how did they know it was God speaking to them. Mostly I have concluded that they must simply have been a lot more holy and close to God than I was. But in honesty, I must also confess than when I have heard what God said to them, I have sometimes wondered if God would really have said that. And so I hoped that a fortnight of quiet meditation and prayer would help me hear a bit more clearly.