An introduction, overview, and explanation.
How does one convey to the general, interested reader the highs and lows, the beauty and wildness, the companionship, growth and challenges of 13 days on the trail?
13 consecutive days, a journey of 580-plus kilometres by dirt and farm roads, single and jeep track, across the garden of the Eastern Cape from Grahamstown and on into the Western Cape to the edge of the lagoon at Knysna. Not your average trail run. Certainly not a race. This was dubbed a “Pilgrimage” and as such an extra dimension was intrinsic to the whole undertaking.
The dream and brainchild of friend and neighbour George Euvrard, and inspired by the Camino de Santiago in Spain, Indlela yoBuntu is planned as an African pilgrimage walk from Grahamstown to Cape Town. When fully realised it will offer participants an opportunity to contemplate what it means to be fully human from a South African perspective, and to learn how to journey more mindfully and more soulfully. The full trail will end at the humble prison cell of Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, challenging our notions of what constitutes greatness and forcibly bringing home the true meaning of ubuntu.
Two years ago George had pioneered much of the route solo, making his way from place to place along his proposed route and seeking food and shelter where he could find it, before a combination of flooding in the Baviaanskloof and a spontaneously detaching retina had forced him to return in haste to Grahamstown. George is an academic as well as an avid ultra-distance trail runner, with the Wild Coast Ultra, the Hobbit 100, and many other long-distance trails under his belt. He has described his inspiration to set up a pilgrimage and to explore pilgrimage learning in the South African context in a couple of academic papers, as well as to friends and groups of runners. Then, with a little encouragement and with Gwenda at his side, he put the theory into practice and made it happen with group of like-minded friends.
For 13 days from 1 September 2013 we followed the route that he had pioneered, lacing together a trail from the Mariya uMama weThemba Monastery just outside Grahamstown to Alicedale, over the undulating hills and up the Kromme River Valley to Zuurberg, through the Addo Park to Kirkwood, through the dry, dramatic noorsveldt and on to Mannetjies, then to Pinnacle Gorge, next skirting the Cockscomb Mountain and dropping into the hardworking Gamtoos Valley, before traversing the entire length of the Baviaanskloof over three days and clipping the Karoo then heading for Uniondale, cruising down the Prince Alfred Pass to de Vlugt, and finally jogging up and out and at last down to Knysna. Mainly on wide, quiet dirt roads, links by beautiful tracks and trails across farms and veldt, this was an epic and unforgettable journey.
All of us in the group were seasoned trail runners: Kylie Hatton, Roger Steele, Filippo Faralla, Kim van Kets, George, and my husband Brian Bannatyne and myself were no strangers to long trail days and hard effort. The younger members of group are well known for podium places in tough events, and for pioneering adventures of their own – but even Kim, who had circumnavigated South Africa in her “Tri the Beloved country” adventure had never run so far without a break. 13 days, nearly 600 km, without a rest day. Days of 30 to 60 km. It was uncharted territory for all of us.
Collectively we were daunted, individually we each entertained our own thoughts, hopes, and doubts. Fitness-wise, I was completely unprepared. Brian and I had been married a month before, and my time had been taken up completely with work, study, and wedding planning from the beginning of the year. In the months when I should have been putting in solid long, quality training kilometres, if I ran 20 km it was a very good week indeed. The Pilgrimage was to be our runnymoon. Brian was well into his training plan for the forthcoming Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (as was George), but for me this was always going to be an exercise in careful self-management, in avoiding blisters and injuries, and sustaining the body and mind.
We were accompanied on our journey by George’s wife Gwenda, (handily, a clinical psychologist!!) who cycled sections of the route, and Peter Edwards, who drove the support vehicle, ran along with the group at times, and generally provided a solid dependable presence whilst we “took our souls for a stroll” as the lettering on our shirts bravely stated. Towards the end, we were joined by trail legend Linda Doke and her husband Craig joined us (with Tenzing, a dog of great presence but uncertain pedigree). Kim’s family also joined us, with adventurer Peter quickly becoming ensconced as the wayside maker of tea and bringer of good cheer , ably assisted by their delightful daughter Hannah.
I have found it impossible to create a single, coherent, all-encompassing account of this journey, and it has emerged since we returned that others have been beset by this difficulty too. It’s been frustrating and almost physically painful for me to be unable to write about something that I want to describe and share. I have felt hobbled by my own inability to organise and present the experience. Time and again I would sit with the stapled pages torn from my Pilgrimage journal, read through the bullet notes, and begin something that would founder in a morass of over-description, retrogressive explanations and spiralling diversions. Messy, convoluted, dense, and doughy. Not at all the way I wanted to depict the freedom to do nothing but run for a fortnight.
Finally, a solution came. At a gathering at her house, Gwenda told me over coffee that she also could not envision a whole Pilgrimage story, but was enjoying writing short pieces of poetry that captured particular aspects of the journey.
I have never written poetry, and am not about to try, but the idea of dealing with the thing a chunk at a time certainly appealed. Keeping things in order and not leaving things out was still a concern, though.
A little later, Gwenda showed another friend a present she had made for her daughter – quilted table mats – thus giving me the second key to unlocking my Pilgrimage story: Patchwork.
So that’s how I decided to write, in patches that can fit together almost at random. The pieces will be different sizes and shapes, maybe with some rough edges and hanging threads, either stitched or pinned together, but they will make a fabric. They don’t need to be consecutive or complete, because somewhere else in the patchwork, another piece will contain that pattern or texture, will show that detail or reveal the missing part of the picture.
There may even, here or there, be a little embroidery…
A faint smell of woodsmoke, and she takes shape before me. She’s ancient, but here she is in a new form, her old red ochre on rock now burned shiny-brown into a little block of pine: a poker-work symbol for our journey.
She seems to step out so lightly. She is lithe, limber, her head is held high, she seems carefree and almost jaunty. Who was the Red Girl, and what was her meaning to the artist who captured her essence on the wall of a cave? A child of a travelling people, just beginning her journey into womanhood.
I wonder about her story.
I’m working my head into the Indlela yoBuntu pilgrimage, starting my own traveller’s story by making wooden tokens in the tradition of the shells and palms of the pilgrims of bygone days, for the members of our group to carry. We will set off from Mariya uMama weThemba monastery outside Grahamstown on Sunday morning, and make our way by backroads and wagon trails to the shore of the Knysna lagoon over the coming fortnight.
The dream and brainchild of our dear friend and neighbour George Euvrard, this is a group endeavour. We are a band of travellers, and this is envisioned as a spiritual as well as physical journey, an opportunity for contemplation, reflection, fellowship, and pilgrimage learning. This is also the guinea-pig run: we’re the trail-blazers of what will one day become an established route, continuing beyond Knysna all the way to Robben Island. One day the Red Girl will mark the way for pilgrims to follow on the rocks, walls and gateposts along the route. But for now she can travel with us, swinging from our packs.
It’s a daunting prospect, this pilgrimage: a multi-dimensional challenge, and not in the sense I’m generally used to. I’ve done lots of long, multiday extreme events, but never entirely on foot for this far, and certainly never for this many days. And for me, it’s always been a race: months of training followed by a competitive event, striving against the terrain and my mental and physical shortcomings to try and get to the end as fast as possible, and hopefully ahead of as many other people as possible. I love the wild and often harsh mountain and desert places I’ve raced through…but I have always raced through them.
So: This is not a race, it’s a journey. 13 days of travelling and discovery. Virtually no training, and certainly no competition other than the distance.
It will be an exercise in careful self-management, in avoiding blisters and injuries, and sustaining the body and mind. It will be a tough physical journey from Grahamstown to Knysna, 577 km in measured distance. It will be a group effort as we encourage and help each other to our goal, walking, eating, sleeping and learning together. And for each of us it will be an intensely personal journey.
For me, it will be an important part of the transition from Laura Forster to Laura Bannatyne. Just a few weeks ago, Brian and I were married. I changed my surname to his after 30-odd years - more than half a lifetime - of saying and signing a different one. Time for a change, and not just of name. Being married is a change of heart, a change of focus and a change of priorities, and it changes the view of the future. For us, in addition to all the other things it will be, this pilgrimage will be two weeks of becoming husband and wife, the beginning of our journey together as a married couple. We share a love of the outdoors, of nature, of trail-running, of bird-watching, of geologising, of history, and of course, of each other.
How fortunate, at the beginning of our life together, to have this opportunity to share so much, to grow, to discover, to experience the beauty, hardship and satisfaction of this journey with each other and with friends. To be able to step out of “life”, and to be able to really LIVE. No rush, no pressure, no work, no admin, no need to do anything but jog on, jog on, all day, every day, for two weeks, and into the future together, where we trust many more such adventures await us. “Some honeymoon!” cried one of our wedding guests.
Some honeymoon, indeed!
This is it!
We were sitting in the refectory of the Mariya uMama weThembaMonastery just outside Grahamstown, putting away the last of a hasty breakfast as the sun rose on the first day of our big adventure, the 575 km Indlela yoBuntu Pilgrimage from Grahamstown to Knysna.
The group members had come together the evening before, travelling from as far away as Cape Town, Durban, and East London, and from nearby Adelaide and Grahamstown. We had dined convivially in the Refectory (to the mild dismay of the monks, for whom the sharing of supper is intended to be a time of quiet reflection on the day rather than an opportunity for garrulous recollection of dubious shared ultra-distance endurance experiences). Later we gathered round the fireplace in a cosy sitting room to discuss as a group our reasons for joining the Pilgrimage, our personal hopes, expectations and fears. The mood had become introspective. We had retired early to our rooms in the Monastery’s guest bungalow.
We rose before dawn, but few of us had spent a peaceful night. Nerves and excitement began to mount, and whilst we tried to observe the monastic rules of quiet and contemplation (requested particularly during meals and before eight in the morning), it proved futile with the prospect of a 575 km, 13 day journey ahead of us. Clowning and shushing, we made a Great Noise. Small wonder we had the refectory to ourselves.
But then, with the sunlight brightening through the trees, it was time to go. With plates cleared tidily away and chairs pushed neatly under tables, we shouldered our hydration packs and filed down to the car park to be sent off with a blessing. We linked hands, bowed our heads, and tried to calm our thoughts into the contemplative and mindful mode appropriate to “pilgrimage” rather than the frenetic “race” mode which we are all far more accustomed to at such times. After blessings and prayers for protection, guidance and mercies, we turned and took the first steps together on our journey to Knysna.
We were really doing this. We were leaving.
The monastery proved to be a haven in more ways than one. Walking up to the gate on the Highlands Road we were met by an blasting icy gale – and a warm welcome. Friends and well-wishers waited there to see us off, some on foot and on bikes to accompany us as far as St Cyprian’s, 19 km away. From that point we would be a merry band of travellers, ten souls running, biking and supporting, determined to meet the challenges of the terrain, weather and distance, with whatever physical and emotional resources we could muster as individuals and as a group. We would blaze this pilgrimage trail together.
We ranged in age from early 30s to late 50s: amongst us a farmer, lawyer, academic, designer, writer, economist, psychologist, surveyor, teacher…we were all travellers. Some were in excellent running form, others hardly trained at all. One was thoroughly and blissfully medicated for a recent root canal, one took within them the bitter seed of disappointment, planted long before and preparing to germinate. Most of us were married, two very newly so, some going solo and some in pairs, some with two-leg kids, some with four-leggers left behind. All of us had done some pretty epic endurance events in our time, though few of us had done anything quite like this before. All of us were apprehensive, but eager, so eager to begin the adventure we’d been planning for so long.
And at last we were on the road and moving west. The group quickly strung out along the winding dirt road in the early light, the sun rising behind us and the gale battering us from the front.
We were really doing this. We were running.
When Nev’s toast hit the Refectory floor butter side up, I realised everything was going to be OK. “It’s a sign!!” I cried, inanely shattering the Great Silence. Neville waved his knife in disagreement. “No.” he said, calmly dusting off the underside of the toast on his running shorts. “I buttered the wrong side.”