A couple of months ago, Craig and I took part in a few days of something very special. It blended our love for trail, for South Africa, and for feeling in touch with the natural beauty around us, with the special pleasure of sharing a wonderful experience with like-minded people.
It was unique.
It was small in scale, big in dream, and huge in reality.
It was a pilgrimage – a South African experience that had a start line, a finish line, and involved a special journey in between. That journey was not about speed or style, form or fashion. Rather, it was all about immersing ourselves in the moment, feeling and seeing and hearing everything around us all at once, and being one with ourselves, each other and our environment.
It was Indlela yoBuntu, affectionately known as the Pilgrim Trail – a no-stress, no-pressure 582km trail run on dirt roads, farm tracks and mountain paths, over 13 days, from Grahamstown to Knysna.
The concept was the dream of George Euvrard, a Rhodes University professor who I met several years ago at the Midnight Hell Run. George is a special man – he’s humble yet wise, gentle yet strong, and by his own admission, he has a knack of seeing the positive in everything. He’s one of those wonderful people who dream big, and have the faith, energy and determination to turn their dreams into reality.
George’s dream for Indlela yoBuntu is that of an African pilgrimage of hope, symbolising the way of Ubuntu. He dreamed of the idea of a pilgrimage from Grahamstown to Cape Town, taking more than 60 days, and covering over 1 500km. The idea would be similar to the world renowned pilgrimage the Camino de Santiago in Spain, just without the religious history attached to it.
Instead, this pilgrimage would be seeped in cultural relevance, enabling those who cover it to experience and explore some of the big questions of life in an African context – the experience of the wilderness of Africa, the huge blue skies and deep nights, being in harmony with that around us, hearing and seeing the life stories of the people and environment en route.
Logistically, however, this would not be easy to make reality. Much of South Africa’s land is privately owned as farms and game reserves, without the “right to roam” enjoyed by hikers in much of Europe. Crossing private farmland and reserves in our country requires permits and permissions, and is notoriously difficult.
Tackling this challenge one step at a time (‘scuse the pun), George split the route in half, and in 2011 he walked from Grahamstown to Knysna by himself, following a carefully researched route that he’d envisaged. The success of his recce showed such a pilgrimage was indeed possible, and he set about planning the inaugural Pilgrim Trail for 2013.
He invited a small group of like-minded runner friends he’d met at various endurance events over recent years, and set a date of 1-13 September. In George’s words, this would not be a race, but rather a training run… for life. Between 30km and 60km a day for almost two weeks – in your own time. Run when you want, walk when you feel like it, swim when you’re hot, take the time to enjoy the views, smell the fynbos, be a part of the life around you.
Craig and I were only able to join for the final three days – from Vaalwater in the Klein Karoo through to Knysna via the magnificent Prince Alfred Pass – and that time, short though it was, had us hungering for more. The full contingent – Laura and Brian Bannatyne, Roger Steel and Kylie Hatton, Kim van Kets, Filippo Faralla, Neville Keevy, and George and Gwenda Euvrard (Gwenda cycling) – set off from the monastery outside Grahamstown on Sunday 1st Sept, eventually arriving in Knysna on a sunny, blue-skied Friday 13th.
And what an incredible experience it was. No attempt to describe it can do the pilgrimage justice, suffice to say that there’s nothing quite like sharing with like-minded friends the richness of being surrounded by the simple, uncomplicated beauty of the Africa we love so dearly.
The Pilgrim Trail may have covered +580km on foot, but everyone crossed the finished line on the final day with their souls energised, recharged and rejuvenated. A pilgrimage is an intensely personal experience, and different people take different things from it. But guaranteed is the growth such a time enables, and every soul is the wealthier for the experience.
It was the pilgrims themselves who put it so beautifully in their musings about the Pilgrim Trail:
Laura Bannatyne on the concept of Indlela yoBuntu:
“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.”
Kim van Kets on the incredible scenery:
“Of course, the itinerary doesn’t even begin to describe the thrill of an early morning leopard and honey badger in a Baviaanskloof valley, the adrenalin rush from a massive puff adder, the hospitality of the communities who fed us and allowed us to sleep in their NG Kerksaals and on their farms. It doesn’t do any justice to the camaraderie that develops between the runners over 13 days, and it cannot convey the heartbreaking beauty of the landscape.”
And on the camaraderie of trail running:
“Is it possible that running together makes us better people or brings out the best in us? Is running the magic ingredient for instant and genuine Ubuntu and if so can we force the whole world to go on multi day trail runs as a matter of extreme urgency? Shall we start a running revolution?”
I say YES! let’s go forth into 2014 and start that (trail) running revolution!
Here’s to ubuntu, to the joys of discovery, and to sharing them with like-minded crazies!