Many years ago, when I was still living in Pietermaritzburg, a friend of mine forced me to go walking in the Drakensberg Mountains. Although I had lived within an hour's driving of them, for many years, I never ventured into them. I suppose the truth is, I didn’t know how to go about it nor did it seem especially interesting. Well, as I say, I was forced into it the first time. And a whole new universe opened up before me. I could not believe the silence; the smells; the taste of the icy water which gushes in those pristine rivers.
I was immediately hooked, being the compulsive personality that I am. I went every possible weekend. I got myself caught in vicious storms; I waded through the still smoking cinders of a massive fire that had blackened the earth as far as the eye could see; I stripped naked and swam in pools of the deepest blue you have ever seen; I encountered snakes and Kudu and Baboon; I watched wild Clivias flower and I felt the mulch of rotting leaves on the forest floor underfoot; I heard a myriad of birds; and I tasted the welcome sweetness of an apple at the top of a really hard climb as the wind whispered in the ears and played with my hair. And at night, the riotous swathes of stars, everywhere you look; the sound of the cicadas and the owl and the glow of a fire; the snow on the mountain tops.
And then I moved to Gauteng. Yes, you can find approximations there, but it is nothing of the same. And my visits to the mountains became fewer and fewer and the memory distant, but still vivid. Still really precious. But the point is, I stopped going.
When we arrived in Cairp Tahn, one could not fail to notice a sort of universal obsession with the Mountain. All directions are given in relation to it. You really can’t avoid it. The weather is determined by it. But we had never climbed it – well to be frank, I have up to this point, not been even vaguely fit enough to contemplate doing so. But after a wager I took with a friend of mine in Gauteng, that by April next year we will climb Table Mountain – and because of a fairly serious fitness regime that I have been on, we decided to do the Lion’s Head thing, as a family.
Well, firstly, you need to hike for 15 minutes or so, from where your car is parked to the start. I thought that bode fairly ill. But nonetheless. The kids, of course were delighted. And their energy is completely boundless. So they scampered up the first bit, leaving us huffing and breathing threats in the background.
The views, as anyone who has done the climb will know, are spectacular. Luckily, the day was affording – neither too hot nor too cold. The ocean blue, fringed with white. The wind a light breeze. But it is when you start to think, “Oh, this isn’t so bad, after all”, that suddenly things start to deteriorate. The climb becomes fairly steep. You stop looking at the passing runners with beautiful legs and concentrate fully on the task at hand – trying to look even vaguely elegant as you scramble and crawl and grip the rock with bleeding fingernails. Because it is not for sissies. (Look, I have to say, it doesn’t require ropes and pick-axes, but on starts to understand why these things might be necessary in similar circumstances!)
There are some completely sheer drops. And to help the climber, the Table Mountain National Park authorities have thoughtfully erected some vicious looking barbed wire fences just before the drop, so that if you do slip, you would first rip out substantial pieces of flesh before plummeting to your certain death.
The other thing which is completely alarming (and completely uncharacteristic of Cairp Tahn) is that everybody greets everyone, both on the way up and the way down. Even more strange, is that people are fairly polite! They say thank you, if you give way to them! They smile sweetly at your children! They engage in polite conversation! This is not the Cairp Tahn I know at all!
So there you are, struggling to look elegant as you manoeuvre your way along a cliff face, and a random, unfamiliar Capetonian is mouthing a courteous “Hello” to you! It is too much for my time-addled brain. Too much I tell you! Too much for one day!
Oh, and the flowers. Did I mention the flowers? They are there and they are gorgeous. Some of them bold and extravagant. Some of them shy and understated. In every possible shape and glorious form.
Now, one thing – and this is nothing strange in Cairp Tahn generally – I could not fail to notice that 99% of the people up that mountain were white. The same was true, it also needs to be said, in the Drakensberg. Indeed, when I would mention to some of my black friends that I was going to climb a mountain – they would look at me as though they thought I needed urgent medical attention. What is this? Is it culture? Is it the kind of exposure one has had in one’s growing up? Is it because no friend has taken one and forced one to go and experience it? I really don’t know.
So, all in all, despite the fact that I am battling to lift a teacup to my mouth in the aftermath, a wonderful time was had by all. It was free, it was healthy and it was firsthand experience of our inestimable and unbelievably wonderful heritage.