An Exhausting Read

My cousin Bridget was celebrating her 50th birthday and had requested the Alexandria Hike as a gift. I was invited to the join the party.

Day 1: (33 390 paces)

The South African National Parks Board indemnity notice at the start of the trail, welcomed all hikers and stated that it would not take responsibility for injury or death even if it was their fault. I touted a nervous snort at this confidence-inspiring announcement, hoisted on my backpack and strode off with the rest of the group toward a wooden hut some 18 kms down the coast on the Woody Cape Nature Reserve. My company for the next 36 hours was a delightful mixture of people ranging from 11 to 60, most of them, closer to 11.

The path we embarked on was a combination of powdered sand and sparse blades of grass. On either side, coastal scrub lay still under the sun, disturbed occasionally by the silent scurry of a mouse. The scrub gave way to gentle forest growth and sand became sea sand.  After an hour’s walk, we downed packs and sat on a shady bend, drinking water and eating from the snack packs that Bridget had so kindly prepared for us: Droe wors, apples, peanuts, raisins, fruit bars, cheese rolls.

I was in full swing when someone reminded me it was a two day hike. Choking mildly, I packed the stuff away, and lent against my bag in the mid-morning heat, chasing lazy mosquitoes and removing grass from my sandals.

The teenagers spoke boisterously between apple bites.

“Mum, why didn’t you put a comma in my message?”

“Which message?”

“When you asked me: ‘How are you my only son?’”

“What’s wrong with asking that?”

“I didn’t know how to reply.”

“Why not?”

“Because I DON’T know how I am your only son!”

Backpacks are hoisted back on. Giant Yellow Woods, Milk Woods and Erythrina grow in profusion, festooned with monkey ropes. Berries from a magnificent Boerboon Tree blush as the sunlight catches them for a mottled moment. Inclines become longer and steeper. Members of the group spread out: Zaza who has more stamina than a steroid on steroids, leads the group like a Roadrunner.  Birds are mute in the heat, Grandpa’s beard hangs bedraggled from branches; even the lichen and moss look thirsty. We walk on. Roots protrude in swollen thickness along the ground under our thudding feet and up along the steep banks.

Now the sun is overhead; a matriarchal Yellow Wood,  provides generous shade for lunch. Once again we eat and drink, staring into the spaces between branches. More complaints from adolescent food-filled mouths about wifi and device deprivation, but the words vaporize in the quiet shadows and in the chewing, drinking and swallowing.

The walk continues below the thick canopy. We hear the chirp of a Cape Batiss and see it swooping nimbly into its tiny nest. I wish I could identify more bird calls.

The forest floor is sparse and speaks of a thirst that has gone on too long. Then trees become shorter and branches slimmer as they stretch out horizontally rather than for the sky. The sun pierces more often. At the summit of a sandy hill, we glimpse the sea. Suddenly the path opens into a vast, gentle valley. There is a shady tree to one side of it.

We get there quickly, lay out our sarongs and enjoy more of the food on offer: I have a cheese roll, more peanuts and a sip of water, then I lie back on my bag, put my left calf on my right knee and survey the lush growth on the sides of the valley through my toes.

We walk through the valley, over a farm road, through more coastal bush and then we are at the top of the first dunes that will escort us down to the sea. The youth are already there, stretched out on their towels. Before long we have joined them. It is a peach of a day, the waves are white, the sea is blue and the sand cashew gold. Some of us dive into the blue. Suntan cream is reapplied, backpacks strapped back on, shoes tied to the sides and now begins the 7 km hike along the seashore.

The sun starts to move toward the west and creep in under our hats. The heat forces us to stop just before the beginning of the Krantzes,

(a cliff face, kilometres long, which has been sculptured layer by layer by layer and signed by wind, water and time) for another swim. The water is crystal cold – soothing balm to sore feet, calves and thighs. Hell for anything above that.

Then we move onto the rocks below the Krantzes and encounter some fishermen who look weathered by wind, water, time and brandy. They tell us the ladder up to the hut is around the corner. It is. However, the “ladder” is a long rope attached to the peak of a Krantz. It must be pulled taut for balance and upward movement. I grab the rope, pull it tight and receive an instant exfoliation of the palms. Two paces into the ascent and my sandals are converted into sand bags. I desperately want to shed them, but it’s too late, I am committed.

One false move and I’m a raw meatball covered in a dusting of sea sand on the water’s edge. I feel that a heart attack is imminent and remember that I am 60. And then Ken, our chivalrous “pack horse” appears up ahead, coaxes me through each step and eventually reaches out a hand and heaves me onto a staircase and over the summit. I want to kiss him with gratitude, but that would be scant reward. Bridget is behind me. Ken also heaves her up and over the top. We high five, feeling more exalted than Hillary atop Everest, then look around for the cottage.

When we see the trail sign of two footsteps heading over a dune, euphoria levels drops slightly.

We sit down and drink deeply from our water bottles. We notice paw marks as tiny as a kitten’s and learn later that they belong to the Pygmy Hairy-footed Gerbil, endemic to the area.  An hour and 10-more-daunting-sand-dunes-and-no-sign-of- the-cottage-later, we leave the sand and enter coastal vegetation, a magnificent expanse of vynbos. By now, conversation has  ground to a halt. If a group member had fallen off the krantz, we probably would have reacted with a,  ” …ja,…whatever…”        It’s late afternoon, we want coffee and cannot be distracted by trivialities.

The trek continues, there is no sign of anyone else. Immense beauty is all around: Rolling waves of the Indian Ocean down to the left, verdant vynbos to the right, Bridget and I in the middle. We tread on. And then out of nowhere, Andrew, Bridget’s husband is walking toward us. I study a cloud during their reunion,

then he takes her pack and points out the hut roof gleaming in the leaden afternoon sun…..about 3 kilometres away. I’m not sure whether to thank or assault him, but eventually we crawl up the back steps and receive a non-hero’s welcome from the youth who are tanning and missing their devices and claiming that this is the worst day of their lives. There is loads of fresh water, the kettle is on and coffee is served. I sip mine leaning up against the balcony, smiling with unspeakable joy and relief.

The balcony structure is delicate and slightly wobbly. I think of that indemnity notice from the Authorities and sit up slightly. Many members are complaining about Mexican Heartburn: thigh chaff, the consequence of a deadly combination of friction, sweat, and a grain of sea sand (but without the resultant pearl). I spring up at snail’s pace and produce a tube of Anthisan, an ointment for beestings and skin-related issues. Andrew tries some, dances about like a dervish, nearly jumps over the balcony, then rushes out of the kitchen door, holding the affected bits apart. No one else asks me for some.

[Andrew at the back, seconds after application of Anthisan].

We are served pasta with a tuna and tomato sauce by the teenagers who are hiding their misery by chatting, giggling and being very helpful. The meal is inhaled in hearty, hungry silence. Dessert is chocolate slabs. It is only 8:30 but 5 minutes later, the hut is engulfed in silence. Even Sandy has surrendered his anxiety about ants to the arms of Orpheus.

Day 2: (26 484 paces)

The clatter of plates awakens us at 5 the following morning. Ruby has turned on the gas, the kettle is about to boil and she is washing the dishes, thereby making yesterday the second worst day of her life. We stumble from bed, drink coffee and eat instant porridge. Gentle rain starts falling. The Safricans in the group whoop and dance about on the balcony. The heavy ropes strapping the water tanks to the cottage, or the cottage to the tanks, are nearly torn asunder by the celebration. The Scots and English in the group look at us like a scientist would at an Orangutan on an iceberg. We sweep our garbage into bags and strap them to our back packs – the rubbish must come too.

The youth disappear 5 minutes before the sages. We step out into the mizzle amidst the moist vegetation, as grey clouds roll in and waves respond with a muffled roar. Damp plants tease at our ankles; a fresh westerly moves us along. The sensual sweep of plant growth groans with pleasure in the rain.

 

 

Soon we step out onto the biggest coastal dune fields in the southern hemisphere. As far as the eye can see, there is sand.  Mountainous dunes muffle the sound of the ocean. They are magnificent in their dominance of the skyline.

After half an hour, their magnificence has declined somewhat as we journey across wave after wave of them. I am walking barefoot and step into the footprints of the teenagers that have gone ahead. The wind and rain drive us along. We get to the base of a dune, drop our packs and start rummaging about for the left over snacks. Damp, sandy hands fill mouths with damp, sandy peanuts and droe wors. I’m cold now and my fingertips are tingling with numbness. I walk on. Raindrops cling to wind-bent blades of grass. I cling to them for support up another dune. The softness of the sand mocks us every time we get to within 10 meters from a dune summit.

We have to lean sideways and edge along with one hand in the sand. This pattern continues for 7 kms, until we drag our soggy selves off the sand and into the coastal forest. We stop, refresh our energy levels with some Provita and water, dust off our wet, sand clogged feet, put our shoes back on and start walking again. Giant sand snails, prompted by the moisture, have come out of their shells. We stop to photograph one from every angle and then discover at least another 10 along the way; two have collided and are struggling to disentangle themselves. It must be the speed.

We get to a sty, cross it, look up and collectively (not Ken) wail at the sight of the tyrant of a hill that looms ahead. The climb begins; the climb continues. Ken who has taken the lead of our bedraggled group is Scottish and used to facing down monsters like Ben Nevis. He whistles a wee tune while behind him, my rebellious calves provide distraction from thoughts that another heart attack is imminent.  An anti-erosion furrow crosses the path; it is the only respite on offer. Sweat pours, my heart bangs on my skull – it is the only sound in this vast landscape. Snails overtake me. And when we get to the summit of the monster, another slightly kinder one awaits – it is shadier, shorter and not quite so steep. More following of the Scottish Leader. At the top of this, I am happy to announce, the worst is over. We stop for lunch: menu similar to early morning tea and mid-morning tea. Bridget has saved her Melrose Cheese Wedge for this last snack, she removes the wrapper, licks her lips and drops it in the sand. Humour is as short as our breath. I offer her mine – it is her birthday after all.

And now it’s sort of downhill all the way. At least another hour’s walk, but the path is even, wide and shaded. The rain let up a long time ago and we walk together and chat.

 

Andrew and Ken start a conversation about rugby which propels Bridget and me ahead. Sometime later we halt, as a fetid smell blocks the path. It is a dead Bushbuck, a sad sight; the maggots have been busy for hours. We walk around the swollen creature and keep going.

The shaded area opens up to a warm expanse of succulent Wild Figs. Then, like a mirage, Max, one of the miserable teens appears, with a broad smile on his face. He gives us a warm welcome and points to a corner around which, about another kilometre, is base camp.

It’s about 3:00 p.m when my pack thuds to the ground, I throw the smelly litter I have been carrying since 8:30 this morning into the bin but notice no difference in the smell of my aura. Our support team arrives with cold Cokes, chips and chocolates. Yesterday reverts to the teenager’s worst day ever, again.

Deep gratitude at being able to walk surrounded by the vastness of sea and sand and African sky, to sleep under the protective eyes of a million stars and to be with special people. At the next cocktail party I’m subjected to, I shall silence the company with, “When I was walking through the Southern Hemisphere’s greatest coastal dune fields…”.

We missed you so much Meg. Happy 50th, Bridge and thank you for inviting me to your party.