This year’s Christmas will go down as one of the least conventional (and infinitely more adventurous) for me.
Earlier on in the year, we decided we wanted to get as far away as possible from the festive consumerism and madness. We were determined to separate ourselves from the horror that starts to play out long before December – the overly cheery jingle-jangle, sparkly, happy-crappy musak in the malls, the tsunami of gift wrap and plastic landfill, the constipated out-of-towner-traffic, the atmosphere of forced jollity and greed….all of it.
So F and I took flight and headed for the hills. The idea was to flee into the solace and still embrace of one of my favourite wilderness areas, the Cederberg. It’s rugged, it’s unpredictable, it’s spectacular and very, very peaceful.
We were seeking big skies, big mountains and a chance to camp out under the stars one or two nights. I had in mind a few reasonably brisk hikes up the odd hill to get to a flat spot where the new lightweight tent could be pitched and views and books could be savored. I fantasised about long tea breaks perched on sunbaked rocks, mountain stream dips, lazy picnics, star gazing and sunset contemplation.
This, I felt, would be the order of the day.
What I had forgotten was that I had signed up for all this “downtime” with a chap who has this little piece of wisdom stuck to his fridge door…
There’s nothing more satisfying than the primal feeling of being able to move quickly and proficiently through a rugged, natural landscape.
We shall call him Duracell from here on.
The first morning the alarm went off at 5am (!) I managed to throw one cup of coffee down my throat before we popped on our trail shoes and charged up the mountain in front of our chalet. Our mission was to explore the extent of the big burn. A nasty fire had ripped through roughly 30 000 ha of the reserve’s east section some days before and since we had run through this two months earlier while racing the Cederberg Traverse we wanted to get an idea of how much damage had been caused.
So charge we did….or Duracell did….at a rate of knots….with me sagging, sighing and whining ever so slightly behind. It was just too much, too early, and I was on holiday!
The burn was pretty devastating, but we did see a pair of Klipspringer bounding across the scorched sand, so we felt a little heartened by that…
Duracell flew back down the mountain – sinking into the mist below – and I followed a little lamely behind, vowing quietly to myself that I would need to be firm and set the boundaries for myself on this holiday of ours.
I laid this out on our return and settled down with some coffee and a book while he charged off to buy matches from the nearest shop about 20 kays away and to charge the battery which was powering our fridge.
Later that morning, run long forgotten, I found myself packing the tea stuff, our gas stove, lunch, drinks, hoisting packs on our backs and setting off up another mountain to have a picnic at “Andy’s Waterfall”. It was a fairly solid mission in the heat of the day. We did (granted) sit and have tea, sip from the stream and peruse the map. This, you understand, was in order to plan Days 3 – 9.
Day 3 dawned bright and early and this time we were all set for a mountain bike mission…we navigated and rock hopped our way through and over some excellent, reasonably gnarly single track. Duracell had a nasty fall, ripped his T-shirt, but got up laughing and wanting more…as one does.
We then locked up our bikes and set off on a walk (with lunch). Much later that afternoon after a brief breather we set off on a 10 k run. Then the clouds rolled in and some beautiful soaking rain drenched the mountains, dampening down the soot and fed the thirsty earth.
Day 4 saw us heaving pretty hefty packs on our backs and setting off on our first overnighter…our route carefully crafted and selected by Duracell. I thought nothing of the route, the distance, the destination, just knew that we planned to be out in the mountains for Xmas eve, and would wake up somewhere beautiful on Xmas Day. I trusted his route, thinking he would have a good sense of distances, heat and water en route, etc.
We clobbered about 20 kays that day – a beautiful route which takes in the second half of the Cederberg Traverse. Duiwelsgat valley has come to be one of my favourite corners of this wilderness, and I vowed to Duracell that I wished to have my ashes scattered right there…a place where I will most certainly ride thermals with the Black Eagles and be left well alone by people. Pure bliss.
We had lunch and a break at Sneeuberg hut, then set off on the last leg of our journey to get to the top of Sneeuberg Peak. We were rewarded with some superlative views, a glorious sunset and a comfortable, albeit chilly night’s sleep.
Day 4 dawned and after tea we packed up and set off back down the mountain, off on our return journey – via Agter Kruis Valley…we knew it was set to be a long day, but we had not really bargained on such intense heat.
Long and short of it, we walked….and walked….and walked….and bitched (well I did)….and bitched some more….and after about eight hours of this (in temperatures that rocketed well over 40 degrees), we found we had to negotiate two very steep gorges…so up we went, blisters screaming, hot sun on our backs, streams starting to run dry.
Tempers were frayed, sense of humour got lost somewhere deep down a porcupine hole, some harsh words were exchanged, but we eventually got ourselves home. Literally just short of 12 hours after we had started that morning.
The G&T’s (note, plural) were utterly delightful that evening.
We really did rest up the next day. Read books, caught up on some work, and slept.
Day 6 saw another pack hoisting affair – destination Middelberg hut and surrounds….a lovely reasonably gentle haul up to a stunningly peaceful camping spot in a valley.
We made camp, brewed tea and had lunch. Leaving everything in camp we skipped off down a path looking for cell signal, and came across a beautiful pool – crystal clear, tree fringed and with a waterfall. We swam and drank and soaked it all up… and vowed to keep our discovery a secret…
Day 7 was a horror story…truly.
Slingsby (bless him, and all due respect to the man for a set of exceptional maps) claims that the path linking Middelberg to the next valley on was “old and faint”…we were up for that challenge, and fought our way fairly valiantly down a very steep section of burnt out fynbos, legs covered in soot and scratches by the time we hit the valley floor.
We set off in search of the path through a solid wall of fynbos…and I mean solid. Thorny, scratchy, nasty, whipping, spiky, bastard, f*%&ing fynbos. It just came at us from all sides – in our faces, slapping our battered, bloodied legs and eliciting the foulest language ever heard in those parts – of that I have no doubt. We crossed the river a few times (choked with typhus and some other invasive shite), slipped, cracked skulls, twisted ankles, had some more branches whip and slash our raw legs…we tried scrambling over to the other side of the valley which looked cleared and more walkable. It wasn’t. So back over the river….
Eventually we met up with a decent path – the one that goes up, up and up to the saddle to take us back home. One final hot ascent, and then a long, dry descent and we were home….battered, bloodied, bruised and looking like something out of Platoon. It really felt as though the mountain didn’t want us on board that day and she was doing everything in her power to chew us up and spit us out.
I have had so many conversations in my head (some out loud) about those two tricky, testing days last week. Long and short of it, I am grateful for the adventure and the pain (retrospectively anyway). I like that I am being pushed – sometimes to my limits, getting far out of my comfort zone, getting angry, then just pushing through and buggering on. And getting stronger through it all.
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger – and why on earth would one want to whittle away a day sipping cocktails by a pool anyway?!
But struggling and suffering, as I now saw it, were the essence of a life worth living. If you’re not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you’re not constantly demanding more from yourself—expanding and learning as you go—you’re choosing a numb existence. You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip.