Christmas Boot Camp

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.

Anton Krupicka

We shall call him Duracell from here on.

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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.

 

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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 hisimg_0988 T-shirt, but got up laughing and wanting more…as one does.

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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.

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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.

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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.556a5523

556a5618Day 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.

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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.

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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.

What we hadn’t bargained on was the path in the valley itself being completely non-existent.556a5758

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….556a5759

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?!

Run anyone?

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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.

Dean Karnazes

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If you go down to the woods today..

We are cruising down the Atnarko River in a Clackacraft drift boat – a rather bulky, tinny affair. It is, we are told, the best in the business. As we set off and clunk and grind our way over the shallower rapids, I wonder about this assertion.

The regal and appropriately named snow-dusted Mount Stupendous casts her gnarly profile down upon us and the reflections of lush and lofty cotton trees and Douglas Fir wriggle and stretch in the calm pools between the busier rapids.

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While negotiating his way with ease around vast cotton tree stumps and through churning rapids, our 70-something river guide Les Koroluk waxes lyrical about the great run of ‘pink’ or ‘kap’ay’ this year. He rolls off names like ‘chum’, ‘coho’, ‘cutthroat’, ‘sock eye’ and ‘bull trout’ – all with a delightful, and slightly quavering Canadian lilt.

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Vast clutches of gravid females swim urgently upstream, males not too far behind them. The crystal clear water darkens with salmon as they move en masse beneath and alongside us. Occasionally one leaps out of the water and belly-flops back. These remarkable fish face an astounding suite of challenges as they turn their backs on the ocean and make their way upstream.

I notice a few rather ropey looking fish, large white fungus-like growths on their flanks and fins. “Signs of decay”, explains Les, “long before their number’s up, many of them show quite erratic behavior and will flop about. They spawn and they die. Their job is done”.

Despite his advanced years, our guide’s burly arms tweak and tug at the two oars with total confidence. He is clearly well attached to his beaten up old boat – and refuses point blank to guide in the souped-up inflatables favored by his younger guiding colleagues.

We are in the company of a real mountain river man….boiling rapids, feisty fish, charging bears, icy mountains…he’s seen it and done it all. A deep understanding and reverence towards the land and its critters – hairy or scaled – oozes from every pore. He’s a story teller of note.

In the 80’s Les owned and ran a successful guiding company in the Bella Coola valley, where salmon and trout fishing was the main focus. This ultimately gave birth to commercial bear viewing ventures in the British Columbia region of Canada. Les, we find out later, was the brain behind the ‘river drift’ approach to viewing wildlife.

And thus we drift.

We are looking for bears. Big grizzly ones. They have been spotted all week on these drift trips, so we are feeling lucky. Sometimes they are within arm’s reach, we are told. Les tells us about all sorts of bear encounters – ones he has had with clients or on his own. Bears sitting on logs dipping paws into the river, bears mock charging, bears with cubs, big male bears swimming alongside the boat….bears all over the place.

Our rookie excitement mounts with each story and we strain our eyes up and downstream – we would give anything for a hint of hair, a flash of a pointy dark muzzle.

We’re here at the right time. When the salmon start migrating, the bears move up and down the river in a collective feeding frenzy, in a bid to fatten up for winter.

Towards the end of September, as fresh salmon numbers dwindle, the bears become less picky and start gnawing on spawned-out, dead and dying salmon. Very often, the putrid smell of rotting fish is what you will smell before you see a bear deep in the forest, explains Les.

We are in deep wilderness – with no signs of human habitation for many, many miles. The Bella Coola valley cuts through the coastal mountains from the Pacific to the interior plateau. The area has the lowest population density of any habitable area on earth and is one of the few places where ‘natives’ or ‘first nations’ folk outnumber the ‘non-natives’. Because of this, many of the bears that are encountered have not had negative experiences with humans. They are, Les explains, fairly tolerant and allow humans to watch them at pretty close quarters. It’s a balancing act though, he goes on. “There is a degree of trust that one needs to garner from the bears…we have to behave in a certain way that they are able to both tolerate and predict. The guides in the area undergo very specific training and we all adhere to the strict regional and provincial standards.”

I ask about client numbers and whether there is ever a sense of crowding the animal. “That’s very much part of it”, he says “the guide to client-ratios must remain small…we have to almost melt into the background for these bears, for these tours to continue to bear fruit”.

We come to the end of our three hour drift empty handed and a little disappointed. There’s always tomorrow…

The next day we set off with Mad Mike – a 30-something gingery bear of a man who has lived and guided in the area for many years. Mike shares Les’s deep passion for the area, but is also fascinated by the cultural history and tells us some rather alarming tales of how first nations people were mistreated by the Canadian government (enough material for another blog entirely!)

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We follow the ‘Tote road’ – a rough gravel road (used by the early settlers in the late 1800s) that winds its way parallel to the Atnarko River for about 11 kays upstream to the confluence of the Hotnarko River.

We are, of course, looking for bears.

We find a pika (a small hamster-like rodent), a garter snake and many frogs. We watch red-tailed hawks ride the thermals and a juvenile bald eagle swoop between the cottonwood tops. We come across Culturally Modified Trees (CTMs) – cedars that have been stripped of a few sheets of bark to make clothing or hats.

But there are no bears in these deep, dark woods. Not today anyway.

We find more than an enough tantalizing evidence to indicate their presence though. Big piles of fresh bear skat peppered with rose-hip pips; fat, dinner plate sized prints pressed into the mud; a broad, winding urine trail along a stretch of tar road (a male bear, we are told – they don’t stop to wee, they swagger and wee); rubbing trees scarred with deep claw scrapes and even hair embedded in the bark. I pluck a hair out and pocket it for my son back home – knowing how much of a treasure a genuine grizzly hair will be!

These trees talk, says Mike. Well, to a bear anyway. The scent left on the tree will tell the next bear who passed before it, their reproductive status and possibly their mood. Marking is usually done by males during the mating season, but some is done by both genders throughout the year. A bear will always stop at a talking tree and read the news, make its own mark.

Mike tells us that marine-derived nitrogen is found in these trees – even though we are about 100 metres from the nearest river. Indeed it is difficult to find a tree that has not been influenced by salmon! In a single spawning season, one bear will carry up to 700 salmon from the river and leave half behind on the forest floor. “The larger tree growth rings correspond directly with the large salmon runs” explains Mike.

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Remarkable stuff.

Every time we approached the river, we would be warned in hushed tones to quiet down, to be aware. Our guide would go ahead, stop, listen then pick his way through the tall reeds and gingerly check the river banks. Adrenalin levels would soar and I would start to imagine bears crashing out from the dark woods or rising up from day beds, all gnashing teeth and claws.

By now our feet were starting to ache a little, we had hiked the whole morning and into the afternoon. We had lunched on the river bank, taken a dip  in the river and now were really starting to think all these Grizzly encounters were pure fallacy…

On our final river bank check, I glance up and spotted a beautiful, massive golden-tinged Grizzly male sploshing about in the rapids. We watched him for less than a minute before he sunk into the water and vanished around the corner. It was enough to get the juices flowing. I had seen my first real live grizzly in the wild!

The next morning our first trip down to the hide revealed a sow and her cub right up close and munching away at a dead fish she had plucked out of the river. We watched through binocular and camera lenses – hardly able to contain our excitement.

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The bond between mum and cub was profound – he stuck to her like Velcro, and she constantly made sure he had his fair share of the rotting flesh.

The little guy became quite playful at one stage, jumping up and down on his hind legs playing what looked like hide and seek behind a bush. Mike had explained to us that bears often show a human-like sense of humour in their behaviour – signs of being aloof, scared, friendly, goofy and inventive. We saw all this and more in the way these two interacted. Eventually mum and cub ambled off to disappear from sight leaving us all, slack jawed and star struck…

On our last day we went on another drift – again with Les. This time we were rewarded with an excellent sighting of the legendary “Bent Ear”. This big chap had a floppy bottom lip and a battered ear from too many bar brawls and encounters with rival males or even females.

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“That’ll be Bent Ear”, says Les, in his lazy drawl….”he’s fat alright – ‘prolly got a belly full of cubs”, he chortles.

“Cubs?”, I ask, horrified….

“Yip….many sows will give birth to three cubs, but only one’ll make it. They either suffer den death because mum doesn’t have enough milk, or they’ve come across the likes of Bent ear and he’s picked out a cub and gobbled it up in front of his siblings”.

Tough stuff this, but it’s nature – red in tooth and claw and all that.

We watch this magnificent creature for a while. His shiny hippo-like bulk swims for about a kilometre downstream and then he emerges, shakes, glances up at us in our boat and swaggers off up a bank to be swallowed up in the gloom of the woods.

Notes from a distant forest…

I came across some pencil scribblings on the back of an art pad this morning. They were notes I wrote on one of the last days of 2013 while sitting on a pebbled river-bank in a forest.

It’s a collection of scattered thoughts, random phrases, disconnected observations and experiences that I must have jotted down in the hope that they would be captured on my return and moulded into some coherent shape or form.

Our last trip over Christmas took us to two beautiful isolated (and relatively unspoilt) pockets of this vast and gloriously diverse province. The first venue was Vermaaklikheid – a tiny dusty unassuming little settlement mostly made up of holiday cottages sprinkled along the banks of a wide, curvaceous tidal river, roughly 5 kilometres upriver from where it meets the Indian Ocean.

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What I did not know when I booked our second destination up in the rolling, grassy hills of the Grootvadersbos Conservancy was that we would be walking in the forested foothills of the Langeberg mountains – the catchment area of the very same river – the Duiwenhoks.

This made for some wonderful contrasts and thoughts around origins and destinations, youth and old age…as well as my usual musings around natural spaces and the magnificence therein.

So here are my penciled ramblings….unmoulded, unsculpted. Just as is.

..A quail fledgling spirits away from my bicycle tyre in fright skimming the grass with its small feathered body, tottering on immature, damp outstretched wings..

..A timid female bushbuck picks her way through the grass below our deck, the early morning mist rising around her… the guineafowl chatter and grumble at a passing baboon troup..all before breakfast…

..A Gymnogene circles overhead, Jackal buzzards taunt and dive and wheel and cry..

..Black cuckoo calls with her haunting song “I’m so saaaaad”….I say out loud (to nobody in particular)…”Don’t be sad, you live here!”…

..The occasional bellow of the Nguni cattle in the valley below and the hot smell of fresh steaming dung, the whine of flies..

..A mountain bike ride takes me up higher into the wilderness area…sweat trickles in frantic rivulets down my wrinkled forearm, I’m high on endorphs, big sky, mountain peaks and space…

..My tyres churn up the muddy single track and I duck and dive, hop and swerve my way along the contour of the mountain..

..The views are breathtaking and I stop to try capture them on my cell phone camera – knowing I cannot do justice to this beauty. One cannot possibly take this with..

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.. an overwhelming urge to drop my bike and run up, up, up and into the mountains, never turn back – so much to explore, to get lost in..

..We go in search of Narina Trogon and Crowned Eagle (having been told that this is their home)…we come away disappointed – our walk rained out and at the end come across a wide-eyed stiff-legged corpse of a raptor chick on the path ahead…

..We spend a day down a secret little valley, a kilometer deep stretch of indigenous forest, not an invasive in sight – pure, untouched pristine paradise..

..The ‘infant’ Duiwenhoks bubbles and dances between the mossy roots and rocks of the Grootvadersbos forest valleys and then makes its way coast-wards, through farmed lands, through towns and over highways to merge into a wide, cantankerous salty body of water that is tugged and pulled by the moon…

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..Wagging gossamer blue dragonflies touchdown on overhanging reeds..

…impossibly green fern fronds curl tight, ready to spring, stretch and bask..

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..coke-coloured water bubbles dance, twirl and pop..

..Transparent fish and athletic pointy nosed bug-eyed frogs dart through whirling pools..

.. ..Old man’s beard drapes itself on smooth branches that stretch and reach overhead, powerful tree roots spread and dip and twist into random rapids and waterfalls..

..arum lilies, ferns and elephant ear leaved plants jostle for a foothold below and a sliver of sunlight above in a bubbling rapid…

A happy child sits for the whole day sketching, reading, disappearing upstream exploring….

“Mom, you’re being so nice!”, he says. “That’s because I am happy”, I say.

Wild, calm, quiet, untouched places do that to me.

When God threw his toys

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Many billions of years ago, God had a gargantuan hissy fit – a tantrum of truly epic proportions.

Thunder roared and growled and fire balls cleaved the clouds as he tossed all his toys out of his big sky tree-house – one by one.

They tumbled down, broke into a thousand fragments, scattered and thrust themselves firmly into the barren land below.

There they all lie. Whenever I journey north to the Cedarberg mountains, I find my way to them.

On a walk one afternoon, I came across a new toy explosion playground.

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Shards of sunlight thrust through the clouds, tickling the mountain tips and valleys…throwing warm yellow-orange showlights onto the stage of toy detritus.

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What delight…! To walk between these citadels – red rock towers that tease the mind and play with the imagination, changing chameleon-like from one minute to the next in the early morning or late evening sunlight.

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Seahorses vie with dragons and leopards and …if you stare long enough, five different facial profiles will leap out from a single rock face.

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Here a Star Wars monster looms above us….any minute now he will break his shackles and move robotically towards us….destroying everything in his path.

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It is a veritable Easter Island visual feast, although in this case, these masterpieces are not at the hand of man.

Knowing that these miraculous, natural works of art have been made over millennia as the Earth has shivered, wrinkled, exploded, divided, heated, cooled, dried, pushed and pulled… makes it all the more extraordinary.

What a world we live in.

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a perfect place

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I have just spent a very privileged weekend in the back of beyond, enjoying time playing in the foothills of yet another unique Cape mountain range not too far from the concrete jungle.
‘Home’ was a little two-roomed cottage tucked away, up a dusty road, through a creaking farm gate or three.

Our playground? Beautiful rolling Fynbos and Renosterveld-clad mountains that go on forever. Big wide coffee skies with star sprinkles cradling a massive moon – her deep craters brought alive by a long so-close-you-can-touch-the-surface camera lens.
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We sat on the stoep in the evenings and took it all in. The stillness and the intoxication of being in a place where you cannot hear (or smell) a single ounce of homo-sapien-ness…

Every inch of me craves this kind of silence.

I breathe it in and hold it there, eyes closed….trying to capture it, to mentally bottle it and sip on it when next I find myself in a thrumming, sense-sapping mall, or having to endure the shrieking neighbor-hood kids and barking dogs…

And then the night-jar pipes up with her ‘Good-Lord-Deliver-Us’ and her mate calls back further down the valley and they continue with their heart-wrenching sing-song, until you see and hear a flutter of white and their calls echo further up the kloof. And then they’re gone.

And then the bats start their rustle, shuffle and twitter in the reed ceiling above and then they flit about in a very ordered frenzy, and we feel them rush over our heads and past our faces – almost touching, nanometers away from our noses.
We see a fleeting, perfect silhouette of one against the light – big, beautiful, template-perfect bat wings.

One evening I scan the pinky-orange-tinged mountain with my binoculars as the sun sinks away (reluctantly almost). I am hungry for a blurr of spots, the flick of a dark tipped tail, the whisper of a feline presence. The optimist in me believes that if I scan the mountainside for long enough, I will see a leopard in these mountains.

These are leopard friendly farmers after all.

We don’t see leopard, but we see a big old creaking giant of a leopard tortoise – quite possibly a septuagenarian.
I come across him grazing in the road as I cycle quietly up to him. He grazes so loudly I almost hear him before I see him! He stops, munches a little more with his beaky mouth, casts a lazy look at me and lumbers off, his massive, ancient, knobbly, distorted legs hauling his humpy-lump cargo – back into the bush.
What stories he could tell!

We hike in the foothills one morning… Destination: Waterfall.

Once out of the shaded poplar and oak groves, we hit the sudden intensity and heat of the mountain and begin our ascent…..
The air is heat heavy and deliciously aromatic. The grass is crisp and the ground thirsty and crackled. Thick papery leaves curl and shuffle in the wind, making one glance hastily sideways as you pass – always on the alert for sun-seeking serpents.

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The red aloes are bountiful – all over the mountain, with their inward-curling apologetic leaves. Delicate pink and green-fringed succulents tough it out with all manner of other glorious plump painted fat plants with spots, dots and splashes and exquisite symmetry.
Tough customers these… they can take all the heat, drought and wind thrown at them. Yet still be so flawless and beautiful.

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We hike for over two hours, every now and again putting on brakes as we descend into the valley and criss-cross a bubbling stream. Each time we cross, we teeter on rocks, slip-slide on logs and hover on leg-scratching dried up flood debris to stop and scoop up great handfuls of pure, sweet, delicious mountain water.

Into our mouths and over our heads. We cannot get enough of it.

We scramble and claw our way up the riverbed and reach our destination at the end of a shaded moist smelling kloof…this must be it?! The path has gone?
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It’s all modest-cool-moss-shrouded-rock with a tall glassy splash of water in the corner and a dark mysterious bewitched little pool at the base. Curly ferns and cool-as-cucumber waving arum lilies… a welcome contrast to the crackle-simmer heat intensity outside.
I dip my toes in the icy pool and opt not to swim…leaving the frigid liquid to the zip-zapping water-boatmen and other dark wriggly creatures within.

On the way back down we come across black-shoe-polish-shine beetles scuttling about between hot rocks and quivering stalks…they’re all going somewhere. For something. Only they know where.

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We stop to watch a large termite colony. Every single team member has a job to do and with military precision, they just get the hell on with it. There is not a second of down time. It’s all feeler-frenzy and ant energy bristling. Massive strips of grass, heavy seeds, five-times-your-body-size-restio stalks….all of it hauled along the rocky pathway into a tiny hole. The optimism and energy is infectious. Where one ant enthusiastically takes on too much and dumps it as it scurries feverishly onwards, another will follow and whip it up and carry it down. No questions asked.

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We watch a Black Eagle pair thermalling high above us. In perfect unison, they tuck their wings back and zoom down to a ridge below us. They holler and tease and take on a pair of uptight Jackal Buzzards who screech and dive-bomb…..and then move back on upwards together.
Un-phased. Unruffled. Effortlessly superior in every way.

Over a late lunch we watch a family of striped field mice scuttle about under the tangled bush beneath our stoep. We sit silent and still and see life unfold in this tiny patch of mountain.

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Birds, mice, lizards – all sensing no movement or threat above, begin to trust, inch closer and just be in their moment.

We watch it all unfold and the stories tell themselves.

It is a perfect place to be.

Wild creations

Happy 2013 to you all!

We have just returned from a wonderful time away exploring a few hidden (and relatively untouched) corners of this amazingly beautiful, diverse and surprising country.

I am going to kick-start this blogging year with some reflections on how some of these forays into these wild and woolly places brought on a remarkable change in our nine-year-old. His creative juices seemed to flow uncensored; he relaxed, seemed happier and made the most beautiful things.

We spent time swimming and canoeing in rivers, hiking on beaches, splashing in the warm Indian Ocean, sloshing about in thick river mud, watching clicking crabs and slurping prawns out of their murky depths, exploring the leafy, damp depths of thick coastal and riverine forests and swinging high within and between the vast creaking arms of ancient trees.

We rode horses (without conventional bridles and bits). We also rode and walked alongside African elephants. We met some amazing people who have a deep love and respect for these animals and who work with them in a way that uses the power of intention and a deep understanding of their instinctive/natural ways as opposed to cruel force and domination.

We stayed in some remote and rustic places – one or two of them fairly basic and without electricity. Our nights were lit by paraffin lamps, our showers either cold or heated up only by first lighting a fire and revving up a donkey boiler._1WD0147

The first of Tim’s creations emerged after one of our forest walks in the Wilderness area. Before we knew it, he had fashioned a little forest elf hat out of ferns, stems and twine. This he wore for the rest of the day – much to the gentle amusement of those we passed.

The second came out of a walk along one of those endless windswept Transkei beaches. This time, Tim quietly gathered up a random selection of driftwood sticks. He refused to tell us what he wanted to do with them. A surprise, he said.

That afternoon he sat with his knife and some fishing twine and within about half an hour had created a beautiful bow and arrow – the arrow perfectly whittled at the tip, with a neatly crafted slit at the end to fit the bow.

This was used on our first forest walk in Hogsback…when we were out searching for Hobbits!_1WD0406

At our next destination, and after another long drive, he hauled out his knife and fishing twine and started whittling away at the various bits of the bow and arrow and again – with zero intervention from us, he had fashioned a fascinating musical instrument. A kind of African guitar, which emits two tuneful notes when plucked along its two taut strings.

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Our final evening was spent in a glorious Karoo farm, the ancient farm house overlooking the Gamka River with its craggy steep echoing sides. While we sipped our wine and marveled at the warmth of the stoep soaking into our bare feet, the fading sunlight touching the aloes, and the vastness of the sky, Tim vanished into the scrubby Karoo veld.

He returned armed with scraps of iron, rusty wire, a bone, a stone and various other gnarled fingers of farm detritus. He then proceeded to create the most beautiful mobile/wind chime – his bare hands twisting and bending, cheeks puffed out with concentration._1WD0879

The end result is completely beautiful. It hung on the stoep, the warm Karoo wind making music with it throughout the night. It now hangs on ours at home – a wonderful momento of a beautiful evening.

Later that evening, Tim and I went around the house lighting the paraffin lamps before the darkness seeped under the doors. He then went off to help his father light the fire under the donkey boiler.  No electric switches, no television, no ipad, no cell phone. None of these hideous modern imagination slayers. These sensory thieves.

That night we all sat together and soaked it all in….the crackle of twigs, the smell of wood smoke, the fading distant chirrup of the kingfishers in the valley below, the hadedas cackling as they winged their way to bed, the crickets humming and the jackals calling to one another.

All of them telling stories – the subplots of which we humans could never fathom.

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This degree of creativity, independence and contentment is a fairly rare commodity at home with this little boy. I am not sure what it points to. But I imagine it has a lot to do with a “tuning out” – a shutting out the noise that is “civilised”, modern fast-paced and pressurised life.

There really is much to be said for spending more time in remote places. Especially for children. To be in places where one is forced to really fine tune all five senses; to become aware of what it takes to generate light and warmth; to invent, create and to really look and be in awe of the natural world.

In blogs to follow, I will share more on the extraordinary rivers and indigenous forests and the creatures we heard and saw. I also want to share the mind blowing interaction with three truly magnificent elephants…

A floral jewel


Just back from yet another wonderful weekend spent out of town discovering a new corner of this incredibly diverse, magnificent province of ours. We headed up to a spot just north of the rather pretty little town of Tulbagh, which is situated in a bowl surrounded by three imposing mountain ranges – the Obiqua to the west, the Winterhoek to the north and the Witzenberg to the east. We stayed on a farm on the slopes of the Winterhoek, its imposing, craggy peaks right behind our cottage.

We were determined to get ourselves up into the mountains and into a patch of indigenous forest tucked away in a kloof, so we set off early in the morning.

We hiked up a very steep firebreak which went right up the mountain until we reached the point where the fire-fighting vehicles would literally topple over it was so steep! It was hellishly hot – at 8am already. The combination of the heat and the fairly manic gradient was a bit too much for our usually fairly stoic little 8 year old…but the sight of the forest and its little waterfall was enough of a carrot!



It is always magical to be surrounded by 300-year-old trees, their creaking trunks and glorious twisted limbs with many a secret to tell. It is also a deep privilege to be able to scoop crystal clear water into your hands and drink straight off the mountain.

We clambered over rocks blanketed with dripping ferns and moss and headed a little further up into the mountain until it just became too steep. The place was full of raptors – from elusive African Goshawks flitting in and out of the canopy, to Jackal Buzzards and Peregrine Falcons outdoing themselves with aerobatics above…

We spent a little bit of time just sitting in the forest, sipping in all that energy and thinking how quickly all this brilliance can be wiped out… by us lot…!

The farm is stuffed with aliens, unfortunately, but in between all of that, we came across the most incredible floral jewel! The farm manager pointed it out to us as he showed us the way to the swimming dam. Rather alarmingly, he felt the need to pluck it out the ground to show us. At the time, it felt a bit wrong, and now, as I read up about this particular species and its fairly tenuous status, it was definitely not the best strategy!

This striking little turquoise-green flower (Ixia viridiflora) is one of the most unusual geophytes – and is confined to a very small pocket of the Tulbagh District. It is sadly listed as Vulnerable in the Red Data Book, and is likely to be upgraded to Endangered in the near future, if the decline in numbers continues.

These tissue-paper thin flowers have an incredible purple-black circular stain or ‘eye’ in the middle. This little gem of a flower is pollinated by scarab beetles – commonly known as monkey beetles!

After our mountain adventure, we hit the dam…a spectacular setting, with deliciously cool water and big fish nibbling our toes…what a great spot.

(With thanks to Warren for the pics, as always!)