For the love of hiking

It’s a weekend morning, probably a Sunday. I’m with my mother and my sister. I’m about seven years old, and we’re going for a walk up Lion’s Head. I complain incessantly, my exhaustion turning into grumpiness very quickly. I want my mother to carry me but I’m obviously too old for that. My sister and I whine. I plop down onto a rock, arms folded across my chest, glaring at the flora and fauna. Somehow my mother refrains from throwing us off the mountain. As I remember, we don’t make it to the top.

***

We’re in Nature’s Valley, the place I love the most. It could be any year, from 2002 to 2013. We’ve camped there every December holiday since I was tiny. We leave the campsite and drive to the trail that leads to Salt River. The trail begins not far from the beach. We enter a dark forest, which quickly muffles the sound of the tourist-filled stress that we’ve left behind. The trees are gnarled; they curl and twist along the path, and the thick green leaves overhead protect us from the sun.

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[Image: sourced]

We’re sweating as the hike becomes ever steeper, but we know that this means we’re closer to the lookout spot. Soon, the trees make way and we’re under the sun again, and from this spot we can see the beach below, a dark expanse of blue that looks deceptively calm from up here.

We make our way down to the end of the path and our feet hit soft sand. The river mouth is green and full. Across the river is more forest that seems to go on endlessly. I walk into the water, sink beneath its surface, breath out salty bubbles.

[Image: sourced]

***

My friend J is from Cape Town, like me, but he says he’s never been up Lion’s Head. We’re nearly in our last year at high school, and by this point I love the walk and think J will too. It’s the summer holidays, so naturally the mountain is packed. It’s hot and sunny and we’re both sweating, but we scramble up the rocks nonetheless.

The chains are my favourite part; I place my feet on the metal staples sticking out of the rocks, one at a time, hands tightly gripping the chains as I hoist myself up onto the rocks above. J appreciates the glimpses of Cape Town from this height, but he doesn’t know what’s coming. When we reach the top, breathless and pink-cheeked, we marvel at the view of the city below, the skyscrapers, fields of green, black tar roads intersecting all over, and the bright turquoise squares of water in people’s back gardens. Boats cruise the surface of the deep blue, and in the distance, detached from the city, is Robben Island.

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Myself and J, 2013. (Credit: Gregory Jacobson)

***

It’s January, 2016. In a few weeks I’ll be heading back to Grahamstown for my second year. My alarm wakes me up at 3AM, and I stumble out of bed, the summer heat making my head spin, my hair plastered to the nape of my neck. Once ready, I grab my backpack and slink out the front door. My sister is fast asleep upstairs. She thinks we’re mad.

Thomas arrives to pick me up. Kathryn and the others are all squashed up in the back seat already, and I squeeze in next to them. We’re too excited to be sleepy now, and besides, if anyone was feeling tired, Thomas’ driving has surely jolted them awake.

Tafelberg Road is empty, and Table Mountain is pitch black. We park the car near the beginning of the Platteklip Gorge trail, headlights on. The city glitters with orange and yellow lights, and I wonder who’s awake down there. The first part of our hike is quiet and exhausting. Each step is a huge stride over a rock, and within minutes, my chest is on fire. We can hear a stream in the distance, somewhat eerie in the darkness.

Soon someone brings out the speaker. We feel no shame in playing loud music considering that there is no one else around to complain. We keep it at a volume just low enough not to disturb the wildlife, but just high enough to motivate us as we endure the great, zigzag trek that feels like it is never going to end.

By 5AM, the mountain is in full view. Our lights are off, and the sun begins peeking between the rocks ahead. Our goal is to make it to the top before sunrise. Accompanied by Chariots of Fire, we complete the final stretch of the hike and find ourselves on the top of Table Mountain.

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Capturing the sunrise. (Credit: Shaun Donnelly)

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A blurry victory. (Credit: Cullam Geyser)

***

A month later, back at varsity, Marjorie convinces me to sign up for the mountain club. We join the group on the welcome hike to Featherstone, a path just outside of Grahamstown.

It’s supposed to be a “casual” hike, but the hiking comm leads us off the path and we find ourselves scampering awkwardly down a hill, avoiding thorny bushes, then jumping less than gracefully across a river and into a bush. That being said, I love it, and I can’t believe that these beautiful hills have been hiding here, patiently waiting all this time while I’ve been in Grahamstown. We make it to the final and steepest hill, breathless and beaming.

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Photo credit: Guinevere Shapiro and Marjorie Rugunda

***

It’s April 2017, and things have already started to go downhill. But I’m lugging a 15kg backpack onto campus at 5AM. We’re going to Hogsback.

We hike all day, through forests, along paths near meadows filled with grazing cows, up rocks, down slippery, muddy slopes, which give our glutes a fierce workout. It’s a cloudy, quiet day, and we’re surrounded by green and fog. I wish I could put the beauty of Hogsback into words, but I could never do it justice.

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Cool and foggy and perfect. (Credit: Guinevere Shapiro)

My shoulders ache. We’re staying the night in the forest, and my bag is filled with clothing, food, pots, a torch – the works. We devour our snacks each time we stop. By the time the seventh hour of walking rolls in, the chatter of the group as dies down and we walk slowly, eager to spot the campsite.

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Into the woods. (Credit: David Kinsler)

In the evening, after pitching our tents and setting up camp, we follow our hiking guide on a walk to find a hidden waterfall. The meadow we cross reminds me of that scene out of The Sound of Music, only it’s real and I can smell grass and earth and breathe in unblemished air, and the mountains in the distance are a melancholy blue.

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The walk to the waterfall. (Credit: David Kinsler)

We find the waterfall, and we sit on the rocks atop it, watching the water stream past and down, farther than I’d like to see. It’s like nothing I’ve experienced before. On our walk back to the campsite, the sun starts to set, and the sky flames up in hues of orange and purple. The colours shine on the grassy path as we walk, and it’s so astounding that it’s almost ridiculous and I don’t quite know what to do with myself.

Huddled around the fire at night in the 5-degree weather, we nosh on beans and pasta, warming our hands and feet, drinking sherry, giving our bodies a rest under the gleam of the stars above.

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