Lying on the beach or trekking in the mountains? If you’re the fussy kind of tourist, South Africa has placed the Indian Ocean and the Drakensberg mountains within few hours’ distance, so that you can make the most of both worlds on the same day. This, however, implies having a vehicle that is slightly faster than the one we’re now crossing this magnificent stretch of land in. Doing 100 km in 50 minutes, the normal travel time on a Belgian highway with a normal car and an equally normal driver does not exactly find its South African echo right now. In the absence of a miracle that would propel us towards where we are headed, I speak the magic words to myself: sit back and relax. Always works when one has travelled for so long. I was now also adding “and enjoy Takalani’s house music that is resolutely submerging the vehicle and all the living creatures in it” to this yogist formula.
But where’s the hurry? With such landscape, it does not really matter whether we actually get somewhere. The changing moods of the ski make everything else around insignificant: there’s nothing more tangible right now that the present change of the colours in the open veld. The snaps in my camera convince me that I’m not dreaming: every minute looks different from the other. Nature plays at decorating the background, getting us drunk-happy with the beauty of the show.
We reach a point where we must leave the highway behind and take 4x4s: only they can carry us high up the rugged and swampy mountain paths. For having been transported between so many points by now, I got used to being the marionette in the hands of the puppeteer. I don’t know where I am, but whoever pulls the invisible strings and puts me in such locations, please carry on. Let the shades of green rule for the next two days.
What I believe happened is that we’re all dead and we somehow made it to Paradise. The family who welcomes us insists that we’re at the Drifters Lodge in the Central Drakensberg, KwaZulu Natal, 1800 meters above sea level. I don’t even want to locate my position and anchor myself into any kind of reality that might indicate later on that I was merely daydreaming. In this perfect, most likely virtual 3D environment that has temporarily been created for us until game over, it’s just us, a nice family with dogs and unfenced horses. Utopia.
The real part though is that there’s no electricity, no modern devices, no Wi-Fi. Even now that we’re disconnected from all realities, Takalani still briefs us for some distant time he calls “tomorrow”. He goes on in the candle light.
“Hé guys, tomorrow we go trekking up the mountain.”
Ahum. So far so good. Once the sentence is over, though, we all look at Takalani as if we suffer from acute short-sightedness or poor hearing. Or both. Somehow, such a short word as “hike” among so many others in the original briefing document did not get to us properly, I deem, judging by everyone’s transfixed expression. We wait, hunger for the precious details so torturously kept by Takalani, the guardian of tomorrow’s secrets. What we think is: for how long, how high up, why.
That we might have come unprepared for this becomes a certain fact when Takalani asks if we have trekking shoes. No, we don’t. Since none of us is English native, really, we might have interpreted “hike” as a sort of leisure walk. The actual meaning would stay with us forever.
Takalani is trying to sound reassuring, feeding us on very small bits of information and leaving the unsaid up to our imagination.
“Eh, it’s not a difficult walk, but it will take most of the day”.
We’re almost reaching precision here. “How much of the day?”
“Eh, almost 7 hours, if all goes well. We climb from 1800 to 2200 metres.”
So if all goes well. Hum.
“Why do we need trekking shoes?”
“Eh, you don’t really need them, but it’s good if you have them.”
By that point of the excursion, it had long become very clear to everyone that whatever we lacked, we just had to do without.
“Some parts of the hike are more difficult than the others,” Takalani dives into in-depth briefing head-on. Now we know.
“Get some rest tonight so that you can be fit.” That’s something we can easily do because we feel crushed with fatigue thanks to the continual displacement, and most especially, to quote the Master, because at candle light there’s not much to do. We drag our feet towards the lodge in blinding darkness. Knowing that the place is scorpion-free releases a bit the pressure of constantly being alert. I manage to wake up at 5 a.m. to catch the sunrise for some seconds: upright, snapshot, pillow.
“We should be all right, if it does not rain,” Taki greets us in the morning. Indeed, I was to find out later next year in a different setting just how unpredictable the weather can be on the mountain. “If it rains, we might not be able to climb”. So, que sera, sera is the watchword as we start to move on. Not before wolfing down rusks and fruits and packing some sandwiches just in case we might make it higher that day and still have an appetite.
Our group steadily divides into three. Those who have a quick start: they either fake being fit and therefore will soon fall like flies or they are truly the real thing. And if those who overtake you are close to 60, you’ll have to live with the shame for the rest of your life. There’s the group of the reasonable ones who keep a constant rhythm throughout the journey and save their energy for the “you never know” factor. Last come those who should seriously start doing some exercise when they go back home. We also had those who simply went back.
I realize a bit late that I only took a small bottle of water. I did pack the sunscreen, though, so at least I don’t risk to get sunburnt. Picture-stop along the way and Takalani’s explanations about the bushman paintings – the Drakensberg are home to some finely preserved San rock art. As we leave the painted rocks behind, I read “difficult and dangerous” on a board that points to where we’re going. Can’t be. I dismiss the thought.
“Hé guys, this is the most difficult part of the climb. After this, it will be easier.” The area is so steep that in spite of extreme muscle effort, we look as if we were walking on the Moon.
Takalani, who is not leading the herd anymore and breathes as hopelessly as I do, says that there are leopards sometimes in the Drakensberg. Good, then I can make do of my empty bottle and hit the cat in the head with it until it says “no more”. Or else I am hallucinating from the heat. I also forgot the reason why we were climbing. Maybe it’s just because it was included in the package.
Takalani manages a splendid sequence of good news announcements when he utters: “This is the most dangerous part of the climb, the one that we couldn’t have done if it had been raining.” Well, it isn’t but part of me wishes it were, because we now have to do it.
Juliana and I arrive right behind the 3 guys who move the fastest. The two of us feel shaky. There’s a big void right next to where my feet now stand. I don’t see the bottom of it: it must be either too deep or my vision is blurry from the panic. One wrong move there and I can easily slide down. I am glued against a massive rock which I need to climb. There’s absolutely nothing to hold on to. I crawl on the big rock and I feel the weight of my backpack pulling me slightly back. My veins run dry. My legs are shaking and it’s seriously not the good moment. Juliana and I think the same: is going back an option? Not at that stage. Andreas comes next to us, to “catch” just in case. While I somehow move up without consciously knowing how, a hand reaches out to me from the top. Janos pulls me and I can now enjoy the million rand view. It was well worth it. We have the intoxicating feeling that we have achieved something major. Like surviving.
Takalani counts us: we’re all there, minus those who decided to return a while back. We move on, hoping to remove the leopard from the equation, too. The walk is indeed too easy after the ascent. Takalani didn’t bring any water at all. He must be suffering; this “Hunger Games” sequence does not look like the environment he’s most comfortable in. We would all be much better off with a beer in the hand, but until then, we need water.
Takalani promises that there is a stream somewhere along the way. “Not far from here” is the best clue we get. This, in our language translates into hours. “We stop for lunch when we reach 2150 metres,” he directs. The peak looks fairly close but seems to move away from us with every step we take. When we arrive, I drop like a stone – I have reached my limits.
No way, we get up and find that stream. And when we see it, we forget that we cannot walk anymore and start running. We drink and fill the bottles, not giving a damn about water purifying tablets. If poison had been running in that stream, we would have sucked it in. After “hike”, we were now learning “thirst” and discovering the delicious taste of pure water.
“Drink, guys, the water you were carrying is bottled from this stream. Only this one is for free,” laughs this South African devil who still has the strength to poke fun at us.
We come to life again. But the trail is neither over nor getting any easier. We now prepare for the descent, which is physically even more strenuous since the ground is rocky. Every step on the stones is to be carefully measured: sliding equals sprained ankle, especially without the trekking shoes. One behind the other, we go slowly and grow weary and dizzy from all the cautiousness and looking down.
Behind my small group, someone or something is rolling down the mountain. We hear shouts. What is left of my blood freezes in an instant: someone fell. We all stop, not quite knowing whether we have to start running on account of animal attack or go back to offer help. From where we stand, we do not see a thing. We then hear baboons and we understand that it was one of theirs which came down the mountain and might have also scared one of ours. We reach the lodges but we’re not calling it a day yet, because in 20 minutes we have the horse riding. As Gollum would probably put it: “Stupid, greedy touristses!”
A pool or a shower would have obviously made a much better choice, but it would have been a pity not to ride in those fields. We will not gallop, since most of us get on horse for the very first time, so we relax, gently rocked in the saddle. But then there’s Janos and the never-ending noise that surrounds him: after an eight-hour hike, the thirst, the climbing, the descent and the number of hours spent sweating in the heat, and now the horse, he can still speak 10 words a second. I found a serious competitor.
The end of this magnificent marathon day leaves us with Inge suffering from sunstroke and Paul and Thaddeus officially expressing their intention not to ever trek again. We are surprised, maybe even scared at discovering our own strength. Takalani has no more jokes in store for now.
The next day we leave against our will. On our way to the truck I have a vision: a white horse gallops full speed, a black man in a white shirt on its back, riding as if nothing in this world could stop them. There’s heaven, somewhere between Durban and the Drakensberg.