Maverick Life

Maverick Life Op-Ed

Cape Town’s wild heart – a space to treasure and enjoy

Cape Town’s wild heart – a space to treasure and enjoy
Kloof Corner hike (Photo by Daily Maverick)

It took five weeks of hard lockdown, and another month of severely restricted movement, for people to really appreciate the outdoors. I, for one, was delighted to get back on to the mountain at the beginning of June, and – as I discovered – so was the rest of Cape Town. This is a good thing – mostly.

Walking on the mountain has multiple benefits. (So has running and cycling – but we’ll stick to walking here.) The Japanese custom of shinrin-yoku, which loosely translates to “forest bathing” is the practice of immersing yourself in a place of natural and botanical beauty in order to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, slow down the heart rate, and even improve immunity. So it’s not surprising that many Capetonians make a habit of heading for the hills for their daily or weekly dose of fynbos-scented fresh air. But, what’s great about the post-lockdown era is that it seems more people are spending time on the mountain, and – with only anecdotal evidence – it seems like the demographic of mountain users is changing. That means that more and more Capetonians are realising the value of the city’s wild heart.

Until late March, I was a pretty regular mountain walker. I’d stroll around the lower sections of Cecilia Forest with my cute little dog – and perhaps a friend or two – and absorb all the advantages of being out in nature – the views, the fresh air, the gentle exercise. Cape Town-style shinrin-yoku.

Since restrictions eased in June, I’ve been back with a vengeance, and I’ve been delighted to see that more Capetonians are heading for the hills. It is an unequivocally good thing that more people are passing time on the mountain – it’s good for them, and it’s good for conservation in general. However, along with the many positives, there are some negatives as well.

Like I said, I’ve been walking on the mountain for ages, and I feel the benefits. I have, over the last two years, lost close to 20kg – not just from walking, but the walking helped. And my fitness has improved immensely, but I still have a long way to go to reach my goal – both fitness-wise and size-wise. I’ve also learned to pace myself. A year ago I would walk for half an hour, or an hour, two or three times a week. We’re talking about a mountain here, so there would be some up and down, obviously, but not too much. As I’ve got fitter, I have started to go farther and steeper, and walk for longer. Yay!

So, on a recent Saturday morning, I did quite a challenging walk – but with ease, because I had worked up to it. From the parking lot at Cecilia I went straight up the single track – slowly and steadily. If you don’t know Cecilia, picture this – the single track is like a steep staircase that goes almost straight up the mountain, intersecting with a gently inclined, broadly curving gravel jeep track at a few points. I plodded up past the first and second intersections, and – at the third – continued straight up. This is a big deal because this particular section of “staircase” does not intersect with the nice gentle jeep track for quite a long way. It’s also the route to the very scenic Cecilia Waterfall.

And that’s where I encountered a big, pleasantly diverse bunch of walkers – mostly quite young, but every shape and size. And, as I slowly overtook the rapidly-becoming-more-spread-out group, I started getting concerned, slightly angry. The leaders were young men – age about mid-20s – who were waiting ahead of the group, shouting encouragement. As the stragglers arrived, they would start walking again. Can you see where this is going? The fit young guys walk at a pace they’re comfortable with, and get to rest for 15 minutes or so, while waiting for the panting stragglers. And then they start again, so the stragglers do not get to rest – or, if they do, only minimally.

I did chat to the group leader as I overtook him (only because he was waiting for the rest of the group), and he assured me that he was “taking it slowly”, and when I suggested that – for the sake of some of the group members – he should perhaps have chosen a shorter walk, he said that he had chosen the “shortest route to the waterfall”. He clearly had no idea what the people at the back were experiencing.

Of course, they put a brave face on it, but I know what I’m talking about here. I know what it’s like to be “the slow impala at the back of the herd”. Even if there’s no chance of being torn apart by wild dogs, you feel inadequate, embarrassed, unhappy, tired and stressed. You certainly don’t get time to enjoy the views, or smell the fynbos. And the loud “encouraging” shouts of the younger, fitter people in front really don’t help, and are honestly just intrusive for other mountain users. I predict that, of the 20 or so people in the group I overtook, only the five or six in the front would be walking again the next week. This is sad.

After a straight vertical climb of just over an hour, I started down the jeep track, and met more groups heading up. One group had me very concerned – about 15 people standing at an intersection shouting to someone still heading towards them, “Are you the last?” and when that person said “‘yes”, they continued uphill. Yup – the fit guys at the front got to rest, and the stragglers were continually kept under pressure.

Hikers along a contour path around Constantiaberg on the Hoerikwaggo Hiking Trail (Photo by Gallo Images / GO! / Sam Reinders)

Views from the Pipe Track a popular hiking, running and walking trail a contour path at the foot of Table Mountain on April 21, 2014 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Nardus Engelbrecht)

I realise I might sound like an elitist Karen complaining about people “who should not be on the mountain” but that is not what I’m saying here. I applaud these group leaders for introducing their friends, neighbours and church groups to the joy of the outdoors. But I strongly suggest that they tailor their trips to the slowest members, and then lead from the back. Or break the group into subgroups based on ability and fitness. If the group I met had split into two with the fitter people heading up to the waterfall, and the less fit people strolling around the lower slopes, perhaps there would have been fewer aches and pains on Sunday morning, and perhaps more of them would be keen to do it again the following weekend – making this a life-long habit, rather than a once-off feat of endurance to be long remembered, and enjoyed (only) in retrospect. Sadly, this was not an isolated incident – I see similar groups regularly.

So, aspiring mountain walkers, don’t give up, but don’t rush it. Cecilia Waterfall is not going anywhere – if you decide to do a shorter walk this week, you can still walk there (or any other iconic destination) next month, or the month after, or next year.

That was the good and the bad, now for the ugly. Covid is still around, and it is not going to disappear overnight. So, please, wear a mask and give people space. Yes, there is less risk of transmission outdoors, but it is still pretty scary being confronted with a group of 10 or 20 people packed shoulder to shoulder from one side of the track to the other walking towards you, breathing heavily through their mouths and/or talking loudly, and not wearing masks. We really don’t know the direction the pandemic will take, and there have been second waves in most countries so far, so we might just be in for more disease, disaster and death if we are not careful and/or lucky – and possibly harsher restrictions.

Bottom line, though, is that we Capetonians are so blessed to have this gorgeous mountain in our backyard, and we should all get to enjoy it. With the emphasis on “enjoy”.

Not endure. Enjoy! DM/ ML

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  • John Cartwright says:

    The lead photograph is of Lion’s Head, not Kloof Corner. Kloof Corner is a buttress on Table Mountain itself (across the kloof), where the cliffs of the Atlantic side meet the cliffs of the ‘front’ of the Table.

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