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Keeping the black dog tied up as I wander through circl...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Keeping the black dog tied up as I wander through circles in the forest

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Justin Nurse is ‘the T-shirt guy”’– the guy who went to court with SABMiller over his right to poke fun at Black Label with his infamous ‘Black Labour/White Guilt’ T-shirt, which resulted in a Constitutional Court victory in 2005 and a landmark judgment for freedom of expression in the face of trademark law.

Secret hiking spots have become what secret surf spots were in South Africa in the Nineties. You’re looking for somewhere to go where you’re not likely to encounter anyone else.

My father handed me newspaper copies of Daily Maverick for my 45th birthday. Two articles caught my attention. The first was a review of Ryan Stramrood’s swimming book, Push Past Impossible, and the second an article by social justice activist and Maverick Citizen editor Mark Heywood about hiking the Otter Trail.

I’ve written about my two Robben Islands swims and I look up to both Stramrood and Heywood for their significant, respective triumphs. I licked my lips at the synchronicity of my dad’s present as I was about to depart for the Otter Trail with a bunch of mates. I knew I’d have a lot of time to think along the trail, and wondered if I’d have anything to add to the conversation. For what it’s worth, this was my experience…

Pre-departure

Perhaps the hardest part of the Otter Trail is simply getting there. You need to call SANParks at 7am on the first day of the month and be put on hold for what feels like an eternity of airtime minutes until you get a tentative booking for a starting date that same month, in a year’s time.

The pandemic had a way of paralysing me into an entrepreneurial quagmire and so I remain, still, in a lot of accumulated debt when I believed that this “thing” would “just blow over” and life would soon “return to normal”. Getting buy-in from 11 friends to fill the 12 spots in a year’s time was no small feat. If I had a rand for every “sounds like a plan” my friends messaged me with, I’d be out of debt.

So, with delusions of gallivanting off on overseas holidays firmly set aside, I still wanted to throw down a marker of something to look forward to, something to aim for. Swimming Robben Island had similarly kept the black dog tied up, and encroaching middle age was to be further offset with a coastal hike with among a dozen of my nearest and dearest who could convert “sounds like a plan” into the required R1,450-per-person cost.

My mind was buzzing on the morning of my 45th birthday, on a Tuesday in June ’22 as carpooling had been organised, veggie meals had been dehydrated, gear had been packed, and we were on our way. It feels scandalously indulgent leaving the working world behind at the start of a week, turning off your phone, and checking out of society and all one’s self-imposed digital commitments. But hey, it was my birthday.

The Otter Trail hike itself

I’ve been fortunate to have done the Otter Trail four times previously – in my twenties, thirties, and now forties. So this for me was a chance to reflect on my fitness and friendships – to revisit familiar places outside and then feel what still felt familiar, inside.

Some of the friends have stayed the same and it was a true joy to laugh like we were students again, making small talk about our pack weights and what sauce we’d be enjoying with our two-minute noodles that night. We would cajole each other into swimming down river mouths and out into the sea, where passing humpback whales were spouting off in the distance as we’d climb precarious cliff edges to jump off.

I took along the luxury of a Hermann Hesse book of short stories, Strange News From Another Star, and one story in particular, The Hard Passage, seemed to mirror my daily rhythm of conflict, torn as I was between enjoying the coastline and returning to the forest as the trail undulates sharply between the sea and the woods.

Hesse writes: “I tore my eyes away from the beloved landscape, the way a man forcibly frees himself from a warm bath. Now I saw the gorge lying in sunless darkness, a little black stream crept out of the cleft, pale grass grew in small tufts on its bank, in its bed lay stones that it had tumbled there, stones of all shades, pale and dead like the bones of creatures that had died long ago.”

Whether it be the knotted yellowwood trees in the forest, or the greying driftwood one encounters as you pass along the bays, I was aware of these “bones of creatures” as I moved between scenes of splendour, from coastline to river gorge and forest and back again.

The beauty of it all is so overwhelming that it gets a bit much after a while. For me it’s akin to feasting on Christmas Day: there’s too much overindulgence, too much of a sensory overload to really take it all in. I felt spoilt.

My heritage

I thought about how I’d started hiking when I was a scout, and how a friend’s dad took us on our first multiday hike – the Wit Els in the Hex River Mountains – while I was still at school. How hiking has become a part of my heritage. It’s something I love to do with my partner as we explore the mountains where we live in Bainskloof, and it’s something I look forward to doing more of with her as we grow older together.

Hiking is something we try to encourage our kids to do, too. Since the pandemic and (dare I remind you) the time when the beaches were closed, hiking has experienced a resurgence as people queue to get photographs taken of themselves for “the gram”, on the “diving board” on the Kasteelspoort Trail on Table Mountain. I’m sure that in the rest of the country it is largely the same.

For better or worse, apps like FatMap, Mappy and AllTrails have democratised hiking in South Africa and it is no longer the exclusive domain of Mountain Club members. All you need is a hiking WhatsApp group and a weekend adventure awaits.

I say “for better or worse” because I would argue that living in Bainskloof, at the doorstep of a UN World Heritage Site in the form of the Limietberg Nature Reserve, I have seen what happens when humans are let loose on pristine nature without enough education around the rules of hiking etiquette.

I would argue that there is a culture of hiking that needs to be promoted and passed down from one generation to the next – and from what I’ve experienced, it’s not always adhered to. Here I’m talking about the usual nags of starting fires, leaving litter and observing protocols around permits. Leaving a trail in a better condition than you found it.

I’m bumming myself out as I write this, and for five days as I ate away at my pack weight, I became increasingly unencumbered by my societal woes. So I did think about my heritage, and how I’d love to share this with the children in my life – and at what age it would be appropriate for them to embark on their first multiday hike.

Secret hiking spots

Secret hiking spots have become what secret surf spots were in South Africa in the Nineties. You’re looking for somewhere to go where you’re not likely to encounter anyone else. The authentic South African adventure experience is out there – the people you follow on Instagram titillate and tell you so – and so now it’s just up to you to piece together the online clues and make it happen.

Just in the immediate proximity of Storms River Mouth and the Garden Route, you also have the Tsitsikamma, Harkerville and the Outeniqua Trail as multiday hikes to complement the Otter Trail. Under apartheid, we had a Forestry Department, and now we have SANParks and CapeNature. I’m not sure that either is doing its very darndest to create opportunities for average South Africans to enjoy these and other multiday hikes on our doorsteps.

I can think of one other multiday hike – Jan du Toit’s Kloof (not to be confused with Du Toit’s Kloof), at the bottom of the Bainskloof Pass on the way back towards the N1 – for which CapeNature issues only a few permits a year. And the recipients of those are the Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA) and the Cape Piscatorial Society. Here again, it feels scandalous that these places aren’t more accessible to the everyday public.

Were I to be able to wave my magic walking stick as the newly appointed “Minister of the Exterior”, I would make outdoor education mandatory and encourage more groups of scouts and the like, where there is a mentorship involving old, experienced hikers and enthusiastic newbies who can also afford some shoes, some snacks and a few days off on weekends and in the holidays. A passing of the baton that ensures that our best-kept hiking secrets are preserved and still shared. It’s a fine line to walk.

Upon returning

There was a fire on the bluff above Nature’s Valley on the morning of our last day, so we hot-footed it out of there. I plugged an audiobook into my ears to escape the din of fire-rescue choppers. I listened to Trevor Noah’s book Born a Crime and learnt a good few things about his childhood in Joburg. Here again, I wanted to share this experience with my own daughter – to remind her “how tough we had it”. To remind me not to take things for granted.

It was a stormy Sunday night as we summited Sir Lowry’s Pass in the driving rain. If anything, I felt grateful to be alive. Something was buzzing as I got home, but it wasn’t my mind. It was the sound of my empty fridge. Ah, how I’d forgotten white noise!

That was the real beauty of the Otter Trail: an unburdening of unnecessary emotional reactions to stimuli that don’t serve you. A heightening of the senses. I wasn’t ready to re-enter society just yet. So I picked up my pack and headed back out the door.

Outeniqua, here we come!

A friend messaged me asking if I’d chaperone his kids on the Outeniqua Trail. It seemed preposterous to contemplate at first, but I took it as another sign and greedily ate up the offer from the hands of the gods that ordained me to spend 10 days in nature in the month of June.

I also had my daughter as company for the start of her school holidays, so my questions about heritage and when it would be time for her to accompany me on a big hike were immediately answered.

I confided my guilty acquiescence to a fellow parent in the school parking lot on break-up day, who quipped that I must be doing something right if I can afford to take two weeks off in June.

And of course, there’s a paradox there: you feel conflicted leaving society and “taking time off”, and then you feel even more conflicted upon re-entering it. Why, when I have these “aha moments” that teach me “this is how I should live my life!” do those moments not end up outweighing the time I spend trapped in captivity?

Three adults and five teenagers set off for the Garden Route, none of us had hiked the Outeniqua Trail before. I thought of Jack Kerouac and On The Road when he writes: “We were all delighted, we all realised we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move.”

We had gleaned what we could from online blog articles and we spent five nights in forestry huts that could’ve been home to Kerouac in his novels Big Sur and Desolation Angels. Not that I’d know for sure, as I can’t afford to travel overseas and I’m afraid of America and its gun-control laws! But I did think of Kerouac often, and his descriptions of “rolling hills” as we straddled the hills between the Knysna forest and the Karoo, looking out to sea where we could see Robberg Peninsula and the Knysna Heads.

For reading company this time I took Dave Eggers’s The Circle, a dystopian takedown of social media and our privacy culture. The hiking days were long, from 9am to 4pm most days with a few hours of daylight to make supper and enjoy a cold shower. What a joy to simply walk, rest, and read! We had the huts all to ourselves and didn’t encounter another soul on all five days on the trail.

After a tough first day where we ended up following one of those damn apps instead of the marked route and got lost, the teenagers and adults remained buoyant for the duration as we dreamed of Knysna elephants while walking through Dalene Matthee country. The sound of loeries is far preferable to the sound of lorries as the trail spits you out on the noisy N2 highway, 5km from Harkerville.

Russia was still bombing Ukraine and my PayPal account had been hacked, with thousands of saved writing rands now gone. It was a rude return to society once again, but I remain very grateful to my friends and family for affording me the experience. Next up: the Whale Trail! DM

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