Stepping it up to get in shape for the big day

Every journey beings with the first step. I don’t know who wrote that first – it’s something that I’ve become more used to seeing on the back of those little packets of sugar you get in restaurants for your tea, but here we are.

There’s about 50 of us. It’s early on a Saturday morning, about an hour south of Joburg, close to Heidelberg. We are at the Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve so-called, according to the internet, because of the Transvaal Suikerbos or sugarbush. I couldn’t tell you what a sugarbush is, even if I fell down a gorge into a thicket of them. What I do know is that I’m in the middle of a 12 000 hectare nature reserve that has some sizable hills ahead – oh, yes, and it’s beautiful.

Most of the 50 of us are hoping that we will be summiting Kilimanjaro come July 18 this year, Nelson Mandela’s 100thbirthday. We’re part of the Trek4Mandela climb. The rest of us are here as supporters, doing the hike for fun. Some people obviously have better friends and relatives than I have, because I’m here on my own.

I’m nervous. I’m not alone. Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive Sello Hatang speaks to us before we set off: “This is a special year. You know your why, and we hope that it will drive you to do more.”

And with that we’re off. Single file, walking determinedly out of the car park and into the reserve. There are veterans among us, some who have climbed Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak at 5 895m above sea level, but are coming on this expedition to do some good and keep girl children at school by raising money for sanitary pads – and there are those who are slaying demons.

As for me, I’m a bit of both. I love the idea of doing this for charity, particularly one that is as close to my heart as Caring4Girls and Million Comforts, but I’m stoked at the bucket list aspect too – especially for someone whose idea of adventure is to tune into the Discovery Channel with a packet of crisps on my lap and a glass of coke in my hand. The closest I’ve come to Kilimanjaro is listening to Johnny Clegg.

The chat is good on the climb. Plenty of inside info on Kilimanjaro, the kit you need, things to avoid, things to do. Before long we are at the top of a hill, only to immediately start our way down. We do this numerous times. My brand new mate, Vic, tells me of the need to replenish my energy. He’s a walking supermarket of food; fruit, energy bars, peanuts. I haven’t packed a single one, just a couple of bottles of water which I klapped hours ago. Shamelessly I accept his largesse as we stop for a break after three hours on the trail.

Just after midday, we’re finished. To my absolute astonishment, we’ve walked 17 kilometres. It’s time to say goodbye to new friends, promising to meet the next day at the Westcliff Stairs. By the time I get home, I’m finished too. My legs give out and I watch South Africa losing to India like a brain-dead zombie – the Proteas aren’t that much better either.

On Sunday, it’s time for the stairs. I’ve heard about them. I’ve watched video clips of my colleague – and real mountaineer – Omphitlhetse Mooki going up them like a gazelle. There are 200 steps of them, all weirdly spaced and beloved of athletes, hikers and local dog walkers that take you past houses like look like they should be owned by film stars or rand lords, or both.

We have to do five sets up and down – and then we will be done with our first formal session. By 7.30 on a Sunday morning, the stairs are like the N1 north on a Monday rush hour. There are the Kili hopefuls with fully laden backpacks trudging up and down, a climbing pole in each hand; there are locals in lycra out for a stroll, there’s even someone bunny hopping up the side – I want to throw up in my mouth at the sight.

The day before we were told about the Kili shuffle, “Pole, Pole”, kiSwahili for slowly, slowly. The people on the stairs didn’t get the memo. I keep trudging.

Suddenly I’m done. Richard Mabaso, whose idea this all is, is at the foot of the stairs for a last brief. He’s evangelising about fund raising, training, Kili, having fun. I’m trying to stop my thighs throbbing with a life of our own.

Next month, we’re off to the Drakensberg for South Africa’s three pole hero Sibusiso Vilane to start showing us the ropes. I don’t know whether to laugh or weep.

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 7 February 2018.