There are many things you learn on the mountain. I learnt that I didn’t pack properly. One pair of socks for a two-day hike is too few. One pair of shorts, when you’ve just lost your footing in an ice-cold stream is one pair too few – especially when they dry with a wonderful tea stain across you backside.
Or you can carry too much water. So much that you’d inspire a Capetonian to mug you, but too much to carry up the hill, so much that someone else has to carry your bag and almost blow their energy in the process.
I learnt that while Coca Cola might be the bane of stressed mothers with hyperactive kids, it’s mother’s milk for fat unfit, exhausted 50 year olds. I also learnt that five people can share a can of it – and get enough sugar rush for the next hill.
I learnt many other lesson on the mountain too, but most of all I learnt to be myself in the company of others, to think about others before myself. To enjoy the journey and forget about the destination.
It’s a key part of the preparation for the Trek4Mandela. In five months’ time, the mountain won’t be in the central Drakensberg but in northern Tanzania, Africa’s highest point; the 5895m Kilimanjaro. There won’t be anytime for selfishness, not when there’s the issue of altitude to contend with.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a CEO, a high level public servant or an ex newspaper editor, on the mountain we are all equal, says Trek4Mandela founder Richard Mabaso. It’s not easy this climbing stuff, it’s not supposed to be says his fellow founder, South African Everest legend Sibusiso Vilane.
Grit and determination don’t come when it is easy, he says, you have to push yourself and train hard. He’s full of encouragement, he’s humble before we start. He’s telling us what lies in wait, not the hike; 22 kms across and up through the Champagne Valley in the unspeakably beautiful Monk’s Valley Nature Reserve in the central Drakensberg and then across the face of Cathkin Peak before exiting hundreds of metres above the Sphinx and out, but rather Kili itself. He’s an expert, this year will be the 23rd time he’s got to the top.
“It’s a leg-stretcher,” says head guide Sibusiso Dlamini about the Drakensberg hike we are about to do, “it’s shaping up for the next one, it’s moderate, not very strenuous.”
He’s lying. Or maybe it’s just been lost in translation.
“Thank you for letting us train with you,” says Vilane. He’s taking two Trek4Mandela alumni with him to Everest’s base camp in six weeks’ time. “we value the time and training you give us. Your one is far bigger at 5,8, our base camp is only 5,3.”
As my thighs quake through the rain forest, the exertion is made all the more worth out by the incredible sights that play out. The forest is a revelation, the long hard climb afterwards makes my vision blur, but the vista at 2100m afterwards more than makes up for it.
As I lie back and pant like a dog, I’m humbled as my mind spools back on the testimony session the night before in the briefing room at The Nest. The aspirant climbers stand up, introduce themselves and share with the rest of us why they’re doing this – often at great personal sacrifice in terms of time, physical training and money, both paying and fund raising.
Some are doing it for the bucket list tick of climbing Kili, but all are doing it to make a difference to girls who would otherwise miss school a couple of das each month and imperil their ability of eventually matriculating and perhaps breaking the spiral of poverty.
Almost to an individual their stories are inspirational, heartfelt; from the gogos trying this for the first time to the larger than life Duracell bunny figure of Neo Matsunyane, the life and soul of the party, fitter than everyone put together, haring up hill and down dale.
“Each one of you is supporting 100 girls for a year, just by being here,” Mabaso tells us. “If you think Kili was exciting, wait until you go to the school you have nominated then you see the excitement, you listen to the girls and you hear their dreams.”
In the end that’s what it’s all about, changing perceptions, getting people talking, taking us out our comfort zones. As Kili hopeful Mags Natasen asks straight out: “shouldn’t sanitary pads be accessible in restrooms across the country, just like condoms?” It’s a real question that goes to the heart of what Caring4Girls is all about – changing society’s perceptions and priorities.
Trek4Mandela though is also about taking people who would never have thought about climbing a mountain and getting them out into the open.
Vickey Ganesh, a two time Kili veteran, first time Trekker fast becoming renowned as Super Vic, for his willingness to help and carry people literally up hills, is waxing lyrical: “Mountains create the earth, they form the clouds that bring the rain, they teach you humility. It’s not about the climb on Kii, this about the journey that females have to face in this country every month.”
As for me, the Monk’s Cowl Valley has already humbled me. The next time we’re here,at the end of April, we will be doing it in reverse.
My heart quakes at the thought. This time though, I’ll pack more socks – and extra shorts.
Originally published in the Saturday Star on 2 March 2018