Mighty mountain, humble me

There are rubber tips at the bottom of your climbing poles. They’re there so that you can get them past airport security without having them confiscated as weapons.

I’ve been hiking for almost four months now, but I didn’t know that. Instead I’ve been getting a bit cross that the steel point hidden within, has now popped through one of my poles.

It was Paige Lindenberg who pointed it out to me. She’s new to hiking like me, but a helluva lot more switched on. She also races cars and soups up bakkies to the point that the manufacturers could only dream about.

“You’re supposed to take the rubber bits off you know,” she chides gently from behind as I labour up the steps cut in the mountainside towards the ‘Sphinx’ in the Champagne Valley in the Central Drakensberg.

We’re due for a fairly serious hike this time, our second visit to the Monk’s Cowl nature reserve. At the far end loom Cathkin Peak, Monk’s Cowl and Sterk Horn. We will be going up Sterk Horn before we do Kilimanjaro but not today, the ground’s too treacherous after the heavy rains. The guides are understandably cautious after the tragic death the week before of actor Odwa Shweni who apparently lost his footing at the Sterkspruit waterfall and plunged 40m. 

It’s a sobering reality that here, in the midst of some of the most awe-inspiring scenery imaginable, danger lurks around the corner. It’s not just the almost sheer drops on the way up past The Sphinx and then over the back onto the Little Berg, it’s the incredible mist that blankets everything. It’s benign and mysterious at the moment, but in the back of your mind you know that the mountain can be capricious, the mist can change to dense fog, the temperatures can plummet – Blindman’s Corner up ahead wasn’t named on a whim. Go left and you’ll go deeper into the berg, go right and keep to the contour path, you’ll be rewarded with an incredible vista across Champagne Valley with the disappointing knowledge that the peaks of Monk’s Cowl and Sterk Horn are still almost 900m above.

The first time we did the route in reverse, so for months, I’ve had the descent (which is now the ascent) gnawing with increasing vigour at my guts. Now that we are up on the little berg, it’s time to get a little cocky, the worst is over. On the mountain, I’ve discovered, there’s a time to chat to the point of being gregarious and there’s a time for silence. When the going gets tough, everyone shuts up, but in the beginning the conversation skips from the banal to the inconsequential – with the perennial questions; what’s Kili like?

Kili, Kili, Kili. Kilimanjaro 5 895m above sea level. Africa’s highest peak, the world’s highest freestanding mountain. Hemingway wrote about it. Gogos climb it, some athletes don’t even get past Kibo hut. We’re due to summit on July 18, 100 years to the day Madiba was born, we’re literally The Trek4Mandela. I don’t know about the others, but that snow-capped peak in East Africa is never far from my mind as the days tick down.

“What should we pack?” chirrups one of the novices. “Should we take Diamox (the altitude sickness drug)?” chitters another.

I’m glad they’re asking, I’m puffing too hard to get any coherent words out, but I’d like to know too.

The truth is no one knows. Altitude apparently affects everyone differently; your emotional fitness matters as much as your physical fitness. The key to these hikes is understanding yourself, understanding that you carry what you pack and you pack what you need. But what do you need? And, more to the point, how do you pack it?

We’ve just received our broad new backpacks. They’ve got water bladders inside, with hosepipes running through the top and long your shoulder strap with the mouth piece easily accessible at shoulder height. There are pouches in the belly band. We’ve got climbing poles, which for someone as heroically as uncoordinated as I am is almost more of a curse than it is a blessing, especially trying to walk with both feet and use both poles at the same time.

When we break for lunch, there’s a debate among the group about what to do next. The guides want to turn around and follow the route we’ve just come but there’s a splinter group led by our own Black Panther Tawanda Chatikobo, better known as TC, who’s a banker by day but a bit of a super hero on the berg. He wants us to push on and if we can’t go on, we need to go up. He’s not alone, there’s been an incredible drive in this group to get fit, to commit to the project. The organisers are impressed, they’ve said as much.

TC wins the day for the enthusiasts. Some of the trekkers will head back the way we came; there’s no dishonour, no dropping in brownie points – it’s all up to the individual to do what they think they need to prepare. Somehow, I find myself in TC’s group and we’re headed back, turning right at Blindman’s Corner, down through a dense thicket and up into the foothills. The clouds are quite dense.

Our guide Phumlane Ndumo says it’s too late to get to the summit of Sterk Horn. We’ll do the first three levels “if we can”. The levels are confusing, because the cloud is very low. Getting there isn’t as easy, I’ve learnt to scrabble which is hiking using your hands too. The slope is steep. TC’s already at the top and disappeared, I’m in the middle trying not to overbalance when I stop to catch my breath.

When we get to level three, there’s time a for a celebratory coke and a bar of chocolate. I’m bursting with pride, so much so that I stifle my shyness to ask TC to take my picture. 

Going down though is harder, far harder than going up. I’m using my poles like a dervish, trying to keep at least three points of contact with the ground – sometimes those three points are one pole, one backside and a heel as I skid down in places.

Suddenly we’re back on the little berg. Verkyker’s Kop which looks like the business from the Monk’s Cowl car park when you start, looks like a toy in a kiddy’s sandpit from up here.

I look back, the mist has lifted. Suddenly I understand what Ndumo meant by the levels – there’s another 12 to go and what looks like another two and a half kms to the summit. My own achievement not even 20 minutes ago looks wholly insignificant.

The mountain has brought me back to earth. It always does. That’s one of the lessons we all have to learn before leaving for Tanzania.

  • The Trek4Mandela organisers thank Volkswagen SA for the kind loan of the vehicles to ferry the group from Johannesburg to the Drakensberg and back.

Originally published in the Saturday Star on 2 Mary 2018