It is my hope that putting this voice out into our world has value, not only for me, but for others, as well. I admit to sometimes entertaining dreams of it going viral, of infecting the world with my vision. But most of the time I am content to be motivated by Gandhi's assertion: whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Boulder hopping through time

It has become something of a spontaneous custom in our family to have a short de-brief after a particular experience. Phoebe is often the initiator of these. At eight she takes on a family facilitator role with proficiency. "So how did that make you feel?", she might ask. Often her brief is, "What was the best part of your...?" and sometimes it includes, "What was the worst part?" We take time to go around listening to each one's input, and Phoebe ensures that each of us is fairly heard. On this occasion, around our large kitchen table with its exquisite cypress grain, we each have two turns, a chance to name the two best things from our weekend in the mountains.

For me there are many beautiful moments to choose from, for this is what I love best - sleeping out under the stars with my family and friends in the wild, rugged beauty of our Cape Mountains. I think through the days of crystal clear mountain pools and star filled, silent nights. And I decide on two particular moments. The one is a moment of aloneness. Mine often are.  The other moment, though, I am with my son.

After a weekend in the timelessness of the mountains I am also pondering time. I think about how it would be intriguing to try and identify the exact moment, to shave away the moments each side of it, and so to arrive at that single, very best moment, the fulcrum point between its past and its future, that when shaved right down, no longer exists within time at all.

Was it that moment I first pulled over the waterfall and first set eyes on the place? Was it a few moments later once the perfection of the place had sunken in? Was it the moment I dived, suspended between the warm, smooth solidity of stone and the bright, cold, deep clarity of the water? And of the other moment, the second one, is it as his head surfaces and he whoops? Is it the beginning of the whoop? Or is it the end of it?

We set off for the day, from where we have camped, to explore higher up into the kloof, a deep passage that takes us towards the heart of these mountains. All seven of us are bare foot and eager, boulder hopping over smoothly rounded rocks. The going is leisurely, with many playful distractions. We lunch at a gorgeous spot, and afterwards, four of us continue to the beautiful, big pools higher up. When the others return I am left alone with a glorious opportunity to explore previously untrodden territory for me, into the narrows of the kloof ahead.

As I journey inwards, I come across, from time to time, rocks that have fallen into the gorge from the cliffs above, some of them very recently. They are distinctly out of place here, in these rocks amongst which they have landed. They are rough and course, still immature in their relationship with water. Their presence is a little displeasing amongst the rounded beauty of the other boulders, lovingly sculpted by water and time. And yet they are a bridge into the present from this long, long past. Each falling rock is a tick of the second hand on the geological clock.

This kloof is not the result of cataclysmic events. It is simply the result of an enduring relationship between this mountain and this soft and steadily flowing water. Nature has time, an incomprehensible vastness of time. Perhaps she operates even beyond time. We, however can make no sense of such an enduring relationship. Maybe to understand something of it, we must abandon our notions of time to the eternity of the present. This kloof reminds me of something I have long remembered from Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, about how the river is always at every point along its passage, at every moment.

Boulder hopping up a kloof is something of an art. You need to link pathways together from one rock to the next, and the next. You can seldom see too far ahead, and so must trust the unfolding of these pathways. Some jumps are harder to make than others. Sometimes you reach a dead-end. Sometimes you fall.

When boulder hopping, unlike in life, I like the challenge of going as fast as I can, so that the future unfolds in the moment - no planning, no pausing, just a stream of conscious movement, and balance. There is a direct dealing with whatever opportunities and obstacles come at me, and if I am lucky, I enter that passage through time where, despite the momentum carrying me forward, the past and the future become inconsequential and all that matters is the choice of where to jump to now. In this flow there is no thought of what the future might hold and no expectation of it.

But I cannot retain such pace for very long and so the journey involves other ways of moving. An easier paced wandering, pausing, swimming. In my memory I hold a remark from a friend about the upper reaches of the kloof, about a particularly beautiful spot. And so I find that, in the back of my mind, I am plagued by wondering whether I have arrived there yet, or whether it is just around the corner, or the next. Expectations do that. They blur your view of what is directly in front of you, and some of the clarity of what you see is lost. I once spent a weekend in one of the most gorgeous places on earth seeking something there, that existed only in my expectations: a cave that time had not yet carved out of the solid boulders that surrounded me. Perhaps I was not yet ready for the cave, perhaps it was not yet ready for me. Either way I was 200 million years out of synch.

This journey up the kloof has taken its toll on my bare feet. The last time I wore the skin on that particular spot, the soft spot between my big toe and the harder sole of my foot, was playing Marco Polo as a kid in my uncle's pool, the same pool he swum in every morning of his life until well into his eighties. Pushing off from the fine, sandpaper-like, chlorinated bottom and sides, over and over again through the heat of a Durban summer holiday.

But my feet are not nearly as tough as they used to be. Now even the millions of years of gentle smoothing by water is not enough to protect them. A little roughness remains hidden in these rocks. And my soles, unaccustomed to such intimacy with the earth, are worn by it.

I am forced, reluctantly, by a different measure of time, in this kloof, to turn around: the fact that night will fall, and I will not yet be back with the others. On the way back I pass a side kloof. In contrast to the main kloof, the side kloof I know nothing about, have no expectations of it. But its presence entices me, strongly, and so I let myself be drawn by it. A short way up the side kloof is a seemingly impassable waterfall.

To gain the twenty meter high rock face down which the waterfall plunges, requires climbing through a challenging looking overhang two meters from the ground. There is only really one possibility. Like it is difficult for me to turn around when the depths of an unexplored kloof still beckon me, it is difficult for me to walk past a potential route up rock, without wanting to climb it. My body longs to experience the feel of the moves that already exist in my imagination. And so now, both this obstacle itself and what lies beyond it, beckon me. And I have to climb it. My first attempt ends at the same point that the good holds do, trying to establish on the face above the overhang. I climb carefully. I need to be reasonably sure that I can reverse any moves I do, before I do them. Hanging on to the overhang, I tire quickly, and need to reverse rapidly to an uneven, rocky step-off on the ground. I try a few times, but I cannot find a way to get higher. I decide on one last attempt. I try different holds from the lip of the overhang, and I make it onto the face above, which I then follow up easily for some way.

Near the top I am faced with a choice. I can continue up within the recess of the waterfall, which offers a degree of comfort from the exposure, or I can traverse out along the most exposed part of the face to reach an easy looking ramp to the top. Either option is well within my ability as a climber, and yet a slip from anywhere up here would probably be fatal. I believe that the illusion of safety holds more risk for us than the confronting of danger head-on, and so I choose to traverse out over the drop.

A minute or two later, I pull over the top of the waterfall. It is not often that a space around us is perfect. Usually something, however small, niggles. We wish to shift something, a bit this way or that, add something, make something a little bigger, a little smaller, a little bluer. But this place is as close as I can imagine to perfection, just as it is. It is perhaps the most beautiful rock pool I have ever seen, and I've seen many.

I move slowly into its presence, in awe. For a while I lie, allowing myself to be warmed by the smooth slab of rock, edging the pool. And then I dive, indulgently
As a rock climber I am used to exposure. But I am not quite prepared for the degree of exposure that is awaiting me on my descent from this magical place. Something one learns early, if you spend time scrambling, often from hard experience, is that climbing down is usually more difficult than climbing up. So I start off carefully, very aware of the drop below. After a few meters I am relaxing into it. I hear voices and think, "Oh good, the boys are heading up kloof again. They will like to see where I have been exploring."

But when they come into view, its not the boys at all, but a fairly large hiking party of complete strangers. This is rather a surprise to me, as I thought we were the only ones in the kloof. And my surprise is somewhat accentuated by my situation: during the course of my journey, begun with bare feet on stone, it has been natural to embrace a more intimate connection with this place and to shed my clothes as I went. I am now stark naked, with nothing at all between my soft vulnerability and the hard angularity of the rock in the late afternoon sun. My clothes lie abandoned somewhere far down the kloof.

Normally when one is confronted, stark naked, by a group of strangers staring up at one, one instinctively attempts to cover up. However, I am just starting off on the exposed traverse across the face and so covering up is not an option. In the moment though, I seem to flow easily into a next option, which is to continue nonchalantly, as if traversing across a cliff face, twenty meters above the ground, completely starkers, is the most unremarkable and natural thing to be doing. A few of them wave. I wave back, being careful to use one hand to retain my purchase on the rock. They watch me for a while and then they continue their way up the kloof, and as the echo of their voices recedes, the kloof returns to silence.

When I think about the incident afterwards, I realize that what we think of as instinctual - the need to cover up, in this case - is actually no such thing. It is socialised behaviour. Both of these things, walking naked and climbing, are for me the most natural things to be doing. And it is a place such as this, a natural refuge beyond the concerns of socialised behaviour, that allows me to pursue them as such.

I am often the last to leave a camp site. It is partly that I am a slow packer but it is also that I like to depart consciously and slowly, to witness the transition in the place from human noise and activity back to the stillness of the natural world. On this occasion Sebastian waits with me. He wants to return with me, by boulder hopping down the stream, instead of taking the path along the side of the kloof that the others have taken. I have always enjoyed boulder hopping. For me it comes naturally and I am good at it. I am pleased that my son likes it, wants to do it with me, and is good at it too.

As we go, we talk about the intricacies of boulder hopping. He cannot make all the jumps that I do, and so must sometimes choose a different route to me. He cannot yet keep up with me, but I know one day that this will reverse. A little way down stream we come upon a pool that seems to exist almost entirely as an invitation to jump into it.

The water is almost without substance in its clarity. In a sense it is the visual colour equivalent of those very best moments in time that have been stripped to their purity of everything that proceeds and follows them, existing beyond time, beyond colour, so that in a sense nothing is left. Nothing and everything.

I stand one side to take photographs. Sebastian jumps. For a brief moment he is suspended above the brightly sparkling surface of the water, and the next he disappears below it in a boiling explosion of bubbles and light. When his head breaks the surface, he raises his arms high and he whoops. And that single exuberant whoop is a perfect expression of everything that I would like to say about the love and adventure and joy of being alive.

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