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.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Happy New Year

Is it the here and now that matters? Is it what we bring back? Is it both? If it's what we bring back, then it's this: two skulls from leopard kills – one a klipspringer, one a dassie; a rough, hand-carved piece of donkey cart from along the hundred year old road; half a rusted horse shoe; a luminous, moon-like, pebble; a hexagonal quartz crystal; a pressed disa. Also photographs and memories, a tired body, a re-kindled desire to spend more time in places of beauty, and an inspiration to save mockingbirds.

Sandra and I are much more strategic about the ending of this year's family trip into the mountains, than we are about the beginning. By the end we are more in tune.

It is later than we intended in the afternoon of the last day of 2014. Our route into the mountains on the other side of the heat-trapping valley feels a long way off. A few hundred meters into our walk there, and we stop at a ditch under the road to squeeze muddy water over our hats. A car passes and covers us in dust. Enthusiasm is low. Six days of supplies are feeling heavy on our backs. Sandra and I are kicking ourselves that I didn't drive them across the valley, and return alone to leave the car at the Hanekom's farm.

But as it always does, adversary teaches us things we don't yet know. This time I learn that angels can be Afrikaans. It is not surprising that she looks angelic, giving us flight from the dusty heat in the back of her white Toyota bakkie. But she looks equally angelic in the wedding portraits that we are shown at the end of our trip hanging in her mother, Tannie Hannekom's, reed ceilinged lounge. As we part I try to appear unlike a Nazi parent - route marching my kids through barren mountains in the summer heat. “It's a bit of a rough start. But they will get into it”, I assure her. I hope to myself that this is true.

It is not an easy first day of hiking. By the time we reach camp, night is upon us. Sebastian has lost a scarf and fallen in a ditch. He is in pieces. But a swim in the gentle stream in the dark, and supper in our peaceful camp, revives the spirits. Our beds, laid out in a row under the canopy of the tree, have great appeal.

We have no watch and no idea of the time. But the moment of transition from 2014 to 2015 is marked, by three things. The first is that the branch, holding one of our food packets out of reach of animals, breaks, so that the packet lands with a thud near my head, waking me up. The second is that an eagle owl lands on another branch just above me and hoots. And a moment later the wind carries up, from the valley below, a single, distant phrase: someone shouting, 'Happy new year.'

For the first six days of 2015, those three words are the only sign we have of any contemporary human existence, other than the four of us. And for the first six days of 2015, the only world that exists outside of the wild mountain valleys through which we walk, is the 1935 Alabama of Scout, Jem and Atticus Finch. We have a tradition of carrying a book on each trip, that we read together. Our chosen book this time is To Kill a Mockingbird.

Our year starts tranquilly under the old oaks. The children sleep. Sandra and I drink tea. Today's route follows the hundred year old road. We know it is one hundred years old because, just over the top of the pass, just beyond the awesome rock pools where we lunch, the road building gang carved their names and the date into a smooth shale bank in the road cutting. One hundred years ago. The road for which they laboured, for which they built intricate dry stone walls by hand, is overgrown and now serves predominantly as a mountain passage for leopards. Their signs are everywhere. The children are particularly proud of their discovery of a rock Candlewood tree with deeply etched territory markings in its trunk.

Being the 1st of January it is hot. I have either a natural or acquired resilience to mountain heat. But my wife and children do not. And so a south facing cliff, complete with dripping waterfall provides a welcome, cool break. Rested, we explore along the cliff line. At a point we look up to discover a massive, wild beehive dangling above us. It is an impressive construction with huge, geometric fins of honeycomb, blackened by hundreds of bees. The children are fascinated, but we hurry them away, amid visions of the swarm descending onto us. Phoebe asks about our hurry, wanting rather to stay and admire. After our explanations, she is visibly impressed with the idea that such beauty could be deadly.

Of our five camps, the second is our least favourite. Sandra feels that the old, ruined farm house, the scraggly, fire-and-drought-ravaged oaks, the long-abandoned field, has an unhappy story to tell. It is the only camp that is out of earshot of water. When Sebastian and I go back to look for his lost shoe, I find an ancient tricycle. I rescue it from the rubble in which it lies discarded. It seems to deserve better. I stand it on rusted rims on the hundred year old road, wondering at what its long forgotten memory of this road could possibly hold – laughter, speed, freedom, escape, toil?

Do the leopards who walk this road hope, I wonder? I am thinking about hope because I am hoping to find Sebastian's lost shoe. Against all the odds. I doubt they do. I think hope is one of the hallmarks of our humanness, perhaps what distinguishes us from other species. I am walking alone in the dawn light, returning along the way we walked yesterday, while my family lies sleeping. I have offered to go back to look for Sebastian's shoe. Hope is what has got me up early. Perhaps hope is what gets us up every morning. But my generosity to Sebastian carries rewards for me. The dawn stillness, the time to reflect, the absence of other demands but the one to walk. I love being with my family in the mountains, but I also love being alone.

For a while I try to walk like I imagine the leopard might, without the imposition of hope. But for our species it is too hard. And in the end I return to our camp to share my disappointment with Sebastian.

Many people do not like snakes. And it is one of the most common questions we get from non-hikers about our family mountain escapades – did we not see snakes? I love to encounter them in the mountains. I love watching their silent, lethal beauty, feeling the push and the pull of it. But I have never had an encounter quite like the one on our third day. One of the things that distinguishes it, is its duration. It is seldom that one gets to share prolonged awareness of each others proximity, in the wild, with an animal like a Cape Cobra, the most venomous of southern African snakes.

We are at the high dam in the midday heat, looking for somewhere to lunch. It is a place that unusually combines a flat expanse of water, with elevation. Instead of the ground rising around the blue water, it drops, out over range after range of hazy mountains into the distance. The water is lower than it is in the spring, when I am usually here. Between the high water mark and the water surface is a bleached, vegetation-less moonscape of rock and soil creating an intricate desert coastline.

“Look out there”, Sebastian says excitedly, pointing. “What is that?” We make out a large snake floating out on the water. Fascinated, we watch it bob up and down, blown steadily away from us by the off-shore wind. We wonder where it will end up.

After some time it starts swimming and we marvel at its grace, efficiency and speed across the water. It is clearly returning to shore, some way down the coast from us. We move in that direction to get a closer look, but soon realise that when it becomes aware of our presence on the shore, it stops completely, bobbing away from us like a floating stick again. So we move slowly and silently towards intercepting its landing, stopping each time it does. As it nears the shore it becomes more and more weary. We are holding our breaths, hardly moving. It swims out of view behind a rock and affords us a moment to creep even closer. And then for a long time we watch each other, both sides poised and alert. The only sound is of the wind, the only action the snake's small, cautious movements. Eventually it glides out from the water, across the sand in front of us and disappears among some large boulders.

From the high dam we go up even higher, up to the viewpoint into Disa Valley. It is in the serenity of this valley, encircled by high rocky peaks, that we plan to spend two nights in the same camp. So that we have a whole day with no walking agenda.
Ivan gave this place the name of Disa Valley. I have been a little skeptical about that name. Sure, it has a nice, alluring ring to it, but how appropriate is it really? I have never even seen a disa here before. But I realise that I have never been here in January, and when you are, it is impossible to think of it as being anything but Disa Valley.
When Sebastian asks if he can include one of the disas in his flower pressing collection in his journal, I am unsure. It feels a little like killing a mockingbird, robbing the world of a unique beauty. It feels different to the other flowers he has. But in the end I decide to let him. Can one flower out of thousands make a difference? Is it a robbing of beauty or a preservation? And if so for whom? A dead mockingbird no longer sings.

As days pass, we fall into a simple mountain rhythm determined by the rising and setting of the sun, by the shrinking and lengthening of shade, by the heat of days, and the coolness of nights. Everything we need fits into a backpack. I love the simplicity of it, the adequacy of it. Daily necessities, take on a more immediate, simpler quality – cooking, cleaning, brushing one's teeth, toileting.

Toileting in wilderness is affectionately known as bos kakking. Its practice out here provides an opportunity for one of the life lessons I try from time to time to bestow upon the kids. They tease me about these life lessons. Sebastian will say, 'Dad, here's a life lesson I need to show you...' Beyond the teasing though, I like to think some impression is made. I am heartened when Sebastian asks me something about the 'tasks of simple labour' one. A few weeks earlier, we had been picking up squishy, rotten plums off the ground on which we were setting up our Christmas dinner table. There were a lot. The only way to do it was to do it, slowly, graciously, plum by plum. We talked about the value of doing tasks of simple labour such as monks do in a monastery. That night, the one before our Christmas dinner, the south easter howled and we learned this: It is a good idea to climb into the trees and give the branches a very vigorous shake, before you clear the plums from the ground below them.

I tell them, based on my own experience, that they are only really likely to appreciate the bos kakking life lesson when they are over forty. But maybe they will learn quicker than me. The essence of it is this: There are things in life you've just got to do, even though they don't appeal. Attempting to ignore, avoid or resist them only causes discomfort. And when you can completely drop all resistance, the whole experience of doing them is transformed.

There are more lessons in the simple task of bos kakking, and this is another: Preparation is important. Don't delay to the extent that you are put under pressure. Key to good preparation is the choice of site. And key to the choice of site, in the pedalogical environment of the Cape Fold Mountains, is the identification of deep, sandy deposits that are not associated with contemporary water courses. I try largely unsuccessfully, to explain how one goes about doing this, how one feels into the dynamic of the landscape's evolution to reveal what lies below the surface. But I give up with, “Maybe my ability to do this has something to do with my being a soil scientist.”

For many years I struggled to see much value in my professional training as a soil scientist. But my perspective on that has changed. For one thing, it helps me dig holes, and as one discovers when walking through the rocky Cape Mountains, holes are one of life's little necessities.

As we read our way into Scout Finch's story, the kids clamour more and more for me to read - during breaks in the day's walks, in the shady afternoons of camps, by head torch in our beds before sleep. My favourite character is Scout, Phoebe's too. I fall in love again with her take on life. I fall in love again with the enchanting mixture of innocence and wisdom that the story holds. Sebastian's favourite is Jem, Sandra's is Atticus. In Disa Valley we have time to read lots. It is where we discover what happens to Jim, and where we read to the end. It is where I am inspired to save Mockingbirds, including the ones that sing in my children's hearts. The choice of book was a grab from our bookshelf on the morning we left home. It is a copy that still has the pencilled school set work notes of one of my sisters, and the purple stamp of Wynberg Girls High. It is the perfect choice.

There are beautiful rock pools in Disa Valley, but I know there are even better ones to come. By the time we get there, my camera battery is flat, so the only images I have of the pools, are the ones held in my mind. I know that the kloof we are descending holds the best for last. Towards the bottom, I take great pleasure in leading my family up the steep, water-worn, grey rock to perch, for just a moment, at the first sight of it and then leap into its bright, green depths. What I do not yet know it that the last day will top even this pool, and that I will not be the one to discover it.

On our last afternoon we reach a beautiful refuge spot from heat and exposure - tea, a snooze for adults, a game of cards for children, and an expanse of water for swimming. But it is a place that has road access from the valley below, a place that bears small marks of human use. It is not the wilderness in which we have been for the entire duration of 2015 so far. And we must make a choice. Do we camp here, in an acceptable spot with some limitations or do we go on into a part of the mountain I have not previously walked, hoping to find something better? Sandra has a strong feeling for going on, and we go with it. For our final night in the wilderness, it is the perfect choice. As I said, we are now more in tune.

It is a short walk to the car from our last night's camp, but the kloof above it entices me. Exploratory diversions from our main walking route are usually my opportunity to be alone. But on our last morning I am pleased that Sebastian chooses to accompany me, for the first time. From the top of the waterfall we wave to Sandra and Phoebe in the rock pools far below. We are drawn along the route above that plunging water has worn patiently through thick slabs of solid sandstone. Sebastian is up ahead. I hear him calling. The overall appeal of a rock pool is a function of different things: water clarity, depth, symmetry, the smoothness of the rock around its edge. When I reach Sebastian he is perfectly framed by a pool whose function adds up to pure appeal. He is ready to plunge.

For the last few days of our trip dwindling food rations are carefully portioned out per meal. The sparse sufficiency of it heightens the appreciation of each mouthful, proves how used we are to excess. When things are unavailable to us, we build their desirability up in our minds. We want them. We think we need them. When we hike for long times we lust for junk food and ice cream. But I notice later that morning that there is something far more satisfying about the glass of cold, farm milk in Tannie Hanekom's kitchen than there is about the subsequent Coke and Magnum from the Op die Berg Spar.

There is an etiquette on farms around use of the front door versus the kitchen door that I don't fully understand. When we knock on the Hanekom's front door at the end of our trip, we are shown in by Jannie through the kitchen door. I notice later that the neighbour comes directly to the kitchen door.

It is a little like the Oom and Tannie thing. How much older than you does someone need to be for you to address them as Oom or Tannie? With Jannie it is clearer. His hat, his manner, and his life in the harsh Bokkeveld sun make him an obvious Oom. With his wife I am less certain. In her lounge we look over the framed family-tree portraits of five generations of Johannes Hendrik Hanekoms that have made and make their living on Ysterplaat. I note that she is eleven years older than me.

As we add future legs to our family walk along the length of the Cape Fold Mountains we will go south of the Hanekom's world. I will miss our hike endings in the hospitality of their farm kitchen. I will miss the simplicity of cold, farm milk on a hot day.

On a weekend some time into our new year, Sebastian and I are getting up before dawn to go out. He is bright and excited for so early. He has a look of glee that says, “I have been thinking and I have a way to catch you out.”

“Do we live in a monastery”, he asks. And then eagerly presents his closing argument: “Because if not, why do we have to do tasks of simple labour?”

It is a still, silent, summer's morning. The house stands open to the very first glimpse of dawn, to the waking murmurs of robins and white-eyes in the trees around us.

“Well”, I say. “In a sense we do. Yes, in a sense we do.”

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