(or: Conquering My Mountain)
We have a family joke in the Macdonald family. When we ask each other what we’ve been up to, we always begin by saying, “Oh, you know … I got up early this morning, climbed a mountain … the usual.” The joke stems from my father’s utter abhorrence of sloth and inactivity, his insistence that we, his children (and his wife) make the most of every happy moment of each and every day, coupled with his constant urgings that we “get off our lazy arses and get out and do things”.
On Sunday morning, I decided to take his advice. After forty-seven years, I thought it was probably time. I got off my lazy arse and did something. And that something was climbing to the top of Chapman’s Peak.
I have a childhood friend named Antonella Sacerdote. Even though she is now married to a lovely Swedish man and calls herself Antonella Strömberg, I still call her by her maiden name because of the way it rolls so satisfyingly off the tongue. I feel like I can speak fluent Italian whenever I say her name. Antonella and I first met at the convent, when we were giggly thirteen-year olds, and she quickly became one of my closest friends. I have always loved Antonella’s zest for life, her unwavering optimism, her bubbliness, her easy, tinkling laugh and the way her face is always lit up with a wide, mischievous grin. Antonella grabs life by the balls and doesn’t let go. She is fearless and takes on any challenge or new experience with enthusiasm and gusto. Her delightful sense of humour and brilliant wit keep me in constant stitches and we still belly laugh when we are together, just as we did when we were teenagers trying not to get into trouble with the nuns.
A few months ago, Antonella packed up her aforementioned lovely Swedish husband and her two gorgeous Swedish daughters and brought them back to Africa so that they, too, could experience the magic of her homeland. Since the little Swedish family landed on local soil, they have gone out and experienced a wide range of exciting and adventurous activities, from sea kayaking to surfing to parasailing, to name but a few.
On Friday last week, Antonella sent me a message, inviting me to join her on a hike up Chapman’s Peak on Sunday morning. Two things about her message bothered me. The first was her use of the word “peak”. Disturbing images of colossal mountain summits immediately filled my mind. The second was, of course, her use of the words “7 o’clock on Sunday morning”. Anyone who knows me will know I don’t do 7 o’clock on Sunday mornings. Gracious, I can barely make it to work by 8.30 on a weekday. I tried to politely decline her kind invitation, as I am wont to do whenever Antonella suggests that I join her on one of her many adventures. She greeted my feeble protests of overwork and long hours and exhaustion and my need to lie-in on Sunday morning with her typical cheerful exuberance, insisting that if I had been working long hours, it probably meant that I hadn’t been taking good care of myself, and that a hike was JUST what my body needed! She reassured me that the hiking group she had found was for beginners and that the hike would only take three hours. Armed with this comforting information and finding myself unable to resist her infectious enthusiasm, I hung my freshly washed gym pants on the line and put myself to bed at a decent hour on Saturday night, in preparation for an easy stroll up the mountain the following day.
Driving to Ant’s house in Noordhoek the next morning, I breathed in the quiet early morning air, celebrated the glorious sunrise and began to feel the first stirrings of excitement at the day that lay ahead. Roger, the lovely Swedish husband, drove us to the meeting point and we met up with our hiking group. They were a delightful bunch of people, most of whom had driven all the way from Mitchell’s Plain to the base of Chapman’s Peak (I hadn’t earned the right to call it “Chappies” yet by that stage). I warmed to this lovely group instantly and was kept amused from the start by their unique brand of Capetonian humour. Safety was paramount, our hike leader informed us, given the recent spate of stabbings amongst hikers and Noordhoek beach sunset-watchers. We were assured that we would be tracked every step of the way via WhatsApp messages and that our guides were armed with mace and long wooden sticks to ward off any would-be attackers. Reminded that there was safety in numbers, we were strongly advised against wandering off from the group at any time. I packed a little prayer into my back pocket and knew we had nothing to fear, except fear itself.
In typical Capetonian fashion, we began our hike twenty minutes later than scheduled. I was disconcerted to see my fellow hikers set off up the mountain at an alarmingly fast pace, presumably to make up for lost time. I hung back and tried to be the one at the very back of the line, lest I hold anyone else up, but was told that the “sweeper” (the guy at the back who was one of the official crew) needed to stay behind me, for security reasons. I loved the mental image I immediately got of him sweeping me along with a large broom. The ascent was steep from the word go and I hastily staggered after my nimble-footed new friends as they scrambled up the path, panicking lest I get left behind and fall prey to the mercies of the hiker-stabber-gang. I had no mace. Nor did I have a long stick.
As the morning was cool and I had been warned about cold temperatures at the top of the mountain, I was wearing my favourite fleecy hoodie. I had bought it on a European holiday with my Mom and the word “Venice” was proudly emblazoned across my bosom. Clearly designed with snowy Italian winters in mind, my fleece soon became a heat-trapping, sweat-inducing, claustrophobic hazard. In addition to this, I was, in my eagerness to adhere to the hikers’ guidelines, which had warned me to bring “at least three litres of water”, carrying three and a half litres of water in my backpack (the extra half was for luck because … you know … nobody wants to die of thirst on a mountaintop – I have seen movies – it happens). Within minutes, I started overheating. The sweat was pouring down my face and I felt as if I was in danger of spontaneously combusting. At the first available opportunity, I ripped the offending fleece off and tied it around my waist. Instant relief. I kept climbing, the muscles in the backs of my calves complaining with every step and my lungs fit to burst from the exertion. My backpack weighed heavily on my back and I considered ripping the damn thing off and tossing it over the mountainside, until I remembered that my life-giving water and snacks were contained therein.
Next to go was my ankle. I have spent far more time than the average person unwittingly twisting, spraining and tearing my ankle ligaments. The performance of uncomplicated dance moves at university parties has resulted in sprains. A seemingly simple feat like running down a flight of stairs has led to torn ligaments. I have even been known to get up after watching a movie and spraining my ankle on the walk out of the cinema. I have hobbled around on crutches in cities as far-flung as Johannesburg and London, nursing puffy, purplish-blue balloons on the outer sides of my feet. I am double-jointed, loose-ligamented and hyper-mobile and, while this comes in handy when showing off my “flexibility” in yoga classes or doing party tricks involving rolling my elbows around in pubs, I just have to look at a pair of high heels for my ankles to roll over in horror. Don’t even get me started on netball, basketball, hockey or any other sport that involves sudden moves and unexpected changes of direction.
So, there I was, tramping up the mountainside, when I stepped on an uneven rock and felt it go. The usual routine – the foot stayed put while the ankle rolled over to the side, followed by unspeakable agony. I tried to recall the Bible verse; Psalm 18:33: ‘He makes my feet like those of a deer and gives me sure footing on high places’, but it eluded me. All I could remember was something about “there will be gnashing of teeth”. Aware of the fact that I had already complained about the heat, the sweat, the thirst, the steepness of the climb and the difficulty of the hike, I tried to continue regardless. I really didn’t want to ask the group to stop, yet again, for me to attend to my latest personal disaster. Trying to ignore the ever-increasing pain that was shooting up my left leg with every step I took, I lumbered on until I realised that the streams of water pouring down my cheeks were not actually rivers of sweat, but tears that were escaping from behind my prickly eyes. I decided to admit defeat and called up the line of merry men and women for Roger to please give me one of his painkillers. He sent some down to me and I gulped them down gratefully, praying for immediate relief.
Allow me to take a moment to talk now about the “sweeper”. The man who had been put in the unfortunate position of literally bringing up my rear was an archangel of a man named Nazeem. He was the husband of our vivacious leader, Zubi, and his seven-year old son was on the hike too (I know, I know – don’t say it …. I know he was only seven and was skipping happily up the mountain, but hey, kids are lighter and have far more energy!!). When he heard me asking for pain relief, Nazeem jumped to my rescue and produced a first aid box. After tenderly rubbing some soothing gel over the blue, throbbing, swollen balloon that used to be my ankle, he expertly tied a bandage around it, securing it with two of the sweetest, tiniest, golden safety pins. When he worried that he might prick me with those darling little pins, I assured him that I was in so much pain by now that I wouldn’t feel a thing should my skin accidentally be pierced with an axe. Slightly more confident now that I was strapped up, I continued with the ascent, looking up from the ground every so often (I now had to be extra vigilant about not stepping on uneven surfaces) to see the people in front of me skipping up the vertiginous mountainside as confident, nimble and sure-footed as a herd of mountain goats. I shared my concerns with my sweeper / archangel / doctor / psychologist that I may be holding the rest of the group up with my dillydallying and injuries. ‘Ag, don’t worry about them!” he assured me, kindly. “You just go at your own pace. If we wanted to be in a race, we would be down there,” he said, pointing to the cyclists on the road below us. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that “my own pace” would involve sitting down on the nearest rock, downing my bottles of water and saying, ‘Thanks very much, guys, it’s been rad, but I’ve just remembered I left the oven on”, and escaping back to Rosebank to my bed and my book.
The mystery of the vigour and speed with which my fellow hikers were attacking the mountain was finally solved when I discovered that I had unwitting joined a “medium to advanced” group of hikers, as opposed to the “beginners’ group” that Antonella had promised me we would be joining. “You do realise that this is the end of a beautiful friendship, Ant,” I said through gritted teeth, sweat pouring down my face, which was set into what can only be described as a grimace. “Aaaaah, sorry Kells! I must have got mixed up!” Ant giggled good-naturedly. “But, just think how you’ll feel when you reach the top!”. I looked up and all I could see were more mountains, mountains that were considerably higher than the one we were already on, which spelt more climbing, and therefore, more pain. “Where exactly IS the top?” I asked, in the same hopeful tone as a child asking, “Are we nearly there yet?”, ten minutes into the five-hour drive to the coastal holiday destination. “Up there!” replied my former friend, pointing upwards. “Up there?” I asked hopefully, pointing to a nearby peak. “No, up THERE!” she announced triumphantly. I followed the direction of her finger … up … up … up … and realised to my absolute horror that she was pointing to a peak very, very far away, and very, very high up. My heart sank – the depths it reached inversely proportional to the great height of the mammoth peak I saw before me. I prayed (again) for strength, adjusted the straps of my backpack once more and cursed those heavy bottles of water yet again, wondering just how important they really were and whether I could drink the full three and a half litres in one go and be done with it – my thirst was increasing by the minute due to the alarming rate at which I was losing moisture through sweating. I took another step. Then another. One foot in front of the other. It was all I could do.
My piss-poor level of fitness was becoming very apparent to me and I know I have no-one to blame for this sad state of affairs but myself. Nobody is interested in tales of three-legged puppies and lift clubs and the inability to get to my Pilates classes anyway. The sun began to feel hot on my skin, which added to the general feeling of discomfort. My body was, by now, a screaming melting pot of raging thirst, aching muscles, bursting lungs, exercise-induced asthma, aching joints, overstretched tendons and burning skin. I felt every one of my forty-seven years and asked myself how I had got myself into this situation. Like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, I wished Dorothy would come along with her little silver watering can of oil to loosen up and soothe my creaking, aching, old joints and bones, preferably followed by an all-over body massage to ease the pain in my muscles. I was beginning to get delusional. We continued our ascent. We walked, we climbed, we avoided stepping on loose rocks, we grabbed fistfuls of long grass to stop ourselves from falling, we concentrated so hard my brain felt like it was going to explode. The going had got tough and the tough had got going.
After what felt like an eternity, we stopped for a rest. The views that greeted us were a sight for sore eyes and, suddenly, it all became worth it and I understood why people do this thing called hiking. The mountaintops were shrouded in a cloak of thick mist and the beauty that surrounded us was mystical and ethereal. One couldn’t tell where the clouds stopped and the mist began and it felt as if we were floating above the earth in a magical fairyland. We kept going and soon the sun burned through the mist and the veil lifted to reveal the wonderland of beauty and splendour that lay beneath. Beautiful little fynbos flowers were starting to open in greeting towards the sun and lizards that looked like perfectly formed miniature crocodiles were warming themselves on the rocks around us, casting interested glances at us with their big poppy eyes as we passed by.
A few years of climbing later, we enjoyed the odd flat area and life began to look up. My sweeper / angel / new best friend helped me to tie my bandana around my head so that I didn’t have to walk along with sweat pouring into my eyes and down the end of my nose. He also, in what can only be described as a random act of kindness, offered to put my water bottles into his backpack. I could have kissed him. Able to breathe once more without the dreaded, heavy backpack strapped to my person, I was able to join in the chatting and laughing and general joie de vivre of my fellow hikers. I began to really enjoy myself and was loving being in such magnificent natural surroundings, the views growing ever more spectacular the higher we went.
Finally, we reached the very last steep part, just before the actual summit. The blessed man who goes by the name of Nazeem / sweeper / Archangel at this stage insisted on taking my entire backpack and adding it to his own, leaving me free to tackle the hardest part without any added encumbrances.
I hoisted my weary body over the boulders and took the final few steps up to the summit. Greeted by cheers of congratulations from my compatriots, I hugged the concrete pillar that marked the top of Chapman’s Peak and felt an enormous sense of accomplishment, not to mention relief. I had done it! I had made it to the top! I took a deep breath, preparing to expel a great sigh of relief … but unfortunately, as I did so, simultaneously inhaled a mouthful of miggies. (For my non-South African friends – miggies are teeny-tiny flying insects). It would appear that once we reached the summit, our happy gaggle of hikers had disturbed some sort of nest and the miggies were everywhere, swarming around our faces, settling on our skin and biting us. We did our best to ignore them and celebrated our victory by peeling hard-boiled eggs and unwrapping energy bars, hugging one another and taking photos. We chomped on our snacks happily, no-one minding that everything tasted of miggie. At that stage, nothing bothered us. We had reached the top and we were invincible.
Going down, far from being “the easy part”, as so many had assured me it would be, was almost worse than going up. Because that was the point at which my knees, who up until now had been conspicuous by their absence, decided to join the party. With every step down, I felt as if my kneecaps were dislodging themselves and I was sure I could hear the platelets scraping over my old, tired joints. Antonella kindly lent me her stick, which helped a bit, but I was still experiencing searing pain in both my left knee and ankle with every step I took. “Ow! Ow! OW!” I exclaimed with every step, mindful that there were children within earshot. The dialogue that was running through my head was slightly more colourful. I eventually worked out that if I stepped forward on my left leg instead of my right, I could move without my left knee and ankle leaving me shrieking in pain. I also found myself occasionally sitting on my bum and sliding down, discovering the joy of covering earth without actually having to take any excruciating steps.
Reaching the bottom was possibly the happiest moment of my life. The welcome sight of the car, exactly five hours after we had set off, made me want to weep with joy. It was over. We had done it. We all hugged again and set off for home with hearts that were both light and full at the same time.
I could barely wait to get to the office the next day and for my colleagues to ask me what I did over the weekend. “Oh, I did Chappies,” I rehearsed saying airily in my mind, over and over. I told anyone who would listen about my magnificent, earth-shattering feat, trying not to show my disappointment when half of them answered me with, “Oh, yes, that’s a lovely one, not too difficult”.
Note from the author: I have discovered that hiking is much like childbirth. Not, I hasten to add, that I have ever brought forth any fruit from my loins, but I can only imagine that the levels of pain and discomfort involved would be similar to my recent experience on the mountainside. I hear that the minute the baby’s out, you suddenly can’t wait for the next one to come along. I wrote this tome when the pain was still fresh in mind (and my body). Today, all I can think of is, ‘Which one are we doing next?” Naturally, I will be ensuring that we join a beginners’ hike next time. I also plan to have more of the fitness and less of the fatness. More of the Heidi and less of the Clara. I cannot wait. Thank you, Antonella Sacerdote, for getting me off my lazy arse and climbing mountains! My Dad is very happy. And so am I.