Things that are catching

About 6 weeks ago, in a momentary lapse of judgement late at night involving a couple of bottles of wine and a pavement, I broke a small bone in my right foot. My concern at the emergency room the next day was whether it would be healed in time for me to do the Donkey Trail. The doctor was encouraging and said yes, with the right care, it should be fine.

Perhaps because it affected my walking, over the next month or so I twisted my right ankle – twice. Both times it swelled up and turned blue. I was beginning to wonder if the universe was telling me something about the upcoming Donkey Trail (although, having now done the trail, I realise that, had that been the case, the universe would have messed with my stomach rather than my foot).

Anyway, the result was that I set off on the Donkey Trail at the end of last week with my right foot tightly strapped up, a supply of Celebrex and Arnica in my daypack, and a sturdy stick to take some of my weight.

Donkey trail 066Although the literature about the trail specifies the gradient as ‘moderate to strenuous’ and says ‘you must be fit to complete this trail’, I didn’t expect as much uphill walking and, more to the point, navigating narrow, rocky trails along very steep mountain slopes. I was, therefore, very nervous on the first day – I realised that if I twisted my ankle here, there would be no easy way back.

So I walked slowly and carefully, testing loose rocks with my stick before stepping on them, and at times falling far behind the rest of the hiking party.

Some time around early afternoon, I was slowly negotiating my way down a precipitous slope to a river crossing. My friend Biddi, who kindly waited for me all along the trail in spite of my very slow pace, was walking ahead of me. Suddenly, I felt my right ankle go over – it was precisely this movement that had precipitated the twisted ankle before, so I immediately let my entire body go slack, so that my ankle wouldn’t take any weight.

The slope down to the river was very steep and there was little in the way of anything to break a fall – just a few tufts of scrub and low bush here and there. It flashed through my mind, as I fell, that this was going to be a big one – I was likely going to fall all the way to the bottom.

By some miraculous stroke of luck, however, at that precise point was a single sapling protea, bravely clinging to the side of the path – and I fell into this little tree.

All this happened in complete silence. It was only when I was thoroughly entangled in the tree that I managed to croak out, ‘Help me, Biddi!’

To her enormous credit, Biddi didn’t immediately burst into hysterical laughter. Instead, she came back up the trail and looked closely at how I’d ended up. ‘Golly,’ she said. ‘What should I do?’

I quite literally didn’t know. I’d fallen with such abandonment that I’d somehow got completely enmeshed in the tree.

Somehow, between us, we physically manhandled each of my limbs out of the tree’s. My only injuries were a torn fingernail and a graze on my bottom lip. The tree, too, seemed undamaged.

We walked onwards and didn’t, for the rest of the day, say anything more about the incident.

That night, snug in our sleeping bags in our tent up on Wyenek, however, Biddi suddenly started giggling.

‘What?’ I asked.

‘I’m just remembering your fall today,’ she said. ‘It gives a whole new meaning to the term tree-hugging.’

And, finally, there was the hysterical laughter: we laughed ourselves to sleep.

• Giggling is catching. The next night, snug in bed in the Gamkaskloof, we had another bout of hysterical laughter about the tree-hugging incident. The couple in the next room, Kevin and Cecilia, also started giggling. When we asked them the next morning what they’d been laughing at, they said, ‘Nothing. We were giggling cause you were giggling.’

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A-hiking we will go

027For some weeks before my friend Biddi and I set off to do the Donkey Trail in the Swartberg near Calitzdorp, my friends made snarky comments about our taking the easy option of ‘slack-packing’. I didn’t mind – I’ve done my share of ‘real’ backpacking, including tough hikes like the Fish River Canyon and the Swellendam Trail (that one in a driving blizzard), and if I now have the money to pay R3 000 to be thoroughly pampered on a 2½-day trail, that’s my business.

For that kind of money, we hikers would be required to do nothing beyond hike: donkeys would carry our personal belongings, and staff would set up and break down camp, and feed us.

Food is, as anyone who’s hiked knows, very important when tackling a trail. On a trip where you’re required to carry everything yourself, the relative weight of foodstuffs to its necessity becomes crucial: a tin of smoked oysters may be costly in terms of weight, for instance, but its treat value after hours of heavy slogging can’t be overestimated. Ditto chocolate, biscuits, cheese, chips, peanuts, and small portable camping gas stoves that can be fired up on a riverbank to make a welcome cup of morning or afternoon tea.

What I was most looking forward to – given that we’d have donkeys to carry everything, and a staff complement of four to attend to the every need of the eight people in our party – was reaching camp at the end of the day and having to do nothing other than pour myself a glass of wine and wait to be served a fabulous dinner on a mountaintop under the stars.

But that’s not what happened.

Perhaps we should have been alerted to the possibility of things going wrong organisation-wise when, pressed for time on our car journey from Cape Town along Route 62, we opted to skip a visit to Warmwaterberg in order to make it to the base camp, Living Waters, at 5 o’clock, the time specified in the literature for our ‘safety and packing briefing’. This turned out to be wholly inaccurate.

We’d stopped for a quick lunch at the Wheat & Berry in Montagu, so we were also looking forward to a slap-up homecooked dinner at Living Waters at the specified time of ‘approximately 7 o’clock’ – another complete inaccuracy. (We didn’t know it then, but the bobotie we had at the Wheat & Berry, with its many thoughtful added extras such as homemade chutney and hot rolls, would be by far the best meal we’d eat in the next four days.)

At Living Waters, we were greeted by the manager, Hans, and shown to our cottage. It was very beautiful but lacking in several basic things, including a bath towel each (there was only one), a dustbin, and hot water. These may seem little niggles but when you’re forking out over R1 000 a day, you expect some attention to detail. (The other six people in our hiking party, whom we had yet to meet, also had no hot water; they also didn’t have tea or coffee in their cottage, although they did repeatedly ask for it.)

By 7 o’clock that evening, our entire party of eight was gathered on the verandah of the Living Waters farmhouse and keen to get briefed, get fed and get to bed. As it turned out, we didn’t sit down to dinner until well after 9 o’clock, by which stage we were all pretty pissed – although we’d all brought our own wine, our hosts declined to provide a single morsel of food in the way of snacks during the almost three hours we hung around waiting for dinner.

I can’t attest to the quality of the meal we were served: it had been eight hours and a bottle of wine since I’d last eaten, and by then I would have gladly gobbled up a donkey.

So it was a fairly disgruntled lot who met at the farmhouse the next morning to set off on our trip – none of us had slept enough and most of us were hungover. Snacks in the form of Jungle Oats energy bars, fruit and sachets of Game drink powder were laid out on a table for us to stock up on for the day’s walk. I’d normally never touch Jungle Oats energy bars, which taste to me like packaging pulp, but with some hard hiking ahead, I scooped up four of them to put in my daypack. ‘Um, I think it’s one each,’ Biddi said. And would you believe, she was right – there were eight of us, and there were eight Jungle Oats energy bars.

If I was unhappy about that, you’ll understand how much lower my spirits plummeted when I realised that we wouldn’t be getting a cooked breakfast. I’m no fan of cereals, which I consider the world’s most unappetising and boring foodstuff, but there was no option that morning, so I reluctantly shovelled down a bowl of wood shavings, rabbit droppings and old man’s scabs, which I tried to disguise with lashings of yoghurt.

And, finally, we were off! The first day’s walk is pretty hard going – it’s about 15km, most of it uphill, and some of it almost vertical. What makes it worth it is walking through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world – and we were lucky with the weather, which was hot but not boiling, and as we climbed higher, a lovely breeze blew occasionally.

Having made short work of my single Jungle Oats energy bar, I was looking enormously forward to lunch. I imagined we’d stop somewhere near water, and the guides would produce from the donkeys’ panniers a fabulous little feast, laid out picnic style for us to graze on at our leisure.

But that’s not what happened.

We did stop at water, but it was steep river crossing, densely overgrown with bush. I wondered why the two guides who’d gone ahead with our equipment for our first night’s campout, hadn’t taken half an hour to cut away some of the branches – it would have made little difference to the vegetation but a huge difference to the 12 beings (8 hikers, 2 guides and 2 donkeys) who were forced to perch awkwardly in small prickly spaces.

‘Lunch’ was a blue plastic lunchbox each, their contents hot from the morning’s hiking: a white-bread cheese-and-lettuce sarmie, a boiled egg, a few small pieces of biltong, 3 cherry tomatoes, a box of juice, 2 Quality Street chocolates and a sucking sweet. I felt like crying. I hate white bread; I don’t like boiled eggs; I don’t like biltong; and the Quality Streets were the ones that are always left in the packet after Christmas because nobody likes them.

Although I could have done with more of a rest there, there was nowhere comfortable to sit, so more or less as soon as we’d emptied our lunchboxes, we were off again.

026The afternoon’s hike was very tough, and I was hugely grateful to Charlton, the guide who brought up the rear and kept me going with continuous encouraging chatter as I battled up and up and up. Again, what made it worth it was the scenery – views over serried mountains to valleys far in the distance, and swifts swooping around below us.

By the time we got to the evening’s camp, just over Wyenek (about 1 500m), I was tired, filthy, starving and longing for a glass of wine. I couldn’t wait to sit at the long table that had been set up for us by the vanguard, and nibble on snacks while waiting for a slap-up meal.

But that’s not what happened.

The ‘snacks’ on the table – the only edibles provided by our hosts between the time we arrived at the camp and when we ate at about 6pm, many hours after lunch – were, inexplicably, a bowl of prunes. Yes, prunes. If the other members of our party hadn’t produced some chips and peanuts that they’d cleverly brought along of their own accord, I think there may have been a mutiny.

And ‘dinner’? A bowl of mushy pasta topped with warmed-up tinned tomato sauce; dessert was tinned pears (pears!! even tinned peaches would have been better!) and Ultramel custard served straight from the box.

Disgruntlement had, by this time, set in pretty solidly, and it wasn’t happy campers who climbed onto their stretchers that night. I was additionally irritated by the sleeping-bag ‘linen inner’ (according to the literature) that turned out to be made of the shiniest nylon I’ve ever seen – I immediately broke into rivers of sweat, and had to abandon it.

The next morning dawned misty and cold – the perfect weather for drinking hot tea or coffee while waiting for breakfast. Our guides had, unfortunately, slept in (!!), so we were left to scout irritably around the kitchen tent to get hot drinks going for ourselves. We comforted ourselves with the thought that we’d be setting off on our last day after a slap-up breakfast.

But that’s not what happened.

After another round of unappetising cereals heavily disguised with yoghurt, we packed up. This wasn’t anywhere nearly as straightforward as it sounds: the logistics of the donkey transport, which was returning to Living Waters that day while we hiked onwards, meant some careful choosing of what went back with the donkeys (and which would therefore not be available to us that night or the next day) and what we chose to take with us (which meant cramming our daypacks with toilet bags, pyjamas and clean clothes). It seemed to me to be unnecessarily complicated, and I don’t understand why the donkeys didn’t just travel with us to the end.

Equally inexplicably, but possibly because the grumblings of discontent – not to mention empty tummies – had grown rather loud, on this morning, the guides set out a range of snacks, including peanuts and Bar Ones. Just the thing we’d needed the previous day, while climbing well over a thousand metres!

Anyway, finally, we set off on our last day’s hike. Again, this was incredibly beautiful, a mini-rollercoaster of several valleys before we reached the road down into Die Hel. Hans was waiting there to collect us in a vehicle – Biddi and I opted to drive down into Die Hel while the other six walked.

Here, according to the literature, we were to enjoy ‘a picnic lunch in the shade’.

But that’s not what happened.

In spite of a combi and a bakkie having come that morning all the way from Living Waters – and therefore, one would assume, be capable of bringing supplies including fresh and delicious food – we were once again each provided with a blue plastic lunchbox, only this time the offering was even more sparse: the same white-bread cheese-and-lettuce sarmie (but the bread was, by this stage, a day old), a few sticks of dried-out cucumber, a juice box, the rejected Quality Street chocolates… We did also score one small packet each of Lays crisps – by that time, we were all so treat-deprived that the chips really seemed like a luxury.

We did have a pleasant braai that night in Gamkaskloof, provided for by the guides, but, once again, for the not-inconsiderable cost-per-person of the trail, I expected more than a few grilled sosaties and chops and a modest range of salad options.

Breakfast the next day was precisely the same as on the three previous mornings – despite the fact that in Gamkaskloof we were in accommodation with full kitchens including stoves and fridges, and therefore with the obvious capability of providing a fried egg and a couple of strips of crispy bacon. And, later, on the +-4-hour journey through the mountains back to Living Waters, we did stop for snacks – only, these were provided by Biddi, who had bought practically the whole supply of Gamkaskloof café’s Simba chips.

Hans, the manager, did admit, when pressed, that various organisational things had gone wrong, and that the food was generally of a higher quality (and, I’m hoping, that there’s usually more of it). It’s a shame he didn’t tell us this up front, so that we could apply some understanding to the situation. As it was, it just seemed to us that the Donkey Trail people had made a big fat profit out of the eight of us. Our combined fees for the hike came to a whopping R24 000; I’ve done some simple sums, and I estimate the food bill for the entire trip didn’t top R2 000 (and that’s being generous). Add to that a liberal allowance for payment for the guides, park fees and accommodation in Gamkaskloof, and allowing for various other costs such as petrol and so on, you’re still looking at Living Waters putting in the region of R12 000 in profit for the long weekend into their pockets.

For anyone wanting to do the Donkey Trail, I’d strongly suggest you phone ahead and have an in-depth conversation with the management about what you can expect for your fee. Because, on reflection, I’d far preferred to have done the trail in the old-fashioned way, carrying everything I required on my own back; alternatively, I’d love to have had the guides (especially Charlton) along, and the donkeys, but I’d have insisted on planning and packing the provisions myself.

Excess baggage

Some 20 years ago, the mother of a very close friend phoned me a few days before I was due to fly to England to see that friend, and asked me if she could drop off ‘a little something’ for me to take with me to give to her daughter.

Because her daughter had recently had a baby, and I sympathised with the mother – let’s call her Mrs R – for being on the other side of the world from her daughter and new granddaughter, and because it was Christmas, I said yes.

When Mrs R turned up with, I kid you not, a campcot, I was surprised. No, I was absolutely flabbergasted. Bear in mind, this was 20 years ago, and although campcots were relatively portable, they were nothing like the light-as-a-feather, strong-as-a-steel-girder campcots you get today. No, indeed. They were practically actual cots that just happened to fold up, and not into anything like small proportions.

My luggage, crammed with Christmas presents and other goodies for the various South African ex-pats I was going to be visiting, and lots of winter-wear, was already at the weight limit. So, I realised, with a heavy heart (well, certainly one over 20kg, anyway), that I was going to have to carry the campcot as hand luggage. This would be, of course, in addition to my actual hand luggage, which, in those pre-9/11 days, included several bottles of wine and assorted other comestibles.

Not only that, but that particular friend wasn’t first on my itinerary: I would be spending about a week travelling first, before reaching her – which meant the campcot would be my albatross for quite a bit of my trip.

Once I’d delivered the damned thing, we were able to laugh about it. Not only was Mrs R completely clueless about the unwritten rule that says you really shouldn’t ask travellers to take things with you for people on the other side (unless they’re small enough to be slipped into a pocket or of an actual life-or-death nature), campcots weren’t a rarity in England at the time. Quite the contrary: they were freely available, and considerably cheaper than in South Africa.

Fast-forward about 15 years – which is how long it took me to visit England, and the same friend, again – and, sure enough, Mrs R phoned me a few days before I was due to leave, and asked me if I’d take ‘a little something’ to deliver on the other side. ‘As long as it’s not a campcot!’ I joshed, and she said, ‘Oh, goodness me, no, it’s not!’

It was – again, I kid you not – a sleeping bag.

Now, some quick facts about sleeping bags: 1. They’re not light – the one she dropped off weighed just over 4kg, which may not seem much but when you’re taking it on a plane represents almost 25% of your baggage allowance (hence, once again, I had to take it as hand luggage); 2. they’re nowhere near small enough to slip into a pocket; and 3. they’re freely available in England, where they don’t cost any more than they do in South Africa.

And so the sleeping bag joined the campcot as Another Of Mrs R’s Ridiculous Requests.

The next time I went overseas, a couple of years ago, it wasn’t to England, but to Holland. That same friend, Mrs R’s daughter, was going to fly to Amsterdam to meet me there. And – you aren’t going to believe this, but as I live and breathe, it’s the truth – a few days before I was due to leave, Mrs R phoned me to ask if I could take ‘a little something’ with me – which I would then have to hand over to her daughter when we met in Holland, who would have to take it with her back to England, to pass on to someone else.

I’d got wise to Mrs R’s ‘little somethings’ by this stage, so I didn’t waste any time being jokily ambiguous. I said, ‘What. Is. It?’

And Mrs R replied – honestly, I’m not making this up – ‘A golf club.’

I said no for quite a few reasons (many of them having to do with being bitten once and all that), but one was that I didn’t entirely trust Mrs R’s response; I knew there was a chance it wouldn’t be a golf club, but a set of golf clubs.

Now my daughter is pregnant, and that same friend is due to come to South Africa for a visit at the end of this month. And when she emailed me to ask what present she could bring for the mother-to-be, I replied (of course), ‘A campcot, a sleeping bag and a set of golf clubs.’