Two weeks ago, I found myself atop a mountain, at once nursing a sun burn while fighting off frost bite. The trail above Chapman’s Peak is geographically positioned to expose the hiker to blazing sunshine at one moment and windswept shade the next. This juxtaposition occurs at regular intervals, providing an additional layer of discomfort to a body virtually paralysed by lactic acid. It had been a miserable and interminable ascent made worse by the stream of pensioners and children bounding past me, giggling as they went. I had grunted at the enthusiasts who’d cantered up after their muesli breakfasts, and were now making their way down in time for a quinoa and pumpkin seed wrap. And I had cursed my decision to wear denim: a victory for style over functionality yet a hammer blow for common sense.
But, at the trail’s peak, a collection of large, misshapen boulders perched hundreds of metres above the road below, my mood lifted. I manoeuvred between outcrops of Lycra and thorny Fynbos and made my way to the area’s southernmost point. It was a clear day, the only sign of cloud a distant collection of low lying cumulus on the western horizon, omens perhaps of the cold front on its way from the farthest reaches of the Atlantic. Below, Noordhoek beach stretched like a tapered feather the colour of taupe from the foot of Chapman’s Peak towards Kommetjie. There, Slangkop Lighthouse waited its turn to guide a procession of fishing boats – their bowels heaving with kreef, snoek and tuna – safely back to their moorings in Hout Bay harbour.
I had, I recalled, once interviewed one of the country’s best freestyle climbers and base-jumpers at his home in Kommetjie. By then entering his mid-50s, his exploits were the stuff of folklore among the Cape’s rock-climbing community. He’d been the first to attempt many of the region’s most dangerous routes, driving pitons into precarious crevices that would render the climbs a little less treacherous for those that followed. He was as unassuming as his stories were gripping. He made me take off my shoes before walking into his house.
To the east the rugged textures of the Constantiaberg and Skoorsteenskopperberg fell away and morphed into the altogether more manicured landscapes of the wide plain at their feet. Mansions, some attached to boutique vineyards, were conspicuous, in constant discord with their African setting. In the distance, the white-fringed arc of False Bay formed a counterpoint to the Hottentots-Holland mountain range on the south easterly horizon. They appeared to run parallel to one another, the borders of a mostly flat expanse of sand, scrub and shanty that narrowed slightly before curving southward towards Gordon’s Bay. Out of sight, tucked behind the Helderberg lay Somerset West and the wine farm I once called home. I remembered how, in 2004, I’d driven down from Johannesburg on what you might call a whim to settle in this glorious and unknown place. I’d stopped at the viewing sight on Sir Lowry`s Pass, smoked a cigarette and wondered what the future held. Twelve years on, the cigarettes had gone but the question remained.
The trek down proved every bit as torturous as the ascent, and the late afternoon sun had drifted behind Hout Bay’s Sentinel by the time I hobbled into the parking area. We had made the trip to follow a small team of dedicated hikers helping Google photograph and map the globe’s wilderness areas. It’s a noble endeavour undertaken by people who have little more to gain than publicising our country’s natural splendour.
If you asked them, they’d likely tell you hiking is as much about the journey as it is the destination. They might well have a point, but this journalist, encumbered by the twin effects of hypothermia and sunstroke, was unable to establish the veracity of that claim.
Instead, I had been consumed by the destination. In the moments before and in-between filming, I had looked down on the geography of my past and found a kind of reassurance, a comfort. Later, as conversation turned, as it inevitably does, to the tribulations of daily life, I had discovered something else: at that height, we seemed separate from the madness that our existence appears to have become. And, in those brief moments, it was glorious.