I know what I must speak on today, I can hear him tell me. I need to share this message. Someone needs to hear it. I bow and pray as I thank God for his message, as I begin to prepare my sermon for Sunday.
“We aren't running the Comrades marathon this year.” That's what we have declared multiple times to those who have enquired. “We are taking a gap year, and that includes running Comrades. I'll come back next year for number ten,” I confidently proclaim.
Then why is it that I find myself standing scantily dressed in running gear in the pitch dark huddled with 18,000 other nervous runners while the haunting strains of Chariots of Fire blast through the speakers at the start of the Comrades Marathon? Let's back up a bit.
It's a year of travel and adventure that we have planned. Getting in training for Comrades is not going to happen, and also after running 9 in a row a break will be good. Especially as there is only one word to describe the 90km experience for me - brutal! So we aren't running it this year. Well, that is until some crazy Aussie mates said “Hey we gonna come to South Africa to run Comrades...” so we couldn't let them do it alone. So we enter, you know, just in case they come.
The training is minimal as there are no marathons that seem to coincide with the out of the way places we are frequenting. No worries, I have plan. We're staying at Fanschhoek so I say, “Nicky, let's run a marathon.” Of course she's keen...and so after waking up a few mornings and looking at the dark world outside we roll over and say “maybe tomorrow”. But eventually “tomorrow” does come.
We set off from Franschhoek in the pitch dark using my cellphone torch for light. This is crazy! It's a simple plan - run 21km and turn around and run 21km back. Long story, short...42km is long, but we survive to tell the tale. And then a week later we do it again, but this time I feel like I've been beaten by an oversized wet porpoise. Eish! Comrades?
A few days later we find ourselves sipping wine and smelling the roses...literally, in the spectacular Kirstenbosch gardens. A message comes through from the crazed Aussies. “Sorry, we won't be able to make Comrades...” I do an Irish jig of joy. Well, that's off the agenda. I let the wine and roses wash over me. I'll drink to that.
We're back on KZN and Comrades is now drifting away into the void, where it belongs. We're headed to The Waffle House in Ramsgate. The prospect of a crispy Belgian waffles topped with icecream and honey lures us in. As we disembark from Pajey a friendly car guard says, “So are you running Comrades this year?” Huh? Who's this crazy dude talking to? “Umm, we're not sure,” I reply, still not sure why he's asking us this. “Well, if you've done 300km of training you're good to go,” he says. "I did that and finished in 11h25." We would be very happy to finish in that time...more than half an hour to spare, but that seems unlikely.
Ok, let me put this is perspective. Most Comrades runners do about 1200km of training runs between Jan and May. We, who like to come in fresh and undertrained, do about 700km...so 300km is very light indeed. I quickly check my Runkeeper app...we're closing in on 300km. But it's so little..and what's this crazy dude with the 8 month belly bulge know, even if he says he's done it?
“Let's do an ultra tester,” Nicky suggests when we are back at base camp in Cowies Hill “Let's just see how we handle it.” Sigh! And so we decide to test our bodies. You can't do this crazy Comrades thing without at least one ultra under the shoes. And so we awake before the roosters have even contemplated dawn and run for about an hour in total darkness before heading towards the Durban beachfront where we enjoy a short breakfast break before returning. 54km and it wasn't too bad...maybe it was the breakfast break.
But the fear gnaws. Yes or no? To run or not? We're enjoying ourselves in Sodwana, I'm trying to forget. Comrades is next Sunday. We attend a local church and God speaks.
“How many of you have heard God audibly speak to you?” asks the pastor. No hands go up. “How many of you would like to hear God audibly speak to you?” All the hands go up. “Well, if you want to hear God audibly speak to you, read the Bible out loud!” And how true that is. This is God's word. It is him speaking to me. And so I hear God speak.
“Fear not!” says God as the Pastor reads these words from the Bible. It's for me.
But he is not finished. His message is more direct than that. He continues, “run in such a way as to get the prize…Run like you are enjoying it.” What? This is not God speaking to me he's shouting at me. “Many people are running Comrades next week...” he continues. I'm stunned.
“There will be a wall. Press through it and before you know it you are in the stadium and it has all been worth it. Finish the race you've been called to. Listen to God when he speaks to you. He speaks to you through his Word. Sure he may also speak to you in other ways - directly, through nature, or even through other people. Listen.” It's God speaking directly to me. Wow! A peace I can't explain settles over me. Comrades is coming yet I feel such peace.
“It's last minute I know, but we've booked flights. We're coming to run Comrades.” That's what the crazy Aussie message says. After all this they're now coming. And that's how we find ourselves standing at the start of the 90th Comrades marathon, Nicky's 9th and my 10th.
Chariots of Fire fades away, the moment is here. The rooster sound crows through the speakers and seconds later the gun blasts heralding the start of our 90km journey from Durban to Pietermaritzburg.
We were never planning on doing this crazy run this year and so we have an H seeding...that means we are right at the back of the 18,000 field. When the gun goes we stand and stand and stand. It takes us 8 minutes to cross the start line and about 15 minutes before we can start to run. In a race like this, where 12 hours is the cutoff, those minutes can make the difference between a medal and no medal.
Finally we find some space and Nicky and I can run freely. We're feeling great as we move steadily up the field passing hundreds of runners. Yet nagging in the back of my mind is the wall. It's huge for me. Last year it hit at the 60km mark. That meant 30km of nausea, vomiting and walking - 5 hours! I don't want that. Yet I feel peace as we continue to push on. It's like we're flying.
We move comfortably through halfway in 5h20. We've made up loads of time. We're flying. Feeling great. The weather is not too hot and the up run, notorious for being brutal is feeling good. However at about 75km I meet the wall. It's what the pastor said. But he also said,”Press through it and before you know it you will be in the stadium.”
Nicky is, as always strong in this part of the race, but she stays with me. Nausea swamps me. Vomiting. Walking. Nausea. Vomiting. Yet before I know it we're over the daunting mountain called Polly Shorts and headed to the stadium.
The sound of that announcer's voice mingles with cheers and music pulling us inexorably towards our goal. We've slowed but have plenty of time now. As I enter the stadium I'm overwhelmed by the emotion of finishing my tenth Comrades. My children who have tirelessly supported us through the whole race with the selfless help of my cousin, are waiting. They hand me a banner and together with Nicky I round the final corner holding the banner high - “10 with God's Strength”.
There are no words to describe the feeling of finishing my 10th Comrades and earning my Green Number. They have all been a huge challenge, but somehow this is the culmination. My mind is racing, my legs are still running even though I'm standing still, my nausea fatigued stomach is still churning as I smile for the camera as I'm awarded my Green Number badge. It's over. Done in God's strength. Nicky and I have done it, and so too has the amazing Aussie-ex-Saffer crazy runner Roxie. The flood of joy is indescribable. Sometimes we just need to step beyond the line to experience the power of God - his love, joy and peace.
We finished...in 11h25. That's what the strange car guard said. Sometimes we just need to learn to listen!
Pizza, vino, cappuccino, deez are da things that make life worth living. As I cross the road I see someone looking at the menu. “Ciao,” I say. “We have the best pizzas in the world.” The girl, she looks at me and smiles. I think she will be back. I watch as she walks away. Yes, pizza, vino and cappuccino, they are the things that we live for.
After leaving the network of dirt tracks in Mozambique we return to South Africa. It's like chalk and cheese, sand and tar, wild and calm. It's been fun but it's good to cruise on a paved road with signs and lines and modern things. Yet it's short lived as we turn off on our way towards Sodwana. The route hugs Lake Sibaya, and just like in Mozi, it is mainly thick sand and undulations, winding through dense coastal forests. It's beautiful seeing glimpses of this magnificent Lake Sibaya, but I'm giving the driving full concentration as once or twice Pajey fights furiously to get through the thick sand. Getting stuck out here would be a problem - there is no cell signal, no humans that we've seen. Years later, all that would be discovered would be our remains picked clean by hippos. However, finally after about two hours we arrive at Sodwana Bay Lodge.
We awake and are ready for action. Today we are headed to Mkuze Game Park. Our first stop on route to Mkuze is the Spar at Mbazwane. We've had to adapt to a new style of shopping as we move off the grid, and shop where Africa shops. The shop cuisine sports everything from bulk packs of chicken claws to 50kg bags of mealie meal - enough to feed a small nation for a week. No suhsi in sight....Aah, for a taste of sushi. Actually just chicken that no longer looks like a recently departed chicken would be good.
We make our way along a bumpy dirt road that occasionally gives way to what appears to be the distant memory of a tar road before giving up completely and returning to gravel again. Added to this are the bonus points for dodging cows, goats, and equally non-intelligent pedestrians.
Eventually, we arrive at the Mkuze gate, flash our Rhino card, fill in endless, pointless forms, as though this is a border crossing, and are finally admitted. By this stage we are feeling peckish - it must be the lingering memory of chicken claws. We head to a lake-side picnic spot arriving just after noon having not seen another car or human on route here. It's wonderful having this game park all to ourselves. Soon we've set up our table, poured our chilled wine, and are smelling the wors braaing as we listen to the hiss of our promised meal mingling with the nearby sound of snorting hippos and the distant cry of a fish eagle. It truly is incredible to be just 20 meters away from these magnificent animals while enjoying fine food.
Sodwana Run & Snorkel
'Tis always a joy for the children to be awoken with the news “We're heading out for a run in 10 minutes”. But such is the lot that does on occasion fall upon them, as it is on this fine morn. With Hannah's mumbles muted due to a restraining order already imposed, we head out, and what a rave run it is…for us at least. We run the gently undulating road towards Sodwana beach but are forced to turn at 2.5km as some of the less running inclined kids deem this far enough.
The deep blue sea is calling us and today we will venture into it. We've booked a snorkeling adventure. “It's women and children first,” says the guy who is going to lead our dive as we get ready to launch. “And then when you are waist deep the rest can get in the boat.” So much for equality. Clinging white-knuckled to the side of the boat as the waves roll in I await the call to “abandon sea” hoping it will come before the waves swamp me or the boat propeller slices me into biltong pieces.
Getting out to sea in the rubber duck is like driving on a badly potholed road, which resonates with our driving experience in this area. We bump along the coast for about 20 minutes finding nothing more than a shoal of hyperactive tuna leaping through the waves. Aah, sushi...so close yet so far.
“This is the reef,” the dive master says once we give up on the elusive dolphins, “follow me,” he says leaping overboard into the big wide ocean. Reef? This looks like the great wide open sea. An ideal place for sharks to suck on turtle-looking snorkellers.
In moments we are all bobbing in the ocean like a flock of colorful jellyfish. Putting my face down a hidden world of visual splendor erupts into view. Floating high above the reef far below, I see schools of colorful fish dance and dart to the crackling sound of the coral. The scene is stunning as we “fly” over this hidden world and get a glimpse into the unseen.
Returning to the boat after about 30 minutes I find Hannah and Josh already there having succumbed to the ocean's kiss - nausea. Clinging onto the boat we bounce our way back and before long are showered and warming, like contented lizards, in the sun.
In the evening we attend the local church, Solid Ground, that takes place in a home. We are warmly welcomed and enjoy the worship and the powerful message ahout hearing God - something I really need as the fear of the upcoming Comrades marathon settles upon me! Should I run it this year? It's number 10...but this was going to be the year off. Decisions...
Across the road from the church is an Italian pizza restaurant claiming to be the best in the world. We met the proprietor yesterday and he is Italian both in accent and enthusiastic spirit. The restaurant is just a caravan nestled on the side of the road with a few tables planted in the sand. Candles on the table and stars above create a truly remarkable ambiance as jovial music pumps out of a pair of small speakers coming out of the caravan kitchen.
The thin based pizzas are delicious and we wash them down with the wine served in paper coca cola cups. “It's an epic way to end an amazing stay at Sodwana,” I think to myself as we walk the kilometer or so back to our chalet. Africa just keeps on serving up the best in tastes, sights, experiences and people. Nkosi Sikilele Africa.
It should not be long now. Thankfully it’s winter and the sun is not too hot, but still while standing on the side of the road waiting droplets of sweat begin to bead on my head. A few vehicles pass, fishtailing as they drag themselves through the thick sand. Not long now. A car passes, and then I see it. This is the one. It bounces over the bumps in the sandy track, each bump causing it to leap higher. Surely now. And then the vehicle slows and stops. Yes…we've got one. Moments later it tries to pull off, but its wheels spin in the thick sand. In seconds it sinks deeper and deeper. Yes, we've got one!
First there is the sound of breaking glass and then moments later the air is filled with the smell of wine. “I smell wine,” Sarah says. And soon we are all in agreement. There is no doubt that there is a wine smell in the air, but there's nothing we can do about it at the moment. “I can't stop here,” I say as the back seat drivers suggest I pull over. “The sand is too thick and the dense forest leaves no room to pull over.”
We are on our first adventure as part of our year long travels, out of South Africa. We are headed to a remote town not far from Ponta d'Ora in Mozambique. Crossing the border is always a fun experience. Leaving South Africa is relatively simple. It's now getting through the Mozambique side that is the challenge. We've driven from St Lucia, the secret gem of KZNs north coast and are headed up to Ponta Molangane. After beaming friendly smiles at the Mozambiquen border officials, paying our R220 for some third party insurance and answering, “about 3 bottles of wine” to the inquisitive border guard, we are on our way.
“Insane” is probably the best word to describe the change in road condition from leaving South Africa to entering Mozambique on its eastern edge. A single smooth, freshly tarred road delivered us up to the SA border post. Thick, sandy roads splitting into an inexplicable number of branching tracks explode in every direction before us. Our instructions from the accommodation we're staying say “the route...is a sandy track with little signage.” This is code for “thick beach sand tracks with no signposts”. Who would expect signs on “national roads”? The instructions encouragingly continue...“the road splits in three directions...choose the middle one” - OK, got that, we take the middle fork. However the instructions then become vague... “the road has multiple forks” code for hundreds of forks, “...don't get too anxious...they will all eventually meet up.” Are you serious? As we drive, every few minutes we're suddenly presented with a random split - left or right? Braking or slowing down in the thick sand is not a good idea so I just pick at random and go, and sometimes despite the instructions' reassurance, the tracks don't meet up as we arrive at some lone hut. Obviously this fork is a “driveway” which is inconsiderately unsignposted.
We've arrived in real Africa. This is the Africa of the movies where one expects to see herds of elephant at any moment as open grasslands and cosps of trees frame our sandy 4x4 track. It's as we're bouncing over some mini sand dunes through a thick indigenous coastal forest that we hear the wine bottles clink once again in the back of the car as they are airborne for a moment. And this time the clink is followed by the unmistakable bouquet of an unwooded Chardonnay...or is it the grassy scent of Savingnon...or is it a blend of all our wine we're smelling?
We have to wait until we exit the forest before I can pull over. These sandy national roads are of course two way roads, despite the fact that there is just enough room for a single car. We've already met an oncoming 4x4 sand ploughing a spray of dust in front of him as he slammed on brakes to stop in time.
Leaping out, it is with mounting trepidation that we carefully open the back of Pajey. Will we be in forced sobriety and sipping water for our sundowners for the next three nights or has some of our wine survived? Wine is dripping down the back of the car and reaching an ignoble end in the thick sand. “They're all broken,” Nicky declares as she gently lowers the now sodden box onto the sandy road. I swoon slightly. It must be the 30c heat not the recent news. However on further inspection its discovered the news is not as dire as first proclaimed. In fact what has happened is that our customs declaration has been implemented. “About 3 bottles of wine” is now correct. It seems there were four but now there are three. At least everything is above board.
With the fruity smell of a dearly departed Chardonnay, unwooded I think, filling the car, we continue bouncing, sliding, and guessing our way to our destination. Amazingly all roads do finally lead to Ponta Molangane and we arrive. Paradise unfurls before us.
The glass doors that welcome us into the accommodation at Baleia Azul that we're sharing with the two other families ushers us into the most spectacular view. A deck stretches out before us to a suspended pool and the unobstructed view of the endless sea beyond. It's stunning. The ride here, the adventure makes this worth it. What adventures await us here, in real Africa.
“Come on everyone, we're leaving.” There's a mad early morning scurry as everyone heads to the 4x4s. It's only about a 45 minute trip along the non-existent Mozambique roads to Ponta d'Ora. We've booked a dolphin adventure. The plan...leap onto boats, find dolphins, swim with them, be amazed. The ride to Ponta is fun as usual, as we bounce along thick sandy tracks, but we arrive unscathed. We find the Dlophin place and are soon seated wathcing a video on what we can expect. The excitement is mounting...but just before the video ends, our hopes are dashed. Someone appears and tells us that the trips are cancelled as the conditions are not good. I'm not sure if its a collective sigh of relief or disappointment, as the sea was looking a little turbulent. Either way, the action's off, and so we settle for a stroll around the town. This is Africa of the movies. Shops line a the dirt roads where vendors sell their wares. One vendor has taken up residence in a burnt down building while across the road a modern looking shop competes for attention. It's such an eccelctic mix you can't help but be drawn into the beauty and charm of the place.
“Let's head back and grab a snack at Sunset Shack,” someone suggests, as the shopping spirit dwindles. We all leap into our cars - three 4x4s in covoy and head out of Ponta. And that's when the fun starts. The car behind me suddenly seems to vanish, and so I back up to see what's happened. “Can anyone see John,” I say referring to the ML that is number two in the convoy. “There he is,” Hannah says. And there he is indeed. Belly deep in the thick sand. “Don't worry John, I'm here to rescue you.” My moment of pride is finally here. Soon I've attached a tow rope to John's beleagured ML and Pajey is ready to show his grit. Alas it does not work out as planned. Pajey, with the added weight attached to him, struggles to move. In moments the glory-to-be evaporates and Pajey...well, Pajey is belly deep in the thick sand too. Two vehicles stuck. So much for the gallant steed to the rescue.
Thankfully some locals are standing on the side of the road, amazingly with spades in hand, ready to dig us out. It's amazing their foresight, that they would be at this spot, ready and waiting with spades in hand. An hour later...lots of digging, burning clutch and money changing hands and we are all on our way again. Well, the lesson is, "this is Africa"stunn. She eats cars without a second thought. “But, the adventure is amazing,” I think to myself, as we stop at a roadside pub...OK, not a pub but a shack on the side of the road that sells R&Rs - Mozambique's iconic Rum and Rasberry drink - horribly sweet, but amazing as you sit with your feet in the sand watching the sun dip into the horizon. This is Africa, is so unique...there's nothing quite like it!
The cool of the water makes me want to stay underneath for longer, but I must come up to get some air. I rise slowly. As my head breaks the water I exhale sending a fine spray of water into the air. Not far from where I am I can see a lot of activity. Its humans. At first I am not sure what they're doing, and then I see. They're running. Something must be chasing them...but I'm not really interested. I sink below the cool water once again, savouring it's cool embrace.
A gentle breeze wraps languidly around me as drops of condensation distill on the glass of Sauvignon Blanc I'm holding. It's 30c but the light breeze and the deep shade of the huge African Fig tree under which we're seated makes this a perfect spot for our picnic. Before us stretches wide open grasslands dotted with clumps of trees. A herd of giraffe look quizzically at us as we settle down for our picnic. “This has to be one of the world's best picnic spots,” I think to myself as I sit soaking in the surreal vista before me.
We're in the iSimangiliso St Lucia Park. We've found an amazing spot to have a picnic and soak in all that is amazing about Africa. We have it all to ourselves. A lone warthog scuttles with its aerial-like tail held high towards the dwindling water in the pan.
The salty biltong and blue cheese stuffed olives are a perfect complement to our wine. The weave of the animals grazing, the soft caress of the wind, the symphony of the birds, the taste of fresh rolls layered with ham, basil and tomato makes this an almost indescribable experience. How do you describe this feeling? How do you put into words the exhilaration, the joy, the peace of an experience like this? It can't be described. It must be lived. They say TIA - “This Is Africa” - and they're right. In the distance the fish eagle cries out her agreement as she rises gracefully on the late afternoon thermals. This is Africa and it's beautiful. It's life-changing. It's real. It's unequalled. Hannah and Josh climb an ancient tree framing out view and sit on its long, stretching, thick branch. Their vantage point gives them an unobstructed view of the open planes before them and the slowly moving herd of giraffe as they head off.
As we drive out of the park the sun begins to descend towards the tree fringed horizon. We can't miss it. It's too beautiful to let it go uncelebrated. Leaving the park we head straight to Sunset Jetty, which adjoins the estuary. The sun is just melting over the horizon, painting the estuary a fiery glow of orange.
“It's so early,” one of the kids complains, as we wake up at 7am on Sunday morning. They are sure out of the early morning school routine if this feels early. But we're all getting up. “Come on guys,” I say, “we are not going to be late.” Thirty minutes later we are headed out and down to the St Lucia Skiboat club where the action begins. Today we're running. Hannah and Josh are doing the 5km fun run. Sarah is doing the 10km run. Nicky and I are doing the 21km - a final fun trainer before Comrades. And what a run it turns out to be. It goes through thick coastal forest, along the main road of St Lucia, next to the game park and finally along the beach front and the boardwalk. What an epic run. We finally all meet up back at the club, and with the music pumping, the announcer welcoming back runners, we enjoy a beer and toasted sandwich. In the river a large hippo breaks the surface of the water, and exhales loudly sending a fine spray of water into the air. It floats for a moment, seemingly looking at us and thinking, “Crazy dudes...you don't get a figure like mine by running like that!” It sinks below the water.
“This place is infested with hippos,” I say loving the fact that there are just so many. I don’t realise just how many there are. As evening settles upon the tiny town of St Lucia we are given the Eskom treat…darkness. We decide to take a walk down the main street and look at some of the shops that are still open, and have power. “Hey,” Nicky suggests, “why don’t we walk back on the back streets as it will be darker and we can see the stars.” We all agree. It is dark, and the only tourch I have is my cellphone which I point at the road, not so much for the potential of tripping over something, but because hippos roam freely in St Lucia at night. However the small torch does little to pierce the thick darkness.
Just up ahead the road passes a park and opposite that is the entrance to our timeshare. We stop for a moment to appreciate the stars, and are about to move on when Eskom decides to return the light like some benevolent utility provider. But on this occasion their benevolence is appreciated. Just across the road in the park, three large hippo are grazing, just meters away from where we would have been if we had continued to walk. Hannah yelps and runs for safety into a nearby driveway, while we all back away. Wow. This really is a hippo infested place. You just have to love it.
The next night, as we are enjoying an evening coffee and cake at one of the restaurants, we see a hippo come trotting up the main road. This is a crazy place. “Dad,” Josh says, “let’s go hipp spotting.” Yeah, why not…and so we pile into Pajey and drive the streets of St Lucia. It’s pitch dark as we enter a car park that borders the estuary. Joshua is shining the torch out the window. In moments a huge dark form is illuminated…and then another, and another. A pod of hippos is grazing contentedly next to the car park. Carefully we all slip out of the car in the ink-black night, and clamber onto the roof. Above us a million stars have been sprayed across the sky. The night is still. The only sound is the rustle of something large, and the sound of grass being eaten as the hippos graze contentedly. Wow. What a place. Where else in the world could you feel so alone yet so close to such amazing animals. Wow.
The sky is alive, but not how it usually is. Thick coils of smoke rise in dark plumes in all directions. Molten rock leaps high into the air as I bank sharply to avoid it. My huge, leathery wings lift my body above the carnage below. It's as though the earth is throwing its own mantle off. I look down. All I see are plumes of orange and red and gold. Too late I look up. A thick fountain of molten rock spews over my body. I roar in fury as I am forced down, bearing the weight of the rapidly solidifying rock.
The way to wake up in the mountains...actually the way to wake up wherever you are, is with an espresso. Its for this reason that after we've packed the kids in the car we pack the espresso machine. Or is it the other way around? Either way, we travel with our portable machine. And so it is that I roll over, just as the light begins to paint the tips of the distant Drakensberg mountain peaks in an orange glow. Aah, that first sip. It sends life straight to the soul. Normally after restarting the brain in this way we would reach for our phones and sift through the new, weather, emails, and any other content that takes our fancy. Not today. Today we reach for our water bottles, and a few minutes later, while the house is still quiet, we are off. We are headed to the mountains.
It's a short drive from Eagles Lodge in the Central Berg, where we are staying, to Monks Cowl Park, which is the gateway to the majestic mountain range in this area. After parking our car and filling in the mountain register we are off. It's only about a 3km hike to the first stop point, The Sphinx. This iconic rock protrudes from the side of the mountain, looking pensively down like a giant Sphinx. It's a steep climb to the Sphinx, and if the espresso had not woken us up, the walk sure would. We are full of energy and so we reach the Sphinx in just 30 minutes. It's a great spot to take a break, slurp some water and look back over the incredible vista that the Sphinx provides.
On one side the mountain climbs another thousand meters up, while one the other side it drops off towards the distant valley and the quaint town of Winterton in the far distance. If the first part of the walk wasn't enough to wake one up, the climb from the Sphinx to the escarpment above sure will. Once more we set off with much enthusiasm and another 30 minutes later we have reached Breakfast Stream. What a view. From here it looks as though you're standing on a huge open field. The valley behind is shielded by a hill, while before us a rolling grassland stretches out into the distance, as though it were some grand green carpet, leading the hiker to the majesty beyond. For at the end of this green carpet rises the majestic peaks of the Central Berg - Sterkhorn, Cathkin, and Champagne Castle towering over them all. We are drawn towards these majestic mountains, rising over 3,000m high to touch the azure blue sky above.
“It looks like a dragon,” I say to Nicky as we walk almost like somnambulists drawn towards a distant dream. In fact it is called the Dragon's Back, the series of sharp peaks that fall away from the towering peaks before us. “Yes, it does,” she replies. “Maybe in some ancient time a dragon was buried beneath all this rock,” she jokes. Anything seems possible, especially as the grandeur of this place overwhelms your senses.
We stop finally at Blind Man's Corner. It's here that all serious hikes begin. Heading off left will lead one to the Hidden Valley. Heading right will take the hiker to Gatberg (translated Hole Mountain) or around to the torturous Grey Pass up to Champagne Castle. Or simply just keep walking straight UP, rising a thousand meters almost vertically, and you can summit the amazing Sterkhorn. It's not a peak for the fainthearted, as quite a few people have died on this peak if the weather turns. Today we are simply satisfied with lying in the grass at the base of Sterkhorn. The sky is a blue canvas that God is dabbing with fluffy white spots. A bee flies over me and does an abrupt U-turn to return and see what this strange animal is lazing in the grass. After a cursory sortee it moves on - there seems like few pollination options here. The air is clean and clear. There is not another person around. It's as though this entire mountain belongs to us. It's as though we are alone on a canvas of green and blue. Living in a symphony of fragrant smells and a gentle breeze.
Reluctantly we arise to return home. The price of a short walk and we have witnessed God's iMax - where the visual clarity stuns the eyes, where the sound embraces you and where the seating lives around you. This is a show we want to see again, and again, and again.
Everyone is on the move. There is the scent of water in the air and so before I know it we are up and flying. We rise quickly and before long are heading towards the rising sun. The smell of water is thick in the air as the rising sun lifts it from the dew-laden grass. We bank sharply to one side and the entire swarm, as though controlled by a single mind, follows. Suddenly something large is right before me, slicing through the swarm just meters before me, and then its gone. I tumble downwards for a moment before I regain control and catch up with the rapidly vanishing swarm.
It's farewell to the Western Cape as we begin the trek back, marking the end of Part 1 of our adventure that has spanned the entire coast from Port Edward, through the Eastern Cape, into the Western Cape and up to Langebaan. One of the key principles of our trip is “going nowhere slowly”. We are about to break this principle. The girls have a One Direction concert on the weekend and the rendezvous requires us to get to the Berg in one day. It's going to be a loooooong drive of about 1600km.
The alarm awakes me from a blissful sleep at 4am. Eish! We do the final car pack and are in the car, in the dark at 5am. And thus begins the long drive from Franschhoek to Eagles Lodge in the Central Drakensberg. It should be a relatively easy drive as the roads are good...except for our headlight issue. For some reason our lowbeam lights are set too high so every car we pass at night flashes us. I do not have many options. I can ignore them, which typically causes them to turn their bright lights on in revenge - a stupid response I don't quite get, as now you have both drivers who can't see - or I can flash back at them to show them I'm on lowbeam. This also elicits one of two responses. One they ignore me. Two they give me the same stupid response of revenge.
So the first part of the journey, of about 2 hours, is in the dark and I'm rewarded with every oncoming car flashing their lights at us because they think I have brights on. I try and assume they are saying a friendly "Good Morning Mate" and smile ingratiatingly back at them.
Once the sun rises at least this trouble will go with it. However driving in an easterly direction into the oncoming sun brings with it its own issues. I suppose being blinded by the sun now is revenge for my headlights. As I'm heading towards the light, thankfully not metaphorically, a swarm of crazed bees, or other bug things, flies across the road. I slice through them and end up with a nice buttery spread on my windscreen, where the oily film, combined with refracted light creates rainbows in my eyes....which would be fine if I didn't need to drive. Poor bees!
The journey continues and is fairly uneventful except for Pajey's insatiable thirst for fuel. We can only get about 450km on a tank at 15l/100km so we have to plan our fuel stops to satiate his need. Our first stop is some random petrol station for trucks with Nicky getting to enjoy a truck stop toilet. Our second stop is an Ultra City where we grab a small burger on the run. Our third stop is a close affair. We nearly run out and end up rolling in. We full up and the pump reads 79.8 liters in my 80l tank! That was close. There is one time when Pajey flashes some random light on his console at me, but in true Pajey style it vanishes again so I ignore it.
As it gets dark again we turn onto the ugly N5 which is filled with roadworks. This causes more stoppages and difficult driving, made even more fun as trucks turn their bright lights on in response to poor Pajey! Now I'm driving on really narrow roads, with no shoulder because of the roadworks, with huge trucks giving me their brights. I knew there was a good reason we had the philosophy of “going nowhere slowly”. I'm not enjoying this.
The journey down Van Reenen's Pass takes concentration as the hours take their toll and the irritation of the bright lights continues. Finally we turn off onto the peace of the road heading towards Winterton. I can truly sense the end of this long journey as we pass Thokasiza and enter the final stretch. The roads here are quiet and empty as we make the final dash towards the Berg and its tranquility. However, even in this final stretch I'm driving cautiously as I've often seen buck jump out of the long grass on the roadside.
With only a few kilometers to go we suddenly see flashing blue lights ahead. I slow down. We come upon a horrible accident. A small car has driven into a cow. We're unsure what happened to the driver but the warning of being careful is reinforced even so close to the end. Later we find out the driver survived, which is a miracle considering how demolished the car was. Yet what is even more powerfully reinforced is how God has cared of us on this journey. We've prayed for his care and by his grace he has give us a safe journey.
Finally we arrive at Eagles Lodge after 16 hours of traveling. A long journey but the lessons are “keep on keeping on” but do all in God's strength and safe keeping. It's the only way! It's certainly going to have to be our motto if we run the crazy 90km Comrades marathon in a few months time. It's the only way I can finish it.
We've arrived. Those girls had better enjoy that No Direction concert thing they are headed to. Hopefully we wont have to do any more of these long crazy drives in the future. Think of all the coffee shops I missed. Oh well, when we travel back this way in a few months time we will do it properly.