That time I just showed up for the Otter Trail
I didn’t have the money or the time to do anything but work in the early part of my career. Hence I didn’t know much. Hiking, to my mind, was a really long stroll.
Consequently, when I was invited to hike the Otter Trail in South Africa with my then boyfriend Ant, I casually said yes. Walking was fun. So what if it’s five days long and has a six month waiting period, and a maximum of 12 hikers on the trail at a time.
I was a writer just to pay some bills. What I really wanted to do was be a waiter. Because waiting was my primary vocation. I could handle thirty screaming kids and their 6 exhausted adult chaperones at a grossly appropriating but wholly harmless Native American-themed birthday party at the local Steak House.
Please. I can handle the difficult tables. I can handle completely taking care of myself even though I was still a teenager. Fist fights. Drama-classes. I had a good streak of blue collar in me, although my tastes were always perfectly middle class.
I can handle the walk.
I showed up. With essentially a bag re-purposed from carrying my books around.
But I had one pair of jeans, five sets of underwear and t-shirts, a warm jacket that could double as a shade-giver, my toothbrush and a few tins of canned food and Ramen noodles.
Day 1 rained all the way. It was also not walking. It was slipping your shins to smithereens on rocks that look suspiciously optimized for piercing your human flesh, as the rain poured down on you and an angry sea licked at you. Day 1 crawls you through a cliff on one side and the ocean on the other. Day 1’s proceedings involved holding on for dear life and rediscovering religion on your way to the other side.
You make it. You understood from the start that there was running water at each camp site (two huts with six bunk beds each and a toilet, no paper) but no electricity (no lights, TVs, mobile phone recharges, cooked food, hot water).
Okay. We are the last to arrive at Checkpoint Whatever, now that a merciless world abandoned by its wrathful deity has so thoroughly inflicted the harshness of nature herself on you that you’ve earned your thousand yard marine stare.
Day 1 gets you out of civilization the hard way. The human faced with suddenly harsh circumstances reacts to two distinct voices: a drama queen and a drill sergeant.
Day 1 removes the drama queen. Save the drama for your mama. And PUSH. You may not make it out alive. Not in a horror movie sort of way. Just the realization that nature doesn’t care about your feelings.
We get to Camp. Two Germans, a nice older couple with next level gadgets and clipped, curt smiles. Kinda stuck to themselves. Two Americans, both hot. One of them really, really hot. Ant. Me. Another guy. And the English Academic who lives in France – who sponsored the whole expedition.
Day 2. The shortest distance of the whole hike. That lying map wrote checks it’s ass couldn’t cash. Short, sure. On a map. But this wasn’t a straight route. This was up and down, up and down. Climbing. Hiking isn’t meant to mean climbing. Surely. I’ve gone up and down like someone put me on a rodeo bull and just left me there for about 13 hours.
Day 2 breaches the inner wall. Dignity. Self Respect. Day 2 strips the world from you. You are so tired. But sometime tomorrow you’ll be done.
Let’s finish this. We’re in it now.
Day 3 changes the terrain. You learn the meaning of African Sun. And something else happens. Your curses change to wonderment. You are beyond tired – but you discover freedom. You walk. Human alone. You come face to face with what it means to be alive.
Day 4 is a slow descent punctuated by drops that you have to navigate feet first. You look out at the sea from the side of a green mountain. You hop downhill from boulder to boulder, but only once you made sure the boulders are safe. Hey there human being, whispers the wind. Been a while since you and I connected and had a talk. I’m your Mom. I’m nature.
Day 5 involves a river crossing. In full gear. (My Calvinist Decency was of sufficient force to get me to carry heavy bags in turns. Travelling light, and with a buddy, is a thing that has served me well ever since).
But then you are done. Suddenly you are out. A couple of deserted beach homes stand honour guard as you triumphantly exit the labyrinth. You get to a restaurant. Abused hiking shoes hang over the branches of a tree – a living monument to the brave few who have done their tour successfully. (Pro-Tip: Never hike in new shoes. Walk em in first). Coca-Cola, Steak and Oily French Fries never tasted so good.
Thing is. Walking that trail for those five days, did things for my soul that would never leave me.
I’ve taken long walks in lots of places since then.
My walking habit came to mind because my first – and very unexpected ‘like’ – came from a group or person who enjoys hiking too. Thanks for that. Hope we walk a while.
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