Garden Castle

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The sun trying to surface from behind the mountains.

Fuck me it is cold. The leaves from the ground won’t light because they are covered in frost. How the fuck are we supposed to make tea? I run around blowing on my hands, rubbing them together, picking up sticks and lighting matches like my life and Tom’s life depend on this fire and cup of tea. My water bottle was outside overnight. The water is now ice. Using toilet paper I get a small fire going and use it to rescue my hands and dry more wood.

Hiking up the 2,359m Garden Castle mountain I’m thinking about the guide book in my back pocket. Better not to read it. Tom does not have one and that must make his experience more pleasant. Anyway, that guide book has given us more grief than it is worth. Telling us to cross streams that do not exist or walk along fences that are no longer there. Inner-hut fireplaces mentioned in the book have been sealed shut with bricks. The guide must have been written at least 10 years ago. Fuck it is hot. We have gone from wearing all the clothing we have to wearing pants and a shirt in under an hour. From freezing our tits off to sweating and cursing at the sun. The heat and the climbing and the strenuous summation of the past three days start sending me into a delirium.

On day one I was wrestling with my mind, trying to slide it from its normal busy state to a mellowed out state.

The second day the two opposing states of mind were ebbing and flowing casually until I smoked a small joint. After that I spent the afternoon blissfully absorbing the wilderness.

On day three I guided my thoughts gently, letting the butterflies drift in and around and out.

Today, my mind is behaving like a series of intersecting out-of-control carousels. Without any warning I am spun around one train of thought and flung onto the next in a swift exchange. Carousel after carousel. The horses’ laughing faces lit up by flames. I do not choose what I think. Or when I stop thinking one thought and move onto the next. It just happens in a series of misfiring connections.

Fuck it is hot. Not much water and no streams. Man I miss those streams, should have filled up my icy water bottle all the way to the top. Jackson would have loved this hike. If he could handle it. I’m sure he could. I see him walking in front of me, a pack full of his own food like we have. Me being a bit of a dad. Tess might have thought these thoughts about me when she did hikes on her travels. “The man in me will hide sometimes, to keep from being seen. Something, something because he doesn’t want, to turn into some machine.” Bob Dylan. Oooh a lizard, hello! Am I tripping or did that little guy not have a tail? Maybe it’s a drop trail lizard. You can go about a week without water and a couple of months without food. How do people not know that. I remember Kingsley telling the class that in year 2. And I remember the sleeping lion game. Ha! Tom Purvis and I hated each other then. We were rivals vying for acceptance in Harry Marsh’s crew. Funny that we became best friends in high school and have remained so.

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What came first, the rivers or the valleys?

Fuuuuuuck!!! Remember that Little Athletics carnival when Matt Kevill chased me down on the 1500m? Of course I do. That was the greatest sporting comeback I have ever been a part of and I was on the wrong side of it. Coming into the fourth and final lap Matt was in second place over half a lap behind me. I could actually see him in front of me he was so far behind me. I noticed him starting to gain ground so I put on a little gas to keep him at bay. He kept coming and coming. Halfway around the last lap I checked over my shoulder and he had closed the gap to less than 100m. At the 100m mark he was only 20m behind me and steaming along with a warrior’s expression on his face. Or looking like he was squeezing one out. He drew level with 30m to go, we were both throwing our bodies along the grass, neck and neck until a few metres before the finish line. He snuck in front and burst through the tape. How did I lose that? Snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. That burned grass bush looks like a porcupine. What was that book I used to read when I was a kid? Some tale about six or seven Chinese brothers. They each had some special, ridiculous skill. How did I get here? What am I thinking about? I’m thinking about what I’m thinking about. “When it comes to compensation, there’s a little he would ask.” More Bob Dylan. “Lala lala la la la la lah la lala la.” What is Tom thinking about? Hmm, KFC or a pub feed for dinner tonight? KFC would be a surefire success. A good pub feed would be better. But a bad pub feed? That would be a huge bummer. Fuck it is hot. Maybe Jackson wouldn’t love it. The wind in the willows. How now brown cow. What the fuck is going on in my head? Who knows. Ha! Those white mints dad used to always have in the old Magna wagon. Pop one out of the packet, suck away while listening to the radio. Damn where is that lake. Or was it a waterfall?

On and on my mind jolts, with a mind of its own for the rest of the day.

Recently I had been wondering if – given there were a supermarket at the end of today’s leg – I could load up on more supplies and set off for another four days hiking. Physically, I think I could. My body was aching on days two and three but now it feels a little better. It is getting used to the weight of the pack and the hours of walking. Mentally, it seemed a cinch. Until today, that is. I was sailing on an unalterable course bound for rocks. Upon seeing our final destination my mind came back under control. As if insanity realised it was defeated and let go. But without that end in sight, with just more hiking and no human contact, I might have lost the plot. Forever walking and chewing nuts and yelling at those goddamn streams and imagining dinosaurs roaming around in the valleys below.

Actually, that doesn’t sound too bad.

Until next time,

H F Peniston

Killicranckie STREAM

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This might be the Killicranckie Stream.

Another beautiful day ahead it seems. Today’s hike is quite long, we start early after a no-nonsense breakfast. What will I think about today?

Ahead is yet another clear cobblestone stream. I am getting a bit sick of the things. A swinging bridge crosses it. A sign instructs the reader not to rock the bridge. We rock the bridge. Luckily for us the wood and wire structure holds up. Next we scale Little Bamboo Mountain. Why did they name it that? I have no fucken’ idea, there is no bamboo in sight.

Today my mind is relaxed. Thoughts flutter in and out like butterflies searching through a field of flowers. Most of the butterflies are black and purple, thoughts without emotion attached. These butterflies are thoughts like, “there is not much wind right now, it is blowing from the west,” or “left foot, right foot,” or “I wonder what sort of dinosaurs I would be looking at right now if it were 70,000 years ago.” Two more come along, “Oh wait, dinosaurs never existed,” “well… maybe they did but I certainly could not have existed at the same time to be looking at them.” A bunch of separate black and purple butterflies coming and going. A Monarch butterfly passes across the field, “Hang on, why did we spend so much time learning about dinosaurs at school, and so little learning about Aboriginal history?” And then, a yellow, black and white spotted butterfly comes into the foreground, “That’s okay, I promise to teach myself more about Aboriginal culture soon.” Then another black and purple butterfly comes along. And so on my thoughts meander a little more innocently than usual. This pattern of calm thoughts and the pure surroundings render my face with stupid glee. The sea is placid, sailing is smooth. A gigantic wave would have to appear from nothing and strike the bow for me to be knocked from my blissful crow’s nest.

Steadily we pass a mountain lake surrounded by burnt grass. Forestry have been conducting controlled burns to manage the landscape so we cross strips of burnt land quite regularly. These strips disrupt a mountain like a shaved patch on a dog’s neck post-surgery.

For lunch we stop by a pool in the Killicranckie Stream. A peanut butter sandwich, an orange and some nuts. We dip our feet in the almost icy water and read our books with our shirts off again. I would like to lie in the sun for the rest of the day. Tom reminds me we still have a long way to go before we get to the huts.

The trail goes in a different direction to what the guide book instructs. This is not the first time the trail and the book have had different opinions, but it is by far the most their opinions have differed. There are no farmhouses where it says there should be. There is no stile across any fence. There is no dam in a trout stream. Nor is there a second dam in a second trout stream. After some self-doubt and speculation, we decide on the best and only course of action… Keep walking. Clambering down a steep, rocky section we slip and gather several times each, the loose surface threatening to send us to the bottom of the mountain in seconds. First comes the ripping sound of a foot skidding on the dirt. Second, relief in the form of a high-pitched “woop!” Lastly, a chuckle. Repeat, all the way down.

We have been walking for a couple of hours since the guide book last made sense. Still there are none of the features we should have seen by now. I do not think worrying thoughts. Only butterflies.

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Just keep following the trail.

You know, out here with one other human bean there are only a handful of things to busy oneself with. There are the essentials; walk, rest, eat, collect wood, cook, and sleep. There are the few available leisures; play cabo, read, drink scotch, maybe roll a little spliff. Now, at the pace of normal life one could get through the essentials and get bored of the fun stuff with still four hours left in the day and nothing else to do.

At any one time, there are only a couple of options ahead so I tend to do a thorough, focused job. Then I spend some time staring into space, maybe reflecting, maybe watching flames, maybe wondering how long I could live this way. The next task that requires an action will surface and when it does, I will approach it steadily and clearly.

In this way, the few things at hand take up the whole day just as normally 100 things would take up the whole day. Only I have been spending a lot more time with my mouth open looking at the air in front of my face. Genius, I know.

Finally the track leads us across a road and over a hill to the Winterhoek Huts. We are elated to find mattresses on the bunk bed frames. After gradually getting through the evening routine we load a rusty wheelbarrow with bricks we had put by the fire and wheel it into the hut.

The small room warms quickly.

Along THE RIDGE

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The Crane Tarn mountain lake.

“Be in the moment,” I’m thinking to myself, “Today is only nine kilometres. You can just go slow, take it all in.” The same grass fire from yesterday still burns. It covers the mountains in a light smoke so they appear a stack of all different shades of bluish-grey, lightening and losing detail the further away they are. We climb quite high to a ridge overlooking many peaks and valleys. Some of this climb I’m thinking of ways to describe this experience to friends but for most of it my attention is grabbed. Grabbed by small flowers, a bounding roebuck, a few baboons, fungi growing on rocks in strange patterns, spiderwebs in the half-dead grass, animal poo and then for a few seconds I admire the broader scene. Tom spends a solid chunk of his time thinking about his future bakery. Stone countertops and tables, white tiles, enough wall space for rotating artworks, all hopefully in a store on the corner of two tree-lined streets.

My thoughts are mostly right where I want them. Paying attention to little details in the immediate environment. Asking and answering soft questions with myself. Questions like, what creature is making these tiny little holes on the edge of the trail? Maybe snakes. But how would a snake dig the hole? It does not have the appropriate apparatus. Must be a little marsupial, maybe a bush rat or maybe a dassie.

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Tom getting his tan on.

Sitting on a giant boulder with a panoramic view of valleys and streams I meditate watching a slowly migrating troop of baboons.

By the time I look up, the wider scene has changed. Ten minutes of daydreaming the  some peaks that were there before are now hidden by other peaks. Did someone move them? It is possible that I’m not actually going anywhere. That I’m on an earth treadmill and when I am not paying attention some giant thing is shuffling the landmarks around. Perhaps to confuse me or perhaps there is a good reason. It could be a vital task.

As the trail curves around a mountain a lone tree sticks out from the trail’s edge. The path is not visible beyond the tree, only more mountains higher than the one we are on now. Down the mountain to our left is an oak woodland by a large reflective lake. Among the woodland lies a cluster of round white huts. The oaks’ leaves are purple and black, some look orange from the sun. Smoke drifts up from one of the huts. It does not feel like winter in South Africa. It feels like Autumn in Oregon. A little bit of Arizona too. Funnily enough, I’m basing those claims on what I have seen on TV. I have never actually been to either of those places and can not for at least another nine-and-a-half years.

We cross yet another stream and arrive at Mzimkhulwana hut. Even though we had a relatively short distance to traverse today we have reached our destination quite late. We underestimated the distance and have spent a lot of time not walking but sitting or standing still. The sun will go behind a mountain before the end of an hour. None of the bunks in the hut have mattresses. There is no place to have a fire. There is no firewood. Despite this, we collect as much dead wood as we can find in the little patch of bushland between the hut and the stream. Once broken up and stacked, it looks like enough fuel to last us tonight with a little left over for tea and breakfast in the morning.

No mattresses and nothing to substitute them with we keep the fire going as long as possible. We drink scotch and play cabo (good two player card game) and stare at the fire until the last logs are fading into ash. I hope I am drunk enough to get to sleep on the wooden bed frame.

Sani PASS

Tom about to drink water.

I shove my hands deep into the pockets of my jeans to warm them up. After adjusting the straps on my backpack, I shove them in again. The sleeping bag is off-centre. I adjust it, hands back in pockets. Hands out as I almost trip over the edge of the trail, then back in the pockets.

Tom and I have just left the tarmac and joined the bush outside of Underberg, South Africa. Between us we carry four days’ food (fruit, nuts, biltong, boiled eggs, noodles, rice, beans, bread, peanut butter, two blocks of chocolate, and a bottle of scotch). As well as cooking utensils, sleeping bags, and a few items of clothing. The trail we are hiking is called the Giant’s Cup Trail. The trail is 48km long and takes four days. We will sleep in forestry huts along the way. This time of year, the weather is fine with an average maximum of about 18 degrees. Ideal weather for hiking, just hot enough that you do not need any extra layers. The hike hovers mostly just below an altitude of 2,000m but sometimes pokes above. Some far-off peaks have a little snow on top. At night, temperatures will fall below zero.

As we walk alongside a cobbled stream, my pack settled, I try to think my own simple thoughts. Thoughts about right now. About the stream swimming past, about the water trickling down a sandstone rock face to our left. Despite my attempts at controlling my own thoughts, I find myself thinking about the guide book in my back pocket, about how far we might have come and how long until we stop for morning tea. What will I eat for morning tea? Being the first day I better not eat too much, but today is also the furthest we walk so I need to eat enough to keep my energy levels in a good place.

How far have we come? Where is that pool with the wooden bridge we should have come to by now? How am I supposed to get paid to be a writer? Do I keep pursuing a job at one of the magazines I read? Or do I make a compromise and find anything that will pay for now, follow the dream later on down the track? I try to keep my mind in the present, to find peace. This is a self-defeating aim, I know. A bit of a contradiction. Thinking hard to not think too much. Regardless, I keep trying.

We cross a pool, hike up under a waterfall and then around a mountain and stop beside a boulder for some biltong and nuts. In the plateau below, a section of forest is on fire. The thick smoke drifts across the path a few hundred meters away. No birds circling the smoke, shouldn’t they be on the hunt for prey escaping the flames? 

I bore Tom by telling him about the Kerouac novel, “The Dharma Bums” and how I relate it to this trip we are on. As I finish my spiel I remember my favourite line from the book, “Comparisons are odious.” The irony slaps me in the stomach. Here I am implying that we are in a similar situation, on a similar journey to the characters in a book, when that very same book taught me never to compare two things because nothing is ever the same.

Gazing down a grassy valley we sit down again to watch a herd of elands (giant cow slash antelope, look ‘em up) nervously stumbling along in front of us. Tom screams at them to see how they react. They don’t. Two young bucks butt heads at the back of the line. “Dude! stop running into me,” I imagine one saying to the other.

“The ants go marching three by three; hurrah, hurrah,” I chant out loud.

“The ants go marching three by three; hurrah, hurrah.

“The ants go marching three by three, the little one stops to chuck a wee, they all go marching, gotta get out of the rain. Gotta get out of the rain.

“The ants go marching two by two; hurrah, hurrah… and so on.

More and more I am forgetting about life. Still I think of the extraneous. How far until lunch, what will we eat there, how long until we reach the hut, what will I be like in five years? Except now I spend about half my time staring at the landscape around me and basking in the refreshing lack of human presence.

On a long sloping rock by a bend in a stream we take off our shoes and shirts and lie in the sun reading our books. We both nearly fall asleep but are stirred by the knowledge that the last leg of today’s hike has not gone anywhere. 

It should only be a short walk to tonight’s hut. And then a long series of short walks. Three more days of it. Should be sweet, right? Yeah…

 

“What THE FUCK JUST HAPPENED?”

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Peak hour traffic.

Progress is slow. Bumping along potholed gravel roads with small ravines carved out by rain, the fastest we travel is 30km/h. At times we have to stop while shepherds guide cattle off the road. Chickens, dogs, and pigs move off themselves. It’s a fine morning. Light winds ruffle the long grass on the short, steep hills of which there are so many the landscape mimics a rough sea.

We have the windows down, the air is warm. Johan lights a cigarette every 15 minutes.  Round huts with thatched roofs speckle the otherwise green landscape. These huts are called rondavels, they are made with stones bound by mud and cow poo. Inside a rondavel is enough room for a bed, a cupboard, a table and chairs and a cat. Women are busy washing clothes or laughing or carrying faggots. Kids are busy walking to school. They wear more uniform than I did. Everything outside the car appears to be happening in slow motion. The slow motion scenes rolling by have sent me into a state of languor. Soft guitar strings coming through the car speakers and the mellow rocking of the car add to the effect.

We are heading for a river. At the mouth of this river, we have heard, a wave breaks from the point to the middle of the bay, over 150 meters. Our fingers are crossed but our expectations are in check, South African surfers tend to get a little… overexcited, especially when they are talking about the Wild Coast.

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Men waiting for the wind to die and the moon to rise.

The Wild Coast is a region on the eastern side of South Africa. It is the remote home of the impoverished Xhosa people. Nelson Mandela was born here. Many villages do not have running water or electricity.  Locals smoke joints as if they are cigarettes. You can buy a litre bottle of beer for $2, making it almost as cheap as petrol. Or you can buy a sack of powder for $1.50 that turns into 5L of beer when you add water and leave it overnight. I tried this but it came out looking like porridge and tasting like sour milk. I only managed to drink one cup.

A few hippies started surfing the Wild Coast in the 80s. Much of the coastline is riddled with bad access, a lack of facilities, aggressive sharks and an abundance of rarely surfed, high quality waves. These factors combine to give the Wild Coast mystique we could not resist.

At last the ocean comes into view, just a few kilometers away. After an hour of driving at a crawl, gazing out the windows, we arrive at a small gravel carpark tucked inside a headland. A parked tractor is the only other vehicle. As soon as we get out of the car, two perfect waves steam past a crop of rocks and out onto the open sand where they continue to run as far as the eye can see. Without discussion Tom and I take our boards down from the roof, insert fins, apply wax and slip into wetsuits.

What follows is four hours of surfing immaculate waves in warm, crystal blue waters until our arms are exhausted and the wind comes in.

Back on land I feel intoxicated. Tom and I keep staring at each other in wonderment, “what the fuck just happened?” A man approaches, asks if I want to buy weed or hash. I don’t, but I’m feeling so good I want him to feel some. His name is Benny. Has one of the best laughs I’ve heard. It is a trumpeting, stomach-grabbing laugh. While we are talking about diving for crayfish I try to use hand gestures to explain that it is hard to grab the crayfish’s feelers. You can imagine me standing in my wetsuit pulling imaginary feelers atop my head. How does Benny react? He thinks it is the funniest thing he has ever seen, almost turns inside out. We are laughing too.

The decision is made to stay right by the rivermouth so we can be as close to the wave as possible everyday. First we have to stock up on groceries. The closest thing to a supermarket is a dusty, warehouse-sized shed a couple of hours away. Need 20kg of rice? You got it. How about a 3kg tin of coffee? Aisle seven. We don’t need either of those things but we do need fruit, vegetables, meat and a half a dozen tins of assorted non-perishables.

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See those bushes at the top of the hill on the left? Our tent is in there.

From where we are camping we can see across the bay to the wave. A short bandy down the hill, a paddle across the river and a giddy jog along the beach and we are in a rip getting shot out to the start of the wave. When we are not surfing we are making food, reading books or taking naps. One day I walk into a village searching for crayfish but instead get stoned in a hut. When the guys roll joints they drop buds on the floor and don’t flinch. Weed is that abundant.

Nearby there breaks another, slightly better wave but I cannot write about it because I am sworn to secrecy. A few days turn into a week, then two. The winds are almost always offshore and the surf seldom flat. I can see two weeks turning into two months, two years and then the rest of my life.

Anyway, I would love to stay and chat but I fear you will get sick of me. Take care, I will write again soon.

Yours,

H F Peniston

 

Missing: HALF TOM’S WARDROBE

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Tom gets into bed aggressively.

There is an adage I recently read on the inset of a backpacking pocket book. It said, “Lay out the clothes and money you want to take on your trip. Halve your clothes, double the money.” Even though he hadn’t heard the words before, Tom Hewitt knew the principle.

Preparing to camp in Africa’s south, he packed as light as he could. Two long sleeved shirts. Two short sleeved shirts. Four t-shirts. Two pairs of black pants. One sweatshirt. One windbreaker. One jacket. A good strategy, executed almost perfectly. Almost perfectly. I’m no travel-packing expert. I was ridiculed when I turned up alone in a scorching hot Mexican town dragging a suitcase through the sand, but Tom’s baggage plan had a few holes in it. Like, actual holes.

A few nights in, the force from pulling his favourite t-shirt over his head turned a little hole into a tattered mess. That t-shirt has been turned into rags and lives a dignified second life.

A few nights later, the same thing happened to another t-shirt. I think he threw this one out in frustration.

Then, the zip breaks on a pair of pants. Johan manages to fix the zip. Tom breaks the zip again. Now his fly is more or less undone when he wears those.

A couple of weeks later, one of his button up shirts goes missing from a washing line.

To add to his clothing woes, his card was swallowed by an ATM and his replacement card lost in the mail. Oh, and he’s had his surfboards fixed four times*.

If your plan is to pack light, one would think you’d pack durable clothes. Tom says he didn’t have the luxury of choice.

“It was either [pack] dirty work shirts that are disgusting or t-shirts with holes in them and I’m not here to pretend I’m in a bakery,” he says.

“I do miss my croissants though, they are soothing.”

Now, he’s down to three shirts, two t-shirts, one pair of pants and a few jumpers. If he wasn’t packed light before, he is now.

*Since the time of writing, Tom has had to repair one of his boards for the fifth time.