As the year screams by and we hit the second school term like a herd of stampeding wildebeest, we realise how important it is to stop and take a look around. It’s May for crying in a bucket. We seem to have snoozed through 4 months of the year already and before we know where we are, our kids have lost another tooth, decided sleeping at friends is way cooler than sleeping at home, and taken up computer games as their official hobby. How did this happen? Snooze through another stretch and we’ll find them driving out the front gate yelling, “See you after first semester!” It terrifies me. I’m no longer creeping closer to my mid 30’s, I find myself in a head on collision with my 35th birthday and no way of avoiding it. How did that happen? Where are the brakes?
Luckily, the Easter holidays meant we could escape for 3 nights in the Cederberg mountains, about as close as we could get to hitting the brakes on life. Just the 4 of us, mountain paths for miles, with all we needed slung over our shoulders. We could do as we pleased, governed only by the sun and the stars; no technology, no phone calls, no work… nothing short of bliss.
The kids have been nagging to do a trip like this since Shaun and I did a similar one last year for our 10 year anniversary. They made sure we knew what their requirements were. They wanted to:
1. climb lots of rocks,
2. sleep in a tent,
3. swim in a clear mountain pool, and
4. not do too much hiking.
1. Tick 2. Tick 3. Tick and 4. …we’ll try our best.
Knocking our intrepid Wuth exploration genes into the background, we set about planning a route that was low on mileage and high on fun! Then we started with the practicalities of what we were undertaking; we put the kids’ packs on their backs and filled them up to test how much weight they could carry.
4.5kg’s, that’s it. It is 1/6th of their body weight, but it doesn’t go a long way in covering what they need for 3 nights in the mountains.
To put it in perspective, they could carry their clothes, and a camelbak bladder full of water. So Shaun and I equipped ourselves with some lightweight packs with extra storage space so we could carry the additional sleeping bags, mats, bottles and food we would need. We also had to take a 4-man tent as opposed to a 2-man one, which added an extra 4kg’s. At this point we were extremely grateful for all of our ironman training – it was going to be necessary.
Logistics taken care of and packs filled to overflowing, we set off for the Cederberg. Thankfully we had called ahead to check on the level of the rivers to make sure there would be water on the route we had decided on, only to find out that the route we had planned had been devastated by a fire a few months earlier. This meant a last minute change of plan. No major shake up for the gallant Wuth clan, we amended the route, ensured there was water available in the rivers, and hit the trail. Not before we could each stuff 2 white candy Easter eggs in our mouths of course, it was the Easter holidays after all.
We started our hike at 5pm and we had an uphill climb of about 3km’s before reaching an area flat enough to pitch our tent. We had worked out our route based on the Slingsby maps and quickly realised that they were not entirely accurate. At 3km’s up we realised that it was more like 5km’s until it flattened out. The kids were troupers, pushing through the first gruelling stretch like mountain goats. The 4kg packs turned out to be perfect in weight for them, and they could surge on ahead of us while we laboured under the weight of 4 days’ worth of food and 10 litres of water. Thankfully the kids happened upon a perfect little patch of flat ground that looked out over the Algeria valley, just as the light was reaching its last faint breath. It was perfect. Even a dinner of cold rice and biltong wasn’t enough to dampen the children’s spirits, and they went to sleep happy, with the stars an unspoiled canopy above us.
Day 2 we awoke on top of the clouds, a soft white blanket stretching across the valley in front of us. We were alone on the mountain, dazzling sun rising to the East, and a day of exploring ahead of us. A cappuccino and bowl of hot oats completed the perfection, and off we set to conquer the remainder of the mountain.
Our morning was spent lazing next to hundred-year-old oak trees on the top, and bathing in the fresh river that meandered its way across the summit. Lola found (what we decided were) leopard footprints, and we tracked them across the top as they crisscrossed our path, causing great apprehension as to whether they were hiding in the rocky ledges nearby. After consulting our less than trusty map (although we weren’t aware just how untrustworthy at the time), we decided to follow an old path down a gorge on the mountain, to a point where there were 2 large pools at the main river below. In theory, this was a great decision, in practice, something else entirely. The ‘old path’ turned out to be an ancient path. In fact, there was almost no path to speak of. To make matters worse, there had been a fire in the past few months, which the ranger had neglected to mention when we asked about the route. The fire had proved handy in that it cleared the route of overgrown vegetation, but was a hindrance in the loose rocks and ground it left in its wake. Had we realised the length of the descent we were undertaking, we might have changed our minds. At the time however, we could only see bubbling mountain pools (in our minds eye), and the shortest route of getting there. Damn our overzealousness.
As is the Wuth way, we spent the rest of the day scrambling down the mountain getting covered in soot, cutting our shins on the overgrown vegetation and apologising to the kids, telling them this was not our best work, and really not what we’d had in mind at all. As the sun began to set and we still had not located the path at the bottom of the gorge, Shaun set down his pack and relentlessly combed through the scrubby bush that surrounded us so at least we’d have a path to set off on the following morning. Thankfully, after about 4km’s of walking in what Shaun describes as a ‘scientifically-exploratory-fashion’, plotting markers on his watch at intervals of where the route was supposed to be, he finally found the dregs of the path. It was like finding a needle in a haystack. It was incredibly overgrown and was going to be no fun to follow, but it had to be done if we wanted to get to the river, and home. We had to settle for a small stream to collect water and wash in, but judging by the children’s glee it might as well have been a water-park. We were all exhausted, the children had been such troopers and we knew there was another gruelling day ahead of us, so we made camp on the first flat rocky outcrop we could find, and let the emotions of the day wash over us as we watched the stars climb into the sky.
Day 3 greeted us with blue skies and happy children, the rough patches of yesterday all forgotten – kids are amazing that way. We knew it wouldn’t last long with what lay ahead, so we let them goof about in their ‘fort’, and eat their breakfast leisurely on the top of ‘look-out’ rock, enjoying the quiet and the stillness of the morning. After getting the kids to put on their pyjama pants underneath their hiking pants to protect their legs from the scrubby bush, we were ready to hit the road. Well, not a road at all really, it was more like walking through a hedge. It was dry and rough and scratchy. We lost the path every couple of meters and had to beat through the bush to find if again. We crossed several river gorges with no water and scrambled up sheer rock faces. I’ve always said I’m not sure how we landed up lucky enough to have such resilient children, but yet again we were in awe. With the promise of a large river pool in the distance, the children pushed on. We carried them (and their packs… and our packs) when we thought the bush was too tall and the scrub too rough for them to walk through. We’d manage about a hundred meters and then have to put them down to catch our breath. It was relentless going. After about 4 hours of bushwhacking, the path finally opened up and we could actually see our feet in front of us. It was glorious! We made quick ground after that and got to our lunch spot and river pool not a moment too soon.
The water was cool, crystal clear, and sweet. There is something special about drinking water that has come straight down a mountain, untouched by other people, unfiltered and un-chlorinated. Swallowing the odd tadpole didn’t seem to bother the kids much either, but the tiny, 1mm leeches sunning themselves on a rock in the middle of the river disturbed them quite a bit – not enough to deter the skinny-dipping however.
We could have stayed all day and all night in that fresh, cool, oasis of ours, basking next to the river in the dappled sunlight, but we had a fixed amount of food and we were quickly nibbling our way through our dry crackers and oat bars. Lengthening our stay wasn’t an option, we had to head for home if we wanted to be eating anything on the way there. So after soaking ourselves clean and washing our clothes, we set off. It was a steep mountain we had to climb before we found any flat ground to camp on, so we pulled out the big guns; we told the children they could eat as much chocolate as they liked when they got to the top. I’m laying it out for you: this is how we get our kids to do these ridiculous things. There is no magic to our ways, simply lots of cunning… and a large sack of treats.
We couldn’t keep pace with the kids up that mountain. Sure, we had added several litres of water to our packs, but they were fast. They needed no encouragement. They, in fact, were encouraging us. What I had expected to be one hell of an awful climb, turned out to be the easiest of the lot! Thank you Lindt!
The top of that mountain was like being on a bridge between 2 worlds. Reality and civilisation loomed in front of us, while freedom and escape lay behind us. It was our last night on the mountain, and it would be a lie to say we were glad the hike was coming to an end. It was the break we had all needed. It was full of difficult climbs and treacherous descents, baking hot weather and worries about our choice of route, but it was also full of jokes and laughter, incredible views and learning more about each other, appreciating food for the sustenance it is, and water for its life giving qualities. There was nothing we took for granted, because everything we took we had to carry. It is an experience I would encourage every family to have together, an escape hard to replicate in the concrete jungle of convenience that is our world.
We woke up on our last morning to the sounds of utter silence. Not many creatures live that high up the mountains, and it is strange to have only the gentle breeze keeping you company as you watch your tiny cooker boil water for your morning coffee. The stillness sits inside you, like a tiny pebble dropped into a lake, the ripples moving through you and over you. But the sun waits for no man, and the descent back to reality began, breakfast over, tent packed up, and off we set.
It was a long walk back; we definitely didn’t get no.4 of the kids’ demands list right on this day. It was beautiful and rugged, but hot and devoid of water. We watched 2 Verreaux eagles soaring above us for hours as we covered the 14km journey back to our car. Whether they were the same 2 we had seen on the previous days I can’t be sure, but they were a constant reminder to me of why we were doing this trip. Their grace and power was beautiful beyond words, it was awesome – in the true sense of the word.
Scraping the last of our sense of humour from the bottom of the barrel, we managed to keep ourselves together until we reached the campsite at the end of what-should-have-been-a-morning-but-turned-into-almost-a-full-day’s hike. There was really only one thing we all needed at that point and anyone within eyeshot could have told you … a shower. It really is the everyday conveniences you come to appreciate after 4 days in the wilderness. I have been trying hard to teach my kids appreciation, but all it takes is a holiday like this for them to realise all they have back home. Suddenly running water and a toilet take on a whole new meaning.
Despite the buchwhacking, the heat and the fires, the kids had an absolute ball. There were times they lost their sense of humour, and times Shaun and I doubted our sanity, but that happens no matter where we are. It was such a fantastic holiday we’ve decided to make it a bi-annual event. Now we’re all looking forward to the resurgence of some warmer weather so we can do it all again!