Across a generational, cultural, and racial gap, I know exactly how this girl feels.
I’m halfway up Table Mountain, and I am all over the views and the flora. I hate Table Mountain because the path up is composed of blocks of stone many of which are a couple of feet high. My short legs are burning with lactic acid and resentment.
“Have a rest for a minute,” I say, patting the large warm rock next to me.
“Don’t tell her that! We’ll never get her up again,” says her irate youth worker.
“Err…just think what a great achievement it will be when you finish. And at least you are on your way down.”
The large lump of a girl rolls her eyes at me and almost collapses on my shoulder. It wasn’t a real collapse, but a universal teenage “whatevs” gesture to the irrelevance of the achievement of climbing a mountain to her life, and maybe to the irrelevance of me, too. I know how she feels. But she carries on down, and I carry on up. There is no alternative.
Given that we were in Africa there was a disproportionately small number of black people; some families and some youngsters, some were with youth workers, some were with their mates. The taxi driver who took us back to the hotel climbs it every week. My mum’s carer, Faith, who comes from Soweto, climbed it when she was twelve. It was a school trip and they got the bus, an all day and night journey, and then climbed the mountain the next day, with harnesses, so they must have gone on a different route. But Cape Town is full of tourists from all over the world. There were hundreds of people from everywhere with us that day. If we weren’t on a mountain it would have been a United Nations madhouse.
Then we found some more steps up onto the plateau and the viewpoint. These were the steepest steps and there was a chain to help pull yourself up this bit. At the plateau at the top people were appearing and disappearing into the fog.
We did get some superlative views over the bay, and also of The Lions Head, which we found out later was the trek we really should have undertaken, it being much the easier option. Thanks for not telling us, folks.
Not many of my pictures did justice to the views. The scenery emerged from the cloud cover, I admired it, and then the fog rolled in as I recovered my camera. My iphone had died in my pocket on the way up making random and numerous extreme heavy breathing phone calls to people in the UK. No-one complained. Maybe it was the altitude which made the auto lock fail.
We saw dassies, rock hyraxes, which resemble plump delicious looking guinea pigs, supersized, nibbling in the foggy gorse among the dollops of granite magma rocks. They are actually related to elephants, sharing quirky and not unattractive features like not having a scrotum.
There were brilliant oily green and blue coloured little sunbirds,
affectionate pigeons, and redwinged starlings, who weren’t only unafraid of us lumbering humans, but empathic in a way that was I’ve never encountered before in an animal apart from dogs. The way they looked at us was as if they didn’t see us just as a chance for an easy meal, but felt for us, and what we had just done, and more to the point, what we had to do next.
We would have been really happy if the cable car had been running to take us down, but no, it was having an off week. We followed a couple of American girls who seemed to know their way back to the gorge and the descent, then, in the cold fog, the only thing that was perfectly clear was that they were lost, with us, at the top of the mountain. We walked around the surprisingly large terrain at the top, possibly, probably, in large foggy circles. Eventually we came back to the incredibly steep steps with the chains and started our descent. The fog cleared. Half way down, we made a bad decision on a fork on the path and took a quicker but even steeper drop.
Oh god, how I ached. Bajram is fitter than I am but I know he was glad of the rests I imposed on him. Then the wind set in and almost blew us down the mountain rather more quickly that was safe.
Lots of people pay a lot of money to learn mindfulness. It’s amazing how mindful you become with no training when descending a steep mountain track in an aching body when the wind is blowing and the rain starts to make the track slippery. You are mindful of every step, every breath, because it hurts to breath, every howling sound the wind makes, every splash of rain on your skin. You eyes are wide open for plants that might be handy to help you cling onto the side of that bloody mountain. And it’s all free!
At the bottom, on Tafelberg Road, there is no bar.
I felt my shoulders weren’t my own. I came down Table Mountain like a robot who had come off worse in Robot Wars. We found a taxi to fall into to take us to our hotel and a beer. It took me two weeks to really recover from climbing Table Mountain, and for the next four days that I was in Cape Town, I kept a) complaining, and b) staring at the mountain in incredulity. But I am glad I did it. I hope that girl is too. And I think we might have got down before the French family.
Now I keep meeting people who have climbed Kilimanjaro in a blizzard. They ask me do I want to do that next.