The dawn breaks and the first pale light dulls a million stars. The Fiery-Cheeked Nightjar’s “Good Lord deliver us” call fades to give way to the melodious song of a Cape Robin-Chat. These opening bars cue-in the avian orchestral fanfare, heralding the first tentative appearance of the sun from stage left. Sitting in my bedroll on the banks of the uThukela River I watch a Giant Kingfisher make its way downstream. Rhythmical wing-flaps between short glides propel it effortlessly across the water in search of breakfast. Paradise Flycatchers flit between the White Stinkwood Trees and a young Kudu Bull breaks from the bush on the opposite bank, its spiralled horns laid low on its withers as it winds between the thorn trees.
Today this piece of paradise is my office. In the dappled shade of the riverine trees, engulfed in birdsong I will catch up on the paperwork of a two week journey for 120 teenage boys. Bouts of work will be punctuated by catfish gasping air, Black Sparrow Hawks chasing Pigeons and Little Bee-Eaters buzzing between low branches above the water. In a short while the call of caffeine will summon me to fire up the camping espresso-maker for a fix which has been missing from my backpack for the past days.
Stretching for a kilometer on either side of my camp on the river bank are thirty teenage souls, Group One members, each isolated from the others by dense bush. For forty hours, with limited food and only writing materials they will remain silent, free of the encumbrances of email, Facebook, iPods and cellphones. Each, in a shady glade with a short section of river, will reflect on his own life, God and his place in the universe. Slowly and carefully, he will digest the messages of affirmation and affection written by his father, family members and, in some cases, friends. He will respond to these in his own hand. No cut and pastes. Naturally he also will yearn for the common facilities of life at home, which we all take for granted: Water, family and toilets. Members of his group are all boys. Had there been any girls among them, a GHD would surely be on this list! This is the first time these boys have had to cope with only themselves for company. They have been anxious about this solitude and the past few days have been filled with questions and “what happens if…..” scenarios.
For the past ten days we have cycled from Balgowan in the KwaZuluNatal midlands to Giant’s Castle in the Drakensberg. We have struggled up hills and thrilled at freewheeling down bumpy farm tracks. The unwary and unpractised have gathered bruises and scrapes, which will grow with each re-telling of their war stories when it is all over.
On the climb from the contour path to the summit of the escarpment up Langalilabalele Pass they have seen the grave of Potterill, Erskine and Bond. They have heard the story of the demise of these young men at the hands of the Hlubi a century and a half ago in the British attempt to discipline Langalilabalele. They have experienced the frightening intensity and power of a mountain thunderstorm and the insecurity brought by zero visibility of thick mist at high altitude. We have bought time and a meal in a traditional, impoverished Zulu homestead and shared a little of the culture and lives of this extended family, so different from our own. We have walked up and down Spioenkop Mountain and marvelled at the coincidence of Ghandi, Churchill and Botha being a stone-throw from each other on the day of that fateful battle. We have watched in humbled awe as a bush fire, driven by a howling wind, became a conflagration, which devoured a hillside in a matter of minutes.
During this Journey we live simply, responding to the earth’s rhythms. Watches and electronic items are left at home. We rise and sleep with the sun. Sleeping bags are unrolled at dusk and we succumb to sleep within a few minutes, muscles tired and spirits content with the deep satisfaction of overcoming the day’s challenges. In good weather we sleep out, forgoing tents for a canopy of trees backlit by the stars. Last night the full moon was a special treat along with the haunting howl of jackals announcing their presence and territories; startling the city boys hearing this for the first time.
The river provides transport for us in our kayaks and a refreshing bath each day. For this short while we share this space with fish eagles and leguaans. Travelling only by muscle power teaches us that life is long and, at times, tough. Our speed is dictated by our limbs, willpower and by the terrain we cover. The weather, hills, tiredness and thirst cannot be reset at the click of a mouse. A strong headwind just has to be endured. A fall from a bike can only be remedied by getting back in the saddle and riding to the end. Nature is real and not sanitised by the windscreen of an air-conditioned 4×4, nor pixellated by a computer screen.
Each boy has already learned a whole lot about himself. He has faced many of his ghosts, be they heights, the outdoors, exertion or deprivation from digital gadgets. New relationships have been forged and the real characters of all have been laid bare as exhaustion and, in some cases fear, has dismantled their personal facades, often in an instant. We have embraced the earth through all our senses. We have been able to be part of the natural, unspoiled world, and the God who made them, from which we are increasingly isolated.
So why do we do this ? Why give up the comfort of a soft bed for a patch of hard earth beneath a groundsheet?
Each of us will be different men when we return. We will all have crossed some of life’s rivers and have a better understanding of ourselves. Hopefully this time in the wilderness will equip each of these young men with a new resilience, tenacity and a passion for Mother Earth, which nurtures us all. But alongside this: In spirit I am that eco warrior, warding off whaling ships from pods of Minke whales or scaling buildings to expose environmental devastation for the sake of personal riches, but my cajones dictate a more ordinary reality: that of a rather domesticated schoolmaster. Maybe more eco warriors will arise from this than if I had been one myself. Perhaps, as a result of this Journey, one of these young men will carry my spirit, like the regimental pennant, along with his passion as he does his bit to resuscitate our ailing planet. In my dotage I will don the then successor of Google Glasses and cheer, from my wheelchair as Charles rams bows of the Rainbow Warrior across the path of the harpoon gun, Siya takes on the Rhino poaching kingpin or Wesley challenges the next industrialist hell-bent on pumping yet more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.
The dark, foamy espresso pours from the curved brass spout into that well-travelled, chipped enamel mug. The aromas of woodsmoke and coffee mingle with the fresh air and tantalise my deprived palate. Luckily the nearest boy is too far away to sense this delight.
Pen and cards await my attention. The Journey isn’t over till the thank-you letters are done. But first that jolt of caffeine!Caffeine and Cajones,