The first bicycle rolls into Nottingham Road about two hours after we left the greening fields of Michaelhouse. Total distance covered: 13km. Not a great pace, but the first day always seems to bring out the worst teething problems in the bicycles, in spite of them having been serviced a week earlier. A handle bar rotates in its bracket, gears slip, brakes squeal and there is always one boy who manages to skip his chain off the gear cluster and jam it securely between the spokes and the first cog of the rear wheel.
The first stop at the Engen Garage is met with whoops of joy, particularly from the back-markers who need a rest. Water bottles are re-filled, extra clothing shed and the group is introduced to the dietary backbone of the Journey: Dog Biscuits. Heavy, fibrous square biscuits produced for feeding schemes, these go a long way to filling legs hollowed by constant exertion, even if they taste a bit like bran and boiled cardboard. These modern biscuits are a far cry from the real version issued to South African Army servicemen in the ’80’s. Those were the best part of the issue ration packs and I clearly recall swopping any tins of nameless, tasteless, grey glutinous gunge with peas for a few packs of biscuits.
Today is day one of the twelve day C Block Journey completed by all Grade 10 boys at Michaelhouse. Four groups of teenagers accompanied by staff leaders will cycle, hike in the Drakensberg wilderness and across hospitable landowners’ farms, paddle down the uThukela River, sleep a night in an authentic Zulu musi and spend 40 hours in Solitude,
The total dispacement of the Journey is zero. We start and end at exactly the same place: the school Chapel. However, each boy covers a total distance of approximately 300km entirely under his own muscle power. Our departure is the culmination of months of planning and organising, route checking, rehearsing safety, first aid and emergency procedures, packing tons of food and finally loading the four support vehicles and heading off.
From Notties we have a clear stretch of quiet tar with long, winding hills and the exhilaration of freewheeling downhill at more speed than we have experienced since the start of the journey. But two of the Journey’s first lessons are about to be learned: At the top of every hill is ……. usually just another hill; and cramp comes to un-exercised legs when it is least expected, particularly when you don’t drink enough fluids. First to crumple are usually the jocks who stare in amazement as the wiry cross country runners and canoeists breeze past.
A 10km stretch of dirt through two farms brings the first casualty. Daryn hits a bump and is tossed over the front wheel. His helmet protects his head, but he loses some epidermis to the gravel and collects a lovely paint-ball sized bruise on his thigh where it connected hard with the tip of the handle-bars. An action photo of the war wounds is taken for his mum. The badly buckled front wheel is straightened by standing carefully on the rim and we head for the overnight camp at Kamberg sale yard, arriving well after the planned 15h00.
The highlight of day two is an 800m disused railway tunnel between Hidcote and Lowlands. Built in 1903, it is pitch dark, wet and home to thousands of bats. This is a real test of our claustrophobia. Riding is impossible and we push our bikes, avoiding the drains along the walls, but inevitably losing our shoes in the deep pile of cold, muddy, stinking bat dung in the pitch dark of the middle of the tunnel. At this point the volume of conversation increases as stories of the resident ghosts emerge. If any prankster had let out a blood-curdling scream, bicycles would be abandoned forever in the stampede for the tiny speck of light that is the exit!
Most of the route lies in the lee of the majestic Drakensberg Mountains. The Dragon, silhouetted against a clear African sky, is our constant companion, summoning us to her summit. The final stretch to Giant’s Castle, the end of our ride, is the notorious 7,5 km steep climb. The gradient of this climb grows with each rendition of the story and so in reality it is not as bad as made out by those who went before. By now many stronger cyclists have learned to push the slower guys up the hills, avoiding any walking, so our times have improved significantly. At the picnic site at the end of the hill we meet Group Two fresh from their hike along the Contour Path. We hand over the bikes and wave them a fond farewell. The joy of ending the cycle leg fades fast as it dawn on the tired cyclists that Group Two will free-wheel down the hill which has almost been our nemesis!
Three days in the wilderness. Unsupported. Only a satellite phone between ourselves and civilisation; only a flysheet between ourselves and the elements. The walls of Giant’s Castle tower over us; majestic and humbling, the escarpment reminds us of our tiny size as we march along the contour path to our fist overnight camp at Giant’s Hut. Most of the newly repaired roof of the hut has been ripped off by a recent gale, a stark reminder of the weather, which we might face. On this occasion cold, thick mist and zero visibility are to be our challenges and we are unable to summit the escarpment. The tough decision to descend without attempting the summit was to be ratified as we observed, from a safe campsite, the lightning storm which broke on the contour path where we intended spending the night. The relief of having taken other peoples’ children out of the dangerous storm zone was palpable.
Next stop Bheki’s Kraal, which houses an extended family including grand children and great grand children. Here we overnight in rooms vacated by family members working far away from home. The beehive hut with dung floors and smoky atmosphere is surprisingly warm and draws comments of cosiness. Our supper and breakfast are what the family eats: Samp and beans with pumpkin and porridge with milk and sugar, all cooked in three-legged pots on the fire in the kitchen hut. We are woken by the crowing of roosters followed by the rural noises of the dogs and goats at the homestead This stay gives a new insight into life without piped water, bathrooms, lectricity and the other trappings of life in the first world. After breakfast we pay for our stay, shoulder our rucksacks and take our leave, headed on foot for Spioenkop and the start of Day Eight of the Journey.
The white painted rocks marking the trenches and mass graves provide a silent backdrop to the story of the battle of Spioenkop. We stand where shells exploded, blood ran and men fell, just over a century ago. The uncanny coincidence which brought three future leaders, Ghandi, Churchill and Botha together, each within a stone-throw of each-other on that same tiny battle field on an African hill is a point of interest for the morning. Boys study the monuments where many find their family names among the fallen: Wright, Smith, Jones, Flanagan; and on the other side Theron and van Rensburg. No record of Buthelezi, Dlamini or other Zulus whose remains may lie unheralded on that hilltop.
The steep descent from the summit of Spioenkop is a challenge to those scared of heights and they scramble down slowly and in silence, clinging on to bushes and tufts of grass. Teeth gritted and faces set in tight grimaces. The howling wind adds an extra challenge and the unsteady are almost blown off their feet on the steeper slopes. For them this is another ghost, which has to be faced down. There is only one route: forward and downward. The heat saps our body fluids and by midday we are all thirsty, drinking sparingly to conserve water. The few who decided that smaller water bottles were a clever way to reduce the weight of their rucksacks are regretting their decision.
Eight days without rest sees the daily grind of cycling and hiking taking its toll. The prospect of the compulsory forty-hour solitude, which once elicited fear and trepidation is becoming an attractive opportunity for much needed rest and peace. The final walk to the river is undertaken in silence. Dehydration makes walking feel as if through treacle. Once buoyant moods sink and spirits wane.
On our arrival at the now placid uThukela river, rucksacks are emptied and only the permitted tent, sleeping bag, mat, letters, toilet paper, penknife and writing materials are re-packed. Each is issued a whistle for emergencies only. All luxuries are stored in plastic bags at the staff camp. Then thirty pairs of eyes widen in disbelief as the food is issued: One apple, a piece of cheese, water and eight dog biscuits. That’s it for the next forty hours! Water will be replenished, but only once.
The most precious items during solitude are the letters of affirmation written by parents (every father is specially asked to take time over this), family and friends. One boy even has a letter from his prefect of two years ago. Most boys have bundles of letters, carefully collated and packed at school prior to departure. Luckily all boys have at least one letter, so staff do not have to write hasty notes. Once they have rested we find boys sitting in trees, at the waters edge engrossed in their mail. Many are tearful. Most will never again receive intimate letters from parents in this isolated and thought-provoking setting. In the weeks ahead, parents will be anxiously checking their mail for their sons’ hand-written responses.
At 06h00 on the second morning the peace of the riverine bush is shattered by the joyous and sustained whistling in response to the “end of solitude” whistle blast by the staff leader. Tents are packed up and the boys make their way back to camp. Faces alive with smiles, stories about letters, scary times, wild animals and night sounds tumble from jubilant mouths, each outdoing the last. After a short and moving ceremony during which they receive their C Block Journey Buffs, that mark the successful completion of this rite of passage, breakfast is served. Never have bacon and eggs tasted quite so good.
Still in high spirits we don life jackets and helmets, mount our kayaks. After safety briefings and practice drills we head downstream. The low river offers few dangers and we enjoy the company of Fish Eagles, King Fishers, ducks, Water Monitor Lizards, Water Buck and Kudu. The riverine bush hosts so many coastal species which have found niches in this protected habitat and we are surrounded by a rich menagerie of unique wildlife.
Twenty kilometres later, shoulders stiff and faces glowing from the reflected sunlight, we take out at our campsite. White stinkwood and River Bush Willow trees shade a level terrace just above the water. Clear skies indicate a dry night so, after a refreshing bath in the river, we forgo tents to sleep under the stars. This is a first for most of the boys. The full moon embraces us all in its soft light and during brief spells of wakefulness we track its arc across the sky until it sets in the early hours. Millions of stars, almost close enough to touch, form a backdrop to the leafy canopy above our heads. Nearby a Jackal cries out, announcing its presence to others who respond. A Cape Eagle Owl hoots and a Fiery Necked Nightjar repeats its “Good Lord, deliver us” call until the faint fingers of the dawn light seek out our prone bodies and the diurnal birds take over to summon the sunrise.
Sleepy heads emerge slowly from the cowls of sleeping bags. One more day of paddling, one sleep and a short hike to the pick-up point will see us all completing this Journey. The worst is over and only a major disaster will prevent us from achieving this milestone in our lives. All too soon we will be showered, sanitised and deodorised as we revert to the routines of our conventional lives.
Snippets of conversation which drift across to the “officer’s mess”, the staff area, are a mixture of excitement and sadness. Excitement about finishing this Journey and joining the ranks of the senior boys who have gone before; sadness that too soon it will be over and we will have to revert to the fast-paced rhythms of society. No longer will we rise and set with the sun or trace the path of the Southern Cross across the night sky. The avian orchestra which accompanied our morning rising will be replaced with iTunes and television, bbm’s and email. Electronic gadgetry will demand our attention. Silence and solitude will be rare privileges.
Each youngster will be a different person from the one who departed twelve days ago. The saying that the same man never crosses a river twice is true. We have lived simply and adventured well. Our Journey has taken us to wilderness and bush which some may not see again. It has allowed us to embrace the earth with all our senses and to be reminded of the services provided by healthy ecosystems. We have tasted the sweetest mountain spring water, breathed the cleanest air and heard complete silence. Each boy has faced his fears and grown to know himself in a manner and to an extent that no classroom can provide.