Reflections of a walker

2013-12-27 00:00

AS a child I was embarrassingly unathletic. As an adult I dabbled in intermittent running (well, jogging) and cycling. Then, having achieved three-score years largely uneventfully, genetics caught up with me and lying in ICU I decided that daily exercise had become an attractive proposition.

So walking has become something of an obsession and every day I pound the streets of my neighbourhood for an hour on average. Not only do I feel I am looking after my physical wellbeing, but psychologically I have discovered just how beneficial exercise can be. Well into my stride after half an hour, it’s amazing how many opening and closing paragraphs have been concluded and how many mundane problems solved.

But there is another bonus: the details I now notice about my surroundings that completely bypass the motorist. Buildings that are just a blur to a driver take on distinctive form to the walker. Walk, and all manner of socio-economic and environmental detail jumps into sharp focus. Very evident is the fact that our collective attitude to recycling has a long way to go. Avoiding refuse bags torn open by dogs and sometimes left uncollected by waste management, and wading through rubbish clearly thrown out of passing cars, it is obvious that a large percentage of citizens have no environmental consciousness. And, even more startling, most of them live on junk food. It’s amazing what our garbage has to say about us. Observing the detritus of the fast-food industry on the sides of our roads, it is tempting to suggest that every purchase of polystyrene or plastic-wrapped burger or chicken piece should attract a tax as compensation for ecological damage and future health problems, costs inevitably borne by more conscientious tax and ratepayers.

And then there are the drivers. Walking may have reduced my chances of another heart attack, but raised astronomically the risk of becoming a road accident statistic. A significant number of Pietermaritzburg drivers are clearly homicidally inclined maniacs. Any considerate motorist knows that of course, but walkers have a bird’s eye view of the recurrent mayhem. Speeding, overtaking on blind rises and corners, dangerous U-turns and disregard for continuous white lines and other artistic decorations on the road, plus criminal overloading of bakkies, are so commonplace as to be unremarkable. Their pervasiveness tells us that arrogance, impatience and thoughtlessness afflict too many people behind the wheel of a car and contribute significantly to the violent loss of life we suffer. Twice recently I have been correctly walking on a verge against the oncoming traffic and been missed from behind by the proverbial coat of paint through reckless overtaking. A remarkably high percentage of road fatalities involves pedestrians.

A third observation concerns animals, dogs to be precise. Almost every property seems to have two or three, but the number I see being taken for a walk is minimal. Many are no more than mobile security systems, programmed to bark at every passer-by. On several occasions I have saved old dogs from owner’s wheels. Shouting at some ridiculously large vehicle from which the ground is invisible to the driver usually earns a dirty look. The reaction is to edge forward slowly but still blindly, in the hope that the dog has moved fast enough. Getting out and making sure it is safe is clearly too much for some. On one memorable occasion the dogs were far from old, rushed into the road and bit me on the knee. The reaction of the owner was fairly predictable: denial that his dogs could possibly be responsible (fortunately I had a voluble, independent and willing witness); plus equally emphatic protestations that they had been inoculated against rabies. Unhappily, documentary evidence remained conspicuous by its absence and the purported vet had no record either, although a loosely administered back-door system was mentioned. The result: an innocent walker having to bear the cost of six medical visits, five of them for what turned out to be entirely unnecessary rabies injections. The two dogs and I are still in the land of the living.

Physical and psychological wellbeing? No doubt about it. But the general mess, dangerous driving and antagonist dogs are a definite threat to my health. I now know why so many people prefer the gym. But for the moment I’ll stick to the dubious freedom of walking out of my garden gate into the fresh air beyond.

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