Semicaper Deus

2010-05-29 00:00

I SUPPOSE all mountain ranges have dodgy weather. Stable air masses moving over them become unstable as they hit the peaks, it stands to reason, but there’s something extra about an escarpment, especially if it stands at ten thousand feet.

Well, okay, three thousand metres — altitude is always in feet among airmen as depth of sea is in fathoms for seamen. The terrain at the back of the Drakensberg escarpment is a great rolling hilly tabletop of low air pressure, naturally unpredictable and turbulent when warm moist stable air from the coast moves up and over the edge and cools and condenses. It’s not like going round a free-standing peak — it stays unpredictable and turbulent. So there you have it, that’s your met lesson for today, now it’s playtime and I’ll tell you a story…

When I was young and my laaitie Joe even younger, about fourteen, he used to pester me stupid about the Berg. His legs were nice and long, said he, and not just all jelly inside, as I suggested, and he was the size of most of the boozy bunch he had seen me departing with up there and full of malehood — so howzit, man?

“Fchrissakes,” said I. “Which way?” So he hauled out the mangled old mountain map, pointed to certain pencil lines and said: “That way!” Gray’s Pass, a short sharp steep bitch of a scramble, then along the top a bit and down Ship’s Prow, a five-kilometre forty-five degree chute of shattered rocks, some the size of your fingernail, some the size of a bus. It is the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

It’s just right for a romantic painter, maybe. A fourteen-year-old painter, that is. So we’re off. He’ll find out the hard way!

By the time we got to the contour path under the krantzes he’s pooped from heat exhaustion, doggedly pushing on until we get to that little amphitheatre at the base of the pass, where the lightning is so sudden and so extreme we can smell it, I tell you.

We walk the prescribed thirty paces apart until we get to a little stream, and suddenly it’s dead still and so cold his fingers are numb and he can’t open his rucksack for our tea-things. So gaan dit mos in die Berg. We dog it to the top at about lunchtime, and stroll over towards the Nkosazana cave a kilometre or so from the edge, where we’ll spend the night. There’s plenty of time.

A short way off is a little tarn, transparent, clear, pure H2O, with white crystalline sand and tiny crabs scuttling about. How the hell they got up here is another one of those mountain mysteries. This for sure is where we have to make a cuppa.

But even before we can get our mini gas stove going, SNAP! The mist is suddenly so dense that we have to bend down to see the tarn, and we know that this is where we stay until it’s gone. Try for the cave and we could wander off in a great circle into Lesotho, or a small circle over the edge where our first bounce would be six hundred feet down.

Shelter, food, it’s all here. We pitch our wee tent by the tarn and it’s all so romantic and back-to-nature, but the smile soon disappears from young Joe’s lips when a wind picks up, heavy with sleet.

The tarn is ice before evening soup time and by 6 pm we’re wrapped in every piece of cloth, inside our sleeping bags and huddled together for every last bit of heat energy.

That’s the escarpment. Sometimes. At other times I’ve been eaten by mosquitoes. But not tonight. Tonight it’s just: “Please please bring the dawn so I can get off these frozen rocks a while.”

At first light Joe desperately needs to pee and I tell him the rules: one at a time, so you can shout back if you get lost. My turn; I thrust out gasping into the shocking wind chill and at that moment there’s a brief gap in the sleet and mist, and there he stands: Pan, the half-goat god of Mount Parnassus, Semicaper deus. The yellow eyes, the red beard. Intuitively I look down for the cloven hooves. The battered boots, ankle-muffs of the mountaineer shredded by rocks, woollen cap, quilted clothing, all ragged beyond belief. It is clear he lives in these rags. This is feral man.

He speaks: “Are you lot all right? Do you know this place? Do you have food for two extra days?”

“Ja, we’re okay thanks, I reply.”

“Keep dry,” says he.

Maybe he comes from a mountain club group we haven’t noticed. Maybe you can have a guess. But one thing is for sure, he navigates as do the whales and dolphins, by the magnetic field of Mother Earth. The mist closes in and he vanishes, silently, an apparition.

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