Wind, stars and long drops

2008-07-31 00:00

It would seem that I have graduated to the first division of July Camps of the Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA). Last year’s camp — my first — was held at Sungubala Bush Camp in the northern Drakensberg. We were spoiled then with a number of creature comforts. This year’s camp, guarded over by the buttresses of Hlathimba and Duarts Castle, is situated in the foothills of the southern Drakensberg. The facilities are basic and eco-friendly, befitting a mountain base camp.

The latrine trenches are a masterpiece of simple ingenuity: a toilet seat that is gradually moved along a deep trench whose sludge is covered by the soil of the original excavation. Visits to the latrines remain hazardous however. After all, we are dressed like Michelin men against the winter cold and it can take us men in particular a while to find what we are looking for. And in one of the gales that seem to have become a tradition of July Camp, the loo paper is inclined to whip up and out, needing to be caught by a deft hand before it defiles the pastoral landscape.

Despite the exhortations of the camp secretary to revive the tradition of sing-along around the campfire, her calls have mostly remained unfulfilled. The unrelenting wind has made lighting a campfire too dangerous and the iciness has driven us to our sleeping bags far too early. Besides, many of us are products of DStv culture so mountain songs of happy wanderings are almost unknown. The words simply fail us. Yet, on a couple of evenings, some camp stalwarts do manage crisp and dry renditions of Mountain Club golden oldies.

On one occasion while huddled against the cold, the subject of UFOs is raised. Elizabeth Klarer’s close encounter of the third kind is also discussed. Opinion is divided whether Rosetta’s mother of all things unexplained was a crackpot or not. One camper has a friend of a friend who has met the product of Klarer’s extraterrestrial affair with Akon. The son’s name is Tom, Dick or Harry — or something like that. I wonder why his mother didn’t give him a name more suited to his intergalactic conception — something like Eskom, son of Akon, perhaps.

There are no records of UFO sightings in the history of MCSA July Camps despite conditions being near perfect for close encounters of any kind. The night sky is as brilliant as it has ever been. The Milky Way arcs across the sky like a cosmic yellow brick road. Jupiter rises in the early evening sky and, gazing at its intense luminosity, you could be forgiven for believing that you are indeed witnessing something out of the ordinary. Far off to the east, Pietermaritzburg sheds its load of light into a distant stratum of phantom cloud. For me, living as my family does in another hemisphere, the Southern Cross glistens reassuringly above a land that has changed much since our departure several years ago.

Midweek, a brute of a gale trashes base camp and sends subgroups scurrying off the escarpment. For a night and a day we brace ourselves for the great gusts that come in shocks like tube trains thundering out of their tunnels, down past the platforms. Flecks of threshed grass scratch our eyes, our noses drip, and those coming down from the peaks look like mountain sadhu, their hands, necks and faces ashen with the soot of the burnt veld. It takes us a day or two to resurrect base camp.

The windstorm clears the sky and, for a few days after, we gaze into a sky that stretches from here to eternity. Indeed, it is on these days that I experience moments of what some might refer to as “living in the here and now”. These illuminations are dichotomous: eternity seems to converge in the moment and the moment expands into an eternity.

Eland and mountain reedbuck still roam free. We see them from both near and far, in herds and in solitude. I catch sight of a nervous Black-backed Jackal almost before he sees me and makes off into the rugged grassland. A Lammergeier cruises the cliff face in search of whatever delights its roving eyes. A berg adder warns me of its obscured presence with a polite and generous hiss.

This is the end of my week in the Berg. The MCSA July Camp will continue for a second week. I am sitting on a rock overlooking a tributary of the Hlathimba River. This lesser stream cascades from pool to pool. On the warmest days the waters beckon us and a few of us succumb to the shocking embrace of these southern Lorelei. But they do not hold us for long — our exchange is far too brief for them. We emerge invigorated and revitalised, ready to follow the long path back to base camp — wherever that might be.

• Andrew Daniels taught at several midlands schools. He lives and works in the Sultanate of Oman. He is currently on holiday in South Africa.

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