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September 18, 2009

Table Mountain hike: peace is the reward

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I am not really an athlete. I don’t like going to the gym as I never quite feel like I fit in with the big mirrors and the people looking at their trim figures. Eventually I start going less, finally to realise that I won’t be renewing my membership.

So today, instead of lifting weights that I feel are being belittled by the fellow gym-goers, I stand in the parking area of the Newlands Reservoir. In front of me is a view starting with a Jeep track and followed by tall trees and finally, just before the clear sky, the mountain. Devil’s Peak is in my view, and its rocky part, which is at the very top, looks cold, mysterious, but most of all far away.

But I feel determined, for I have decided to touch that rock today.

Of course, this is not the first time I am hiking, but the forest and the mountain are never quite the same each time. The rains affect the paths and determine the whole experience in a way that you couldn’t even imagine when looking up at the postcard view of the mountain from the city.

I find myself in a thick forest walking alongside a stream that seems strong after the rains of the week. The path is narrow and I can see all the way down to the canyon, maybe 30m (100ft) below me.

I have walked for 10 minutes and the city is very far behind me. I start feeling like the walk is already getting the better of me. The hill is not very steep at this point but I am catching my breath like after a triathlon. Now I wish I had gone to the gym more often. I can’t even see where I am hoping to go anymore as the trees create a shelter and I can barely see the sky.

To me, the struggle is an important part of hiking. It’s not masochism, but rather a metaphor for life. I have had times when I turned back and later on realised that I had done it just before the opening of the view of the city and the two oceans. It is that struggle of getting up and not giving up that often gives us the best rewards with hiking, as in the rest of life.

The mountain philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described life on the ground as mediocrity and said only through the pain of hiking up can we reach fulfilment. I like the metaphor but while I am working my way up on the slippery wet rocks and jumping over the streams it feels more like an insult than a consolation.

Nature puts things in perspective. For the first time in weeks I can actually hear myself breathing. Granted, the climb makes me breathe loud enough to be heard by other people as well, although I haven’t seen anyone since I left the parking area. City life bombards me with so many sounds, smells and sights that I could live without.

Nothing right at this moment beats the fresh, mild scent of the previous night’s rain on the leaves, the few lonely birds singing somewhere in a bush near me, the rock; and the top of the mountain that has suddenly come so much closer to me.

It still looks grand, but less unreachable. I get more evidence when I look down and see the tree tops below me. Those same trees that just half an hour ago covered the whole sky now appear more bonsai-like. There is still some steep uphill ahead of me but already I am sensing a solitary achievement; something that sits well with me in the middle of deadlines and demands of sea level.

I lose my breath one more time when I reach the last uphill. The trees create a corridor for me on the path, where steps have been built. I wonder what it was like to build them as the wood must have been carried at least a few hundred metres uphill. It makes me think of those TV travel shows where the presenter arrives at the top of the mountain only with his walking stick, but the camera man, whom we don’t see, is already there filming the arrival. And he had to carry the filming equipment.

This thought is interrupted as I am no longer climbing. The path is now along the hillside. The rock is maybe 10m (33ft) above me, still unreachable, but only just. It took me an hour to get here and it’s an hour since I last saw other people.

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All of the stresses of everyday life are distant; it’s difficult to feel frustrated when you are using all of your energy to walk. Even two economic crises couldn’t bother me while I am getting in touch with nature and myself free of charge.

I feel the wind on my face as the trees and bushes make way for the view. I can see all the way to the beaches at Muizenberg, Cape Town’s southern suburbs and the Cape Flats. On the other side are the Newlands stadiums and the view goes all the way over the highways to the Atlantic Ocean at Milnerton and further.

I can’t really discern details; all I have is the big picture. I have taken a step back from the town and it all looks non-threatening. Even the traffic of the N2 highway seems orderly.

I feel calm and peaceful looking at my environment from a different angle. I have a cup of coffee from my flask and a moment that isn’t disturbed by anything.

I can feel the climb in my legs, but somehow I am not thinking about it. There are too many other things up here.

As I continue my walk over the streams by the waterfalls, finding the right rocks to step onto, I reach a point where I can reach my goal for today: to lay my hand on that big rock. There is a small climb over a few bushes and trees and then, there it is. The rock feels warm to the touch because of the sun, but what feels much better is to have reached it.

I have achieved something in about one and a half hours and it’s not even lunchtime yet. It reminds me that it really wasn’t about the destination, but the journey I took.

Read more by Mikko on his blog, Welfare State of Mind.

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