Monday, January 25, 2010

Deboning a mountain

Oops, almost a week since I’ve blogged. Doesn’t mean I haven’t been walking on The Mountain. It was another early Sunday start, this time more decently at 7.30. The night before Jannie deboned a chicken a la Julia Child (as in the Meryl Streep movie Julie & Julia), following her advice: “don’t be afraid!” Then he made a crème brulee with his new blowtorch I gave him for Christmas. Ok, so this is not a food blog, but a mountain blog. The talk about food is just to explain the slow start to the expedition.
So up we go. Llandadno ravine awaits, crème bruleed legs, stuffed chicken and an excellent few bottles of wine notwithstanding. Help.
From the car park below Suikerbossie we followed the trail through the cool pine forest and up to the first ridge. Coffee, please. Now. A chilly wind was whipping over the ridge, but we found a spot just below it where we could rest our backs against the rocks. If there’s one thing in the world I’ll never miss, it’s my morning coffee. To have that cup of coffee sitting on the mountain, dipping a rusk and rubbing your fingers on a fragrant buchu bush, well, that is total bliss. We sat for ages with the morning sun on our faces and I slowly felt the life returning to my body, like a chicken being defrosted before being deboned (sorry but the masterpiece was still fondly in my thoughts).
Llandadno ravine looks like it has been carved out of the mountain by someone who was not afraid to make a few deep gashes. In winter water streams down, but now it was dry – and fragrant. The scent from pelargoniums and confetti bushes waft up once they have warmed up in the sun.
Crassulas everywhere, looking like upright chandeliers of luminescent red buds on thick stalks up on the cliffs. One creeping over a rock – remember it’s called a ‘klipblom’ – competing with rusty red lichen.
Rock kestrels swooped, pigeons sat below the steep cliffs giving the wildness a domestic air. And there was a domestic air. Someone had built a low wall out of rocks so that you could shelter under an overhang. There was a cleanly swept spot where a modest fire had been built and a flat stone jutted out like a bedside table. The perfect place to put down your cellphone. It felt like home, so we had to stop for another tea break and slices of Patty’s leftover steak from the night before.
On top of Llandadno ravine sandstone rocks had been weathered into all kinds of shapes by the wind and rain. The edge dropped away suddenly so that you felt as if you were perched on top of the ocean. Llandadno’s white beach curved around its turquoise bay, ships sailed over the horizon and two paragliders caught an updraft above Leeukoppie.
The only mystery was why the rest of the world wasn’t here too. As we looked down onto the multi-million rand mansions below, I felt not a shred of envy. We had the best spot by far.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Death on the mountain

It was confirmed today. A man fell to his death on Platteklip Gorge on Sunday evening.
Still glowing from our walk in the morning, we were sitting on the deck in the late afternoon when we saw the helicopters. Always a bad sign. And it happens surprisingly often late on a Sunday or Saturday. “Someone has fallen down the mountain again,” I said to Jannie.
You usually get a sense of how serious it is by watching the helicopters. This time there were two or three and they kept buzzing at the top of Platteklip for a long time. This looked serious. The following day the Cape Times reported that a man had fallen off the top of Platteklip Gorge, in front of hikers who were on their way up the mountain. Everyone was traumatised by the fact that the man seemed to have died instantly.
But today’s paper had a slightly different slant on the story. It seemed the man had committed suicide and the medics had found two suicide notes. One was on the 67-year old man’s body and another in a backpack found close to where he jumped off.
People die on Table Mountain every year. Sometimes I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. One baking Sunday morning we met a family from the Free State with some young children at the bottom of Platteklip Gorge. They asked us for directions. They were dressed in flip-flops, only a few had hats and they didn’t have enough water. Jannie convinced them to take an alternative route along the contour path.
We often get asked for directions – do we look that local? – and it’s usually a sure sign that the hikers are unprepared. But we’ve also learnt that you can’t just tell someone off. Like the guy with the blonde ponytail who was leading a gang of young girls in jeans and sandals up India Venster. He did not appreciate our warnings that it’s a dangerous route. Fortunately there were no helicopters that time...


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Hunting for red disas

The owls were still flying around this morning when we went up Nursery Ravine to go hunting for red disas. Mike the retired vet insisted we meet him no later than 5.30. It was a good move, although I didn’t think so when the alarm went off at 4.30 on a Sunday morning. Maximum temperatures were forecast today for 35+ and when we came down the mountain four hours later the sweaty red-faced hikers pulling themselves up over hot boulders were not a pretty sight.
It was still a bit early in the year for disas – indigenous orchids - but Mike had heard an unsubstantiated rumour that a few had already been spotted. So up we trudged. We were a third of the way up Nursery Ravine when a golden glow suddenly lit up the trees and moss covered boulders. The sun had risen. Once out of the forest we could see right over False Bay towards Hangklip and a silver cloud cascaded over Silvermine East. Mist touched the earth here and there, floating up from the ground.
My climbing strategy is a slow one, just keep going, even if fuelled only by half a cup of coffee and a rusk, keep going, keep going. Rest as you lift your feet, before you put them down. Breathe. But stuff if. Today I had to rest when the last steep stretch of Nursery Ravine appeared before me. Very annoying that Mike’s 20-something nephews who had slept between 2 – 4 hours and were sweating out last night’s mojitos had started after us and sat at the top waiting for us. I blame my lack of form on the long Christmas holidays.
At last at the top, we ambled through the shade of the clump of trees that date back to the old nursery from 1890. Coral watsonias caught the early morning sun and red crassulas burst against the rocks. (In Afrikaans a ‘klipblom’.)
The blue reservoir dams on top of the mountain always make me feel like I’m in a different country, somewhere like Sweden. At last we reached the little ravine we call Red Disa Gully and there, at our favourite teaspot on a rock next to a mountain pool, were the disas. Still closed. Rumours of disas, tightly curled up.
But over the crest and along a man-built furrow that leads water down to the reservoirs, we saw a flash of red. Two flashes of red. Then another. Disas! There they were, standing tall, their red heads swayed in the breeze. Now you know why they’re called ‘Pride of Table Mountain’. Disa uniflora, the Red Disa.
Further along the stone furrow views rolled out towards Hangklip on the far side of False Bay and a thin veil of mist drew dark shadows on the sea.
And then a glimpse of blue-purple along the path, spotted by a nephew who claimed to have only slept one hour last night. It was a ‘drip disa’, growing in a mossy hollow under dripping rocks, just like the name says, the disa longicornis or Mauve Disa. What a bonus, the first one I’ve ever seen.
Far below us three-million people were going about their Sunday mornings. Up here we felt like the kings and queens of the mountain, finding purple and red orchids in the shade of cool rocks in the middle of a scorching summer. “I love paying zero for a million-dollar experience,” Mike said.
By 10 a.m. we were back at our cars; four and a half hours to our own little corner of paradise and back. And a sweet memory tucked behind our hearts to last the whole week.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A walk to the Khoisan princess' cave

I haven't been on the mountain for about six weeks. After Christmas, time with family and eight days in the hot, hot Kalahari I'm missing my mountain. Life has been one long heatwave lately. 40+ temperatures in the Kalahari Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, only to arrive back in Cape Town to the bubbling sound of another, or maybe just one long, melted, heatwave.
So this morning, when I saw pale, cool clouds covering the mountain, I went to visit the princess in Silvermine. Most people in Cape Town have spotted the huge cave above Ou Kaapse Weg. You can see the big, shady hole in the mountain from almost anywhere in the Cape Flats. Its official name is Elephant's Eye cave, but I prefer the story of the Khoisan Princess.
According to myth/legend/fireside stories, she lived up there in the 1500's. (The other part of the legend is that the river that ran down there filled the Princess Vlei far below.)
Have to say, after all that sitting in the car over the past few weeks, my legs felt a bit cranky on the first uphill. But all pain was forgotten when I saw a row of salmon petals running up a stalk. Watsonias, or to be precise, watsonia tabularis. She is the beauty of high summer.
When the endorphins start kicking in everything looks special, even a spindly ball of feathery grass seed. Then some more watsonias, etched against the sky where the heat has burnt away the last of the morning’s clouds.
One of the best parts of this route is the path along the shady pines, but not for much longer. This morning I heard the sound of buzzing chainsaws, the day of pine trees on the mountain are over. Then the spot where the stream crosses the path. How often do you actually spot a startled frog plop into a stream? Reminds me of the haiku I read: The old pond/a frog jumps in/plop.
In the stream art and poems float around. Open seed pods. A dead moth on a grass stalk. And the tinkling of water on a hot day; the sweetest sound.
The path leaves the shade behind and a breeze catches a carpet of restios, grassy heads dipping, whispering, sooshing. A radio crackles at the fire look-out. I’ve never seen someone here before. A man called Alvin sticks his head out the window, two teardrop golden earrings dangling and wearing a t-shirt that says ‘toxic is the new black’. Can you figure that one out?
He’s listening to Good Hope FM and reckons this is the most boring job in the world. His job is to watch the mountains from Silvermine East, over theeere... to Constantia Nek, way over theeeere. They dazzle and sizzle in the heat, blue ridges simmering, green forests hanging on, turquoise sky flying into infinity. But Alvin is not impressed. On his narrow 20-something shoulders rests an awesome responsibility. Don’t let Table Mountain burn! And this is fire season. Yesterday and today are high risk, full alert days.
After the last 50m steep climbing in the mid-morning sun (hold legs, hold), the cave is a moist, green, cool, velvet, fern-lined princess chamber. And just in case you were wondering, Jungle was here in ’08. Or so says the graffiti.
Sitting up there, looking out over the flatlands, the lakes, the long white beach, the miles of foamy waves breaking, can you really imagine anything but a princess living here?