Monday, January 31, 2011

Chorus line of a long summer ballad

The weather gods gave us a cool day. A soft misty morning is just what you need when you’re going to walk from Hout Bay up Myburgh’s Ravine to the top of Table Mountain and then all the way over the mountain back to the city. Add to that a marching master who said it could be done in six hours and any small mercy is welcome.
The last weekend of January is Red Disa Weekend. While we had been eating Christmas duck and gallivanting on holiday, the disa show had been in pre-production. All over Table Mountain’s cool, mossy corners their tightly rolled red buds had been quietly pushing out into the filtered light of ravines and forests and rocky overhangs.  Now here we were, at the end of January, arriving for the show.  
As we climbed up Myburgh’s Ravine the yellowwood forest, lichen covered rocks and walls of ferns surrounded us with greenness. And then. We came around a corner and there was the Red Disa show, mid-performance, in full swing. Red velvet petals unfurled in full glory, scattered in the greenness. Not just any red, but a deep scarlet satin-red that glowed in the green light of the ravine. The orchids danced on their long thin stalks like delicate dancers. Here was the chorus line of summer.
At the top of the ravine the light, even that of a misty day, was suddenly bright and glaring. Ripe yellow summer grass waved in the wind and clouds tumbled onto the plateau. It was like going from a rain forest to the grass plains of the Serengeti in a few steps.
But there was more red to be seen. That same exact shade of deep red dotted the landscape. It was the crassula and it had more than the colour of its flowers in common with the red disa. They are both deeply involved with the same butterfly. In this love triangle, the butterfly is called Mountain Pride and she is a beauty. She has a thing for a disa and a crassula. She pollinates both. When she lands on the flowers to drink the sweet nectar from deep inside the flower, the pollen sticks to her sweet little feet and off she goes. Long live the disa and the crassula, thanks to her.
Off we went too. We had a six-hour deadline to meet. Do not think for one second that the top of Table Mountain is flat. When this chunk of earth pushed up from the depths zillions of years ago, it did so in huge shoves. So here we were now, walking over the hills and valleys on top of the mountain. It was like turning the pages in a kiddies’ pop-up book.
Suddenly the huge vertical 100m-high rock wall of Oudekraal Ravine appeared ahead of us. Then Muizenberg and False Bay popped up. Corridor, Slangolie Buttress, Woody Ravine. Who needs to write poetry when these are the names of the bits of mountain in your own backyard.
By the time we headed down Kasteelpoort, the weather gods had moved on to another assignment. Now the heat was upon us.  We trudged along the pipetrack towards Kloofnek, hot and dry. Plus we got to the end in just over six hours, thanks to the herding skills of the marching master. And thanks to the chorus line of Red Disas that still played in my head.

Monday, January 24, 2011

In the footsteps of the French fortkeeper

High above one of the most scenic drives in the world is a secret path, made by the wind and the rain and the long-ago footsteps of forgotten people.
            Chapman’s Peak Drive’s hidden but most beautiful twin threads in and out of cool, shady ravines, hugging the mountain over cliffs and through fields of everlastings and watsonias.
            Whenever I walk up here on the contour path, I often think of my imaginary Frenchman. He would have been the fortkeeper of the Eastern Fort, where we start the walk just after Chapman’s Peak drive leaves Hout Bay. He was probably there alone, with only the smoke of a far-away fire on the other side of the Hout Bay beach for company. I fondly call him Monsieur Chap (pronounced shhap, you know, like the French). I imagine he was a member of the French regiment who built the fort in 1792, but stayed behind to look after it. Naturally because he loved the mountain so much.
One of Monsieur Chap’s most important jobs would have been to walk up the mountain to go and fetch water from the stream that always runs down Blackburn Ravine. This would not be a chore, but an event much looked forward to, I’m sure. Next to the stream he would sit, like us, drinking some tea in the shade as the water splashed the small ferns and big flat stone next to the path.
            This Sunday I again imagined Monsieur Chap as the southeaster howled around us. He would have weaved his way through the proteas and I’m sure he would also have stopped to look at a sugarbird flapping with its long tail above a yellow pincushion and would have said out loud: Il est magnifique!
Then, back at the fort, he would take out his quill and his ink pot and write to his beloved Madeleine, who probably lived alone in a farmhouse in the rural district of Gers: “Dear Madeleine, I wish you could see this place, it is the most beautiful in all the world. The wind chases foam like small white horses all over the bay in front of me. Behind me the mountain pulls the earth up into the sky to fill it completely. Oh Madeleine, if only I could send you a painting.” This was, of course, in the days before Facebook, when Monsieur Chap could simply have uploaded a pic on his cellphone. Ah well.
More than two centuries later, we walked in his footsteps and the world immediately around us had not changed much at all. The southeaster still created a green wave of fynbos that danced to the wind. The sugarbird still flapped his tail above the pincushions and the mountain…well, it still fills the sky completely.
This Sunday we had an important mission. We had to introduce someone new to this beautiful place. Someone who had never seen it before and didn’t even know it existed. Okay, she is only three months old and this was Freya’s first time on Chapman’s Peak, heroically carried all the way in her kangaroo pouch by her mother Martine.  Freya fell asleep as soon as we started walking and opened her eyes at Monsieur Chap’s stream, as if to agree, magnifique! then promptly fell asleep again.
When it was lunchtime under the summer-dry waterfall halfway to the peak of Chapman’s Peak, Freya’s dad Heine showed her what the mountain looks like up-close and she clearly took it all in.
From Chapman's Peak's secret path you can see a million miles out to sea and the Sentinel looks as if it may slide into the water while holding its pointy head up high.It's one of my favourite walks and maybe one day it will be one of Freya's.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Feast of Crassula

For a long time I thought Crassula was just the name of a street in the suburb of Devils Peak. But no, it is not. Crassula is a red thing of beauty that flowers in bright blotches on the driest slopes of Table Mountain in the most arid month of the year: January.

As usual, the Afrikaans name says it much better. Klipblom. Stone flower, because that’s where it grows. On the tiniest scrap of soil in the crevice of a rock it shoots up into a thick fleshy stem with a crown of a dozen tiny scarlet blooms winking with their white eyes in the wind.

And now is the time of the Feast of Crassula. On Sunday, our first hike of the year, we chose a route with an appropriate name for getting back in the saddle. It’s called, well, the Saddle. The Saddle is the neck below Devil’s Peak that connects it to the front face of Table Mountain. It’s easy, less than three hours and a gentle way to the top if you walk along the contour path and scramble up over Oppelskop Ridge.

Long ago someone had the job of manning an outpost on this ridge. The roof is long gone and the wind and rain have nibbled away at the edges of the walls, but the view remains majestically unnibbled. To the left the wall of Table Mountain. Lion’s Head grabs a chunk of view over there. Cape Town Stadium looks like a huge oval UFO that landed in Green Point. Robben Island sits in its frill of white breakers a distance out to sea.

The small view is another matter altogether. You can only experience the Feast of Crassula if your feet are actually on a mountain path. Then you start spotting the red jewels. One just next to the path, another three stems shooting out of a rock above you, two more over there, another clump of crassula on the edge of a small ravine.

At the top of the Saddle is a huge all-weather rock that can shelter you from the southeaster if you sit in front of it and from lashing winter rain if you sit behind it. Sunday morning was so perfect that for once we sat next to it, on boulders along the stream that runs through the Saddle and has cut a deep gorge from there on its way down to the ocean. A tranquil little stream can do that if you let it run for thousands of years.

We drank our tea and we ate our rusks while the tranquil stream tinkled. Behind our big rock stood an agapanthus with rolled up petals of sky-blue promise and a patch of pink ericas spread like a dusty plumped up duvet along the stream.

What a mountain to come home to after a holiday. What a feast to enjoy after the festive season.