Sunday, 2 December 2012

Giant's Castle

Giant’s Castle 28th October 2006

The minibus rattles and crunches over the unmade roads that lead from the Jo’berg to Durban Highway to 'Giant’s Castle' resort in the Drakensberg  Mountains that lace between Lesotho and Kwa-Zulu Natal. 

The afternoon sun slips intermittently between the mountains, reddening as it dips, casting lengthening shadows and giving rise to the fear that this group of twelve head teachers, on a break , wouldn’t make their destination before nightfall.

We amble through small villages, each a cluster of thatched mud-bricked roundhouses, each with its own lush garden, each connected to the next, to the river, to the road, by a network of well-worn paths that snake over the landscape like cracks in a glaze.

Sharp scrutiny of the sky and the bush are rewarded with sightings of various unidentifiable antelope leaping from view, and a brace of eagles riding the thermals.  Each is inevitably accompanied by a shout of excitement from the spotter and a collective groan of disappointment from 
those who’d missed it.

 Driving erratically, climbing steadily, we arrive just before dusk. The thatched cottage I share with Maxine, is simply furnished in a faux-African style that is both austere and comfortable.  Greedy for light, I make the hastiest of preparations for the evening meal, and step out into the cool, brief evening, within minutes of setting my cases down.

The air is moist, with an abrasive tang of wood smoke and as I turn my face towards the peaks, I draw in a deep, deep breath that is rewarded with the faint aroma of an exotic bloom, one that I  shall ultimately fail to identify, that will, within the hour, offer a feast of nectar to the night-feeding insects that emerge with the stars.

‘I’ll leave at five, it should be light by then, walk for two hours, then turn around and come back, I’m not bothered about breakfast. I’m going to make the most of the few hours we have here. ‘
‘Remember, the bus leaves at ten!’  Maxine calls back, as she makes her way over to the restaurant for pre-dinner drinks
Magic!   My fifty-sixth birthday dawns, and its magic.  

Stepping out onto the deck, my ears are assailed by the high-pitched ‘zing-zing-zing ‘ of an orchestra of bush  crickets that were awake long  before I was.  Instead of staying with the moment, I rush off to pick up my voice recorder. Predictably, on my return, the cacophony has 

Shrugging off disappointment , I walk briskly down to the trail that will take me to the caves where, centuries ago, the Bushmen sheltered.  There are no physical traces of them now, apart from the stunning cave paintings that are sacred testimonies to their nomadic lives. They were 
daubed with skill, by the light of firebrands,  in the colours of the earth; yellow ochre, blood red, chalk white and charcoal black. Here are ghostly eland, masked shaman and birthing women, each pictogram carrying meaning that can only be guessed at by most modern observers.

Not for my eyes though, not today.  I shall be leaving for the airport at the precise time that the caves, safe behind their steel barricades, open to the public .

The mountains, stark companions on my solitary walk, are  swathed in mist. The strengthening sun energises it with a golden glow, so unearthly, I catch my breath in wonder. The path is an easy meander, a slow descent for about an hour to a river basin where a fast flowing stream stays a moment, in a hollow, in a glade, before pouring over a lip and hastening on to meet another wanderer far  below.  

Here I rest, reveling in the beauty of the place.  Across the valley, bare of trees, the precipice is radiant in 
full sun. I am warmer too, so I remove my jacket and drink deeply from my water bottle.  I listen for the chatter of women and children, pausing here from root-digging, berry-picking, to refresh themselves.  I am being fanciful; nevertheless, I sense that their laughter is only just out of hearing.

My walk is not without purpose.  I have photographed many of the flowers that I have discovered (all but one, unknown to me) and before I move on, I pull out my field guide to check them out.  I amuse myself by allowing the !Xhosa names to roll over my tongue, iqalaba, (sugar-bush) isichwe, (candelabra flower)umsobo wesinja (sobobo berry). 

This day, this time, this place.  Pure gift.

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