Since I dreamed up the idea that I’d like to celebrate turning 60 by walking with women friends, much has changed in the world.
However, walking and women friends are still as wonderful as ever, so not everything has changed. One could say that the important things have not changed at all.
This is the final post in my Walking series. If you have some time, or you’d like to catch up, you can read the others at these links: Walking ; 19 Walks ; 39 Walks ; 49 Walks . Thank you to all the special women who have walked with me (some nice men too). I think this might be the way I choose to celebrate each of my next 60 years on this planet – simply putting one foot in front of the other.
Walk 50 – aMahaqwa
Nothing makes me happier on a walk than delicious water oozing out of grassy hills to splash through forested gorges, gazillions of flowers simply popping with pollinators, and the company of a fellow flower lover. Fortuitously, we chose a perfect, albeit warm, day to head up to amahaqwa (Bulwer Mountain). This precious place feels wild and remote – unless you look over the edge at all the development below. It is a favoured place for paragliders and in the late afternoon as we wandered down the slopes, colourful parachutes twirled above us. In the morning, the blue skies were only filled with vultures, buzzards, falcons and butterflies. Lots of butterflies.
As hoped, there were orchids galore. January is often the best time to find ground orchids in our Midlands grasslands, but many years of drought have meant disappointment in recent seasons. Not this time though! I took 531 photos (be grateful they haven’t all made it into this post), spotted some beauties for the first time and came across old favourites that I have seldom seen. The mountain is majestic, rising steeply from the surrounding countryside. Slopes were a haze of blue agapanthus, cliffs dripped into tiny, cool pools, streams gushed through ouhout trees with lush undergrowth. As we climbed, the flora changed – this is to be expected as altitude and underlying rocks change. We declared Schizolglossum eligue our Flower of the Day as they were particularly abundant – with fat nodding heads of blooms, almost always attended by insects. We found white ones and pink ones and a couple of mauve ones too. On top, after a picnic with an astonishing view, we found a shallow tarn in the wetland to wallow in and drink, and drink, and drink.
Look closely at the photos to see the incredible little creatures that enable us survive on this planet in so many ways.
Walk 51 iNjesuthi
Despite my hiking companions not being ‘flower people’ last weekend, they all gamely shoved Artemesia afra leaves up their nostrils, nibbled Bushman’s sweets (Satureja reptans) which did not find favour, listened to me rabbit on about Berkeya leaves being handy hairbrushes and bandages, and waited on the path for me to finish photographing the orchids.
Marble Baths at iNjesuthi is a famous Drakensberg destination. Last weekend, I joined a couple of old friends, and a few strangers, to head up there for the night. Everyone seems to have been there, except me. The weather forecast was abysmal, but we were undeterred and encountered perfect hiking weather. Absolutely perfect.
Despite a reasonably early start, we only arrived at Marble Baths around 4pm. Our first attempt to cross the river was thwarted by the turbulent torrents, so we had to back track and take a longer detour through slightly less ferocious water. The late hour did not stop us diving into the cool (yikes) water for a swim before enjoying a cup of tea on the smooth rocks.
Most of my friends appear to have swooshed their way over the smooth rocks in a natural waterslide. It was far, far too wild for any of us to attempt swooshing.
Marble Baths Cave was pretty wet with all the recent rain, so our group spread out the Annexe too. This is a nice flat cave, but with the edges dripping constantly and a waterfall cascading to the right, it was sleeping through the sounds of a never ending torrential down pour. Still, we were snug. Early morning explorations on top of the cave afforded beautiful views of the full moon setting, more orchids and lots of little birds going about their usual business. Breakfast was back at the infamous Marble Baths – how cool is this setting for early morning tea? Another dip and then a slow walk home.
If there is anyone out there who hasn’t visited this area – do. It’s a 7km walk if the river is low, 9kms if it is not. Only a few places are steep, mostly it is a gentle climb. We left satiated with water and wonderful views – just as the well-fed dogs after which the area is named. On that note – while we all agree that Injesuthi is an apt name for this perennially full river, according to Adrian Koopman there are 12 possible correct spellings of the name – from iNjasuthi to eNjesuthi. “Clearly this situation is untenable, and any attempts to achieve consistency and standardisation in Zulu place names means that these choices must be narrowed down as much as possible, preferably to one.” In the end Koopman suggests choosing between iNjasuthi, iNjesuthi, eNjesuthi or eNjasuthi and makes the point that only the Euro-Western mind sees these words as different. Personally, I like iNjesuthi. We saw many beautiful dogs following humans beside the road on the way home.
Walk 52 Bushman’s Nek
The Drakensberg is full of surprises – secret caves, hidden pools, blue dragons, floating flowers and unexpected fragrance.
We skirted the border control at Bushman’s Neck, crossed a couple of rivers and climbed into the exceptionally green mountains. After lunch and a frolic in Cedric’s Pool we headed for Watsonia Cave, which must be a picture in early summer surrounded by an orange cloud. A splash in the waterfall tucked behind the ouhout trees next to the cave was just what I needed after almost 8 hours on my feet!
Early the next morning, we tackled the final steep climb to Tarn Cave, passing dozens of orchids that my fellow flower enthusiasts identified expertly. One, in particular, captured our attention – the pretty pink Disa fragrans, with splotchy leaves. It certainly earned its name, enveloping us in perfume as we knelt to photograph it. I prefer the smell of herby grasses and imphepho we walked through, but Disa fragrans is certainly remarkable. We spent the afternoon exploring the grasslands, rocks and tarns before the mist rolled up the valley hiding our fabulous view of the Three Bushmen.
Watching the sun rise over a sea of cloud with just a few hills and ridges poking through is lovely, and it was amusing to realise that in Underberg and beyond, it was a cloudy day – while we were bathed in sunshine. The wind was jolly strong in places, but we were ever so grateful for the cooling breeze as we clamoured back down the pass, past proteas, raggedly butterflies and crag lizards. Luckily, there was a handy pool near our lunch spot. I soaked in as much of the precious water as possible while watching the clouds collect and swifts dash in and out of their nests on the riverbank. What a perfect way to spend a weekend in these unsettling times.
If you enjoyed these photos, you might also like my previous visit to Tarn Cave in the height of flower season – Khotso.
Walk 53 Fountainhill
One wouldn’t expect a walk in Wartburg to be particularly wild, but yesterday’s wander at Fountainhill with John Roff certainly was. John pays such close attention to the marvels of nature and always finds treasures to share with those who participate on his excursions.
In late summer and Autumn, many trees and shrubs are fruiting – and this was certainly the case in the Hlambamasoka gorge. We weren’t entirely sure if we could eat everything we spotted, so John bravely did the 5-minute test – first rubbing on his inner arm, then on his lip and then we nibbled! I am so pleased he survived to share the exceptional spiders, fascinating history, interesting rocks and beautiful trees we came across as we headed into the gorge.
Capparis tomentosa was the first treat – as we broke the fruit open, we got a distinct fragrance of caper and on sucking the seeds the flavour became a fruitier, possibly reminiscent of guava. Subtle and lovely. We also found the very sour, sour plum (Ximeria caffra) which is crammed with vitamin C and potassium; pretty pale green fruit with dark spots of Ozerea (much loved by rhinos and elephants); astringent, thirst quenching clusters on Searsia chirendensis; and the much loved and versatile, Syzigium cordatum (umdoni) – which can be used as a dye, to make wine or pickled – I like eating them fresh best of all.
While we were engaged with a knobwood (Zanthozylum capense) a very annoyed looking Wildebeest, wearing a crown of leaves and branches, careered down the path towards us and passed within a metre or two. This was startling and unexpected! Once we had gathered our wits, we inhaled the citrus fragrance of the knobwood leaves, watched a citrus swallowtail flitting through the branches and learnt that twigs of this tree are traditionally used as toothbrushes and the fruit has analgesic properties – chewed to numb the gum before dental work. They certainly numbed our lips – an interesting tingly feeling.
We relaxed in the shade on the edge of a pool at the base of a waterfall rimmed with plectranthus and Impatiens hochstetteri in full bloom. I swam in the cool water, watching monkeys traversing the cliffs with ease and ravens swirling above. We climbed out of the gorge and back to our cars to find a nonchalant wildebeest keeping a beady eye on things – fortunately, he seemed in a good mood as we have had enough adventure for one day!
Fountainhill was created in 1967 when Ernst Taeuber returned to the district and acquired numerous properties that had originally belonged to his grandparents, in order to reconstitute as much of the original farm as possible. A visionary and passionate conservationist, he meticulously planned the conservation and catchment layout of the properties, excluding marginal and vulnerable portions from commercial agricultural use, dedicating them instead to conservation. The property is now part of the Central uMngeni Protected Area(CUPA) and a treasure of biodiversity. If you get an opportunity to visit do – preferably in the company of John Roff.
Cumberland Nature Reserve is part of CUPA. Read more here.
Walk 54 Mbona
Mbona is a 700ha private nature reserve in Karkloof. There are 100 homes dotted about the hills, owned by those who have shares in this Estate. Gaining access is rare, so I leapt at the opportunity to explore with Karkloof Conservancy this morning. We began by wandering through the Mist-belt forest, also known as Podocarpus forest, as the three Yellowwood species are dominant here. The edges were a haze of mauve with Plectranthus species in full bloom. Beneath the canopy, Impatiens flanaganiae were flowering amongst the Selaginella, Streptocarpus, Begonia sutherlandii and Peperonia retusa so typical of understorey forests in the Midlands. Ferns, mosses and orchids festooned the trunks and branches, obviously reaching for as much light as possible.
We emerged into grassland is known as Festuca grassland. This is unusual in the area as usually it occurs in the Drakensberg. Thousands and thousands of Merwilla plumbea cover the steep slopes and must be a sight when in full flower. Dierama danced in the breeze today.
The eco-tone on the edges of the forest was pronounced. This is the vegetation which occurs on the edges and protects the forest from fire. The views across the valley and of the hills nearby were spectacular. We looked across Albert Falls, towards Inhlosane ridge and had a great view of Grey Mare’s Tail Falls depending on where we were.
As we rounded the hillside, we came across a completely different landscape – facing North West – this was hot, dry habitat. The vegetation changed too – many aloes amongst the dolerite rocks. Then it was up the hill, past Zebras and Wildebeest, and down through more forest for some quiet time beside the huge Yellowwoods. Sitting quietly, we became aware of wings flapping, insects abuzz, branches falling and of course, the ever-persistent bane of biodiversity, brush cutters.
Karkloof Conservancy organises fabulous walks in the area. Get onto their mailing list or follow them on social media to find out what is happening.
Walk 55 – Overstone
When the Gordon ancestors pitched up in the Dalton area in centuries gone by, they set about taming the wilderness by farming and built a little church as was the custom of settlers in those days. Since then the Gordon clan of the D82 has not really followed accepted customs, and today Overstone Farm is run by intrepid sisters Phillippa Gordon Lycett and Caroline Richter.
Growing up in these hills (now covered with rolling green sugar cane) means their connection to the rocks, trees, and people is deep but they did not expect to be farmers. Now, these women are the farmers – and what fabulous ones too! Yesterday, Phil, Phoenix, Harley and Bullet led us through the cane, down rocky hillsides, through rivers and long grass as we explored the loveliness that is Overstone Cottages.
This is a perfect spot to stay should you need to breathe a little. Accommodation is charming as the Dairy, Laundry, Post Office and School House have been creatively re-purposed to allow city dwellers to escape their ordinary lives for a while. Just so you know, hot mealie meal porridge is served each morning to get your day off to a good start.
The Gordon Church stands solidly, surrounded by sugar cane and buried ancestors. It has seen some splendid weddings, hosted celebrations of lives well lived, and once upon a time Sunday School was held in the quaint round building under the trees. We peeped through the keyhole to catch a glimpse of the stained-glass window and wondered about possibilities of re-invention now the building is no longer used for its original purpose.
The patches of natural veld are a beautiful pinkish gold at this time, with pops of orange Leonotis leonaurus, krantz aloes, and kalanchoe about to flower, and some lovely trees. Cussonia, Zizyphus mucronate, Euphobia and Giant-leaved ficus are a few we met.
Walk 56 – Mandela’s Long Walk
I have always loved the long, straight walk to view the sculpture at the Mandela Capture Site. I think it is a clever device to focus one’s attention. The actual sculpture is incredible and enthrals me every time I visit. This morning was no exception – the low sun glinted off the columns as trains trundled by, and other Midlands people (besides me) got on with their Monday busyness. The Capture Site is situated at the spot outside Howick where Nelson Mandela was captured on 5 August 1962. ‘The 50 linear vertical steel columns line up at this point (on the path) creating the illusion of a flat two-dimensional image magically recreating Madiba’s portrait, metaphorically announcing his return to the site of his disappearance from world view.’ I was fortunate to have the space to myself, to quietly read each poignant point in Mandela’s life placed along the edges of the path.
Today was the first time I had visited the Museum on the site. I adore the stark architecture of the building and was delighted to find my favourite hill, Inhlosane, reflected in one of the windows. In the entrance, a replica of the Austin Westminster that Mandela was driving when he was arrested is displayed and there is a spectacular beaded portrait of the great man created by local bead workers, which took my breath away. Then the main room of the museum is goose pimple stuff – huge screens on all four walls show evocative rolling footage from over the years, some of which had me in tears.
The exceptionally informative displays focus on struggles that have taken place in this part of our country. Beginning with the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906 – stories of these proud, brave men inspired Mandela, along with stales told by his elders of Dingane, Moshoeshoe and others with a powerful spirit of resistance. The contribution of the Natal Indian Congress, The Liberal Party and other important allies to the struggle are thoughtfully and engagingly depicted, along with Mandela’s life. After decades of colonial rule and apartheid, culminating in the mass mobilisation of the 1980s, Mandela was released in 1990.
It was pretty overwhelming, and I will need to visit again.
Recently, walking and cycling trails have been set up on the 300ha estate, so I Zapped the day fee (R50) and wandered around the farm roads and plantations. Was lovely to get an unrestricted view of Inhlosane from the top of the hill. I believe that Bambatha’s men reached Inhlosane and their cries from the top chilled the blood of the colonists settled on the slopes. Looking out, I could almost picture the little black Austin trundling along the R103 60 years ago…
Walk 57 – Queen Elizabeth Park
A freshly washed ‘Maritzburg morning is a wonderous thing. As I headed down the escarpment I could see forever – well at least past Table Mountain. My destination today was Queen Elizabeth Park which is squeezed between the busy motorway and a luxury housing estate. Despite the constant drone of the trucks, it is a remarkably calm place – a perfect escape for a couple of hours if you are in town. I wandered along the paths, remembering how we visited often in the 1960s, to picnic and admire the plants and animals. There are picturesque picnic sites dotted all over and I do hope they are well used. I believe there are a great many varieties of birds to be found here, they were certainly vocal. I was more interested in the lovely trees and shrubs, many laden with fruit at this time of year and the cheerful fields of Leonotis leonaurus. I didn’t meet anyone else as I walked, so it felt as if I had the place to myself despite it being the busy Ezemvelo Head Office. After wandering through the forest patches, the sun came out and I basked in the long grass just like a family of guinea fowl was doing.
What a lovely morning. Driving back up the hill I was treated to spectacular views of the Drakensberg covered in snow. I was pleased I made the trip.
Walk 58 – Mt Shannon
My skin prickles when people tell me they have been for a lovely walk in ‘the forest’ and they mean the plantation. Plantations are not forests. Forests are noisy, natural places, a tangle of diversity and life. Plantations are man-made – trees planted in straight lines across our precious grasslands. Plantations are nice places to walk though, I do agree. The best things about walking in plantations are the soft piles of copper needles covering the ground, the silence (not a lot of animals can live in this impoverished habitat), the shafts of filtered light, and the possibility of finding edible mushrooms.
Yesterday, I joined my friend Christeen Grant Field to explore Mt Shannon, a large plantation in Boston. Christeen remembers the area before the alien trees were planted and, in the spaces left as firebreaks, or on slopes where it is too challenging to plant trees, pointed out little streams, interesting indigenous trees, and some fascinating wildlife. I have never seen ladybird larvae before or a woolly bear caterpillar (which turns into a Tri-coloured Tiger Moth). This was exciting! We met many beautiful cattle as we walked and relaxed beside a shallow dam for lunch. It was a lovely day.
On the drive home through Impendle, I admired the magnificent hills, golden with grass, that have survived the spread of the green desert. Read about at Summer visit to Impendle here.
Walk 59 – iMfolozi Wilderness Trail
The last time I visited iMfolozi was 14 years ago. I remember kissing a lion (it was asleep), following some wild dogs (madly exciting) and watching buffalo wallow in the Great iMfolozi River . I can’t remember if I saw an elephant. Generally, I prefer insects and flowers to the big animals, but it seems ridiculous to live in KwaZulu-Natal and not spend time with the incredible wildlife virtually on our doorstep. I’ve always been intrigued by the Wilderness Trails and thought it would made the ideal celebration of my 60 years on this planet. It was!
I was hoping to bump into an elephant. Somehow, the wonderfully wild women I was walking with, magicked one out of thin air just as we got to Magunda camp. She wandered behind our tents for just a moment, then vanished into the shrubbery.
As we traipsed across the plains and over hills, we came across signs of all the famous animals – we saw buffalo, rhino, crocodile, giraffe and warthog, we heard lions at night and found leopard spoor on the paths. However, the less famous creatures like the nightjar, hyena and scops owl calling in the moonlight, and the bushbabies screeching furiously, were my favourites. I loved lying wrapped in fluffy blankets, peering through the tent windows at the tree silhouettes, listening to the night orchestra. Life is so completely different in the bushveld.
Our camp was tucked in a grove of Spyrostachys africana – umthombothi. In the late afternoon, we would collect fallen branches for our campfire, to cook supper in cast iron pots and boil water for our bucket shower hoisted into a tree. Everything smelled of umthombothi – a spicy, sweet, resinous fragrance, reminiscent of sandalwood, which apparently keeps the wildlife at bay (including mosquitoes) when burnt. Having grown up near Hluhluwe, umthombothi was my father’s favourite tree. In our childhood home, we had furniture made from the wood, so the smell was comfortingly familiar. I always believed that the woodsmoke was toxic when burnt, however our guides assured us that it was only the milky sap in the leaf stalk that is poisonous. We learned that porcupines nibble the cambium layer under the bark, and came across chewed trunks and some red coloured dung as evidence. The leaves are browsed by rhinos and elephants, and fallen leaves provide food for buck, porcupine and monkeys. We admired highly polished rubbing posts (ex-umthombothi) which are clearly thoroughly enjoyed by animals trying to rid themselves of ticks and itches. Magic trees.
Our guides explained the cultural uses of other local trees and plants. A new discovery for me was that Sanseveria aethiopica is used for twine. The fibres are extracted by scraping a leaf under a wooden stick to remove the green material, leaving the fibres exposed. Strong rope is created by rolling these together. We took the easier route of plaiting a few strands into bangles. The sap is used to cure earache, and rhizomes boiled to treat intestinal worms.
Having lovely Nkosingiphile Mtetwa as our lead guide was a special experience. It shouldn’t be unusual to have a woman guide, but it is. Walking back with our firewood one afternoon, we came across a fallen knobthorn tree Zanthoxylum capense. Nkosingiphile shared a traditional use for this tree that I had never heard about before. To celebrate a young woman turning 21, and being ‘untouched’, the hard breast-shaped thorns are ground to a very fine powder, mixed with blood of a sacrificial animal and the orange clay (imbomvu) usually used as sunscreen in these parts. The resulting paste is smeared around the woman’s nipples and a celebration held in her honour. This is certainly a memorable day for her as the community makes her feel extremely special. At this time young men would begin ‘throwing words’ at her – flirting, I would guess, and making proposals. She would then be free to choose a man to marry. Curiously, considering we arrived back home just in time for a new Covid Lockdown, this tree was widely used as a remedy for the Great Flu of 1981. The leaves and fruits have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties and contain essential oils that acts as decongestants.
While it is not particularly easy for six women to stop talking for long, we did enjoy silent moments listening to a Gorgeous bush-shrike one morning, quiet time alone with views of the endless iMfolozi hills and a breath-taking encounter with a rhino drinking at a pan, where not only did we have to be silent, but dead still as well.
Add in fireside storytelling, occasional cartwheels, some dips in the river, primal howls as the full moon rose, and you can see that this was an exceptional way to complete my 59Walks.
I came across these words the day before we left. It sums up our adventure perfectly. Actually, it sums up all walking in wild places.
I will lead you to the river so you can remember how beautiful it feels to be moved by something that is out of your control. EMERY ALLEN
I have little doubt that I will continue walking with women for many, many years. Comments from those who joined my on my 59th walk affirm this.
Sue – “One of the things I no longer take for granted during these strange days of Covid, and also now that I am getting older, is people of substance. Trailing around in the magnificent African wilderness with a bunch of daft women of substance for five days will be a treasured memory for me. There is nothing more fun than spending time with a group of older women who are intelligent, thoughtful, interesting, past the age of needing or wanting to impress anyone, funny, know who they are, and do what they like.”
Kate – “The timing of our trip was perfect. Let’s acknowledge that we are all tuned and synchronized into the universe. May we continue to bask in the peace and unity that we experienced.”
Christeen – “When six incredible women go walking in the iMfolozi Wilderness, starting on the Winter Solstice, bathing under a Full Moon, to celebrate a 60th Birthday, magic happens. My wilderness connection was made clear there – Thread lightly as you walk through this world. Leave no trace of your passing. But fill your spirit with all that surrounds you.”
Deerdre – “I have heard it said that when one becomes emotional at being in a beautiful place, or at seeing a beautiful view, or feeling a total connection – you are glimpsing Wakantanka, the Great Spirit.
I have long dreamed of walking free across the hills and valleys of iMfolozi , of sitting sentinel on a high cliff above the river, of wading barefoot through her waters.
On our 1st day, I sat upon the cliffs of my dreams, the breeze blowing cool on my skin as I looked down on the uMfolozi river glistening, twisting, gently winding her way across sandbanks, between reeds and cliffs and through deep pools. I wept – and I glimpsed Wakantanka.
On the 2nd day we walked beside the river, the late afternoon sun turning the trunks of Sycamore Fig trees golden, the great river peaceful as she flowed past Tambuti groves and Buffalo. I wept – and I glimpsed Wakantanka.
On the 3rd day we sat on the rivers edge, removed our boots and walked across her shallow sandbanks and through her clear waters. I wept – and I glimpsed Wakantanka.
On our return, I removed not only my boots, but also my clothes. I submerged my body in her cool waters. I became one with the river, I felt her soul, her joy, her gentleness; I sensed her latent power and fury. I became part of the wilderness.
I realized that for 45 years this river has been my beacon of hope, my talisman, my guide, my inspiration, my connection with Wakantanka.
And I wept.
uMfolozi – you are my Ganges.”
I end with three quotes from a splendid book about wilderness and hiking written by Kathy and Craig Copeland that I once came across: