A land of beautiful contrasts
By Lisa Marshall | Director
Africa. The home of my birth. The magical continent that so many people have on their bucket list. Where the Big Five roam. The contrast of poverty and wealth always seemingly thrown together side by side causing your conscience to simultaneously marvel at its beauty yet falter at its inequality. I left South Africa at the age of 21, just graduated from University, and have only returned a couple of times since. Last month, I returned to climb Mt Kenya and then trek across the mountains in Cape Town with a team of Wild Women on Top and it was magnificent.
From the very beginning, we were thrust into the chaos of Nairobi as our very talented driver navigated the crazy roads, fumes and bumper to bumper traffic. Then we arrived at the beautiful oasis of Fairview Hotel. A heavenly hotel sitting behind high walls and guards with guns. The hotel team working were wonderful, their national pride emanated from their eyes as they heard we were to climb Mt Kenya. It was a little piece of luxury before we were to throw ourselves into tents on the mountainside.
Our adventure had truly begun as we endured another white-knuckled ride to Chogoria Village where we would begin our ascent of Mt Kenya. But not in a hurry. Two out of three ancient jeeps that were due to drive us 22kms to the Gate of the National Park broke down about 5kms in! After an hour of swapping parts and flooding engines, they accepted defeat and agreed to “shuttle” us up the road in the only remaining jeep. After inhaling a truckload full of fumes as the vehicle stalled and choked its way up the dirt road, we breathed a sigh of relief as we felt our two feet touch down safely at the starting point.
Mt Kenya is truly beautiful. I had heard this before, but words truly cannot encapsulate the magic and wonder of this mountain and the national park surrounding it. I felt like I had stepped back in time to a landscape full of prehistoric flora. Seemingly untouched by human intervention and development, the lush, green slopes painted in every colour and decorated by emerald mountain streams. A sight that made every day a pleasure. As the 4985m ascent reached its end, the team remained strong and free from any signs of altitude sickness – for that I give thanks to our wonderful Guide, Eddie who kept a steady, slow pace all the way up the mountain, allowing us to acclimatise really well for the summit.
At 6.10am we summited. Dawn broke and the icy rocked gleamed pink in sunlight. For 45 minutes we sat above the clouds wondering at the almost lunar landscape that surrounded us in every direction.
Rugged and rocky, our descent sent us rock scrambling on all four limbs. The usual slippery surface on the rock and sandy, shale-strewn path, took a lot of concentration. After 7-8 hours of downhill walking on all sorts of terrain, including boggy marsh and trails that seemed more like running streams we had achieved our goal! Water filled lobelia, bright sunbirds and peaceful lakes welcomed us on the way to our final camp, exhausted yet so satisfied. Typical of a summit day, it was long and challenging, but I was so proud of our team, all of whom made it to the top and then back down to our final night’s camp, still with smiles, as we ate up dinner and crashed onto our sleeping mats for our final night in the tents on Mt Kenya.
A decadent celebration dinner for the team, a swim in the pool and much-needed shower after 5 days of no washing, was enjoyed by all of us back at the gorgeous Fairview Hotel in Nairobi. No rest for the wicked as we set off the following day, very early to start the next stage of our African Adventure, the Hoerikwaggo Trail in Cape Town, South Africa.
This little-known trail is a challenging 80km multi-day trek starting from the top of beautiful Table Mountain and finishing at Cape Point. Along the route, SANP (South African National Parks) have built the most amazing permanent tented camps for trekkers to stay in on the route. Made from eco materials, we were spoilt with hot water, a kitchen and outdoor braai area and incredible views. Our guides Binny and John, both locals in Cape Town, were world class guides whose humour caused much laughter both on the trail and around the campfire at night as they prepared delicious meals for us. Treating us to local foods and their knowledge of the flora and fauna – we were lucky to get a taste of the real South Africa. The trail recently suffered a wildfire which took out one whole section and one of the camps, but as we followed the path, beauty had blossomed from devastation and a stunning show of wild flowers and fynbos met us amongst bright green shoots.
The first day’s highlight was climbing Table Mountain, being enveloped in the famous “table cloth of fog” then presented with the most stunning views of the city bowl below. The weather is known to be temperamental on the mountain top – sudden drops in temperature causing us to go from sweat to shivers. Having been acclimatized to altitude, the climb felt easy for us. The girls laughed at the steep accent and smiled at how pleasantly the trek was achieved.
The beaches, city and mountain ranges danced below. The top of the mountain was complete with water reservoirs and even a “beach” of white sand which had been broken down from the sandstone rocks. Networks of trails decorate the mountain floor telling stories of likeminded trekkers who had found their way to such an incredible place. Across the 5 days we spent adventuring the mountains, we crossed past with only a few… the trail instead absorbing us into a magical world of quiet and serenity.
Each day began with a climb up the mountainside and concluded with a steep descent to the next camp. The ranges taking us high into the sky then dropping us to the ocean on the other side. An icy dip in Camps bay was enjoyed after a particularly HOT trek along the 12 Apostles and the Pipeline Track. The trail twirled and wrapped its way into Kalk bay – where ice coffees were shared at the famous Olympia Café. Skeleton Gorge sent us climbing up a challenging set of wooden ladders and rocks. At night, we stretched outside whilst our guides prepared dinner and talked about the day gone by and what lay ahead on the itinerary. We laughed at slide shows of all our photos, which captured the variety, the contrast and the magic moments with the people on our journey.
Our final day was an 18km trek to Cape Point. Bombarded by waves of tourists, it felt so strange to emerge from the quietness of the wilderness to sudden chaos, where viewpoints were shared by thousands. People asked where we had come from and were astounded to hear of our trekking adventure. The trip was over too soon – words inadequate to describe the feeling of it all drawing to an end and having to say goodbye to our guides, Binny and John who had become a part of the Wild Women family. After so many months of training together and preparing for this double challenge, we truly had our “walking” legs on and we didn’t want to stop!
Back in the bustling city of Cape Town, we sang Christmas carols as we drove down the main street adorned with Christmas Lights. Another day of contrasts awaited as our local guide Crusty, showed us the historical sites in the city, then walked through a jam-packed Township, filled with people from all over Africa, many refugees, living in shanty huts built from scrap metal. The poverty was astounding and the local who guided us around the township tried hard but failed to hide his despair at the state of affairs in South Africa. Sanitation and water here, a necessity to survive yet a battle to secure.
I felt torn between feelings of desperation for these people and guilt for the life we are all so fortunate to lead. Here, I felt a serious battle going on in my conscience, and I am still trying to make sense of the huge difference in standard of living for those just managing to survive, and those prospering and living in luxury just a few roads away.
It was a harsh reminder to me of the reality of life for many in South Africa.
Africa: a land of stark contrasts. Unbelievable beauty seated next to saddening desperation but coupled with a strength and passion and culture that we were so privileged to get but a glimpse of.