Photo courtesy of Andrew King - D4 Productions

Friday, December 12, 2014

South Africa

I came to South Africa to use running as a vehicle for self-discovery, adventure, and to expose myself to vulnerability.  As I explore new cultures and environments, I learn that my normal isn’t necessarily normal.  Nice cars, name brand clothing, jewelry, and every electronic known to man surround my normal life; the more I have, the more I want.  A Hippocratic lifestyle, for sure, compared to the simplicity that running offers.  I know this is wrong deep in my heart but I don’t know how to change it.  This trip helped me take the first step.

I arrived in Cape Town after traveling half way around the world from Colorado, USA.  Tired and hollowed from jet lag I journeyed 5 hours inland with an agenda to share and seek knowledge from the people and learn about their culture along the way.  I stopped in Montagu, Calitzdorp, Oudshoorn (oats-win), and Prince Albert with the Swartberg Mountains as my final destination.  The Cape Nature Conservation is the agency that manages the natural heritage of the land that gave me a great an overview of the area.  While researching I also learned about people living in the area at the turn of the century, which intrigued me even more.  Who were these people and how did they survive in such a rugged and isolated environment?  More importantly, why not live closer to towns where the conveniences of life are much more plentiful?

The one –most striking- common thread was the optimism everyone displayed.  I felt a sense of genuine happiness.  People live deliberately with only the essentials of life in mind, whereas, I’ve been living unnecessarily by overindulgence.  One image I’ll never forget as I was leaving Calitzdorp, was a young boy –no more than 4 years old- walking down the road with two bottles of water, which he had just retrieved from the local river.  Very humbling.  I would imagine this was his daily chore, and to him, this was normal.

The first couple of nights I was hosted by Living Waters Farm (Erika and Johann) curators of the Donkey Trail. This farm, among many others, is situated in a small valley above Calitzdorp that’s brimming with life: vineyards, olive trees and expansive gardens, but no electricity. This is simple living at its finest.  Erika and Johann provided me an in-depth history of the Donkey Trail, which turned out to be used primarily as a trading route over the spine of the Swartberg Mountains to connect the Gamkaskloof valley on the other side.  Donkeys were used to carry heavy loads in trains and would sometimes traverse the 26km trail by themselves and arrive at the other end as expected.  Children from the Gamkaskloof also used the trail so they could regularly attend school in the opposite valley.  After my introduction to the area I went out on the trail and simply took my time to observe and explore. As the sun was setting I hiked to the highest point around and marveled at what I saw.  I envisioned the early settlers excitement as they crested the ridge to see the lush and expansive valley below.  This place was rugged and isolated but so beautiful at the same time.  I have never been so humbled thinking about what it took to survive here.

Sunset on the first day (All photos courtesy Andrew King D4 Productions)

On my second day of exploring I came across a couple of local guides who had donkeys in tow.  I joined them as they made their way to Elands pass.  Along the way they reiterated the history and further pointed out some shrubs and plants and the usefulness of each.  Short of the pass, I parted ways with the guides and my thoughts suddenly shifted to all the modern conveniences in my life that I consider necessary. Is there a way to curb my appetite for conveniences and overindulgence?  What I think of as burdens, such as walking to town over a few miles or getting water from the river, others think of as necessities for survival.  How do I get back to appreciate my primal instincts of survival and rid myself of the material things in which I think are necessary?  Experiences like this help to put things in perspective.  Over-privileged, under-privileged, whatever privileged, doesn't matter; I have found those with less to be more thankful, optimistic, and enthusiastic towards everyone.  The trail running community is very much like this, with a sense of mutual respect and a we’re all in this together mentality.  I wanted to feel vulnerability during my time in South Africa because I feel it’s a powerful way to grow exponentially and help change all aspects of my life.

Guides on The Donkey Trail

I consider myself an average family man with average running talent and a huge appetite for adventure.  I have a corporate job that provides for my family while trail running fuels my need for adventure. I started running trail races to redefine my limits and what I lacked in talent I made up with hard work.  This type of mentality has spilled over into every aspect of my life, approaching everything with possibility.  I continually ask myself “I wonder if..?”  I ran my first marathon at the age of 11 because I wondered if it was possible. I ran the 500-mile Colorado Trail –twice- because after the first time I wondered if  I could do it faster than anyone else.  With the right mindset combined with hard work, I believe anything is possible.

I reluctantly left Living Waters Farm and made my way to Oudtshoorn (oats-win), which is known as the Ostrich capital of the world. I had lunch in town, picked up supplies and checked in with Cape Nature, the environmental agency managing the Swartberg Nature Reserve. For the next 3 nights I rented a house near Swartberg Pass, which had been built for the crews during the construction of the road through the Swartberg range.  This road, built by Thomas Bain and crew, took 6 years to complete and officially opened in 1888.  The amount of rock placed to support flat stable portions of road on cliff edges is an amazing piece of engineering for all time.

Cape Nature provided me with maps showing a series of trails traversing the Swartberg Nature Reserve.  The Swartberg Mountains are part of the Cape Fold Belt, which is a fold and thrust belt formed over 250 million years ago. The fold creates amazing layers in the rocks looking much like ribbon candy, while the thrust creates huge slabs of rocks piled upon each other exposing rocky jagged edges. Now I was in my element with endless possibilities.  Each day I planned to explore a different trail, heading in different directions.

The first morning I ran up and down the main Swartberg pass road to get the legs talking to the lungs.  After a long journey in the car, the feeling of lactic acid building in my legs was enough to clear my mind.  Later that day I headed to Prince Albert to learn about the town and little more about the area.  Why had it been settled and why did people stay in this remote town?  Simply stated on a sign entering the town “If wide-open spaces and the deafening stillness inspire you then Prince Albert is your place”. It was founded over 250 years ago by Dutch Settlers and still - to this day - provides a source of vibrant culture and necessities of life, much as it did in the beginning.


In my element - Swartberg Mountains
I spent the day walking around town and talking with the locals.  I found a local blacksmith who was eager to talk and share his story.  This was the hardest working man I have ever seen, and yet, very giving with his time.  As he taught me how to hammer out a piece of glowing red-hot steel, it was clear he was very passionate about his craft.  Later I visited a local factory and watched workers play a game of dominos during their lunch.  They played with such enthusiasm as they called out their numbers and smacked down their dominos.  This was Prince Albert: hard working, passionate and enthusiastic people who enjoyed the simplicity of their community. A simple game of dominos and the working of a hot piece of steel, simple and deliberate and equally as happy.  People live here for the same reason I trail run; the simplicity and happiness it provides.

Now that I’ve gotten a feel of the land and culture I decided to head deeper into the range; to the Gamkaskloof, also known as Die Hel.  I left the comfort of the house and ran 30km in search of this secluded valley on a road that went as far as I could see, dipping behind several bends and ridges, each providing a new valley of exploration and further built the anticipation of the Gamkaskloof. Then, just as I had imagined, I came around a bend and there it was, the Gamkaskloof.  Several hundred meters below, a sliver of paradise 20-kilometers long, 300-meters wide and teaming with green vegetation from end to end.   I ran the winding road down to the valley with the same excitement as finishing a race, smiling from ear to ear with anticipation of what I would encounter.

I’ve been very fortunate to be able to run all over the world. Not because I’m the most talented runner but because I’ve been in the right place at the right time when opportunity knocks.  I run to live and do my best thinking on the run in the isolation and peacefulness of nature.  This is what centers me.  I feel I become a better father, husband, friend and colleague.  The remote nature of extreme environments makes me feel more alive, whereas living in a metropolitan area surrounded by material things only offers false pretenses of true happiness. 

The valley was thought to be discovered in the early 19th century and later grew to about 160 people living in complete isolation. Their only access routes –initially-  where through a steep river valley or over the top of the mountains via a couple of rough trails, one of which I had explored a few days previously, the Donkey Trail. As the community grew in the Gamkaskloof, they decided to build a school, which meant they would stay in the valley for nearly everything except for trading goods.  They farmed grain, vegetables, fruit, tobacco, beer made from wild honey, and even distilling something call Witblits (or white lightning) made from corn mash.

Once the road was built in 1962 people began to leave.  The children attended high schools in nearby villages and most of them did not return to the subsistence life in the valley.  The elderly returned to retirement villages outside the valley and overall the number of residents diminished.  The valley was declared a national monument in 1997 and was included into the Swartberg Nature Reserve.  Subsequently the cottages in the valley have been renovated and equipped with solar power and bathrooms.  Because of the improvements, the Gamkaskloof has become a tourist attraction as well as an adventurer paradise. 

Today, a few people still live in the valley and even operate a restaurant, which serves food from their subsistence farms.  The loaf of bread I ate for lunch was made in an outdoor oven by a woman who learned the craft of bread making passed down from many generations.  You don’t know what you don’t know so these people choose to stay secluded, and just like everyone else that I spoke to, there was a genuine happiness and enjoyment about their life.  They wanted to share their story as much as I wanted to learn.  Simple living is their normal.  It’s hard work to live a simple life but provides so much gratification and happiness.  If that’s the point in life then why know anything else. 

I started ultra running because of two passions of mine: backpacking and running.  As a boy scout I used to take long backpacking trips deep into remote areas with a heavy backpack loaded down with some of the conveniences of modern life.  As my sense of exploration expanded I wondered if I could lighten the load and go farther? Pretty soon I was leaving the house with just a fanny pack and a water bottle.  I was doing more with less.  Much like the people I encountered in and around the Swartberg Mountains; they travel long distances on foot for the essentials and through the process live deliberately and happy. If I can achieve happiness by simplifying my life then why not remove some of the modern conveniences that have become part of my normal life?  I honestly think I don’t want to expose myself to vulnerability because of my fear of failure. 

All of this made me realize how far away we’ve gotten from what normal should be for human beings. Adaptation is a strength that has allowed us to survive as a society and yet today we have gotten so far away from the primal essence of life.  I live with so many comforts in my life, thinking I’m thriving.  Yet these people live with so much less while leading a happy and successful life.   Modern conveniences have crossed the line into overindulgence and created a sense of entitlement.  I can –and should do- with far less.  As a father I should be teaching my kids about subsistence living, not providing all the latest modern conveniences.  I am not doing them any favors if the next generation is to be better than the last, but as a species, we must be better than the last in order to survive.  The image of the little boy walking down the road with two water bottles under his arms will forever be etched in mind.  He will someday teach his kids to the same.
Contemplating it all
I leave South Africa with everything I was looking for: self-discovery, adventure, and most importantly to expose myself to vulnerability.  I run in remote places to gain a sense of freedom and center myself, this makes me happy.  South Africa is an absolutely beautiful and diverse place filled with a rich and vibrant culture.  Whether in the city centers or in the remote bush, people I encountered are enthusiastic, deliberate, and happy. I recognize that I’ve been living with a mentality of once I’m successful I’ll be happy and need to change it around to Once I’m happy I’ll be successful.  Being aware of the difference will allow me to live simply and pass it on to the next generation. Now, I wonder if I’m strong enough to be the change I want to see in my family. Running has been at the center of my life for quite some time and I never really figured out why I did it because it’s such hard work.  But that’s the point; the result of hard work is more hard work and the gratification of progress.  Well, simple living is hard work but yet so gratifying.  So running is very much like life should be: simple, deliberate and provide genuine happiness along the way.  Running is -and always has been- my gateway to living a simple, happy life.
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