Friends on the Mountain

by Marie Dahl (June 2014)

It was a beautiful Wednesday afternoon. I had decided to finish work early to go sort out some GPS coordinates for a hike I wanted to add to Dust and Boots’ repertoire. As I signed into the logbook at the starting point, I noticed that no one had been up on the trail for days. This suited me well, as I wanted some time away from civilization. I had plenty of water and a few snacks in my backpack and was prepared to be away for a quite a few hours. I wasn’t all alone, as two little Jack Russels followed me up the mountain. They ran off into the bushes only to erupt further up running down to check on me and the off they went again. I loved the company and I loved their energy. But my own energy levels were low and I struggled hauling myself up the steep slopes of the mountain. I had been sick with a stomach bug for a while, and I guess my energy levels weren’t quite as they used to be. I climbed up little steep dirt tracks, over logs that formed bridges over the spring I knew I had to cross several times before the summit. I passed the massive boulders that seemed to be standing at an impossible angle on the slope. Toying with the idea of trying to push them to watch them roll down the hill… This was of course ridiculous, as the boulders had been standing there in the exact same spot for thousands of years – no little female pushing them would make them roll. In the undergrowth of the forest I was walking amongst enormous roots being careful not to touch the lianas with 5 cm thorns ready to pierce my hands, if I grabbed the wrong one. I could easily pretend I was on a trek back in the day, as there was no evidence of modern man here. I could pretend to be one of the early explorers conquering new land – having to reach the summit before everyone else.

I stopped to drink often – mostly to allow myself to catch my breath. I had been pushing it too hard. Walked too fast. Perhaps my imagination had carried away with me and I thought I had to beat the two little dogs to the top to conquer it – an absolutely impossible task, as they were constantly running ahead of me. About half way up the mountain I sat down for the first time, thinking that a break was what I needed. I sat there for more than an hour – enjoying the views, letting the light breeze cleanse my mind. I sat there wishing I had brought a notebook, definitely something to remember for next time, I thought. The two Jack Russels were lying by my side – I imagined they looked a little puzzled, as if wondering why on Earth we were not hastily on the way to the top. I noticed the wind playing in the grass; every straw reacted differently according to height and length. There were bugs in all shapes and sizes, flies and ants all around me – presumably going on with their usual business. As I sat there I felt a part of it all. A part of nature.

I had tried to sit in the shadow of one of the few trees along the way to the top, but as the Earth turned the shadow soon left me, and the sun warmed my skin in the cool breeze. I was no longer struggling from the effort of walking up the hill, and I contemplated continuing and reaching the top before dark. But part of me felt rooted to the spot where I had sat down to rest. Everything was so peaceful here, so serene, so magical. I decided to stay a little longer.

First one dog reacted, then shortly after the other. Both of them now intensely alert, I realized that I was no longer alone on the mountain. At first I was a little annoyed thinking that I had to share my special moment with other people. Afterwards, I felt a touch of shame that I hadn’t gone any further than I had – I had given up half way. But that was before I heard the laughter and the encouragements. The dogs ran off to investigate who was intruding on our peace – or perhaps to look for new and more active company that they could follow up the mountain. I on the other hand remained seated and just waited to see who could possibly have the same silly idea as me; climbing a mountain on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.

I expected perhaps a few German backpackers, or the odd cow herder and his friends, or even some rangers on patrol, but nothing could have prepared me for the three women who appeared laughing and talking non-stop down below me. I think they might have been as surprised to see me there, as I was to see them. They certainly looked at me curiously and wanted to know what on Earth I was doing there. Sitting in the middle of nowhere – just sitting.

They encouraged me to join them, because they were going to the top, no doubt about that, they said. I must have looked a bit astounded, and I think they could see the surprised look in my eyes, because they quickly explained that they do this hike all the time. I laughed and thought the idea of three Swazi women hiking up a mountain in the middle of the week, all by them selves slightly incredulous… It was certainly nothing I had ever heard of before; so highly intrigued I agreed to join them next time. Great, they said, we walk again on Friday 2 o’clock!

The women kept walking towards the summit, and much as I suspected the two Jack Russels abandoned me and went with them. There I sat on my little spot on the mountain and thought – What on Earth just happened?! I have lived in many different cultures all over the world, and I have been surprised many times as to how people don’t seem to fit into the boxes you occasionally put them in. This was definitely one of those surprising times. I have lived in Swaziland for almost four years now, and my perception of Swazi women is not one of hiking enthusiasts and nature lovers – In fact quite the opposite.

So Friday 2 o’clock I was back. One of the women from Wednesday was already there waiting and she greeted me as an old friend with a big warm hug. We are just waiting for the others, she told me. I saw two other women arrive, and assumed they were the same ones as the ones I met on Wednesday. It was hard to tell, because these two women were dressed in high heels and beautiful dresses. I hoped they had a change of clothes with them… More people showed up, and I asked my new friend, if there were more people coming. She quickly listed a whole lot of names that I didn’t catch a single one of. More well dressed women and one lone man showed up. Everyone was laughing and teasing each other like old friends – I was the only odd one out. I introduced myself and learned that they were a group of local high school teachers that had decided to enjoy nature around them, and as an added bonus get fit.

After a bit of waiting for everyone to exchange the stilettos for hiking shoes – or in most cases high fashion Converse shoes in all the right colors, we set off on the trail. I was up front with my friend from Wednesday, but a very smart looking lady in red quickly passed us. My friend told me that they all walked at different paces, but that we would all meet at the top.

There was cheering, lots and lots of laugher and teasing. Most of the chatting was in SiSwati, which I don’t really understand much of, but I got the general gist – these were good friends and coworkers urging each other to have fun and enjoy the trail. Three of the women had never done it before, and when we reached the first clearing and could see the summit high above us, one broke out laughing and crying saying that there was no way she was going up there, another did some head shaking and lip smacking that clearly meant that we must all be stupid if we thought she was going up there. We all laughed and the encouragements became stronger than ever.

As we moved on – at a very reasonable pace, I must add – a man suddenly ran past us. He was jogging up the mountain. Oh, that’s just Toots, they said – he does that. He wants to be the first one up, and then he will come back down and collect the rest of us. Mystified I continued up the hill. My energy levels were much better this Friday compared to the Wednesday before – I had a definite feeling that I would reach the top. Maybe it was all the laughter and all the constant encouragements from the teachers around me?

As we got closer to the top, it became clear that the group had divided into several fractions; those who has already made it to the top, my little group consisting of four women and the rest behind us, who the others now started worrying about. Toots had made it to the top as the first one and he now came back down and passed us. My friend told him that some of the women had fallen behind and she was worried they might be lost. Quick as mountain goat he ran down the hill to look for them. Phones were ringing and people were shouting to find each other. We kept walking up.

Reaching the top with all these laughing people was truly amazing. Such joy and such feel of accomplishment as a group. We took group pictures as trophies and congratulated each other on the effort. We didn’t spend much time at the top, as the sun was setting and we would have to make it down again before nightfall, so after a short rest we set off again – this time down the mountain.

As we walked towards the saddle that would take us directly down the mountain, we were stopped by Toots – the man sent out to find the women falling behind. He had found them and they had made it after all – with the help and encouragement of their colleagues. We all turned around and went back up the mountain to help them to the summit. We took more trophy pictures – this time of the entire group of 11 people, who had all made it to one of the iconic peaks of Swaziland. The situation reminded me of an African proverb; “If you want to go fast, go alone – if you want to go far, go together.” These incredible high school teachers did indeed go far together!