By Ammie Pringle
Before a journey of a thousand miles can kick off with the first step, there needs to be someone with the crazy idea to tackle this in the first place.
On an excruciatingly hot day in December of 2016, my husband Scott announced to us that, as a family, we were going to walk from the top of the Winterberg in the Eastern Cape to the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town. A journey of just short of 1000 kilometres – if you stay on the main roads.
Scott had just returned from an epic motor bike trip to Namibia and was obviously hungry for more adventure. I was going to laugh and dismiss this preposterous idea, but knowing my husband all too well, I knew there was no getting out of it.
We agreed that we would continue our journey when we could, even if it took a few years. With our children, Isabella and Bennett (then 11 and 10) starting boarding school the next year, we realised that we were at the mercy of school holidays and long weekends.
The Rules of the Walk
There were rules too! We had to walk – no bicycling or motor biking and wherever a leg of the journey stopped, we had to start in the exact same spot the next time we continued (markers over the years included prominent trees, farm gates and odd-looking rock formations). Scott also insisted that we use only back roads and farm tracks.
Ever the organiser and cautious one, I added a few of my own rules. We had to have a back-up vehicle to ferry cool boxes and get to a hospital in case of emergency and I wasn’t up for camping in the winter.
And so it was, that on the 29th of April 2017 we packed a cool box and warm jackets for unpredictable weather in the mountains, drove to the foot of the Winterberg and started what was to become one of the most wonderful things we have done as a family.
The first few legs were easy enough as we knew the area well and many of the farmers, who allowed us to cross over their veld, were our long-time friends. The Winterberg (the 2nd highest peak in the Old Cape Province) lies in the Bedford/Adelaide and Tarkastad area and boasts some of the most spectacular scenery in the Eastern Cape.
Depending on the terrain, we managed about 20km per day and stuck to one day trips at first – some of which were spaced months apart. Scott always walked, with one or both children keeping him company, while I followed behind or ahead with our bakkie which often had to be changed into 4 x 4 mode. A relatively good gravel road could turn into a nightmare within minutes as dongas and deep culverts from recent rains washed away the topsoil. This was of course no problem for the walkers.
Overnight in an Oxwagon
As we crossed into the Cradock district and towards Pearston and beyond, sleeping over along the road became a necessity. We phoned friends or distant relatives to book an empty farmhouse or affordable lodge and every time our expectations were exceeded. Witmos Oxwagon Camp (www.oxwagoncamp.co.za), owned and ran by Anton and Katrina Nel, was an unexpected treat. Experience an authentic oxwagon laager in a remote valley, but with all the luxuries of a top-notch lodge.
Cloud Cottage (www.cloudcottage.co.za)near Uniondale was also a family favourite.
It’s completely off-grid, so we simply cozied up to plenty of lanterns, warm fires and piping hot water from a donkey (old-fashioned geyser).
In March 2020 the whole country went into lockdown, but this only meant more time for walking and making up for lost time. We were now well and truly out of our district and comfort zone and could literally feel the escarpment falling away under our dusty takkies as we made it into the Karoo. The roads became flatter and less twisty and the children, who were a few years older by now, took turns to drive the bakkie behind us – thus getting some experience as confident, future users of the road. Whole days would pass without so much as a person or vehicle passing us…
And all the while we talked. We solved farming problems, brain-stormed new ideas and most importantly, we negotiated the tricky terrain that is a teenager’s life. As there was very little or no cell phone reception on most of the roads, this necessary evil was used to play music or take photos only.
The Walking Scribe
Isabella became the designated keeper and scribe of our diary in which she meticulously penned down the day’s events and kilometres walked. We all had to give our input and it was interesting to see how every member of the family remembered something different after a day of adventure.
When we could, one of our trusty dogs would accompany us. Over the years, the faces have changed as dogs tragically died or grew too old and tired. Family members and friends of our children have also joined for certain legs of the journey which added to the congeniality and companionship.
Interesting characters frequently crossed our path and without fail they each had a story to tell. It forced us, and especially our children, to stop and listen, clap or sympathise, question and in turn, to answer in full sentences.
The last time we walked was in July 2021 when we spent 3 unforgettable days near Uniondale in the Baviaanskloof and surrounds. An extract from our diary describing the Baviaanskloof on the 16th of July 2021 reads as follow: Unbelievable kranse and so diverse: noorse, cabbage trees, succulents, olive trees and pelargoniums all grow together in the same space. Too beautiful to describe properly…
Our farming operation has expanded – not least because of all the plans concocted around a fire on our walks – and our children have also become increasingly busier. And so what if Scott and I and Isabella and Bennett (and maybe spouses and grandchildren by then) take our time? This has most definitely become more of a journey and less of a destination.
I shall be telling this with a sigh,
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
(Extract from Poem: The road not taken by Robert Frost)