I am not the same after completing the #9PeaksChallenge.
I sat with my thoughts for quite some time and realised how completely overwhelmed I was! Then I sat again and realised I was still the same overwhelmed human… with a serious case of adventure blues. I had come to terms that the adventure blues had hit me, harder than ever, and that was ok. So here is my thirty-third attempt to describe just why I am not the same person as I was when I started the 9 Peaks Challenge. Travelling can first make you speechless and then it turns you into a storyteller.
There were 6 of us, Jack Attack, Mother Mary, Noddy, (Fearless) Sandra, Gorgeous and myself, Erik, at least that’s what I called everyone. I excitedly began living a mindful life from the convenience of our hired Camper Van, “Aloha”. She was a van with a plan, ready to drive us to the highest peak in each province of South Africa. This journey would include 150km of trekking and 8003m of climbing. Covid-19 curfews were a reality and set our travelling “dead zone” from 12 am to 4 am, so we decided to take on the non-stop adventure approach - climbing, summiting, descending and driving as and when we could.
Each destination was never about a new location but rather about a new way of seeing South Africa. In my opinion, checking off travel locations means nothing if you don’t allow each new location to change you in some way or another. That is exactly what the 9 Peaks Challenge did to me.
Day 1, began in the Western Cape on Seweweeksport. This was my toughest peak by far, both mentally and physically. As we began to climb in the wind our team was finding a rhythm, each of us going to our pace. I, however, was trying to keep up, sweating myself silly. My base layer and t-shirt were wet within the first hour of climbing. I was wearing one too many layers. This usually wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but we hit the ice, which turned into snow, which turned into a snow blizzard. Before I knew it I was adding a rain jacket to keep me “dry” only to find myself with a case of mild hypothermia. Noddy thinks he merely distracted me with brandy, but I can vouch that he saved my life. As I gulped brandy down my throat I felt my insides warm-up, and my personality comes back to life. This allowed me to move faster and warm my core temperature. I took off my layers under my rain jacket and continued to be navigated up, around, down and back up to the peak of the mountain. We were living life by a compass and not just the clock. I can certainly say that I was most relieved seeing our summit point, but nervous going down in the unstable, ice and freezing snow. My feet were unstable in wet and cold socks, and I felt like I was falling all over the place. I had one rather bad fall when hopping from one large rock to the next, the snow was deceiving and a leg went straight done and then so did my body. I lay there convinced that if I owned a pair of fake poops they would have exploded in my face. When we got to the bottom Jack Attack and Mother Mary had prepared hot chocolate. I told them I only drink about 3 cups a year - I can tell you that I used 2/3 cups that day!
Murch Point was day two’s peak. A beautiful drive to the Northern Cape that Jack Attack recalls as a highlight. The vast land, rolling hills and space is like nowhere else in the world. It was a chilled run in, up and back out. I had the route set on my watch and made a point to learn some navigation skills after yesterday’s gruelling route. I had quickly come to terms with the fact that these mountains were to be taken seriously, like life, you just never know what is around the next corner. On the way out we spotted some tortoises while enjoying Sandra’s amazing amazing amazing baked goods. Us ladies were all in our complete element - we chatted away over cookies and coffee!
We drove to the Eastern Cape, parked at the local police station, got a couple of hours of shut-eye and began Kwaduma before first light. We climbed through the clouds so we couldn’t see where we were going, and as we got higher the clouds were flirting with the mountain tops as the snow peered through. The clouds shifted letting us get a glimpse of the snow we were about to walk through. Snow above and crystal rocks below us. I felt like a Winter Wonder Woman in this mystical mountain, with rocks shining, clouds moving and snow surrounding. We summited and began our walk home. Unfortunately, when we got to the bottom our lift was no longer available to collect us so we continued to trek an extra-long 4km. Noddy did not appreciate this walk back home… it was now boiling, and we had been on our feet for 10 hours. The next long drive brought us to Mafadi.
“Day 4, peak 4, Mafadi! Madadi! Mafadi,” I said with a snicker in my voice and paused for a moment. What a memorable 18 hours of trekking. A peak that stands out like no other (no pun intended). This exquisite peak was a 2600m climb with endless mountains that just went up, up and around. I felt as if I was on another planet with life surrounding and humbling the very little human that I am. One of my favourite sections of this journey was going up Corner Pass which meant hands and knees scrambling. An incredible challenge for Sandra who feared heights. We did laugh at her going one step behind Jack Attack’s “pop-hole” and saying “nose connection lost”. These moments took the edge off (see what I did there?). By this point, Mafadi was the longest time I had ever spent on my legs moving. The consecutive days leading up to this point also added to the most consecutive time, distance and elevation I had ever trekked. I was tired but somehow, wherever you go it becomes a part of you, and that makes all the difference.
We slept in the next morning until about 5:30/6 am, had our first showers at the campsite and started the drive to the Free State to reach Namahadi. By now we were mostly on autopilot, moving at our pace (oddly still as a group), and as quickly as our bodies could move. We started our climb, knowing we would be home around midnight. Walking in the dark, learning to navigate with headlights and getting advice from Mother Mary carried me a couple of kilometres, while Noddy spoke “rubbish” to me for another couple, and Sandra’s will to climb up and down the chain ladders gave me strength that even in my darkest moments we always have more to give. As we reached our halfway mark we peered through the cracks of the mountains and could see (almost) where we were heading. Jack Attack came alive in the night, leading from the front, and with extra energy he takes us on “game walks”, spotting all that surrounds us. The group mentally carried me back to “Aloha”.
Day 5, included 4 peaks: Toringkop (Gauteng), Nooitgedacht-West (North West), De Berg (Mpumalanga), and Iron Crown (Limpopo). This meant a lot of driving and less climbing with more running. Gorgeous sums up these peaks by saying it was “a wave of speed and emotion”. By this point, my heels were sore and tired and the feeling of reaching the end was felt by the group. This came with a sense of achievement and a relaxed and enjoyable last peak at midnight at Iron Crown. Noddy had (obviously) trekked champagne up for us to “hydrate” on. When we arrived back at the camper van a sense of simplicity of life hit me. We sat awake under the stars until almost 3 am. Our body clocks were off, our adrenaline was pumping and lots of laughter could be heard. Gorgeous sat patiently in his element capturing perfect night camping moments. We finished all 9 Peaks in 5 days, 13 hours and 32min.
Travelling has reminded me of the gift of time. There is no perfect time but the present. These are the moments I live for.
An adventure like 9 Peaks Challenge, makes you modest. It makes you realise just how little space we occupy in this world. It was certainly not all pretty, clean or comfortable. Sometimes it hurts! The journey changed each of us, and so something like this should. It leaves marks on our memory, on our conscience, our heart and even our bodies. We have each taken something with us, and hopefully, we left something good behind too. As I continue to sit and type, I know all too well that I will continue to fill my life with stories to tell.