I sit with my back against a rock, rounded by the actions wind and rain over centuries it fits my back almost perfectly and the heat of the day seems to ooze out of the rock and into my body, warming my shirt and then my back. My sweat stained hat is pulled low over my eyes to keep the rising sun out of my eyes but still allowing me to see the path that leads downward to the cave 100 metres below where we slept last night. I am the marker for a fairly obscure turn and need only nod gently to the oncoming groups as they head up the slope to me, pointing them in the right direction. I need do nothing else. My body, my mind and my soul are at peace. Somehow it is a comforting and accepting place. I am 17 and not thinking about death, but if I were asked, I would probably say this is where my soul would rest in peace for eternity. A gentle breeze catches at my shirt, snuffles up the sleeve and then ambles on, leaving me alone to my solitude.
It comes as a complete surprise when Ken the leader of the entire party shakes my shoulder, "Ok, lets get going, the first parties will be reaching the Dell fairly soon and I want to be there to see that all is well."
"They have gone? All of the groups? So quickly?"
Ken smiles, "You didn't notice? You saw me come up and greeted me so you were not asleep. Where were you?"
I shake my head. "Dunno, a whole 90 minutes has gone and it feels as if it was only 5 minutes. Spooky."
Ken chuckles, "Come on, get up and stop this mystic stuff, we have 60 people ahead of us just waiting for a chance to go wandering off in the opposite direction."
I rise and we head off in amicable silence with Ken taking the lead and setting the pace. I am quite happy to amble along at his gentle pace which despite its gentleness seems to gobble up the kilometres. Ken spent 15 years with the British Paratroops and that makes you different and I am in awe of the man.
Five kilometres later we have caught up with the hiking party. All of them, milling around, looking lost, looking disorientated. The guys who were supposed to have led us through the Dell are lost. They have come out "at the wrong place" despite assuring everyone in sight not two weeks previously that they had scouted the whole trip and knew it backwards. This is a major setback. If we cannot make it throug the Dell the hike is going nowhere. Nowadays it is easy, you haul out the cell phone and make arrangements to be picked up someplace else, this is in the late sixties, there are no cell phones and we must make it through the Dell and get to the planned campsite. There is no water between us and that campsite, and no turning back. Ken breaks the knot of panicking guides into pairs and sends them at random places into the Dell which does not please them at all. Why? Ok a short description of the Dell. The Dell is about 20 km outside Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape and the local biome is called Thicket by botanists. Thicket is just what is sounds like, tangled vegetation on steroids with the added attraction of thorns on steroids. It is almost impenertrable except for trails that the wild life and cattle use to move around.
Each pair is sent down a buck trail and reports every 5 metres, or as happens with most, when they come to an impassable barrier. They are summoned back and are sent off again. This goes on for at least an hour, till someone in desparation forces through a barrier and finds another trail, then another and soon the Dell is thinning and we are through.
It takes time to move 60 people through the tiny passage way. Kit bags get stuck, branches slap young women in the face, roots trip up the unwary. It is a very tired and grumpy group who assemble on the other side of the Dell. We patch up the worst scratches, extract thorns, soothe battered egos and then the company starts out.
We know now that we are not going to make the planned camp with access to water. We warn everyone to go sparingly on the water. Few people listen, fewer understand.
It is going to be a long dry hike.
As agreed, the front party stops at 6 in the evening, the water point is at least another couple of hours walk away for the fit, for the vast majority of hikers it is completely unreachable in the failing light. We camp in a hikers nightmare. It is dry camp, sand under foot, dust rising up and drying out noses, mouths, skin. Food is eaten more for the liquid content than for the nutrient content. I have water and I guard my water bottle carefully. It is a glum and sorry bunch of people who go to sleep that night.
I awake at 4:30, mouth dry, eyes gritty and I look back across the Dell towards the Strydomsberg and then stare at the eastern horizon for a good ten minutes before deciding I am not actually hallucinating. What I see is a smear of white stretching 20 degrees across the eastern horizon with a brighter round head. Slowly the truth starts to grow on me. Bennets comet, the most spectacular astronomical sight I have ever seen. I scramble out of bed, wake my friends to show them. They very patiently tell me to go away and let them sleep, so I sit and watch the comet do nothing except disappear as the sun rises. The dry camp issue is forgotten, I am overwhelmed by the beauty of the comet.
We rouse the hiking party and Ken sends me ahead to find water or any discription. I set out following the trail that is easily discerned along the ridge above the valley. After a kilometer, I find a windmill just to the right of the path which has a concrete dam next to it. If you have travelled the dry areas of the country you will have seen them next to windmills. They are quite often damaged, often cracked and seldom having water that is fit for human consumption, but I know the desperation behind me so I head that way. The good news is that it is leaking from high up on the dam, so there is water in it. As I get closer I see steps on the side, even better. Access is always a problem with such dams. I peer in over the side of the dam, the water is a pale green colour and has funny green objects, much like sherry yeasts floating on its surface. I scoop up some of the water in my hat, sniff it, take a mouthfull. It is fairly chemical in flavour, but probably drinkable. I drink a bit more, refill my water bottle and then walk back to Ken. I tell him the story and he does the same as me, sniffs the stuff, takes a judicious sip and then looks at me. "You feeling ok?"
"Yes, but then I have a stomach like a cast iron bucket and the constitution of an ox."
"Ok, I think we have to take a chance on it."
"The women wont drink the stuff." I warn.
Ken just smiles.
We guide the straggling group over to the dam show them the water and say there are no guarantees. The group look at the water in horror, then a tiny woman with long honey blonde hair whips out a cup, scoops up a good dollop of water and swallows it in one go.
"Eeughhh. How can you drink that stuff?" is the almost universal reaction of the women in the group.
"Cos I am f*cking thirsty." she responds, and takes another cupful and drinks, albeit more slowly this time.
The group hovers, the women uncertain, waiting for the blonde to die, throw up or somehow disintegrate. The guys all stand back, waiting, being gentlemen. It is when the blonde drains her second cup that the hesitation ends, the women charge the dam, and drink. Then the guys get to drink and we all sit in the shadow of the dam and wait for someone on to show signs of poisoning. No one does. Slowly water bottles are filled and the hike resumes.
"Amazing what thirst can do." is all that Ken says as we set out. (Ed: I have,or had a picture of the water in that dam somewhere.I must see if I can find it.)Back to Stories