Mountains do good things to me. My first few days in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg in KwaZulu Natal have helped me, I am sure of it. Sometimes when I struggle to make sense of my place in the world, or when my depression does its best to drag me down, I just know that it’s time to climb a mountain.
So I put on my boots, with my camera bag on my back, and I look skywards. I choose a route, and I start at the beginning. I put one foot in front of the other, and I make slow progress. At first, thoughts race through my head. Why, how, what, where? Questions without answers bombard my brain. My cold body, still chilled from the night, adapts slowly to the gradient. My legs ache and my heart beats rapidly.
Then my eyes and ears and nose take over. Butterflies swoosh alongside me. The sun bounces off dew on tall grass. Emerald green forests in the kloof open their mysteries to me, an unconditional embrace. Wild flowers wink and flirt, each one whispering “kiss me”. I can’t resist. I stop often and photograph as many as I can, losing myself in their white, blue, pink, red, purple, doing my best to capture a little bit of their magic.Then I notice a tiny spider, or glittering beetle, imperceptible to the naked eye, but large and in focus on my macro lens. How did you get so beautiful, I ask.
I keep going, drawn onwards and upwards. I know the place I am going to, even though I’ve never been there before. I will find what I’m looking for. I know that the view will swallow me whole. I know that I will feel at home, that even though I am all alone, I am in the company of a billion stars, each one a kindred spirit, made of the same elements as me. At the top, I can’t stop staring at the mountains around me. Then I realize: my thoughts have slowed, the questions are still there, but I’m not searching for answers. My body pulses with oxygen, my heart rules, and my brain is finally a servant of my soul.
Tonight I sleep on a mountain, overlooking the Amphitheatre in the Drakensberg. The source of the Tukhela River, whose first waterfall plunges more than 500 metres down, as if to say: “I am a great river, from the start to the end.”
I lay down my sleeping bag on bare rock, knowing that I’ll dream wild dreams, dreams deeper than any night spent on a bed in a city. I head to the edge of the cliff, and set up my camera. The sun is going down, and gold sprinkles itself across the face of basalt ridges 3 000 metres high.
Now I surrender, I let go, and my place in the world is made abundantly clear. Finally, I am saved from myself. Now I can remember my part, like a beetle or flower or tree or star, valuable and brilliant, a marvel of creation, but just a tiny piece of the whole.
As our earth’s star sets, a trillion more takes its place. Despite the beauty and the wonder, I am still a bit scared. I am a diurnal animal after all, and night time heralds a primeval wariness. But baboons bark on the cliffs, comforting me. “We see you” they say. “We will watch over you tonight.”
I take a few photos, trying my best to do justice to the scene. God must wonder what I am doing, squeezing billions of years of exquisite four dimensional evolution onto a 3,5 centimetre two-dimensional man-made camera sensor. But I try nevertheless, because it’s the only way I know how. The only way I know how to pay my respects to something that cannot be described or captured.
The chill on the wind sends me into my sleeping bag, and I float away. I’ve missed this feeling.
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