Long time ago I did this hike. It was a strange experience, because I ran out of energy. I was not tired. The energy was lacking. It was a “stop-go” hike. Then, to prove to myself that I am ready to hike with the club again, I decided to do it again on 27 Feb 2021. The final test for my knee replacement on 11 Feb 2020.
The planned route was Rycroft Gate (Kirstenbosch), Skeleton Gorge, Maclear’s Beacon (Smuts Track), a CBC Lager at the Restaurant and then down to Echo Valley, Valley of the Red Gods, Waterworks Museum, explore the new trail I saw 3 weeks ago to top of Skeleton Gorge and then down to Rycroft Gate. The last time about 20km hike.
Lesson 1: Be Prepared
Somebody told me Kirstenbosch opens at 09h00. I phoned and was told it is 08h00. Still too late. Then I got reliable information that Kirstenbosch opens at 06h00. That means I can start at 07h00, as planned.
My alternative starting points are Cecilia’s Forest – not viable as it makes the trail too long – and even if we come down the Jeep Track, that last downhill stretch is too much after such a long trek.
Other alternative is Newlands Forest, which will add 6 km’s to the distance. I thought I can do it (now I know I could). So this becomes Plan B.
If we need an escape: If I get to the CBC Lager, in other words at the cable car, and I feel I cannot complete the route, I will go down with the cable car and Uber to the Hilux. Quite affordable – I checked that.
I was prepared to the point where I could sleep on the mountain, if I had to. But that is always the case.
Lesson 2: Luck plays a role.
The first lucky break is that I started wondering about heights in the mountain. Accurate Altimeter is on my phone, but I never used it. Today was the day. We started at 83m on the M3. At the highest point on the Contour Path we were at about 500m. At the start of Skeleton we were at 330m. Time to here was spot on 1.5 hours and 5.5km’s. Important info, as you will see later.
The second lucky break is that Carl brought his son with. He is a very keen hiker and very fit. That is added insurance. If the worst comes to the worst, we can end at Kirstenbosch main gate and the youngster can bring the Hilux to us – save us 3km’s.
The last lucky break was that two more youngsters joined us at the restaurant. The group grew to 5, instead of the initial 2. And we had 3 fit, young and experienced hikers if the two oldsters (myself and Carl) run into trouble.
Lesson 3: Sometimes what frustrates you is for the best.
We arrive at Rycroft at 07h00. It is open. We can enter – except they only allow hikers with cards – like MCSA and SANBI cards. Since there is no cashier, you cannot pay and no pay no enter.
By now it is 07:15. We can wait for 08h00, but I do not have the confidence that the cashier will be operational at 08h00 and my personality is that I want to move. We will start at Newlands Forest. We start just after 07h30.
All day this decision nagged at me. Should I have waited and shortened the route by 6 km’s? The common point is bottom of Skeleton Gorge. We arrived at the bottom of Skeleton Gorge at 09h00. If we assume the cashier opened at 08h00, punctually, and we spend time paying and packing up to leave at 08h10 (optimistic calculation), we would not be at Skeleton before 09h00.
This was really a lucky, unplanned, break. If we did enter through Rycroft, we would be “locked” in the garden. To get out we would have had 3 options: Get somebody to open the gate, exit via Cecilia’s Forest or Newlands Forest – very far from the Hilux.
It was a huge frustration when we had to go to plan B, but it was a very good thing in hind sight.
LESSON 4: Adapt to circumstances.
Carl is a good hiker and, I believe, much fitter than I am. On this day, he runs out of energy. Just like I did many years ago. So we hike slower than we should.
First adaptation we cut out Valley of the Red Gods. Shortens the route and reduces time, as the route is less uphill and exits very close to the Museum.
A very important thing is that you cannot push people beyond their limits. Years ago when I was battling on this route, you could offer me R1 million in cash, but I could not go faster. Sometimes pushing people just does not work. We need to know people well enough to know when to push and when to pull. If you push when you should pull, things will implode.
Pulling in these circumstances means that I walk ahead and just keep the group in sight and wait for everybody to catch up whenever we change direction – losing somebody under these circumstances is going to be detrimental.
In terms of hiking this is important. If you walk behind a slower walker (and every group has one – think about it), they tend to walk slower. If you walk ahead of them, you “pull” them. Almost like a pacemaker for long distance athletes.
LESSON 5: Set goals
Break down the task into segments and set goals for achieving it. The goals must be realistic.
When we get to the Museum, I know we will be on the mountain in the dark. But I do not want to be on Skeleton Gorge in the dark. So I set a realistic goal to be at the Contour Path by 18h00. It gives and hour to descend. And I pull relentlessly!
Once we are on the Contour Path, the risk is reduced exponentially – less chance for falling or injury. If we do need rescue, it is much easier for all parties concerned (WSAR’s number is top of my contacts list. WSAR – Wilderness Search and Rescue. The hiker’s best friend in the same way that NSRI is ocean goers best friend.)
LESSON 6: When you are in trouble, don’t experiment
Once we are at the Contour Path, we have 5.5km to the Hilux. At the best estimate it is 1.5 hours. On the way up, I saw a trail that could offer a way around the highest part of the trail. It could offer an easier way out.
Still pulling, we get to the point where the trail forks. Checking Accurate Altimeter (the lucky break) I see we are at 380m. We gained a gradual 50m from the bottom of Skeleton Gorge. If we follow the trail, we have to gain another 120m.
On the other hand, the alternative route goes downhill – I do not know how far down. That means I also do not know what height gain we would need to get back from the bottom onto the contour path. Or how steep it is.
In other words, one trail I know and I know what to expect. The other trail is an unknown. Under the circumstances where it is getting darker quickly and we are tired and going slower and slower, the wise choice is the trail we know. We definitely do not have energy to turn around or search for trails.
Sunday morning, checking the maps, it turns out to be a very good decision. From the bottom to the contour path we would have a very steep 220m climb.
Another aspect is that we are tired and getting lost may be the last straw that might take us to the exact place that we are trying to avoid – needing rescue. Who wants to mess up somebody else’s Saturday evening?
My brother in law has a mantra that sums this up very well: “Never put something that works at risk to experiment with something that might not work.”
LESSON 7: Keep thinking
As we were going up to Maclear’s Beacon, I was starting to evaluate the situation. We were going slow, it was uphill, so progress is slower. Coming down was not as steep, as the steepest part you come down with ladders so you lose height fairly quickly. Uphills are not too steep, and downhills gradual. So it will go quicker.
Think, evaluate and do not be scared to adapt and change your plans. And ask other experienced people.
Unless you want to hike in the dark, nobody plans to come down the mountain in the dark. It never was my plan to be off the mountain after 18h00, at the latest. Even though I have a torch with me. But now it did get late. Ever since my national service days, I always have a “washup” after an event. Especially if it did not go as planned,
And Sunday morning I ran through all this again to evaluate the whole process. What should or could I have done differently. The pivot point was right at the top when we were at the restaurant. We discussed the option of going down. The two people who joined us could take us back to the Hilux. And everybody was fine. There was no reason not to carry on as planned. Looking at that situation again, I still cannot see a reason to abort the trip.
“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” I love (and often quote) Forrest Gump’s take on this: “Shit happens.”
We need to prepare for this as best we can. But more importantly, when it happens, we need to keep calm, rational and make rational decisions based on our experience and knowledge. We stand or fall by these decisions! We will be judged on those decisions by people who never had to make a decision like that. And there is always a context. That is why I like to stop and express my thoughts aloud. As one person on a hike once said when I did this: “Oh, you are not asking us, you are thinking aloud.” Yes, but I welcome and will listen to your thoughts.” I even do it when hiking alone.
A leader’s responsibility is to take his people to where he wants them to go and get them there safely with him or her. That is my philosophy.
I am grateful that I could do that on Saturday.