The moonless night was crisp and clear. Klaasjagtersberg shielded us from the glare of the city lights and we spent a good hour identifying one constellation after another, repeating the names of the stars we knew. Andiswa, a teacher, softly began telling her story.
When she was a child both her parents were addicted to alcohol and she and her younger sisters had to fend pretty much for themselves. On nights when she was most lonely and afraid, Andiswa continued, she would go outside and look for her own star in the sky, one she could always find. On warm nights it was always right overhead, about as high as you could look. Just looking at it gave her courage and reassured her that one day she would be safe and happy. But since she grew up she hadn’t found it again. “Can you help me find that star now, and tell me its name?” she asked.
It’s not difficult to make out the magnificent rectangle of the constellation of Orion and pick out its belt of three stars, Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak. Using them as pointers we found our way higher in the night sky, up to the right, and there a star shone with a brilliance that distinguished it from the rest. “That’s it!” she said softly.
“It’s called Sirius” I said.
It was the second day of Lent and I had asked my friend Brian, a priest, to give us something to think about when we reached the summit of the Helderberg Dome. The intention was to make a sort of retreat of the day’s climbing.
The Dome is a splendid peak giving a wraparound view of the Western Cape winelands to the north and west, Table Mountain hazy in the distance, the sea looking south and mountain peaks, including the majestic Somerset Sneeukop, towering above us to the east. The day was crisp and clear.
The route starts through the Helderberg Nature Reserve, famous for forests of proteas, and traverses diagonally upwards through montane forest before breaking out into mountain fynbos on the higher slopes. Some stiff upward boulder-hopping and rock scrambling brings you onto the summit ridge as exposure to the height begins to weigh a little on the mind. A little frisson of height-induced excitement mixes pleasantly with exhilaration and awe as the sheer size of the mountains and the view takes hold.
We flopped down beside the summit beacon, pulled our snacks from our backpacks and boiled a billycan for tea. “Okay Brian, what have you got for us?” I asked.
“Ultimately,” he said, “we are saved by that which ignores us.”
That’s all he said.
We were quiet as we looked at the magnificence around us. It’s true. The mountains welcome us, but couldn’t care whether we live or die. There’s no allowance made for pettiness or self-absorption, no moving aside for us to find our way more comfortably. We’re there on the mountain’s terms, not our own.
There’s a peace that comes with that realization, an exhaling of tension and inhaling of freedom that is a mountain’s special gift.
We topped Pofaddernek in the Franschhoek Mountains and started the long descent towards the wooden hut far below where we would sleep. Without a word we stopped, not to rest but to look.
Late afternoon sun slanted through jagged peaks. Wet fynbos-spiced cold air, steam curling upwards as we breathed.
I don’t know how long we sat next to the path in complete silence. The hiking stove boiled water that warmed our hands around mugs of hot tea. Still we found no reason to speak. In a place like that words can’t improve the silence or deepen the friendships.
“The mass of people live lives of quiet desperation…”
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862): Walden