A Catharsis Of Sorts…

“It’s hard not to stand in awe and enchantment with the beauty in which nature expresses herself.” – Steve Maraboli

People who know me well know that it’s so difficult for me to wear shorts in public. I have what white women consider as beautiful legs, I mean between the hiking and running away from my problems/responsibilities, my leg game is pretty solid. Yet, I don’t just wear shorts casually, it’s a stressful and long process each time. Funny though, I love wearing shorts on hikes or when I go running.

You’re probably thinking body image issues, right? Hold on, Suzanne! I’m quite happy with the way my body looks and I can say with a straight face; “I woke up like this!” and feel no shame or need to overcompensate. I had personal struggles with certain parts of my body in high school, but it was because of bullying from people who thought I was the ‘ideal’ body type and didn’t like the fact that I was comfortable and happy with everything so they created “blemishes” and made me see them as such too. Anyway! Okay so I’m supposed to be talking about the self-confidence I’ve collected over the years in the mountains.

Right! How do you change/wash on multi-day hikes with no ablution facilities? Why, you “swim”, and most of the time in your undies. Hikers do this a lot anyway: they find ANY body of water and strip down to their undies and jump in, ain’t nobody got time (and room in their backpack) for a swimming costume! Because there are so few resources, or safety is an issue we often go to change/clean up in numbers and people see you and you see things too. Not many of us can sommer take their shirt off, but after 3 days on a trail, body positivism is hammered into you if you overthink these things. I’m not those aesthetic hikers/models who hike in their sports bras, I’m always covering up, but I’m not shy to pose for a picture in just my sports bra because I think I have really cute activewear.

I had always wanted to do the topless-on-a-mountain pose I always see on Instagram, but always never found the right photographer. And courage. So about two months or so ago, my Adventure Squad took to the scenic Kogelbay beach and made a day of it. While on the beach, I suddenly had the idea: the topless-on-the-beach-facing-the-mountain pose! I shared the vision with my friend and she was on-board immediately, and there was (liquid) courage to finally do it! I did it and it felt so damn good! I felt bare and exposed, but that was okay because the mountain was my audience. And I flashed her real good. I’m a Master of Philosophy in-training so you can imagine how deep I could get with this.

I repeated the pose on a different hike at Jonkershoek Nature Reserve in Stellenbosch a month ago, and this time in front of a waterfall and I think I’m bordering on nudism and naturism so I will stop right here. Perhaps the next time I do it will be on a sand dune in a desert somewhere with no mountain and waterfall to bear witness because I’m way past needing validation and at my body positivism* prime!

* I realize the sacarsm won’t read well on paper, so I’ll elaborate. I hate the concept of body positivism because bodyshamers use it to conceal their problematic comments about people differently bodied from them.

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Hiking Is Black And Queer

“It is a queer thing, but imaginary troubles are harder to bear than actual ones.” – Dorothy Dix

I recently started noticing that I stopped feeling uncomfortable in the “white” spaces I find myself in. I started thinking to myself why I had ever felt out of place to begin with. Then I realized that I had been playing along to the black millennial rhetoric that every white person is out to get you and that you have to always remember your truth in blackness. The gag here is that while this narrative is supposedly self-affirmation and a reminder to remain true to yourself and your blackness, all it really does is hold you hostage in your inadequacy as “non-white”. Essentially, this says “you are black because you’re not white”, and the reason I’ve stopped feeling out of place in white spaces is because my sentence ends at “You are black.”, the fact of my blackness is not relative to whiteness or anything else. It’s just that: fact. Substitute “blackness” with any other discourse and you will likely come to the same conclusion.

We often take on struggles that don’t really affect us because it’s in the script and it’s what is expected of us. I’m always quick to balance people who say hiking is a white thing by speaking about my personal experiences, especially my parents’ upbringing. My mother went to a boarding school in a different schooling district to where she lived, but most of her friends were day students in other schools around who walked to school everyday from different villages. They would gather at the top of a 600m ‘hill’ (cc: Lion’s Head) that served as the friendship’s headquarters where high school tea was thoroughly spilled! To them, this wasn’t hiking, it was simply walking up a hill to hang out.

My father also hiked regularly while in Lesotho because he used to hunt a lot. With his dogs and a mate or two, they would go on long ‘hikes’ chasing rabbits and all kinds of buck, or looking for fish in the rivers in the highlands. I grew up hearing these cool stories and grew a love for the mountains there because my parents had shared such beautiful memories, and to this day I associate most of their youth with their time in the mountains. Hence, I refuse to entertain people who place my blackness at the center of their admiration for my hiking. If you are impressed I hike, let it be because you may think it’s difficult or physically taxing and you think it’s bad ass that I do it. Not because I’m black.

I titled this post Hiking Is Black And Queer alluding to the definition of queer which is synonymous with unusual. I find it strange that so many people derive pleasure in chasing summits. There’s nothing “normal”, safe, or even sane about climbing all these mountains knowing you could die at any point. You would think the unconventional nature of the sport would make hiking a safe space for queer-identifying fxlk.

I personally think mountaineering is only gendered because of the class discourse, and no other reason. Therefore, there should be no reason why anything about the sport should operate within the gender binary, but it does. I cannot speak on the queer experience because I don’t live it, but I’m certainly aware of how dismissive the mountaineering community is of the intersections of gender. The chat is always about getting more women to join the sport, especially women of colour. But this is exclusionary because it only recognizes cisgender heterosexual women as the prototype for womxnhood.

However, I think it shouldn’t be a deterrent because space is never “allowed”, we claim it for ourselves until everybody is on the same page.

We are so good at drawing these gigantic obstacles that keep us from doing what we enjoy because it’s “not black” or “people like me aren’t welcome”. I have had to fake bravery and adopt a bulldozing approach when it comes to my hiking journey. The space hasn’t always allowed, and people like me haven’t always been welcome. I didn’t know a single “person like me” who hiked as a sport, but that wasn’t because they weren’t there. It was because I was pre-conditioned to only see the “Others” who dominated the space. The scales are slowly falling off and it’s so damn good to hold a spot in spaces that have always rejected “us”, whoever that means.

Don’t get me wrong, whiteness is still suffocating and just #messy, but I’m comfortable ignoring it and tapping out for self-preservation when I need to.

Is Your Crew Cool, Though? Pt.I

“As soon as I saw you I knew an adventure was going to happen” – Winnie The Pooh

That “Keen for a hike?” text is up there in the top 5 questions anyone could ask you on a Friday afternoon. It’s so much better than “Do you have tonic water?”. Finding a hiking squad sounds easy, but it hasn’t always been for me. Aside from the very obvious fact of shyness that governs my life, I can’t exactly be making friends when I’m literally running out of breathe every two minutes. Unlike the air flowing out of my lungs at 120km/h, conversations just don’t.

So beyond the awkward introductions, and once you’ve combatted irregular breathing, what do you even talk about? What’s too personal, and what’s too superficial? How do you get to know someone without being a nuisance (and a distraction in the serious business of hiking)? How do you begin an authentic discussion with them without being overbearing? Most importantly, how do you let them know you’d Iike to continue the chat even after the hike ends without coming across as a creep?

Everyone who knows me knows I’m a coward. I went on every hike I suspected this one person I thought was cool might be on and always chickened out of shooting my (platonic) shot. I got very fit, but still couldn’t sum up the courage to say hi to my hiking soul mate. Point is, it’s really not that easy for me to strike up a conversation.

I’m not too concerned with content, I have a lot to say about a lot of things, once I warm up to a person. However, I CANNOT stand small talk and trivial chats about the weather. Tell me about your coursework, especially if it’s astrophysics or corporate law (HELLO SOULMATE!). I want to know things that matter to you, whether you like dogs or not so I know if I want to even start this friendship or nah.

There are a few people who I couldn’t stop talking to, then later about to my friends who don’t hike. These are the people who positively changed my perceptions of yt boys and I’m forever grateful. I consider them friends even outside of hiking spaces because they’re genuine and are not excessive in their curating of their relationships with POC. On one particular trip, I met a very kind, funny and all-round-great-guy engineering student who made me wish I’d joined the MSC earlier!

Another person who had a lasting impact on me was a recent law graduate whose interactions with POC came just as organically. He spoke very good isiXhosa and did not impose it on everyone. The only reason I even learnt he spoke isiXhosa was because he was speaking to our guide (a black man in a small Afrikaans fishing town along the West Coast) when his Afrikaans reached its daily cap. Even after the trip we went jolling with another really good friend I met on a hike and we were all impressed to see each other wearing real clothes and all cleaned up.

I have only one close female friend whom I met through hiking although she seems to mostly be a rock climber (urgh!), but the heart wants what it wants. We are women of colour in a predominantly white man’s sport and it’s fantastic to have someone who knows exactly what’s going on in my head when the cadres start being their problematic selves, and who’s down to get a drink to debrief after every weird encounter with cadres.

Shout out to these amazing mountain G.O.A.T.s, and my cool hiking tribe!

Hiking IS dangerous!

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“Life is brought down to the basics: if you are warm, regular, healthy, not thirsty or hungry, then you are not on a mountain… Climbing at altitude is like hitting your head against a brick wall — it’s great when you stop”- Chris Darwin

I find myself romantisizing hiking a lot, and I’ve realized that while mountaineers always stress safety, we never really talk about the very real dangers of hiking, especially at high levels where the summits are higher and the trails are longer. Simply put, (mostly)extreme hiking is lethal. Injuries are 100% guaranteed, and death isn’t such a reach. Personally, I’ve never died, but I have a few battle scars and a pending knee injury diagnosis.

I have gotten lost in a forest and spent hours wrestling with fynbos and really dark thoughts at the same time. I’m already a compulsive worrier, and unfortunately my physique does not afford me the luxury of feeling truly safe anywhere. I also get paranoid about all elements of the woods; deadly animals, shifting rocks, poison ivy, landslides, trees that come to life, you name it! It’s a bit difficult to reconcile my deep appreciation for the mountains to help me cope with some of my anxieties about “real life”, and my fear of being in the woods.

The safest thing you can do is not go hiking alone incase you get injured or need help for whatever reason. Wearing reflective clothes, and knowing how to flag down help also increases your chances of survival. Extreme hikers are often not the most rational people who are disturbingly excited by exposed cliffs and ledges, but they’re super sensitive to the safety of others, so don’t be afraid to say when you don’t feel safe and they’ll gladly take the safer route or slow down. Altruism 101!

Mountain etiquette stresses the three crucial W’s; warmth, water, waste. Warmth and water have saved many lives, and they are often taken for granted. I don’t really let the weather dictate my hiking. As long as I can see where I’m going, I don’t care if it’s pouring or hot. All that really matters is bringing enough water and warm/rainproof clothes and sun protection.

It is recommended that you drink 1L of water for every two hours of hiking. However, I prefer hydrating with Game (an isotonic powdered sporting drink great for absorption of vitamins, minerals, salts and carbohydrates lost during physical exertion) because it cuts down bathroom breaks significantly. Avoiding salty snacks that make you thirsty is another way to retain fluids for longer.

Most people dress for the weather at the base of the mountain, not taking into account that pressure decreases with elevation, making it seem like there’s less oxygen, so it’s cooler the higher up you go. Also, the heat generated while in motion might create the illusion that you are warm… until you stop! The decrease in atmospheric pressure also makes it difficult to breathe.

The last ‘W’ stands for waste, and simply means take your shit off the mountain, Bruv! This does not mean literal shit (you’re welcome to take a dump in the mountains provided you bury it properly), rather trash. I’m sure this is the one universal policy applicable on all the mountains of the worlds, Leave No Trace (LNT). As a policy, LNT extends beyond just taking down the garbage you went up with and Hiking South Africa has quite cool guidelines!

I think being realistic enough to bring a charged cellphone and a first-aid kit is not anticipating tragedy, rather preparing for any unexpected unfortunate situations. I try to prepare hydrating solutions for longer hikes, but Game is always life. And any other aides (e.g asthma pumps, sunscreen, cap, buff, etc). Lastly, I never compromise on warmth because I’ve had frostbite and it was not fun, but also because I grew up in the African Alps where people are always all covered up.

It’s A Safe Space….

DSC_0623.JPG“Nature is one of the most underutilized treasures in life. It has the power to unburden hearts and reconnect to that inner place of peace.” -Janice Anderson

Often when I say I feel safest out in the mountains than when I’m in the city, many people diagnose me with all kinds of personality disorders. Apart from providing the clichéd “connection to nature” and genuine tranquility, the mountains are free of humans and their weird vibes.

I have heard of incidents on trails, but not many robbers seem to be willing to climb for 4/5 hours to rob hikers at the risk of only finding Jungle energy bars and sachets of Game. In any case, very few people I know take true valuables on hikes because the whole point is to disconnect from our busy gadgets-driven lives.

Besides being literally safe from the practical physical sense, the mountains provide an emotional shield from life’s overwhelming curveballs. I prefer hiking alone (NOT RECOMMENDED!) most of the times because I can have earnest frank conversations with myself and try to make sense of whatever space I might be in without external opinions.

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a banter-filled mission with a cool group, I have made some incredible friendships with people I met on trails and in them I have a lifetime adventure squad that’s always down to drop everything and chase horizons.

Most of my hiking has been through a uni sporting club, and there is a drinking culture associated with varsity sporting. I mean, varsity is a 4-year drinking game! However, besides the odd sundowner hike and good ol’ Old Brown Sherry (O.B.S) on overnight trails, there is never any liquor on hikes. We really don’t drink that much, it’s a dangerous sport, people. Rocks are dangerous!

Why I Hike So Much.

DSC_0691.JPG“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity” – John Muir

“So why do you do it?” is the one question thousands of mountaineers have had to answer at some point in their lives. I honestly don’t mind this question, and I love it because it gives me a chance to blab about all the cool trails I’ve done.

There is another variation of this question, though, which I hate: “why do you torture yourself?”. To which I always try to politely reply: “I love it! No torture here”. I understand that this comes from a place of misunderstanding, especially from people of color who view hiking as a “white people’s hobby” and not necessarily a sport.

While this question is intrusive, it is not illegitimate. The discourse from which it arises certainly isn’t. White cisgender heterosexual males have always been the poster kids for hiking and the outdoors. Just look at any Hi-Tec advert or a First Ascent poster!

Any sporting element of mountaineering is inundated with white male athletes and it is not difficult to guess why; extreme sports are expensive to commit to, and the flow of wealth in South Africa mainly follows racial privileges. Hence, more white males (and females) can afford adventures that the majority of the population (POC) cannot.

So I guess I understand the underlying question I’m actually being asked: “what are you, the daughter of a black working-class woman, doing chasing peaks in foreign lands?”. I’d charge my fist into the air and cry “FREEDOM!”, but it’s really simple, reaching the summit of every mountain I climb is like coming home and I don’t know if I want to put a price on that. Jokes! I’m stubborn and I like things.

Okay bye!