Pasop Vir Die Hond!

“This whole world is wild at heart and weird on top”- David Lynch

Growing up in rural eastern Free State was a treat for me. I was surrounded by breathtaking untouched landscapes and remnants of an even more impressive geological, botanical and zoological past. The Free State is known as the home of the Cheetahs and Leopards, and many other animals. There is a plethora of dog breeds throughout the province owned by the farmers and hunters who live in this exciting terrain.

In the lalis (a.k.a bundus/villages etc.) dogs take on a different representation. They are what black people were to the likes of Hegel and Konrad, i.e senseless savages that deserve the worst of treatment because they are not human. I grew up not knowing about animal distress and the need for the medical care of domestic animals because the dogs I grew up around weren’t even getting de-wormed, let alone visits to the vet; another thing I didn’t know existed. This affected my first few encounters with dogs in the mountains.

I generally used to fear dogs because my primary and high schools were across the road from a suburb with lots of big scary dogs and the quickest way anywhere was to cut through the suburb and be terrorised by these dogs, and I spent 8years running away from massive German Shepherds (#WhenWeWereBlack) . We’ve always had dogs at home, but they were always poisoned by the neighbors because dogs are so misunderstood in the rural areas and my grandfather never understood why so he kept getting us, really just me because only I fed them, a replacement for the latest dead dog. I currently claim two dogs as my siblings (please don’t traumatize me with questions!), Viper-a naughty corgi, and Gypsy- a gorgeous mix between a golden retriever and silken windhound, and I love them both to bits.

I’m definitely a dog person, but I have to consciously refrain from patting “Doggo” whenever I come across a new dog on a hiking trail because I used to be black(#!) and it’s South Africa and dogs here were raised differently. More so if it’s a German shepherd or any of the lesser documented breeds of “Apartheid Dogs”.

Animals, and humans too, are an extension of the natural environment and it sucks that some people have to police their interaction with Nature because historically they were never considered worthy of the leisurely experience of the natural environment. It sucks that although I’ve grown to love dogs, I can’t freely express that because I come from a province where Oom puts his rottweiler, appropriately named Bliksem, in the front seat of his bakkie and has trained him to see Tsepo and Jabu, who fry in the back of the bakkie, as a threat to the dog’s life – worse-than-animals savages. So I carry an invincible metal plate written “Pasop Vir Die Hond” as a gentle reminder to keep my black head down and keep walking, the next time I dare even look at that harmless Hout Bay-raised Siberian Huskey on Chapman’s Peak.

I found this board at a hotel in Helmeringhausen, a German dorpie in the many nowheres of Namibia, especially fascinating. We get the whole “No animals allowed” thing, but most importantly no “dogs” allowed. So much that the only “animal” there is a dog, as if we don’t know how a certain race has been proven to interact with cats more than Othered humans. Anyway, I just thought it was interesting to observe that outside of South Africa, dogs aren’t as feared by black people, and prioritized by (mostly) white people even in public spaces.

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From The Mountain Kingdom

“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves, and we travel, next, to find ourselves. ” – Pico Iyer

I went on holiday in the glorious Mountain Kingdom and we stayed in freezing Oxbow which was magical. I’d always thought of Lesotho as an extension of “home”. The terrain is similar to the Free State, the people speak my home language, and half of my gene pool is there, so I always took it for granted and never really saw it as a holiday destination because it is easily accessible to me, or so I thought.

Quick myth-busting and travelling tips before I get to the point;

(a) Lesotho is NOT a ‘part’/inside South Africa. It’s a sovereign political entity most of us call a state!
(b) It is NOT a ‘small’ country. Not in the least!
(c) it literally IS a Kingdom in the Sky, it is ridiculously high (possibly highest whole country on the continent), cold (definitely coldest country in Africa), and it’s part-monarch.

The most useful tips I have from this trip are to STAY WARM and don’t bother checking the weather because 23°C at 3 000m feels like 2°C, and drink water from the springs and rivers as much as you can, it’s the most perfect water I’ve ever tasted. Heck! South Africa is paying millions for that water! Lastly, PAY ATTENTION while driving up/down the passes. The scenery is unreal, but WATCH THE ROAD because the roads are tar cyclones on some really steep cliffs that spiral and wind around the mountains. Okay lastly lastly, it’s perfectly safe to stop at ALL the lookout points to take in the views, the country is generally safe and the prominent criminal market is stock theft. Also, the people love tourists!

Right, we’re all on the same page!

We saw the typical touristy places like Oxbow, Moteng Pass, Senqu River (Orange River in SA and Namibia), AfriSki, Sani Pass (not really), Letšeng Diamond Mine, and Mokhotlong (the highest town in Africa). The best part (after kloofing up the almost-dry Malibamatso River) was seeing the iconic Qholaqhoe Mountain. Here we stumbled upon a monument in honor of my great-great-great-grandfather (breathe!) Morena Lethole, who joined forces with King Moshoeshoe in 1822 to birth the Basotho Nation we know today. In case you missed that, the blood of one of the two founding fathers of the Kingdom runs through my veins!

There is a deep yet seemingly redundant Sesotho proverb that says “Ho tsamaya ke ho bona”, literally translating to “to travel is to see” (duh, right?). You rediscover yourself with every trip you take, especially if it’s to a place that is of personal significance to you. You also learn various peoples and their ways, Nature and her peculiarities and it is fascinating and annoying and leaves you so deurmekaar you feel like you’re “collecting” yourself on your next trip. Yet, that’s how you catch wanderlust; you crave open fields and vast oceans hidden behind giant mountains, all because you have unfinished business with Nature.

I Said What I Said!

“You can’t self-esteem your way out of the way the world treats you.” – Gabrielle Union

I just came back from a roadtrip to the fantasmagories land of the Ovaherero and Nama and I have to say, history doesn’t seem too keen to exonerate them. Not when they’re still bowing down to the shackles of their oppressor over a century after he pretty much wiped out their predecessors.

Being the overthinking intellectualista I aspire and pretend to be, I was very sceptical about the “historic and cultural” tours on our itinerary because I was given a heads up by my history lecturer that the Namibian government (in other words Germany) had put in extra time to either distort or completely erase the Great Nama Uprising and subsequent genocide of the Herero that began in 1904 from the annals.

Overall, the trip was amazing and I saw all my geological fantasies from the Fish River Canyon to Spitzkoppe, the chronologically frozen forest at Deadvlei, and the massive dunes 45, Big Daddy and my personal favorite Dune 7 (the tallest sand dune in the world!). At this point I’d give a shoutout to my Adventure Squad, but they’re permanently living in the naughty corner for things I can’t even begin to type!

On the day we went to the Deadvlei, a German man, probably in his late 50’s, asked to take a picture with me and I later found out it was because he thought I looked African and beautiful. As if the two are mutually exclusive. We were so shook by his audacity and sense of entitlement, but we were ALL even more shook by me agreeing to smile and pose next to this man. To be honest, I don’t know why I said yes, but I found it amusing afterwards; in my intellectualista hat I’m NO BS Amy, taking no prisoners all over, but there I was giving this yt man the satisfaction of parading his “African” experience to his German friends over a few cold Heinekens (or whatever rich Germans drink) back in Berlin (or wherever ignorant Germans live).

Truth is, I was so deep in my “if I just get it right I’ll blend right in” resolve that I forgot the most confrontational truth of them all: I am black, African, and beautiful. I mention him specifically because his was the boldest form of “I seeeeeee you here” we encountered on the trip. Basically, we became an extention of the attractions by merely being tourists in places that were flooded with tourists but none people of colour. Our group was also so mixed that none of us “belonged” and this magnified the gazes darting curiously and probably listening intently to our inside jokes and roars of laughter.

Okay, here are some FACTS:
1. (a) I had paid the exact same amount as everyone to enter these places,

1. (b) travelled the same distance from a luxurious house on the beachfront which I (+4) could afford to rent for a few days, just like them.

2. I too had on a scarf for the sand, some sunglasses and most likely the same brand of sunscreen,

3. I was documenting these gorgeous memories with a smartphone that can call as far as theirs can.

In a vacuum, all tourists are equal, but as history is ever so brutal to remind us, some tourists are more equal than others. Certainly not the black ones touring African countries. I am basing this observation purely on my personal experience in Namibia, and the chats I’ve had with other people of colour who have visited African countries and were ‘mistaken’ for locals because surely all Blacks look like they belong to any and every ethnicity on the continent.

Here I am with all my outdoorsy accolades, equipped with the same (if not more) technical knowledge on camping and touristy things, but not even all that self-confidence is enough to make a German man stop and think that maybe, just maybe, I too am a tourist like him in search of the Himba people to take pictures next to so I can parade my “African experience” to my friends over some tea. To him I’m just another wilde frau in the desert. I couldn’t possibly be here on holiday, my kind doesn’t do holidaying, we serve his kind so that he can go on holiday, and even there, my kind serves him oysters and champagne on boats, and entertains him alongside the baboons til he can’t tell who is who.

See? I totally look Himba!

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.

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!