Training for the Trek takes a toll on the Westcliff ‘Stairs of Death’
SIBUSISO Vilane will always tell you, respect the mountain. Suikerbosrand is hardly a mountain, more a collection of ridges, even if its highest point of 1 915m above sea level is the highest in Gauteng.
We first went there in January, as part of the preparation for the Trek4Mandela centennial climb this July. That’s when we will be attempting to summit Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak at 5 895m on Madiba’s birthday, July 18.
We’ve been to the Drakensberg twice since that first trip to Suikerbos; getting as high as 2 400m, so I’m a little contemptuous of the 12 000ha nature reserve an hour south of Joburg, near Heidelberg.
When my climbing mates suggest we do the double, I’m in. The double, for the uninitiated, is to do the route twice.
The first time, I persuaded myself I’d done 17km, hobbled into the nearest one stop petrol station on the way home, gorged on Bar Ones and Cokes and then lay in front of the TV, whimpering.
This time, though, I am the conqueror of all I survey; proud owner of a proper climbing haversack with a water bladder and drinking tube, proper hiking pants, boots, poles – plus a bunch of other stuff I’ve bought over the past three months, because I’m a boy and boys love gadgets.
Hilary se m***, I’m ready. Except I’m not. The route is actually just on 10km, the first lap goes swimmingly well, we start the second and I’m starting to lag.
Super Vic, aka Vickey Ganesh, who’s already raised his money for Caring4Girls almost twice over, summited Kili twice and is eyeing Everest in 2020 with Vilane, is just about out of sight – and by his own admission he’s having a bad day.
They all stop so I can catch up. “Eat well and hydrate,” he says, “we’ve got a
m*** of a climb at the end.” Suddenly we’re on that hill and it doesn’t end. Going down is bad enough when your feet thud into the toes of your boots with every step, now we’re going up.
I am trudging. To paraphrase “Geoffrey Chaucer” in the teen movie A Knight’s
Tale, “to trudge, the slow, weary, depressing, yet determined walk of a man who has nothing left in life, except the impulse to slowly soldier on…”
I’m starting to think angry thoughts, to hate the people who suggested ever doing the double. Most of all, I’m starting to hate myself. The bag feels heavy. My feet are leaden.
And then suddenly, I’m not thinking at all. It’s as if I’ve squeezed a great big cosmic pimple. The feet have to keep moving. I’m at the top with my mates.
“How do you feel?” asks Mags Natasen, solicitously.
“Now that I’m here and I’ve caught my breath, magnificent,” I answer.
I do feel great. We traverse the saddle and head down out of the reserve. But I’ve been humbled. I know how close I came to cracking on the hill.
At the cars, as we say goodbye, I tell everyone I won’t make the Westcliff Stairs next day. They smile pityingly as I hobble to my car and drive back to Joburg.
Back home, I’m as weak as a kitten, too weak to even rehydrate with a beer – at least for the first hour.
Next morning, the alarm goes off and my wife kicks me out of bed.
“The Stairs are waiting for you,” she says evilly from beneath the duvet, “and so’s Richard, don’t let him down.”
I leave for Westcliff. The Stairs have become legendary – in a bad way. We’re supposed to do them more than the three mandatory times since January.
Up and down the 210 steps counts as one lap.
Richard Mabaso, CEO of the Imbumba Foundation and founder of both Trek4Mandela and Caring4Girls, wants us to do 27 times – in honour of Madiba.
The riot that almost ensues, is averted when he grins and cuts it back to 15. It’s academic, I’ve never done more than six.
As I trudge up the Stairs of Death or “Evil Stairs” as some of the other climbers call them, I hear myself panting like a dog – only to turn around and find that there is a dog on a leash at my heels. I smile weakly and allow owner and dog to pass.
The Stairs, as always, are like a highway. We’re in pre-Comrades season – when Vilane returns from Everest, he’ll go straight into preparation for the ultra-marathon. Here in Westcliff, people are running what looks like shuttle runs up and down.
I am feeling wholly intimidated, made even more despondent as Sello Hatang’s 11-year-old son Tshego comes bounding past. He’ll be climbing Kili with his dad in August, after Hatang hosts Barack Obama for the centennial Nelson Mandela lecture on July 18.
There are footsteps behind me. The runner passes to my left. He’s in jeans.
It’s Hatang. I am now totally deflated. I stop him on the way down.
“It’s simple,” he says, “I’ve got a planning meeting at the Nelson Mandela Foundation that I can’t miss just now, but I can’t miss my training either.” He hasn’t broken a sweat. As for me, I might have seen the back of Suikerbos, but I certainly haven’t seen the last of the Westcliff Stairs – definitely not, if Mabaso has anything to do with it.
“I think we’ll just do a last 20 or so, the weekend before we get on the plane for Tanzania, just to get us in the mood!” he says. I want to weep.