Getaway (South Africa)



- Words Alan Valkenburg

Thereʼs a narrow three-month window for hiking Mount Fuji, Japanʼs 3 776m-high extinct volcano, and my wife Catherine and I had timed our trip perfectly. We were determined to reach the summit. Weʼd had mere hours in Tokyo before boarding our bullet train but that time had opened our eyes to the fact that we were now in a place so different from anything weʼd seen before.

Everything was just so… foreign. From orderly queues for the trains, to the green tea-flavoured Haagen Dazs. And, in one corner cafe – right next to the veggies – creatures swimming in brine that I could not even identify, let alone imagine eating.

Weʼd read about climbing Fuji-San online and knew that the only way to do it “properly” was to hike up overnight, summiting just before dawn to watch as the sun peeked through the clouds while samurai warriors danced on red-andwhite rainbows.

Weʼd done minimal planning apart from reading a few first-hand accounts of the climb. But we were relatively fit and fearless 20-somethings and we were catching a bus to Station 5, cutting out some 2 300m of lower-slope slog. All in all, there were just five more stations – confusingl­y labelled 6, 7, 8, 8.5 and 9 – and a mere 1 500 more metres to climb. We could do that.

Would it be tough? Almost certainly. But the Japanese have a saying: Nana korobi, ya oki (fall seven times, rise eight times). That saying was written for Cath and me.

We started out at 10pm and made our way through a little forest. The little torch weʼd purchased earlier came in handy during the first few hours of our hike, when we found ourselves utterly alone.

Things werenʼt as simple as weʼd imagined. Now on the mountain proper, the trailʼs surface consisted of millions of little volcanic stones that slid over each other so that each step resulted in a little slide backwards. It may be a cliché to say “two steps forwards, one step back”, but that was precisely the case. There were chains and pegs in the ground to help us as we zigzagged our way up the mountain, past patches of snow.

It was getting colder. Good thing we brought gloves. Werenʼt we clever? Sadly no warm beanies for our heads, but weʼd be okay in our windbreake­rs, right?

After three or four hours, we began to pass other climbers, folks whoʼd wisely bought spots in overnight huts where they could break their climb into manageable chunks, acclimatis­ing comfortabl­y in the process.

We had no such luxury. We were shattered, literally breathless. Every few minutes, weʼd stop, regain our breath and our will to carry on, and set off once more, covering four steps, maybe five, before we were again beyond exhaustion. It wasnʼt only our lungs that were finished. Because the mountain was so steep, we had to lean into it, stumbling over our own feet, teetering off-balance. And, worst of all, it was now getting really cold.

Another hour and we reached the 8th station, so we knew we

It was tough, sure. But being South Africans, OUR INSTINCT WAS TO PUSH THROUGH. After all, as the Japanese say: KEIZOKU WA CHIKARA NARI. (continuing on is power)

must be getting close. It was around this time that I began to feel sick and, after a bit more hiking, I vomited.

As we got higher, the icy wind strengthen­ed. I removed my warm top and instead tied it around my head to stop my ears from freezing. At this point, we realised that whenever we stopped, we got headaches. So we simply stopped less, and walked slower instead.

Rational folks might have put two and two together at this point and recognised these symptoms as those of altitude sickness. We, however, did not. It simply hadnʼt entered our minds that what we were doing was dangerous. It was tough, sure. But, being South Africans, our instinct was to push through. After all, as the Japanese say: Keizoku wa chikara nari (continuing on is power).

At 3.50am, a slither of light was visible on the horizon and mild panic set in – fear that we wouldnʼt summit in time. Mercifully, when we rounded the next bend we saw a large torii, a symbolic gate marking the entrance to a sacred space, in this case, the summit. Weʼd walked for six hours and had 20 minutes to spare before the sun was due. We were elated.

Our joy was short-lived. The wind at the top was gale-force and there wasnʼt much shelter. There was a (locked) hut though, so a mob of about 20 teeth-chattering climbers cuddled close as we sheltered from the Arctic wind, awaiting dawn.

The sun slivered into sight – right on time at 4.22am – and there were shouts of “Banzai!” from the crowd . It was beautiful, yes, but it was too cold to think about celebratin­g. We were chilled to the bone, our minds already focused on our descent.

There was one problem though: we hadnʼt yet actually peered into the volcano. Doing so required walking up another path to reach another viewing spot from where we could gaze down into the crater. It was a mere 50m path, but appeared insurmount­able since that final trail was completely exposed to the frigid wind that seemed to be blowing in directly from the North Pole.

FOMO being what it is, though, we couldnʼt not go up to see what all the fuss was about.

Out in the open, that gale brought with it ice and sleet that hammered every inch of exposed flesh, frozen needles stabbing our faces as we headed up to the viewing spot. There, we peered down into the crater for the briefest of moments, looked at each other as if to say ʻthatʼs good enough, right?ʼ, and within seconds were sprinting back down to the hut.

We had done it. Weʼd conquered Fuji, weʼd stared into the eye of the beast… Ame futte ji katamaru (rained on ground, hardens). Or, as we discovered, adversity builds character.

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