One afternoon, hiding from the African sun in the shade of a kapok boom after a 23 day walking adventure, I began contemplating my return to civilisation. There was a profound reluctance to go back to life the way it was before. Why couldn’t I do this every day? Just carry all my possessions on my back through the countryside?
I thought about the Otter Trail and the tears that filled my eyes as I stood on the Nature’s Valley beach. I remembered a dazzling sunrise over the ocean from Bushman’s Rivermouth. And then in a flash, like a chameleon’s tongue snatching a hottentotsgot, the idea came. I was going to hike the South African coastline. “One man. One pack. One coastline.”
I surmised that I, carrying a fully-laden rucksack on beach sand, could possibly average half-meter stride lengths. Over roughly 3000 km that is a total of six million strides. So the idea was born; Six Million Steps – a journey affecting change one step at a time.
Two years later I have finally begun this epic adventure. On 17 October 2013 I took the first step from the Orange River mouth. To date I have walked over 500 km in almost six weeks.
Endorsed by Wilderness Foundation, the international conservation organisation, the purpose of this expedition is to raise awareness of environmental issues I encounter along the way. The project will also raise awareness specifically for two of the Wilderness Foundation’s conservation projects. Namely, the Forever Wild Great White Shark Conservation Initiative, which focuses on the Great White Shark as a charismatic keystone species and a symbol of ocean wilderness. And the Pride Project, a youth-oriented experiential education programme run predominantly in coastal provinces.
Much like my thought-processes, the scenery has undergone a transformation as I have progressed from my starting point, further South. The diverse and abundant fauna and flora of the Namaqua National Park is a stark contrast to what is essentially desert in the upper reaches of the West Coast. But even in the desert there is life, you just have to open your eyes.
Mines dominate the West Coast. From copper and diamond mines up North, to heavy metal sand mines further South. Not only are they an eyesore, but their impact is vast. And without proper rehabilitation (which seldom occurs) their impact is permanent.
Casual crayfish catchers are up in arms about the restrictions on fishing during the crayfish season, and there is great concern about how these restrictions could potentially exacerbate poaching and negatively affect crayfish numbers. Fish numbers are already desperately low, and communities that for decades have thrived on subsistence fishing, now struggle to put food on the table. The hundreds of seal carcasses I have walked by are further evidence of this; there are just not enough fish to support the local colonies.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Walking alone and without a backup team I have been rather dependent on the people I have encountered along the way. The fact that I am sitting on the balcony of a hotel room in Lamberts Bay is indicative of the kind of hospitality I have been so fortunate to receive so far. Anyone that has lost their faith in humanity should spend some time in the Namaqualand. The landscape can be stark and the conditions harsh, but this makes the hearts of the people so much warmer. Complete strangers have invited me into their homes, offered me lifts and fed me ’til popping-point.
Chatting to school kids along the way is also part of my objective. There is very little that tops the energy and enthusiasm of a bunch of excited teenagers. The matric class of Hoërskool Alexanderbaai were enthralled by this crazy Engelsman (English man) about to tackle an expedition that only the geography students could begin to fathom. Our youth need be educated, but more than that, encouraged. Somewhere in the process of growing up most people lose sight of their dreams and that is a traversty.
I’ve also encountered a host of crazy individuals along my way, from the Cave Man that wants to go to space, to the Captain’s Son and his two metre tall strandwolwe; these characters have made the journey thoroughly entertaining.
A sense of humour is definitely required to get through the tough days. I often find myself laughing out loud at the places in which I find myself. A public hospital shower, for example, is definitely not something I had anticipated experiencing. But that’s the beauty of it all. Every day is a new adventure with new surprises.
Being a little over-exuberant in the beginning, I had injured myself by walking too far and carrying too much. What I initially feared to be an infection in my lower leg turned out to be tendinitis and inflammation of the joint space. I needed to learn to take it easy, especially for the sake of my feet.
Though I have gained some momentum since those early days. I have finally escaped the clutches of the Northern Cape – already a month behind schedule. Fortunately, I don’t have anywhere better to be. I have learned that even things that seem like a setback or a delay, are really just part of the adventure. They’re just another part of the story.
Already these six weeks – and a half-million steps – have been such an enriching experience, and I eagerly anticipate the next stretch. Another six months and some 2 500 km might seem like a long way to go, but I only focus on that which I have control over, and that is my next step.