The Mountains and the Mist

The boys above Orangekloof

Someone asked me the other day where I was off to this weekend.  It seemed like a slightly presumptuous question, assuming that I would be away, but when I thought about it there was good reason – we have been extremely busy for the last few months.  Perhaps it was the onset of spring and now summer and perhaps it was our busy lives but it is sometimes worth stopping and thinking how lucky we are to have access to the wonderful places that we do.

Very few of our destinations have been particularly exotic nor far flung but there is so much around us in this country that it is hard not to take advantage.

So, I was able to say, yet again, that I would be away this weekend.  Friday night was going to be a very special one.  Tommy had turned 9 about 2 months ago but we had decided to wait until summer time before celebrating his birthday.  He also chose to share the celebration with his very good friend Alec (whose birthday was even earlier in the year than Tommy’s).  The reason for waiting was that we wanted to make sure we had some good weather for our chosen destination, which was neither far flung nor exotic, but it would be the best birthday location ever – we booked for a night at the Overseers Cottage on the top of Table Mountain.

Tommy and Alley both invited a group of friends, limiting the list to 11 boys, and being dads of the two birthday boys, Alastair and I were also on the list.  As independent as 9 year olds seem to think they are, it was imperative that there was some decent adult coverage.  After all, who was going to braai the meat, tidy up the mess and make sure the boys got to bed at a not-too-ridiculous hour?  Deciding it was a job for more than just two of us we enlisted the help of John and John, two more of the dads.  A ratio of 11 to 4 seemed to be a good one.

Any trip to the Overseers Cottage carries a bit of a weather risk.  The weather at the top of the mountain can be extremely variable, even on a nice summer’s day.  A 40km south-easter turns the top of a mountain from a place of serenity into a wind-blown moonscape.  Add to that the wispy looking table cloth that looks so innocuous from the safety of low altitude but up at the top you get miserable white-out conditions.  Well, we had none of that to worry about this time around.

Friday arrived as the most perfect Cape Town day you could ever get.  31 degrees down in Kirstenbosch and it turned out to be still, warm conditions on the mountain for our entire time there.  Even when the mist rolled into Cape Town on Saturday morning the cottage was still bathed in warm sunshine.  We will do the Overseers cottage on many more occasions in the future but I don’t think we will ever get that lucky again.

So, we all met at Kirstenbosch at 3 pm.  The boys included three Toms, two Alleys, Jack, Johnny, Joe, Matty, Chris, and Paulie, plus the four dads, Alastair, the two Johns and I.  We handed our food and kit to the porter and set off for Nursery Ravine with our day packs.  To be accurate, Alastair was saddled with about 10 bottles of water and most of the snacks whilst the boys were carefree and lightweight.  I was burdened with my camera but that was critical, just in case we bumped into some interesting creatures to photograph.

Ready to go

The walk up was a slog, as we had expected, but all the boys managed far better than expectations and it wasn’t long before we were at the cottage and starting a fire for the braai.

Time for a break
Getting closer
Tommy at the top of Nursery Ravine
Almost there

The cottage is positioned on the eastern escarpment of the mountain, right near De Villiers Dam and looking straight down towards the southern suburbs of Cape Town and across to the Hottentots Holland mountains.  As daylight waned the lights of the city came on one by one creating a twinkling overlay.  As the lights of the city were turned on to fill the darkened gaps, so too were the torches and headlamps of 11 excited boys as they ran around the cottage playing a range of “boy games” that seemed to have an endless list of complicated and convoluted rules. 0

“One, two, three…block!” one would shout followed closely by “nicky, no surrounding”.

Each stage of the games was followed by minutes of excited chatter as they resolved each dispute with apparent equitability before moving on.  There was a lot of noise and excitement but seemingly very little acrimonious dissent and whilst they burnt endless bundles of energy the four dads tended the fire and enjoyed a beer or two straight out of the cold box.

John and John

Every 5 minutes or so each dad performed a head count before resuming with the “boerie-turning” and the only pause in the wild activities was the long awaited call for dinner.  The pile of meat was reduced to a much smaller pile and, as expected, my large bowls of salad remained as two large bowls of salad, more or less untouched.  This was their night and there were no moms to tell them to eat their greens, wash their faces, brush their teeth and comb their hair – the dads were in charge and it was a night of very few rules.  As long as we returned them to their moms the next morning in one piece did it really matter that they were a little smelly and had slightly fewer vitamins than were entirely necessary?

To the dismay of the kids there was one rule that had to be enforced.  I think if it were up to them they would not have gone to bed at all but at 10pm I stepped in as the “Grinch that stole the endless night” and sent them all to their rooms.

Despite the late “lights out” it wasn’t totally unexpected that all the boys were up as the sun came up.  A layer of mist had moved in over the city overnight but we were all still treated to a spectacular sunrise and cloudless morning.

An extraordinary sunrise

We spent our final few hours on the mountain letting the kids loose at the dam to find a few frogs.  It seems that frog hunting is about as much fun for kids as the latest Playstation game and every single one of them was entertained with the large numbers of Cape River Frogs on the shores of De Villiers Dam.  As tough as they may appear to be at their mature 9 years there was plenty of squealing as frogs would bound from under their feet into the depths of the dam.

I also spent some time turning a few rocks over and managed to find a few Marbled Leaf-toed Geckos, Black Girdled Lizards and, amazingly, a Short-legged Seps.  This was the second one we had found in the space of a few weeks.  For a species that is seemingly tricky to get hold of we had been lucky.  Being a cool morning it was pretty obliging and we managed to get a few pics of it before setting it free.  As expected all (or most) of the boys had to have a feel and I was just as relieved as the Seps when it was returned to the quietness of its hideaway.

Marbled Leaf-toed Gecko
Cape River Frog
Black Girdled Lizard
Short-legged Seps

The frogging was far more successful than I had hoped.  Sure, there were plenty of river frogs but one of the boys, Johnny, caught a little frog in amongst the fynbos on the edge of the dam.  Tommy shouted that he thought that it was a Clicking Stream Frog, given its size and unwebbed hind feet.  I almost dismissed it as we have seen plenty of those but something made me ask Johnny to come over to show me.  His hands were clasped tightly around his little prize lest it escape, but when he opened his cupped hands a fraction I could see straight away that this was a Banded Stream Frog – a species that I had spent plenty of time looking for in Silvermine and Cape Point but had never successfully found.

It was a really beautiful little frog and certainly an unexpected bonus.  All my encouragement of the kids and their frogging was starting to pay off!  Johnny, you are definitely welcome on my frogging pursuits anytime…

Banded Stream Frog

Boys will be boys though and much time was spent playing the fool as they created some interesting photographs for me on the edge of the dam.  The objective seemed to be a enactment of some or other superhero.

Joe (or superman?)
Johnny (or the Incredible Hulk?)
Alley (or Flash Gordon?)

All too soon it was time to head down the concrete road to meet the rest of their families back at Constantia Nek.  We spent a little time looking for Moss Frogs but a posse of 11 noisy kids is certainly not ideal for a moss frog mission and so we missed out on one of those.

Time to head home

One would have thought that the end of the party would have given me cause to take the rest of the weekend easy, but I headed out to Grabouw soon thereafter to join a mate for a bachelor’s party.

You would have thought that a 9 year old birthday party would have been poles apart from a bachelor’s party, but it was uncanny how similar the behaviour was between the two groups.  In fact, in a few cases the levels of maturity for the 9 year olds exceeded those of the 35 year olds!  Still, it was a lot of fun and I have seldom laughed as much as I did on Saturday night.

I took the high road and excused myself from the steadily worsening behaviour at a reasonable hour (not without a fair amount of abuse) as I needed to get my last training ride in before my Wines to Whales mountain bike race on the coming weekend (yes, another weekend away).

Unfortunately I did not have the capacity to take a decent camera with me so the pics don’t do it justice but the beauty of our province could not been more evident on my chosen route for the morning.  I had decided to ride to the radio mast at the peak of the Groenlandberg.

The Groenlandberg is a mountain that they throw into the Epic Mountain Bike race every year and since I am too scared to ride the Epic I decided to ride the Groenlandberg in my own time.  Given that most ascents of the Groenlandberg are at about mid-day in mid-summer my chosen conditions were considerably easier.  I could not have picked a better time to do my maiden attempt on this 9km climb which rises to over 1100m in altitude.  The lower slopes were shrouded in a beautifully cool mist and when I emerged from the gloom at about the mid-point of the climb I was faced with the most beautiful mountain I have ever ridden.  The mist was settled in the valleys below but the pure early morning light brought the vegetated slopes and rocky ridges into such clear focus.  The next 4kms were absolutely painless as I meandered my way through soft sand, eroded gullies and a rock-strewn jeep track towards the radio mast.  After an hour of riding I eventually reached the summit and spent 20 minutes of absolute solitude looking down on the rest of the earth.

Emerging from the mist
The Hottentots Holland Mountains from the peak of the Groenlandberg

To add to the perfection of the moment I had a pair of Cape Rockjumpers bounding on the rocks within metres of me shouting their piping whistle into the still air.  They were soon joined by a competitive pair of Sentinel Rock Thrushes and I suddenly missed my decent camera more than ever.  I will have to make the effort to get back up there with some equipment but I don’t think I will ever experience it in the same way again.

I had two pretty diverse experiences on the weekend but each of them was an advert for what we have right on our doorstep.  As much as I know that I am privileged to have been away so often in the last few months to some amazing places, I realised this weekend that sometimes you don’t have to look that far for the best of everything.

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