Harold Strachan's Last Word

Pan. Apparition in the mountains

It seems to me, though I should know better than to shoot my mouth off about something so mysterious, the trouble with Drakensberg weather is that it happens all at once. Maybe it has to do with a big stable air-mass moving over an escarpment rather than filtering past a range of free-standing peaks. The whole lot cools and condenses, Snap! just like that.

I once set off for Gray’s Pass with a German couple who knew the Alps, mountain people. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this being Africa, by the time we got to the contour path under the kranzes the man was entirely pooped from heat exhaustion; puking, doubled-up, bravely pushing on until we got to that little amphitheatre at the base of the pass, where the lightning was so sudden and so extreme they fled in

We could smell it, I tell you: ozone, O₃, the smell of tram-cars in Munich, blown fuses in the old-time kitchen, old-time dodgem cars at the funfair. We walked the prescribed thirty paces apart. By the time we got back to his puking place this bloke’s fingers were so numb with cold he couldn’t open his rucksack for our tea-things at a little stream, and he needed the tea from fear of hypothermia. So gaan dit mos in die berg.     

Well, on the occasion of our beholding the great god Pan, young Joe was doing his first haul to the top, aged fifteen, full of exuberance and challenge. I’d thought again of Gray’s – short, sharp, a steep bitch of a scramble, then along the top a bit and down Ship’s Prow, a five-kay forty-five degree chute of shattered rocks, some the size of your finger-nail, some the size of a bus, plain horror to look down. It is the Valley of the Shadow of Death, just right for a romantic painter, maybe. A fifteen-year-old painter, that is.

We came over the top round about lunchtime, and decided to stroll towards the lip of Champagne Castle for a fine view of Natal down there below our toes before heading towards the Nkosazana Cave a kay or so from the edge, where we’d spend the night. Plenty of time. A short way off is a little tarn; transparent, clear, pure H²O, with white crystalline sand and tiny crabs scuttling about, and how the hell they got up here is another of those mountain mysteries.

This for sure is where we have to make a cuppa. But even before we can get our mini gas stove going, Snap! just like that, we have to bend down to see the ground, the mist is so dense, and we know this is where we stay until it’s gone. Try for the cave and we could wander off vaguely into Lesotho, or over the edge, where our first bounce would be six hundred feet down.

Nu? Shelter, food, it’s all here. We pitch our wee tent by the tarn and it’s all so romantic and back-to-nature, but the smile soon disappears from young Joe’s lips when a wind picks up, heavy with sleet. The tarn becomes ice and by six we’re wrapped in every piece of cloth, inside our sleeping bags and huddled together for every last calorie of heat-energy. The little tent slats and cracks about our ears.

That’s the escarpment. Sometimes. Sometimes you sleep uncovered in the dead-still warmth of night, looking for the planet Mars, wondering how on Earth they reckon there are two hundred billion stars in the Milky Way. But not tonight. Tonight is bitter critical just please, please somebody bring the dawn so I can get off these frozen rocks a while. At first light Joe desperately needs to pee and I tell him the rules: one at a time, so you can shout back if you get lost.

My turn now. I thrust out gasping into the shocking wind chill and at that moment there’s a brief gap in the sleet and mist, and there he stands. Semicaper deus, the half-goat god. God of wild mountains who causes one to panic. Here is the face of the goat, the great arched nose and the flared nostrils, the yellow eyes, hair in excess of the beard. Quilted clothing bleached and ragged beyond belief, ankle-muffs shredded by what rocks, the boots jagged bits of fabric. It is clear he lives in these rags. This is feral man.

He speaks: You all right? Do you know this place? Do you have food for two days? Ja, I reply, we’re okay. Keep dry, says he.

Maybe he comes from a Mountain Club group we haven’t noticed. Maybe… well maybe you can have a guess. But one thing is for sure; he navigates as do the whales and dolphins, by the magnetic field of Mother Earth. The mist closes in and he disappears, silently, an apparition.

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