Six Million Steps - A journey on foot along the coast of South Africa
One afternoon, whilst hiding from the African sun in the shade of a kapokboom, nearing the end of a 23 day sojourn, 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 night I spent in a cave above the surf on the Eastern Cape coast, falling asleep to the sound of waves crashing against the cliffs below, and the glowing sunrise that greeted me in the morning. And then, in a flash, like a chameleon’s tongue snatching a hottentotsgot, it came; “I’m going to hike the South African coastline. One man; one pack; one coastline.”
But what would the expedition be called?
I surmised that I, carrying a fully-laden rucksack on beach sand, could possibly average half-meter stride lengths. Over roughly 3 000 km it comes to a total of six million. Perfect: Six Million Steps; a journey effecting change one step at a time. Imagine if each South African took just one step?
And so I began to plan and scheme. Before long I quit my job as a civil engineer and focused solely on this crazy idea.
In October 2013, after a flight, a bus trip, a taxi trip, and a 12 km walk I finally made it to the starting point of my expedition; the Orange River Mouth – the border of South Africa, Namibia and the Atlantic Ocean. Ahead of me a journey of unknowns that would see me walk over 3 500 km in just over 8 months. A journey that would change my life forever.
Some of the locals asked me what I was doing in Alexander Bay. Was I there for work? Was I visiting someone? They were dumbstruck when I told them that after all the effort of getting there I was in fact intending to walk back to Cape Town.
The next day, after a fond farewell from the staff and kids of Alexander Bay High School I set off. My bag was so heavy it took two of the biggest boys in the school to lift it onto their friend’s back. I should have known right then that this would be trouble.
The next three days were absolute torture. I arrived in Port Nolloth, some 90 km away, absolutely spent. I had bitten off way too much so early on. This early hardship resulted in a two day stay at Springbok Hospital with a serious case of tendinitis. I would have to learn to look after my body if I was to make it across the entire country.
After a shaky start I began to settle into the walking. I learned to lean into the icy west coast winds and soon started to appreciate the small wonders of the semi-arid desert; a flower here, a lizard there, and a magnificent sunset over the ocean every day. I also grew to appreciate the weskus hospitality. It takes a special kind of person to live out there. On the exterior they are windswept and weather-beaten, but on the inside they are as warm, kind and generous as they come. Wonderful people became a recurring theme in the journey, and looking back a firm highlight of the whole expedition. The people of South Africa truly are very special. The hospitality I received, all the way along the coast, was heart-warming and humbling.
It took me about two months to reach Cape Town. I have never been more excited to see a famous landmark, here in the form of Table Mountain. This was also the first time on the trip that I saw someone I knew from before the trip. Upon reaching Cape Point I ticked over a major milestone, the 1 000 km mark.
The west coast also brought another important aspect of the walk into gruesome reality. Endorsed by the Wilderness Foundation, the purpose of the expedition was to raise awareness on coastal conservation issues; to tell the story about our beaches and oceans. In a three or four day stretch near Lambert's Bay I walked passed over 1 000 rotting seal corpses. The experience was brought to an emotional climax when I happened upon a tiny seal pup on the beach. Blind and alone, it bleated like a lamb desperately searching for its mother. As I approached it came towards me, nestled up against my leg and muzzled my hand. Tears fell down my cheeks as I thought about its inevitable fate. Weak and malnourished due to dwindling fish stocks its mother was unable to feed it. He would die of starvation right there on that spot. I wept as I walked away.
I called him Samuel.
His cries are forever etched in my memory; a reminder of the plight of our wildlife and a motivator to keep spreading awareness.
The Garden Route, renowned for its awe-inspiring beauty, turned out to be the toughest part of the expedition. The rocky coast, sheer cliffs, and impenetrable forests are a disheartening combination. I spent much of my time here dragging my way up steep slopes through thick vegetation in order to skirt around impassable crags and precipices. At times I would have to drag my backpack along behind me because I couldn’t fit through the tiny spaces between roots and branches. I would often collapse in exhaustion after these punishing climbs. I yearned for the long, open beaches.
This rugged coast resulted in my second trip to a hospital. While traversing a narrow ledge, the rock I was clinging onto crumbled in my hands, allowing gravity to take over. I dropped about three meters before landing on the only flat rock in the whole Garden Route, lucky me. In shock I washed my bleeding leg off in the ocean, patched the wounds with a buff and hobbled my way to the next town where my hosts took me to the clinic. I was fortunate to come away with only flesh wounds and strained toe ligaments.
The toil was however worth it. The views and scenery of the Garden Route are absolutely spectacular.
Magnificent landscapes and breath-taking geology were a common theme in the Cape. From limestone cave labyrinths and sea-sculpted sandstone walls in the west; to lush green headlands and waterfalls tumbling into the ocean in the east. I revelled in the majesty of this country and swelled with pride that I can call it home.
The Wild Coast was possibly my favourite stretch of coastline. Not just because of the incredible untouched beauty or the cool cows chewing cud on the beach, but because of the people. Despite my limited Xhosa and their limited English I had some of my most special encounters and interactions here. Life is simple and the people are generous, a far cry from the chaos of the cities.
This place and its people renewed my vigour and put a spring in my step as I approached the 3 000 km mark and entered the final stretch.
Crossing the Mtamvuna River I entered KwaZulu Natal, the final province of my journey. The finish line (although still some 600 km away) was in sight. The closer I got to the end point my apprehension of it grew. This had become my way of life; I would get up in the morning, pack my bag, walk all day, pitch my tent, sleep and then repeat it all the next day. And one day soon that was all about to end.
As I neared the end I developed some serious pain in my feet. It was later diagnosed as inflammation of the tarsal joints. In an ironic twist this physical pain brought about a psychological transformation and served as motivation to get it done. With strapped feet and gritted teeth I launched my final assault.
At the coastal border of South Africa and Mozambique there is no river, or monument, or fence; nothing at all to designate the point. I only knew I had reached Mozambique because of the co-ordinates on my GPS. My family was with me for the last day, but there was no fanfare, no celebrations. It was a bitter-sweet moment; a true anti-climax. I drew a line in the sand to separate the two countries, sat down, and stared up the beach ahead of me. I was frustrated that I would not see what was around the next bend. Eventually, with a sombre heart I turned back; the ocean on my left for the first time in eight months.
Over three years since the inception of the idea; after ridicule for quitting my job and being told I couldn't do it; after battling against punishing winds and relentless battering from the sun; after suffering from aching bones and muscles, from hunger and thirst; after enduring near-impossible terrain; after so much pain and joy and agony and exhilaration; after a journey that tested me to my limits physically and psychologically; after 5 300 326 steps, I had finally reached my goal. Yet there was little joy to be had in that moment. I realised then how true the old adage is:
It was never about the destination, it was always about the journey.
Forwards forever, backwards never!
I am busy with the impossible process of condensing this epic experience and all its wonderful stories into a bound volume; so watch this space for the release date of the Six Million Steps book.
Also keep an eye out here for future expeditions.
In the meantime, for more stories and photos have a look at the Blog section of the site.