As I stood at the edge of the crater, bent over, hands on knees, looking out over the open landscape, the orange light illuminating everything I thought, good God I’m going to feel this in the morning. And I did.
Because we had reached the edge of the crater at the top of the mountain and a number of the people I’d found there were thinking about going around the thing to the summit. Recall my reference to a potato chip. There were highs and lows all around the ring, and the high point I had seen coming up was the peak. Sitting on one of many bumps at the rest stop, amongst shrubs and the beggar-tick plants, a lot of which had found a home around the legs of my jeans and socks, I stared into space, oblivious for a few minutes. I’d stopped gasping for breath a while back, but I still felt a little beaten about the gills. My friend hadn’t gotten to me yet and I could not see much beyond the knee-high plant growth, but they probably weren’t much further.
You really have to marvel at creation. The higher up you are, the smaller things (and people) seem to be. On a philosophical and physical level. Big animals see everything below their middle as insignificant. I was looking out at all these little trees in weird clusters, these intriguing patches of shade caused by clouds that seemed eye level with me. The way the landscape seemed to open up under your gaze, the snaking of the highway along the insides of the Valley walls, as it came out and branched to the left of us going west. The cars looked like little specks of moving light that disappeared, and then you saw it again, then it disappeared, over and over until you zoned out.
The wind wasn’t particularly fierce, it felt insufficient actually because the sun was practically over your head. Taking out the one water bottle I’d allowed myself to carry, I laid down my walking stick and twisted the cap. It was really good, but it left me with the impression that I’d just been cheated. A little over half an hour of sitting there, I hear Erica’s voice float over the shrubs and she comes up a little later, dusty, with patches of wet on her pits and chest area, and just as caked with dirt like me.
Her friend soon follows and all I can think about is how dusty he must be if even his grey khakis couldn’t camouflage shit well. She smiles tiredly as she comes over, flops flat on the ground and closes her eyes. I glance down at her, squinting, wondering if she realises how hot it is and that all kinds of animals have probably peed where her head’s at.
When they were all rested I broached the subject of going round the mountain to see the summit and immediately get shot down. Which I totally understood because they’d just got here, but I really did want to go all the way around, and so I told them they didn’t have to right away and they could wait for a few more minutes. Having said that I jumped to my feet, grabbed my stick, and backward-talked them into compliance. They would follow after fifteen minutes.
I started out into the bush with an open mind, and it was even paced for a good kilometre until the whitish-grey fine soil started showing up. And an incline came out of the woodwork. I’d thought the climb to the crater was tricky. This was worse.
It was literally steep straight from the bottom. You had to find crevices and plants. It was terrifying. Especially when you happened to gaze over to your left and see the gaping maw of the crater yawning at you, the trees inside it looking like straight teeth, the ground too hard and unforgiving. I made it my mission then to concentrate on getting my fingers around the next hold, nothing else mattered, and that in itself was a task because you were also fighting abject terror, strained in such a position. I can’t say how many times I almost slipped, and how many times I got too scared to move. In retrospect, I might have tried to keep a sharp head but I realise that wouldn’t have been easy. Not with shrubs that seemed to slide out your hand when you let go of the rock to secure your weight. You were also breathing in a lot of dirt because of how close you were to the earth. If you consider how long you waited sometimes when you were gathering the courage to continue, you might say it was no surprise you got raging flu the next day. You remember that time you were caught between those crevices then you coughed up all that white stuff.
In the thick of battle, all sweaty and panicky, I came to the conclusion I was carrying too much armour. In this case, my walking stick. Many rational people would have noticed by now, how hard it would be to secure holds on tiny openings and slippery shrubs, clutching a walking stick all the while. The thing is I did not want to leave it when I wasn’t sure if I’d find it on the way back. And given the terrain, I think that was very logical. For the second time that day, I was talking to myself about sticks. In the middle of a mountain climbing expedition. I was getting all the points. But in all sincerity, I did not want to leave it behind. This treacherous climb could not go on indefinitely, and I had a feeling I was really going to need it in the vague, smoky future.
After about forty-five minutes of crawling on my stomach, or, if you fancy, Smeagoling, the summit came out under my feet. A broad expanse of open space came up like I’d just been thrust into a vacuum. The sun, now so low as to give the impression of Donald Duck putting his feathers back on, was making me wink at her, shading my eyes against her like she was hanging her bare legs out. The summit in itself was not a very big space, perhaps 50meters dia. Oval shaped, only wide across the middle, sparse of plants and bumpy along the edges. There was a short, wooden sign on the far side denoting the summit statistics. And on the back of it were, as you’d expect, initials; hundreds of them, in chalk or carved into the wood, of the many who’d dared risk life and limb, wanting to prove that they, too, were fun and adventurous. As I gazed out, I noted that there was an elevated level of awe at this height, everything seemed somehow finer, and more, connected to everything else. I could see the distinctions at the edges of the Great Rift Valley; the inner sides, the walls of it as they progressed up and deeper North. Little clumps of trees and vegetations on otherwise flat grasslands. Tiny human settlements that seem to come out of the ground like breakouts on the skin. No, but really it was beautiful.
The last leg was soothing. You go forward and down the other side of the summit, you don’t turn back. And but for the mad dash down from it (you truly could not walk, because of the incredibly slippery gravel), it was like a pleasant evening stroll in the wild. For the range was mostly level all that side, no loose dirt or crowding stone, and the sun was low behind me. Rather quiet, with a soft breeze, the distant chirps of nocturnal birds as they rose for the night’s hunt, the softness of savannah grass swaying around your knees. It was majestic. Plus my stick came in handy, I moved some of my weight (I was really tired). Opening my arms, I closed my eyes and just stood there, giving in to the urge of embracing mother nature. Feeling equal parts insignificant and free. Hopeless yet unburdened. I was bound to her and she to me.
In all realness, I’d forgotten I’d come with friends, and so I made a full circle, came back to the lip of the crater where we first reached, and descended with the ease of an eel on rocks, feeling quite proud of myself for completing the circuit. In my musings, I did not take into account how dark it was starting to get, and what that implied. So when a bush to my left shivered and I caught movement off to the right out the corner of my eye; movement that seemed decidedly flat on the ground, a full two seconds before it disappeared, I was rattled. My good mood shattered. Caution surged up in me like a wave and I held my trusty stick at the ready.
Calm down. I made it back to the parking lot safe.