Guest Post: The Pellaberg Traverse

Today’s post is a little campfire story from my friend Ben Melosh. Ben is a fellow Californian working here at McGill with Christie Rowe studying brecciation and earthquake processes. Check out his personal site HERE. Without further ado, here’s Ben.

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We broke camp late and headed toward the long ridge. Our basecamp was along the abandoned mine road that led to the boarder past the game camps of Pellaburg. Just the night before, deep ground-shaking footsteps had silenced us, stealing a toast from our lips. In the dark imagination surrounding our small fire, what could have been a Zebra turned into a Rhinoceros pounding over scree just out of sight. The local farm hands had told us there were no Rhinos here, just in the surrounding game parks where they were harried by rich American hunters. They said that the game parks were all fenced off.

By the time evening came again our packs were heavy, but not with food, our food was gone, our water low. We carried rocks now in their place, rocks that tell an ancient story of struggle in the deep earth. The sun was at the horizon throwing shadows behind every stone. We guessed at an hour of dusk and then an hour of dark to carry our burden back to the truck. This was not going to be a hike for people who like to talk about hiking. I looked at Louis. My field partners’ loaded pack slipped from his shoulder and he caught it on his broken arm as he set it down. He quietly repeated the word: “ouch”. You can learn a lot about a person in the bush; Louis was tough. We were going to make it back.

We headed north up the largest ridge, from there we would just have to hike the ridge top to the west until we cut again toward the north, dropping partway down the ridge to a saddle were we had set basecamp. Simple enough. The steepest part of the hike came first and was the easiest. The sunset cast long African rays through purple-blue clouds. We reached the ridge crest as the sky turned dark purple-gray and a lone quiver tree silhouetted black against the rising ecliptic. The moon was a sliver. We took a moment to enjoy our progress and drank our remaining water; on the map it was smooth sailing from here on out.
Louis’ long legs seemed to gracefully hover over each stone and bush as we stepped from dusk to dark. It took more and more time and effort to place each footstep. In the dark the sharp boulders and loose scree became indiscernible from the surrounding hill slope save for the halo of our headlamps. And we had somehow lost the ridge. I secretly hoped my pack was heavier than Louis’, as an excuse for slowly falling further behind. But I knew that my pack was not heavier; Louis was tougher. Side slopping westward in the total dark, we could barely make-out the faint hint of the ridge crest way above us to our left. To our right was a deep ravine. Blackness.
Then we spied it, a faint white-silver glimmer in the distance, much further below us and off to the northwest, it was the truck. We regrouped, and started to doubt ourselves, staring intently into the darkness where the faint and occasional glimmer would appear. It was in the correct direction, at about the correct distance and some of these hill slopes looked familiar. Plus we had been hiking for about two hours; figuring it must be the truck we started down.
When we hit the game fence we knew we were lost. There wasn’t supposed to be a fence, we had planned to backtrack our course of two days prior and we had never crossed a fence. Out here a fence means game park. It sunk in fast, we were on the wrong hill and that glimmer of white-silver hope in the distance was not the truck. We had no choice but to follow the fence back up, back up to the ridge we should never have left. When the fence crossed over a cliff we had no choice but to throw our packs and crawl under, into the game park. We continued our way toward the ridge in what we hoped was the final up hill push, the weight of our packs and our pace now the least of our concerns.
When we reached the ridge top we were tired, thirsty, and starting to get cold. The wind blew hard and our headlamps cast narrow beams and broad shadows behind the low shrubs on the lunar sand blown crest. When we laid down our packs I was worried we would not be able to lift them again, although the prospect of sleeping in the park was not appealing.
Then I remembered, of course, I had waypointed the truck with my GPS two days before. I had made a habit of doing this in previous years, just for this occasion, but had almost forgot when it mattered. I flipped through my notebook and fired up the handheld GPS unit. I could feel the relief lifting our shoulders.
With the GPS running it still took us about another hour before we knew we were close. When we finally cleared the last hill and turned north less than half a kilometer from the waypoint, we still could not see the truck. It was pitch black and clouds had blown over the sliver moon. The final descent to the truck was much steeper in the dark than we remembered. We could not see the truck until we were within 20 meters and her beautiful license plate shone back at us.
After collapsing into our bags in the haze before sleep I realized that although we had crossed into the game park, we never crossed out. Footsteps.
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