Please don’t tell my husband, but I loathe walking. In fact I didn’t move much at all until I met him, and it was only out of curiosity during our courtship that I let him introduce me to the Lake District (”Crikey”, I thought, “Mountains? In England?”.) But he bought me hiking boots, and sometimes, feeling guilty, I take them for an airing.
That’s why I ended up last November scrambling around Cape Point in South Africa along the Hoerikwaggo Trail.
“Tell me when there’s a view,” I gasped to my girlfriends. They thought I was joking. We were surrounded by an azure sky and aquamarine oceans. But my legs had gone wobbly at the unexpected bouldering, and I was too scared of tripping to take my eyes off the ground.
To my relief, after an hour, the path levelled out to a gentle undulation. I emptied the sand from my boots and laced them super tight. We squinted down at the sea, searching for Great Whites. Charlotte was developing an unhealthy obsession with Africa’s extensive selection of homicidal creatures and was threatening us with a shark dive once we’d conquered Table Mountain in three days’ time. Failing to spot any killer fish, we had a consolatory snack, and I looked at the map.
It was not a reassuring sight. We had only gone a mile, and had nine to go. But our campsite closed in six hours. We needed to get a wiggle on.
With renewed purpose, we shut up and got going; at least Charlotte did. French-born Latifa – six weeks pregnant and reeling with heat and nausea – shrugged and said, “I ‘ave one speed.” I hopped around annoyingly at the back, encouraging her to discover another.
We were craning to spot our scheduled lunch venue. A building emerged over the horizon, but refused to get any closer. A family of baboons enjoying a picnic on a rock just made us feel hungry. And isolated. Apart from a prehistoric black lizard, they were the sole creatures we’d seen all morning. We were three women alone in a game park, armed with a Swiss army knife, a leaking bottle of TCP and some emergency chocolate.
Suddenly Charlotte froze. Latifa and I careered into her.
“Snake” she hissed. “Snake”.
For a nanosecond I thought “You wish.” Then I peered over her shoulder and saw an enormous golden brown serpent slither around a rock on the path, and head towards us.
Time stood still. We stood still. The snake did not. I have never seen anything move so fast.
“Back,” Charlotte urged. “Slowly.”
As a breathless six-legged unit, we reversed, until, many metres later, with the snake now out of sight, it seemed safe to stop. Wild-eyed with adrenalin, we leapt around from one foot to another, swearing with abandon and scanning the shrubbery frantically in case the beast appeared again. What on earth was it? Where had it gone? How were we to move forward? You were supposed to stay still, we knew, but for how long? What if it was lurking on the path? Waiting for us?
Charlotte phoned our local guide, who’d lectured us so enthusiastically that morning on dealing with threatening animals. What was the best way to check the path was safe, she asked? He recommended stones, to throw into the scrub and frighten anything away. Latifa and I looked at the sandy ground, and picked up some twigs.
Where exactly were we? I heard him ask.
“We’ll be at the Visitor’s Centre soon,” Charlotte lied, “just a couple of minutes.” It was not the moment for a telling-off about our lack of progress. “What do you think it was?”
“Oh”, he said, “for sure, a cobra.”
“But it didn’t have a hood!”
“That only comes out when it’s about to strike.”
I cannot recommend “Possibility of venomous snakebite” as a motivation when walking, as we stalled at every rustle in the scrub. However, “Possibility of being locked in a game park overnight” works exceptionally well – for me in any case. Ignoring my burning ankles, I charged up and around the steep green peaks of the Cape for the next four hours like a woman possessed. Latifa, now pleading for an early death, was kept company by Charlotte in the rear. I confess to thinking that at least one of us should get out alive, and nobly took on the responsibility.
Thankfully, we all made it. And that evening, gathered together around the smoking braai with some beers, there was nothing quite like the exhilaration of reliving the Great Snake Encounter. Despite sunburnt armpits, and agonising patches of micro-blisters in the pattern of the knit of my socks, I had, secretly, had an amazing day. Walking.
But please don’t tell my husband.
This story – to my absolute excitement – was awarded a ‘Highly Commended’ in the Bradt Travel Guides New Travel Writer of the Year competition, January 2017. The theme was ‘Brief Encounter’, and entries had to be between 600-800 words. You can see the 3 short-listed entries here. Well done them.
PS: Charlotte and Latifa (still pregnant and feeling awful) have been very good humoured about this; thank you so much for being such fabulous travelling companions. Latifa points out that I failed to mention taking a photograph of the cobra as it approached. So here it is. PLEASE don’t anyone tell us it was harmless after all…