Extreme Sport | From Desk Till Dawn

A trial of trails

Braving sheer cliffs and heat-induced delirium, James Henderson treks across South Africa’s Cederberg Mountains in the footsteps of a legendary botanist.

July 29 2011
James Henderson

There are times, flying the mahogany bomber back in London, that I should be careful what I wish for. An easy “Yes, that sounds like fun” – a familiar enough refrain in a life of adventure – can translate all too easily into a sore test of physical and mental mettle on the ground. And in this case, a sweat-streaked and heavily laden one that finds me tramping over the Cederberg Mountains in South Africa – in 35ºc heat, thighs and lungs straining at the start of a sheer-faced climb. And all in pursuit of plants.

I am retracing the steps of Francis Masson, who was Kew Gardens’ first plant hunter and led a life of adventure if there ever was one. During his travels, he was nearly taken hostage by escaped convicts on the slopes of Table Mountain and in 1797, en route to the young United States, he was captured by pirates. In 1779, he was sequestered for almost a year, at the pleasure of the French king, on the Caribbean island of Grenada (not a terrible place for a botanist to be a prisoner, it turned out).

But it was in South Africa that he spent the most time – 14 years in all. He was first dropped off there in 1772, by Captain Cook in HMS Resolution, after five months at sea. These days, with overnight flights both ways and a mere hour’s time change, it’s a canny call for a far-flung weekend of hard graft – involving decidedly not-for-the-faint-of-heart climbing – and discovery. So I am off to follow Masson’s daunting trail.

FRIDAY 1930

As we lift off from Heathrow, I mull on Masson’s brief, as instructed by Joseph Banks. It was to amass unknown plants, bulbs and seeds on behalf of George III’s collection at Kew. Masson made several journeys around the Cape; with just the weekend, I have set myself the challenge of crossing the Cederberg, a forbidding range of mountains 150 miles north of Cape Town. I won’t be taking an ox cart, but nor do I need to carry specimens. Instead, I’ll be self-contained, with food and gear on my back. It’s a while since I have hefted 20kg over mountains, so I will be arriving with a certain trepidation.

SATURDAY 0800

Touchdown in Cape Town. Within half an hour we are on our way north, into a vast, rolling landscape, patched sparsely with vineyards and olive groves. The road is so straight that windscreens five miles ahead glint in the sun. What Masson discovered here was truly extraordinary. The Cape, the southern tip of South Africa, is so different from the rest of the world that it ranks as its own floristic kingdom (it is one of just six around the globe – pretty much the whole northern hemisphere is another). Masson found not only unknown species but whole new plant families. Some plants would have looked unlike anything a European had ever seen before. Frankly, some still look a bit weird.

SATURDAY 1200

We arrive at a tiny farm in the Rondegat Valley and I am introduced to my guide Morne and his dad Papi. In 15 minutes we are on our way. No time to lose – but then I look up. The Cederberg rises above us, a soaring sandstone massif. Two vast stacks stand akimbo thousands of feet up; we head between them. The ground is impressively rough, eroded blocks having tumbled everywhere, but, luckily there is a path, originally built for forestry workers and now maintained for hikers. After an hour of sweat and strain we veer off to a waterfall in the cool of a shaded cleft. The water cascades in rivulets, craggy as a witch’s hand. Back on the open slope, the heat sears. As we climb, my pulse rate rams through the roof and my thighs start to strain in earnest.

Thirty minutes later we emerge, sweating, over a lip and onto one of the Cederberg’s plateaus. Now we can kick into a more leisurely gear and take some time to look around. The sandstone here has been eroded to its skeleton. Walls of rock, rust-red and sun-bleached grey, strike up around us. Their strata are so regular that they look like a DAB signal.

The Masson brief has made me look at plants in a new light. The Cape is known for its fynbos (literally “fine bush”), which covers the ground. Reeds, or restios, grow among the rocks, some standing erect in diagrammatic explosion, others more like those firework screamers that fly in random wiggles. Proteas appear. These plants can be anything from a fleshy-leafed flower flat on the ground to whole trees with chunky blooms. And there are succulents everywhere, hydra-heads on a shaggy stem and fleshy green tank traps. Masson was an excellent horticulturalist and selected specimens for their potential as garden plants. Britain took on a very different appearance because of the discoveries he and other travellers made in these spectacular surroundings.

This is taciturn, bloke-ish travel. Occasional comments, often in Afrikaans, cut the silence, but mostly we walk with our own thoughts. The Cederberg Wilderness Area is very impressive, if a little lunar. The region has been protected since 1973 and, as its name would suggest, it is home to its own cedar tree, which is now threatened. We pass stands of them and occasional individuals. The Clanwilliam cedar’s bark is as regular as the rock walls, like the armoured hide of an armadillo.

Our route takes us via the occasional shelters and water sources, descending into the clefts that gash through the mountains from north and south. In the heat I gaze longingly as we pass the inviting Crystal Pool, a stretch of water framed by rich green ferns. But onward and (sweatily) upward.

SATURDAY 1700

Then, at another stretch of waterborne reeds, Papi announces that we will stop for the night. Gratefully, I shrug off the rucksack and take a few minutes to cool my feet in the water. As dark approaches we boil up and eat, reading by the last of the light and then by torch before turning in.

There are leopards in the Cederberg. Just a few of them, very shy, I am assured – but I hope not very hungry.

SATURDAY 2000

On cue, an hour after dark, a warm wind howls down the mountainside. It keeps up all night, gusting and filling my sleeping bag like a windsock, ventilating it pleasantly. And no doubt sending the smell of human right down the valley. Luckily, no large cats put in an appearance.

SUNDAY 0600

Coffee at dawn. Again, there is not a cloud in the sky, so it will be mercilessly hot. We set off through a scape of vertical outcrops which stand like ninepins. Over a lip the cleft dives 1,000ft, opening into a massive valley. We, however, contour to keep our height. Eventually, we turn into a gulley. It seems as steep as a curtain, so we choose to sit for a breather. “Heart-attack gorge,” announces Papi.

The path switches back remorselessly, gradually picking off the elevation. This morning, with the laboured breathing comes a slightly delirious state of mind. A vertical stack of sandstone hovers on the skyline, taunting me. As it moves, it threatens to transform into a massive, single-finger insult. But later, as I look back from the top of the next switchback, it seems suddenly more like a thumbs-up. Clambering over the lip, we meet another stream. Never did water taste sweeter.

SUNDAY 1100

The high heartland of the Cederberg has become a moonscape of even odder erosion. The regular stretches of rock are now reduced to a convocation of 100ft rock stumps. And in the 35ºc delirium, curious shapes appear: here the stern of a galleon, there an outsize warthog.

SUNDAY 1400

Somehow the last few miles are always the hardest; this time they are certainly the hottest. We steadily come off the mountain, the footpath turns to a Jeep track and we reach the valley floor. In the distance are the white houses of our goal, Heuningvlei, an old mission village. We’ve made it. There is demob excitement – well, in a muted, manly way. We shake one another firmly by the hand.

Eventually, I say goodbye and am taken to the Bushmans Kloof hotel, a delightful oasis of green amidst all the rust red sandstone. The dust is so ingrained in my face that the chilled towel I’ve been handed becomes a mucky brown mess…

I am shown to a day room, serendipitously called Masson, and soak up the serenity of the surroundings. It takes a few moments, and a chilled rooibos tea, for my strident “walking” head to subside and adjust to the leisurely pace of the hotel.

SUNDAY 1700

It seems a pity to leave such a tranquil spot so soon, but there is a small plane to catch, then a larger one. After 45 minutes aloft, Table Mountain heaves into view on the horizon, its upper slopes scratched by the cloud fingers of a south-easterly trying to fix a grip. We are swallowed up by the Jumbos at Cape Town airport.

MONDAY 0645

I arrive at Terminal 5, dehydrated but well slept. More importantly, though, I am in awe of the Scotsman who logged so much adventure in pursuit of plants. Masson returned from his first three years in South Africa with around 500 new species (he found over 1,700 in his lifetime). And his spiky cycad is still to be seen at Kew, more than 200 years later.