The height of good cheer

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Gorgeous: Poplar trees flourish on the barren banks of a river near Rhodes. Pictures: tim rolston

There are a number of things that I enjoy about hiking up mountains. There are, of course, the views, the constantly changing scenery and the glimpses of the natural world and the private lives of its inhabitants. And then there is the sense of escape from the humdrum, noisy, busy and foolishly fast-paced life of the city – a brief abdication from that overcrowded, tense, stressful environment, the struggles and worries of which have a tendency to make us all selfish and unpleasant.

There is, of course, a measurable inverse mathematical relationship between elevation and population density. The higher you go, the fewer people you bump into, and for someone who values solitude, that is a huge plus. Second, and this time in direct proportion to the height, is that the people you do meet tend to be more pleasant. It is remarkable that as you progress upwards the numbers decrease while the cheerful “good mornings” increase.

This applies only on land – aircraft and cable cars don’t seem to function in quite the same manner, probably because the height reached requires no effort. Perhaps it’s not the elevation at all, just the toil required that makes the difference.

On Table Mountain you can only push the theory as far as Maclear’s Beacon, just over 1km above sea level, where you are likely to meet some very cheerful people. So what would happen, let’s say, if you could get twice as high – would there be half the people being twice as pleasant?

I recently put the hypothesis to the test by venturing up to 1 800m on a visit to what the locals enthusiastically refer to as “The Centre of the Universe”.

The journey required some toil, although not actual physical labour. The Centre of the Universe, at least according to its inhabitants, is Rhodes in the Eastern Cape, and it is tricky to reach. Not in the same way as the summit of Mount Everest, but a whole lot more remote than Camps Bay. The place lies on the borders of Lesotho, high in the mountains at the end of a tortuous dirt road and in the middle of nowhere.

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Schoolchildren make their way home in the soft afternoon light.

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It doesn’t really matter where you start your journey; you are in for hours of driving, flying or both, and when you near your destination you still have to face a gruelling and potentially dangerous hour of dirt roads, bumps, slippery slopes and hairpin bends. It might not actually be hiking, but it can prove onerous none the less.

Rhodes really is tiny. Originally formed by the subdivision of the farm Tintern in 1891, even today most of the erven remain unoccupied. The official permanent population of the hamlet is a mere 25 souls. There isn’t a shopping centre within rifle shot. Actually an intercontinental ballistic missile would run the risk of failure before reaching anything approaching urban sprawl, and the scenery is simply out of this world.

It presents a gorgeously barren landscape of high hills and rustic greenery, with the occasional verdant patch of cultivated land. Massive stone slabs and cliffs are cut into by the numerous rivers that crisscross the scene, carving out impossibly serpentine contours from the bedrock. This is harsh country, winters can be bleak, and even in autumn I was greeted with hail and frost. But the sense of peace is overwhelming.

Then again, be it the altitude or simply the daily struggle required, in places like this the inhabitants survive through co-operation. There is little of the dog-eat-dog urban existence. When you are this far out on the edge, pleasantness is a survival tactic – it simply doesn’t pay to be overly surly.

The town may or may not have diesel, onions or fresh bread, but if you are stuck, there is a good chance that someone will help you out. People don’t invite you to dinner because they owe you; they do it because they wish for your company. If your car breaks down the number of people you might see will be few, but the number that don’t stop to help will be fewer still. In short, it is a wonderful place.

I suppose the trip proved my theory: the place is high, remote, harsh and tricky to reach, the population is minute, and “good mornings” abound. It could simply be the elevation, but perhaps there is more to it than that; perhaps it is simply that some of us were not born to live cheek by jowl, pushing shopping carts and hooting in the traffic.

On my return to the big smoke the first gesticulating narcissist in the traffic reminded me of a T-shirt slogan. It said: “Copernicus called. You aren’t the centre of the universe.” Which perhaps means that Rhodes really is. - Sunday Argus

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