It is Sunday, March 6, 1932, and a group of enthusiastic young people are about to embark on the Durban Ramblers Club’s (as it was then known) very first hike led by Len Wainwright.
We are told they hiked along the Umgeni River bank, traversing sand and some rocky ground. Their lunch-time destination was Natal Estate pump house.
Fast forward to the modern day Dusi Marathon, where commentators mention “paddlers have just passed the pump station”.
Trying to get some perspective on that first hike, I made enquiries and learned that the pump house (now a ruin) in question is near two weirs, some 8km-10km upstream from the Umgeni River bridge.
Along the way, those early hikers passed some Africans, who apparently remarked in English, “They are training for the Chinese army!”
The tired hikers finally got back to the Umgeni Road tram terminus at 7pm.
Marge Blake, 83, and a long-time member of the club (she joined in 1949), shows the same tenacious spirit, but even she is in awe of those early hikers. “They walked so far in a day, we are soft by comparison,” she said.
This year the club is celebrating the past 80 years with a series of picnics and away trips (they regularly organise trips to different destinations). Recently club members from several different decades gathered at a guest farm in the Dargle area to reminisce.
As she showed us some newspaper cuttings of early hikes, Blake frequently remarked on the fitness levels of those founder members of the club.
Among her fondest memories are the lunch-time drink, which everyone looked forward to eagerly. “There was nothing like tea from the billy, with condensed milk, and I will never forget Lindy Lindhorst faithfully carrying the billy up and down hills, so we could have our tea,” she said.
Asked about her own favourite hikes, she mentioned Hammarsdale and Umzinyathi Falls. Then she pointed out routes chosen as the first members stretched their legs. For example, while the main party took a train to Avoca, then walked to their destination at Umzinyathi Falls, a small group chose to walk from Pinetown across country via New Germany.
What was particularly fascinating, was how the countryside has changed since the 1930s. When visiting Palmiet Valley, I learn they hiked through Sydenham and Clare Estate towards Westville. According to the cuttings, they encountered “the healthy mielie fields of native gardens, as well as thousands of locusts which flew into the air from these fields”.
Crossing the swiftly-flowing Palmiet River, they climbed up a steep ridge. Lots of pineapples were grown in this area and they bought some to eat and take home.
Easter camp has been a tradition since the club’s inception. Getting to the first such camp at Inchanga shows that lie-abeds would never have contemplated joining them.
Eleven people met at Durban station and took the 3.10am train, arriving at Inchanga at 5.30am, where they camped on a bend in the Umgeni River. One of the highlights of the weekend was sliding over smooth rocks into a deep pool below a waterfall – many bathing costumes took strain.
At the Dargle weekend, I asked some of the other older members, who joined in the 1950s, to recount their memories.
Garry Rabie recalled arriving at Drakensberg Gardens on Friday evenings, then hiking by torchlight to Pillar Cave. He also remembers the days of Berg contour trips.
“One half of the party would start at one end (for example, Cathedral Peak) and the other half at the other end (Champagne Castle). As they met in the middle, they exchanged car keys, driving each others’ cars back to their homes,” he said.
In some respects times have changed little. It seems some of those early male hikers never brought any food and the women brought extra to feed them. On the other hand, they guys always served the girls coffee in bed.
The story is told of one of the men who placed a dry cowpat on a plate and said: “Here you are ladies, cake.”
Val van der Spuy said her husband Monty decided she would be good marriage material because at one camp she had fried six dozen eggs without breaking one.
Blake and Monty van der Spuy said in the early days, before the dishwasher was invented, all the pots and pans were scoured down with river sand.
Many agreed that travelling on top of the tarpaulin of the grub truck had been fun.
As day hikes were all reached by truck, traditionally there was competition to see who could get the women to double up with them on the ride home. Rabie and Mick Thomas reminded the other men how they all used to race back to the truck at the end of a hike so they could claim a spot behind the cab. “There was no wind there, so we could entice the girls to sit in front of us,” Rabie joked.
Rambler Mike Wigley, they said, was one of the first people to hike the entire South African coastline.
But it wasn’t just hard-slog hiking. The Ramblers put on shows at camp, there was the famous Spring Ball at which everyone dressed up formally, they held socials and monthly slide shows.
One of the oldest hiking clubs in the country, the Durban Ramblers Hiking Club is still going strong. In an age when walking is somewhat out of fashion, it is still attracting new members.