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Trek4Mandela: Stepping it up to get in shape for the big day

Trek4Mandela hikers pause for the rest of the group to catch up at the Suikerbos Nature Reserve. Picture: Kevin Ritchie

Trek4Mandela hikers pause for the rest of the group to catch up at the Suikerbos Nature Reserve. Picture: Kevin Ritchie

Published Feb 7, 2018


Johannesburg - Every journey begins with the first step. I don't know who wrote that first – it’s something that I've become more used to seeing on the back of those little packets of sugar you get in restaurants for your tea, but here we are.

There's about 50 of us. It's early on a Saturday morning, about an hour south of Joburg, close to Heidelberg. We are at the Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve so-called, according to the internet, because of the Transvaal Suikerbos or sugarbush. I couldn’t tell you what a sugarbush is. 

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What I do know is that I’m in the middle of a beautiful 12 000 hectare nature reserve with sizable hills.

Most of the 50 of us are hoping we will be summiting Kilimanjaro come July 18 this year, Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday. We're part of the Trek4Mandela climb. The rest of us are here as supporters, doing the hike for fun.

I’m nervous. I’m not alone. Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive Sello Hatang speaks before we set off: “This is a special year. You know your why, and we hope that it will drive you to do more.”

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And with that we’re off. Single file, walking determinedly out of the car park and into the reserve. There are veterans among us, some who have climbed Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak at 5 895m above sea level, but are coming on this expedition to do some good and keep girl children at school by raising money for sanitary pads – and there are those who are slaying demons.

As for me, I’m a bit of both. I love the idea of doing this for charity, particularly one that is as close to my heart as Caring4Girls and Million Comforts, but I’m stoked at the bucket list aspect too – especially for someone whose idea of adventure is to tune into the Discovery Channel with a packet of crisps on my lap and a glass of Coke in my hand. The closest I’ve come to Kilimanjaro is listening to Johnny Clegg.

The chat is good on the climb. Plenty of inside info on Kilimanjaro, the kit you need, things to avoid, things to do. Before long we are at the top of a hill, only to immediately start our way down. We do this numerous times. My brand new mate, Vic, tells me of the need to replenish my energy. 

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He’s a walking supermarket of food; fruit, energy bars, peanuts. I haven’t packed a single one, just a couple of bottles of water which I klapped hours ago. Shamelessly I accept his largesse as we stop for a break after three hours on the trail.

Just after midday, we’re finished. To my absolute astonishment, we’ve walked 17 kilometres. It’s time to say goodbye to new friends, promising to meet the next day at the Westcliff Stairs. 

Kevin Ritchie tackles the Westcliff Stairs.

By the time I get home, I’m finished too. My legs give out and I watch South Africa losing to India like a brain-dead zombie – the Proteas aren’t that much better either.

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On Sunday, it’s time for the stairs. I’ve heard about them. I’ve watched video clips of my colleague – and real mountaineer – Omphitlhetse Mooki going up them like a gazelle. There are 200 steps of them, all weirdly spaced.

We have to do five sets up and down – and then we will be done with our first formal session. By 7.30 on a Sunday morning, the stairs are like the N1 north on a Monday rush hour. 

Suddenly I’m done. Richard Mabaso, whose idea this all is, is at the foot of the stairs for a last brief. He’s evangelising about fundraising, training, Kili, having fun. I’m trying to stop my thighs throbbing with a life of our own.

Next month, we’re off to the Drakensberg for three pole hero Sibusiso Vilane to start showing us the ropes. I don’t know whether to laugh or weep.

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