“Well, that’s just ridiculous,” I mumbled to myself.
Having ingeniously taken most of the week off leading up to the 2016 White Mountain Music Festival to really get stuck into what is my favourite festival on the South African calendar, we arrived with significantly less paraphernalia than what would usually be required on a camping weekend in the Central Drakensberg.
For the first time in our music festival history, we booked a chalet at the White Mountain Lodge which had some novel features like electricity, running water, a proper mattress that wasn’t inflatable or on the floor and a fridge to keep some beers cold. It was simple and comfortable and quite waterproof.
Drown the weather worries
The sun was absent from its usual arc in the sky as we explored the still empty festival grounds in the late afternoon. A crisp wind insisted on bringing some rain to harass everybody, so we found a warm spot near the fireplace at the lodge’s Tom’s Tavern to have a nervous discussion about the predicted weekend rain and whether we’d brought the appropriate gear for the second edition of the TRAIL magazine LoveTrail 15km trail run. The route takes the most direct path ±500m up and then down the nearby White Mountain (which can get disagreeable if the weather insists on being miserable) and explores the surrounding grassland and woody forest in the valley beyond the festival. We decided to drink a few more beers before rushing to any conclusions, but eventually forgot what was initially so worrying about being cold and wet and stuck on top of a mountain in the first place.
White Mountain is the best
Like quiet contentment finds its way to flow through your heart while falling asleep in the comforting warmth of the sun’s light on an icy day, this music festival fills the air you breathe with bits of magical charm that you can’t prevent from infecting every part of your body with happiness. You really cannot help but to allow it to overwhelm you; and it seems to happen to everyone because only the most gentle, kind and genuine humans seem to flock here every year. When the sunshine prevailed through the veil of the clouds, there was much lazing about and games of catch and stand up paddling and laughter and giddy children and a few high fives as the game of giant Jenga got to critical levels; and when the clouds closed out the sun and the temperatures sank back into the earth then fires were lit and huddled around and strangers were met and stories were told and music was played and stars were stared at and spicy burritos were gobbled up. Regardless of the weather, connections were made – with the earth and with each other. These are the simple moments that make for special times.
There are some memories that blur into obscurity where the details have to fight their way to being recalled. It’s like you’ve wrapped your brain up in a thick mohair blanket and then ask the thoughts to find their way through– it’s all a bit dull and slow and clumsy. Music festivals are no different. A lot of what happens is only remembered once the unfortunate photographic evidence is posted on social media. Add a wayward decision about whether another tequila is a reasonable idea or not into the mix and there is sure to be some vigorous un-tagging on Facebook before your boss finds out what you were really doing on your “sick” day.
Loving LoveTrail once more
Having the LoveTrail run thrown into the weekends’ festivities really does make it distinguished. By shaking up those brain cells a little, especially considering this run isn’t a meek trot up and down the mountain, it is easily stored in the memory banks of happy times.
With fuzzy Saturday morning heads and a few weighty concerns about the misty blanket of fog intending on wrapping itself around the festival grounds, we received our race-briefing to go up the mountain, come down again, not to trample on the plants that look like brains, to follow the many yellow ribbons and markers showing the way and mostly, to have fun.
Away we launched and put the fast tarred road section behind us to file into undulating single track alongside the jagged teeth of the small ravine that the river had cut into over many years. The morning chill made itself known as we lost a few metres in altitude while the sun was struggling to burn its way through the stubborn overhead clouds.
A few curious local cows raised their heads from their mouthfuls of juicy breakfast grass to give a ponderous look at the ruckus we were making while we settled into our breathing and into our thumping strides.
The 15km runners veered off to the right to quickly make up the loss in altitude with a short and sharp climb over tufted grassland and a tar section leading up to the first water point. This was a moment to briefly stock up on delicious running fuels supplied by 32Gi in the form of their bars and their yummy berry juice. With the almost-500m climb to come, some (who had done this last year) hiked this two kilometre section at walking speed, while those with extraordinary superpowers continued at an envious pace. There are two sections of steep rock face where horizontal no longer exists. If you accidentally dropped the banana you were carrying for a snack later, it would disappear into the abyss quicker than a Samsung Note 7 goes up in flames.
The summit, the mist, and the missed
My running glasses had completely fogged up and as they’re quite a strong prescription, having them on or taking them off resulted in much the same vision. Every step and every foot-strike was a surprise as I struggled through my vigorous short-sightedness over rocks, tufted grass and around small fynbos bushes. I simply had to make the choice to worry about not being able to see where I was going and stumble along or to give in to the faith of my body’s ability to react to the changing terrain as I picked up the pace towards the turn-around point at the summit. I ran as fast as I could to the top and arrived quite exhausted. I took a break long enough for two people to pass me and I had the chance to reflect on standing in the same spot last year, where the day was blindingly hot, the views lasted until forever and the eagles floated below where I stood. I took a moment last year to make a wish for a dear friend’s boy who was very sick in hospital when he really should have been at home.
This year was different. The clouds and the fog and my misted up glasses were completely obscuring my view outwards. I knew that the spectacular rolling hills and the shimmering grasslands and the piercing blue skies were still there, only I couldn’t see them anywhere but inside my mind. It was cold and damp and I stood there thinking how my wishes and energy that I tried to project last year just weren’t enough, because earlier this year Sam died. He was 15 months old and had been born with a horrible rare disease called Central Core Disease which was part of his daily struggle to breathe. Infection finally overpowered his immune system and his little body began to shut down until, on 22 July 2016 he took his last breath on this earth. I stood there confused. I stood there torn. I stood there. Shattered.
Refuel to the finish
I don’t remember much from the downward leg back to the bottom of the mountain. I was running without being able to see anything more than the green and brown blur of sand and grass rushing under my feet. The second water point refueled my tummy and I took a heavy look back at that mountain with both sadness and also hope in my heart.
We crossed over the tar road for the final time and ran single track contour lines that joined the hills together with only mild undulations. The pace had therefore picked up significantly and vigorous concentration was required to not only follow the yellow markers, but also not to get stuck in the spiteful little thorn bushes that grew with their tentacles growing into the footpath. I failed at both of these things because I only really concentrated on following anything that looked yellow and nobody told us that nature had decided to put a hundred million bright yellow flowers along the route. They led me off the planned path and directly into a thicket of tiny curved thorns that stab and grab and hold at your legs from absolutely every direction until all you can do is stand there saying, “Ow ow ow… oww… ow and ow!”
Eventually removing myself from the treachery of the incorrect path and suitably readjusting my focus, the third and final water point fueled me well enough to tackle the technical forest section, climb the last push up to the local village, through their quiet streets and onward towards the cheering, jumping and general craziness of the TRAIL magazine race crew at the finish line along the green lawns of the dam wall. I knew for sure right then that an ice cold craft beer was not going to be too distant in my future.
This run is amazing and it seems no matter what baggage you take with you to drop off at the top of the mountain, you always come back with a renewed spirit and enchantment in your blood. If I could send a message to my seven year old self, sitting there on the edge of his bed, it would be something like, “Not everything needs to make sense – getting told to put your shoes and socks on doesn’t actually mean you should put your shoes and then your socks on, because that’s just the wrong way around and you would look silly. Oh and run up lots of mountains – you might at least find some answers to your troubles up there!”