I’m standing at the bottom of one of the largest rocks in the world. The vast wall of stone is staring back at me, testing my will, mocking me. The sky is murky grey, and the wind has a chill that hasn’t been felt for a few days- a reminder that winter is still lurking in the air. I don’t have time to stare for long before I’m caught in the steady steam of people in colorful team shirts, filing up the path that leads to the top of the mountain. This annual test of endurance, known as Sibebe Survivor, attracts people from all over Swaziland. Well over 3,000 people have gathered to climb up this rock– 7km’s up and then 7km’s back to the bottom.
We follow the crowd down the path and watch the colors blur into tiny specs in a single line up the face of the rock in the distance. I, somehow, managed to down 4 cups of coffee by 7am when we left the house. The caffeine is vibrating in my veins, and I feel like I could conquer anything. After 15 minutes the ascent begins. Soon after the path splits. To the right is a steady, even paced climb with a few bends and a couple extra meters of path. At our left it has been taped off, but a few rebels take this as a short cut, and we watch them crawl, with hands and knees, up loose rocks and gravel straight up to the main path. Clearly a shorter distance, but more hard work- we take the left path. We’ve only gotten 1km into the climb, and I’m out of breath feeling the burn in my lungs, thighs, calves and the swelling in my fingertips.
George is enthusiastically climbing ahead, leaving me behind, and overtaking the herds of people. There is over a thousand people ahead of us, at minimum, this is not a race we are going to win. The rocks are slippery, and the stones are loose from the stampede of people before us. This path is narrow, and in distress from the streams of water that flood it during the rainy season. I’m about to beg for a break, out of breath running to catch up and sweating despite the cold, when we reach a small area of flat land. We stop a moment to take in the view. We are about half way up, and already the cars and homes at the base are specs as small as ants. Its an amazing view. We stop for a few pictures– anything to waste a little time, when we see a young man behind us in a wheel chair. Its just the motivation I need.
I’m left speechless as I watch this guy roll himself up this rough, steep, uneven terrain with the strength of only his barreling arms. Strangers take turns, assisting the chair over large rocks, or steep areas, but the sweat and swelling muscles on the man’s arms are proof he is doing most of the work. I suddenly feel inspired, if not a little lazy, walking next to this man.
Its not long after that we reach a long stretch of grassy plains on top of the large rock. The grass is beautiful and long, blowing in unison along the narrow path. Great boulders teeter on the outskirts of horizon, seeming to rise from nowhere. The path isn’t so crowded here, as some people have split off to explore caves, and caverns hidden in the large piles of boulders. My legs are on auto pilot at this point, I don’t feel any burn, or even consciously think about the act of walking. I’m just moving, steadily upwards, towards the top of the mountain, taking in the view.
After about 2 hours of walking, we are greeted by a large group of people gathered the edge of a steep drop; the face of the rock that stands over 7km’s from ground level. It’s slick, and nearly straight down. No trees, no grass, no greenery of any kind. This IS a giant rock. I’ve never seen anything like it. We sit back from the edge and watch the people collect as they celebrate making it to the top. There is a huge rock behind us, about the size of a 2-story house, it suddenly looks tiny, like a pebble, when compared to the rock we are resting upon.
My legs are shaking, and the wind up here is sharp and biting with nothing to break it. I can’t celebrate for long, we still have to get down. From all the stories i’ve heard about this hike, the getting down is the hard part- they are right. The front of my thighs are burning, my ankles are cracking, and my feet are sliding on the gravel as if I were on ice. George is grasping my hand all the way down, as I slid, relying on his strong tread on his sneakers. He catches me a few times, as I nearly tumble on sandy areas, and a few more times when my feet forget that I’m walking and I stagger in a downward direction. I feel like I’m drunk as I waver down, unable to tell my legs to stop or my feet to brake. I yelp a little and we laugh at both the strange sound each time and from delirium.
At some point along the way we decide to help clean up the trails. It was probably started by some near death experience I had while walking, and stepping on an empty water bottle, but never the less it became a mission. The whole way down, the 3 of us collected empty water bottles, plastic bags and candy wrappers. We filled my backpack, and both arms every few meters and left them in a tidy pile at the base of the trail markers as we passed. A few other people joined when they saw us. It was such a beautiful walk, it felt a shame to see it covered with litter- not to mention it gave me something to focus on besides the ache in my legs.
When we all made it down the rock alive, we headed to Bombaso’s for an after party. All our friends had been on a team for Sibebe Survivor, and we were all looking forward to a nice cold one. It was a rough climb, but considering I spend most of my time sitting at a desk these days and did the 14km’s in a pair of treadles TOM’S, I was quite proud of myself. It was a good day to be in SD.