After the world’s best start to a ski season pounded Squaw Valley with snow from mid November to New Years, a week of skiing in Juneau, Alaska, and two competition stops of the Freeride World Tour in Europe, I checked the weather and found that East winds were blasting at home and the weather was calm and windless in South Africa. I called Swiss Airlines, and changed my ticket to fly from Zurich to Cape Town, South Africa, in order to visit a place very special to my friend and our fellow fun jumper, Julian Boulle. Being mid-winter it would have to be a short 7-day trip. The weather would need to hold in order to go and session in the mountains as we were hoping. I was drawn to South Africa for 3 reasons.
It was time for a week off skis. Competitions are draining. I’d been charging on skis for 2.5 months, with seldom a day off. It was time to use some different muscles, stretch, and gain life experience, strength and wisdom in the ancient mountains of Africa.
Julian spoke of the most beautiful places in the world for base jumping, no small statement considering his resume.
Sun. Warmth. Fun. Southern Hemisphere = summer.
I arrived to Cape Town and was immediately greeted by my homeless friend, Julian, and no baggage. Even though I was acclimated to the European time zone, I was a complete zombie from the 12-hour flight to Johannesburg and the 2 hour connection to Cape Town. We rented a car from Hertz, and basefari South Africa was underway.
Cape Town in summer is great. I was quickly revitalized by the freshest and tastiest fruit that I have ever encountered, and by soaking up some sun beside our friend Leander Lacey’s swimming pool. We spent the rest of the day gathering supplies for basefari. Big backpacks, books, sleeping bag, pad, headlamp, stove, groceries, the code to open the farmer’s gate in order to access the entrance to the canyon which we would trek 4 hours up into and spend several nights.
The next day the adventure began. We drove East Southwest from Cape Town and took an obscure turn after the town of Mustard, South Africa. Our gate code didn’t work, but we were greeted by the farm manager, a heavy set young man that welcomed us and gave us the gifts of fresh picked grapes and a ride to the edge of his land. Once there, we snapped a couple of pictures, filled our water bottles from an irrigation ditch, donned our packs and started walking. As the sun faded and I marched the level, dark sandy road, I knew there was no place in the world that I would rather be.
The terrain soon became rougher and rocky. Leander, an aspiring stunt coordinator and stuntman, lost cell service and finally got off the phone around dark. We stopped short of our goal at a watering hole and flat spot, camp for the night. We sat on the ground and were soon visited by half-scorpion, half-spider looking things that seemed like they were on speed. We encouraged them away and feasted on dinner, a grocery store cooked chicken, still warm. Julian warned that we needed to finish every last bite, otherwise the “kitty cats” would come for it. This marked the departure not so much from comfort zone, but from “normal zone”.
I am not a fan of snakes or spiders. I do not like the idea of them biting me. Things that are half scorpion and half spider fall into that category. On top of that, as conversation dwindled for the night, the sounds of the area did not. Night-time, here, was an orchestra of animal noises. Baboons, who we’d spotted only in silhouette from the nearby cliffs were barking at us, pissed. Crickets in South Africa sound like British ambulance sirens. There was most certainly a fight of some kind that we listened to, an animal won and an animal lost. We could hear the victim suffering after a bunch of harsh snarls. Not sure what it was, but my imagination went wild. That said, the jet lag and the hike were enough to put me out cold for the night and I awoke at first light comfortable in the soft sandy earth, half out of my sleeping bag, having slept great. I was energetic, thirsty and ready to keep hiking before it got hot.
We did just that, and entered a whole other world: the bush. Within 50 yards of camp we were walking in overhead grass. Before entering, Julian briefed us on traveling through such terrain. “This is the blister bush. Do not touch the blister bush. If you touch it, it reacts with your sweat and the sun and creates a blister that burns like absolute hell. Do not touch the blister bush. This is what it looks like. Be careful of snakes. Watch out where you place your feet on every step. The puff adder is a lazy bastard. If it hears you coming, it will not move. It will stay put and bite you if you step on it. If you want to look at the view, stop, look at the view and then continue walking while watching where you place your feet.” With that he was gone. Julian is 6 foot 6 inches and his stride and familiarity with the terrain carries him fast the mountains.
Bush travel was great. I was incredibly mindful, so I was never bored. In order to take one step, I used my hands to move bushes and grass out of the way, making sure that I was not moving blister bush or walking into it while I balanced the big pack. I’d then look down and place my foot on the next rock, boulder or patch of open earth. It was a whole new experience, so it was not tedious. Between looking for the “path”, for snakes, for blister bushes, for which way my friends had gone, looking at views and baboons, I stayed quite busy, and was a bit slow, but not too bad.
Soon the canyon tightened, and gratefully so, because the steep canyon walls provided shade. As the canyon walls tightened and we gained elevation, the baboons became aware and perturbed by presence. Their bark is a cross between a yell and a belch. It seems almost digitized, like it is coming through a megaphone or something. The baboons tossed rocks down the canyon walls in hopes of hitting us or scaring us away. They are not accurate bombers though, no Tim Linsecum’s amongst this crew. We just proceeded right on by, snapping a photo when we could and wondering what a face to face encounter would be like. Eventually I settled into a rhythm, cleared the tightest part of the canyon and started to gain views of the incredible walls that were our destination.
I was very pleased to find that the grass, although thick, was welcoming enough. If I walked through tall grass in summer in California or Nevada, I’d likely start sneezing. I tromped through the bush in South Africa in complete comfort. No sneezing, no itching. It was neither humid nor full of pesky insects. It was not unbearable dry either, it was green and usually we were not far from water. The temperature in the shade was perfectly warm, a pleasant contrast to freezing in a starting gate, 11,000 feet above sea level in the North facing shade of the Swiss Alps. It was paradise.
Our 3-night stay held a loose daily routine as follows:
- Rise before the sun
- Start hiking at first light
- Hike 2500 vertical feet to a wingsuit exit
- Stretch and pack parachute
- Eat lunch
- Rise around 5 PM
- Drink Roibos tea
- Hike to the lower wall (900ft overhanging wall)
- Jump lower wall and laugh
- Pack parachute and stretch again before sunset
- Cook and eat dinner
This routine was exactly what the doctor ordered. By the time I hiked down the mountain, I’d gained flexibility in my knees that I had not achieved since I was 19. Rising and falling with the sun is a nearly impossible practice in the short days of winter, bit it provided me with more sleeping hours than had been achieved during any week in recent memory. The absence of distractions, like internet and phone, gave us the usual refreshing experience that any good camping trip does. I grew as a human being a little bit too. One night, I woke up and about 12 inches from my head was a spider the size of my hand. This would normally freak me out, but somehow I felt comfortable with the arachnid and I moved about 6 inches away from him, rolled over and went to sleep.
We returned to Cape Town reluctantly. Our mountain sanctuary was tremendously difficult to leave. Bush travel on the descent was entirely different. We were better at it and more aware. Every 10 minutes our eyes wandered longingly upslope. We felt that we belonged up there, lost in our routine, detached from the outside world, but that was not reality. We had friends to visit, other cliffs to jump, climbing to do and planes to catch.
We spent a day at Cape Town’s generous local offering: Table Mountain. There we climbed simple routes and hiked and watched Julian fly his wingsuit with impeccable style. I rode the cable car down, rather than jump. Table Mountain is an expert skill level wingsuit flight that I was simply not feeling that day. We watched the sunset from nearby Lion’s head mountain and the next day went to another of Cape Town’s BASE jumping meccas: Banghoek mountain.
The Banghoek day trip was cool. Leander picked us up at 4 AM, we were hiking at first light, and hiked through another insanely cool canyon. I thought of our late friend, Shane McConkey a lot at Banghoek. Shane spoke extremely highly of the experience of hiking up this canyon and jumping the cliff, he was there just a few months before he died. A further reminder was Leander’s wingsuit. Shane having upgraded to a new suit, sold his to Leander on that trip. When Leander geared up, I asked if I could smell his suit (we never wash them). It smelled exactly like Lake Tahoe. The hike was everything Shane spoke of: narrow, tight, steep, beautiful and full of wildlife. We even spotted some Marijuana plants in precarious places. Base jumpers occasionally run into Rasta men tending to their bandit plants in the seldom traveled, but close to the city Banghoek canyon. The jump was fun, nothing radical, just a nice little 40-second wingsuit flight on the outskirts of Cape Town. It was cool to see Shane’s suit in the air, and we ended our session with a swim in a beautifully clear aqua blue reservoir.
It was time to go home. I felt great. Stronger, balanced, more flexible. Ready to ski!