One of the advantages of living on the side of a mountain is that you can take ecstatically scenic and breathtakingly energetic walks at the drop of a hat. Of course, the fact that a satisfying hike is only a matter of vaulting the garden fence and taking off up the near-vertical scrub beyond isn't to say that it's a pleasure of which I partake regularly; in fact, in the four months I've lived here I can honestly say I've surveyed the commandng view of the Kingdom that Sibebe Rock offers on a total of, er, two occasions. However, as is so often the case, it was the dogs that persuaded me to bump this total up by one.
I've had two dogs now for eight weeks and it's been exhausting. Bob is a lazy, ten year-old labrador and enjoys few things more than lying on the couch, head (or, occasionally and more painfully, feet) in my lap, while I take in the latest issue of Viz. This I can handle. It's my kind of dog ownership, and has been since I acquired the old boy when I first arrived in Swaziland. T-Bone, however, is smaller, more brown and altogether more energetic. Although I can handle him chewing on my shoes or tugging lamps from tables by the cable while I'm relaxing, his most recent invention (chasing Bob's tail, biting it, being chased by Bob and getting bitten) has proved more than my delicate sensibilites can handle. Quite apart from the wanton resultant destruction of my home, which now looks like a Baghdad penthouse, the sqeals of pain and delight which the toothy attention generates in T-Bone have proved more than my ears can handle on a nightly basis. With a heavy heart, I realised that the only path to restful evenings was to burn off some excess energy during the day. And with a still heavier heart (and suddenly very heavy-feeling legs) the realisation that a hike up the mountain was in order crept into my conscious like a bad case of 'flu.
We set off, after a hearty breakfast of corn flakes, at around nine on a Sunday morning, a time normally reserved for slipping in and out of a very pleasant doze. I had swapped my black boxers for a sexy turquoise pair of swimming shorts - if only to have a pocket in which to stash my keys - and a slightly stained blue shirt, which stayed buttoned up for a whole forty seconds. The sun beat down and I collected burrs and grass seeds in my socks, which prickled my feet as I slogged uphill. Eventually, we reached the garden fence and I looked back at the house, a mere speck now as it was a full thirty feet from where I was standing. This was going to be a long walk, even with the iced water that was chilling my hand so effectively.
After throwing the dogs over the fence the upward stomp became more robotic and soon the slope levelled off to a more horizontal patch, with shorter grass and puddles of cow crap to dodge. I paused briefly, Bob legging it here and there, sniffing at everything and clearly very excited to be out of the garden. T-Bone was not in evidence. I called and whistled and cursed myself for spending so much time teaching the little bastard not to crap on my floor when I could have been teaching him to come when called. At least mopping up excrement didn't involve descending and re-ascending precipitous hills. Eventually, however, I spotted a disturbance in the grass and occasional flickers of flapping brown ears and a white tail-tip told me that the puppy was still on the way. It occured to me that I might have grossly overestimated the speed of a creature with 5 inch legs. Then the grass in front of me burst open and a furball with a big grin popped out and wagged at me. I grinned back and turned to continue upwards.
I've never been an expert at climbing Sibebe so it didn't make a lot of difference to my entirely random route to make small adjustments, on T-Bone's behalf, away from the larger boulders; whilst Bob has enough about him in size and intelligence to make own his way up whichever route you take, T-Bone clearly had no such nous or physical advantage and would simply stop, when faced with something he couldn't get up, and whine until I came back to provide either vertical thrust or route consultancy services. By and by, however, we reached the halfway point of the main ascent and I flopped down under the shade of an inviting tree to enjoy the view and cough up the residue of the thousand-odd snouts I'd smoked since I last broke a sweat for energetic reasons.
T-Bone was still looking suspiciously energetic, considering how far we'd climbed and Bob looked frankly appalled at our slow pace, rushing about among the rocks looking for something exciting, like a venomous snake. As an ex-army dog (dishonourably discharged from the mine-sniffing unit because he wouldn't stop digging up the explosive charges he found - a persistence that would have won him a dramatic, if short, career in the field) Bob still has the remnants of long-march days in his blood and takes to sun-baked hikes with similar enthusiasm to that I bring to bedtime. We both have stamina, you see, but in very different ways.
Once my breathing had returned to normal (my pulse rate was screwed for the day so I didn't bother checking that) I reluctantly rose and stepped back out into the roasting heat. I was well aware that Bob, in his full-length black fur coat, was putting me to shame for heat endurance, but frankly I didn't give a toss. All I wanted now was to get to the top and back down again before the midday heat killed me. I don't think it was even half past nine at this point, but the ice in the water had melted.
The next stage, up to the saddle from which one enjoys the final assault, was both difficult and painful. Difficult because it's so damn steep and I can never remember exactly which way to go, so I always get caught halfway with nothing but a rock overhang above me, and painful because my shoes were now completely saturated with grass seeds, which take on the sensory presence of shards of hot broken glass when stuffed into your socks. It saddens me somewhat that nobody is proud enough of this national monument to mow the grass once in a while. I mean, what would it cost? I mopped at my brow and glared at my shoes. Can't you buy little shin-pad things to cover the front of your footwear? If not, you should. There's a fortune to be made somewhere. Trainers, after all, are great for running on smooth roads but terrible for long grass, where they seem to take on near-mystical effectiveness as grass seed scoops. In fact, I'm surprised they don't have empty shoes stuck in pic'n'mix trays in sweet shops, because mine would work a damn sight better than those pathetic plastic doo-dads that shed more liquorice shoelaces and pink foam prawns on the floor than into the bag.
It was with similar thoughts that I finally reached the saddle. T-Bone was flagging somewhat and although Bob was waiting for us at the top, the look of disdain had vanished entirely and now was replaced with an altogether more worried expression. "You don't mean to tell me," he seemed to ask, "that we're going all the way to the top today?" I looked at him wearily and wondered about that, myself. However, the psychology of Sibebe is excellent. From the saddle, not only does one enjoy a commanding view of Pine Valley but also a pleasant (and FLAT) stroll maybe half a kilometre to the next climb. By the time you reach Sibebe Rock proper, you're hugely invigorated and ready for the final effort to reach the top.
On this occasion, however, even the light breeze wasn't enough and as the nipple of the Rock became a towering monster above us I lost my nerve. We parked under a helpful boulder and I took off my shoes to extract a good fistful of grass from the skin of my feet. T-Bone found a puddle of stale rainwater and lapped tentatively at it before turning his small nose up and flopping onto the cool stone, but Bob made a beeline for the new discovery, slerking up huge gulps of its murky goodness before slumping his chest and forelegs into it with a satisfied grunt. Tough soldier dog my ass. Suddenly he looked like an old grandfather, dragged out on yet another of those pointlessly exhausting hill walks. The two panted like German porn stars and stared into space while their ribcages pumped like iron forge bellows. Their tongues appeared to have trebled in size and, in T-Bone's case, lolled out of his mouth and almost to the floor. T-Bone, in fact, appeared to be in no small amount of pain, squeaking slightly with each outlet of breath like a garden toy.
I squirted some of the now warm contents of my sports bottle into his mouth but he was more interested in the scant drops that fell on the rock beneath him, although his deep gasping for air made it difficult to lick effectively. The therapeutic effect of my essential schadenfreude was making me feel positively sprightly compared to these two invalids, but I wasn't feeling cruel enough to drag them all the way to the top today. I tipped my sunhat to the Rock and rose to my feet. Time to go home.
Three energetic youths had left the house but the sorry bunch who stepped out of the shade and back onto the path were an altogether more geriatric gang. My water was finished, Bob's will to live was almost expended and the puppy had gone into some kind of over-exertive toxic shock. He had, I noted as we scrambled accidentally down what had to be the most difficult route of descent, developed a certain amount of route intelligence, but did still require the odd nudge to get him over certain obstacles. Downhill, of course, it was all a lot easier and it wasn't long before we staggered into the house, dripping with sweat, in my case, and saliva, in theirs.
As soon as I stepped out of the breeze it was clear that we needed some more heavy-duty form of resuscitation than mere sitting-down so I grabbed the car keys, loaded the suspicious dogs into the car and drove down to the river. It's all of a ten-minute walk but frankly I didn't fancy (a) the walk back up to the house (I did say I lived, 'on the side of a mountain' not 'under a mountain') or (b) the tour des voisins, the race back and forth along the neighbour's fence as Bob baits their enormous guard dogs into a frenzy of hatred only just short of the level required for the two of them to eat the fence, and me for afters.
I parked and unloaded after judiciously waiting for the valley bus to pass, and threw the dogs in the river. Bob thought this was great and ran back to shake water over myself and tread on my cellphone, but T-Bone just sank. I jumped in and rescued him. He then stood in the shallows, barking remonstratively at the strong current that had made such a vicious attempt on his life, while I lay in the (frankly, freezing cold) water and felt more human again. Eventually, I heard the familiar whining squeal of the puppy, normally only reserved for when I won't play with him at 2am and put him outside to sleep. He was standing on the river bank, in the blazing sunshine - get this - shivering! Honestly, some people are never happy. I ignored him for a while but my caring nature (such a drain on my resources, that) soon had me returning to the car. It occurred to me as we dodged traffic to get to the Golf that I was now equipped with two sodden canine passengers, so I popped the boot, collapsed the back seat and threw them in there instead.
On the way back to the house, sopping wet and totally exhausted, I passed two guys pushing a wheelbarrow of bricks. "Yebo!" I called, over the roar of the air conditioning.
"Sikhona.. eish, it's hot today."
The elder of the two looked around, as if he'd only just noticed the sunshine.
"Yes, but not like yesterday. It was too hot."
Yeah, damn straight. And today. And tomorrow. Thank God it's autumn, at least. The dogs shuffled pointedly in the windowless rear of the car.
I drove home to a change of shorts and a long, cold glass of fruit juice. T-Bone collapsed on the floor and fell asleep in the shade. Mission accomplished.
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