A two-day hike up the West Coast is becoming quite the annual pilgrimage. Fiona McIntosh shares her Walking the Daisies experience…
Words: Fiona McIntosh
Pictures: Shaen Adey and Julia Merrett
“I was doing research on roadside plants for my master’s,” explains Greg Nicolson as we gaze over Blouberg Beach. “In the spring of 2007 I walked some 690km along the N7, from the Namibian border through Namaqualand to Cape Town, trying to assess whether the road reserves are a refuge for indigenous species. In 2008, a friend Nathan Heller and I wanted to go to the Rocking the Daisies music festival. I was an impoverished student who couldn’t afford the ticket. But Nathan had this brilliant idea. The eco-friendly festival’s motto is ‘Play Hard, Tread Lightly’.
“Carpooling, busing it to the venue, recycling, efficient waste management and other green initiatives are major at the fest. I wanted to check out the flora flanking the R27, the West Coast road that gives access to the festival venue of Cloof Wine Estate between Malmesbury and Darling, so we hatched a plan. Nathan put it to the organisers that by walking there from Cape Town we were embracing the spirit of Rocking the Daisies and keeping our carbon footprint to a minimum. Surely that was worth a free entry?” VIP tickets were forthcoming and the pair donned sponsored, eco-friendly T-shirts and set off from Cape Town on foot.
News of their alternative approach (in every sense of the word) spread and under Nathan’s company, Culturetalent, the project was developed with the help of various sponsors and environmentally minded volunteers. In 2009, the numbers swelled to 23 footsloggers, 50 in 2010, and 100 each in 2011 and 2012.
Greg and Nathan devised a more interesting back-roads route of 53km via Big Bay, around Koeberg Power Station and over farmlands to Cloof, involving the Mamre community along the way. By 2013 some 500 festival-goers had followed the charismatic duo.
In 2014, after five years of developing this initiative into a celebrated event, Culturetalent handed over the organisation to Rocking the Daisies, who enlisted the help of another event management company. The 200 walkers gathered at Big Bay for the 2014 event are a motley crew. Few are regular hikers: many are inappropriately dressed in skimpy shorts, strappy tops and flamboyant hats that will fly off their heads at the first puff of wind. Several are barefoot while others sport heavy leather boots. But everyone’s eyes are sparkling.
Free entry to the Rocking the Daisies is the major driving force for the walkers but each has had to motivate why he or she should be there. Most are studying or working in the field of sustainable development. Others have been accepted because of a relevant skill-set – acting as guides or offering extra-peripheral activities like yoga or massages. Dries Millard is a paraplegic in a wheelchair: his mates plan to push, drag and roll him over sand, hills and whatever else they encounter on the way.
At registration we’re assigned to a group. The colourfully attired walkers in mine are half my age. They look cute with their painted faces, floral hairdos and balloons strung from their shoulder straps. I sidle up to the only other walker that looks over 25. It’s Gaby Andrews’ second Walking the Daisies. “I was inspired by walking the Camino de Santiago in 2011 and haven’t been able to stop walking,” she tells me. “So when I discovered Walking the Daisies I jumped at the opportunity. Like the Camino it offers the chance for introspection, a physical challenge and interaction with wonderful, like-minded pilgrims.”
She assures me that the experience crosses age barriers – she doesn’t notice the age of fellow walkers. “But having said that, I find the younger generation on the walk open to different world views,” she says. “They are generous and kind in all circumstances and seem to go out of their way to invite, share and put you at ease. Walking the Daisies is also rewarding because everyone gives something back. In my first year the event was dedicated to providing school shoes for children; this year to supporting a permaculture community project.”
A clean-up of Bloubergstrand is our first task and, after the briefing, we’re issued with rubbish bags. The group spreads out. Some of the front runners are talking so excitedly that they pay lip service to the job at hand. Others have filled their sacks within 300m. The extent of the flotsam and jetsam and the litter in the dunes is depressing. We pick up beer bottles, broken toilet seats, plastic bottles and straws and bottle tops by the thousand.
I’m over-conscientious and am soon struggling with my heavy bag. A couple of strapping young men come to my rescue and I walk with them for the rest of the morning. It’s a good introduction – although it’s a testing hike through a beautiful part of the world, Walking the Daisies is much more than that. It’s about working together, getting to know people from different walks of life. Another of the festival’s mantras is ‘Moving as millions, vibrating as one’, and as I look up the beach at the mass of people, each with a refuse bag, the unifying aspect of the event is very apparent.
As we reach the end of the beach we start seeing daisies in the strandveld. Behind us is the classic view of Table Mountain across Table Bay. The sun is shining, waves are gently lapping at the beaches and there are dolphins surfing the backline. It’s beautiful. There is nowhere else in the world I would rather be right now.
Arriving for a lunch stop at Melkbosstrand we add our sacks to the bakkie that’s overflowing with rubbish bags, and rest in the shade. After lunch we’re asked to choose a floral scarf and small rock. The reason will become clear later, we’re assured. For now we must put the pebbles in our backpacks.
For the rest of the day we continue up the West Coast on sandy paths and back roads enjoying the sea breezes and the flowers. The organisers have kindly organised for a shuttle to take us around the Koeberg power station – the alternative would have been a lengthy stretch on tar.
Once back on the trail I fall in with one of the co-organisers, Stefan de Wet. “I’d attended Rocking the Daisies a few times before I heard from Seed Experiences (the organisers of Rocking the Daisies, who donate tickets to the walkers) about Greg and Nathan’s initiative to walk. It seemed to me a great gesture for an environmentally-focused festival. I love the outdoors and have travelled through remote parts of Africa, so am always up for an adventure.”
Stefan lets out a yelp as he stands on a devil thorn. This is his fourth Walking the Daisies; all but his first have been barefoot. “I was hooked straight away,” he tells me. “It’s an extremely inspiring event. Over the two days you meet such different people and talents, and everyone is passionate about what they do.”
By the time we reach the overnight stop at Silwerstrand we’re weary from dune walking but no one’s complaining. Clutching a welcome beer, people hobble to the showers or the food tent. I head to the beach for a swim, hoping that the freezing water will relieve the pain in my aching calves, and then watch the sun set before joining a yoga class. A group of lithe young men and women are showing off their skills with hula hoops while bystanders strum their guitars.
The next morning we cross the R27 and head for the mission village of Mamre, where, we’ve been told, we’ll be helping to create a market garden. A tiny but determined-looking woman comes out to greet us. Hilda Adams is one of those women who, had she been born somewhere else, would probably be the leader of a country. Full of energy and drive, she’s a ceaseless campaigner for her community.
Hilda’s busy organising a fence to stop the horses and cattle from trampling the newly dug gardens but she still finds time to introduce us to her mother, Thelma April, who has given the Mamre cooperative permission to use her garden. Thelma is proud to be giving something back: she hasn’t the energy to work it herself any more. The project is geared at helping unemployed people, especially fisherfolk, she tells me.
“I hope you extract a tithe,” I tease. The walkers arrive in dribs and drabs and are put to work. The grass has been removed but digging the beds is still hard work. Once the soil has been tossed we mix in compost, put down cardboard that Hilda has acquired from the local store and poke holes in it. From the Sustainable Brothers & Sisters – which has supplied the seed trays and gardening essentials – we learn about complementary planting and pest deterrents, and plan our plots accordingly, strategically putting in basil and marigolds. The real trick to success apparently is to dip each seedling in vermicompost before putting it in its allotted spot.
Once the beds are planted the watering begins – an onerous task that involves ferrying water from the stream. But by now the community is excited, a band has struck up and even the kids are filling their pails. As we admire our handiwork the significance of the stones is finally explained. This new garden is a place of forgiveness, our stones demarcating the borders. We’re invited to write the name of a loved one on one side, and the name of someone that we need to forgive on the other side then observe a moment of silent contemplation. It’s moving stuff.
After lunch there’s a long haul up through Groote Post wine estate and over the hill to Cloof and the festival. Cows gaze lazily at our strung-out troop; butterflies flit out of the path and daisies turn their heads to the sun. It’s not Namaqualand, but it’s pretty nonetheless.
As we regroup on the hilltop we can see the stages, marquees and tiny individual tents of the festival below. From this high, distant vantage point they look like miniatures and I’m reminded of a wonderful visit to Swissminiatur in Melide, where I walked around picturesque, pint-sized models of famous Swiss attractions like the Matterhorn, Heidi Village and numerous grand castles and palaces. A snake of vehicles on the road into the festival site glints in the sun. The queue goes back as far as the eye can see: I’m glad to be entering by the back door.
After a photo shoot we form our own snake, slithering down the steep road to Cloof. Everyone bears battle scars – chafed inner thighs, blisters and sunburn – and Dries’ wheelchair, and his mates, have clearly taken a few knocks. But the pain is forgotten as we stride proudly up to the walkers’ entrance gate.
“Will you be doing anything special for the 10th anniversary of Rocking the Daisies next year?” I ask Stefan as he hobbles over to pick up his overnight bags. “Definitely,” he replies. “We want to add even more Gees vir die Fees in 2015.” He’ll be walking barefoot again, and I’m sure he’ll finish each day bandy-legged and in pain. But he’ll be smiling – as will his 199 fellow walkers.
Up to It?
- Walking the Daisies is a guided and fully supported two-day hike from Big Bay to Cloof Wine Estate that takes place every October. Places are limited to 200 walkers.
- This is a surprisingly tough hike with sections of sand and a steep hill on day two so don’t underestimate it. But the regular stops, the projects that you participate in along the way and the spirit of the event should carry you though. (And there are back-up vehicles if you really can’t last the course).