Country Life contributor, Olympian, hiker and author. It’s not easy keeping up with Fiona McIntosh.
In another incarnation, Fiona McIntosh would be a globetrotting rock rabbit. On a mountain walk, Nancy Richards does her best to keep up with her story – and her pace
“I’ve never seen such an abused back in all my life.” The words of her orthopaedic surgeon in 2001 were a major turning point in Fiona McIntosh’s life. A fencing champion with four Olympic Games to her name, an international hockey player and daredevil white-water kayaker, things had to change. So now she walks. Not for the first time.
“In 1992, just before the Barcelona Olympics, I had a groin hernia. A doctor told me I could do absolutely no exercise other than walk. I booked a hiking trip in the Himalayas. I’m not sure that’s what he had in mind.”
I thought it best to interview Fiona on her own turf, so we arranged to meet on the city side of Devil’s Peak – strong brown legs in khaki shorts and a fluorescent pink T-shirt made her instantly recognisable. We powered up the track on the hottest day of the year. She stopped to pick up a fallen signpost – ever cogniscent, I suspect, of their importance. Fiona pointed out the parallel walk, one of 20 or so in her latest book Hike Cape Town, that “goes along the contour path, past King’s Blockhouse, over Mowbray Ridge, down to the saddle…” A rock rabbit with built-in GPS.
While some people go for a drink after work, Fiona walks. Our little stroll was nothing more than a warm-up she had planned for a peak somewhere down the Peninsula. But walking in her case is loosely defined. “I do a lot of scrambling and low-grade climbing on Table Mountain. Climbing is very good for the core, it requires balanced precision, a bit like fencing, and like fencing it’s a problem-solving sport.”
As a self-confessed workaholic (and walkaholic) who writes for COUNTRY LIFE (see her Stamvrug Trail article on page 86), edits www.nightjartravel.com and produces books at an alarming rate (Hike Cape Town is number 13), it’s the problem-solving bit she enjoys.
“I walk to mentally process what I’m busy with – climbing forces me to clear my mind and focus only on the next step. Anyone can climb you know, whatever age, whatever build.” Mercifully our short walk was only a gradual incline; I should hate to prove her wrong.
We then scrolled back to Fiona’s origins, to the Pentland Hills of chilly Scotland where her stepfather kept Icelandic trekking horses. At a still-tender age she left to travel, train and fence her way around the UK, France, Hungary, Poland, Germany.
And South Africa, I wondered, as we came to a bend in the track that afforded us respite and a gasp-inspiring view of Table Bay and the Mother City sprawl? “In 1996 I was ready for a complete change, and we [Fiona’s husband Matthew Holt is also of adventurous persuasion] had been to South Africa before and loved it.”
They landed in Joburg where she taught at Parktown Girls High, wrote for and then edited Out There magazine, before moving to Cape Town in 2001, where she wasted no time in covering every inch of every mountain.
A dedicated member of the Mountain Club, she says, “I live on the mountain [she means this literally and figuratively]. But I still had to go back over each trail again and again for this book to be sure of every detail – and with photographer Shaen Adey, who’s taken the most beautiful photographs.”
Covering everything from a Sea Point promenade to rigorous ravines, this book has something for everyone. But walking is not just work for Fiona. Last year she scaled Ama Dablam (meaning mother’s necklace) in the Himalayas, just prior to the collapse of this hanging glacier. This year she’ll be ski mountaineering in the wild landscape of Canada’s Baffin Island. So might these become a book too?
“Nope, some things I do just for me. I’ll write about my own life when I’ve stopped living it.” She quotes US environmentalist John Muir, ‘The mountains are calling and I must go…’ which I took to mean it was time for that promised peak. Interview over.
Hike Cape Town (R240) is published by Jacana, www.jacana.co.za,