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I followed the stream up into the mountains. The ground was hard and the snow was soft and it wasn’t hard going. The air was cold on my skin, even through my clothes and cloak, and it was colder still in my throat. I gained altitude with every step and stumble. However long I’d had to grow acclimatized to the mountain air, I could feel it getting thinner by the minute.

There were no huts here, no cart-paths, no sign at all of human life or life of any other kind. Nobody would find me up here. That was the point. But I had to be careful, to watch my step. If I sprained my ankle I’d be lucky if they found my body after the thaw.

If I’d been going downhill, as Hannah was, the stream would have grown wider and deeper and faster as more and more little streams of snowmelt fed into it. Here it grew smaller and smaller. So too the mountains which had stood to either side of me for so long. I climbed and climbed until I was at a level with their peaks. Up here there were no mountains. Just the roof of the world.

I was scared by it. After months and months with mountains like great stone sentries standing watch on every side I felt exposed, unprotected. When the wind blew I realized that I was. I wanted Hannah there. I wanted her by my side. So I kept walking, knowing that she would be waiting for me on the other side.

The winds brushed past like I wasn’t there. I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold. The sun shone but gave no warmth. The snow flew up all around me, trying to build a drift around my moving form. Soon the stream was nothing but a half-froze trickle that I could have jumped across. Bare patches of stone shone from beneath the snow like spots of reflection in a fading mirror. It was too cold to stop for food or drink. Rather, I knew if I stopped I wouldn’t be able to start again.

I knew that, when I first arrived in Lesotho, I could not have made such an ascent. All my wandering, all my trekking had barely prepared me for this. It took me nine hours to walk seven miles. I made camp surrounded by what looked like snowy hills. I knew them to be the the highest points in southern Africa.

I was as sheltered from the wind as I could manage. I set up my tent, warmed water in my sleeping-bag to drink and ate hard bread I’d made and hard sausage I’d been saving and drank from a flask of whiskey that tasted like brown fire. The wind blew the snow over the tent until it was dark on three sides. It scared me. It made me fear being buried alive. Then the sun disappeared and everything was dark. I was buried. I was still alive. I wrapped myself in my sleeping-bag and went to sleep.

I had to peel off layers in the night. The snow which covered my tent proved wonderful insulation. If any airplanes were looking for me I would be all but invisible. Though if anyone were looking for me on the side of a bare mountain, they had too much free time on their hands.

I woke with the dawn. The winds were softer than they had been. I knew that wouldn’t last. I struck camp, found the last trace of the stream, and followed it East. At least, I knew it was East. To me, then, it was just Up.

The climb got steeper. Steeper and steeper. I kept going. Then it stopped growing steeper. Then it became gradual. I passed a cairn of red stones, to which I added one from the strew on the ground. Then I realized I was beginning to descend.

I turned around, before it was too late, and looked at the world around me. The snow kicked up like fog and made everything dull and white. I was above the roof of the world but the roof was slate and snow. It was cold, the sun was already going down, I kept walking.

I had to use my compass to orient myself. I didn’t do a very good job. I ended up at least a mile west of where I wanted to be. Less than ten miles west was the Sani Pass, that long twisting ribbon of road by which I’d entered Lesotho. I shook my head as I realized that I was about to cross a country’s border illegally. Not for the first time. Not even the first time for this country.

At length I came to the end of the world. The great Lesotho plateau simply fell off in front of me. To my left and my right it was like someone had taken a knife to the ground. Night was falling and I couldn’t see much of the world below. I made camp in the shelter of some rocks and woke to the sound of heavy rain. I returned to sleep and woke to a drizzle. I stayed for hours in my tent, biding my time, until it stopped.

The ground was wet and treacherous. I made my way with great care to the cliff’s edge. I had chosen the spot carefully. It had seemed a lot less steep in Google Earth. For the first few hundred yards I was practically sliding down, using my walking-stick to keep me from tumbling. Little rocks kept sliding past me. When I slid past them I knew I was going too fast. Usually I was able to do something about it.

I realized there was no snow on the mountain-face. A stream rich from snowmelt ran just next to me. There was little wind, guarded as I was by the cliff-face, and an even larger cliff barely two hundred yards upwind. The air became richer. The slope of the ground became easier. The stream became louder, babbling, then roaring. The sun even gave a bit of warmth. I allowed myself to stop, now and then, without fear I’d have trouble getting up again.

I came to a fork where two streams met. They had overflowed their banks. Or maybe they did that every spring. I knew this place. I was going the right way. I was also under eight thousand feet above sea-level. For the first time in three months.

I kept going downwards. The ground was easier now and I had little trouble. I kept crossing streams as they poured down from the mountains. I kept getting wet. I took off my socks and went back to sandals and bare feet. I left the great cliffs behind me and settled for little hills to either side. The stream I followed became a river, wending back and forth between the hills. When I rounded a jut of bare rock and came to a second stream, I knew that I was closer to sea-level than I’d been in nearly a year.

I felt like I could have walked forever. I made it about two miles further, through great canyons of great mountains whose peaks didn’t reach halfway up the cliffs I’d just descended. I made camp, and saw my third day to bed.

I’d eaten half my food. I’d drank all my liquor. In the morning I drank the last of my tea. It didn’t matter. I was almost there.

Gradually I walked out of the canyon, out of the Drakensbergs and towards the end of the Mkhomazi Wilderness. I walked through a stand of trees on a hill-side, the first green things I’d seen in the better part of half a year. I saw a river some ways away. I went down to it. Beyond it was a dirt road leading off into the hills where I had come. I followed it at a distance, walking until late in the day. When I saw it intersect with another dirt road I found a quiet spot to sit. I wasn’t more than five hundred feet from the road, under the shade of a tree just starting to bud. I looked at the sun and judged it somewhere around five o’clock. I would wait.

I watched a battered pickup truck drive up to the crossroads. I watched it pull off the road and come to a stop. I watched a person climb out of it. They were wearing a red bandanna. They waved it in the air a few times, then stopped to wait. Thirty minutes she’d wait, at 7PM and then again at midnight. I never made a lady wait.

I went down to the crossroads, backpack in hand, watched as Hannah caught sight of me melting out of the darkness. I saw she had her taser in her hand. Good. When I drew near enough for her to recognize me she put it away, came up to me, and kissed me.

A day away from her had been refreshing. Two days had filled me up. Three days and I had missed her. This fourth day and I just wanted to hold her for a very long time.

You smell like the road, she said.

So do you.

Want to go somewhere and take a shower?

I hadn’t showered in months. I threw my bag into the back of the truck. I threw myself in after it.

How long? I said.

Get comfortable, she replied. Pulled a tarp over me, started the engine, and got us underway.

 

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~ by davekov on 28 March 2011.

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