Low-impact weekend: Feet over wheels

The first snow of the season is a big deal in Cape Town. In a city where snow is a rarity, everyone wants to stick a carrot into the face of a lopsided snowman. The place where this is most likely to happen is Matroosberg Private Nature Reserve outside Ceres. So when the first snow came I was glad we’d booked a hut on the reserve for that exact weekend. These huts are booked out more than six months before the winter season, because everyone wants their moment in white. And after five winters of coming here, we finally got lucky.

It happens the same way every year. On the open loft of the ski hut, decked with 20 mattresses, we wake up slowly. It’s one big bundle of humans and blankets. We stare out the wall-that-is-a-window. We see a rocky landscape, pine trees in clumps here and there. In the distance, mountains. Vapour escapes our mouths. Eventually someone puts the coffee on the gas stove. In thick jerseys we clamber up the boulder outside the cabin for lazy conversation over hot brews, talking about nothing in particular.

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The ski hut seen from the boulder

It takes a few hours until breakfast is done, the flasks, snacks and brandy are packed, and we’re heading into the mountains on foot. We take the jeep track up the first couple of hills and then turn off onto the hiking trail. While we always delight in a good snowball fight higher up in the peaks, we’ve started enjoying the mountains regardless of how much it snowed, or didn’t, during any given winter.

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But this year is different. Ever since we peaked out the door, a slow trail of big-wheeled 4×4’s have been trickling up the road that runs near the hut. While we would normally have the jeep track mostly to ourselves, we now had to dodge those heading straight to the parking lot to get to the snow as quickly as they can. The reserve’s staff are clad in bright yellow and dotted all the way up the track. They’re checking permits, giving snow updates, and controlling the traffic on the tight bends.

It seems Matroosberg is the hottest day trip destination in the province on the weekend of the first snow. Clearly we’ve become spoiled, thinking these mountains are ours to hike alone.

I don’t blame anyone for driving up the mountain so their kids can play. I’m the first to admit I have an irrational preference for walking. But maybe there’s beauty in the slowness with which we finally did reach the snow. By then even the hiking trail was trampled and muddy. But still there was no rush. Calve-sized bushes stuck out of the soft ice. We met many lopsided snowmen and picked up on a few fashion trends, like lemons for eyes. We sat on rocks beside them. We had coffee and date balls. We looked up to gawp at the mountains.

We didn’t even get near the higher parts, because we got caught in the rain and had to turn back. Then we got caught in the rain again. But we somehow delighted in the fact that we were right in the midst of the most wintery of mountains. Icy raindrops on our faces and the crunch of our steps on the gravel. The occasional slip. We were getting there on our own steam, without needing a machine, without our wheels getting stuck, without strategising with the guys coming from the opposite side about how to find a way past each other, and without any emissions.

Before the rain caught us

Back in the cabin we were drenched. But someone had put the coffee on the gas stove and the stone fireplace was happy to become a clothes line for the afternoon. Maybe you prefer staying dry and being the first to build a snowman. But maybe it’s worth ditching the 4×4 and heading into the mountains on foot. It will take longer, but you’re guaranteed a parking spot wherever you wish to have lazy conversation over warm brews, talking about nothing in particular.

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