South Africa – an unexpected hiking adventure

view of the wine hills around stellenbosch (South Africa). Everything is green and one can see very far.

This blog comes with a bit of a time delay. The current pandemic meant I had to refocus my work and juggle work with homeschooling. So this blog is about a research trip to South Africa that I did in mid-February. However, this post is not about the research. You can read about that here (or at least part of it). This one is about an unexpected adventure.

A week or so before departing for Cape Town, I looked at the agenda and saw that one of the informal activities of the three day think tank was a short hike.  I was quite excited about that as I like hiking and it’s always nice to do something active amongst the meeting marathons during conference or research trips. During that trip for instance, we only got back to our accommodation after 9pm one day because of continuous meetings and research interviews.

But back to the hike. In preparation, I packed my hiking boots and walking sticks. I need those as endless stumbles and falls in my life means that my ankles are really wobbly. I also use the walking sticks as cane replacements. A white cane is not much use for me while hiking – might be different for other visually impaired, but this is my experience. So I developed this technique with the walking sticks while hiking in Wales a few years back with my other half. I basically keep one stick slightly extended to the front just like a cane to feel for obstacles in my path. I also use them to identify the height of a bolder or natural step. I do so while using them like walking sticks. So I use them to stabilize in uneven terrain but just push them forward more. I hope you get the idea—it’s a bit difficult to explain.

So I had brought my equipment, including a high-vis pink top that says “blind runner” (couldn’t find one that says blind hiker) to make it blatantly obvious to everyone around me that I can’t really see where I’m walking. When packing I felt a bit foolish as I was sure I overpacked and that the hike would be more like a little walk.

Well, I was utterly grateful I tend to overprepare. The hike was a proper hike. The first bit was easy: pavement stones nice and wide and a slight incline. Didn’t really need my sticks at all and simply walked next to Emilio (my sighted guide and research assistant). I’ve learned to just walk really close to someone and to mirror their step patterns. Then things got trickier. For the next bit we walked amongst the grape vines as we were in a vineyard outside of Stellenbosch, in the heart of South Africa’s wine region.

What’s tricky about that? The metal cabling that holds up the structures on which the vines grow. I can’t see them, but they encroached immensely into the path. So I used my walking sticks to find where they were and quickly noticed a pattern, which made it easier. From behind me, Emilio was constantly having a look out. Going up a hill I prefer walking in front of my guide. This might seem strange to you but it makes me feel more secure knowing that someone is behind me in case I stumble. However, I entirely rely on the judgement of my guide, if they say it gets too tricky then we swap. They go first and I follow. I mostly follow by listening to the sounds their feet make and put mine in the same spot. I got up and down Mount Snowden and its very steep bolders and natural steps that way.

Yet, our hiking guide wasn’t done with us. The only way I can describe the next long bit is off-roading. We walked along this path that was wide enough for a farm vehicle and then, what seemed randomly to me, turned left and just walked straight up a hill. There was no path, at least none that I could make out. Emilio and I were in the middle of the group so we slowed everyone down as there was no way of passing. The path wasn’t even wide enough for one person.

There were bushes – some of which were quite spiky – everywhere. Some of them even pretended to be solid ground when prodding them with my sticks but once you stepped on it, it gave way to a hole. In other words: perfect for a registered blind hiker . Emilio couldn’t really see the path either and just kept close. A few times when I lost my balance a bit because bushes were covering holes, Emilio caught me around the waist and made sure I didn’t fall.

Once we reached the top of the hill, we were on a wide dirt road again and I hoped that we would follow that back down. But I guess I should’ve known that that would not be the South African way. So back down the same ‘way’ it was.

Going downhill is much more of an issue for me than going uphill. One thing is that the consequences of falling are just way more severe – believe me, been there done that, collected lots of autoethnographic data on it. To avoid falls, my whole body tenses up and the muscles in my legs are especially tense. This helps to really reduce the risk of severe falls as my body and brain are basically in “ready to fall” mode constantly.  This makes hiking tough terrains downhill less of a physical and more of a mental challenge for me. Afterwards, I’m mentally exhausted and my legs wobble. The concentration I have to invest is immense.

On the way down, Emilio walked in front of me and I stayed as close as I could. He kept up a constant stream of instructions. “Stone left, big stone middle, stone left and right, spikey bush right and stone left, big step, bigger step, stay on the right…” Interestingly, someone else was trying to have a conversation with him even though we had said that we’re  probably not the best pair to have a chat with at that time. A few times, Emilio had stopped to help me navigate particularly tricky bits – like massive steps or holes. Here,  he holds out his hand, I grab it and based on the way he pulls or doesn’t I know how big a step I have to take across a hole or based on the position of his arm, I get a better feel for how big a step I need to make down.

We made it down, unscathed. For Emilio this was an intense course in severely advanced sighted guiding.

Why did I write about this hiking trip?

Well, as you might know by now I like to debunk all of the stereotypes of what one can do when visually impaired. Blindfold challenges and the like don’t give sighted people the right insight. With practice and my own little tricks, I can do most things – even adventure hiking.

But I also wanted to use this to highlight something else that disability studies highlights. Disability is about interdependence. Learning how to depend on others to gain your independence is, at least in my view, a key lesson I took away from being disabled.

On my own, I would not have been able to join in the hike. This would have been foolish and highly dangerous. But by accepting help from my sighted guide, it was possible—tricky—but possible. Learning to trust others is also something I had to learn. When walking or hiking with a sighted guide, you literally put your life in their arms, hands and eyes. I’m not exaggerating here.  If they don’t watch out, don’t guide me properly, I can trip, fall or stumble which if things go well only causes me a scratch but could be way worse.

For me this was the first-time hiking with a sighted guide that wasn’t my other half or my parents. However, Emilio and I have been working together for almost two years now and we navigated many airports, Cities, and other places. So I was confident that it would work well. He has a talent for guiding. Not everyone is good at it. Some people really struggle to watch out for where you are walking, not just where they are walking. A good example is a close friend of mine, who took over guiding in Boston last year for an hour or so and walked me into various trees and lantern posts. He has known me for more than ten years and is an amazing friend and colleague but is used to me walking with my guide dog and just couldn’t get used to having to watch out for me.

However, sighted guiding is teamwork. I pass on quite a big responsibility to the other person, so they need to be comfortable. During interviews for my ATW position, I ask candidates if they would feel comfortable – in regard to the responsibility but also the physical contact. Before we went to South Africa, I asked Emilio if he would be fine with sighted guiding while hiking and during the hike I kept asking him if it is still okay for him.

When I hear fully sighted people talk about wanting to do things on their own and considering help as being weak or too dependent, I disagree. I believe that willingly engaging in interdependent relationships takes the same if not more courage as doing things on your own. Also, trusting someone to this level takes bravery. So does taking on that responsibility.

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