When my school needed to raise money for, say, a new set of gym mats we would normally have a School Fete or perhaps a Bring and Buy Sale. Or we might collect milk bottle tops and tin cans and the teacher would put a big cardboard thermometer on the wall so we could see just how far we still had to go.
And of course we had the annual Sponsored Walk, round and round the dried out patch of field that served as everything from a football pitch (boys) to somewhere to exercise imaginary horses at break-time (girls). Whipped into a froth of excitement by hearing our parents call the teachers by their first names, we would pursue our goal for the Greater Good of the School by pacing as fast as we could around the fenced-in field, stopping at least twice a lap to clutch our sides and touch our toes, or in the case of those who got a little too competitive, being hauled up for daring to Break Into A Run. Given the inherent dangers of the task – rabbit holes, mole hills, overhanging branches and the like, it is possible that such activities are no longer allowed at that school, or at least not until the risk assessments have been filled in triplicate. Imagine the outcry if a minor should cut himself or herself through the careless handling of a milk bottle top!
One of the many things I love about South Africans is that they simply don’t worry about such things. In the Southern Suburbs Tatler recently I came across an article about an annual event to raise funds for a local special needs school. Participants will swim 7.5 kilometres (7.5 kilometres – that’s nearly 4.5 miles!) in the Atlantic waters from Robben Island to Bloubergstrand. Not only is the water pretty darn icy, but I must confess the words ‘shark-infested’ spring to mind. But swim it they will, 90 individuals tackling the whole stretch, and 10 relay teams making a total of 140 people. Good luck to them all.
Capetonians on the whole are an incredibly healthy and sporty bunch. Scratch the flawless surface of even the primmest housewife and I warrant you’ll discover an inclination for rock-climbing, white-water canoeing, mountain-biking and bungee-jumping in between coffee mornings.
So it was that, in a bid to awaken the sporty soul that is hiding somewhere deep deep within me, I went riding last week. During the pony-mad days of my youth (yes, I was the proud owner of a whole herd of imaginary horses) I was a regular visitor to Mrs Juhl’s Riding School in Wenden’s Ambo. Eyes streaming with hay fever and snot caking the sleeves of my second-hand riding jacket I would perch happily astride Magic Rainbow or Misty Dawn or some other optimistically named pony and endeavour to keep my heels down and my back straight as we plodded around and around, nose to tail. And that, pretty much, was the basis of my experience – one hour once a week over two decades ago. And yet there I was on the phone to the Sleepy Hollow Riding Centre declaring breezily, ‘Oh yes, a competent rider…’
Luckily I had a PIA (Partner in Adventure) with similar experience backing up her claim as Horsewoman of the Year. I’d last seen Ros when we shared a room at school 13 years ago. Due to a little catching up the previous night, neither of us were quite as bright-eyed as we meant to be for our equine extravaganza. Having headed out against the early morning commuter traffic we were just 20 minutes from the city centre and yet now we stood, sunglasses firmly in place, in the middle of a ridiculously idyllic country scene. The sun was just above the mountain and there was still a coolness to the morning air though the promise of heat hung in the glare from the whitewashed walls of the farm buildings. Dogs sprawled in the dust, cats eyed the week-old chicks as they scattered around their fluffed up mothers, ducks and geese shuffled in from the pond and a small boy in a smock carried clanking milk pails on a yoke (OK, not that last bit). Kate was our ride leader, and in our somewhat fragile state we couldn’t have wished for someone more friendly and relaxed. She was astute too, and ensured we understood what we were doing, before she introduced us to our glossy mounts, saddled and waiting for us on the other side of the hen house.
The ride was utterly glorious. Once out of the farm gate, we meandered along a sandy path lined at first with small fields and then with tall bulrushes that would thin occasionally to provide a glimpse of the mountains in the distance. Kate stood in her stirrups and twisted around to chat and to keep an eye on us as we gazed slack-jawed at the scene around us. And then we reached the beach. Not just any beach this, but the wide wild sweeping expanse of Noordhoek beach, framed at the north end by the dramatic Chapman’s Peak. I have always longed to canter along on a sandy beach, the wind whipping my hair and the salt spray stinging my face. Ben, my mount, had other plans and stood four-square, gazing into the distance. Hoofie, Ros’s fine steed, faced the opposite way but with the same intent. But canter we did, eventually, and with a lot of encouragement from Kate. It wasn’t a fast canter, and probably looked rather comical to the handful of other people on the beach but this time I wasn’t an onlooker. I was fulfilling a dream, and it was marvellous.