Black People Do Hike

April 6, 2015  |  

When my new friend suggested that I go hiking, I thought she was mad.

I am not Reese Witherspoon and this is not the film, Wild. The only hike I have ever been on was on the trails in the Wissahickon in Philly (which are beautiful by the way). And the longest hike I have ever been a part of was when I didn’t have enough bus fare to get me from downtown Philadelphia to my house. Now she wanted me to scale a mountain with her in the Southern Drakensberg part of South Africa.

She must be mad.

Plus, we all know that Black people don’t hike.

She laughed, “That’s madness. I’m Black and I hike.”

I gave her a massive side-eye. “You are an Indian from Calcutta and you live in Canada.”

She laughed again, “But in South Africa, I’m considered Black so there is that.”

Okay, questionable racial designations aside, there was just no way she was getting me out on the trails. As stated earlier: Black people just don’t hike. It has always been an unwritten rule – sort of like, White men can’t jump or dance or have bad credit. The point is that for many of us, hiking is not something we consider a good time. We like beaches and hot water in warm hotel rooms and room service; none of which exist out in the wild. A hike for many of us is climbing the stairs to the second floor of a home after getting a glass of soda out of the refrigerator. The only use many of us have for a Land Rover is to transport our friends and all of the fresh new gear we just picked up from the mall. And as for camping, that’s what we do in front of the television when Empire comes on.

In fact, not one of history’s greatest land and sea explorers, including Lewis and Clark, Marco Polo, and even Dudley Do-Right, the Canadian ranger from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, are Black people. And according to a recent survey by the Outdoor Foundation, out of the 142 million people who enjoyed outdoor recreation in 2012 (that is up by 800,000 since 2011), 70 percent of those people were White people.

Not to bring our ancestors into all of this, but I’m convinced that Martin Luther King Jr. did not march and Huey P. Newton and Malcolm X did not fight the power so that I could go “roughing it” out somewhere in the dirty wilderness. That sounds too much like oppression to me.

“What about the San people who have lived along those trails and mountains for at least a century? They’re Black and basically they hike.”

Good point.

But I’m a city girl who freaks out when I see a mouse or even a roach. What am I going to do when I cross paths with a snake? Or worse, a serval cat (wild cat) or jackal? Also, what do I wear? What do I bring? I don’t even have the right gear. The only shoes I brought with me to Africa were a pair of Pumas, which I do Zumba in, and a pair of Betsey Johnson fashion boots, which aren’t exactly functional, but look damn good with a short skirt. I felt totally unprepared for this journey, especially compared to everyone else who was all geared up. I did not have the time nor money for such a trip.

And as noted in the Outdoor Foundation’s report, I had a good reason to feel that way. While lack of skill and a general lack of interest remain the top two reasons why people avoid outdoor recreations like hiking, the cost associated with these activities is not that far behind. The average annual salary for someone who participates in outdoor sports, like hiking, is above $75,000 a year. You would need to make that much to pay for all the expensive gear needed for such excursions. A good pair of hiking boots can run you a couple hundred dollars. And let’s not forget backpacks, weather-proof clothing, tents, walking sticks, hiking tours guides, and other camping gear necessities.

And then there are the park fees. Most national parks and conservatories require permits for entry. These fees may be necessary to help pay for the upkeep of these beautiful landscapes, but they can also act as a deterrent to a family on a fixed income – like myself. When you consider all of that, you can kind of understand why many people think hiking is a rich – and White – person’s sport.

“You don’t really need all of that,’ she said. “Just throw on some comfortable shoes and warm clothing. You can’t let what we’re supposed to do and have stop you from having this experience.”

Another great point. At best, I would have a good time doing something I had never done before. At neutral, I would have a nice quiet weekend sitting cozily in a log cabin by the mountains while my friends hit the great outdoors. And the worst thing that could happen is that I would fall off a ridge and get my arm stuck between two boulders, only to have to chew it off after 72 hours of being trapped by my lonesome.

However, in the words of Drake, you only live once and that is what I intended to do. YOLO.

There were five of us who decided to hike through to the Sani Pass trails in the KwaZulu-Natal province of Southern Drakensberg. As no surprise to me, I was the only non-Indian Black person who took part in the hike. In fact, upon our arrival at both the park and the lodge, I would be the only Black face seen for miles, with the exception of domestic help and lodge staff, who lived a ways away. Not only would I have to endure an entire weekend of White people smiling awkwardly, but I would also have to endure curious stares from some of the Black people who wondered what the hell was I doing out there with those crazy White folks.

The lack of Black faces – both indigenous and foreign – reminded me of the scene in Darkest Austria, a great mockumentary that harpoons the National Geographic anthropology specials on tribal cultures. In the mockumentary, ethnologist Kayonga Kagame points out the peculiarity of White people hiking, or basically walking through the wilderness, as recreation. Basically, he notes that indigenous folks do not walk long distances in rough terrains for fun–they do it out of necessity.

And yet there was my Black behind, standing at the mouth of the park about to go hiking. For a second, I thought about turning around and “hiking” back to the lodge. However, when I saw the park itself, every fear I had in me seemed to vanish. To say that the park was absolutely beautiful is an understatement. It was definitely something I had never seen in Philly or anywhere else in the world I’d traveled to for that matter. There were plush green mountains and clear fresh water so clean that you could drink right from the stream. There were big blue skies and fluffy white clouds. And then there was the silence. No car horns, no loud conversations coming from cell phones and no blaring televisions dishing bad news. The only “noise” to be heard for miles was the chatter of crickets and other critters. I swear, if God decided to have a vacation home on earth, I’m certain it would be in Sani Pass.

We walked down the trail, along the river and then up a mountain to get a closer look at a waterfall. It was a tough climb, but surprisingly, not too difficult. Those years playing Billy Elliot in Zumba class really helped to increase my stamina. And in spite of not having on the “right” gear, I was still very comfortable. In fact, the only time I fell was when I took off my Pumas to wet my feet in the river.

Over the course of one weekend, we hiked on three separate occasions. One of those times, I even worked up the courage to hike by myself. We saw lots of mountains, waterfalls, rivers, and ancient rock wall art, drawn by the Sans people hundreds of years ago. We also saw lots of baboons, elands and funky insects too. Don’t worry: they stayed far away from us. Apparently they were more scared of me than I was of them.

The final day of our trip, we hiked for seven straight hours. Although we didn’t reach our goal, which was a special rock formation at the very top of a large mountain, I finally understood what hiking was about: It’s never about the destination, but how you survive and manage the journey. I also learned a lot about myself, mainly that I am a lot stronger than I thought I was, physically as well as mentally.

There were also some things I learned about the hard way: like the benefit of wearing long pants and hosing yourself down with mosquito spray. My legs look like a winning game of tic-tac-toe…

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