The Wild Coast Pilgrimage – 7 women in South Africa and a very long walk…
This June, I had the privilege of joining five women and a baby, walking 100 kilometers of the ‘Wild Coast’ of South Africa. This is a beautiful stretch of country, with jagged and rocky coasts interspersed with long sandy beaches. It is the place where Nelson Mandela was born, raised and is buried. It is the land of the honorable, strong, fierce Xhosa people.
We came together for the second time in three years to walk in solidarity. We celebrated the 60th birthday of one in our crew and to explore a part of the world by foot. We were unconventional pilgrims, if you will, with a little less quiet reflection and a lot more laughter and folly. Three years ago, we walked almost 200 kilometers in Italy, from Sienna to Rome. Now, we want to make it a tradition.
This time, we had a new member – a 7-month-old baby girl – whose mother wanted her daughter to experience this sacred ritual of ours. It was no small feat to have a baby with us but of everyone, she seemed to handle this new adventure the best.
I write this article to invite you all to consider going to a place where you walk the country for a week or two. There is something about walking in a foreign land versus seeing it from the comfort of a vehicle that changes your connection to the place. You see the changing landscape that is the backdrop of the lives of the local people. You watch residents doing every day tasks as well as walking long stretches just to visit a family member or bring back supplies to their community. You feel the hot sun on your face and the breeze at the edge of the water and you trudge through every terrain from lush forest ground to deep sand and large boulders, such that you feel you have earned your meal and deserve a good night’s rest by the end of it.
You feel connected to the land in a way that comes with each step you walk. And not just the beautiful moments when you witness an incredible sunset or spot a pod of dolphins surfing the waves. For me, it was the harder moments, where blisters began to bleed or when we had to climb another rocky cliff and the wind felt like it was pushing me two steps back for every step I took forward – those were the moments where I felt most connected to the land. Because everything in my body was fully present, and more so, as I kept going in spite of being exhausted or hungry or well, just spent.
This wasn’t a traditional pilgrimage and most would argue it wasn’t a pilgrimage at all. We were chatty and joking, we stayed in comfortable accommodations and ate like queens. Not what most imagine when they think of pilgrimage. Yet, the communion of the women who walked with each other, with the land and with their Makers was, indeed, similar to the beauty that one experiences on a pilgrimage. And when you walk for most of day, you cannot help but reflect: on your life, on where you hope to be and on the person you want to be.
One of the things that both surprised and delighted me on this walk was the presence of other women in roles that were traditionally held by men. I was surprised when the porters were virtually all women and several of our guides were women too. I am marked by a powerful memory of these incredible women, carrying our massive backpacks in a way that somehow seemed effortless, who began singing in harmony on the beach. I wondered what they thought about us and how they felt, having us on their land. We all felt conflicted to have another person carry our bags but were deeply grateful to have the help.
One guide asked me: “Did you come all of this way, just to walk?” She couldn’t understand why we would choose to walk and see such a small part of the country when we had the means to see and do much more and have it be, well, so much easier. I explained that while we would see a fraction of what most would see in a car or a bus, we would experience it more deeply, savor it just as much, if not more. I talked about the importance of journeying in a group and just being together, without Internet access or modern day distractions and just with each other. I shared a quotation with her that guided me while I walked. I saw it in an inn in Italy when we walked the first time and I don’t know who said it. But it captures the power of our pilgrimage and what drove us to South Africa in the first place.
“A traveler leaves with a heavier suitcase, a pilgrim leaves with a lighter soul…”