On New Years Day, my friend Michelle and I paid an impromptu visit to Golden Gate Highlighnds National Park. We were staying nearby in Clarens and thought we’d check out the park, which I’d heard was beautiful. We were tired from our recent strenuous hiking in Lesotho, and Michelle had a bad blister. So a long hike was out of the question. We thought we might take a brief stroll.

Apparently Michelle and I don’t know ourselves very well.

We pulled into Golden Gate’s Glen Reenan Rest Camp at high noon, dazzled by the park’s emerald hills and golden cliffs. We walked over to the trailheads. Michelle studied the map.

“There are a couple of 45-minute walks, and a four-hour walk,” Michelle said. “I want to walk longer than 45 minutes. Should we do the four-hour one?”

“Sure!” Off we went.

Michelle hike start

We’re off.

Trail markers

We followed the Wodehouse trail. Just an easygoing, four-hour, uphill stroll.

It was hot at the beginning of our stroll. But even at the height of the summer day, the scenery was stunningly beautiful. We passed families with scampering children. The sky was bright blue, with fluffy clouds floating past. We stopped for a rest and a snack under the first massive sandstone overhang, and looked out over the park. The paved road was already far below, winding like a tiny black snake.

Golden Gate vista1

The view from our first rest stop. We were so giddy over the view that we neglected to notice the menacing black clouds amassing in the distance. Or perhaps we noticed them but chose to pretend we didn’t.

We climbed higher up the Wodehouse trail. The scenery became more stunning and the trail became more empty. No more scampering children. The clouds grew thicker and the air grew cooler — a welcome relief.

Rainy Golden Gate small

So. Beautiful.

We passed a Dutch couple walking the other way and stopped to greet them.

“Are you walking the Wodehouse trail?” the woman asked. We nodded enthusiastically.

“We got halfway up and turned around,” the man said. “It was peak after peak after peak.”

Michelle and I regarded the couple. They were young and looked fit. Quitters, we thought. We bid them goodbye and tripped along our merry way.

Heather and Michelle on mountain

The Golden Gate is beautiful. We are strong women. We never quit. We don’t see the black clouds or hear the distant thunder. Weeeeeee!

The Dutch couple was right — there were many peaks. After each peak we scaled, the scenery became prettier and the clouds became darker.

Eventually we acknowledged the black clouds. We also acknowledged that — unlike our Lesotho hikes, during which we had dutifully carried our rain jackets but never needed to use them — neither of us had brought a rain jacket for this “stroll”.

“We are probably going to get rained on,” I admitted, surveying the sky. “But hopefully we won’t get struck by lightning.” We were, after all, nearing one of the highest points in the park. The rumbling thunder crept closer.

Eventually we acknowledged that we were exhausted and slightly terrified. But there was no turning back now. We were closer to the end than the beginning.

Mountain and storm clouds


The rain started softly, just before the highest peak. We plodded on, tired but elated. The rain wasn’t too bad — actually it felt cool and wonderful — and there didn’t seem to be any lightning. We felt like Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings.

Michelle in rain

Michelle in Middle Earth. See the raindrops?

We clawed our way up the last mountain, and saw blue sky ahead. The storm had passed over us. We made it! All downhill from here. I looked out and saw a lone hiker on the hill just ahead of us. He had made it too. I raised a hand in victory. He waved back, then disappeared down the hill.

Guy on hill

The lone hiker. I was hoping he would wait for us so I could get his email address and send him this photo. But he slipped away.

I hurried ahead to where the lone hiker had been standing, eager for the best view of the hike before we started our descent. I scrambled up the hill and looked back. Michelle, just below me, looked back too.

We saw it at the same time: a thick, black cloud, moving in the opposite direction from the one that had just passed over us. This cloud was clearly moving fast, and had lightning bolts in it.

We are screwed


“We are so screwed,” Michelle said.

There was no avoiding the pouring rain and thunder this time. To make things worse, we were hiking steeply downhill, picking our way between slippery rocks, mud puddles, and grass clumps. The trail was precarious. We were soaked.

I made a game of ranking what I feared most. Initially my fears ranked like this:

1) Getting struck by lightning.
2) Falling and breaking a leg.
3) Losing my camera/lenses due to severe drenching.

As the lighting died down and the rain picked up, fear #3 moved to the #1 position.

We are screwed2

Another look at the storm before we started our descent. This is the last photo I shot before the rain hit and I had to stow my camera.

In the end we made it down — wet, shivering, and laughing hysterically. We took a “short cut”, which involved fording a stream (more like a raging river after the storm) and walking a mile or so along the road back to our car. The next day Michelle had to have a minor operation on her blistered toe, which had become severely infected during our damp and dangerous “stroll”.

I have no regrets and neither does Michelle. The hike was beautiful and we’re not quitters. Weeeeeee!

PS: My camera is fine.

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