When I was about 60 I read, entranced, the books of the late Sigurd Olson, renowned Minnesota, USA, conservationist and wilderness guide in what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota on the Canadian border. In his book, Reflections from the North Country, Olson wrote
“There are certain moments when one sees more clearly, the world stands out more distinctly, and one’s vision is unclouded and crystalline. Such instances are rare and come usually without warning, but they are worth waiting for and must be savoured to the full. In my book, “The Singing Wilderness“, I describe one of them: I once climbed a great ridge called Robinson Peak to see the sunset and a view of the lakes and rivers below, the rugged hills and valleys of the Quetico-Superior. When I reached the bald knob of the peak, the sun was just above the horizon, a flaming ball ready to drop into the dusk. Far beneath me on a point of pines reaching into the lake was the white inverted V of my tent. It looked very tiny down there where it was almost night.
As I watched I became conscious of the slow steady hum of millions of insects and through it the last calling of the whitethroats and the violin notes of the hermit thrushes. It was very vague and far away at that height and gradually merged one into the other, blending in a great, all-enveloping softness of melody no louder than my breathing.
The sun was trembling now on the edge of the ridge. It was alive, almost fluid and pulsating, and as it sank it seemed I could feel the earth turning and actually feel its rotation. Here was that sense of oneness which comes when we listen with inward ears and see with inward eyes, when we are aware with our entire beings rather than our senses.
Life is a constant search for such moments, as it is for the singing or the elusive notes of the Pipes of Pan, and it is not surprising that they are often part of this experience, for one seldom becomes aware of any flash of reality without hearing the inner music. ”
Long before I had ever read any of Sigurd Olson’s writings I had experienced this feeling of Oneness and had also felt the world turning.
It was 1966. I was 24 and attending the annual Mountain Club of SA July Camp in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa. Our first night out from base camp was spent under a sandstone overhang once used by the Bushmen, now known as the San, deep in the Little Berg (the foothills) close to the escarpment walls of the main range. A stream flowed next to our camp. That night after dinner the light of our small fire flickered over those ancient sandstone walls. One could feel the presence of the ancient, long-gone Bushmen people who had come out of the mists of African time and had now all but disappeared. After dinner, seated around the fire, two of our party, with mouth organs, played Bolero. As the firelight flickered on the sandstone, Bolero brought to me the very essence of primordial Africa, from the Bushmen to the shrieking of elephants as they kick up the dry red dust of Africa.
In the morning we awoke to a huge antelope, an eland, walking slowly by us. Strange, that, to start our day with an eland, after sleeping under an overhang once used by the Bushmen and coming on top of my thoughts and feelings invoked by Bolero, for the eland is sacred to the Bushmen. We all froze, hardly daring to breathe, as the huge and beautiful antelope went slowly past us, just a few feet away on the other side of the stream.
It was to be a long day. Thirteen hours of backpacking, ascending some 4 500 feet to nearly 10 500 feet in only about 3 miles. Two parties of 8 had converged. All day we laboured up the Injasuti Buttress, until at last we were able to traverse into a little rocky amphitheatre under the top of the escarpment. Carrying 65 pound packs Rusty and I, well ahead of the rest, traversed into that little amphitheatre so high up, leaving fixed ropes for the others. Then we had to scale the rock amphitheatre: a short rock climb followed by vertical grass slopes. Sixteen of us and a winter evening drawing in. Some of the party were not rock climbers. Rusty went ahead, up the rock pitch. To save time he asked me to climb with my pack on. Half way up I fell off. So from then on we had to haul up not only people but all the packs. After taking off my pack I ascended to Rusty. He asked me to lead through up the vertical grass to where it started to ease back, which I did.
Everyone was now out of sight. I sat there, totally alone, unable to see anyone else, the Greater Injasuti Buttress on my left, on my right the vertical walls of the escarpment and the 3 Injasuti Triplets, and all around and straight underneath me, great, vertical depths. I sat alone in my eyrie, perched on the edge of space. One by one people started to trickle up to me. Slowly they came, invisible, until eventually a head would poke up out of the depths below.
Slowly the sunlight moved up the beetling crags, and translucent mauve shadows filled the depths at my feet. The sky turned pink, then mauve, then dark blue and finally black. I was alone there, and only aware of that alone ness and the incredible space, depth and colours. I was drawn outside of myself. I was no longer of this world. It was a strange feeling. Whilst I mechanically brought up the others, I had fused with space, depth, and colour. I had fused with Eternity.
Eventually Rusty came up to me, we coiled up the ropes in the dark, on the edge of space, and went off to find the others. In the dark we stumbled upwards, rounded a rocky point and suddenly were on flat ground, and there was a fire blazing with everyone sitting around it. The transition was so abrupt that I caught my breath.
We all put on our packs and headed off to the Injasuti Cave, across the top of the escarpment, a thin line of stumbling torches in the night. Halfway there we realised that the party had had enough. It was bitterly cold, the stream had frozen over, and we had no tents, but we stopped. We hacked through the ice for water, Rusty and I got the stoves going and cooked dinner for our party who were all in their bags. We slept in a row, like sardines in a can, on the ground, under the stars, close together for warmth. We were quite close to the edge of the escarpment where vertical cliffs fell into the depths of Natal, thousands of feet below.
I awoke several times in the night, and always it was with a strange feeling. Each time I looked out the stars had moved their positions. Up there we had a 360 degree view of them, and they were wheeling their way through the universe. But the feeling I had was that I was lying on top of a spinning ball, moving through space. I could feel the movement of the earth. I could feel it moving through the night and turning relative to the stars. I was part of it as the earth sped and turned through space. I was conscious of infinity, Eternity and the actual movement of the universe, and I could feel the presence of the Infinite. This experience, plus the feelings I had as I brought up the others to me on the Injasuti Buttress, have stayed vivid with me all my life. They are two of my most treasured memories, things which gave me something indefinable – the incredible beauty, the awe, the feeling of being at one with space, infinity and the universe, the feeling of being insignificant.
In the morning, we broke the frost on our bags and watched the dawn come up: Natal wrapped in darkness far below us, then the sky turning mauve, then pink. Gradually Natal started to take form. In a blaze of sudden glory, the sun rose over the far horizon and painted us and the escarpment blood red. What an experience.
That was the first time that I experienced what Olsen has described, but in more recent times I have again experienced that same feeling of oneness of which he writes. I believe that we should all be seeking these experiences of oneness if we and this planet are to survive. If we do not see the created and interconnected nature of everything of this natural world and that we are here only as an insignificant part of it all we will become extinct.
The little amphitheatre I have described is in the middle of the photo on the skyline
The amphitheatre I described can be clearly seen at the low point on the skyline between the two summits
The Greater Injasuthi Buttress
Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa.