Step by step: The hiking group crosses a stream in the Soutspansberg. Picture: JEFFREY RINK
Step by step: The hiking group crosses a stream in the Soutspansberg. Picture: JEFFREY RINK

It is perhaps the closest we have to the Camino de Santiago, the popular pilgrimage in northwest Spain. The Venda Sacred Walk is shorter, wilder, stranger and without any western religious significance. It does, though, offer a powerful spiritual adventure.

This week-long quest plunges those who take part into cultural mysteries, spectacular scenery, warm village welcomes and the wonder of encountering a way of life about which most of us know little.

The Venda hike in the north of Limpopo, not far from the Zimbabwe border, involved climbing mountains, traversing forests, exploring — and showing respect for — sacred sites, sleeping in the huts of villages on cow-dung floors and eating traditional Venda food. Our only bathing was a couple of dips in icy rivers.

One night some of us slept out by the fire, with a star-spangled sky and drumming from a distant village: a parallel universe of extraordinary spiritual beliefs and generous rural hospitality.

These ventures are led by Jeffrey Rink, a clinical psychologist from Hout Bay with a deep interest in traditional cultures and wilderness experiences. The founder of Ecopsychology Africa, he takes groups walking either in provincial game reserves on the edge of the Kruger National Park, or into rural Venda. Over the years he has forged a strong bond of mutual respect with local communities.

The result is that his groups are embraced as honoured guests and trusted to be present at unique rituals. Witnessing women perform the Domba, the sinuous rite-of-passage python dance, at night by firelight, or hearing the haunting reed flutes of the Tshikona, are privileges never to be forgotten.

These are not, as Rink says, "sanitised experiences". In the Soutspansberg mountains when hiking on rough paths the only sounds are birds and the soft tinkle of cattle bells, or the shrill voices of children as you approach your village for the night. The loudest noises of the entire excursion were waking to cheerful laughter as our guides joked with village women preparing breakfast in pots over fires.

This is the 10th trip that I have done with Rink, most of the others having been in reserves adjoining the Kruger, walking with an armed guide. Rink is enormously knowledgeable about big (and little) game, birds and bush lore. He always uses local people.

On this trip our main guide was the always unruffled, wise Nelson Mphaha, winner of the Lileza award for the top South African cultural guide. He was assisted by Thamba Masindi, a human encyclopaedia of bird and forest life.

Both are employed by the African Ivory Route and it was through their efforts that Rink’s dream of a Venda Sacred Walk became a reality.

Also with us was a keen young tourism graduate, unemployed but who has voluntarily organised local youths to clean up the ever-present plastic bags. Rolivhuwa Manduna asked Rink if he could come along as a learning experience. "Roli" listened intently to the tales of Venda history and culture, or how to identify bird calls, trees and plants as imparted by Mphaha and Masindi. One day, on a perilous rock-strewn path next to a vertiginous drop, Roli carefully guided my every step for two hours.

By the water were fresh tracks of crocodiles in the sand. These reptiles, according to local lore, touch neither humans nor cattle. The lake is said to be protected by a white python living underwater. Above us came the piercing cry of a fish eagle.

We started in the village of Mukumbani, near the homestead of Chief Kennedy Tshivase, where the stone walls were erected in the mid-18th century. The first day’s hike, in pouring rain, was atmospherically misty. Thereafter it was warm during the day and cold at night. We entered the sacred Thathe Vondo rain forest where members of the Venda royal family are buried with secret rituals. It is forbidden to stray from the path that cuts through this dense rain forest, guarded according to legend by a white lion. The silence was only broken by the cries of Samango monkeys and calls of purple-crested turacos.

Another day we skirted the sacred lake Funduzi, rich in Venda myth. By the water were fresh tracks of crocodiles in the sand. These reptiles, according to local lore, touch neither humans nor cattle. The lake is said to be protected by a white python living underwater. Above us came the piercing cry of a fish eagle.

This was the third Venda Sacred Walk that Rink has conducted. He has visited the region for 20 years, but waited till he discovered largely unexplored areas, as well as the right guides before creating this unique route.

It is a pilgrimage in the best sense: both a physical challenge and deep cultural encounter. This requires participants to be adventurous and open-minded. We walked with back-packs, our bags transported ahead by bakkie. On the way Rink conducted several meditations. His basic request for all his trails is "spontaneity, flexibility and generosity of spirit". This ethos, and only seven or eight people taken in each group, seems to attract like-minded souls, fostering a close bond of comradeship, with the constant laughter that accompanies shared exertions, unexpected dramas and intrepid exploits.

On a previous trip to Mukumbani Rink was invited one evening to a distant village to participate in a traditional dance. In the twilight our local driver took us over the mountain on a treacherous road. After the dance event finished in the early hours, he drove some of the return journey along a tarred road.

Why are we taking the long way back, I asked, instead of the mountain route? The answer has stayed with me ever since as a wonderful metaphor for the potential potholes in life. "It’s very late now," he replied. "So no time for short-cuts."

Traditional Venda culture is rich, complex, often secretive. Frequently those hilltop villages seemed like a parallel universe to the throb of Johannesburg, from where we had driven. But it is also a world in transition. One evening the wife of the headman was organising local women cooking food, scrubbing pots and treating men deferentially in the customary Venda manner. The next day, we discovered, she was due to return to her job as a senior police officer.

It is important as a privileged South African to recognise such bizarre tensions and how many citizens have to navigate complicated lives. Perhaps the worst failing of colonialism is that the colonists thought that they had everything to teach the colonised and nothing to learn.

The Venda Sacred Walk is a reminder that we, who think we have so much, still have a great deal to learn.

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