WANDERING

1: moving from place to place without a fixed plan; roaming; rambling.

A few days short of my twenty-sixth birthday, with a freshly shattered heart, I found myself in need of escape from the repetitive reminders of the end of a chapter of my life. Cornered in the overcrowded heart of Johannesburg, I reached out to my friend Benjamin, who just so happened to then be living in a small, almost forgotten little town, lost in the forests and mountains of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa.

At first light the following day, I was packed and ready for the eight-hour stretch of tar and dirt roads that separated me from the peace and serenity found in the seldomly travelled paths connecting the Sappi plantations. The comfort eater that I am ensured to pack enough sandwiches to last at least till my arrival, but I was not surprised to find my sandwiches finished at the halfway mark. By nightfall I was completely lost, driving on a dirt road with only the moon as a companion, squinting my eyes at rusty old street signs, somehow still finding my way to Benji waiting at his gate, sandwiches at the ready.

The next morning we decided to try and find our way to the highest pub in Africa, located just on the other side of the Lesotho border through the Sani Pass. Lunch boxes packed, we started navigating our way to the border, making use of all the horrendous dirt roads hidden between the never-ending plantations, that were no match for my pickup. Between the trees and mountainous terrain, it was impossible to find cellphone reception and without access to GPS, I wasn’t too surprised when we found ourselves lost. Somewhere along the way, we had made a wrong turn, ending up on the side of the wrong mountain, looking out at what seemed to be the entire world. We decided to embrace the moment and made ourselves comfortable on the back of my pickup, where we had our sandwiches with one amazing view. In the distance, something other than a tree caught our eye, it kind of looked like a tower, but we couldn’t be sure at all. So, naturally, our curiosity got the better of us and we decided to try and get a closer look at the structure. We jumped back into the pickup and made our way down the mountain, driving in the general direction of the, as of yet, unidentified structure. A few minutes into navigating our way through the area we came to a crossroad. Contemplating in which direction we should proceed, Benji spotted a barely standing wall covered in overgrowth. When we pulled back the bushy branches we were able to read the faded writing, “Reichenau Mission, 1887”. At this point we started to assume that we were on the trail to an old abandoned church-like structure, which to be honest is a bizarre find in South Africa, especially in such a secluded area.

A few minutes down the road we arrived at a small waterfall leading to a river, where we just stopped and stared in pure disbelief. There in the middle of nowhere, hidden away and clearly lost in time was an entire community. The closest building to the river, a mill of sorts, with a big moss-covered wooden waterwheel, slowly turning with the gushing river. We looked at each other, silently wondering if what we were seeing is actually real, or some sort of shared hallucination when a joy-filled man came jogging and waving over the bridge.

God forgive me, but I am filled with guilt whilst writing this because I can’t for the life of me remember his name, but his face, smile and the sound of his laughter are forever etched into my memories. I don’t believe the community was very used to receiving visitors for two reasons, the first being the extreme joy that was spilling from this man at our arrival and secondly for the fact that every person we passed by and greeted that day, stared at us in disbelief in quite the same way we stared at their community on our arrival. Thinking back now, it was probably only the extremely random and rare occurrence of two lost white boys showing up out of the blue. The friendly man turned tour guide after offering to show us around the community they call home, we didn’t hesitate to accept such a kind offer.

The detailed history of the mission had been passed down by many families in the community and lucky for us he remembered every little detail he had ever heard from his grandmother and grandfather, exactly the same as his parents had been taught before him, and as he was currently teaching his own son. 

In 1885 Abbot Francis Pfanner had left the comfort of the Mariannhill Monastery in Pinetown, making his way inland to find a suitable area to eventually establish and expand their Benedictine teachings. After a few days’ walk, he happened upon a small waterfall next to a river and lush forest. Knowing this to be the perfect place for a mill and a farm, in 1886 he bought the land from the then Zulu Chief Sakayedwa, who was very keen on establishing schools that could serve his community. The first group of missionaries to join Abbot Francis arrived in six ox wagons filled with food supplies and building materials. They were quickly able to establish a self-sufficient farming operation that would be able to sustain them and the men that volunteered to work alongside them, as the progress of the community started to speed up. Within a few years, they had built the mill, housing, a school, a blacksmith’s workshop, a church and other necessary buildings to ensure the community would flourish and that, it did.

The sad part is that the missionaries eventually left the community and with them all the funds that had kept the place running, which would eventually result in all but the church falling into ruin. The community was left to fend for themselves. Thankfully they had acquired enough agricultural knowledge to keep food on their tables. After ensuring that they had food, next, they reopened the school which still serves the community to this very day. It took them many more years to finally get the mill back up and running, in fact, a few weeks before we happened upon the community they produced their first flour since the mill stopped functioning all those years ago. The second to last stop on our tour was the graveyard. There we found graves dating back to the arrival of Abbot Francis and even a few fresh graves from the previous weekend. Our guide showed us the graves of his grandparents, his parents and also his sister, each with fresh flowers. 

The final part of the tour was the church. This part is difficult to explain, because of course it’s no Notre Dame or Saint Peter’s, but it’s something very special, unique and extremely well taken care of compared to the rest of the buildings. Honestly, I exchanged my faith for science and logic many years ago, but that does not prevent me from finding myself, every so often, envying the complete commitment truly religious people experience, however misguided I sometimes believe they can be. The moment we stepped through the doors of the church I felt that envy again. Our guide sang for us as he does at every Sunday service, filled with so much peace, love and faith, that I didn’t mind the fact that he was quite tone-deaf. The coloured light streaming from the stained glass windows painted the church as someplace other worldly. I was able to appreciate every portrait hanging on those walls, every inch of the altar and the giant organ, each piece amazed me more and more. A church like that hidden away, taken care of by the community and seldomly visited by outsiders, a truly unique experience and a privilege, even for a heathen like myself. We ended our day sitting on the back of my pickup looking out over the community with our new friend, the tour guide, sharing our last few sandwiches and some laughs.

At the start of the day we thought that we would eventually end up sharing a beer in the highest pub in Africa, but somehow a wrong turn led us to rediscover a part of lost history, making a new friend along the way and once again being confronted by my envy of the faithful.

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