Walking in Hope

posted 26 Aug 2015, 14:01 by Geoff Dalglish   [ updated 26 Aug 2015, 15:08 ]

Mono Lake captured by David Wright in its moody magnificence

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has’

Margaret Mead, author and anthropologist

The Walking Water pilgrimage has been likened to the use of acupuncture, where a localised application of needles has the potential to offer immediate pain relief and stimulate healing throughout the body, sometimes even ending long-term suffering.

It is a form of alternate medicine developed by the Chinese more than two thousand years ago that aims to bring the body back into balance by creating a free flow of energy - and maybe it is time to call upon all the ancient and modern wisdom we can. The obvious analogy is that the actions of a handful of modern pilgrims - combining hearts, minds and feet in an educational journey and walking prayer - could create a ripple effect among people and places throughout the land and possibly even the world.

Alan Bacock of California’s indigenous Big Pine Paiute tribe has suggested: “Prayer is an important way to prepare.” 

Peacemaker Alan Bacock of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe

Each of us is seeking to be an ambassador, walking for and with water. Each must also ask ourselves why we are doing this, who and what we are doing it for, and how our combined actions and learnings might serve all of life, as we explore and co-create a new story in which there is enough water for all. 

It is a journey of hope backed up by recent science that indicates there is in fact enough, if only we find a new way of being in relationship to water and each other. Perhaps that means not blocking the passage of water that has flowed freely and abundantly for millennia, nor using hoses to wash cars or driveways in areas of extreme drought.

For me it is already a journey questioning my old ways. I knew that eating beef was hugely harmful to the planet because of the massive water footprint of meat farming, apart from causing suffering to animals. But I’d never stopped to think about the fact that I was wearing water. 

According to Stephen Leahy, author of Your Water Footprint, it takes more than 7,600 litres of water to outfit me in a new pair of jeans and 2,460 litres to add another cotton T-shirt to my wardrobe. And that morning cup of coffee requires 140 litres of water that is used to grow, process and ship the coffee beans.

 Perhaps the most startling fact I uncovered is that the water footprint of a bottle of cola is 175 litres - so drinking one bottle is like consuming 350 bottles of water!

The First People of Owens Valley had had no concept of property or water rights

So how serious is our global water crisis? Very, it seems!

All living things need water and humans can survive little more than three days without it.

Already 1.2 billion people live in areas with chronic water scarcity, while another 2 billion are affected by shortages every year. By 2025 three in five people may be living with water shortages.

The 2014 Global Water Summit concluded that shortage of water is the biggest challenge the global economy faces. It predicted that within the next 10 years everyone on the planet will experience some serious water-related event - a shortage, a flood, an infrastructure failure, interruption to business or economic disruption.

So we need to reassess our relationship with water and remember that the Earth is literally a closed system, like a vessel in outer space. As Stephen Leahy explains: “Water cannot be manufactured. It can only be moved around. We’re very good at moving water around by using pipelines and canals. We’re not so good at acknowledging that moving water around always means that some other place will then have less water.” (Your Water Footprint by Stephen Leahy, Firefly Books, October 2014)

Los Angeles prospered while the Owens Valley suffered the 'theft' of its water 

On 1 September a group of us gather for a journey through inner and outer landscapes that will hopefully lead to greater understandings. Walking Water is a three-year pilgrimage, that’s divided into three sections, following the natural and manmade waterways from the source in the Owens Valley to the place of end use - the Greater Los Angeles Area that’s home to around 18-million souls.

The first leg will take us around 320km (200 miles) from Mono Lake, one of the country’s great photographic icons, to Owens Lake, that was a vast perennial lake that had held water for at least 800,000 years. But all that changed disastrously a century ago. In 1913 water from the Owens River was diverted to satisfy the thirst of the growing city of LA and  by the mid 1920s the lake was dry. To make a dire situation truly desperate, billowing windblown dust clouds containing a number of carcinogens turned it into a respiratory nightmare for residents.

Luckily, the upstream Mono Lake was ultimately spared at least part of this ecological and social disaster, but not before a protracted legal battle.

In 1941 LA’s Department of Water and Power began diverting tributary streams from Mono Lake to meet the city’s ever-growing water demands. Deprived of its freshwater sources, the volume of Mono Lake halved while salinity levels doubled and the intricate ecosystem began to collapse.

If something was not done urgently, Mono Lake was destined to become a lifeless chemical sump.

In 1978 local citizen David Gaines formed the Mono Lake Committee and began talking to conservation clubs, schools, service organisations, legislators, lawyers and anybody who would listen. Membership quickly grew to 20,000 concerned individuals leading a fight to save the lake.

This was the turn off to the beach of what is now a dry lake

While it wasn’t possible to stop all the destruction, it is a story with a happy ending and a history that continues to be written. The Mono Lake Committee successfully sued the powerful water authority to limit diversions, seeking a reasonable compromise rather than stopping all diversions.

It was an action founded out of a love for this remarkable and beautiful place, rather than any wish to fight LA. And their legacy shows that a group of concerned people can come together against seemingly insurmountable odds, find a solution and make a difference.

In 2013 a statement by the LA City Council proudly declared: “The completion of the LA Aqueduct 100 years ago is a significant historical event that led to the growth and prosperity of Los Angeles and Southern California.” 

The flipside of that story is instead of prosperity it marked a century of devastation for the Owens Valley since LA stole the water from the white settlers, also marking 150 years since the settlers stole the fertile lands and irrigation ditches from the Paiute people.

Alan Bacock says that until the arrival of the first settlers in 1860, the ancestors of the Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley had lived lightly upon the land and in harmony with their environment through a lifestyle based on traditional subsistence. The most important food item was pinenuts gathered in the mountains.

These first people, who believed the Creator placed them there eons ago, lived sustainably and with a huge respect for water - until suddenly the settlers took ownership of the lands and used them in ways incompatible with the traditional Paiute way of life, making peaceful coexistence impossible.

Not only were his people grappling with alien concepts of property and water rights, but the loss of food control and resulting starvation were precursors to the Owens Valley Indian War fought between the Paiute and the US Cavalry in 1862-1863. “Today we share our story in the hope that one day justice will be granted for our people and the environment.”

He sees Walking Water as a healing journey in which to engage with communities along the way and build bridges between the people of the Valley and LA.

“LA is influential,” he stresses. “If you grab the hearts of those in LA, you grab the hearts of the world.”

All black and white images kindly supplied by David Wright

Water is Life

posted 17 Aug 2015, 11:39 by Geoff Dalglish   [ updated 17 Aug 2015, 13:43 ]

Photography: David Wright

Mono Lake where the pilgrimage begins

‘All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking’

Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher and poet 

Two years ago when I enthusiastically agreed to join the Walking Water pilgrimage in California’s Owens Valley, I had only the faintest idea of the enormity and severity of the crisis facing America’s West.

Water is life and in places it is running out : in 2012 the US suffered its worst drought in 50 years, with nearly two-thirds of the country facing water shortages, while a year later California’s drought was judged the most crippling in history.

Recent impacts have been devastating, although the drama surrounding the relentless quest for water is already a century old in the Owens Valley. In 1924, with local outrage boiling over, farmers resorted to violence and sabotage to counter the ruthless tactics of the city of Los Angeles, which was intent on seizing water rights hundreds of kilometres upstream.

The California Water Wars inspired the acclaimed 1974 movie Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, and the true story is no less dramatic. It is one of political corruption and intrigue, of billion-dollar struggles over water rights, of ecological and economic disaster - and of dizzyingly ambitious engineering feats as the desert was transformed into a green Eden, at least for a while.

Some would argue that it was an impossible and unsustainable dream, but the reality is that by diverting and damming rivers California became the salad bowl of America, supplying nearly half of all its fruits, veggies and nuts. But has the bubble finally burst, or is it about to?

Now, like almost everywhere else on the planet, we need to to look for new ways of being in relationship with water and each other.   

So this was never going to be an ordinary walk, and neither was it going to be one chosen for the most scenic route, although there is no denying the spectacular beauty of a route that follows the natural and man-made waterways to Los Angeles against a backdrop that includes the majestic Sierra Nevada and Inyo mountains, as well as trekking uncomfortably close to Death Valley, one of the hottest places this side of Hell.

Our walk starts at Mono Lake on 1 September and the idea is to go from source to the place of end use and divide it into three sections to be walked over three years, with a band of pilgrims finally arriving in LA around September 2017.

This allows time to build relationships and spark long-term projects along the way, with the LA aqueduct stretching around 359km (223 miles) and linking so many from all walks of life.

You could argue that the timing is perfect. Already 1.2 billion people around the world live in areas with chronic water scarcity, while another 2 billion are affected by shortages every year. By 2025 three in five people may be living with water shortages.

The 2014 Global Water Summit concluded that shortage of water is the biggest challenge the global economy faces. It predicted that everyone on the planet will experience some serious water-related event - a shortage, a flood, an infrastructure failure, interruption to business or economic disruption - within the next 10 years.

So we’ll walk and then sit in circles, learning and sharing in the time-honoured way of our ancestors.

Among us will be members of the indigenous tribes, farmers, environmental activists and hopefully representatives of the authorities that control the supply of power and water.

It is seen as a prayer rather than a protest. 

Coordinator Kate Bunney, who has arranged pilgrimages in conflict areas like the Middle East, insists that we are walking for water and not against anything. “It’s not a march. It’s not a demonstration. Walking Water brings together role players  from all walks of life - including representatives of the indigenous tribes who are the first people of the land - and hopefully with ancient and modern knowledge we can co-create healthy ways of being in relationship to water and each other.

“Walking Water attempts to connect that sacred path of pilgrimage - our internal relationship to ourselves - with our relationship to our external environment.

“In this sense we walk for the issue of water, we walk with water and with the communities along this path that are so affected by this issue, and we walk towards a change in our acting and thinking towards water on both a local and global level.

“We also walk toward a vision of a regenerated environment, a healthy valley and a self-sufficient metropolis. Our approach is to work in a way that is synergistic, collaborative and future-orientated, revolving around a simple bottom line: for the enhanced protection of all life.”

Helping to set the scene, an 11-minute documentary on the Walking Water website www.walking-water.org spotlights the issues, captures the beauty of the land and introduces us to some of the personalities involved.

I find it moving and encouraging and it reinforces my belief that we can fix our broken relationship with water and the Earth.

I’m especially touched by the observation of Alan Bacock, water coordinator for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe, who explains: “To prepare for a walk like this is really to prepare for a journey that in a lot of ways is beyond us. Because of that we need to go in prayer. We need to prepare ourselves in prayer and say: ‘Creator, utilise this in the best way possible. Help all of us to be instruments. May none of us be thinking that we are the only aspect that’s needed.’ ”

Andy Lipkis, a practical visionary and founder of TreePeople which has planted millions of trees in the greater LA area over the past three decades, says that people imagine that because the city is so big: “I’m just a drop in the bucket. But every drop makes ripples. It’s about information, it’s about choice - we always make a difference. But we can’t do it without choosing it, without being inspired. That’s what Walking Water is about.”

“The most important thing,” Kate Bunney says, “is that it is an event that inspires and empowers each of us to become part of the global solution to water management and usage.”

The kind of openness, optimism and trust I’m encountering fills me with excitement and hope.


Special thanks to David Wright for his inspiring images, reminding us of the beauty and preciousness of this land and our Earth Mother

Reconnecting with our Earth Mother

posted 15 Aug 2015, 15:06 by Geoff Dalglish

The Avenue of the Giants in northern California with a car dwarfed by the towering redwoods

‘The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need’

Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle

In the space of days my inner pendulum has swung wildly from joyful connection to a jarring, jangling place of disconnection and then back again to the peace I always find in the loving embrace of nature.

My outer journey has taken me halfway across the world from the Findhorn Foundation spiritual community in northeastern Scotland to California’s dramatically beautiful and sunbaked Owens Valley, an odyssey of some 53 hours involving four buses, two taxis, three flights and two car rides with friends.

At either end were people I love dearly who value meditation and quiet contemplation, often sitting in sharing and caring circles and checking in to see how others are doing on their great adventure through life - and offering support or encouragement when needed.

In between I experienced a startling reminder of how so many live their big city lives, my travels punctuated by nights in a hostel in the heart of Glasgow and another on the noisy and traffic-clogged flightpath to Los Angeles international airport.

The low point was unquestionably the optimistically named BackPackers Paradise Hostel which was commendably cheap, offered free champagne, impersonal service and a stuffy and untidy room crammed with bunk beds and noisy travellers with a total disregard for the few trying to sleep. Whenever I glanced around me in the wee small hours I saw faces illuminated by the glow of their smart phones, tablets and computers. All were connected to their technology but completely disconnected from each other.

The drive-through tree gives an idea of scale

Is the universe showing me the true extent of Nature Deficit Disorder, I wondered? And what can I do to help? I caught glimpses of the stress, anxiety and hopelessness that seems to envelop so many when they live the lie of separation and become disconnected from the natural world of which they are an intrinsic part.

Sweaty and sleepless, I tossed and turned in my creaky bunk, feeling sadness that so many are deprived by choice or circumstance of the sort of daily early morning ritual I take for granted, walking in nature and giving thanks for the great gifts that that meditative experience bestows upon me. Without that walk my day never seems to flow quite so smoothly and joyfully, and my mind is invariably busier and more agitated.

On the very rare days I don’t walk, I try to spend time with a tree and begin to understand why many of the world’s major conflict zones are places denuded of their natural vegetation. At last science and spirituality are in agreement and crediting trees with the ability to calm, inspire and accelerate healing.

Maybe some plants in the backpackers lodge would have helped. One hostel dweller talked incessantly to himself, sometimes laughing at his own jokes, and I initially thought he was completely loopy and then realised he was only verbalising aloud what often goes on silently in my own head, unheard by those around me.

Be careful not to cast that first stone!

As unpleasant as aspects of this journey were, I valued the chance to see how others live and to remind myself of my own urgent need to balance big city busyness and technology with more nature time. 

Three years earlier this was demonstrated so forcefully when I embarked on a Californian epic I think of affectionately as my Carmageddon to Redwood Heaven adventure. I spent several weeks walking and occasionally hitching between Hollywood and Los Angeles and the towering redwood trees to the north of the state. It was a symbolic journey from my earlier life as a motoring journalist to walking pilgrim, and where better to begin, I argued, than LA - the epicenter of car culture where I was once a university student in years long gone by.

The grove of bristlecone pines are around 4,800 years old and they're still alive

Highpoints included communing with the towering redwoods that are the tallest trees on Earth; meeting General Sherman, a giant sequoia that is believed to be the planet’s biggest tree by volume; and visiting a bristlecone pine grove that is home to ancients that were already two thousands years old and more when Buddha and Christ walked among us.

An analysis of one bristlecone pine that was cut down in 1965 proved it to be 4,844 years old - imagine counting all those tree rings!

That 2012 journey also ended with another memorable highpoint - meeting wilderness rites-of-passage guides Gigi Coyle and her partner Win Phelps, and helping out at Three Creeks, the property they care for that is a green oasis in a parched desertscape framed by the magnificent Sierra Nevada mountain range.

I somehow knew I’d be back and there was a great sense of coming home, such as I also experience every time I return to Findhorn. With the day cooling from temperatures in the high 30s we sat in a circle outside and spoke from the heart while frogs plopped in the pond, swallows swooped on insects and a lone bobcat patrolled his domain and looked entirely at home in his glossy tan-coloured skin. I felt a deep peace enveloping me and gradually, gratefully, let go of the stress of the past couple of days.

Happily I’m now ensconced in a tent instead of a bunkbed and it feels like incomparable five-star luxury as I celebrate the overwhelming presence of wild nature and feel the interconnectedness of all life vibrating in and around me.

My prayer is that many many more can reconnect with our Earth Mother and share such gifts.

The hot, harsh world of Death Valley

And the contrast of Three Creeks little more than an hour away

Photography: Geoff Dalglish

Walking to Wellness

posted 11 Jul 2015, 07:45 by Geoff Dalglish   [ updated 11 Jul 2015, 08:17 ]

‘Walking is man’s best medicine’


Fish swim, snakes slither, birds fly and humans walk - it’s what our ancestors did daily in their quest for food, water and firewood, just as many indigenous people continue to do today.

In study after study, scientists are discovering what our bodies have always known: walking, and especially walking within the loving embrace of the natural world, is a wonderful path to health, happiness and often amazing insights. And it’s free and accessible to all able-bodied beings!

Some 25 centuries ago this was obvious to Hippocrates, the father of medicine, who observed: “Illnesses do not come upon us out of the blue. They are developed from small daily sins against Nature. When enough sins have accumulated, illnesses will suddenly appear.” Walking is the best preventative and curative medicine, he insisted.

More recently Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder as he noted that modern humanity’s increasing disconnection from nature leads to anxiety, stress, depression, confusion, a sense of hopelessness and even things like obesity.

Children need to grow up in nature with animals around them, climbing trees, swimming in streams and lakes, and ideally feeling the Earth beneath their bare feet.

Solutions are all around us. We need to live simpler, more sustainable lives and find the peace and inspiration that comes from being in nature - from recognising our rightful place not as a controller of the natural world but a strand in the miraculous web of life. We need to learn from the successful blueprint of nature, tapping into millions of years of accumulated wisdom.

Louv suggests: “The future will belong to the nature-smart - those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”

We can also learn from research into the concept of ‘Earthing’ that involves aligning our body to the Earth’s surface energies, ideally by walking barefoot outside. It seems that if our energy is resonating with that of the Earth’s, our body will be in a more natural state, which is energising and healing. I like to imagine each step as a blessing given and received.

While the physical benefits have long been obvious, a little book entitled Walking Your Blues Away by Thom Hartmann, has provided some additional insights into the importance of promoting and maintaining mental health through walking and the ways in which bilateral healing kicks in as the left and right hemispheres of the brain are activated.                                                                         

                                                                                        Photograph: David Wright

Not only are our bodies designed to be able to walk, they require walking to work right, he says. Walking exercises the heart and lungs and stimulates the pumping of the lymphatic system ... hundreds of studies have shown that people who walk for at least 15 to 30 minutes a day are healthier than people who don’t. 

His encouragement is to get out there and walk. “Step by step we will heal ourselves, our friends and family, and, ultimately, the planet.” 

And he’s in good company: philosopher Friedriech Nietzsche believed that “all truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” and cautioned “never trust a thought that didn’t come by walking.”

Physicist Albert Einstein was of a like mind: “The legs are the wheels of creativity.”

Thanks to the encouragement of ecological and spiritual activist Satish Kumar, who as a young man undertook a peace walk from India to the nuclear capitals of Moscow, Paris, London and Washington, I now start every day with a solo walk in nature, the daily ritual bestowing upon me a sense of joy, peace and wellbeing, accompanied by fresh whispers of inner knowing. 

On the rare days I don’t walk, I feel somehow less capable of meeting whatever challenges arise.

                                                                         Photograph: David Wright

This morning, as feelings of joy welled up in me while I enjoyed the rhythmic contact between my bare feet and the freshly wave-washed sand on Findhorn Beach, I felt excitement building as I imagined the possibilities and potentials for the Walking Water pilgrimage that starts in California on 1 September.

It seems the good things I feel while walking could be magnified exponentially with around 50 of us undertaking a journey from the source of the water to the place of end use - the Greater Los Angeles Area that is home to some 18 million souls.

And elsewhere around the planet there will be many hundreds, and hopefully thousands of other pilgrims participating in parallel events to raise awareness around the sanctity of water. 

The Walking Water pilgrimage will be spread over three years, in three phases, the first following the natural and man-made waterways between Mono Lake and Owens Lake in the Owens Valley. By exploring three sections over three years and only arriving in Los Angeles in 2017, it will allow participants time to interact with the local communities and environments, and to weave in activities that have the potential to create beneficial long-term impacts.

The goal, according to coordinator Kate Bunney, is to contribute to a vision for a cooperative reciprocal relationship between people and nature, and specifically the waters.

“We walk for the issue of water, we walk with water and the communities along this path that are so affected by this issue, and we walk towards a change in our acting and thinking towards water on both a local and global level,” she says.

Participants will practice the time-honoured indigenous tradition of truly connecting with the soul of the land and gathering in circles, and bearing witness to each other while offering reflections that serve the needs of Walking Water and our relationship with water everywhere. 

Environmentalist Catriona MacGregor says in her book Partnering with Nature: “By awakening a natural connection to the environment around us, we can move beyond simply using nature and into a true partnership with it.

“Ultimately, when we recognise the inherent sacredness of all life, we become forces for good in this world... for everyone who has a sense of something missing, who wishes to make a difference in the world, nature has much to offer to all who will listen.”

With California, and many parts of the world suffering crippling drought conditions, there has never been a better time to listen and take individual and community responsibility for stewarding the shared resource of water, which is life itself. It starts with each one of us.

Geoff Dalglish

Water scarcity is becoming a global challenge that invites a new relationship with water and each other

Photograph: Geoff Dalglish

The Call of Walking Water

posted 24 Mar 2015, 04:52 by Geoff Dalglish

California's Avenue of The Giants where some of the world's tallest trees live

‘We will never know the worth of water till the well is dry’

Thomas Fuller, author, preacher and historian

With the benefit of the perfect vision of hindsight, each step I’ve taken since going from Petrolhead to Pilgrim has moved me closer towards participation in a pioneering pilgrimage called Walking Water that has global significance.

It starts in California’s parched Owen’s Valley on 1 September and will ultimately be a journey from the source of the water to the place of end use - the megacity of Los Angeles.

It is a walk for water and for life itself. And although it raises painful issues that have festered for the past century since the creation of a gravity-fed aquaduct channeling run-off water from the Sierra Nevada mountains to LA, it is not a protest but a creative collaboration.

Walking Water will bring together key players from all walks of life – including representatives of the indigenous tribes who are the first people of the land – and hopefully together with ancient and modern knowledge we can co-create healthy ways of being in relationship to water and each other.

Decades ago the issues led to a series of conflicts known as the California Water Wars and today the challenges remain as urgent as ever – water scarcity is an escalating worldwide concern and it is estimated that California has only about a one-year water supply in its reservoirs.

A bristlecone pine that's around 4,600 years old 

But there is an inspiring optimism that co-creative solutions can be found and that each individual can truly make a difference.

For my part I’ll be one of the walking pilgrims and as always I’ll write about my experiences. And when I look back on my earlier California experiences, first as a student in my teens, later as an automotive journalist, and more recently during a 90-day walk from LA to the legendary redwood trees, I see that it was all part of a process that has enhanced my understandings and insights.

Ostensibly my earlier walk in the US was a symbolic gesture of heading from my old life into the new. And as crazy as it might have seemed, I chose to start from LA, or what I jokingly referred to as Carmageddon, the epicentre of money, materialism, car-culture and the conspicuous consumption of rapidly dwindling resources, including water.

It was also a journey through time from my car-worshipping days as a young student hanging out in Hollywood, to the places of peace and natural beauty that stir my soul these days. My geographic objective, many weeks of walking away, was the Avenue of the Giants, where I communed with the coastal redwoods that are the tallest trees on Earth. Some more travelling introduced me to the colossal sequoias that are the planet’s largest trees by volume, and also the bristlecone pines that are the oldest living things to be found anywhere. Many of these gnarled and twisted trees are almost 5,000 years old, being already ancient beings when Buddha and Christ first sought their inspirations.

My bucket list had also included a visit to the legendary High Sierras and notorious Death Valley, the hottest place this side of Hell.

Death Valley is a reminder that much of California is parched desert

One last tick on the list involved a visit to Gigi Coyle, who was just a name then although I knew she and her partner Win Phelps were wilderness guides involved with the California-based School of Lost Borders. Only later would I learn their remarkable stories. Gigi’s love affair with water had famously led her to oversee the release of captive dolphins to the sea where they integrated with a pod of wild dolphins. Win, a former Hollywood film director had worked with the likes of Clint Eastwood, and only found his true vocation much later as a wilderness guide, leading questers into the loving embrace of nature and back to themselves.

Their journey brought them to Three Creeks, which is also headquarters for an inspiring global outreach initiative called Beyond Boundaries.

Meeting them was serendipity itself, although I didn’t realised it then as I trudged down a long dusty road through parched desert on weary feet, a wind whipping up sand that temporarily blinded me and filled my mouth with grit. Arriving at the lush oasis that is their base was like stepping through a doorway into another world. When I knocked tentatively on their door, I had no idea what to expect.

Of course, my timing was perfect. They were facing a minor logistical crisis: Gigi was due to lead a gathering elsewhere, while Win would be leading a men’s group in a wilderness rite of passage. Somebody was needed as a temporary steward of the land, which is a magnet for the surrounding wildlife that depend on it’s waters.

Geoff at a view site overlooking Mono Lake which has been devastated by LA's thirst

“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of things. You just do what you need to do,” I invited. “You don’t know this guy,” Win observed, although Gigi was satisfied. “I have a good feeling about him.”

Three Creeks was an incredible gift. It allowed me to enjoy aloneness without ever feeling lonely; also deepening my connection with the natural world around me. Once when swimming in a pond I met a water snake, I also spotted my first bobcat patrolling the water’s edge at sunset, and I came to know where the bees had their hive and which birds nested where.

My favourites were the diminutive hummingbirds and I felt truly blessed when they hovered alongside me, their tiny blurred wings making the most amazing sound as they beat at up to 80 times a second. When one brushed up against my cheek, I felt I’d been formally welcomed into Hummingbird Heaven.

More than anything Three Creeks was about the sanctity and preciousness of water, and I sensed at some deep level that my relationship was just beginning with this much-loved oasis and the surrounding landscapes of the Owens Valley. Now I understand a little more and see that I need to spend much more time in this place of astonishing beauty, with its backdrop of high snowcapped mountains.

Gigi Coyle and Win Phelps at Three Creeks

Gigi is now part of the core team with Shay Sloan, a guide and team member of Beyond Boundaries, and Walking Water coordinator Kate Bunney. Some years ago Kate had the vision of this pilgrimage when she came from the Tamera community in Portugal to connect, be in service, train, and explore her relationship to Beyond Boundaries, Three Creeks and the Owens Valley, which is the deepest valley in the continental USA. Win will also be part of the support team, and serving as an elder and witness, a role every community is hopefully learning about today. 


On 1 September, after months of preparation, I will join this team and 50 or so others. We will begin to walk 200 miles linking Mono Lake and Owens Lake. The intention is to walk a section of the route for three weeks each year until we arrive in LA in 2017. Three sections will give participants time to interact with the local communities and environment, and to weave in activities that have the potential to create beneficial long-term impacts.

 “We walk for the issue of water, we walk with water and the communities along this path that are so affected by this issue, and we walk towards a change in our acting and thinking towards water on both a local and global level,” says coordinator Kate Bunney.

What a privilege to join this vision of a regenerated environment, a healthy valley and self-sufficiency for the Greater Los Angeles Area, which is home to more than 18 million souls.

Geoff Dalglish

Snow melt from the High Sierras provides water to a parched land

Photography: Geoff Dalglish

Answering the Call of Iona

posted 18 Mar 2015, 09:00 by Geoff Dalglish   [ updated 18 Mar 2015, 09:52 ]

Columba Bay where the famed Irish monk reportedly landed in CE 563

‘We can make our lives sublime. And departing, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time’

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, poet

For the fifth time in as many years the sacred Isle of Iona has tugged at my heartstrings, reeling me in with its magic, mystique and monastic simplicity.

It was here that I started my pilgrimage on 7 July, 2011, the date honouring the memory of a remarkable silver-haired woman known simply as Peace Pilgrim, who walked tirelessly for 28 years, vowing to “remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until given shelter and fasting until given food.”

Penniless and walking her talk without any organisational backing, she touched the lives of countless thousands of people before dying instantly in a car accident 30 years earlier on 7 July, while being driven to a talk she was to give. She was 72 and had described death as “liberation into a freer life”.

She’d believed that a pilgrim’s job was to rouse people from apathy and make them think, insisting: “Love is the greatest power on Earth. It conquers all things.” 

And somehow Iona seemed the perfect starting point for my own walk, having been synonymous with pilgrimage for centuries since the Irish monk Saint Columba arrived in CE 563, bringing Christianity to Scotland.

Geoff with Bonnie, left, and Tammy outside Iona Abbey 

My daughters Bonnie and Tammy had chosen to be with me for the start of this life-changing day as I shouldered my heavy pack; paused to pose with them in front of Iona Abbey and then strode purposefully to the ferry. The plan was to hitch a ride across to the vastly bigger Island of Mull, and then begin stepping it out towards the mainland of Scotland.

Of course, a true pilgrim of old would travel without money, relying on the kindness of strangers, I explained, adding that if I were to attempt my quest without funds, the ferry crossing would be the first major hurdle. Guess what? While waiting at the slipway we struck up a conversation with a friendly local, who announced: “You seem such nice people – would you like some ferry tickets? I have a book of tickets that’s due to expire today.”

Not for the first time the Universe playfully showed me what is possible with faith and commitment.

More than a year and many millions of footsteps later I was back where I’d last hugged my daughters in an emotional farewell, and I vividly recalled their words of encouragement: “Dad, what you are doing brings knowledge, love and light to a great cause, the beloved Earth.

The Traigh Bhan retreat house has served the Findhorn community for more than 40 years

“Have fun, be brave and remember that you don’t have to suffer, freeze or go hungry to spread your message. Spread your message in true happiness.”


Now I’d linked the spiritual centres of Findhorn, Glastonbury and Iona with my footsteps, and done so during the wettest weather in England in more than a century. Often I’d ignored their sensible advice about not needing to suffer. Perhaps the lowest point was when tired and sodden, I’d lain in a muddy field, awaking with a start each time a slug crawled across my face. In the days that followed I suffered severe and debilitating asthma attacks. What was I doing and was I really making a difference?

One question brought a smile to my lips: If I was treading lightly and lovingly upon the Earth, why did my feet hurt so much?

Now there was a spring in my step and all the pain and suffering seemed worthwhile. I’d carried a bottle of holy water I’d filled at Glastonbury’s Chalice Well to sprinkle as a prayer and blessing and was planning a small ritual of gratitude at various sites, including Traigh Bhan, the Foundation’s retreat centre on Iona. 

A few drops went into the flower arrangement in the retreat house’s meditation sanctuary, some on the Wishing Stone on neighbouring Erraid where I’d photographed my daughters and silently committed to my walk, with much of the remainder later being sprinkled generously at both Findhorn venues: Cluny Hill and The Park. 

Iona is a feast for religious historians

Fast-forward to March 2015 and I was again back on Iona, this time for a writing retreat, accompanied by my friend Amala. A wonderful week stretched ahead of us with the tantalising prospect of filling it in whatever ways we desired, be it writing, exploring, reading or simply relaxing.

Of course, getting there wasn’t as simple as you might imagine, Mother Nature concocting a fiendish mixture of ferocious winds, wild seas and snow, sleet and horizontal rain that prevented the ferry from attempting the 2km stretch of ocean that separates it from Mull.

Eventually when we did land, it was with a vast sense of relief and the welcome feeling of stepping back in time to a simpler way of living.

There is a brooding sense of history and of occasion that so many pilgrims have noted, the poet John Keats describing his tramp across Mull as “a most wretched walk,” while the journey’s end astounded him.

“Who would expect to find the ruins of a fine Cathedral church, of cloisters, colleges, monasteries and nunneries in so remote an island,” he asked.

Amala depending on human-powered propulsion … and loving it

It remains a place of marvel to modern-day tourists and pilgrims who invariably spend a day of travel that includes three ferry crossings and the adventure of motoring along single-track roads where the etiquette involves pulling into lay-bys and allowing oncoming vehicles the right of passage. 

For Amala and I it was a precious gift. For a week we managed without Internet and emails, left our phones switched off and connected instead with the rhythms of nature, observing the tides and the movements of the sun, moon and stars.

Somehow everything at Traigh Bhan has to be earned and is appreciated all the more: if you want more heat or hot water, you stoke up the fire. And if you are hungry you harvest and cook. We delighted in preparing delicious vegetarian meals, some of the ingredients plucked from Traigh Bhan’s own garden and generously supplemented by organic produce from Findhorn’s abundant gardens.

As a former motoring journalist who enjoyed an unlimited choice of new vehicles, I smiled at the image of us taking turns to haul a cart carrying our supplies. Sure, there is a lone taxi on the island, but there’s something deeply satisfying about sustainable human-powered propulsion.

Stormy weather gave way to warm sunshine and the caress of a gentle breeze, inviting us to take a day out and explore the island, which is roughly 6km long and 2km wide. A four-hour hike allowed us to traverse Iona’s length and end up at Columba Bay where we walked a labyrinth and picnicked on a rocky outcrop with the waves breaking alongside us. Was this potentially treacherous spot really where St Columba landed more than 1,400 years earlier?

The day was a wonderful gift, and so is Traigh Bhan, which has been in the custodianship of the Findhorn Foundation for more than 40 years, serving as a retreat house for co-workers during the winter months, while being available to retreat guests during summer.

It offers a quiet and dynamic space to explore our inner landscapes and roles in global service.

Traigh Bhan offers a winter retreat space for community members and is offered to guests during the summer months


posted 24 Feb 2015, 00:40 by Geoff Dalglish   [ updated 24 Feb 2015, 23:57 ]

'Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go’ 

T S Eliot, poet

You are just a tiny yellow dot suspended alongside the magnificence of the waterfall

Photograph: Inga Hendriks Terblanche

Life is not defined by the number of breaths we take, but rather by those moments that take our breath away – and one of my most memorable was when I took a giant leap of faith and stepped over the cliff-edge alongside Maletsunyane Falls in the African kingdom of Lesotho.

None of the preparatory training or gut-wrenching middle-of-the-night moments of fear equipped me for the breathtaking reality of the next few seconds. First I spiralled alarmingly on the end of the rope, gradually stabilised and stopped spinning, then realised with a sense of wonder that all fear had evaporated, to be replaced by adrenaline-charged awe and gratitude.

The view was like no other I’d ever known, especially as I dropped lower and lower until I was engulfed in spray from the waterfall. This is one way of confronting a fear of heights, although the surprise was that it was magical beyond my wildest imaginings. This is living, I thought, picturing all those poor souls toiling indoors in offices far removed from the loving and exhilarating embrace of Mother Nature.

Maletsunyane Falls might lack the sheer thundering spectacle of Victoria Falls, where the mighty Zambezi River plunges over a series of gorges separating Zimbabwe and Zambia to earn its status as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Nor does it pull tourists with the power of Iguazu Falls between Brazil and Argentina, or Niagara on the US-Canadian border. But it is significantly higher than any two of this famous trio combined.

Geoff pretending not to be scared in those first few seconds

And better still, if you are an adrenaline junkie, it provides the setting for the world’s highest single-drop commercial abseil – the dizzying 204-metre descent guarantees it a place in the Guinness Book of Records!

I’d ostensibly signed up for the abseil to help my friend Inga Hendriks confront her terror of heights, while in truth I was meeting my own demons and learning about faith and trust. “What if the rope tangled or snapped? What if the mechanism jammed?” I’d tortured myself with all those questions before discovering the sheer joy of the experience.

Clad in a yellow waterproof jacket and protective helmet, I pondered the words of my host Jonathan Halse, who explained: “The abseil brings you down to earth. You are just a yellow dot hanging next to these giant cliffs that are millions of years old. It gives a sense of scale and a measure of your importance in the scheme of things.”

This adventure was back in 2008 and since then I’ve had many more opportunities to test my theories about the importance of sucking the juice out of life. When I’m 90 and sitting in my rocking chair, I don’t plan to look back on any regrets. Fears maybe, regrets no.

At the beginning of 2011 I scared myself silly during an expedition in Antarctica where I became the first person to drive a conventional 4x4 from the edge of the ice shelf some 300km inland to the South African research and scientific base. Once, when in the grip of a terrible dread, I even wondered if I might die in this frozen and lonely place.

Instead I encountered indescribably beautiful landscapes and the magnificence of the human spirit. It is an impossibly harsh and dangerous world that seems to bring out the best in us, and has done so for more than a century of exploration. 

Fears forgotten, Inga in celebratory mode

Entertainer and writer Andrew Denton summed up my feelings when he said: “If Antarctica were music it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater: the only place on Earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it!”

A few months after my personal mini-exploration of the white smudge at the bottom of the world map, I went from Petrolhead to Pilgrim, turning my back on my former life of money, materialism and expensive cars. I chose instead to walk with messages about treading more lightly and lovingly upon the Earth. And while it should have been scary, it mostly wasn’t, a strong sense of purpose propelling me forward.

Now, at Findhorn, I continue to explore inner and outer landscapes with the challenge – and the gift - of meeting my true self along the way.

Probably my greatest fear is of living a life of mediocrity where I don’t fulfill my potentials. Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg said it nicely: “ The biggest risk is not taking any risk … in a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”

I guess my daughter Bonnie understood that sentiment when she gave me a present of a coffee mug that features a quote by Neale Donald Walsch, author of the Conversations with God trilogy. It says simply: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Thanks Bonnie.

Mission accomplished … Geoff (left) at the South African scientific and research base in Antarctica

Rewilding the Soul

posted 22 Dec 2014, 23:55 by Geoff Dalglish   [ updated 28 Feb 2015, 00:58 ]

‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’

Frederick Buechner, writer and theologian

What would possess you to go alone into the wilderness without food or formal shelter, to do so at the scorching height of summer, and to pay perfectly good money for the dubious privilege?

I’ve been asked that question more than once, enjoying the incredulity that invariably greets the idea of voluntarily going without food for four days and four nights, and invariably sleeping only fitfully between a rock and a hard place.

But the essence of a modern-day vision quest, or wilderness fast, is to leave the trappings of so-called civilised life behind and become totally immersed in the womb of nature while seeking a new way of being in the world. It’s a death and rebirth. And for a while it’s goodbye to watches, smart phones, computers, TV, jobs, deadlines and comforts we take for granted like hot water and flush toilets.

Instead it is an opportunity to discover that alone can become ‘all-one’ when we rediscover our identity within the natural world and experience the interconnectedness of all life. It’s a place of magic and mystery where time slows down, life is simple and, if we are lucky, we meet our true selves. 

Author and poet JRR Tolkien famously observed that not all those who wander are lost, with solo wanderings into the wild heart of nature often providing our most profound insights and visions. And of course the concept isn’t new, time apart from the everyday ignited the spark of inspiration for the leaders of the major religions. Jesus found his true calling after 40 days in the wilderness, Muhammed in a cave outside Mecca, Moses on Mount Sinai and Buddha beneath a bodhi tree.

This is my fourth quest in six years so I’m excited and well prepared for my re-entry into wild nature where I’m most at home and at peace. The trio of earlier wilderness fasts revealed clues to my soul purpose and propelled me towards Findhorn, where I knew that I’d find more answers and perhaps begin to ask better questions. Why are we here, what’s my part in it, why is Spaceship Earth in the mess that it is, and how do I find true happiness?

This time around I’m more at peace, but want confirmation that I’m on target with my plans to immerse myself in Findhorn Foundation co-worker development opportunities during 2015, also participating in a pilgrimage in California to raise global awareness around issues of the sanctity and preciousness of water. It’s called Walking Water, and in the company of Native American elders and other role players, a small group of us will walk from the source of the water in the parched Owens Valley to the thirsty county of Los Angeles, that is home to 10 million souls.

My guides on this latest journey to the core of my being are Capetonians Judy Bekker and Valerie Morris, who trained with the American School of Lost Borders, and in more than two decades have not lost a quester to terminal injury or illness, a lethal snake bite or deadly scorpion sting.

So what’s it all about?

Home was a rock overhang visited by bats

Author Bill Plotkin, a veteran wilderness guide, writes in his book Soulcraft: “The soul is like an acorn. Just as the acorn gives instructions to the oak about how to grow and what to become, the human soul - a type of spiritual blueprint - carries an image or vision that shows us how to grow, what gift we carry for others, the nature of our true life.”

He argues that at least once in our lives we are likely to experience emptiness and a sense that something important is missing and that our lives don’t make sense, having somehow disconnected from our soul purpose. It can be terrifying and disorientating.

For some a vision quest is a way to meet and understand our true selves.

“There’s so much more to who you are than you know right now. You are, indeed, something mysterious and someone magnificent,” he writes. “You hold within you - secreted for safekeeping in your heart - a great gift for this world. Although you might sometimes feel like a cog in a huge machine, and that you don’t really matter in the great scheme of things, the truth is that you are fully eligible for a meaningful life, a mystical life, a life of the greatest fulfillment and service.

The view from my 'cave' in the wilds

“To enter that life, you do not need to join a tribal culture or renounce your religious values. You do not necessarily need to quit your job, sell or give away your home, or learn to only eat vegetables. You do, however, need to undertake a journey as joyous and gratifying as it is long and difficult.”

He adds: “The gift you carry for others is not an attempt to save the world but to fully belong to it. You need to find what is genuinely yours to offer the world before you can make it a better place. Discovering your unique gift to bring to your community is your greatest opportunity and challenge. The offering of that gift - your true self - is the most you can do to love and serve the world. And it is all the world needs.”

Sitting in a circle after our solo time, the faces are tanned, hair tousled and eyes clear-eyed, each of us radiating gratitude for nature’s gifts and harbouring a fresh resolve to forge ahead for a date with our individual destinies. We’re not the same people we were only days before, each having undertaken an inner and outer journey and seen some of the inspiring qualities of nature reflected within ourselves.

Enjoying a natural shower

I’ve shared a rock overhang with bats and largely banished my claustrophobia around confined spaces, also better understanding the gift of rain as a heavy downpour fills dry streams and creates waterfalls, transforming the landscape into a celebration of wondrous new life and possibility.

I stand naked and exhilarated on a rock as the water sluices over my body, feeling deliciously and gratefully alive. I’ve let go of many things that no longer serve me and am ready for whatever comes next. Yay!

Geoff Dalglish

My fellow questers after our solo wilderness adventure

Buried Alive!

posted 1 Dec 2014, 06:53 by Geoff Dalglish   [ updated 28 Feb 2015, 01:00 ]

The beautiful Cape Town beach that was the unlikely scene of my burial and exhumation

‘I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.’

Nelson Mandela

In a great gift to myself during holiday time away from the Findhorn Foundation community, I signed up for a Vision Quest with two major objectives: to reconfirm my vows to Mother Earth and to confront my demons, facing my darkest fears.

Why, I wondered, had I recently suffered some severe asthma attacks, one of which scared me enough to visit a local Scottish hospital where I was put on a ventilator machine to assist my shallow, laboured breathing.

Instead of medicating the symptoms, I decided I needed to explore the underlying causes for my breathing challenges and a claustrophobia that had always made it uncomfortable to be in any confined space - even my snug-fitting sleeping bag!

I expected to examine these secret fears during the four days and nights of solo time in the wilderness that are at the heart of most modern 11-day Vision Quests. Instead, in what seemed like a flash of inspiration to me, it was suggested that before our departure from Cape Town for the mountains, I bury myself in the sand on the neighboring Fish Hoek beach adjoining the home of facilitators Judy Bekker and Valerie Morris.

Geoff digging his own 'grave'

Other questers were invited to engage in individual tasks ranging from finding the fun again by playing games on the beach, creating an artwork from driftwood, shells or even litter, or perhaps climbing a tree in the local park to gain a different perspective on life.

Instead of a bit of childlike playfulness, my assignment triggered considerable anxiety and the clear realisation that I couldn’t do this alone. I invited Simone Dale, a charismatic 34-year-old facilitator-in-training and leadership development coach, to help bury me and then hopefully assist in exhuming me from the Earth.

To be truthful I felt rising panic as she packed the sand tightly around me, compressing it firmly enough to totally restrict the movement of my limbs, while still allowing me space to take shallow breaths. Only my head projected from the sand and it was buffeted by a fresh wind that sent sand flying, clogging my ears and nostrils and getting into my mouth. Calling on my meditative experiences, I invited calm and the help of Mother Earth and the natural world to provide insights and possible solutions.

Simone was also reassuring: “I’ll be nearby, if you need me.” I’d shown her how my asthma pump worked and closed my eyes, handing over to a trust and faith that has deepened during my time at Findhorn.

Gradually a great peace spread over me, like a comforting blanket, and four significant childhood memories flooded my awareness.

My first asthma attacks had coincided with my troubled time at nursery school in Durban when I was punished for being too talkative, the teacher taping my mouth over each morning and forcing me to sit still and watch while the other children played. It was cruel and excruciating.

Geoff facing his asthma and claustrophobia fears

Then there were three potentially life-threatening incidents in water, in one my delight at grabbing at an octopus in the shallows turned to fear when it wrapped tentacles tightly around my arm and retreated deeper into a rocky lair. Moments after calling out to my Dad that I’d caught an octopus, I realised to my horror that the reverse was true and I couldn’t prise myself free.

Perhaps more scary was the time I stepped onto a slick, muddy surface, not realising that a river flowed beneath it. I immediately sank and was sucked relentlessly towards and through a pipe that channelled the flow beneath a road bridge. I was powerless to resist and found myself being suctioned through a dark world devoid of any airspace.

But more was to come. On another occasion I was in the surf and was pulled relentlessly down and out to sea by a treacherous current. I kicked and clawed desperately for the surface, but to no avail, until a great peace began to overtake me. The transition from panic to peace was a totally beautiful otherworldly experience. I was drowning but why had I imagined this would be something terrifying?

Once again my Dad the Hero came to the rescue and strong hands lifted me from the ocean, coughing and spluttering while lamenting my departure from that magnificent place of love and peace. I’d liked it there!

Fast-forward to Cape Town a few days ago and I became aware that I was indeed one with the Earth and all life, feeling calm and connected while noticing a powerful pulsing and series of contractions through my body. It felt like a loving massage and I decided the slow, steady rhythm was the heartbeat of Mother Earth herself. What a blessing!

The ordeal over, it's time for a selfie with Simone Dale

All fears around my predicament had evaporated and I realised that if ever I was in a place of terror and confinement again, or perhaps facing the ultimate transition from this life to the next, I had only to remember that near-drowning experience and the wonderful peace that had enveloped me then.

Nature had worked her magic - I felt refreshingly light and bright as a smile tugged at my lips and I cheerfully called out to Simone: “I’m done! Can you please help me out of here.”

Visit http://www.rbanet.co.za/p_vision.html


posted 22 Oct 2014, 06:32 by Geoff Dalglish   [ updated 28 Feb 2015, 01:12 ]

‘To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that enhances and respects the freedoms of others’ 

Nelson Mandela, Icon of Forgiveness

From birth until a few months beyond my 45th birthday I was a prisoner in my own country and only finally set free - along with millions of others - when I placed an X on a piece of paper during South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.

In recent days I shared some of that journey with my elder daughter Bonnie as we entered the initially sombre and brooding atmosphere of Johannesburg’s award-winning Apartheid Museum, which tells a story of tyranny, tragedy, violence, heroism and ultimately the triumph of the human spirit.

For me it was a pilgrimage to my past - lest I forget - and for Bonnie the opening of a door into a tortured history she knew little of. She was eight years old when Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison, and her sister Tammy was just six.

Setting the scene, museum visitors are arbitrarily issued with a ticket classifying them either as white or non-white, and enter through the gate allocated to that specific grouping. I walked through the white entrance, Bonnie entering as a non-white in a reminder that racial classification was the foundation of apartheid. Society was then divided into four groups determined largely by skin colour: Bantu (black), Asian, coloured or white.

Our exploration of the museum triggered a flood of memories and transported me back to my days as a young reporter almost four decades earlier when I’d been at the epicentre of the cataclysmic events that ultimately emancipated and united all South Africans in a common destiny.

Geoff and Bonnie against the backdrop of the South African flag

It was on June 16, 1976, that black outrage at an unfair education system that discriminated ruthlessly against children of colour, finally spilled over, intensifying the struggle that would one day see the world’s most famous prisoner taking his place at the head of South African society.

To truly get to grips with the soul of democratic South Africa I heartily recommend a trip to the museum - or better still, make it part of what I think of as the Freedom Trail, spending at least a day going back in time and attempting to follow in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela and other struggle heroes.

A few years ago it was activist-turned-tour guide Joe Motshogi who introduced me to the idea of a struggle pilgrimage, driving me from the leafy suburbs of Sandton to the vibrancy and squalor of Soweto, Johannesburg’s younger and less affluent sibling.

And far from being simply a serious history lesson, it turned out to be a celebration that was often characterised by fun and laughter, especially when we tuned in to the heartbeat of Soweto, the country’s largest and most famous black township.

My ideal itinerary starts at Liliesleaf in the plush Sandton suburb of Rivonia, where a number of Mandela’s co-conspirators were arrested, followed by the Apartheid Museum, the Hector Pietersen Memorial, Freedom Square, the Regina Mundi Church and Vilakazi Street, the Soweto equivalent of Hollywood Boulevard where you might easily spot celebrity stars of the freedom struggle.

Vilakazi residents proudly claim that their street is the only one in the world that has been home to two Nobel laureates, Mandela and his friend Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town who headed the pioneering Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

A grim reminder that so many political prisoners were executed during the apartheid regime

But mostly the street is about having a good time and on past visits I’ve found myself in animated conversation with locals and a sprinkling of enthusiastic international visitors at lively restaurants and shebeen bars. At one called The Shack, the drink of choice was chilled Windhoek lager drunk straight from 750ml bottles, a group of women gyrating to loud music while the menfolk played a game of pool, amid much good-natured merriment.

I’m always struck by the great warmth and sense of community that’s missing in many cities where neighbours don’t know each other and live behind high security walls. The friendliness is in sharp contrast to my earliest memories of Soweto as a roving reporter on the Rand Daily Mail, witnessing running battles between heavily armed police and protesting schoolchildren armed only with stones.


Of course, no visit to Vilakazi Street is complete without a tour of the modest ‘matchbox’ home that Mandela shared with his former wife Winnie, the original facebrick house now dwarfed by a huge museum façade.

If you’ve started at Liliesleaf,  you’ll recognise the simple and effective architectural style that has been adopted for recent apartheid memorials, recapturing the dark, brooding mood of life under a repressive regime.

 It was at Liliesleaf Farm that a police raid in 1963 dealt a major blow to the leadership of the African National Congress and the struggle for liberation. Mandela, wearing blue overalls and posing as a servant named David Motsamayi, was arrested along with 11 others, the now-famous Rivonia Trialists including Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki, father of former President Thabo Mbeki.

Antoinette Sithole alongside the 1976 photograph of her and her dying brother Hector Pietersen

The accused had anticipated the death sentence, laughing with relief and disbelief when life sentences were handed down at the end of the courtroom drama.

At an earlier visit to the Hector Pietersen Museum I met the sister of the 13-year-old schoolboy who was among the first to succumb to a police bullet on June 16, a famous photograph showing the dying boy being carried by a teenage youth while she runs alongside, her horror and grief captured in that awful image.


Today, she’s Mrs Antoinette Sithole, a respected member of the community, who says: “I can forgive the people who did this, but I can’t forget.” Now she insists: “We must mix all God’s colours, including black and white, to create something quite beautiful.”

That spirit of reconciliation is a theme at the Apartheid Museum, where we’re invited to choose a favourite Mandela quotation which corresponds with a colour, the idea being to ‘plant’ a stick of that colour in a garden of appreciation.

Bonnie and I linger over the many famous quotations, among them two favourites about courage and resilience: “I learnt that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear” and “There are few misfortunes in the world that you cannot turn into a personal triumph if you have the iron will and the necessary skill.”

We also admired the former president’s unwavering commitment: “I will pass through this world but once, and I do not want to divert from my task, which is to unite the nation.”

In the end I chose a green stick that corresponds with the observation: “Deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity.”  Thanks Madiba for persevering and enduring that long walk to freedom.


Bonnie plants a stick in a colour that corresponds to a favourite Mandela quotation

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