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I exist for you. A South African Journey.

For those who do not know, my eldest son Corban turned sixteen last October, and I did not want to pass on the opportunity to speak into his life at this crucial age. I have long believed that something is missing in the North American culture when it comes to celebrating the transition kids make into adulthood. With this belief, I decided to take Corban on a ‘coming-of-age’ trip to South Africa. And what a journey of discovery, adventure and growth it was.

I freeze in my tracks.

 “I think I smell a leopard.” Holding the knobkierrie in the air, I signaled Corban to freeze. It had been years since I smelled the urine of a leopard, but I was certain I had just picked it up in the breeze. The aroma is hard to put into words, but if it was a fine red wine, I would describe it as a musky, heavy scent with sweet undertones, like buttered popcorn or caramel. But to be clear, it is no fine wine and will never be mistaken for one.

“No, I lost it. Must have been something else.”

“Like your imagination,” Corban grinned as he teased this ‘big city game tracker.’

Then I saw it. At first, it was just a bush, but the more I stared, the more the magnificent beast came into focus. He found a perfect bush to shield him from the midday heat of the blistering African sun. Unfazed, he stared back with his emerald eyes at what must have looked like two tall-shaven baboons to him. Not wanting to take any chances, we continued our journey, walking more sideways than forward, to keep an eye on him and to put a good amount of distance between us and this raw, unfiltered essence of nature.

Over the coming days, we encountered lions, hippos, elephants, water buffalo, blue wildebeests, wild dogs, hyenas ‘laughing’ as we passed, giraffes, zebra, kudos, fish eagles, and so many more animals and birds.

In all, we spent four days tracking game and lions through one of the largest national parks in the southern hemisphere. It was like coming home for me — too old friends. For Corban, it was the beginning of a discovery of a New World, new thoughts, and the development of enhanced self-confidence.

Our last night around the campfire with my parents and exchanging stories, old and new, marked a perfect conclusion to this leg of the journey. Mixed emotions filled me as we bid goodbye to the safari for our next adventure – rock climbing. A sense of exhilaration at the prospect of scaling the heights started to fill the vehicle as we approached our next stop.

Waterval Boven, also known as Emgwenya, is known for its rock-climbing opportunities. It’s a sport Corban loves but has never experienced to this degree. We were surrounded by massive 263-foot cliffs belonging to the Black Reef Quartzite formation, which is part of the Transvaal Supergroup. They are incredibly hard and resistant to weathering, which makes them excellent for climbing. The unique striations and overhangs are the result of millions of years of geological processes that conspired together to create one of the best climbing experiences and routes in the world. Many things have changed since I’ve last been there; like the resort we used to camp at being completely abandoned and left desolate by vandals and looters. The broken inground swimming pool, where we used to cool down after long days on the rocks, now lay as a perfect monument to the changing times, the violence and the impermanence of man-made structures. The rock, however, remained unchanged – each hold, small finger pocket and crimps exactly where I left them.

What a joy it was to see my son come alive on those rocks, outclimbing his dad, who was now christened with the affectionate nickname, ‘Squishy’ – A series of injuries over the past three years has taken its toll and is starting to show on this aging body of mine. The aging process is bittersweet.

I have always told Corban that I can’t wait to see him outclimb me, and I am so happy that it happened on this trip. I’ve always been super competitive, and while I often let the kids feel they were within reach of overtaking me, I never just gave it to them, so when Corban realized he was now outclimbing “Squishy,” a new self-confidence started to take hold. The next four days of camping, climbing, and late-night visits around the campfire under the starry African sky will forever stay with me.

On the last night in Boven, Corban built up the courage the jump down a 20-foot rock into the cold black water pool below as a symbolic action of leaving the safety of childhood behind and jumping into the unknown of the adult world – I’m a bit of a sucker for symbolism. Seeing him emerge from the cold dark deep, it was evident in his facial expression that a new journey for him had begun.

Comfortable Tenting
Back of the Crux
The Crux
Night Climb: Two rocks
Made it
It’s high
Get me a six pack
The view
Night Climb

The jump off the rock wasn’t the last one he would brave on this trip as we packed up, said our goodbyes to the towering cliffs, and set our sights on our next destination, my hometown of Graskop.

Graskop, with its magnificent waterfalls, rainforest, caves, and abandoned gold mines from the late 19th century, greeted us with its familiar all-covering mist. The sun remained hidden behind the clouds the whole time we were there, and it was marvellous. I could not have wished for anything better. It was again the familiar feel of the fine wet mist on my face on the way to school or the damp, wet clothes while hiking in search of adventure.

“I guess we won’t be able to do what we planned,” Corban said at first with disappointment in his voice.

I think that, often, we want everything around us to be perfect before we embark on our adventures. We find small and big excuses that keep us in our comfort zones, locked up in our homes, glued to our chairs, phones, books, tv screens and other busy projects. But real life, true life, happens outside – in the rain, the cold, the mist, the sun and the wind.

Since he was a little boy, Corban had been asking to see the mine that featured in one of his favourite bedtime stories I used to tell him. I told him how I was trapped in this mine, along with the pastor’s son, for 36 hours in the belly of the mountain without any light, food, or water. Naturally, this visit was high on our priority list. But before we embarked on this particular adventure, we had to take a quick dip under a waterfall in the chilly waters of the Blyde River. After that, we stopped by a local hardware store to pick up some essential gear – raincoats, machetes, waterproof boots and a lot of extra batteries for our headlights.

You can probably imagine how disappointed we were when the entrance to the mine was welded shut with a big full metal door – it was probably for the good as no one wants to lose kids in an old mine. Both Corban’s and my adventurous spirit could not let this go that easily. After discussing some options, we decided to head up the mountain to find the old air shafts to see if we could rappel into the mine. The machetes came in handy as we fought through thick vegetation and thornbushes, but one after the other, we found all the shafts had collapsed in. The day of exploration might have been a bust if it wasn’t for the small cave network we found at the mountain peak. Corban loved edging his way into the narrow passages until he came across some antelope skeletons deep down one of the passages. It was clear that some animals, most likely a Leopard or Caracal, had this place as a den at some point. Based on the scat, it luckily wasn’t recent, but recent enough that we felt it was time to head down the mountain again. The day wasn’t what we had initially planned, yet it is still one of the days we often talk about when thinking back on the trip.

Not being able to go into the mine, I decided to take him to one of my favourite waterfalls for our last day, as I knew it had a cave system and the waterfall itself is breathtaking.

One thing that is sometimes tough to explain to people is all the different sayings and ways of the South African people. I heard phrases again like, “Ja nee” (Yes No), which means the person agrees, or “I will do it now-now” which means that it will be done later, or a first for me “That lady is eating my brains out” which was her way of saying that the lady made her think a lot.  But one of my favourites of these moments happened at the waterfall.  

All the major waterfalls and other scenic spots have been turned into paid tourist attractions. While I don’t like seeing all my childhood play areas turned into tourist attractions and my ability to explore them limited, I certainly understand and respect it. Yet, I find it tough to want to stay within the bounds set upon me in my old ‘backyard’.  So, when we pulled up to the gate to pay our entrance fee, I explained to Rose, the gate attendant, that I grew up here and the journey I am on with my son Corban.

“I would love to take him down to where I swam as a child Rose, may I take the back road down?”

“Ah Mr. Christoff, you see, you are not allowed to hike down the waterfall, you must view it from up here behind the fence. And, if you do hike down…you are not allowed to swim; it is illegal! But if you decide to swim… it is at your own risk.”

“So, if we hike down it is at our own risk?”

“Yes, there are no lifeguards, because it is illegal.”

This exchange might seem strange but that is the way of this part of the world. Things are held together by rules and laws that are most often only suggestions. It is something I both enjoy and despise as it allows for so much flexibility yet lacks the rigour to build a strong foundation and economy on.

After checking with the head ranger, we were given the all-clear to drive the backroads to approach the waterfall from the other end – away from the other tourists – so we could hike down and explore the water and caves. The hike was steep, and the rocks and path were dangerously wet and slippery. But none of that mattered as the waterfall came into focus.  

In that moment, it was as if the beauty, sound, spray, and coolness of the waterfall transported us to another world. It was nothing short of magical. When you see your teenage son just freeze and stare, you know it is hitting deep. I don’t know how long we just stood in silence, but when Corban finally broke the silence, it was only to say, “Oh my goodness”, followed by a deep strong hug, you know the kind, that deep one that says more than any words can ever try to convey.  Even now I can feel the calmness, beauty and gratitude of that moment envelop me.

The pursuing hours exploring the cave network and the hidden gems, like being able to view the waterfall through an overgrown hole in the mountain, added a capstone to this part of the journey.

The hike out was steep and exhausting after the long, wet day. I just wanted to get to the cabin and take a warm shower, and so did Corban, but I made sure to first stop to say thank you to the head ranger and to let Corban share his experience with him. We sometimes forget that we are just humans on a journey serving other humans on their journey – and that sometimes the best gift we can give is letting someone know how they have shaped our journeys, in big and small ways.

I was starkly reminded of this by Petros, the head ranger, who after greeting me in Zulu “sawubona”, and me responded in English with “I am good, how are you” shook his head violently at me.

“No, you have forgotten umntwana (child)”.  

He was right, I did forget. The Zulu greeting “Sawubona”, literally means “I see you”. It is more than just a polite greeting, it carries the importance of recognizing the worth and dignity of each person. It says, “I see the whole of you—your experiences, your passions, your pain, your strengths and weaknesses, and your future. You are valuable to me.” The common response is “Shiboka”, which means “I exist for you.”

“Sawubona”

“Shiboka”

I see you, Corban, with all of your potential, strengths, weaknesses, pain, fears and God given talents. I exist for you Corban, to be there along side you though the difficult journey of life, and to help you be, and become, the greatness that is within you.

And with that, our journey drew to a close. The 32 hours of travel back to Canada provided ample time for reflection and reliving our experience. My goal for the journey was to create a memorable experience that would grow in meaning over time that was bigger than the moment itself. A grounding, an inspiration, a connection, an understanding, a pursuit, a begging, and an end, a boy stepping into manhood.

Something magnificent happens when we open ourselves up to the unknown, to more. It has the ability to cut through all the noise and complications of life and bring the basics and truths, that have shaped our civilizations for centuries, into a sharp focus. It calls out to us, shapes us, and transforms us – if we let it. It formed me as a child, and it forms me still – and I am blessed to be able to expose my kids to it as well.

With every new exploration and decision of courage, I could see Corban’s confidence and maturity being moulded, by him, by nature, and by God. It was a two-week journey that will last a lifetime.  

Let’s deliberately create more of those.

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