[Issue 2 / August 2012]

Whenever headlights appeared behind us Peter and I turned around and stuck our thumbs into the road.  No cars stopped.   We didn’t care.

It was a mellow night and the Southern Cross accompanied us as we walked home from 4-Ways Drive-In, north of Johannesburg.  We’d jumped the fence to watch Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a film about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.  During the five mile walk we discussed the film, impressed by the saint’s idealism, his selfless love for the world and his determination to live the simple life, serving all creatures – a Western Buddha or sadhu.

As we commented on the scene where Francis walks barefoot in the snow I got the notion that I too would do the same: go barefoot for a while.  Living in South Africa anyway predisposed me to walking unfettered.  Even as a boy, living in Empangeni, I’d wanted to be like one of the Zulu Impis under Shaka’s rule, who were forced to run barefoot over thorns to toughen up their soles.  As far as I was concerned shoes were only meant for school and formal occasions.  Most of the time I wore flip-flops, tyretackies, or went barefoot.  But now the sudden impulse had quasi spiritual underpinnings.  Nonetheless, on that balmy night, in humble emulation of Saint Francis, I took a semi-solemn vow that I’d go barefoot for an entire year.

I was a freshman at the University of the Witwatersrand at the time, and it was no big deal attending classes barefoot.  However, I got disapproving looks when I went to shows, clubs or restaurants around town. Luckily, my frayed bell-bottoms covered my feet so people didn’t notice.  Traipsing through Johannesburg’s grimy streets took some overcoming, but in the name of humility, I stayed true to my vow.  Any official or even semiformal function was potentially embarrassing, and I had to justify my position, much like  my vegetarianism.  Regularly I was turned away or no longer invited, all of which I took in stride.

Going barefoot became a way of life which I upheld with countercultural zeal.  There were rare exceptions when, for example, my mother refused to go to a family friend’s wedding unless I put on a pair of decent shoes, or when I attended the funeral of an acquaintance who’d committed suicide.  On these occasions I complied though I didn’t wear socks.

Winter proved to be a challenge.  Johannesburg is 6000 feet above sea level and can get chilly.  I came close to abandoning my resolve on one occasion, but stood firm and toughened up.  Trips to the primal Magaliesburg Mountains between Pretoria and Johannesburg were trial outings.  By now I could even walk over thorns, at least the smaller Hlabahlabans.  I could have run with Shaka’s impis.  The skin on my soles was like leather.

The longer trips were an entirely different matter.  On one occasion I hitchhiked 500 miles down to Durban, then south along the east coast to Margate where I met up with some friends.  Together we trekked along the Transkei Coast for a week.  Hiking along the beach and swimming in the Indian Ocean was pleasant enough, but the intermittent miles of rocky terrain tested my stamina. Often we were forced to go inland, which increased the danger of getting bitten by venomous snakes.  Anybody knows that it’s plain stupidity to walk through the veldt without some protective gear, preferably boots.  And I did see plenty of snakes, green mambas and puff adders, but I never got bitten, not even by a scorpion.

The inevitable happened when I hitchhiked down to Cape Town during the July vacation in mid winter.  An hour into my trip and I’d only made it to the outskirts of Johannesburg.  As I stood next to the highway from where I could see Soweto Township and Johannesburg’s gold mines, I inadvertently stepped into a pile of broken glass.  A piece got stuck in my left heel.  I tried to pry it out with my penknife, but it lodged itself deeper.  I gave up when a car stopped for me.  I hopped on to the back of the bakkie, hoping the shard would naturally expel itself over time.  Instead the wound got infected.

About 20 cars and three days later I arrived down in Cape Town, hobbling and in pain.  At Clifton Beach I bathed the cut in the ocean’s cool, soothing saltwater.   It felt good, but the swelling did not recede and puss oozed from the ugly slit.  I bought a bottle of Dettol and massaged the brown disinfectant into the wound.  That helped.  Even so, I could not get the glass splinter dislodged and I was limping around like Mephistopheles. This would have been the time to call it quits, get medical attention and buy some shoes. Instead, I stocked up with food, hitched a ride along the Apostles Mountains to Sandy Bay, near the town of Llandudno , and braved a rough twenty minute walk to the nudist beach, where I could sleep without risking arrest for vagrancy.

For three days I lay around on the fine white sand, kept to myself and convalesced.  The swelling went down slightly and I decided to return home earlier than intended.  So much for my plans to climb Table Mountain, go clubbing, make friends, discover new places and visit old haunts from my year spent in Cape Town as a nine year old.

Hitchhiking the thousand miles back to Johannesburg was a miserable affair, exacerbated by inclement weather.  First I was hit by a foul storm in the Hex River Valley, which forced me to spend a sodden and restless night under a bridge, followed by an even worse night stuck in the Karoo, an arid semi desert in the desolate Cape plains.  It was particularly cold, and I only had a thin, blue sleeping bag that was no match for the gusts of wind that pummeled me all night long.  At dawn next morning, with the threadbare sleeping bag wrapped tightly around my frozen feet, I stood shivering next to the road, angling for a ride.  By now my toes were numb and my feet purple.  It took five hours before a tipsy son of a Boer on his way to Bloemfontei—to   escape the boredom of the farm—screeched to a stop.   But it was during that bitterly cold and weary wait that I decided I’d had enough of walking barefoot, enough of following some romantic notion to prove myself, and enough self-flagellation in the name of some misplaced, nascent spiritual striving.

When I finally made it back home two days later, I sat down with a box cutter and a pincer till the offending piece of glass was extracted.  Surprisingly, I couldn’t just revert back to wearing shoes.  There is something addictive about going barefoot, almost like a narcotic.  Shoes simply felt constricting and cumbersome and I had to force myself to wear them.  I yearned for the direct contact of the earth – the soil, the sand, the grass.  Nature spoke a subtle language through my feet.  I had to get used to wearing shoes again, and it came in small increments, and a well placed nudge from a girl.

She’d come to visit me at my apartment.  I suggested we take a walk before going out for dinner.  Not thinking, I went into the streets barefoot.  To my dismay she didn’t return with me to my apartment, refused dinner, and broke off all contacts.  From then on I began wearing shoes once again.