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‘My Quarter of a Century Walk’

“LIFE CARRIES on like a walk,” declared a despondent looking Tshepiso Maretele as he zig-zagged awkwardly amongst us.

‘My Quarter of a Century Walk’

Part of some 3500 walkers participating in the annual MTN Walk The Talk with 702’s once off 25km event staged in commemoration of South Africa’s quarter of a century milestone, we were at the four kilometre point in front of the University of the Witwatersrand’s olde architecture Solomon Mahlangu House, in the early parts of a winter Sunday morning.

The intern teacher, donning a jacket and both hands in his trousers’ pockets, purposefully kept up a matching pace among entrants spotting numbers pinned onto tops – as he blended with the throng, en-route to taking stock of being yet another added statistic to Johannesburg’s crime scourge, at his digs in Berea!

Now a victim around an excitable weekend, Maretele had become an unfortunate recipient of the devious actions of an unscrupulous Uber taxi driver who dropped him at Marks Park (incidentally the start and finish point of the walk) and made off with his mobile phone and wallet – after he’d been on a heavy night of drinking in nearby Melville.

What was a period of feelings of misfortune for the budding educationist – was long-brewing anticipation eventually coming to pass, for me.  I had waited patiently for so long for the moment: my very first walk at the end of which I was going to be rewarded with a once-off medal!

It had all started on wrong wheels when, under the cover of darkness in the wee hours of the morrow, the driver of the park-and-ride bus supposed to ferry us to the start at Emmarentia, missed an onramp – and ended up driving us to Soweto, where I had begun my day from, at the ungodly 3:30am, just so as not to miss my start. 

Fortunately for him – a service provider enlisted on the day to ferry participants from the NASREC assembly point – he got to reconcile lost time and soonly got us there, after all!

Four kilometres back before the encounter with Maretele at WITS, Talk Radio 702’s traffic reporter, Aki Anastisiou, standing on an elevated pedestal at the start, had worked the microphone as only he knew how, in hyping us up with Juluka’s Scatterings of Africa and having us stand to attention for the singing of the national anthem.  Thereafter, at 6h45am (the 25km walk’s scheduled start), the exuberant airwaves personality bade us farewell!

In what reportedly was not the coldest day of the staging of the event, our takkie-clad wave earnestly set off on the exercise of pounding Jozi’s Macadam surface, as we manoeuvred what proved to be an imaginatively thought out route cross-crossing iconic landmarks such as both Wits’ west and east campuses; the M1 motorway; the Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth II’s bridges; Constitution Hill; the Johannesburg Zoo; Ditsong Military Museum; Jacaranda leafy Saxonwold; Nelson Mandela’s Houghton home and Zoo Lake.

A marimba band; SAPS display replete with musical items renditions; filming crews and a drone overhead documenting the event; traditional dancers beating on drums; stilts caricatures; enterprising suburban kids selling Nutella-spread pancakes, lemonade and ice tea; water points also stocked up with Powerade energy drinks and Coca-Cola; distance markers; Metro Police and marshals ensuring motorists adherence at intersections and warning walkers not to cut corners (curves) and the availability of bathrooms and portable loos along the route – all combined to turn the walk into a well-organized event accommodating more than 50 000 participants.

Along the pedestrian sidewalk on Nelson Mandela Bridge, we passed people heading to their different workplaces, whilst other walkers (I suspect those who rarely venture into Johannesburg’s CBD) took moments to capture selfies in front of the landmark. 

At a community park located below, a volunteer bellowed, “Give yourself energy!” as he thrust paper cups filled with blue liquid content into walkers’ paths. Between the bridges named after the 20th century figures, an elderly man in fluorescent coloured sportswear overtook us whilst speed walking and although the walk was not a race, other participants took it upon themselves to engage in spurts of jogging, throughout.

“Here are some gentlemen facing the wall,” a walker with a somehow acerbic sense of humour, declared upon entering a toilet only to find spots occupied at a row of urinals. In the student town of Braamfontein, Talk Radio 702 had a pop-up installation displaying caricatures of Nkosi Johnson, Brenda Fassie, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, Caster Semenya and Madiba, on the sidewalk. 

The young AIDS activist, singer, Gift of the Givers honcho, Olympian and the country’s first democratically-elected president, had befittingly been acknowledged by the public as icons of the last 25 years!  In her typical inimitable manner, Mabrr’s sketch pleads: “I wanna be loved, I just want to be loved!”  Against yet another Juluka sound blast, this time, Impi, it was as if she was crying out for empathy right at that moment!

Beyond the arch leading into the grounds of the erstwhile notorious Number Four gaol, where giants, the Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were once incarcerated, a lady enthusiastically blowing on bubbles exhorted, “We are here at Con Hill, come bring your kids and play!” 

Representing an entity named, Play Africa – that she was engaging in a marketing gimmick of a much lighter nature, was an indication of the progressive evolution the place has undergone.

Passing the 10km mark near the famous Hollard building visible to vehicular traffic from the M1, we descended into omnipresent tranquillity in the form of the wolds with their purple less Jacarandas flanking us for street long stretches from either sides.

“Keep walking,” a marshal who had just let some cars pass on a road travelling along the Johannesburg Zoo, encouraged.  Unbeknownst to us, the route planner or planners, had a pleasant surprise in store for us: a gratis walk inside the animal sanctuary, where we got to spot two of Africa’s lauded Big 5s, an Elephant and two rhinoceros – in addition to a lonely ruminating hippopotamus, African Wild Dogs and other four-legged creatures from a distance. 

The foray into the wild enclosure simply offered walkers the one standout moment of excitement and there was something wickedly gratifying in the knowledge that the itinerary was only for those participating in the longer route, on the day!

Steadily maintaining the drinks intake and bathroom visitation momentum, and all the while varying my pace, near the halfway mark, I declared the task on hand (largely flat and punctuated with descents here and there) to be relatively, “eezy peezy” – even though this was the longest distance which I have ever had to walk. 

Crossing the M1 for the second asking into Lower Houghton near the Power FM premises, we hit the 16km mark at Nelson Mandela’s family home where we were welcomed by troupe of traditional dancers in requisite garb and punctuating the air around with the vigorous sound of drums and singing.  An amply stocked drinks station was located adjacent to the late statesman’s abode – offering us another chance of hydrating as walkers tossed empty cups into provided bins and whilst intently continuing on their route toward the destination which now lay 9 kilometres away!  

Apt for the suburb and the stature of the address-holder, the Houghton refreshment point (one of seven) impressed me for being the most stocked with all the roster of liquids, water, energy drinks and Coke.

Adjacent to a golf course whose verges hugged the M1 North motorway, an elderly lady paused under a tree long enough to catch her breath on a steep incline which must had run for some 20 meters, by eye calculation.  Albeit brief, it was to be the only really testing gradient along the route.

This was at a point on the route where we were actually retracing our steps as we headed back to Saxonwold and outside the zoo’s perimeter and onto Zoo Lake where the spirits of some fatigued walkers (including a bespectacled young lady in a tutu who sighed exasperation in contemplating quitting until a team member strolled back to take her hand in encouragement) begun picking up when they got to learn that a mere five kilometres now lay betwixt their current position and the sought after medal!

“Bra Adam, you look like you could do another lap!” a marshal in a reflector vest near the Alliance Francaise building called out to an impressively stepping walker alongside me, as we headed further up street leading up to the end. 

“Don’t tell me we are going up the bridge, a man complained to his female accomplice upon spotting droves of walkers up a bridge at the 23km mark on a main road passing below.  He needn’t had worried, since those were the 5km event participants who because of their shorter route, were always pencilled in for a much later start.

Then, turning the corner into a descending street leading to the entrance into the Marks Park sporting grounds, we heard the magical words, “Welcome home guys, you’ve done it!” as walkers now eagerly surged towards yellow inflated arch marking the finish line. 

Despite the public address system’s voice urging participants not to block others’ paths by stopping for selfies – the unbridled excitement of achievement overwhelmed the repeated pleas.

In the melee, with spirits pumped up on a moment of fulfillment, I got to the wrong medal collection station, with a volunteer helpfully pointing me in the right direction.  And with the precious medal now a possession dangling on my chest, I further rewarded myself on a good Sunday morning’s work by heading to the VIP hospitality marquee for brunch, drinks and banter!

Image Jacob MAWELA (Decorated photo-journalist Jacob Mawela posing with a once off commemorative medal after completing the walk of a quarter century in the MTN Walk The Talk with 702).

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