There are so many qualities and ways of being that make Jess an amazing guide. She has an intuitive understanding of people’s needs and is able to engage with and motivate every group member. She subtly facilitates group cohesion, and her logistical planning of hikes is impeccable. I have been on two hikes with her - the first a five day hike up Cederberg, and the other a hike up Table Mountain. I shall touch on both in this review.
The logistics of the Cederberg hike was impeccable. We started the hike with the steepest incline, which not only made the rest of the chosen route comparatively easy, but also accelerated the depth of our relationships to each other. She demanded that we push ourselves physically, but there were enough breaks to prevent exhaustion. The stops were well-planned and well-timed – we reached adequate shade, or places to swim around mid-hike each day. The hike was structured so that on the second last day, we did not camp at all. Instead, we spent the day camping around a cluster of enormous boulders. It allowed us to spend time with each other, without the pressure of finishing a route. For me, the friendships that extended beyond the hike were solidified during this time. A less experienced or less thoughtful guide may have paced the hike differently, which would have changed the nature of the relationships formed. The amount, variety and type of food was perfect. It catered to all dietary requirements, and I remember being surprised that hiking food could actually be enjoyable. I felt completely physically safe with Jess as the guide. Her knowledge of injuries was extensive, and she was well-equipped to tend to the group’s ailments. Three people who had completed the hike the previous year formed part of the group. They helped Jess and her colleagues in motivating and leading our group. The transition between school and work, or school and university can be conceptually intimidating. As we had all recently finished the matric exams, we all faced similar challenges. Her decision to include matriculants from the previous ideas was perfectly aligned to our emotional needs at the time. The attention Jess pays to these details made the hike smooth and the experience nourishing.
Of the two hikes, Cederberg was more physically and psychologically taxing. A group of about twenty matriculants spent five days in Cederberg, often hiking up steep inclines in midsummer heat. For me, a good guide is distinguished by their ability to encourage people to complete the hike, whatever their physical fitness level. Jess was able to do this, using both her own resources and our relationships with each other. She would often walk beside a member of the group who was struggling, and talk to them to distract from their physical pain. When seeing someone demotivated, she would arrange that they lead the group, rather than allow them to fall behind. She would take time to identify any issues that added unnecessary irritations to people struggling with the hike. For example, she ensured that the straps of backpacks were correctly adjusted. At the end of each day, she would check in with everyone. The combination of belief in people’s inherent abilities and attention to their needs fostered everyone’s self-belief and confidence.
For the most part, we did not know our fellow group members at the start of the hike. Jess played a significant role in creating a communal culture within the group. For example, each person was assigned to the care of another. Jess offered suggestions around how to put that care into practice. We carried each other’s bags, and did random acts of kindness for each other. Through this, we formed solid relationships with each other. She also facilitated group conversations around the fire and during our breaks for lunch or snacks. She would draw out comments from more reserved members of the group. Consequently, at the end of the hike, we felt close to each other. I have sustained friendships with people from that group two years after the hike has ended. This is due in part to Jess’ creation of group cohesion.
Jess incorporated a few rituals into the hike. This spiritual component made the experience magical. At the beginning of each day, we hiked in silence. This afforded time to reflect on our experiences on the hike, and on our own challenges in our lives. For member who, like me, are more introverted, it allowed us time to recharge. Without this time, I believe people like myself may have become withdrawn. When she declared the silence over, we were all eager to speak to each other. That meant that we started each day joyously. Jess also allocated time each day to journal. I know that since the hike, several people have continued to journal regularly, saying that they would not have otherwise realised the relief it provided. The hike was therefore not only a wonderful social experience, but also something that allowed for self-actualisation. The mindfulness that was practiced during the hike was something that has stayed with me long after its completion.
The hike up Table Mountain was shorter and less demanding. We hiked for two days, and spent one night in a hut on top of the mountain. A large group had never been up Table Mountain at all, despite living in Cape Town. I had never spent a night there. Jess’ recognition of the need for this hike is laudable. At the end of the hike, a couple of people said that they would bring friends, or members of other groups to which they belonged, up Table Mountain. Jess had wanted the hike to have this effect. It is testimony to her skill as a guide that she achieved this with people who had initially expressed trepidation.
Her knowledge of different routes up Table Mountain is extensive. This is also true of her knowledge of the mountain and its fynbos. The hike up Table Mountain broadened my knowledge around this.
There was one particularly difficult stretch on the route – an incline about two thirds into the hike. Jess mentally prepared everyone for this stretch. By getting us to conceive of the incline as obstacles to a goal that we wanted to achieve, conquering that length brought psychological satisfaction.
Not everyone in this group was equally curious about exploring the area outside the hut. Jess was sensitive to everyone’s needs here, suggesting some of us swim in a nearby dam and allowing others to stay around the huts.
Though the time was short, Jess held long conversations with every member of the group. Her ability to navigate so many different social spheres and personalities is incredible.
On both the Cederberg and Table Mountain hikes, Jess guided groups who were, for the most part, unfamiliar with hiking and mountains. Yet at the end of both hikes, both groups swore to frequently return to the mountains. Jess has a gift for facilitating group cohesion and planning the details of hikes according to the needs of each group. She goes beyond simply encouraging people to complete the hike. She instils a strong self-belief in all group members which extends far beyond the duration of the hike. Jess is an incredible guide, and I would trust her to lead anyone or any group across the contours of whichever mountain she finds herself.