FREE RANGING: Shortcuts can be long road to hell

You have to be brave – or damned stupid – to take a shortcut when you know where you want to be but aren't certain of where you are. People who think they're smart (that's most of us and every second lieutenant ever commissioned) are convinced they've got impeccable senses of direction and that they'll never, ever get lost. Until it happens to them and they start to panic … Forget white slave traders, body-part snatchers or alien abductions; cities are filled with people still trying to find their way back to hotels ever since imbibing a couple too many...
You have to be brave – or damned stupid – to take a shortcut when you know where you want to be but aren't certain of where you are. People who think they're smart (that's most of us and every second lieutenant ever commissioned) are convinced they've got impeccable senses of direction and that they'll never, ever get lost. Until it happens to them and they start to panic …

Forget white slave traders, body-part snatchers or alien abductions; cities are filled with people still trying to find their way back to hotels ever since imbibing a couple too many with locals in Irish bars in the back streets of Anywhere, Eastern Europe five years ago.

Visitors to cities such as Edinburgh think wynds and closes (alleys) are quaint features of life in bygone days.

They forget that labyrinthine corridors, just wide enough for one person, were designed to isolate besieging soldiers from their companions in mediaeval times; confused men on their own are easy to kill.

Getting lost is easier than one thinks and it doesn't take an inebriated numpty far from home to do it. Just recently, a highly experienced trail guide of my acquaintance (no name, we'll spare the fellow his blushes) in the Overstrand spent several hours blundering around fynbos thickets and pine plantations in the dark before emerging scratched, bruised and badly frightened.

We'd been visiting a farm outside Baardskeerdersbos on our motorcycles when it began to get dark. I was heading back to Grootbos Nature Reserve and he was going home, so he waved me off and away I rode. He hadn't noticed that he had left his bike's light on and the battery was dead. He tried to give it a running start but no dice. He put the bike on its stand and tried to call his wife. No signal.

He figured to walk down to the main road which was a couple of kilometres away – not a problem because he's a very fit fellow and he was sure there would be a shortcut through the vineyards he had noticed on the way in.

This was a big mistake, especially when it was completely dark and the torch on his cellphone was as dead as his bike. He fell heavily into a ditch filled with freezing water and was utterly disorientated. Fortunately there was a happy ending and only his self-esteem took a serious knock, as it was with two trail-runners who thought they would get the jump on fellow competitors during a run through the Wild Coast.

Rather than tackle the steep hills beside the sea, they headed inland to take shortcuts through the forests, thinking it would not only be easier on the legs but also cut a couple of kilometres off the run. I guarantee it's the last time they'll have that bright idea; they probably still have nightmares about their experience. Lest I sound preachy, I'm far from averse to pushing my luck with my urban and rural navigation skills. Only once have I nearly come badly (even potentially fatally) unstuck, mainly because I'm a technology Luddite.

I was covering the 2016 Mapungubwe Wildrun which takes place over three days between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana. There was no way a 55-year-old unfit and overweight toppie with 15kg of camera equipment would be able to keep up with the tribe of lithe athletes and their rifle-toting game guard escort. All I could do was leapfrog them and work my way backwards from each refreshment station.

I was issued with a GPS but only discovered once I set out, alone and unarmed in a Big Five area, that the GPS had been programmed for runners coming towards me and not in the direction I was walking! I did not know how to reverse the programme. The only time I knew I was on the right track was when the screen showed a string of red dots behind me and nothing in front.

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