Peter Slingsby needs little introduction. If you’ve ever had a desire to explore a new area in the Cederberg, Drakensberg or Table Mountain, to mention a few, you’ve most likely ended up drooling over one of his beautifully detailed maps. We had the privilege of asking him a few questions to get to know this self-taught cartographer and legendary character a little bit better…
HSA: Name, age, city/town where you live?
PS: Peter Slingsby, 73 [getting a bit ancient, hey]. I live in Zandvlei, near Muizenberg.
HSA: Where and when did you start hiking, and who introduced you to it?
PS: I started hiking with my school friends while in primary school. We used to go up Table Mountain, probably Skeleton Gorge, and sleep out in the caves on Waaikoppie. I was about nine or ten years old then. My parents took me to the Cederberg when I was nine. Hard to say who actually took me on my first hike – friends like Jeff Leeuwenburg, Ferdi Fischer, Nick Forbes, the late geologist John Moore. All became climbers, runners, stayed with hiking all their lives.
HSA: You are well known among hikers, bikers and 4×4 enthusiasts for your high quality, informative maps. When and how did you get into cartography?
PS: In 1969 we hiked down the Witels River Gorge, near Ceres. We were the first party through the kloof after the September 1969 earthquake. We had lots of adventures with aftershocks, rockfalls, veld fires and catching trout for supper in the pools. After the trip I drew up an annotated map of our trip, with notes about all these things. Later I produced a ‘clean’ version without the personal stuff, to sell to friends. It was my first ‘commercial’ map, and I’ve not looked back since.
Jeez, that was fifty years ago!
HSA: You created the maps for the old National Hiking Way in the mid-1970’s. Very few younger hikers know about it. Do you think it is practically possible to still realise something like that in present-day South Africa?
PS: The concept was to create a system of trails from the west coast, down along the south coast and up through the Drakensberg to the Northern Transvaal (as it was then) – a sort of official ‘Rim of Africa’, with built paths and overnight huts. It fell under the Dept of Forestry – they managed all the relevant mountain land in those days. The concept of one trail – the ‘National Hiking Way’ – kind of fell apart when the Forestry land was devolved to the different Provincial conservation departments. But most of the bits of trail that were built then still exist, like the Outeniqua, Hottentots-holland, Otter Trail etc etc. We had contracts to map those bits for over fifteen years – kept us in bread while we raised our kids!
I can’t see any reason why the concept should not be revived – the different provinces would have to cooperate, that’s all – if they can. And someone else would have to do the mapping!
HSA: Are there any specific areas or hikes you would still like to map?
PS: Back in the 1980s we mapped the whole of the Natal Drakensberg, for the Dept of Forestry. Our data and even the symbols I developed were taken over without much acknowledgment when these maps were reissued in KZN in the early 2000s. I would love to remap those areas to our modern, much-improved standards – and it might still happen!
There are many other areas I would love to map, but … well, you have to be realistic, There really isn’t time.
HSA: How often are your maps redrawn?
PS: We never reprint any of our maps; they are always revised and updated before re-issue – generally about once every three years. Maps go out of date on the day they roll off the press – even hiking maps, you’d be amazed. Our latest Table Mountain map – edition #15, January 2019 – has over 200 changes on the previous edition. Users need to appreciate that out-of-date maps can be dangerous – so now we put a ‘Best Before’ date on them! Sounds daft, but they are waterproof so you can always use your old ones to keep you dry!
HSA: Do you have any young cartographers in training?
PS: Sadly no. One of my sons is interested but I can’t say he’s ‘in training’ – he uses sophisticated computer processes that are beyond me. I think that interactive digital maps might be the future, and our old techniques will fade away.
HSA: What does hiking mean to you?
PS: Hiking is the basis of everything that I have done in my life. That sounds like an extreme statement but when I reflect on it, it’s true. My cartography began on a hike and it’s stayed there, even though I’ve also done a lot of touring maps. Maggie and I spent nearly twenty years involved in environmental education, both with rich private school kids and kids severely disadvantaged by apartheid, before 1994. All of this was based on hiking, hikes with camp outs in the incredible wild environments that we’re so lucky to have. When I was fifteen I was given a book about ants; in the 1960s I spent a lot of time with my friend Jeff Leeuwenburg, who was recording rock art for the SA Museum. Together we traipsed over vast swathes of the Cederberg searching for rock art. Later with Maggie we explored the Kleinmond mountains learning everything we could about the Cape Fynbos. All of these lifelong interests – ants, rock art, fynbos – connect intimately to my love of hiking.
To learn about our fabulous environmental heritage you need to spend time in it, touching the leaves, watching the ants, reading the stars, spying silently on a grysbokkie as it grazes through the veld. You can only do these things on a hike; you can’t do it from a car, a bike or even the silence of a hot air balloon. You have to put your feet on the ground and walk.
HSA: What is your favourite/most memorable hike?
PS: I’ve loved them all, but I guess that that 1969 Witels River hike was the winner. Not only did it kick-start my whole future, but the rare combination of the incredible rugged beauty of the Cape mountains combined with the geological drama of an actual earthquake and its aftershocks really can’t be beat. The palpable sense of our individual insignificance set against natural forces that we can’t control and can hardly comprehend still resonates with me, fifty years later.
HSA: What is the trickiest position you’ve been in while hiking (and what did you do)?
PS: In 1975 we were caught by a flash flood on the Hottentots-holland trail. It was late afternoon and we were busy getting everyone across the swollen Riviersonderend at Red Hat Crossing. We’d got some of the party across, including two smallish children, when we realised that the river was rising rapidly. It was pouring with rain and we knew there was a worse crossing ahead, both deeper and wider, over the ridge. We had to take a quick decision, either to press on or to pull out. We had to guide those already across to bushwhack their way upstream through dense, very wet veld to a more-or-less safe crossing, with ropes thrown across the stream, in order to get them back. We were drenched and exhausted, but happily we made it and we aborted the whole trip.
Our whole party went back to our house in Kleinmond, where we were living at the time, and we thawed everyone out with hot soup. Wet, cold, anxious, horrible. I can’t agree with those who enjoy experiences like that! In retrospect we were very foolish; we should have told those already across the river to find a sheltering rock and hunker down until the next day.
HSA: What is your favourite piece of hiking gear?
PS: A torch that works. There is absolutely nothing worse than being unable to see your way in the dark in a wilderness situation.
HSA: Who is your favourite hiking buddy and why?
PS: Maggie, of course. No one else comes close on a hike.
HSA: Any tips for beginner hikers or aspirant cartographers?
PS: Whatever you do, enjoy yourself. And if you’re not enjoying yourself, get out of there and do something else.
HSA: Many thanks for taking the time to answer all our questions. We are very excited about the possibility of those new Drakensberg maps!
Simon Pocock made this beautiful video about Mr Slingsby…
To find out more about the stunning maps that Peter and Maggie produce, check out https://slingsby-maps.myshopify.com/