Sarah Buitendach finds peace in nature in London.
Sarah Buitendach finds peace in nature in London.
Image: Supplied

The leaves are back, unfurling in DayGlo yellow-green clumps, intermittently backlit by blue skies. Below them, a fresh periwinkle wave of bluebells is spreading across the forest floor, drowning out months of mulch and decay. The locals say the bluebells are late this year.

Catherine, whom I meet on my walk, explains this delayed spray of colour is on account of the dry weather. “The rain is late; usually all of this would be bright blue by now,” she says, motioning to the undergrowth that surrounds us. I nod knowingly, but really, Cath, my friend of five seconds, could tell me anything about this here patch of West Sussex woodland and I would believe her. Sprites and fairies up ahead? Oh really?

Portal to 18th-century Scotland behind that oak? Marvellous! This Joburg girl knows nothing about the English countryside — not the landscape, not the plants, not the geography, and, especially, not the way. But I am walking through it, and it is making me feel better. If you have ever suffered from anxiety, you will know how totally consuming, bewildering and terrifying the condition can be. One minute you’re mostly normal, and the next you’re engulfed by this unknowable, nerve-wracking affliction. This is where I find myself at the moment.

It’s not pretty and can be a very solitary experience. But I know I’m not alone. Many of you will be familiar with various kinds of anxiety too and, I wager, the pandemic has only swelled the group of those of us who suffer from it. Kind people have offered fixes and solutions to the panic, fear, and discombobulation.

They have ranged from professionally advised mindfulness exercises and breathing techniques to random acts of distraction like watching a mindless series on Netflix. The one suggestion that has trounced all the others, however, is walking. The act of putting on my takkies and heading out for a bit is what has helped the most. Being in the UK, this is an incredibly easy fix.

I have given the woods a bash, and I like them. It’s hard not to feel better in the stillness, in the dappled sunlight, with birds I don’t recognise calling

The Brits love a walk, irrespective of the weather. On go their boots and all-weather jackets, and off they go — down vales, to catch the bus, along coastal paths, up high streets, and hopefully to a cosy pub at the end of it all. They even have a charity called The Ramblers. Its sole purpose is to celebrate walking and protect the places people walk. It has 100 000 members.

Much like South Africa’s Forge app, which offers walking and hiking routes in the Western Cape and Gauteng, here they have AllTrails, which offers an endless array of walks irrespective of where you are and what you fancy. There are saunters to see the best waterfalls, ambles dogs will love, trails less travelled. Wander as you will and with zest.

I have given the woods a bash, and I like them. It’s hard not to feel better in the stillness, in the dappled sunlight, with birds I don’t recognise calling. My therapist said, to distract me from overthinking as I pace it out, I should make a list of three things I can see, two I can hear, and one I can touch, then do it again. It is largely calming and diverting.

But what I really like is walking in an urban setting. Strolling on Wimbledon Common with a friend, I was totally captivated by our conversation and by all the other park walkers: those in their fancy Barbour jackets, with ecstatic hounds, with children having total meltdowns in the middle of a puddle. Worries dissipated instantly. In bounding out in a city, you can check out houses, cars, and gardens and wonder why people have such terrible taste.

Alternatively, you can wish you were living a different life in, say, a wisteria-covered Georgian mansion. Thoughts are focused outwards; your body is moving — it works like a charm. I haven’t overcome the anxiety just yet, but I’m definitely going to try to power walk right through it.

Buitendach is the former editor of Wanted and is a contributing editor to the Financial Mail (when not rambling in the woods).

 From the June edition of Wanted, 2021.

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