The Beautiful Abbot Pfanner Trappist Trail
A group of hiking pilgrims completed the Abbot Pfanner Trappist Trail in KwaZulu-Natal. BARBARA MASON was in that group and recorded her experience.
Our group of pilgrims set off from Mariannhill Monastery in Pinetown, Durban at 6 am. – our destination, Reichenau Mission in the picturesque area of Underberg in the Southern Drakensberg.
This was to be the start of a nine day walking pilgrimage to eight of the Mariannhill Mission stations established by Francis Pfanner and his Trappist monks in the late l9th century.
The journey, by bus, took us two and a half hours. The original journey by nine missionaries in 1886 took fourteen days in six ox wagons. Reichenau was named after a Benedictine Monastery situated on the banks of Lake Constance in Germany. The Benedictine practice was followed – to become a self sufficient farming operation, then to build a place to worship, then to uplift and empower the local community.
At Reichenau we met Mdu, who would be our guide, interpreter and public relations person during our walk through the rural villages and countryside, explaining to the people why we were there and what we were doing. Three school girls from the school established by the Trappists, all those years ago, rang the church bells for us and after a prayer in the church, we set off on the first leg of our 126 km. hiking pilgrimage. The first day was pleasant hiking, mainly through lush farmlands, giving one the joy of walking in the wide open spaces.
Day two was a trial during which those who would wish to learn forebearance and determination, had plenty of opportunity. It started raining at 7.45am., rained most of the day, with thunder and lightning, driving rain and cold winds. After walking to Kevelaer, we took our bus to the overnight stop. Upon arrival, our charming hostess greeted us saying, “I can’t believe that you have walked 19km in this weather?” Someone said, “You’ll believe it when you see us.” Out of the bus poured eleven wet, muddy, bedraggled pilgrims, who were so grateful for the warm rooms and hot showers.
This difficult day had not been without its beauty – human beauty. Our encounters with the people in the rural villages were delightful. As we were leaving one of the villages we met a drunk coming towards us. Although never a happy sight, he was a pleasant chap, and he decided to join us. Hiding the remnants of his two litres of Juba under his jacket, he zigzaged his way up the hill, talking all the way and hailing the people in their kraals with, “Woza…abelungu!”
The children came out with their cellphones to take pictures of us, some adult men came along and many photos were taken, some group shots with our inebriated friend sitting down in the front. Eventually Mdu, our guide, told him kindly but firmly that it was time that he went home to rest. A man with a particularly sad face told us, through Mdu, that his daughter was gravely ill and her body was covered in sores.
One of our party placed her hand on his bent shoulders and said a beautiful prayer, which the father appeared deeply grateful for, thanking us in Zulu. When we got to the church at Kevelaer and the priest gave us a blessing, we asked him to pray, also, for the little girl.
Our next day’s walk of 22 km to Centacow was in fine drizzle, making for easy walking, but wet shoes and wet socks cause blisters so when we arrived at this beautiful mission – the jewel in the crown of the Mariannhill missions – there were a few walking wounded. The church tower is visible in the valley from miles away. We arrived in the afternoon, all walking in together, to be met by one of the Polish priests. The place is lovely with its red brick buildings, marvellous vegetable and flower gardens and beautiful church. At Centacow, named after the Polish shrine of Our Lady at Czestochowa in Poland, we were joined by two laymen and three priests. Then the spiritual side of our pilgrimage really began!
We had daily mass, the first mass that evening being particularly meaningful. After mass our priests gave each person, both Catholics and non-Catholics alike, a blessing, placing their hands on our heads as, in turn, we stood before them, saying a different prayer over each one of us. There were other benefits to having the priests with us. The children in the villages were delightful. One day we came upon some particularly friendly little pre-schoolers. They were fascinated by us, giving us the thumbs up sign, accompanied by “Sharp!” and ‘high fiving’ some of the women.
Then they would, laughingly, run away. Father K. who was standing near, called them and the two mothers, who were watching over them. He asked each child their name and then placing his hands on the head of each one, including the mothers and using their names, he blessed them. We watched in reverent silence. There were other occasions when the priests blessed the local people and it was always a moving sight. We were walking past a school during break one day and many children were leaning on the fence, looking at us, as we were always an object of interest. One of our priests asked them in Zulu to sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, which they did.
On day six, after leaving the villages we climbed to St Bernard’s on the top of a very steep hill, a church that had just had its roof burnt down. Tired and footsore, we sat in the shade of the trees on the top of the hill and ate our simple lunch. The priests read the Divine Office to us, which is part of their daily prayers and then, at their suggestion we all agreed to two hours of silence. We rose to continue our journey and on the other side of the hill was a valley with scenery to take your breath away.
We walked for hours in silence, the two hours stretching to four, until we came to the enormous 129 year old Cathedral at Lourdes with its exquisite stained glass windows at the back of the sanctuary. Our young Polish priest walked straight into the church, knelt at the foot of the altar and stayed there for a long time. I knelt down in wonder at the beauty that surrounded me and wondered if the hours of silence had made me more receptive to the presence of God in that beautiful church.
When we came out of the church we were served tea and muffins by young people from the community of Koinonia John the Baptist. What a treat after our trail food. This community has been at Lourdes since 2010, restoring the buildings, teaching and giving spiritual counsel to the local people. They live a consecrated life, having taken vows, but do not wear the habit. They were mainly from Eastern Europe. They hope to restore the old convent building.
It is regrettable that we could only stay at the missions on four nights, but it is hoped that in future that may change. We spent two nights at Emaus, where Francis Pfanner spent the last 15 years of his life – where he built the Stations of the Cross up the side of the cliffs behind the mission. He prayed these Stations each day, climbing the steep hill, eventually needing assistance in the frailty of his old age.
When you get to the top, there is a large crucifix and when you stand next to it ‘you can see forever’. In the distance lie the rolling hills of the Umzimkulu valley. It was at Emaus too, that we watched a presentation from one of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, an order arising out of Francis Pfanner’s missionary endeavours. Our group, most of whom knew nothing about the history of Mariannhill or Francis Pfanner were moved by the presentation, learning about his achievements and his suffering at the hands of the Trappist Order in Europe, who understood little of the circumstances under which he worked on the missions in South Africa.
On our final day we visited Maria Hilfe one of the minor mission stations and King’s Grant nestling in the heart of St Isidor valley, close to Ixopo. King’s Grant was a mission station built by the Trappists in 1900, but it is now privately owned and has been lovingly and beautifully restored and converted into a B.& B., self catering establishment and wedding venue. There is a restaurant open to the public and the original maize mill and blacksmith’s workshop are now a museum. Its worth a visit!
We walked from King’s Grant to Mariathal and were taken by bus back to Mariannhill Monastery, where we said our goodbyes. Judging from the happy messages and photos circulating on our Trappist Trail WhatsApp group each person loved hiking this trail and some went so far as to say that it was life changing and that no other hiking trail would ever be the same after this experience.
Of the sixteen people in our group, fourteen had some religious or spiritual life, some of them a profound spiritual life. This contributed greatly to the atmosphere on this trail and by the Grace of God we were accompanied by three priests.
There is so much history surrounding these mission stations and wonderful anecdotes and stories to entertain, like the bell, which was a gift to Maria Hilfe from St. Michael’s mission and arrived on the back of a donkey. They are worth investigating and visiting and the beauty of some of the churches alone make the visit worthwhile.
This trail was organised by amawalkers, who also offer hikes over a shorter distance each day, but visiting the same missions.
Certain historical facts were obtained from information on the various mission stations, compiled by Nicki von der Heyde (2018)