I won’t lie, landscape photographs and proposals are a little tricky to reconcile, especially when trudging around the inside of an Afromontane forest with a (small) diamond ring and a big tripod.
I suppose it goes to show, like much of life, that one should concentrate on one thing or the other and not both at the same time!
In this particular case, I had no choice because it might have appeared suspicious if I had left that morning, without my camera.
And so, there I was, deep in the forest, ring buried in a pocket and camera clasped in my sweaty, nervous hand, searching for the perfect spot for a proposal.
It couldn’t be too deep into the pathless forest, after all, snake and tick bites are rather a downer at a proposal. Nor could it be too close to the edge, the scene had to be secluded and beautiful and not too difficult to get to or to remember.
The afternoon of Easter Sunday was the deadline, chosen to minimise the embarrassed misery if she said ‘No’.
I’d already squandered two days and I needed to find the perfect spot soon!
One might argue that I should have chosen a different venue - perhaps the bridge at Ronda in Spain at midnight, after a traditionally late Spanish supper and a glass or three of champagne? That was the original plan, but it would have required even more time and money to execute and, in truth, even there, I would probably be carrying a tripod!
No, the less predictable and more immediate depths of the forest would have to do. What's more, I'm pretty sure no one else will ever pop the question in our spot.
If you haven’t guessed already, my chosen ground was the indigenous forest at Woodbush near Magoebaskloof, South Africa. I like it there, the galleries of trees and thickets are intriguing; difficult to find and to photograph, with unpredictable swathes of mist wafting through the vaulted branches.
The green silences are deafening. Punctuated every now and then with a mysterious crack as a tree moves in the wind; just loud enough to convince you to turn and see who is watching. At one point in my trudging I made the mistake of trying to video it - the minute-long clip, looked like a still, nothing moved at all.
As the morning light played out, I documented my search for the perfect spot. Initially, I concentrated on a path that leads uphill into the forest. After a while, the canopy thinned and a gentle glade opened up, surrounded by ancient, moss-covered trunks.
The misty sky had a golden hue to it, the sun was up there somewhere and the floor was covered with bright green ferns.
“Not bad!” I thought.
But perhaps there would be something better around the next corner. I wandered on.
The mist thickened, the silence grew longer and the lurking fear bolder. I had no GPS, no water and I hadn’t told my girlfriend where I was going; obviously!
I wondered if, perhaps, I hadn’t been a little foolhardy, after all, who knew what manner of beast lurked beneath the fern fronds? And even if, like Hansel and Gretel, I had some breadcrumbs to drop, I would never have been able to follow the trail out.
Fear is a funny thing. It rolls around the pit of your stomach, building on itself as you watch your boots disappear into the ferns. Slowly, each step becomes harder to take and the twists in the route a little harder to win.
I only mention it because it is such a feature of my experience in the forest, it’s almost a part of its personality, brooding, like a dark mood.
I like to identify landmarks when I walk. Not just because they might make a good picture but because they are important clues to where you have been. It’s easy to get lost, especially when the path disappears and the only guides, the fall of a shadow and the breath of the wind, are both obscured by the mist.
On my previous visit, I had ventured into the trees for a short walk, only to emerge 14km later, scratched, bruised and lost, far from the spot I had left my car. Finding a familiar landmark is like finding a glimpse of the way out!
As the morning drew on, I marked my landmarks on a mental map. A fallen tree or notable a stump, each of them goes on the list.
The best landmarks and perhaps the most dangerous, are the streams. They are the best not just because they are obvious and define a line down a valley but also because they can be heard long before you see them.
They are the most dangerous too because their sound always calls you on, deeper and deeper into the woods. Just a little further, just another bend, over the next rise, I’ll see it soon.
I got to the stream but decided there that I had strayed too far.
It was a beautiful place, with its rushing waters and subdued green light but the hanging vines, muddy dense ground cover and the distance from the dirt track meant it would not do for a proposal. Reluctantly, I turned away to search for something else.
Almost as soon as I decided to leave, the forest changed. The mist cleared ever so slightly and the light filtering down through the leaves became more cheerful. It started to flicker and turn as the leaves in the upper branches caught in a slight breeze.
My footsteps became easier to take, surer. And as I came to each landmark on the journey out, my fear ebbed away.
Pretty soon, I felt I was close enough to the edge of the forest to try a different way and headed downhill to where I could hear the gurgle of water and the softer sound of wind through pine.
The sun broke out just as the old indigenous trees gave way to pine forest. Here the ground cover was gone and a dense mat of needles muffled the sound of my footsteps like fresh snow.
At the bottom of the shallow valley, huddled by a stream and surrounded by taller pines, there stood a group of three silent Cycads.
They looked beautiful in the dappled forest light with the gurgling stream washing their mossy roots.
Three perfect witnesses to the question I had to ask: This was the spot I had been looking for.