Alden Boon

Eric McLaren: From Print to Footprints



Table Mountain in its glory.

Early experiences shaping his life

Before he became a hiking guide, Eric worked as a photolithographer at local newspaper The Cape Times. He began his apprenticeship circa January 1982, and those were the pre-computer days: everything was done by hand. Eric soon picked up the art of setting type on bromide paper as well as handling positive and negative films.

At the time, South Africa was embroiled in a war with South West Africa People’s Organization, Namibia. Six months after his stint began, Eric had to back-burner his career as he was drafted into the South African National Defence Force. For the next two years he served as a Green Beret. “Young white South Africans had no choice but to comply with what the old apartheid regime stipulated, or face the might of the law.”

Those two years as a foot soldier as Eric recounts were not easy, but they shaped and transformed him from a teenager into a man. Days would pass when he and his platoon went without water.  “When we finally found an abundant source, it was like uncovering gold.” A lifelong skill he picked up then was the ability to track a spoor. This skill came in handy when one of his hiking crew was lost in the Fish River Canyon in 2014. “I managed to pick up a fresh print and found him a few hours later.”

Inverted Comma

Hiking puts the mind at ease and for a few hours of the day your troubles melt away. Five words encapsulate how I feel: adventure, escape, freedom, relaxation and reward.

Inverted Comma Bottom

After his conscription, Eric resumed his apprenticeship. Over the next few years, the proliferation of computers birthed software applications like Quark Xpress, Adobe Freehand and Photoshop. Life was made easier, but they made manual processes redundant and engendered job losses. Still retaining his hard-won knowledge, Eric is one of the few old-school Capetonian photolithographers still standing. “The modern-day desktop publishers make a plethora of mistakes as many can’t quite grasp the whole concept of CMYK and RGB, when to use spot colours, when to apply overprints and when not to.” Twice a week he stations himself at a client’s place — school book publishers who rely on his expertise to ensure the PDFs are print compliant — and the income he earns covers the bulk of his monthly expenses like pension and medical aid.

The foiled 1968 Vesoa Expedition: Six friends set out on their scooters to take on the first motorised tyre track in Fish River Canyon. "They didn't get very far." Here, Eric is posing with one of the remnants.

A turning point

The print industry by all accounts is ebbing, and Eric is not impervious to it. Compelled by the death of a trade he’s known for half his life, he had to make a career decision. “I’m still too young to retire, so I decided to turn to my passion — the outdoors — and answer my calling.”

In November 2016, Eric began a new chapter in his life, earning a feather in his cap and becoming a certified hiking guide — a journey that took him nine months. The enduring process comprised a nine-day course replete with theory lessons and practical activities, home modules to complete, self-defence course, Level 3 First Aid course as well as online examinations.

Still in its nascent phase, Eric’s business impels him to learn about social media and building an online presence. Already he has struck up a partnership with fellow guide David D’Aguiar, and they cover for each other. “Sometimes we take big groups on a hiking expedition, and some members may not feel comfortable scaling India Venster. So either David or I will take them up the other route: Platteklip Gorge. When you book with me, I will get you to the summit no matter how long it takes.”

Being a seasoned trail runner who has partaken in numerous competitions, Eric can spring from rock to rock with finesse, his footsteps light and swift. Hiking with guests is a different ball game for him, and he now has to keep in mind their safety and fitness abilities. He has to ensure his guests are well hydrated and appropriately dressed for the hike. “I will always climb ahead to show them how to navigate tricky sections and where the hand grips are. I also carry a rope with me, one end of which I tie around a guest’s waist and the other to a rock. I can then use the belay system to guide him.”

Hiking is undoubtedly an arduous activity that can take its toll, but the 53-year-old has no intention of slowing down. “I guess I could have chosen to become a cultural guide instead, whisking my guests away to fancy wine farms and indulging in exquisite lunches… but that’s just not the person I am,” he quips. “Walking is a great form of exercise; an ideal way to keep the body in shape. We’re only on this planet once, and I like to look after what I’ve got: my body.”

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Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.