Swimming across Table Mountain


Untitled6Photo: Barry Christianson


Well, I really like this photograph. Let’s see: it’s Wednesday morning, the third day of the residency. We have spent the night at Slangkop camp, on the outskirts of Kommetjie, near the lighthouse. Our sleep has been accompanied by the sound of the waves beating on the shore, and the regular, metronome-like flash of the lighthouse beam. They form a counterpoint to our dreams. I imagine that our breathing becomes synchronised, perhaps our heartbeat. It’s quite early in the morning, about six thirty. I’ve just made a coffee and said good morning to the other early risers. Barry Christianson is one of them. I’m sitting outside on the deck, sketching some of the bushes that grow close to the camp. I’m interested in the whorls of leaves, the intricately contorted branches. I have this sketch in front of me now, a kind of filigree pattern on the page.

From a formal point of view there is so much about this image that interests me. I am in profile, focused on the page. Barry is in the kitchen, looking out in the direction of the ocean. Our gazes intersect at a right angle. The sea, the clouds, the horizon, all of the elements that would have made this scene so dramatic in life, have been bleached out by the long exposure. By way of compensation, we have the mellow tones of the wood that surrounds the windows.

Probably the most interesting aspect of this photograph from a compositional point of view are the two windows, each of which frames a scene. The one scene is populated, the other not. Placed side-by-side they might be read as the open pages of a book, or perhaps (more fancifully) as a pair of wings. They might be a diptych, or an altarpiece in two parts.

In fact, I read this image as being very much about forms and frames. There is the formal act of framing carried out by Barry, the photographer, and there is the serendipitous framing of the two scenes by the kitchen windows. This is highly appropriate, in that much of our discussion during the residency has turned on questions of forms and frames.

The residency itself is an exercise in providing a kind of open framework, within which conversations and work take place (or so we hope, for at this stage much of the residency is prospective). The point about frames is that they can be enabling, or they can be disenabling. The act of framing is a kind of forcing together. It creates an inside world and an outside world: the inside world of the residency, where we dwell for a week.

There is something else about this photograph that I like. The backdrop in each of the two scenes is almost, but not quite, symmetrical. Plus, of course, I inhabit one of the scenes. All my life I have been attracted by the idea of doubling, or mirroring. I like the idea that I might step out of one scene (or story), into another scene. A shift in perspective—or a move on my part—puts me in a different frame, opens a new set of possibilities. There is the life that we lead, and then there are the other possible lives that we might lead or choose to step into. This, for me, is an image of freedom.

In my professional life, the idea of a single frame fills me with a kind of panic. I stand in the seminar room. I construct an elaborate framework of words. It requires two more bridging ideas to set the framework in place, to name it, to own it. At the last minute I switch perspectives, I step out from behind the frame. Instead of an ending, closure, I offer an opening. My students are polite but disappointed. At the same time, I am aware of some colleagues who securely inhabit a single frame, enlarging within the space to produce, as it were, a fulsome version of the self.

In his wonderful set of meditations on the role of the intellectual, Edward Said offers us two images of intellectual life: the potentate, and the traveller. He values the freedom and flexibility of the traveller over the weightiness of the potentate. I remind myself to stay light on my feet. I think: as soon as they have your coordinates, as soon as they can place you, you’re finished. These thoughts come to mind as I review Barry’s photograph, nine days after the Wednesday morning in question. This photograph is highly apposite: to the kind of person I am, to my practice as a scholar, to the form of the residency.


Absorbed: I look absorbed. My focus and attention are on the page as I sketch a filigree pattern of leaves. I am reminded of a comment that Linda Shamma made on day four of the residency, Thursday, at the Overseer’s Cottage. She said that her experience of the residency was one of becoming absorbed by situations and by people. This is one of the statements or passages of words from the week that has stayed with me. I recognise the truth of her observation: the residency format—the framing, the forcing—encourages a kind of absorption. I also like her choice of the particular word “absorbed”. (She could have said “interested”, or “fascinated”, or “focused on”.) Absorption suggests a kind of porousness, a temporary lowering of the barriers: as though the skin is a membrane that we can choose to make porous, as though we can flow towards someone.

This state of absorption becomes a way for me to understand the experience of the residency. We lived intensely in the wind and sun. We were exposed to glittering vistas. I would find myself walking with my hands trailing through the fynbos, absorbed by the colours and textures of the leaves. Many of us had absorbing dreams. Mornings would find us dazed, sorting through the threads and tangles of this mirror life of the mind. There is something regressive, child-like (or childish) about the state of absorption, about the permission to become absorbed, that I really like, that I really respond to. People, conversations, situations become absorbing.

On the first morning of the residency, Mikela Lundahl introduced us to the idea of the “rant”. You form a foursome, and split into pairs. Pairs walk together. One party rants, the other listens. Then you swap partners and the ranter becomes the listener. I discover that I prefer to listen than to rant. When I launch into the exercise I find the sound of my own voice shrill, hectoring, altogether too much. Also, I find other people’s rants absorbing. The form of the rant—highly coloured opinions, passionate grievances, peeves—is hilarious and satisfying. Academics make good ranters. One of the formulations that comes to me is the idea that everybody reveals something about themselves on the residency. I’m not sure how I feel about this idea, and set it aside for further contemplation.

In quiet moments, the experience of walking with, or in proximity to, someone becomes absorbing: breathing, sweating, drinking water, finding shade. We drift together, or seek each other out. In the evenings we sit in the fading light. We arrange ourselves in the available spaces. The skin exhales. The downside of this state of absorption is that I find it physically wrenching to leave the mountain.

I spend thirty hours in the transit zone of international travel: planes, terminals. The experience is death-like (there is a reason they call them terminals). What is the opposite of being absorbed? Being repelled? Coagulating? Congealing? Back home I decide to become absorbed by other things: reading, writing. As a scholar, this is a familiar form of sublimation. Nine days after this photograph was made I become absorbed in writing about it.


I have always disliked discussions about “group dynamics”. I realise that it is the language that I find repellant. That word: “dynamics”. Other words: “facilitate”, “group identities”, “norms”, “diversity”, “conflict resolution”. There is something earnest about these terms that I mistrust. There is also something academic about them in the dumbest sort of way: trying to describe subtle processes of social interaction that we all participate in all of the time anyway, saddling them with clunking definitions. These words take us close to the territory of corporate team-building and feel-good New Age bonding. Of course, as much as the language is repellant, the practices and behaviours of groups are utterly fascinating.

In Barry’s photograph it is Wednesday morning, day three of the residency. The sun is up, it’s a beautiful day, I’m sketching a shrub, all is right with the world. But—let us go with the general tenor of the language—“storm clouds are gathering”. We have spent two days getting to know one another, everyone a bit cagey. At the same time our physical limits have been tested. A long hike on the first day, high temperatures on the second. Jet lag, sunburn and sore muscles are taking their toll. Today will be the day when “things come to a head”, frustrations “spill over”. There will be “outbursts”.

One of the interesting things about groups is that much of this rage and frustration will be misdirected, or expressed in indirect and oblique ways. You do get those souls who say, frontally and directly, just what it is that bothers them, but in my experience they are quite rare (thank goodness, we might say). So we enter a territory of alibis, stray targets, rouses, and all of the many and diverting behaviours that go under the heading of “passive aggression”. As I write these lines I am aware that they sound smug and superior. Please don’t be misled. The point that I need to convey is that I am, personally, up to my eyebrows in all of this: implicated, mired, wallowing in psycho-dramas and mini-meltdowns. I would be the last to deny the frisson generated by such goings-on: after all, is this not part of the absorption of the experience?

Wednesday night we stayed in Orange Kloof camp, a spectacularly harmonious setting, but group-dynamics-wise something of a low point in the week. I remember a hilarious, drunken, semi-hysterical late night session in the kitchen, reviewing the day’s bad behaviour (“catharsis”).

Thursday begins ominously. Three members of the group decide on an alternate, gentler route to the top. Elaborate instructions are issued to them. They get lost. Christian Ernsten and I are walking with the main party. We are to spend the night in the Overseer’s Cottage, on top of the mountain. We are not sure exactly where this is, but how many houses can there be on top of Table Mountain? Quite a few, it turns out. At one point in the early afternoon, Christian and I are (literally) running around the top of Table Mountain, trying (a) to find the Overseer’s Cottage, and (b) to find the lost members of the group. Hedley Twidle is heard to mutter the word “fiasco”.

In retrospect, this moment becomes the hinge on which the whole week turns. The members of the lost group stroll into view. They are smiling. They have followed us up the trail, walking further than the main party, but the experience has been a positive one. They have stopped to admire the flowers; physical limitations have been overcome. The Overseer’s Cottage is discovered. It is the most luxurious and one of the most beautifully sited camps of the residency. The enormous calm and stillness of the top of the mountain works its beneficent magic. We look one another in the eye; we talk; things fall into place. Without drama the group shifts, and we get on with the work of the residency. I spend the late afternoon on my own, beside a dam, planning the paper that I will write coming out of the residency. For me, it is one of the happiest passages of the entire week.

The Overseer’s Cottage was built during the ambitious project of dam construction on top of Table Mountain in the late nineteenth century. Perched on the eastern flank of the mountain, it overlooks Constantia and the Cape Flats. The route of the residency has taken us from the Cape Point reserve (cliffs, beaches, tourists), over the top of the southern peninsula (the ruins of Redhill Village, Ocean View, Kommetjie), to Orange Kloof camp (sylvan setting, trees, a stream). The Overseer’s Cottage provides our first real view of part of the city. The name offers a dual meaning: it was built for the overseer (superintendent) of the dam project, but it also oversees (looks down on) the city. In fact, the idea of overview is pertinent to the idea of the residency.

When we arrive I give a short talk about apartheid social/spatial engineering and forced removals. The grid of the apartheid city is laid bare for us, from our vantage point on top of the mountain. Below and to the north are the historical estates of Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist. In the months preceding the residency, the #RhodesMustFall campaign made international headlines, contesting the iconographic landscape and institutional culture of the University of Cape Town, the institution where I teach. In my lectures at the university I talk about the imperial gaze, about the stylisation of nature, and about the disjunctive social and physical landscapes of Cape Town, a city that remains the most racially divided in South Africa.

Night falls on the mountain. Dinner is eaten. A thread of conversation is taken up around the table. At one point, much later, I stand outside. The view from the Overseer’s Cottage, a view shaped by history and sown with discord, is converted into a glittering sea of lights. I feel—what? Grateful (yes), surprised by this bounty, optimistic. I can step back from my role in the group. I can be less involved. Less “facilitation”, less “overseeing”: the group is running itself.


There are three or four things that you should know about me.

The order is irrelevant.

That beeping sound, that flashing light, that sly parabola:

that’s me.

I gaze and I gaze. Nothing could have prepared me for this.

“Aloft”, “lofty”: these are just words.

If I had my way, I’d break free of the crusted earth.

You rounded my Cape, your sails unfurled.

Plant your crosses here or there: what do I care?

Anybody can pretend indifference.


If I shorten my range will you look up occasionally?


“Calibrate”, “focal length”, “coordinates”: none of this has any meaning.

In my world, looking is always a prelude to something else.

In a basement somewhere, in a room filled with screens,

they plot your (our) demise.

I put my shoulder to the cross and heave. What can I say?

History is like that.

If I cross the sun will you sense my presence?

Your face is a mask. Your lips barely move when you speak.

If I were in your place I would do the same.

I see nested shapes. I see your human world, signs and signals,

the intricate maze of your intentions.


Who would have guessed that skin could be so absorbing?


“Slumber”, “revolution”, “love”: these are just words.

“Flight”, “freedom”, “alight”. I will alight here or there.

You could say anything and I would believe you.

You could say: “He was my first love”.

You could say: “There’s no point in speaking to her after six”.

You could say: “He’s English, he never dances”.

Just as suddenly you’re gone.

“Stricken” is a word that has no meaning for me.

I’m not wired for this sort of thing.

The lighthouse beats its beam against the waves.

Your footprints fill with sand.

Sand fills the hollows where your feet once were.


There are three or four things that you should know about me.

The order is irrelevant.


Why am I sketching a shrub? I am sketching a shrub because it calms me. It is early Wednesday morning, the third day of the residency, and my sleep of the night before has been filled with dreams. The one I remember most clearly is the dream of being underwater. This is a recurrent dream for me, in which I am swimming underwater and I realise that I can see clearly and I can breathe. (The dream is about the dawning of this realisation.) The seeing is achieved by blinking: a kind of meniscus descends across the eye, clearing the vision. The breathing is more difficult to explain: you open your mouth and taste the water, the oxygen fizzes or diffuses into the membranes. I think of this as my evolutionary dream. (I also have a recurrent flying dream that I place in the same category.)

I probably had this dream in response to the sound of the waves and the proximity of the ocean, but also because the idea of being in or around water has been on my mind. The residency happens mid-way through a sabbatical year in which I am based at Colgate University in upstate New York, a long way from the nearest ocean. My regular job is at the University of Cape Town, and our house in Cape Town is in Kalk Bay, a stone’s throw from the beach. In the summer months I swim every morning before work. When I left the United States to join the residency the first snow was on the ground. My brief return to Cape Town has become passionately, ecstatically bound up with the idea of sunshine and swimming in an ocean that feels like home.

My first swim was on Sunday evening at Smitswinkel Bay. Henric Benesch, Meghna Singh, Barry Christianson, Ilze Wolf and Christian Ernsten are in the water, which is clear, cold and delicious. The waves are just big enough to catch. In retrospect I would style this an “introductory” swim. This is also where I collect my talisman, a handful of sand, which I find by diving. Later I lose the sand, but don’t dare tell anybody.

My second, quick swim was in a rocky gulley on Monday morning, just as you descend the cliffs from Cape Point. This was a nostalgic swim. A group of us had swum in the gulley the previous year, during a preparatory hike for the residency, and I was keen to repeat the experience. It was quick because I was nervous about what might be lurking in the deep water of the gulley.

My third swim was off the beach at Buffels Bay. This was a solitary, fun swim, counterpoint to a hundred prior occasions when I had brought my kids to the same beach.

My fourth swim was in Kleinplaasie Dam, on the ridge of the southern peninsula, with Daniela Joffe. This swim was memorable and surprising. Daniela suggested that we swim across the dam, a decent distance. On the far side we sat in the sun and talked, one of a small number of proper talks that I had during the week. The swim back was longer than expected. The water was dark, silky and alkaline, stained with tannins from the surrounding fynbos.

My fifth swim took place on Wednesday morning, at the Noordhoek end of Long Beach, with Hedley Twidle. I would classify this a valedictory swim, since I was aware that we were leaving the ocean world behind us and I would probably not return for another seven months. The water was freezing, sparkling and invigorating. The salt content was especially high. I applied the rule of threes (dip your head under three times or it doesn’t count). Ilze Wolf watched from the beach.

My sixth swim was a group swim in Woodhead Reservoir on top of Table Mountain, mid-morning on Thursday. We were hot and tired, having walked up the mountain from Orange Kloof camp. The water was dark, cold and invigorating, lacking in the silky quality of Kleinplaasie Dam, and with something vertiginous about the deeper sections as you neared the dam wall.

My seventh swim was with Linda Shamma that same afternoon, in one of the smaller dams on top of the mountain. There were one or two swims afterwards, but this will do as a final swim with which to close this account. An upper layer of warm water trapped the dark, cold water below. I imagine sinking into the dark water. I imagine opening my mouth, waiting for the air to diffuse, and my vision to clear.

Untitled7Photo: Nick Shepherd.


Said, E (1994). Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures. London, Vintage.

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