(AND JUST AFTER)
1-5 DECEMBER 2014
Last time I did it with three old friends, and in the opposite direction. This time from Cape Point to town with a group of people that I didn’t know quite as well, most of them university types. The idea (not mine) was to turn it into a walking seminar on “nature cultures”, a trial run for a residency that will happen not in institutional buildings but out in the air.
Slightly sceptical of this at first—all I wanted from the hike was to decompress, let the mind empty after a strangely-shaped year. But still, on the first day I played along, using my primary school teacher Mr Bench’s memory technique (one-drum, two-shoe, three-tree, four-door etc) to log impressions that seemed worth rescuing from the tide of heat, sweat, walking, foot on rock, sand, gravel.
The sensorium changes, opens…
One was a drum turning like a wheel: we are picked up by taxi at 6am, driven the length of Peninsula that we will track back along over the next five days. Driving in hours what we will walk back along in days. I remember this also from my father running me up the N2 to the trailhead at Storms River, many years ago: over the gorges, over the bridges.
Two was…I can’t remember. The link is broken. Once it existed, but by the end of the day, blood or dehydration has flushed out or shut down that neural pathway. This was the thing we soon realised: after a day hiking across the Cape Peninsula, being strafed by sun and wind, there is not much to say. The knowledge gained is implicit, recorded in joints, muscles, darker skin, stiffer hair, delicious tiredness. Was it that the shoe pinches? Two months later, my big toenails are still black.
Three: snipers in a tree. We go past the training grounds of the South African Marines and the taxi driver tells us they train snipers here. Elevation, surveillance, lines of sight and fire. That is one way of understanding the mountain chain, from the small canon that warned the British about hostile ships entering False Bay to the World War Two radar posts, lighthouses with their own frequency of flashes. Lo-fi technologies still at play: the shark-spotters above Muizenburg; the Mountain Men scanning backyards from above Fish Hoek. Apparently they can tell likely criminals just from their gait: hands behind the back, because in Pollsmoor you’re not allowed to touch the walls. Can that be true? Meanwhile those in prison look at the mountain over the walls like Mandela did, returning the gaze of the Elephant’s Eye. The imprisoned poet Breyten Breytenbach: “the mountain: my companion, my guide, my reference point, my deity, my fire, my stultified flame, and finally—like a prehistoric receptacle—the mould of my mind, my eye, my very self.”
Four: a door: the small containers that the curio-sellers are unlocking outside the gate of Cape Point Reserve. They are dark green, and look like smaller versions of the containers stacked on those ships sliding along each horizon as we walk the mountain chain south to north. It is part of a daily ecosystem. We reach the gate of the reserve, a concrete bunker with an odd, dipping curve at one side. All the way I am trying to log infrastructures and car-parks, in service of this idea that I have been thinking about: Table Mountain: An Unnatural History.
Five: a hive of mental activity as we university types cluster in an alcove as near to Cape Point as we can get. The idea for the hike is to go “beyond the touristic”, says Nick. I want to disagree and say no: we must embrace the touristic, inhabit it fully, pay attention to the road markings that guide tourist buses at the foot of the cable-way and funicular, note the little signs that inform you of how much waiting time remains. Sit on the contour path under the cable-way and realise that VISA is printed on the bottom of the capsule that is slowly rotating and carrying the sightseers up. Note also that an exact replica of this cable car capsule can be found within the domestic terminal at Cape Town International, wedged into a corner.
But it’s already hot, so I keep quiet and we get underway.
Six is sticks: the smell of the sea, False Bay, that sticks, stinks in your nostrils. The first swim of the hike: Nick strips down to his trunks, affixes goggles and drops off a ledge into the Indian Ocean. It looks so delicious that Meghna, Alex and I run down the slopes to join him. The water is soupy, kelpy, filled with nutrients, sediment, a scum of bird feathers from the gulls that are bobbing further out. There is a bracing stink of life and biomass in the nostrils. A reminder of how the city beaches on the other side of the Peninsula are carefully managed and manicured. Municipal workers rake them each morning; earth-movers come to lever up drifts of rotting kelp when the residents of Sea Point complain. One had even written in to the Atlantic Sun about the shells hurting her feet, and could the municipality please sort it out? Here it’s all gunk and seal shit and red bait and littoral rot. Even when I borrow Nick’s goggles the visibility is low. Uneasy too: one imagines a big sea creature coming to feed, straining all the sea soup through its enormous gullet. Getting out I almost step on a sleeping baby seal, and I don’t know who gets more of a fright. Back on the path, an extraordinary snake: patterned in colours that are almost synthetic they seem so bright—like the acid-yellow, orange, red sweets we have been eating. I could look it up but I won’t: this is to be an unnatural history of Table Mountain, which means that you put away field guides and bird books, empty your head of all the scientific names, forget about fynbos—don’t let any of that get between you and the teeming strangeness and menace all around, pressing in, pressing in.
When I was a young boy: tagging trees among the mine dumps in Carletonville—Rhus Lancea, Olea Africana—making a big fuss about indigenous and exotics. Pinning insects, killing jars with cloudy ammonia, butterfly traps with fermented fruit. Vicious past-times, forgive me! Trying to let all of that fall out of your head as you walk the path in the heat.
Seven is heaven. And coastal walking is, to me, a kind of heaven. Why don’t you do this more often? I ask. Why do you dick around with the Internet and try to keep your inbox at zero? A good photograph of Meghna and Alex in a tarred expanse that bears a crossed-out P. Is it a helipad, or a turning circle for boats and trailers? Beyond them the teeth of small mountains rising above the sea’s edge. Encountering Pam, the retired secretary of the English Department, at the tidal pool. She is waiting while her husband swims; she is sitting in a sun hat, UV shawl over her legs. She tells me about her planned biography of William Burchell, his drawings. I show her possible routes on the map. Day two takes us through the township of Ocean View, it seems, but there are other options. “Keep to the fynbos,” she says, evidently speaking in some kind of code. “I would say keep to the fynbos.”
Eight is a gate: eight is a cave, and the portcullis formed by the “drip-line”—a phrase I am happy to learn. Nick says one should examine the drip-lines as that is where the sediments are exposed without digging, where they start leeching away down the slope. The cave is strangely vaulted, like a crypt installed behind the bushes. How much should you let your imagination work in such a site, he wonders? The tension between amateur and professional excavators: between the enthusiasts (who advance theories that proliferate unchecked) and the disciplinarians (who strenuously disavow such imaginings). The same plays out in studying literature: yes, you love books; you are moved by them—but that is of no interest to us now, put it away. We dig around in the midden, come across an old cigarette packet: Delicious! Harmless! Then some fragment of newsprint, which I carefully fold into some cardboard. “Here are some more,” says Alex, holding a larger scrap. But I tell her I only want these small pieces, with their suggestive half sentences. They sit in front of me now:
Other fragments I collected were: a pull-tab, one of the old kind that came right off the cooldrink can. With a few bends to and fro, the metal fatigued and you could separate the two components: the aluminium ring and the aluminium tongue. The thick end of the tongue could be wedged into a groove at the base of the circle and fired at someone across a class or playground. Seeing these pull-tabs, with their more appealing shapes than the modern, fixed models, I realise that you can be nostalgic about any old junk.
There was also (in later days) a marble collected from the northern end of Noordhoek beach during a very stiff south-easter. And a tiny fragment of china from a ruined cottage in Brooklands, a site of forced removals.
Nine is wine. We saw wine farms on the way, informal settlements right next to them; but in this case, nine is actually whine. I have hauled myself over the teeth at the sea’s edge, gradually moving further ahead of Meghna and Alex, who have kept up continual conversation about food, the problem with this walking-seminar idea, and the art world more generally—they are just in earshot behind me, then not. A lot of the trail we each spend walking alone. Now I wait for them on a beach, looking out over Smitswinkel Bay.
Suddenly, there is an eerie sound: a low whine, surreptitious, creeping up on me, like a secret breath, or some kind of non-human sigh. What is it? Then a huge tour bus comes into view, glides past and the low sound gradually subsides. I had unknowingly walked to the edge of the road, the neat tarmac just the other side of some bushes. It was that long since I had heard traffic noise.
We walk to the tented camp along it, try to have a discussion over dinner while Chris puts on his voice recorder, but our discussion is all over the place, especially when we pass round a joint. Tired but we can’t sleep: the tents of the tented camp flap all night in the wind.
That was the first day.
As the hike progressed, our evening seminars fell entirely silent—we were too tired to muster the explicitness that academic discussion requires. The knowledge was being registered in our bodies: in our skin that began to burn or darken; in calf muscles that began to work all morning; in livers and kidneys that were being squeezed and torqued and squeezed and torqued all day. In eyes that were focusing on things farther away than screens. In hair (mine) that I took pleasure in wiping sticky and sweaty hands through.
I also came to realise that a memory technique like the one above is redundant in this context: a walk is its own mnemonic.
Back home after the hike, I talk with Tyler through the kitchen window. He speaks about his planned trip back to the Eastern Cape, how his wife went to buy an Intercape ticket but the Shoprite was too busy. He will only take buses, because at least there are two drivers, while the taxis just shuttle up and down the N2, solo pilot.
“I pray to God before I go. I believe in the Big Man up there.”
“Bawo thixo somandla,” I say.
He recognises the song and we begin singing to each other through the burglar bars.
No such thing as writer’s block: just give an objective account of the difficulties you are facing.
My difficulty is that I don’t know what horse to back. Throw my energy behind personal writing, narrative essays, or academic work? All at the same time? I feel scrambled and my attention span is corroded. I am not reading enough, certainly not in my “specialisation”. My friends are all having children; my car’s paintwork is atrocious. My deactivation of Facebook lasted all of one morning.
I want to dive into something, submerge myself entirely. But what? In the absence of knowing that I just dive into water.