Dutifully purring her way up Sir Lowry’s Pass on Cape Town’s eastern flank with the Hottentot-Hollands peaks rising above us like unbelieving eyebrows, our beloved Landcruiser Mogashagasha, locked and loaded for a week-long foray far into the Northern Cape, felt about as comfortable to me as the proverbial saddle we were back in. Vinyl might have replaced won-out leather and a weathered hat was still to come, but the rhythm was there and empty, beautiful space lay ahead.
We had planned on exiting Constantia at zero seven hundred, a precision move barely delayed by effusive good-byes stacked with the promise we were coming back soon, a true statement that a couple of corgis, having spotted much hated suitcases, still refused to accept. They had settled in separate corners far from that front door which inexplicably yields both the most exuberant retrouvailles and the worst, heart-wrenching separations and, heads resting on their front legs and ears at the below-defeated position, had followed the unfolding departure with sad, humidly resigned eyes. They are sweet that way.
Our ride having undergone a full inspection during Marie’s last stay and not been driven hard in the meantime, we had high hopes of an uneventful mechanical contribution on the Toyota’s part, unlike our timing belt worries of the ambitious Kruger slingshot.
Tightly ice-packed in a freezer were lamb chops and an assortment of boerewors. We intended to stock up further along the way at the ritual Travalia farm stall. But boerewors is like umbrellas; whilst most people only carry when rain threatens, we adopt a British stance and never leave home without our coils, might it rain or shine, whatever the cost may be.
I had taken the wheel with pleasure, Marie’s neck pain having flared up and her back now tending to seize when driving. Behind us on the backseat were the usual road-bound essentials: our breakfast basket with a coffee flask, inclement-proof rusks and a Calvinia tin cup to be shared, a goody bag full of critical treats such as biltong, fruit dinghies and droëwors, a few liters of water, and my fully equipped, duly sorted photo bag which always sits on the passenger side, unzipped for quick and easy cannon draw.
We had crossed the Flats in a bit of traffic seemingly confused by the removal of most robots but were now settling into a feather-light travel flow only dampened by the occasional tractor-trailer and other heavy trucks. We noticed that for the first time, trucks appeared to be adhering to their category’s speed limit of 80 km/h. That made my life drastically easier because while once at speed the Landcruiser is perfectly content, it lacks the punch of a smaller car and its V8 Turbo Diesel engine needs a long acceleration run, pedal to the metal, to get there. This can make passing hurried long trucks on single-lane roads rather tricky.
Tall wind turbines are being erected throughout South Africa and would greet us now and then, scattered atop a rounded hill or squeezed into a windy corridor, some spinning lightly in the breeze and others furiously making their clean – and very small – contribution to the failing power grid. They seemed to be guarding the landscape like as many statues, silent futuristic windmills, enough of them together to give Don Quixote serious nightmares.
Crossing Caledon, we passed a junction to Hermanus and Stanford, both of which very nice coastal areas. But we were headed up to the Garden Route and much coastline proximity remained before we had to angle north the following day.
After a catastrophically dry winter, the Cape was – and remains – in a state of serious drought but the scenery did not really reflect that. We cruised abeam De Mond and its billion birds, albeit far to the north inland, and later the N2 resolutely cut through Swellendam, after which it followed the eastern part of a small dry range behind which hide Barrydale and nearby quirky Ronnie’s Sex Shop.
At Mossel Bay, we joined the Garden Route and would remain within spitting distance of the beautiful coast for the rest of that drive. George was negotiated and left behind, its medium-size airport just out of sight behind an outcropping but identifiable by the small jet traffic it generated. Beyond the city we came up on Wilderness, one of the famous paragliding hotspots in the south, and soon thereafter crossed the Knysna lagoon. Pushing on relentlessly, we cruised by Plett, Marie’s childhood vacation spot akin to my Reutte, crossed the vertiginous Bloukrans Bridge and at last, branching off to the right, we drove through what looked like a plantation and headed towards the Tsitsikamma National Park entrance.
A few couples were waiting in the reception lounge while a Park employee registered visitors in. This is one of the most accessible of all SANParks locations and the coastal retreat must at times be swarmed by weekend warriors, but we were arriving on a week day and off-season. The wait was short, just enough time for a bathroom break and taking turns stretching outside while watching a vervet monkey bashfully climb a tree. I feel about monkeys the way most tourists seem to feel about NYC squirrels. Soft.
Finally handed our keys and directions, we drove along the winding road that, from the plateau atop which sits most of the Garden Route, drops sharply to shore. This had been our last stop returning from our cartwheels over Lesotho back in 2009. The Tsitsikamma National Park is not your typical game park. Stretched along the ocean, it pulses with an estival vibe and there is no avoiding the fact that seabirds and fish replace bokkies and zebra. C’est une autre culture.
Once at the bottom, as we rode at a crawl towards our goal, I suddenly spotted a splash far offshore beyond madly crashing waves and stepped on the brakes, scanning for a whale. My telephoto trained on the horizon, I panned right and left but could not find anything other than small isolated splashes that might have been fish feeding.
Given the narrow band of rocky shore, the main camp is arranged in two parallel rows of accommodations, with campsites right along the water and cottages next to the cliff, separated by a small access road. Our own cottage was built on stilts on the very foot of the lush escarpment, a set of steep stairs leading up to a wooden chalet-style construction.
Abnormally excited by the possible sighting of marine mammals and longing for more, I threw myself up the stairs with our heavier luggage, hoping to spare Marie’s back and intent on settling into an ocean watch as soon as possible.
That probably was not a very good idea because I have, for many years now, had weak knees. This is the price I pay for having danced a French Can-Can too many aboard a sailing ship in high seas. I tore a meniscus, then tore it again a few days later, and ended up on crutches for weeks until I could be shipped back home for arthroscopic surgery, licking my wounds. Said surgery might have been botched, and so might have been my rehabilitation. In any case the knee never fully recovered and, weeks of uneven walking seemingly having weakened the other side of my bilateral anatomy, I was left with a pair of Achilles’ knees.
No hard sports for me – don’t miss them anyway – to avoid the dreaded risk of twisting motion, and no Aïkido because I cannot kneel – and that I do miss deeply. I manage to run by carefully controlling my steps, and even trail run if the climbs are not too steep. But to be honest stairs anywhere look down at me with mean, menacing eyes, seemingly threatening to curse me forever if I dare attempt them, and then when the time comes to descend, they are still after me, conspiring to push me into the void and break all limbs.
I have never let this stop me completely but I do forget once in a while to be conservative and end up paying a hefty price. Such was the case in a garden install long ago, when, helping a friend for a few bucks, I carried a plethora of soil bags to a rooftop terrace. Such was again the case when I decided to assume most of our moving efforts from the third-floor Brooklyn apartment to Harlem, and performed forty third-floor round-trips to the street under load.
This time in Tsitsikamma would not have been bad, maybe four or five climbs of the high staircase to the cottage from the Landcruiser parked below, but the child in me had taken over and rather than plan and execute, I proceeded in complete anarchy, looking back at the ocean as I climbed, two heavy suitcases in hand, getting jammed sideways and forcing my way through in hard pulls. Not my finest moment.
However once everything was hauled up, that is within minutes, I grabbed my camera with the mighty 100-400mm lens and its 1.4x teleconverter, and camped myself out on the balcony, facing the ocean. Waves were coming in sets and crashing spectacularly a few yards from the tents. The light, just as had been the case years ago, was magnificent. At Storms River the golden hour is softened by high humidity, the air permanently filled with sea spray and making for spectacularly misty views.
I finally spotted a whale, far offshore, surfacing softly for a blow and a breath, and disappearing again. Then another. These were not spectacular sightings, and I had to content myself with small dorsal fins and bits of tails which I concluded belonged to Humpbacks, as the Southern Right does not have a dorsal fin to speak of. (We would catch a glimpse of a Southern Right off Kalk Bay a week and a half later.)
But soon my focus was dialed back much closer to the exploding waves and I realized that while I had been scanning dozens of square miles of empty ocean, the action had been unfolding nearly at my feet. What I had earlier mistaken for large fish feeding, were dolphins. Being used to the larger bottlenose of the Caribbean – I actually made friends with a Tursiops truncatus in Little Cayman – I am not sure what these were, most likely long-beaked common dolphins, Delphinus capensis.
That, much more than the steps, got my heart going. Looking for dolphins while at sea has been a daily reflex for some fifteen years of my life and I miss it dearly. For a good two hours, while the afternoon faded from a warm glow to a fuzzy twilight, our ritual G&T’s balanced on the railing and a fire burning in the braai strangely suspended on the balcony’s edge, we watched the playful animals hang out in the surf zone, masterfully riding their waves like Bodhi and Utah on a Californian beach.
As the sun dipped behind the dented ridge south of us, the salty air got chilly and sweaters were donned. Relying mostly on echolocation, our dolphins were still active even though darkness and foam must have rendered the visibility nil. But there is a fascinating time underwater, just as day changes to night, when all colors disappear and only shadows remain. It is a reef’s dusk, a brief moment of calm between two frenzies. The stage is empty, one troupe having exited after a triple salute and the next still powdering faces and rehearsing lines backstage. C’est l’entracte. The dolphins didn’t care.
All around below us, fires were lit and braaiing began. There is something strangely comforting in the sight of so many domesticated flames dancing around in the night; it must be, besides an understandable gratefulness for the warmth and good smells, as well as the fraternity it implies, a very deep, ancestral instinct. Once upon a time, fires lit at night meant survival. Period.
We ate on the balcony, watching the world’s natural curfew unfold and speaking in hushed tones as the Southern Cross melted down towards an oceanful of frantic nocturnal activity. The expected vervet monkeys, which had been close to pests at Mountain Zebra National Park and against which, along with baboons, we were still warned here to close doors and windows, never materialized.
The mighty sound of crashing waves made for a surprisingly good night, and up around eight, we lounged and brewed coffee a bit slower than we ought to have with a ten o’clock check-out time, as we had wanted to go for a walk in the Tsitsikamma forest. When we finally set out, precious time had gone by and we ended up running up the steep path into the trees, my left knee protesting grumpily. So looked right and left, collided with a few tourists – of which we are not, we are deeply rooted travelers, a much cleaner, meaner and smarter breed – and retreated back to the cottage to pack and exfil our precious selves.
A bit defeated, we managed to have an argument about the morning’s timing, and later the driving. I have always wondered why people fight. I used to think it was a result of both sides feeling misunderstood, and desperately needing to rectify that as a means to preserve one’s integrity, and a balanced relationship.
These days, however, I have three different suspects under surveillance. They are dreams, stress hormones, and cosmic rays.
All right, now that you are done rolling on the floor with laughter, let me explain. Dreams are received and interpreted by each one of us in a multitude of different ways. But it is sobering that to this day, well into the twenty-first century, we have no clue as to their cause, or purpose. I find it unlikely that they are just an unnecessary side-effect of having a (somewhat) intelligent mind, since they happen to occupy the most important time of our daily cycle, rest. In any case I reckon that if dreams are powerful enough to jolt us awake sweating and screaming, they must possibly have residual effects that linger just below our conscious mind’s watchful eye, and can result in unexplained moods, attitudes or prejudice.
Then there are hormones. And before someone jumps to conclusions let me tell you, they affect everybody. Human biochemistry is nothing but a landscape torn apart by ravaging storms, asymmetric warfare, chemical weapons and absolute cruelty. If you laughed when you read about cosmic rays above, know that a carnival erupted within you and endorphins were sprinkled about like confettis from rooftops. Conversely, read the news today about our national bozo’s elephant trophy policy* and you probably will be overtaken by an internal coup, a trigger-happy militia throwing powerful epinephrine explosives about your bloodstream. We are nothing but a chemical tempest. How could we not then, at times, lose emotional control if at a molecular level, all heck has broken lose?
And what about them rays… I am pushing into the sci-fi realm here but us fragile carbon-based lifeforms can reasonably be deconstructed down to elementary particules and as such, we are bound by strong interaction, electromagnetic waves and quantum physics. If our molecules are the puppets of a moody biochemical master, our atoms, and the quarks within them, are surely as equally subject to inner and outer interference. We live in a world we have saturated with waves of all lengths from radios, TV’s, cellphones, wifi, remotes, microwave ovens, x-ray machines, tanning booths, tactical flashlights, computer screens, radar, sonar, etc. All these are but variations on a common oscillating theme.
Like with the cosmic radiation that bombards us from outer space, I am not sure whether these human-made waves bounce off of us like fleas on a table or traverse us like a knife through butter. But the very essence of what we are is influenced by the universe at a subatomic level. And since our brain is also hosting electromagnetic waves, albeit infinitely slower and weaker, how could we not see our brain activity, and thus reasoning and cognitive abilities – or the lack thereof – affected at times beyond our understanding by this bio-electro-chemical shitstorm we call a universe?
So we fight.
Extremely rarely for Marie and me as we adore one another, but rather often in other arenas I have known of. A disagreement between two people is really not all that different from one between two cultures or countries. Wars are waged. Genocides committed. All of that because life is struggle, and I will postulate here that it is also possibly because some supernovae showing off to its nebula neighbors a few million years ago has sent us a care package, which combined with an excess of local wave brain-frying, heavy pollution and a depleted diet, causes the biochemical storm of the century in a power hungry sub-specie called politicians, and turns us already unreasonable beings into rabid ants. End of thesis.
Quantum physics aside and even though Schrödinger was right about the cat being simultaneously dead and alive – we know – it was a short drive, maybe a couple of hours, to our next destination, Addo Elephant National Park. We eventually left the coast behind and by the time we arrived at the southern park entrance, blue peacekeeper helmets were flowing among our red blood cells, and a treaty had been signed. Truth be told, peace had never been threatened. I love Marie more than words could ever express.
But still, I hope that one day we can grow to become more aware of these infinitely complex micro-influences with macro-consequences, and simply, when the storm knocks at the inner borders, invite it in and offer tea and biscuits. Only then will we be truly universal beings.
* Written before he changed his mind…
«The Road to Mokala» Series
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Marie’s recount: Storm’s River – place of waves