A Touch of Madness - A Walk to Valkenberg and Oude Molen (March 2004)

I set out on the morning after a night of heavy rain, election posters limp, with colours fading now, after the event. The ANC gained almost 70 % of the national vote, making big advances in the Western Cape. Marthinus looking more than usually hapless.

The pavements have been washed clean of dogshit, but the rain has done no good to the slightly rusted cars parked on the pavements. My housemate’s red Passat only just spluttered into existence this morning. I notice many have decals on the windows or logos painted on the side doors advertising the small businesses of their owners: INNER CITY PAINTBALL, AERIAL PHOTO’S or in some cases just HIRE THIS TRAILER TODAY.

Down the Observatory Road; people doing Tai Chi on the sodden cricket field. People washing cars, fixing them, or at least that’s what I hope the man fiddling with wires under the steering wheel is doing. Devil’s Peak becomes more imposing as you cross the railway line, given sufficient distance and an unobstructed skyline.

Liesbeeck canal in spate because of the rain; drifts of plastic litter clogging the reeds; Obs has always received slop, stormwater and waste from the southern suburbs. Flocks of grey birds wheeling over the traffic intersections. This cold front has broken the summer, deadened the light. Very bleak.

Strange no-man’s land, this part of the city, mixed up. The transition zone between the suburbs along the southern axis and the Flats. Dangerous lanes of Parkway and Highway, undeveloped land and dampness make it seem empty. Enclosed grounds of the River Club and The South African Astronomical Observatory.

Valkenberg Hospital. Open plan layout. It seems you can just wander through the entire place. The crew of a film shoot smoking around a catering van. Mustard yellow buildings of the outpatients. Many different wards further on, looking like dormitories, most of them dilapidated. One of the wards has football field with views all the way from Lion’s Head to Muizenberg, but razor wire around the perimeter.

Across another bridge, a long road with prefabricated concrete wall running alongside it and cryptic graffiti scratched in leads to Oude Molen. Communes of artists, travellers, alternative healers and hard drinkers are living in the abandoned psychiatric wards. There are all kinds of things advertised on boards: FOREST CREATIONS, someone selling crushed rock, a backpackers, organic vegetable patches, SPINACH FOR AFRICA, carpentry halls, HORSE RIDING AVAILABLE, sculptures made from welded scrap – strange horns of metal and crazy seats with spinning wheels for children to play on. A loom, a driver’s seat, a dentist’s chair?

But in this damp dead light, the place does not seem the thriving village it should be. Despite all the signs, nothing is open and there is a sense of real pennilessness. Cars with grass growing up through them. Swarms of bees in the ventilator grilles of the Conservation Office building and filthy outbuilding toilets that have not been cleaned in years. A derelict ward with no roof, stuffed with soggy cardboard, wood offcuts, bits of wire and faulty parts. A kind of elephant’s graveyard for the things carried in trolleys through the city. An extension lead comes out of a window, with a lone washing machine plugged into it. The clothes inside seem to be grey and rotting.

Right on the edge are some shacks and someone has scrawled: GET AWAY FROM HERE.