Road trip into the Klein Karoo

…Sean leaving as many loose ends as the wires that twisted out of the cubbyhole where the radio should have been. To remedy this, Roderick’s other lodger, Sarah, had lent me a pair of portable battery speakers which I balanced on my lap together with a skipping discman. By the time we reached the mountain tunnel I had made a suitable nest out of jerseys and scarves to keep it steady. “I normally have a policy of taking the pass over the top,” said Sean as the Indestructible Beat of Soweto sounded out in the belly of the fold belt. But time was short, wine shops en route soon to close. Soon after we left Worcester, Sarah’s speakers began emitting a horrible, cyclic wave of distortion. It’ll probably get broken, I told her when she offered it.

“Don’t worry, I’m loaded,” she said, sitting at the wobbly kitchen table below Lion’s Head. Scraped lemons in the fruit bowl, back issues of Condé Nast Traveller in the toilet and a stray named Wilberforce prowling across the dusty wooden floor. One of the party girls had loved and then left it; Sarah was the only person who fed it now, under the rain and warping roofs of the winter Cape. Rod’s house was leaking from above and welling up from below. Every time I came down he had removed another rusted component from the overflowing geyser, claiming to have solved the problem. They were arranged artistically in the hearth, between vases of wild flowers.

“A real domestic, arty side,” said Sarah, “Strange to see in a man like that, nice.”

The winter Cape, with low clouds standing guard. I sat in an armchair while the rain drummed on corrugated Victorian iron. After a few days I drew up another armchair and rested a computer screen on it, like an infinitely weary head, then tried to type up a new chapter on my lap. The screen (Sean’s) bore signs of earlier frustrations: poes poes vok poes was daubed all around it in alarming blue and orange. I checked my socks on the clothes line but they were still damp. Fruiterers and candlestick makers knocked on the door, to no avail. The winter Cape, this late place, brown and dirty yellow in spate, tubercular, forbidding.

But we had broken from it now and traced the snow picked Swartberg as the speakers gave their last gargle. We sighted the cloven hoof of the Towerkop from a hundred k’s, followed it and followed it to a place not just off the road but positively cradled by it and the mountain. Tony and Taryn’s cluster of cottages surrounded by orchards, a schoolbus halfway converted to a mobile shop to patrol the R62, the slow and crinkly inland parallel to the N2. Grandfather Ho Ho sits on a porch looking toward the mountains in long socks, beanie and sunglass goggles, staring down death ever since those days on a Knysna balcony. He was more interested in his boiled egg and bread soldiers though, checking if they had been cut through, carefully separating and counting them, telling us the record from a single slice is 18.

“I did it when the slice was still frozen,” Taryn confessed as she served up Karoo lamb. Tony told us about his parting from the rolbal club after planting a kiss on the bald pate of a local worthy.

“Ladismit White Mamparas – that must be the name of your band,” he said after we had strummed some sloshed folkie and western verses.

Well one time when things was looking bright I got to whittling on a stick one night Who said “Hey that’s dynamite!”? Nobody.

The next day we followed orchard tracks, eucalyptus roads and finally a stream of white boulders into the Blougat, the kloof visible from the farmhouse as a layered, folded maw at the bottom of the range. We made it to the foot of things by the time dusk began closing in and a dynamo powered light high on the slopes above showed that the water was running strong. A skew waterfall spilt from above like a leak in the mountain. Beyond it there was sacred ground, I could tell. Like the beach in the Western Isles, it is a place never reached that continues to play on my imagination. Clear air, clear water.

That wasn’t quite it though. I left out the strange process of two old friends reacquainting themselves after two years in different hemispheres, and all of it taking place in a noisy car, where music could not speed the process because of that radio head ripped out long ago, when we returned from an epiphany strung like a necklace on the slopes of Lion’s Head to find the window smashed, and he followed some bloodscent along the overgrown vagrant paths, had a primal moment of rage, or vengeance, of something, disappeared down in the forest now wiped out by fire. We jogged along it this time, Signal Hill and the long Lion’s rump, a savage route of back fence dogs and branches still charred but washed again and again by the rain of the winter Cape, so that they no longer chalked your knees black as you brushed past.

Perhaps the lack of music was a good thing, though, in all these vehicles without radios and smart parties where my guitar had to remain snapped up in its case. It forced us to talk as we hovered on the outskirts, too sacred to enter the ruck of twenty year olds we recognised dimly from school days. A few times we struck out to the cable car road, looking down at the city lights, the air still warm before the cold fronts came in, the rockfaces above us still releasing their heat.