About a Mountain


Fragments from a walking residency across the Cape Peninsula.

Three images from our walking residency, 6-12 December 2015. The first is the official prompt for this exercise (me and Meghna at Smitswinkel Camp). The second is one I asked Barry to take for me (a brass dial, or is it a toposcope, at Cape Point). The third (me giving a talk on Dias, Da Gama and the Khoikhoi in the shade of a windskerm at Buffels Bay) is one he sent me because I wanted photographic evidence of scholarly pursuits.

So, five quick impressions…

1)   The minimalist, slightly spartan décor of the camps. Slats of wood and stone; no cushions. Rigorous, good for reading and writing, not for reclining. The limited colour scheme, shrubs deformed by wind, a landscape always on the verge of mourning. Meghna and I both seem withdrawn, inward, even a little sombre. Why? Perhaps because we have both stayed here before, and we know about the tent flaps that will keep us awake all night, flapping in the permanent wind. Or perhaps we have already spent a night here, and have, like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, awoken from uneasy dreams…

2)   I am reading About a Mountain: a book not about Table Mountain, aka Hoerikwaggo (Sea Mountain), but Yucca Mountain near Las Vegas. It was going to be the permanent storage facility for the nuclear waste of the United States. But the billion dollar programme was abandoned. Yucca Mountain is one of the most studied places in the world, but still it could not be understood sufficiently. Its risks could not be calculated, or mapped adequately across geologic time. The mountain is more porous than expected; it is still in motion. After the residency I will carry on to the nuclear power plant at Koeberg (Cow Mountain), up the west coast on the edge of Cape Town, still thinking about all this. I am fascinated by the subject, but the book is disappointing: “creative non-fiction” that is too creative. The author gets in the way of his subject. Perhaps this explains the look on my face: I am skeptical.

3)   The baboon fence separating us from the mountains that run between here and Simonstown, and which are (as usual) spinning cloud off the ocean. This section was originally meant to be part of the Hoerikwaggo trail, but never worked out because of private landowners arguing with SANParks, or some such feud. This lost leg entices me, since the overgrown path still leads up to the ridge. Paths never taken. I still hope to do the whole hike from Cape Point to my front door one day. Three years running, at the height of summer, I have done different versions of the Hoerikwaggo Trail, but never this whole traverse. It’s like the missing piece of puzzle I hope to complete.

4)   The whole Hoerikwaggo Trail, in some ways, is a post-apartheid ideal that has fallen on hard times. Originally it was going to start not at Cape Point but on the Cape Flats. There would be trained guides, giving local employment. The Khoi name Hoerikwaggo was used to signify historical redress. Now it is a self-booked exercise, and the camps are often empty. The route is not entire; there is transport required between Smitswinkel and Redhill (why does this bother me so much?) One of the most beautiful overnight stops, Silvermine, has been destroyed by fire, making another gap in the route. Somehow I think of a faulty line of argument, or a neural pathway that is beginning to malfunction, routes to a memory hard to retrieve, becoming overgrown…

5)   A Lexicon for Hiking in the Anthropocene: (With apologies to Douglas Adams’s The Meaning of Liff)

Kommetjie: n. the deposit that collects under your nails on days with no hot shower. (e.g. Can you borrow me your pen knife to get rid of this kommetjie?) Also v. the act of removing this substance (e.g. Can I borrow a pen knife to kommetjie my nails?).

Judas Peak: n. the peak that promises to be the last in a hike, but isn’t, and so betrays you. (e.g. Yoh, that Karbonkelberg was a real Judas Peak).

Ocean View: adj. secret/coded real estate term for a property that does not really have a view of the ocean (in contrast to “Beachfront” and “Ocean Facing”). Perhaps only a glimpse of water can be seen out of the corner of your eye, or if you crane your neck out the bathroom. (e.g. Charming ocean view apartment in a government built block tucked into the Bokramspruit valley). Orig: high apartheid.

Cape Point: A claim or argument that is vague, cloudy and ill-defined, and so contentious. (e.g. That’s a very cape point that you’re making about “walking in footsteps of the ancestors”).

Smitswinkel: n. The raised but still painless patches of skin that precede full-scale blisters during a hike. (e.g. Those new boots have given me some smitswinkels on my heel).



Ways of reducing mountain ranges to two dimensions: Contour lines | Writing | Toposcopes. A False Bay sundial.


A talk on the long, staggered history of colonial encounters on the southern African coast prior to 1652. I think that here my hands are demonstrating how the Dias and Da Gama crosses in Cape Point reserve line up in the direction of Whittle Rock, a large, permanently submerged shipping hazard in False Bay. It is a hot day.

I go on to describe the quincentenary celebrations of Dias's rounding of the Cape in 1488. Held in Mossel Bay in 1988, these represent a moment of high apartheid absurdity. I can't tell the story better than Dennis Walder does in the collection Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid and Democracy, 1970-1995:

In 1988, a time of the most massive repression the country has ever seen, the 500th anniversary of the "discovery" of South Africa by the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias was commemorated in the small seaside resort of Mossel Bay. Three white actors in a rowing boat landed on a "whites-only" beach, there to be welcomed by seven more whites wearing curly wigs and painted black. This simple ceremony was applauded by some 2000 people, including the then President, P. W. Botha, in full regalia, with his cabinet. The spectacle would have been complete were it not for the absence of the local black population - and action precipitated by a "Coloured" high-school teacher, who had warned the authorities that unless beach apartheid were ended, he and his pupils at least would not welcome Mr Dias back.

He goes on:

As Fanon long ago pointed out, apartheid is but an extreme example of the colonial condition in which it is the "settler" who thinks he (and it is "he") makes history, while the "native" does not. Worse: it is as if the colonized are outside the imaginable, the settlers appropriating for themselves the identity of "native" too; whence the laughable sight of whites embracing whites as a representation of European arrival upon the alien shore.