From Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World.
… furthermore, their talk, their excessive talk about how they love South Africa has consistently been directed towards the land, that is, towards what is least likely to respond to love: mountains and deserts, birds and animals and flowers.
J. M. Coetzee, 1987.
Your father drove you to the trailhead in the small white bakkie. The Tsitsikamma forest pressed up close to the highway, a lush green tunnel. Then it fell away as you sped across the rivers far below, twists of silver flashing in the sun.
The Opel, which your father always referred to as ‘the light delivery vehicle’, was a little corroded from the salt air. After dropping you he would head onwards to Port Elizabeth and get that seen to, also his computer since viruses were slowing down the hard drive, because the locals weren’t up to scratch, workshy hippie types, lackadaisical, had you noticed that since getting back, and by the way would you mind pulling into the next service station for breakfast? It did a good deal.
‘I’m going to be your waitron this morning. Can I tell you about our special offers?’
‘Thank you, but I think we know what we want. Mega breakfast over here, salad burger there, and two coffees.’
‘And for the coffees? Regular, large, or—’
You had long ago given up suggesting organic farm stalls set back in the blue gums and embraced your father’s sudden enthusiasm for roadside Megadeals. Coming after decades in which he had barely touched fast food of any kind, it seemed – along with the forays into local radio and his attempt to memorise the full name of every person he met in the whole bay area – a perplexing but heartening thing.
The 1-Stop’s take on the concept of a salad burger was literal: just wilted lettuce and a smear of mayonnaise between two lobes of damp white roll. Your father looked deeply shocked, as if he had been let down on home turf.
‘Let’s send it back, I’ll get Lavinia over. She knows me.’
No, really, it was fine, it was all good, you assured him. Since getting home from overseas, your fondness for earthy African dagga had imparted a blithe acceptance of the universe’s implacable unfolding. You welcomed in the whole lot.
The bus journey east along the coast from Cape Town had provoked an indiscriminate euphoria that stemmed simply from being in contact with a place mapped out in such outrageous pile-ups of light, shade, mansion, shanty, rock and ocean. For in-bus entertainment, the Intercape always screened those incorrigibly South African sketches of pranking and practical jokes: men in blackface picking fights at right-wing church fetes; fat white traffic cops fooled by stereo speakers hidden in the bushes. All along the N2, Guns, Germs and Steel languished unread on your lap as you couldn’t help but follow the slapstick playing just above your head. All staged, no doubt, but the passengers all around you reached into their slap chips, King Pies, snoek rolls, and laughed and laughed.
Soon after breakfast you turned off the highway to follow the old provincial road that cut down to the coast, hairpinning down through a deep gorge. At sea level was a cluster of face-brick chalets and sooty braai facilities. The coastal reserve stretched away on either side. To the west it curled into the resort town where your dad had taken early retirement; to the east it joined the Outeniqua Mountains to run out of sight.
The trail that you were about to hike was a renowned one. Normally you needed to book years ahead, but your father had managed to secure a place for you at short notice, following a cancellation. You found the office where you paid, signed indemnity forms and were shown a short instructional video about tide times and when to cross the estuaries. A party of tourists had been swept away the year before, apparently, and the Parks Board didn’t want it to happen again.
‘Just watch those rivers,’ your father said, telling you again about his experience of the trail, when it rained solidly for five days and all his gear got soaked through.
‘Really, I might have got ill if a German couple hadn’t lent me some dry clothes. Had to take one of the exit routes, hike upriver to the highway and get the rangers to pick me up.’
You looked at your father, now ready to drive off in the light delivery vehicle, cranked up on all those Mega coffees, and felt a pang of tenderness and downright filial concern at the thought of this man toiling up from one of the river crossings, cold to his bones. You were both loners, you thought; you were your father’s son in that regard. Perfectly sociable where necessary, but loners for all that.
The delectable sound of your hiking boots crunching over gravel and broken shells rose to your ears. You were away from everyone you knew, a stranger at home, a tourist in your own country, and relishing the idea of five days’ hard walking along the coast.
The milkwood leaves glinting waxily in the sun; the tentative dance of hermit crabs on the rilled sandbars of lagoon mouths; the granite boulders marbled like meat and the psychedelic orange lichen that sprottled them – it was all being registered by your 22-year-old brain. A spring tide of consciousness was flooding your being, a planktonic upwelling of excitement that found positive reinforcement in the swell smashing into the rocky cliffs and coves.
You looked lovingly at the tree roots twisting across the path, the wood shined like mahogany by generations of hiking boots. You laid your hands on overhanging branches, in the places where so many other hands before you had rubbed them smooth, gripped them for steadiness and purchase, or just to feel the cool hardwood under your palm. After spending years in centrally heated, badly lit institutional buildings in the northern hemisphere, you had now been delivered into high summer, into this littoral zone where the endless forms of organic evolution were interacting in such remarkable ways.
Right here on the path, for example: a giant African land snail, at which some tourists were pointing an even more giant Nikon lens. The black telescopic barrel whirred and clicked, the gastropod’s eyes gingerly extended and retracted themselves, both parties trying to find focus. The whole scene was intensely significant and indicative, an omen – but of what exactly? It didn’t matter. You looked on forgivingly and made for the waterfall.
It cascaded into the sea, marking the end of where day visitors were allowed to venture, and forming a freshwater swimming pool above the waves. A very white couple were standing at the edge, eyeing it warily. He was lightly bearded and looked like he might be in IT; she had neat good looks and strawberry-blonde hair. Both were devoted wearers of Gore-Tex. You stripped down and jumped in, assuring them that yes, yes, they could swim, there were no crocodiles here, that Tstsikamma was an indigenous word for place of sweet waters, or something like that. They stripped to their dowdy northern European underwear and slid into the dark, tannin-stained pool.
So that when you encountered them again that evening at the first day’s halt, formalities were long gone and you all talked easily round the fire outside the cabin. You promised to show Andreas the archaeological middens left by strandlopers further along the coast. Karin, a yachtswoman, demonstrated the best knot to use for your pocket hammock.
You were feeling the easy camaraderie that comes from just being with people out of doors. And all the while the waves grew more and more powerful, ploughing into the rocky shore, throwing up massive crests of white spume. A mist had formed along the bay, carrying the splendid rankness of the ocean past the campfire and into the forests: redbait and seals and rotting kelp, the stink of biomass and iodine.
There was another cabin set further back and another fire, with some burly types sitting round and drinking enthusiastically, their voices not quite carrying. There would be time to get to know everyone properly, you thought.
Day two was tough and there was no getting around it. The route began traversing the gorges that your father and you had so blithely sped over just a few kilometres inland. For complex geological reasons (he had explained at the 1-Stop), on the Oystercatcher Trail you were in effect crossing an ancient seabed, an earlier version of the continental shelf – hence all the bleached shells high up in the forests.
Soon after setting out: an extraordinary snake, mottled and banded in colours so bright they seemed synthetic – acid yellow and orange like the sweets of childhood, the tint of E-numbers and tartrazine. The flotsam on the beaches also tended towards this blurring of natural and man-made in your warming brain protein: plastic crates from fishing trawlers had been scoured by the waves into something halfway organic; driftwood sticks and bundles of reeds easily became litter, woody fibre optics, xylem cabling. Binaries, your recently completed university education had taught you, were bad, and you were more than ready to let go of them all.
You could look up the snake in one of Andreas’s many field guides when you got to camp. But then again you didn’t want to. You were done with natural history and more interested in unnatural history, 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.
The air became purer and purer, the lichen ever more luminous. With the quartzite glare of the boulders and the sky blue from here to Antarctica, it formed a colour scheme that began to take its toll, lingering vividly and just a little too long behind your eyelids when you shut them. The gradients were severe and even a mid-afternoon nap in the hammock, magically suspended above the undergrowth, didn’t prevent you from arriving at the cabins in a state of real tiredness.
You shouldered off your pack, unlaced your boots and cracked open a beer. The relief was exquisite. Outside the cabin you met another, less straitlaced pair of fellow hikers. John: originally from Liverpool, now a Johannesburger, mountaineer and biker with an almost entirely hairless head and a soft, ready laugh. He said he was almost a pensioner but still made money from renting ‘industrial premises’ in the central city. His daughter Joan was a tall woman with an ironic smile and agreeably lived-in face, probably in her late thirties. She had strong legs, cargo shorts with many pockets and a compelling campsite manner. Which all made sense when she told us that she was an overland tour operator, driving those big trucks of backpackers from Cape Town to Kenya and back.
‘No, you must sign up for a Vic Falls trip. I’ll get you a big discount’.
Joan passed round a joint that introduced a new and immensely welcome note into the already complex coastal bouquet.
‘It’s Moroccan hash’, she said, ‘From Morocco. I brought it back myself’.
Butternuts and gem squashes succumbed to her large bush knife in seconds: halved, quartered, swathed in foil for cooking. Seeing you struggle with a can of tuna, she took over the penknife and had it open in seconds.
‘Ah, you see it is dolphin friendly,’ said Andreas, inspecting the ravaged container, ‘That’s good.’
Karin inclined her head to where those much-loved sea mammals were surfing in the short break, right in front of us. Could it get any better?
Now another duo arrived, tramping in with old-school boots and huge battered rucksacks. White South Africans in their sixties, with the sun-damaged skins to prove it. Roger had binoculars out, and was letting out little yelps as the dolphins sported in the massive waves. Then he would swivel inland at the sound of a birdcall, then out to sea again, back to the forest – as if he hardly knew where to look.
‘Harry’s the real expert on birds, though,’ he said, ‘Sometimes spends whole weekends building a hide, like when you wanted to tick off that warbler, or what was it, Harry?’
Harry was turning his rucksack inside out, muttering something.
‘No fucking lemons! I can’t believe it. Rog, did you pack lemons? What will I do for my G and T?’
Rog saw to the drinks while Harry began stacking the fire.
‘Time to get things going around here. It’s a cold country where the sun shines, South Africa, that’s what I always say.’
He lit it and soon the woodpile that had been left for us by the park staff was burning with conviction.
‘Well done, Harry.’
‘Thanks, Rog. A cold country where the sun shines, am I right?’
The smoke seemed to follow him around the fire.
‘In the evening, the wind shifts from onshore to offshore,’ said Karin, ‘The land cools down, so the air is not certain.’
‘Smell like a bladdy black man tomorrow, I will.’
Harry’s remark dropped like gull shit out of a perfect evening sky. Your state of muscle-tired, beer-headed, hash-laced contentment evaporated instantly. Had you heard correctly? Surely not.
You took your first proper look at the man. Close-cropped white hair, quite a wiry frame, but beginning to lose what had once been an athlete’s body. By 40, every man has the face he deserves. Harry’s had set aggrieved, but also a bit unsure, a bit unfocused, a bit liquid, as if perpetually on the verge of angry tears. In his one hand a gin and tonic, in the other a pair of tongs that was transferring large quantities of meat into a marinade tray. He looked in the direction of you and Karin.
‘Ladies, we’re going to show you how to cook round a fire tonight.’
Day three. You woke mid-morning to find everyone else had left much earlier. There was a note clipped to your hammock:
‘Remember: river crossing by 14:30! Enjoy the walking!!! K & A.
On a clifftop contour, you replayed the previous evening’s events. You had been thrown together for five days with a racist alcoholic, that much was clear. Or perhaps an alcoholic racist. Difficult to know where the emphasis should lie, since both these poisons were burning hot in Harry’s throat. And as usual, you had reacted badly – in the sense of not reacting badly.
Your default response in these situations is a kind of psychological cramp, a verbal windedness. Such comments, your cerebral cortex seems to decide, are simply inappropriate and best ignored, something too crass to even acknowledge hearing, especially amid the grand amphitheatre of surf, cliff and forest. Something that might just go away again if not indulged, just retract into its calcified and ugly shell.
But Harry was playing a little game. The moment he clocked you for a university type, a ‘liberal’ – then he knew he had some sport on the go, and began fishing for a response. As you kept silent, he would up the ante. The black man comment was only the beginning, the overture to an evening in which all the familiar themes came out; you could hear them from the other fire, which you soon moved to, slowly crunching a Windhoek in your fist.
The various genres of racism were duly demonstrated, floating across the campsite, the full gamut. Harry the self-appointed anthropologist (‘And that is so typical of the black’), the hard-talk realist and scourge of political correctness (‘I call it as I see it’), the historian of post-independence Africa (‘Name one country they haven’t stuffed up’), the conspiracy theorist (‘It’s a white genocide we’re looking at, with the farmers’), the anxious homeowner (‘Prices have halved since the suburb’s gone mixed’), the out-and-out apartheid nostalgist (‘At least there was law and order, back in the bad old days’).
This middle section of the trail was the toughest. Humid also, with the forest transpiring against you, and the wave spume hanging windlessly along the bay’s rim. By noon you were collapsed with feet dangling in a little stream, mouth sucking at nectarine pips and processed cheese wrappers in a desperate bid for carbohydrates. The brown trickle ran down to the sea in a line of least resistance; the trail had other ideas, tacking up ravines filled with long spills of boulders. The loving wooden handholds of day one had now become so many tripwires and blows to the head. The slap of vines and cobwebs made your face itch and tickle. You got lost, took tangled bushpig tracks by mistake, got thirsty.
The current tugged at your legs in the final river crossing; just one notch stronger and it would have towed you out. Then something dark and distended bobbed up: the body of a dead seal, but mutilated, headless. Perhaps it had been dashed against the rocks by the full-moon swell; or maybe it had been nipped at by a great white out there in the bay. Either way, its corpse rolling on the tide made you scrabble to find purchase on the opposite bank, cutting your hands on barnacles.
Under cover of dusk, you limped into the third camp.
‘Hey Professor, we were about to send search parties out for you, man,’ said Harry, slamming it back from his tin mug, ‘Smoking too much boom there in your hammock.’
John and Joan laughed; then you were laughing. But, at the same time, you were in no mood for laughter. Nothing about this whole psycho-coastal ordeal was a laughing fucking matter. It was as if the exertions of the last few days had made you strange to yourself, unable to marshal or control your thoughts properly. Still. though, you were in no mood. You were coming in with guns blazing; you were going to give it to Harry chapter and verse.
So began two long and (no doubt for the rest of the cast who were compelled to watch them) laborious evenings. You felt that if you could just quickly sketch out the course of ‘modern’ human history for the last circa 100 000 years, from the very first examples of symbolic behaviour – discovered in caves on this very coastline, Harry, by the way, engraved ochre and ostrich eggshell adornments – if you could just explain the full bio-socio-historico-political consequences of the multi-stage hominid migration out of Africa, and the Neolithic revolution, and then the staggered colonial contact, with its global exchange of biotas, its spread of pathogens among peoples who had no resistance to the kind of bacterias and viruses incubated among Europe’s fetid and overcrowded cities; if you could just get all that straightened out, then this whole narrative of linear progress and development that Harry was so committed to could be well and truly problematised and deconstructed.
‘It could have been Zulu shock troops on rhinos attacking Europe, but instead it’s the Portuguese with caravels and crossbows. Why is that, Harry?’
Joan sat there rolling joints, a wry smile on her lined face. Karin and Andreas looked on, like umpires at a tennis match. John chuckled softly at this and that.
You were trying to marshal the key points from Jared Diamond, which had all made so much sense when you read them: about rain belts and land bridges, about the latitudinal spread of cereal crops and semiotic systems, about the relative domesticability of megafauna within each of the continents. But the Moroccan hash had silently begun removing crucial links from your argumentation, while Harry drained anecdote after anecdote from the bitter dregs of his gin mug. Now he was onto the story of a poor white petrol attendant that he had taken under his wing:
‘I felt bad for him, man. A white guy at the Caltex – have you ever seen that?’
‘Harry, think about it. Eurasia: east to west, right? Africa, the Americas, north to South, north-south, okay?’
‘Ag, enough with that blame game, man. You’re just an apologist for black failure.’
‘I think you are arguing with, I think the word is “principles”?’ said Karin as we climbed into our bunks, ‘And he is just telling stories.
‘Ja, Harry gets a bit hot under the collar,’ said Rog, ‘It’s just his way.’
But it was a point in your life where you believed you that could educate your fellow countrymen, that with just a bit of moral tutelage, just a few telling examples, the leopard could change his spots.
On the one hand, all this was clearly making no dent in Harry’s defences, in the elaborate scaffolding of bigotry he had erected around himself, the citadel walls that he was now patrolling. But, on the other, your earnest undergraduate comebacks and the tireless performance of your impeccable politics for the benefit of visiting Scandinavians had undoubtedly made your adversary move through his booze supplies quicker than planned. A purely logistical, attrition-based victory was coming into sight.
By day four, Harry’s fireside chat was pinging around manically: from racism to sexism to gay-bashing, even taking some unexpected detours via Islamophobia.
‘I mean, what kind of religion is that?’
Now we were on 9/11 and how it was really the fault of liberals like me.
‘Where you put your bum in the air, hey Rog?’
And here he knelt down and gave us a rendition of a Muslim at prayer, then howled at the moon. It was such an absurd scene that you all found yourselves laughing. And didn’t really stop from then on, baring your teeth at each other, hahafuckingha.
Talk turned to Zimbabwe, the favourite arena of a certain kind of white South African racist, his home ground in a sense. At that point, you didn’t know much about Zimbabwe; you only knew a joke about it. So you told that. After all, you didn’t want to seem like the sour one. You wanted to show that you too could have a sense of humour, that you could cut it with the boys when you needed to. And so you found yourself asking if people had heard the one about Mugabe, Dick Cheney and Phineas the gardener?
You can’t remember that joke now. Among the million other details that come back, this eludes you. How is it that one forgets jokes so utterly? You think that Cheney and the gardener Phineas were the clever ones in the story, that the joke was really on Bush and Mugabe – both revealed as dunces, with Dubya revealed as even dumber than Bob, or perhaps the other way round. But what was the heart of it, really?
On the last morning, Harry declared to us all that he was done, that he was taking the escape route. He seemed to be trembling a little.
‘No, I’m done. The map says I can get to the highway in an hour, hitch back to Storms River, the restaurant.’
Feeling some strange intimacy, a camaraderie as clammy as the moist coastal forest all around, you shook his hand and asked for his email address, saying that maybe you could continue the conversation again in Cape Town. He spelled it out for you:
‘B-L-A-C-K-M-A-N. Yes, I know. I know.’
Everyone had been watching this scene, and now you all folded over laughing as Harry walked away into the forests (still saying ‘I know, I know. You took my little joke the wrong way’). A product of the ludicrousness that the world serves up, a detail too crass and stupid to invent. It brought on of those entirely out-of-control scenarios, where you set each other off again and again – ‘Harry … dot … Black …’ – where you can’t get the words out properly, where you struggle for breath, where it’s painful. Unintended, unwanted, uncontrollable hilarity – a joke on all of us.
The trail ended with a long beach that you crossed alone, hanging back from the others. On that huge reach of sand, you thought back (as you still do) on the previous days, running your mind over what you should and shouldn’t have said.
You shouldn’t have told the joke about Mugabe, Cheney and Phineas the gardener. You shouldn’t have tried to argue round a bigot; it always leaves you tainted. Or, at least, you should’ve used different, much dirtier tactics. You could’ve said to Harry what a local waiter told you, someone who walked this trail often, with no thought of permits or paying. He came fishing here in the No Take Zone, the way his grandfather had before the reserve was decreed.
‘These guys fishing think because I’m coloured I’m going to join in. I tune them: do you not like black people? More mumblings about kaffir this and kaffir that. So I say: well, Africa is where black people come from. If you don’t like it, you should fuck off somewhere else. And I use that line on any ignorant cunts I come across.’
Just one intervention like that, perhaps slightly modified for gender sensitivity, but shock and awe stuff – in and out, no attempt to reason. But even then (you knew), Harry would probably have regurgitated some line about how he was from the Cape, and that the white man got there before the Xhosa. He was an encyclopaedia of creaky apartheid mythology. Anyway, Harry was one thing: an alcoholic, a sun-dried relic who was losing himself, misreading everything. Something in his liquid eyes suggested that perhaps he had even tried to reach out once, got burned or betrayed, or thought he did, so that his heart was angry. He ran out of tonic and took an exit route. Blackman, you are on your own.
What you have come to realise is that the real racism, the more complex and persistent variety, might be more subtly and silently distributed in this story, lodged in harder-to-reach places, engraved in details that you still haven’t fully flushed out.
Was it any surprise that you had run into a diehard racist in South Africa? Hardly, though the sheer speed of the collision was something, your psychic spring tide ploughing into unreconstructed rock, waves throwing up their hands so whitely.
No, the surprise, the one that you have never gotten to the bottom of, is how reverence and knowledge and insight about the natural world can coexist with such hatred and idiocy and intellectual laziness about other human beings. How an encounter with the biosphere in its myriad textures and evolutionary ramifications can be combined with such want of empathy for other people. This broad hatred and this narrow love: biodiversity magnified in the binoculars, but a refusal to look your brother in the eye.
I spent the next ten years thinking through these things, culminating in an unpublishable PhD. Unpublishable because pulsing beneath all its footnotes and disciplined paragraphs were some very naive questions (the long-standing ones often are), such as: how could this or that colonial official preside over so much cruelty and yet also draw such a beautiful picture of a crab? And: what was Harry thinking of in that hide that he built, in those silent hours, waiting for the warbler? How could he, and all those other Harrys out there, put their masculinity on hold for a little bird but retract at the first sight of human difference?
Over five days we had waded into the holy colour spectrum that the rooibos river water made over the river sand. We had been buffeted by the volleys of wind and light that coursed relentlessly through water and foliage. We had stepped across the unimaginable time depth compacted into the raised seabed. All of this was around us, entering our pores, suffusing our souls, jimmying open (one would have thought) the universe a little more, doing something to our brains. And yet we still had to lurch through a pantomime, still had to play our parts in a racist farce that made the videos on the Intercape bus seem like subtle psychological dramas. So I wanted to tell this story about love and lovelessness, love for all those things that cannot return love – rocks and mountains and birds and flowers. This is the snake in the garden, something near the heart of this cold, sun-struck country.
Even so, I want to go back there, not before the knowledge of the history that has entangled itself in these ecosystems – not before but after such knowledge. So I have been walking coastlines to remember that walk, allowing details to resurface. I want to return to that littoral zone, to crouch over rock pools and be reminded of the shocking strangeness of this planetary experiment, to see how of all possible ways it happened this way, and so concretely. All things considered, I want to give due credit to the complex non-human agendas of hermit crabs and the stink of redbait, to the land snail and the ants swarming over the paths, the geology and plankton and the white strand of pathway leading over the cliffs, estuaries flashing below, the waves that could mesmerise you for a lifetime, offering up their energy: endlessly, meaninglessly.
But for now you are still on that last white reach, that sky’s beach, wanting your fellow hikers to be gone, all of them. They could take the highway east for all you cared, back to where their vehicles were parked. Your father would pick you up and drive west in a burst of optimism vis-à-vis some new gallery or community centre. As the incoming tide erased your footsteps, you realised that you didn’t want to honour those promises to Andreas and Karin about visiting the strandloper caves. You were sick of being a tour guide. You were also sick of being a tourist, so you didn’t want to go through Africa in a rumbling backpacker truck with Joan – the fantasy of watching her strong legs setting up camp in the Namib had burned off like the sea mist. And you surely didn’t want to go and visit one of John’s strip joints in central Johannesburg, despite the generous discount offered. In fact, you never wanted to see any of them ever again, because you had all seen through each other.
So, it was with some surprise that you found everyone sitting down to breakfast at a pub in Sun Valley, a small coastal village that marked the official endpoint. Here was John and everyone else, round a long table in a place hung with trek nets and old boots, peddling all kinds of memorabilia that you could buy to commemorate having finished ‘the oldest hiking trail in South Africa’.
‘Ahoy!’ he shouted, seated at the head of the table, ‘I hope you like your eggs sunny side up. And I’ve ordered you an Otter’s Arsehole, in celebration.’
You stared at the full English waiting for you – the mushrooms floating in a pool of oil, the fat leaking out of the generous helping of bacon and sausage. Next to the orange juice was a shot glass filled with some mud-brown confection.
‘I think it’s got Tabasco in it. But we’ll soon find out.’
There was nothing for it. You sat down and buttered your toast. You downed that burning, mud-brown shot with everyone else. You bit into the bacon.
‘Come, Professor, here’s to Blackman.’