Reading, writing, walking the South African highway.

Social Dynamics 43:1 (2017).
Less academic version appears as 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at the N2' in Firepool.

N2. Curled up in that tiny alphanumeric are thousands of kilometres, hundreds of service stations, millions of tons of concrete. N2 can mean a London bus route; an intelligence officer in the US Navy; an anti-nuclear song by the Japanese indie group Asian Kung-Fu Generation. But for my purposes it is the longest highway in South Africa, which starts at an unfinished flyover near the docks in Cape Town, follows the eastern seaboard of the country (roughly) for over 2 000 kilometres, then bends north and west below Swaziland to end at the town of Ermelo in the province of Mpumalanga.

Major highways are not thought about much. They are pieces of infrastructure that (if working as intended) efface themselves, receding from view in the mirror. In his hidden history of the UK’s motorway system, Joe Moran suggests that this bland corporate terrain of tarmac, underpasses and thermoplastic road markings is ‘the most commonly viewed and least contemplated landscape’ in Britain: ‘The road is almost a separate country, one that remains under-explored not because it is remote and inaccessible but because it is so ubiquitous and familiar.’

Perhaps because of the late age at which I (after many failed attempts) got my driver’s licence, piloting vehicles along strips of tarmac has never quite lost its strangeness for me, and the psychology and social behaviours associated with driving are, I believe, complex and neglected domains. With the passing of the era of cheap oil, future humanity will look back on our cities with wonder, disbelief and disgust at how totally urban spaces were shaped around the velocities and demands of the private vehicle. So, an important strategy for environmental writing in the 21st century might be to estrange the practice of everyday life, to conduct an anthropology not of the distant and exotic, but rather of the near, the mundane, the everyday.

‘What speaks to us, seemingly,’ wrote Georges Perec in 1973, ‘is always the big event, the untoward, the extraordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more the trains exist. Aeroplanes achieve existence only when they are hijacked. The one and only destiny of motorcars is to drive into plane trees.’ But, he goes on, in our haste to measure ‘the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible. What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines. “Social problems” aren’t “a matter of concern” when there’s a strike, they are intolerable twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, three hundred and sixty-five days a year.’




Financial Times | 20 September 2013.

The N2 is the longest highway in South Africa. It starts at an intersection near the docks in Cape Town, follows the eastern seaboard of the country (roughly), then bends inland below Swaziland to end at the town of Ermelo in the province of Mpumalanga.

It is 2,241km long. Can it be done justice in 2,241 words?

Original (and longer) version published in the wonderful Prufrock magazine: www.prufrock.co.za

22 July | Rearview

22 July | Rearview

Sunday in Calitzdorp: a kitsch tearoom with panpiped music, ragged kids saying they will look after my car nicely. It is the 22nd of July. If I had to track backwards, to rewind the last week…

The Peugeot is reversing along the R62, speedometer at 12 o’clock, 110 km/h on the dot. Petrol is extracted at Ladismit, below the Towerkop, the snow on it unthawing as I deposit R600 in the ATM.

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A certain kind of South Africa evaporated...

                    ...for me when I finally got my driver’s licence, fifth time lucky near a cold northern ring road. No more solidarity with the verge walkers and all those who talk about, worry about, conceive of a whole domain of life as “transport.” There were illegal stints behind the wheel in the past: schoolboy backroads in the foothills of the Berg, the long night of landing lanes when DB fed me slimming tablets and I guided the Renault Scenic from the Karoo to the Midlands. But now the novelty is wearing off as I steer my father’s white van up and down the coastal highways that I cursed for so long, and me wanting to record something of it before all the strangeness of tar-hurtling, death-by-inch arthritic pedal-fiddling and glance-snatching at the sliding world of that earlier, odder place has disappeared forever. Leaving the city, flicking across lanes from Waterfront to hospital, slungshot out of the mountain suburbs but immediately running into a real clutch cruncher of a traffic jam along side the twin cooling towers…locals u-turning, cutting in, hard shouldering it to take alternate routes, but me locked there under the winter sun, men looking back at me from an open-backed truck: the quintessential South African dialogue. Dad talks, talks, talks madly, the coffee still fizzling in his veins. About the book fair, the local radio station, the problem of listless retirees, the road to Cape Agulhas, the lack of adequate marketing as a winter holiday destination. I murmur assent, yes yes, eyes casting around the early N2 scenery, trying to work out what has changed since I was last here.

We passed the obstruction (men digging a hole in broad daylight) and were just gathering momentum towards the mountains when Dad received a call from a pretty woman watercolourist and shameful self-publicist who wanted us to collect prints in Stellenbosch and generally admire her. So we peeled off, got lost amid the peri-urban wine farmery and discount wholesalers. Left after more coffee, missed the highway a few times and then ground through intersections parallel to the Indian seaboard, a place of car forecourts and things – dunes, stalls roadsigns – barely held down against the wind. Up across the long diagonal pass, the Cape had all but disappeared in glare.

Then began the waiting behind trucks, the spotting for farm stalls, the tracing of the Langeberg, the swooping down on bridges, the shrugging off of hitch-hikers, the rattling of a white chassis along Africa’s ancient seabeds. No music this time, just the hot noise of tyre on tarmac. Petrol cities flared when it got dark…mist earned me an admonishment for speeding…cameras clicked me in one of the gorges and the coast swung out and open in the night, unseen.