November 28, 2005

a home at the end of the world

I swear, I could look at the sea all day.

They say most accidents occur within a mile of home. Following that rule, the closest I came to smashing up my hire1 car was within about 100 metres of AroundAboutCars, the company that foolishly gave me one. As I very gingerly tried to conduct a wrong-side-of-the-road stick-shift for the second time ever, and the first time in 2.5 years, through busy Cape Town traffic, I turned into a side street and found myself on a one-way street, with a minivan barreling towards me. It screeched to a stop maybe six inches away from my front bumper. I froze a moment, then looked up at the driver with apologetic, pleading eyes, sure that I was the one at fault. Then I looked more closely at the street signs and parked cars. He had been going the wrong way. I opened my mouth to shout something - I'm not sure what exactly, but it was going to begin with "Hey, asshole!" - but my near-collidant was already reversing away at high speed. He nearly crashed into *another* car getting back onto the road.

The only amazing thing about this is that the minivan wasn't a taxi. South Africa's taxi drivers are legendary for their speed, unpredictability, unroadworthy, vehicles, lack of formal training, and their apparent belief that they are immortal and invulnerable2. Oh, yes - and they're heavily armed. Gunfire breaks out regularly between rival taxi syndicates (at least once in every major city I've visited so far this trip, while I was in said city) and recently, in Johannesburg's notorious Hillbrow suburb, a group taxi drivers fought a blazing firefight with a police unit that had the temerity to try to arrest them for things like driving with a lengthy list of outstanding warrants but no license. The police retreated. Several innocent bystanders were wounded.

(I should probably stress at this point that I have yet to feel unsafe here.)

Why are there taxi wars here? Because there's a lot of money in the South African taxi business. And why is that? Apartheid. Blacks - ie 80% of SA's population - were forced to live in vast townships located some distance away from the white cities. Apartheid is gone, but the cities and townships remain. It's a little unnerving to see. It's not just Soweto and co around Jo'burg, and the Cape Flats in Cape Town; in big cities, this kind of segregation is somehow less surprising. But even little towns, like Knysna and tiny Struisbaai, have their own black townships a few K down the road. And they in turn will be divided: orderly areas of small block houses with electricity and running water, in which two or three families live; and filthy, squalid wood-and-tin-roof shantytowns.

The government is trying to improve matters, but progress is slow. And as my friend here pointed out to me the other day, the government's whole approach is suspect - when they build new township housing, they build new "community center" halls, but there is a complete absence of any space for commerce: market squares, shopping stretches, etc. And so the residents have to walk (you're likely to see (black) people walking, holding their thumb out in the forlorn hope for a ride, anywhere within about 10K of a town in South Africa) or take taxis into town, rather than shop where they live.

Jeez. This is turning into a political-economic rant. It was supposed to be a travelogue. Let me go back to the beginning:

The N2 from Cape Town. Actually I was going to take the N1 but missed the exit and thought "what the heck, why not?" East, past the airport, across the vast Cape Flat townships, steeply up the dramatic hills that cup the townships, and then into an endless landscape of rippling hills, green fields filled with new wheat and gold fields littered with hay bales or ostriches, all overseen by the Overberg range of old, folded mountains to the north.

Driving rocks. Driving in South Africa is interesting. I was instructed to open the lid of the hatchback trunk at night, and leave the glove compartment open, to show would-be thieves that there was nothing inside. The fuel tank can only be opened with the key. The hard shoulder is a valid other lane, except when it isn't. The speed limit is 120, and is actually reasonably well obeyed. (Mind you, my Fiat Palio - I'm pretty sure Palio is Italian for "piece of crap that occasionally makes horrible grinding sounds when you try to put it into reverse" - wasn't going to go much faster anyhow.) Stop in for gas at one of the highway service stops, much like those in Canada, and one attendant will wash your whole car while the other fills your tank. Ah, cheap labour. Outside the gas station, people sell bouquets full of wildflowers like nothing I've ever seen before. Which is not surprising, as the Cape has literally thousands of endemic species, including two whole families of vegetation, protea and fynbos, found nowhere else in the world.

Anyhow. Four hours after leaving Cape Town, I reach, and navigate through the dysfunctional traffic lights of3, the seaside town of Mossel Bay - first its townships, then its town - which marks the official beginning of the Garden Route. A 200-km stretch of coast so named, allegedly, because the region was called "the Garden of Eden" by its early (white) inhabitants. Which sounds like tourist hype, and the Garden Route is definitely overtouristed, but honestly? It's easy to believe. Knysna, at the heart of the Garden Route, bills itself as "Nature's Playground," and that sounds right too. Miles and miles of glorious coastline, all the beaches and all the rugged rocks you could want; just a bit inland, lakes and rivers surrounded by forest; and beyond them, the ribbed, batwinged shapes of low, green-clad mountains. You can swim, surf, dive, fish, hike, parasail, bungee-jump, ride horses, or go on private-reserve game drives. Yesterday, I spent three hours of the morning hiking through a thickly forested national park (and I didn't meet a soul on the trail), then bodysurfed in the pounding Indian Ocean for an hour, and spent the night in a magical old forest house built in 1874 with a glorious sunrise view of the mountains. And I was taking it easy.

But again I get ahead of myself. From the surfers and fishermen of Mossel Bay to the town of George, which is well-located, has the area airport, and boasts two wonderfully quirky museums, but doesn't have much else going for it: through an area named Wilderness, though it's heavily touristed and really reminds me more of Canada's cottage country; a sojourn among Knysna's little shops and bistros; and then to Wildside Backpackers, with a spectacular location at Buffels Beach, immediately next to a nature reserve that runs for a good fifteen miles, so you can walk along the beach all day if you want. It's a little remote, but hey, I had a car. Did I mention that driving rocks?

If I had a spare half-a-million dollars, I swear, I'd buy a place here4 - nothing fancy, just a little hillside cottage with a sea view, a short drive from beach - come settle in for a few months each year and write an epic fantasy series. It'd be a good place for it. It'd also be a good place to come for a month - out of tourist season - and spend the time exploring all its little back ways and side routes.

Oh well. Some day. Maybe.

Today I drove down to the southernmost tip of Africa. Cape Point, south of Cape Town, is an incredibly stark, steep, romantic rocky promontory. It is not, however, the end of the world: that honour belongs to Cape Agulhas, a low-key, non-obvious spot in the midst of windblown bushes and jagged rocks. (There is, however, a rather dramatic lighthouse.) I considered overnighting there, but decided to keep going, and am I ever glad I did, because the road between Agulhas and Hermanus, where I sit and type, is absolutely glorious. I didn't take pictures. I did take a few of the Garden Route and Agulhas, but I don't expect much of them. You can't really capture all this magnificence in pictures.

It's such a pretty country, this. And it has such a bright potential future. And at the same time it's still so schizophrenic and troubled. South Africa is like some impossibly brilliant and beautiful teenager who's also badly damaged, traumatized, volatile and self-destructive. Heshe's in therapy, and on the right medication, and has caring if distant parents; things are a lot better than they could be; but nobody involved is anywhere near out of the woods yet.

1Commonwealth-but-for-Canada English for "rental."

2See joke.

3There was some problem at the nuclear power plant. Paging Mr. Simpson.

4Of course, this would actually be my second second home, after the equally hypothetical flat in Paris.


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