N2

 

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 2241 kilometres long. Can it be done justice in 2241 words?

 

DISAMBIGUATION

The N2 we are concerned with here is not a United States Navy term for a senior military intelligence officer. It is not a London bus route, nor the branding used by a certain Irish television station between 1997 and 2004, nor the model number of the Yamaha AvantGrand Piano. Neither is it the name of a 2011 song by the Japanese indie rock band Asian Kung-Fu Generation.

It is not the road connecting Brussels and Maastricht, or Tananarive and Toamasina, or Kaolack and Kidira. Or Brazzaville and the northern border of the Republic of Congo.

(But I do see glimmers of a larger, trans-national project here: travel every stretch of N2 highway in the world. Then do a comparative analysis of different motorway cultures, driver behaviours, petrol station protocols…)

Also (I feel this is important to mention): it is not the N1. The N1 would be the obvious choice, drawing a showy diagonal from Africa’s tip to the border post on the Limpopo, joining Johannesburg and Cape Town: competing, overweening cities that conspire to make you forget the rest of the country. The N1 carves through the arid heart of the country: the Karoo, wide open spaces, verlore vlaktes. But the aim of this book is to get away from all those clichés. No windmills, no sunsets, no empty landscapes.

So: this is not a touring atlas or travel guide that will give you tips about where to turn off for the best-appointed guest house or quaintest village. It doesn’t care about game lodges or the splendours of the (so-called) Garden Route. It is, as far as possible, a non-travelogue, an anti-travel guide.

It is about the road itself, which begins near an unfinished flyover in Cape Town, runs all the way along the eastern flank of the landmass, and peters out somewhere that, at the time of beginning this, I have never been. Minimal geographical or historical significance: we will not be getting anywhere.

Hitting the open road is one of the great literary starter motors. It is the simplest means for turning over a narrative engine, an instant metaphor for escaping something: routine, the city, your past. But this one will attempt to stay as literal-minded, as pedestrian, as possible. It mustn’t stray from the tarmac itself, or from the hard shoulder, or the road reserve. At least, it shouldn’t go beyond what road planners call the ‘acoustic footsteps’ of the route: the envelope of sound that a road creates around it. That is: the N2 must always be in earshot.

(road reserve: the area of land between property boundaries, state-owned and maintained, in the case of the N2, by SANRAL, the South African National Roads Agency. The road reserve may include: hard shoulder, lay byes, slip roads, culverts, nature strips, indigenous vegetation planting projects, picnic areas, weigh bridges, emergency sandpits for trucks that have lost their brakes etc etc…)

The idea is to create an encyclopedic compendium of the stories, subcultures and psychic states that the N2 generates.

 

CLOSURE

To limit what could be an overly ambitious project, and one that could easily spin out of control, there is the welcome constraint of this first test drive: one word per kilometre. By the end of this paragraph, we will have already burned up 518 km of tarmac.

This brings us to the exact spot of a raised footbridge in the Bitou Municipality. It joins the Bossiesgif-Qolweni informal settlement to a paved area abutting the Piesang Valley Road turn-off, a sad place where unemployed men wait to be picked up as casual labour for the day. Letter writers to the local paper ask why the bridge is so seldom used, why pedestrians still risk their lives on the tarmac.

I know all this because my father lives just at this turn-off, and I rang him when the bridge appeared in the Cape Times of Thursday 9 February 2012, with burning tyres and barricades below it: ‘Plettenberg Bay service delivery protesters block N2’. It was one of many disruptions to the route in the year of 2012, so many that ‘Disruption to the Route’ now appears on Wikipedia as the only thematic subheading to join the geographical descriptors.

Striking truckers closed the highway, then striking farmworkers. A bushfire in Hermanus, then a shack fire in Khayelithsa. Rocks fell on Sir Lowry’s Pass; near Somerset West criminals planted boulders to wreck and rob vehicles. A 100 metre section of the N2 disappeared into a sinkhole near Grahamstown. These disruptions, both man-made and natural, showed how easy it was to shut down down a national highway, fuelling further closures. Protesters kept threatening to cut off Cape Town International airport during the height of the tourist season.

The N2, it seemed to me, was registering larger societal pressures, political ferment, maybe even climate change. It kept forcing its way into the headlines, demanding to be reckoned with.

Ever wondered how that contorted rock face you just passed in your car was formed? Or what those weeping fields of yellow plants that run for kilometres on either side of you are? The name of the purple flowers lining the tar road, or those birds that appear every so often along your route, perched consistently on telephone poles? You will find the answer to these and many other similar questions that arise on long road trips between major centres in this book.

Chris and Tilde Stuart, Sasol Roadside Guide – Discovering Nature along the N2 (2005).

QUESTIONS THAT ARISE
(ON LONG ROAD TRIPS BETWEEN MAJOR CENTRES)

What questions will your book address? What contribution will it make to existing debates?

Who works the road? Traffic controllers; long-haul truckers; minibus taxi drivers plying their trade west from Mthatha to Cape Town, or north from Durban to Mtubatuba. How do they think about it? Do they think about it?

What is the road made of? How is it made? What are the workers doing when another lane is being scraped out of the scrub? When did the N2 become the N2? What was it before?

Why was the road built here and not there? Who made the decision? What did it cost? What are the physics of that overpass or this lay-bye? Can we talk about the aesthetics of a road, why this cutting seems more elegant than that? What does ‘Adverse Camber’ mean? When one sees a sign reading ‘High Accident Zone: Next 12 km’, what factors have combined to produce this zone? What exactly is it that makes N2 between East London and Mthatha the most dangerous stretch of road in the country?

Ever wondered how that contorted rock face you just passed in your car was formed?

Yes, sometimes, but the aim here is to reverse the usual direction of attention. Not simply to take in scenery through anti-shatter glass, but to climb up that contorted rock face and look down at the road in the distance: sedans blinking, trucks engaging low gear because of the gradient. To look back at the built world: how ugly it is, how ingenious, how odd. To enquire how people make-do on its cold, hard shoulder.

Who is the intended audience for your book?

All those people who will never read it: the woman manning the STOP/GO sign near Humansdorp, wearing clay to protect her skin from the sun, luminous CIVILS 2011 bib flapping in the truck wind. A man I saw ten years ago, sitting in a field near the turn-off to Butterworth, looking utterly, utterly bored. A woman in a booth of the Storms River Toll Plaza, still point in the holiday season rush.

 

COINCIDENCE

The first section of the N2 is shared with the N1: a four-lane elevated freeway that begins at the northern end Buitengracht Street and runs between Cape Town’s Central Business District and the docks. In the language of planners, this is known as ‘coincidence’, ‘overlap’ or ‘concurrency’ in a road network. It is a relatively common phenomenon, because (and here is where Wikipedia comes into its own – the patient and entirely unaffected stating of the obvious) ‘where two routes must pass through a single geological feature, or crowded city streets, it is often both economically and practically advantageous for them both to be accommodated on one road.’

I want to take these the first of many technical road terms that will be made to yield a larger meaning. South Africa remains one of the most divided and spatially segregated countries in the world. That much is obvious. The N2 from the airport to Cape Town offers a crash course in it (despite the pre-World Cup roadside beautification schemes – see GATEWAY). On Nelson Mandela Boulevard above the Foreshore, curving round the banks and corporate HQ’s of Cape Town, the modernist blueprint of high apartheid city planning is all around us. Roads as buffer zones and dividing lines. ‘Slum’ flatteners, state-controlled corridors, cordons sanitaire.

But a road like the N2 also allows us to see the enormous paradox at the heart of the apartheid city, its cynicism and illogic. Insisting on racial separation, it relied on cross-racial labour. The result was, and still is, a city of movement and daily crossings: between spaces, languages, and ways of being. Of endless and expensive (there is a specific, infinitely weary inflection given to this word by millions of South Africans) – transport. Waiting for transport. Money for transport.

Roads then, and in particular a road like the N2, are spaces that all inhabitants of this country are forced to share. Perhaps the only space. Perhaps share is the wrong word: to overlap, to coincide upon. So what can we read off its secret history? What does it movements allow us to see, or say, about a country that remains locked in so much stuck metaphor and broken-down language?

(The following are a series of impressions dictated into a phone on Boxing Day 2012 when travelling back to Cape Town after visiting my father for Christmas. However I reproduce them ‘backwards’ here.  That is: the direction of writing is opposite to the direction of travel, producing a sense of contra-flow and oncoming-ness that seems appropriate given the vexed and heavy traffic of the holiday season.)

 

PASS (I)

The first hour is such a long hour: from Cape Town to the groenland beyond Sir Lowry’s Pass, to Elgin and its apple farms. ‘Wash your fruit’, the daughter of an apple farmer tells me: each apple is bathed in 16 different chemicals during the course of its life, then stored in low oxygen warehouses whose frontage you see from the road. She talks about the commute from near Bot Rivier to the city, and how it drains her.

Perhaps it is the crossing between bioregions that makes these kilometres take up so much psychological space, or the tipping over a watershed. At the Sir Lowry’s Pass viewsite on a hot afternoon, the sea has gone a brown foil colour where False Bay takes a large mouthful out of the Flats. There are Zionist Christian Church members below a wooden cross in their white robes and Lays chip packets in the bushes.

A plaque mentions the ‘precipitous and dreaded Gantouw Pass’ to the north that was the earlier route to the Overberg, before this road was built by soldiers and convicts in the early 19th century. There is a hiking trail where you can see the old ox wagon tracks, scored into the rock. Looking down at the concrete slats and stilts of the road you have just travelled, you can sense the resistance of the landscape, the infinitely slow heaves which could shake of the whole road business so easily. We will sense this again in the Kaaimans Pass: another vulnerable point in the route.

Shortly after the pass, an avenue of bluegums produces another significant moment on the route: the first time that shade, not the flicker of overpasses but real shade, will touch your vehicle.

 

HAND SIGNAL

Just after Caledon: sheep under a grove of oaks in the deep summer shade. Something you would normally notice only on foot or cycle. My eyes are getting in.

Perhaps it is the humidity, but I have never seen so many hands snaking out of windows. You think it’s a gesture; you assume the worst. Slow down. Fuck you. But it’s not. It’s just a hand dangled out the window, sometimes scooping up and down in aerodynamic shapes, enjoying itself.

Soon we pass anti-hitch hiking signs: a red line through a thumbs-up. Anti-good times; anti-like. On the N2 the hand should really clutching some notes, R20, R50, showing us the money.

 

THE DIVING BOARD

When behind a truck: the overwhelming importance of passing it, of opening up the road again. It is less about time saved than preserving some kind of psychological illusion of unfettered movement.

But of course, it’s only to the next truck. There is this inability to see the highway for what it is: a steady state system. Not an open road but a closed system of varying speeds and pressures that will all cancel each other out, eventually. STOP/GO, pressure / release. It is something easily proved as soon as you pull over to apply suncream to your driving arm. How quickly that truck passes you again, and in seconds all your hard-won gains are gone.

Nonetheless, something strange and lab rat-like happens to our thought processes on the roads, something mixed up with short-term gratification, basic stimuli, ugly impulses.

Between Caledon and Swellendam: a bright red Shoprite truck is making its way under a big sky, holding up a queue of traffic. It is almost like lining up to take your turn at the diving board, or some other feat of manly daring and strength. Back in the queue you can watch how other drivers go about it: the cautious ones clinging to the truck’s skirts, the daredevils powering by. How will you perform when it’s your turn to overtake, and all the impatient drivers behind are watching?

Sometimes there is a truly timid driver between you and the truck, clogging things for long minutes, and the Peugeot hardly has the juice to take two at a time. Then in the rearview: a Merc or an Audi with intricate LED-type headlights, one of these big-engined sedans that never really hold a position on the busy holiday roads but just dip in and then out, hardly breaking its stride as it jumps all three of you, Chinese checkers, ducks and drakes.

 

PARALLEL

Off the N2 at Swellendam, following it in parallel through the town as you search for a pie.

When you are on the highway, it is the be all and end all. It compels all your attention, structures and convenes the whole world around it. When off it you realize: it’s just an arbitrary line, just another route through the landmass. Suddenly it seems surprisingly distant, unimportant, even peaceful.

 

RECALIBRATION

The word to kilometre ratio was always going to be impossible. The N2 is too long, and there is too much weight on a word when it must carry a whole thousand metres. Only poetry could take that kind of abnormal load.

A word per 10 metres is tempting, simply because in a vehicle travelling at around 140 km/h (above the speed limit but a typical long distance cruising velocity), you would then be clocking ‘words’ as fast as you are scanning them on this page: the average adult reading speed is around 250 wpm. But according to this formula the N2 would furl out to a document just longer than Crime and Punishment.

So then what about a word per 100 metres? This seems more in line with human capabilities, since you can see quite clearly to the end of 100 metres, and probably settle on a single word for it.

22 410 words seems doable.

Each way.

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