On Foot in the Garden Route…

or…The One About Mugabe, Phineas and Dick Cheney

 

His father drove him to the trailhead in the small white car.  It wasn’t a car, really, or a van. Nor was it a small white utility vehicle, but Neville knew that his father would never bring himself to say bakkie as long as he lived. 

            ‘Long Kloof…Deep Kloof…DeepRevere.’

At its wheel and holding the curves well on the open, early morning highway, Don took great pleasure in roundly mispronouncing each of the river names as they sped over them: silver ribbons far below that Neville would be crossing in the opposite direction over the next four days.

The tree trunks flickering at the edge of vision made him look out the window, but whenever he did the forests fell away again into the deep gorges that cut down again and again from the mountains to the sea.  Billboards lured the backpacker buses in to do some elasticated plunging or upside-down abseiling or whatever it was. Every bridge and highway accessible outcrop, it seemed, was being edged across or dangled from by day-glo, helmeted figures.

            ‘Baboons to the left – there we are. Baboons on the hard shoulder.’

The Opel Hardbody still bore the fading logo of the Formosa Bay Watercolourists Association, the decals salt blasted and peeling from the coastal weather, the faintest signs of corrosion beginning to appear on the side panels.  After Storms River he would head onwards up the N2 to the nearest city and get that seen to, Don said; get the decals scraped off to signal the total sundering of relations between himself and an organisation which clearly lacked vision.  He also needed to pick up some specially commissioned fridge magnets and see a man about the viruses slowing down his hard drive, since the local computer people weren’t up to scratch: workshy, lackadaisical – had Neville noticed that since getting back, and by the way would he mind if they pulled into the next service station for breakfast?  It did a good deal.

‘Hello I’m going to be your waitress this morning.  Can I tell you about our special offers?’

‘Lavinia, thank you, but I think we know what we want.  Mega breakfast over here, vegetarian breakfast there and two coffees.’

‘And for the coffees?  Regular, large, or –’

‘Mega.’

They sat in an outlet of the burger franchise twinned with Engen One Stops up and down the country, looking over the mid-morning activity of the forecourt.  They did this every time they made a trip together along the noble N2, which was quite a bit, since Neville was well into his twenties and had just failed a driving test for the third time.   On each occasion he had driven 150 kilometres up the highway to a test centre reputed to use the easiest road layout, failed within the first five minutes and then driven the 150 k’s back, fuming.

The summer rush was building, Don said, and he for one saw no sign of any slowdown. Taximen were shouting to each other across the pumps, Intercity bus passengers disembarking to buy pies while thick-set fathers filled up land cruisers strapped to the gills with kayaks and fishing rods.  They herded their families back into the vehicles, slotted sunglasses onto their hard, competent faces and got going. 

‘No man,’ his driving instructor would say as the tips of Neville’s fingers rested gingerly on the gear stick, ‘Grip it properly.’

The man was partially disabled, a chain smoker and, his instructee gradually realised, a terrible racist.  Over the years, during Neville’s annual trips home, they had cruised around the estuary and the Leisure Isle, along forest edges and coastal strips which would always disentangle the learner’s attention from the absurd procedures of shifting and revving, the arthritic pedal fiddling and gauging of choke points required below waist level. 

Neville would always be a sub-standard driver, but having been a passenger for so many years in a big, far-flung country had (he liked to think) taught him certain things about the world and his place in it.  In the smoky corners of bars and clubs, he had learnt the patience to wait out long pointless nights, until the designated driver was well and truly finished.  The years of perpetual passenger status had, together with a weakness for earthy African dagga, taught a kind of passive surrender to the implacable unfolding of the universe; and this meant that he had long ago given up suggesting organic farm stalls set back in the blue gums and quite contentedly embraced his father’s sudden enthusiasm for roadside megadeals.  Coming after decades in which Don had barely touched fast food of any kind, it seemed, along with the ill-fated café stroke art space, the forays into local radio and the readiness to work on a first name basis, a perplexing, but somehow heartening thing. 

‘One long riviera, Neville, that’s what I want to see,’ Don announced across the booths, ‘From the Cape toPort Elizabeth.’

His father looked well, he had to say, never better. And one had to admire his skill at creating the day trips, whole expeditions out of the most ordinary tasks.  Finding the right pigment for plumage or an estuary sunset could involve a week-long trip to the provincial capital.

‘That’s what I expect to see, and I don’t know why it couldn’t happen, as I said in my special report. Development, uplift. Jobs for the people.’

Neville had watched him give the same speech to the craftspeople at the markets where he was selling off the rest of his stock: improbable pepper mills and bath salts, along with the ever popular fridge magnets of whales and dolphins.  Most of the time the gentle makers of wind chimes and driftwood clocks were at the loss for words in the face of this pure rush of optimism regarding the unlocked potential of the resort and its environs as a winter tourist destination.  Occasionally someone might murmur about too much development spoiling things and Don would concede that yes, from the highway things looked built up, but had they hiked up those valleys, had they?  There were whole wildernesses up there.

‘The thing is, these locals,’ Don said reaching for HP sauce, ‘They’re lazy. They don’t know their own country.’

This place was full of surprises, Neville agreed. And having been abroad, out in the cold while so much had changed, he was eager to make up for lost ground. 

On the long bus journey from the airport, he had looked greedily out the window at the N2 scenery with a growing excitement that even the in-bus entertainment could not dampen, a low-level euphoria which stemmed simply from being in contact with a place mapped out in such outrageous pile-ups of light, shade, mansion, shanty, rock and ocean.  

Neville welcomed in the whole lot, even One Stop’s very literal take on the concept of a ‘Salad Burger.’  A piece of wilted lettuce and a smear of mayonnaise between two lobes of damp white roll.  Don 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.’

Neville assured him it was fine, absolutely fine, still thinking back to those candid camera sketches and slapstick farces that were such favourites on the screens of the Translux Mainliner. His home country was now a democracy but still they kept on slotting the same tapes into the TV-VCR suspended everyone’s head, and one could plot a kind of grand socio-political narrative by the way in which they had shifted over the years.  High apartheid slapstick (fat white traffic cops sitting at speed traps fooled by stereo speakers hidden in the bushes) gave way to late apartheid slapstick (men in blackface discovering R20 notes in watermelons and picking fights at rightwing church fetes) and finally transition slapstick. 

In one sketch a farmer transported his labourer each day in the back of what was undeniably a big plaas bakkie.  But when the news about Mandela comes on the radio he invites the man to sit up front with him, tells him stories, laughs and offers a pipe as if they have been friends for years.  Then they get a puncture; it ends with the labourer chuckling and an inscrutable expression coming over the face of the old boer

The passengers all around Neville reached into their slap chips, snoek rolls, bags of fried chicken, laughed and laughed.

His father drove him to the trailhead in the small white car, turning off the highway to follow the old provincial road which cut down to the coast, gorge and forests rising either side.  Although that seemed too grand, too west American a word for the resolutely old South African cluster of face brick chalets which seemed to have been dropped out of the sky at odd intervals onto the coastline.  Outside each there were sooty braai facilities, and some families were already up, taking their koffie. But all of it seemed a tolerable price to pay for the coastal reserve which stretched away in huge arcs on either side.  To the west curling into the prosperous resort town where Don had taken early retirement; to the east joining the mountains to run out of sight.

The Oystercatcher Trail was a renowned and oversubscribed one, but he had managed to book a place at short notice, after a cancellation. There was an office where you signed, paid and were even 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’, said Don, telling him again about his experience of the trail, when it rained solidly for five days and all his gear got soaked through.

‘I was cold at night, shivering. Really, I might have got ill if a German couple hadn’t lent me some dry clothes.’

He looked at his father, now ready to drive off in the slightly corroded 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. They were both loners; he was his father’s son in that regard. Perfectly sociable where necessary, but loners for all that.

So now he said goodbye and was away from anyone he knew, relishing the idea of five days hard walking along the coast.  He was mad for it to be in contact with him, and the first day did little to contradict this general upwelling of excitement. The building euphoria fed off, was appropriately matched by, the huge swells smashing into the rocky cliffs and coves.  The rucksack was surprisingly heavy, what with all the fresh fruit and beer cans, the Hesse and the Whitman, but still he made good progress along a route which, he saw in the leaflet, ‘demands a great deal of exertion due to the broken nature of the terrain.  The huts along the route are simple wooden structures.’  Perfect.

To be continued…