Boetie is not happy that I walk through the bush to the old Moravian Mission Station at Enon. Any other day of the week would be fine but not a Saturday, he says. Apparently much of my intended path is through disputed communal land, and over the week-end the place is filled with unpleasant characters hunting with guns and dogs. A month earlier I had also chatted to some farm labourers in this area and they had asked if I wasn’t scared of the amatsotsi in the bush. I trust Boetie’s judgement and decide to take a roundabout walk along the road. This is not the time for reckless risks and I had promised Gwenda I would be sensible.
After coffee and rusks, I grab a lift with Elizabeth and Hes-Mari to the turn-off. They’re off to Somerset East to a netball tournament while Boetie is staying home to get as much citrus picking done as possible before the bad weather arrives. This sounds ominous and I make a note to check this out when I get to the Whytes. I cross the Cockscomb mountains in three day’s time and don’t want to be caught in dangerous conditions.
It’s a glorious dawn. I’m heading due west so am constantly stopping and turning around to take in the changing cosmic canvas behind me. Every time I look the reds, oranges, yellows, greys and whites have shuffled their positions and intensity as they dance across the sky. The passionate red jumps ahead to a higher group of clouds, the warm orange follows a minute later, and when I next turn around the gentle yellow has caught up and incongruously eased them both out. I try walking backwards so that I don’t miss anything, but it’s a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. Concentration is focused on getting the act right and you miss the experience of both actions.
The heavens must sense my childish predicament and in an attempt to get us all on to a more mature level, they turn on the soft pastels of blues and pinks right before my westerly eyes. It seems as if even the dawn has its own life cycle of fiery youth to mellow old age. Circles within circles.
I also remember my dad’s mantra on the dawn: Red in the morning, shepherd’s warning. That’s the second sign of bad weather. They say it takes three signs to confirm a message.
It’s a long hard walk. This is not the bush path I had planned to take, and maybe I’m unconsciously holding it against the road for I see little to enthuse me. I disrespectfully quickly forget most of this section. I wonder if I do this in similar circumstances at other times in my life, maybe even to people? Not a nice thought.
After a while the communities of Barsheba and Enon come into view. With the words of tsotsis, guns and dogs still floating in my ears, concepts of violence and attack in my head, and feelings of vulnerability in my stomach, I stop for a rest and nervously view the settlements from afar. The sound of gun shots to the north doesn’t help. I take a picture of the villages through a thorn-bush and am rather chuffed at my artistic touch of capturing the prickliness of the situation.
Thinking it safer to eat my breakfast here than closer to ‘civilisation’, I take out my Zuurberg platter. What a smorgasbord! I spread the salami and cheese on the bread, and add a bite of boiled egg with every mouthful. Why is it that such things always taste so good when you’re out on a hike? I recall once on the Wild Coast becoming totally hooked on a drink that came as a powder called Sweet Aid. A lot cheaper than coke and just as tasty, I thought I could halve our monthly grocery bill. Unfortunately the Sweet Aid morphed from nectar to disaster as soon as we arrived home. This food, however, was good from the start and tastes extra special now.
While I’m eating I hear Barsheba shaking itself awake across the valley. The cocks are crowing, the hens cackling, the dogs greet each other across the village, and the cows are calling their calves. Somewhere a donkey sounds desperately lost. People are shouting, people are singing, and the thump-thump of drums fills the air. This is the sound of a community, not a city. This is where people live, together, for better or worse. This is not the isolated, sterilized, separate compartments of our suburbs; this is an organic whole made up of 101 smaller parts. This is probably how we all lived at some stage in our ancestors’ ‘development’. Maybe its still somewhere in my genes because I feel an intuitive pull towards this sense of shared belongingness. It’s all a touch eerie though, because despite all these signs of life, nothing seems to move across the way! Block your ears and the village is still asleep.
Despite all this, I approach somewhat tentatively. I’ve decided to keep my camera hanging around my neck, but I’m not sure it is the right decision. On my right is an orchard of young citrus trees behind high electric fencing. ‘Orchard’ is the wrong word; this is a neglected overgrown field where rows of orange trees were once planted and left to find their own way. Typical useless community project, my ‘developed’ voice indignantly scoffs. My thoughts effortlessly wander into officious mode and damn both the outside do-gooders and the local loafers.
“Molweni!” I shout to a group of people clinging to a passing tractor on its way to the village. “Molo, molo!” they return and we wave to each other. In the town the same thing happens at the bus stop, except that it develops into a kind of classic chorus with a common closing:
“Uya phi?” “Ndiya eKnysna.” “Yhu!”
“Uvela phi?” “Ndivela eRhini.” “Yhu!”
“Uhamba ngantoni?” “Ndihamba ngeenyawo.” “Yhu!”
“Uhamba nabani?” “Ndihamba ndedwa” “Yhu!”
They all wave and wish me well, all smiles and warmth. A little boy standing by runs up to walk with me. We chat about where he lives, his schooling and what he wants to do one day. At the end of the village I give him one of my energy bars and we wish each other well. There is an old man sitting on the side of the road, and I consider whether to call him ‘bhuti’ or ‘tata’? I go for ‘bhuti’ so as not to offend him by implying he is old enough to be my father. “Ewe molo tata!” he happily replies. Bloody cheek, I chortle through my tell-tale grey locks.
With a pang of embarrassment, I suddenly realize the real meaning of that photo that I took of this village through the thorn-bush. I had crucified it before I had even given it a chance, and placed a crown of thorns on its head. What a Caiaphas I had been. I apologise to Barsheba and promise to be less prematurely judgemental in the future.
The ‘coloured’ settlement of Enon is on the other side of the road, up the valley. I still want the trail to go through the bush and pass through this old mission station, so I shall need to return again.
Many minibus taxis pass me as they carry commuters to and from Kirkwood, and most hoot and wave. I find this section of the road long and hard, especially the last 4km stretch into town. It is absolutely straight and seemingly endless. For the last part I become part of the Bontrug population who walk rather than pay for a taxi. I am again intrigued that so few people ride bicycles in South Africa. Go to other African countries like Malawi and the bicycle offers free and easy transport to millions of people. Go to European cities like Amsterdam and you’re in danger of being run over by a teeming mass of cyclists. The Sunday’s River Valley is relatively flat with minimum uphills, perfect for cycling. Why so few on bicycles? I can’t help thinking we need to change this part of our South African culture, across all socio-economic classes. What will it take to make it happen? Nothing short of a national crisis, methinks.
It is late Saturday morning as I enter Kirkwood, and I am reminded of recent comments from my mothers, “Oooo, town has become so black nowadays!” “What,” I reply, “here in Africa? I wonder why?” The place is a colourful hive of activity, full of excited people of all ages and shapes. It has a kind of carnival atmosphere about it, as if this is a special holiday in honour of a great Bafana Bafana victory or something. I smile at my naïve optimism, buy a coke, and settle down under a tree near the railway crossing. A poor family, carrying their meager weekly grocery shoppings, sit down next to me to regroup before the walk home. I take out what food I have left and share it out amongst us. It’s a delightful meal, sitting there in the gutter on the edge of the town, eating and drinking and lekker geselskap. I’m tired and sore and it’s a joy just to sit and relax with these easy-going folk.
I’m also fascinated by the railway crossing, or rather, the motorists’ responses to the railway crossing. Clearly, the train doesn’t cross here often, and certainly not over the week-end. But the traffic sign says STOP. So as a local motorist who knows all this, what do you do? Well, some stop. Dead. Omdat jy moet, dit se so. Others slow down, just in case, but we all know that the train doesn’t come here on a Saturday so let’s all play the game a little and be real a little. And then there is the all-or-nothing brigade – there’s no bloody train so why even pretend this is a railway crossing, at least on a Saturday. So they fly through without batting an eyelid. To complicate matters, for a quarter of an hour a traffic cop parks just other side the railway crossing. This doesn’t affect the stop-deaders at all, of course. But it plays havoc with the other two groups. At some point they spot the dreaded cop car out of the corner of their eye and instinctively hit the brakes, no matter where they are. For some this means they stop bang on the railway lines. But this is a game, as we all know, so we stay parked on the railway line and pretend to look both ways in case a train is coming. Some skid to a stop only after the railway line, and then check both ways to see if maybe a non-existent train could have come. Isn’t law and order a complex thing?
Eventually I put on my pack, plug in my iPod, and stroll down the avenues of trees between the orchards to Broadlands, the home of Nicky and Nicole. The legs are strong again and the music carries me away. I pass some humble homes hidden amongst the orange trees, and am attracted by the apparently simple lifestyle. Am I romanticisng poverty? I am also interested in the differing ‘barriers’ between the various orchards and the main road. They range from razor-wire to a strand or two of fencing. Later I ask Nicky about it and what he does about the inevitable ‘help-yourself’ from passers-by. “Plant enough for everyone,” he answers with zen-like simplicity, “and forget about fencing”. I’m sure there is a limit to this zen, but what a lekker general approach! If I think hard enough, I’m sure I’d find this a healthy attitude to many aspects of our living.
The Whytes are warm and welcoming, and I’m soon soaking in a hot bath attached to my bedroom. This must be one of the great pleasures of modern living, and I wallow in it. Do I eat meat? What a question, like is the Pope Catholic? They have one of the nicest indoor braai set-ups that I’ve ever seen, and supper has seldom tasted better. It is also good to get to know them better and I appreciate the way we open up to each other. There is a good balance as we go from sharing our thoughts on destiny, fate and God’s will, to rooting for the Sharks on their magnificent drive-in tv screen.
We also listen to the weather forecast predicting heavy rains for large areas of the Eastern Cape, and especially along the coastal regions. Back in my room I study my maps again. I’m planning to cross the Cockscomb mountains on Tuesday and the bad weather is due to hit on Tuesday evening. This is not looking good. There is only a rough path over the mountains where I am planning to cross, I’ve never been there before and I’ll be all on my own. If I lose my way or for whatever reason don’t get over the mountains, I shall be caught in the rain and mist for days. On the other hand, if the bad weather arrives a bit early, I’ll be caught no matter what. I have huge respect for both the mountains and the weather. I decide that I must cross the mountains on Monday, a day earlier than planned. This should give me a bit more time to get out of any trouble that I might find myself in.