Strange light I am
Sitting front row in a church in Joburg, pallbearer for best friend, I look up the way you raise your head to avoid a nosebleed, to keep tears from flowing down my face.
I couldn’t help but notice the high ceilings in the surrealism of all this, so much space between here and the sky. People say things I can’t relate to, and Jesus’ name is mentioned more times than my friend’s name.
To my upper left is a blue stained glass window that traps my sight. There are more than a hundred small leaded boards, cut to the diagonal by the mid-morning light. This must have been the shadow of the steeple, I suspect, or it may have been the steep slope of the roof.
The lower diagonal is dark blue caused by the shadow, and the upper diagonal features crosshair detailing in the upper central part.
As we all sit there solemnly bewildered by all this, and my friend—who is also father, son, brother, lover, cousin, and many other things to so many grieving hearts around me—speaks in soft, glowing phrases, the diagonal shade moves downward, allowing the lighter blue to fill in more parts of the window.
If I were a religious man, I would see this as a sign of his rising before my eyes. I don’t know if he’s in the coffin next to me, and I don’t know why he’s gone now. I can not understand anything.
It is all around me and nowhere to be found. I cry in his mother’s arms, knowing what it means to lose a child. All my old friends look old. And the shell hit. Time will destroy you. Or even more cruelly, simply being taken away.
Strange Light II
Corlett Drive at night and a billboard I remember reading, “Keep Walking” next to Norman Goodfellows bottle shop. I spent time here in the soccer fever days of 2010, and the downturn since then is very real.
The billboard near the Wanderers has no PVC cladding to speak of, so the backlit LED lights glow at me as I try to understand the traffic intersection.
If there was a sign, it would say “Keep driving”. Nobody stops at the robots here anymore, the stories are all true. A bird sticking its head out of a hole in front of me, a canary down a coal mine in the former Igoli. My friends up north know I hate it here, and Gillooly’s Interchange always has a way of getting me lost whenever I go down.
I feel like I’m expecting death now as I drive, like Elijah on my way to Easter Sunday, trying to make Shabbat dinner and fill the empty spot always reserved for a friend coming over. But the GPS does not take into account the closed communities and leads me to a fortified dead end while shouting “go ahead”. I am shocked to the stillness as I open the doors in the Highveld and there is imminent violence in this suburb that I cannot condone.
LCD Soundsystem’s “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” would be the soundtrack I’d be playing at my rental while I’m back in OR Tambo in less than 24 hours, if I hadn’t listened so intently to the GPS navigational signals. Joburg, I hate you and you bring me down.
Strange Light III
Driving with reckless abandon someone who chases freedom and now knows it’s close. The dirt road to De Hoop Nature Reserve was covered in potholes.
Maybe that’s my Western Cape bias, but this kind of deterioration looks rather good. After this already wet winter, these are deep puddles of rain that my wheels hit, splattering dirt and scraping the chassis that lets me know how I am.
Up ahead, Bredasdorp’s yellow-brown light reflects off puddles and into hayfields, and the road is riddled with a tortoise-shell pattern that hints at the haphazard accidentality of all that’s ahead.
I’m here to hike the whale track. New acquaintances fill the space of old friends who are still mourning, and the void left by my dead friend is simply too great to fill. He would have been here, and we’d watch the rare Cape vulture nest in the cave of the black vulture at sunset from a bird’s lair above all else.
Tomorrow we’ll walk as new hikers 15.5km from Putberg to Cupidoskral and share the intimacy of what we can have together for dinner and what it takes to escape the city for a while.
In the morning it will turn from dark to light gray as I sit on the porch sipping my coffee and watching a fish eagle soar over my head, letting it know we should be on our way soon.
Strange Light IV
To walk the Whale Trail, you first have to walk away from where you will eventually end up. This seems counterintuitive: you turn around to move forward.
Up, up, and along the edge of Mount Potberg toward where the mouth of the Breede River meets the Indian Ocean at Witsand. Memories of Cape Infanta holidays as a teenager are far in the distance.
To our left, you can see the Langeberg while beneath it the brown Breede River snakes through farmland and green fields.
To our right the coastline, far into the distance, disturbs you with thoughts of whale watching and swimming in the summer sea.
To get there (and to extend this oral metaphor), you must first pass through the tooth-stained Tafelberg sandstone rocks where the deep, luscious red lips of protea flowers kiss you like the Joburg kugel of your childhood, before scurrying into the limestone hills as you descend to sea level and begin to tolerance.
From the top of the mountain above the newly built Noetsie huts, you’ll be amazed to see whales for the first time. In all this oceanic expanse before you lies a whale so large and elusive it must be watched to be believed.
Someone in the group has a new binocular with a lifetime warranty so you have to wear the strap around your neck at all times while spotting the southern right whale as a sign of respect.
A choppy gray bulge on the horizon indicates storms ahead and there’s the texture of distant waves you can almost touch through eyeglasses. Seagulls, oystercatchers and white-breasted cormorants soak it up in splendor as the day goes on.
At night by the fireside we have stories about Genghis Khan, the Mongolian warrior who built the world’s largest land empire some 850 years ago. The book you are referring to Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford.
For my part, I am reading the book of the founder of Patagonia, Yvonne Chouinard, “Let my people go surfing.” In it, he modestly brags about how he free-climbed the Great Wall of China (“only 5.8 in difficulty”), and how “it was built to keep out the Mongol hordes, but got in anyway by bribing the gatekeeper.”
I share the anecdote as we laugh at the light of the approaching full moon and a well-read friend talking about Lewis Dartnell “Origins – How Earth Shaped Human History”; We’ve pieced Pangea together and are trying to solve humanity’s problems with a perspective of a few million years.
strange light v
Walk along the high water mark the next day, discovering caverns filled with midges where braids were long ago used to shell shellfish and feed on fish we now consider endangered.
With thoughts of plate tectonics and the creation of atolls from underwater volcanoes still before my mind, I can very well picture these black tide pools stretching far out into the sea at a time when the shore was kilometers away.
There is a humility in this exercise in mindfulness, as in zooming out our location using Google Maps to recognize your own insignificance in the grand scheme of it all, that helps with the feeling of being overwhelmed in this bleak middle of winter. My job here is to simply walk around and watch and try not to cause any harm.
At Stilgat we light a candle for our late friend and swim in the afternoon for a deep gully against a strong incoming tide for just short enough to be safe and long enough to feel alive.
A year ago we were doing the same thing along the Otter Trail and this feels like the kind of farewell he would appreciate.
As the colors progress, the orange lichen on the rocks matches the sun setting shortly before the full moon arrives to whiten everything, making that snoring you wake up in the middle of the night easier to navigate.
Because the moon’s orbit is not a perfect circle (thanks to Earth’s gravity), this supermoon is known as a Bacmoon, and it orbits much closer to Earth than usual, appearing to be full for three days. What is the right time to be alive.
We follow each other’s sunken footprints along the thick beach sand as we have now passed the halfway point of our journey. We marvel at the holes bursting to life through the sea cliff making me appreciate that all is not solid underfoot.
Between the roof of the church and the floor of the sea floor, there is air to breathe.
On the first morning, during the briefing, a video was played which highlighted the “indelible memories that will remain etched in your mind forever”. At the time, it was an extreme as hell of a mixed marketing metaphor and I didn’t know what that could mean.
Now, here I am, swimming on the last beach before rendezvous at Koppie Alleen.
The light bounces off the lips of the waves, like potholes in the road on the road here, potholes in all roads. There is an inevitable decline and death that must come for all of us.
Waist deep in the water, I look at the sun and close my eyes. Turtle-shell patterns of light fade across my eyelids and the road ahead gathers in a moment of blissful bliss. Turn to move forward. DM