Monday, April 18, 2011

Letter from Cape Town, by Kathy George

In the mornings my mother hugs me as if she is pleased and a little surprised to find she has survived the night.

I am at the big toe of Africa, in the seaside village of Fish Hoek, to celebrate my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. Their house is full of visitors and, ironically, I am sleeping downstairs in the granny flat. My parents are in their eighties and use walking sticks, and I lie in bed and listen to their sticks tok-tokking on the floor above as they move from room to room. Now my mother is in the kitchen washing the teacups, and now my father is in the bathroom, shaving. The tok-tokkie, an African beetle with a hard, polished brown shell, gets its name from the knocking sound it makes with its abdomen on the ground when calling for a mate. Lying in bed I imagine my parents are tok-tokkies calling to each other. Since they are both deaf, this does not seem so ludicrous.

Our days together are taken up by endless rituals, mostly involving tea. But in-between afternoon tea and dinner I persuade them to come for a drive, although my father says he has seen everything there is to see. My mother announces she is keen to go. We decide on the Chapman’s Peak route, a road which was hacked into the mountain between 1915 and 1922 and which falls away sharply on one near-vertical side to breathtaking views of the sea below. But before we get there we must run the gauntlet of poverty and be confronted not so much by beggars as by salesmen selling cheap gimmicks. During the soccer World Cup these salesmen hawked vuvuzelas and colourful flags the size of tablecloths, with an air of celebration; today they are sombre and it’s the dusky avocado they’re selling. Eight for twenty rand. Eight for roughly three dollars. We don’t need avocadoes, but before I can reach for my money my mother reminds that people have had their throats cut by marginally opening their windows. She stares stoically ahead through the windscreen and tells me not to talk to them, while my father shouts “Lock the doors!” from the back seat.

Visiting South Africa is a little like gaining access to a vast and beautiful prison complex, with any number of doors to be locked, bolted and unlocked. My parents’ house has four locked exits before you can emerge from the garage. And when I visit my nephew in Johannesburg I find he lives on an estate enclosed by razor wire and accessible only by boom gate and two security guards. In addition, the entire community of houses is patrolled by no less than fifty guards at any one time. My nephew tells me that when he accidentally set off the burglar alarm, a guard carrying an AK47 vaulted the wall and was on his doorstep in less than two minutes. In Johannesburg everything is exacerbated: the crime rate is higher, the poverty more confronting, the air is thinner and the driving faster and more reckless. In addition, we eat out a lot and party much harder. When staying in Johannesburg I, too, am a little surprised to find myself alive every morning.

For me, visiting South Africa is comparable to a love affair, not only with the land but with the people. Mostly the Africans are a generous people, generous with their flashing white smiles and with their laughter. They have no airs and graces and they accept their lot and make the most of it. Engage any one of them in conversation at, for instance, a checkout till and you can be assured of a warm reception and a laugh. However, long-held enmities remain. Even as I write, Julius Malema, the ANC’s Youth League president, is in court to defend the charge of singing the ANC’s struggle song, “Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer”. I worry more than ever about the country’s future. I wonder if my father is right.

It is only when I climb the mountains that I feel liberated and, as if I am suffering this time more than ever from claustrophobia, I climb three. (My record is five.) The first is above my parents’ house. This little mountain is where my father wants his ashes to be scattered “just below the rock that looks like a chameleon so that I can keep an eye on your mother.” The other two mountains are more serious climbs: Lions Head, 669m high, to the right of Table Mountain, and Table Mountain itself which is roughly 1,100m. Because I am pressed for time, we take the route of Platteklip Gorge for the latter and ascend vertically up the mountain, not by ropes but simply by putting one foot in front of another for some three kilometres. Over one and half hours later when we reach the top my thighs are trembling and my face aglow with exertion, but the view over the city and the Atlantic Ocean as far as the eye can see thrills me to the core. For the moment I forget about locks and bolts and beggars and avocadoes. I forgot that my father told me that Platteklip Gorge was for people who have no time to smell the fynbos as he put it.

Kathy George studies Creative Writing at QUT.

Note: According to the Oxford Dictionary of Plant Sciences, fynbos is a "South African name for the sclerophyllous vegetation, physiognomically similar to chaparral, that occurs in regions such as the Cape Province."

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Letter from the Blue Mountains, by Lesley Hawkes

Recently, I had the great privilege of being taken on a hidden walking trail deep in the Blue Mountains in NSW.  A friend of mine, Susan Carson, had asked if I wanted to accompany her on a walk down the mountains to Eleanor and Eric Dark’s own personal cave hide-away.  We were at Sydney University for a Romanticism conference and it worked out that we had a free day before we had to fly home to Brisbane.

“Sure, I”ll go.  Is it a difficult walk?”

“No”, she replied.  And I believed her.

Eleanor Dark is one of Australia’s most critically acclaimed writers and Eric is often regarded as one of Australia’s first environmentalists.  Varuna (the writing centre in the Blue Mountains) was the Darks’ family home.  However, they also had another home—a cave deep in the valley of the mountains themselves.  Sue had learnt about the cave from her studies on Dark and when she contacted Varuna they put her in touch with Mark O’Flynn, a talented writer and bushwalker from the area.  Mark kindly agreed to be our unpaid guide (I stress unpaid to highlight that this man was under no obligation to wait for us or to show any sympathy toward our general lack of fitness).

The Blue Mountains are a spectacular sight.  They surround and enclose the landscape, almost pulsing with the life they contain.  People come from all over the world to experience first-hand the blue haze that radiates from the enormous structure.  To view them from the top is, indeed, a majestic sight but to experience them at ground level made them take on a very different existence.  These mountains had depth—true depth that buried into the skin of the Australian landscape.  We often view mountains as far-away markers, identifiable boundaries between the land and the sky.  To crawl down into the valleys of the mountains gave me a very different perspective.  I felt as if I was entering into the veins of Australia’s very existence.

The journey down to the cave was extremely difficult.  This was mainly due to the Darks’ refusal to reuse the same trail.  They did not want people following them so each time they went down they devised a new track.  The cave was furnished with mattresses and how they carried these down is a true mystery. The Darks had supposedly spotted the cave from an opposing mountain and it took them over a year to finally track down to it and claim it as their own.  The entrance into the cave is a small crevice in the rocks.  You wiggle through the opening or go over the top of a huge rock and jump down into it.  And there it is: huge rock faces that form rock ceilings, rock floors and rock walls.  These structures jut out over the mountains.  The views over the east each morning must have provided Eleanor with endless writing material.

As I mentioned earlier, Eric Dark is credited with being one of Australia’s first environmentalist, however, it is of interest to note that he used dynamite to blow up a rock face and create a private ensuite for the family.  The rock pool is still there today.

This trail is a secret, not because I feel that I am one of the elite who should know about it but rather the opposite.  I do not know if I have the authority to reveal its presence.  This lack of authority works on a number of levels:  I do not know if the Darks would approve of people entering their natural home and, more importantly, I do not know if the landscape wants people traversing it.  I do not know.  I know I own the experience of travelling down to the cave but the actual physical site itself is not mine to share.  I am not suggesting that the cave is a monument to a past era but more that I do not know all the stories that are alive in this cave.  I do not know if it wants new chapters added to the existing chapters.  It was a spectacular place but it was not my place.  I knew with every step I took over every rock and every tree root—that I was a visitor.  I was being allowed in but I knew I was not in charge of the narrative.  I was extremely relieved when I was allowed to come out of the narrative and not remain lost in a labyrinth of stories that swirl continuously through the mountains.

Lesley Hawkes teaches in Literary Studies at QUT.