Returning the gaze of the Elephant’s Eye
Hedley Twidle, 3 December
Last time I did it with three old friends, and in the opposite direction. This time from Cape Point to town with a group of people that I didn’t know quite as well, most of them university types. The idea (not mine) was to turn it into a walking seminar on ‘nature cultures’, a trial run for a residency that will happen not in institutional buildings but out in the air.
Slightly sceptical of this at first – all I wanted from the hike was to decompress, let the mind empty after a strangely-shaped year. But still, on the first day I played along, using my primary school teacher Mr Bench’s memory technique (one-drum, two-shoe, three-tree, four-door etc.) to log impressions that seemed worth rescuing from the tide of heat, sweat, walking, foot on rock, sand, gravel. The sensorium changes, opens…
One was a drum turning like a wheel: we are picked up by taxi at 6am, driven the length of Peninsula that you will track back along over the next five days. Driving in hours what you will walk back along in days. I remember this also from my father running me up the N2 to the trailhead at Storms River, many years ago: over the gorges, over the bridges.
Two was…I can’t remember. The link is broken. Once it existed, but by the end of the day, blood or dehydration had flushed out or shut down that neural pathway. This was the thing we soon realised: after a day hiking across the Cape Peninsula, being strafed by sun and wind, there is not much to say. The knowledge gained is implicit, recorded in joints, muscles, darker skin, stiffer hair, delicious tiredness. Was it that the shoe pinches? Two months later, my big toenails are still black.
Three: snipers in a tree. We go past the training grounds of the South African Marines and the taxi driver tells us they train snipers here. Elevation, surveillance, lines of sight and fire. That is one way of understanding the mountain chain, from the small canon that warned the British about hostile ships entering False Bay, to World War Two radar posts, lighthouses with their own frequency of flashes. Lo-fi technologies still at play: the shark-spotters above Muizenburg; the Mountain Men scanning backyards from above Fish Hoek. Apparently they can tell likely criminals just from their gait: hands behind the back, because in Pollsmoor you’re not allowed to touch the walls. Can that be true? Meanwhile those in prison look at the mountain over the walls like Mandela did, returning the gaze of the Elephant’s Eye. The imprisoned poet Breyten Breytenbach: ‘the mountain: my companion, my guide, my reference point, my deity, my fire, my stultified flame, and finally – like a prehistoric receptacle – the mould of my mind, my eye, my very self’.