Hidden places


13 July 2010

South Africa never ceases to amaze.

I remember one memorable holiday, back in my early twenties, when my partner and I embarked on a road trip up the West Coast. We drove for hours, trying out one small town after another, taking detour after detour, searching for the destination that would be just right.

We ended up in Paternoster, the tiniest little village, which could only be reached via this terrible, rocky road that nearly destroyed the tyres on our little Mazda 323. For me it was nothing short of love at first sight. White-washed, converted fisherman’s houses framed the bay, all overlooking the sparkling sea. It was quiet there, peaceful, almost as if the village had been forgotten by the rest of the world and wanted to keep itself a secret, revealing its existence to a select few.

We spent an extended weekend there, savouring the stillness, walking down endless stretches of shore that formed part of a nature reserve, and witnessing so many sunsets. On the Saturday morning, local fishermen took out their little hand-crafted boats, armed with only ancient sea hardened rope nets. When they returned it was a celebration. The boats were swallowed by friends, family, children and even tourists, as the fisherman laid out their catch across the sand, where they glistened against the setting sun like silver.

There’s no modernity in Paternoster. Not once was my sleep interrupted by the blast of car horns, or the thump thump of all night parties that take place so often in my apartment building. Night is even quieter than the day, lulled by the soft back and forth rumble of the ocean.

The holiday has stayed with me, reminding me that my country is full of places like this, and instilled in me a need to travel, so I can find them all.

Since then I have sought out many such gems, including Tulbagh, where the heat made me forget my vampiric need for shade, and I splashed around in a swimming pool as if I was kid all over again.

I’ve camped in a forest in Ceres, where I believed I was going to die from the cold. The next morning I saw snow for the first time, and like a first tattoo, forgot the discomfort I felt the night before.

I’ve walked the Otter Trail in the Eastern Camp, seen monkeys in the wild at Plettenberg Bay, and fished the warm ocean of Arniston in the dead of night, while the waves cackled hauntingly against the pebble beach. I even once escaped a veld fire in the Breede River and the next morning road a tractor across a freezing cold hill, as if the fire never happened.

My need to travel took me to other parts of the country like Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Durban, where I made new friends at dingy goth clubs and even fell in love.

I felt braver, wanting to see more.

To my father’s horror I even boarded a plane to London. I had no money in my pocket, only a tantalisingly empty credit card, and a romanticised idea of what to expect.

London was everything I hoped it would be, but at the same time also the complete opposite. At baggage claim I watched a squashed rat travel along the conveyer belt over and over again wondering what I had got myself into. I was in a strange country, alone, with no idea of the customs and norms. Like a kid I wanted to go home, forget the whole thing.

But the feeling passed. My host took me to the nearest petrol station and I purchased a Cherry Coke which I clutched like a security blanket. I was alright after that.

From the next morning I trudged around the museums, galleries and attractions, wide eyed and excited, thrilled at seeing the things I had only read about or seen on film. Like an idiot I stared raptly at the smoke twirling out of Mary Poppins chimneys, totally amazed at how quaint everything was. A rose bush in the garden caused me to get my camera out. The suburbs were just so English.

I mastered the Tube in one day, keeping every single pink ticket as a souvenir. I visited Baker’s Street to see where Sherlock Holmes would have lived had he actually lived, took a picture of myself at Platform nine and three quarters at Kings Cross Station, bought goth clothes and haggled over a silver ankh at Camden to brag about when I got home, drank at haunted pubs, chased a sheep around Stonehenge and even attended a Nine Inch Nails concert at Brixton Academy where I befriended a girl with impossibly pink hair and so many facial piercings she looked alien. I later reinvented her as a character in Fuse. Needless to say, I had fun while I was there.

But at the end of the day, London is just a place like anywhere else. Ordinary people live and work there, shop for groceries, drive their cars. Immigrants arrive in droves seeking their fortunes. I never once felt that spark of awe that I was looking for.

I came home, grateful to the see the white line of Muizenberg Beach through my passenger window and I realised that the magic I was looking for could only be found in my home country.

This last weekend I found another one of Cape Town’s hidden treasures. My partner and I spent our anniversary at a little slice of heaven called Tintswalo Atlantic in Hout Bay.

After parking our car at the top of Chapman’s Peak Drive, we were ferried right down to the bottom of the mountain. Tintswalo Atlantic is the only lodge situated within the national park, and is totally isolated, a small speck against the wild, forested cliff.

Our wooden cabin sat right on the beach, surrounded by Milkwood Trees and mountainside: or as I like to think of it, at the end of the world.

As soon as my bag fell to the floor I felt that awe I was looking for. Don’t get me wrong, I love the city, but there is something about being in the middle of nowhere with no lights, no cars and nothing but raging seas that restores the spirit.

We were completely alone, with only the sea as company.

We watched the sun set, we watched it rise.

On the deserted beach, the only life was in the form of a couple of playful starlings who performed for me, chasing each other over the rocks and wetting their wings in the icy water. In the shallows, a seal waved before diving out of sight.

We lit our own fire. We stumbled over the rocks looking for treasure. We bounced smooth pebbles across the surf. For a while it felt like we had gone back in time, to the place where the world began.

I never wanted to leave that place, but I’m glad I did.

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