Things have changed. What I mean is that the landscape has undergone a metamorphosis in the past 300 km. Yesterday, we crossed the RSA from the Western Cape to Port Elizabeth parallel to the coast. This stretch of highway, called the N2, varies in both upkeep and size. At times, the N2 is a sprawling highway with speed limits of 120+ km/hr, even consisting of four lanes in places. At other times, the N2 is hardly a narrow mountain pass around 3 m wide; seasonally active waterfalls showering the road, vertical cliffs on either side, blind corners with questionable guard rails.This road passed through 4 biologically, geologically and culturally diverse biomes in a distance roughly equivalent to the distance across Pennsylvania. I don’t know if there are many analogous amounts of diversity anywhere else in the world, definitely not in the US of A. There are still unchartered lands here in South Africa. Houses built on rivers that are, “Only accessible by obscure, hidden and treacherous dirt roads”. I wonder at the kind of effect such a landscape evokes in a person. Especially those living in the shadows of the mountains or under the guise of an endless indigenous forest. It’s truly beautiful.
We started in the outskirts of the Western Cape, leaving the 4-star hotel in which we stayed for the past two days. Just a disclaimer: my professor intentionally put us in this ritzy hotel the night after seeing the poverty in Langa and Khaylesha as a means of presenting stark juxtaposition--it worked. The wine and linguini ratatouille were delicious, but with the poignant aftertaste of guilt. We drove out of this mountainous wine growing region before reaching the flats of a valley basin. We drove for a time along a semi-arid plain, flanked by mountains peaking out at around 3,000 meters (roughly 9,000+ feet). The ocean was obscured from view by the southern range, but its effects were quite visible. Clouds haloed around the highest peaks, blanking the foothills and casting a rain shadow across the entire valley. The presence of ocean influence and a Mediterranean-like climate in this area has enabled a deep history of world renowned vineyards, brandy distilleries and fruit farms to flourish. This area alone provides 60% of the apples consumed in Europe.
The flat valley road rose gradually to meet the base of these mountains and their vertical stratigraphy, a remnant of a violent past that has earned them the nickname The Folded Mountains. Several quick, winding turns placed us into the heart of the mountains--a place called Montagu. Known as a rock climbing paradise, this place was originally discovered by a British explorer named Montagu who carved the first great pass in these steep slopes. This part of the N2 has been carved directly into the red-stone walls of the mountain. There is one way in and only one way out of this valley, via the Montagu pass. This area is the birthplace of guerilla warfare, long before the Viet Cong and long before Che Guevara. Here, among the boulders and slopes, the outnumbered Dutch Afrikaans used such tactics to combat the gentlemanly war-machine of British troops. In response to such a new threat, the British began to establish the ‘prisoner of war camp’, a notion that would prove of great significance for the manner in which future wars would be fought by all nations. These Boehr wars between the Afrikaans and the British colonialists shaped not only the history of South Africa, but also, the history of the world.
The last section of these mountains is known as the flower valley, a unique hotspot of biodiversity. There are more species of plants, specifically flowering plants, here than in the entirety of the British Isles, some 1600 in total. The somewhat less steep slopes in this area are coated by knee-high vegetation, almost all flowering. The seasonality of the blooms meant that there were only a few species in full plumage at this time, but during the spring, the sight is said to be utterly marvelous. One can only imagine. My frustration with cameras--an inability to truly capture any of this on film--has now reached an all time high. It is a truly poetic problem to have. To fill in the spaces that a picture cannot fill, all I can hope to do is write. I am, of course, assuming a lot of myself.
Almost immediately after the flower valley, we entered the rolling hills of the agricultural region. The pavement turned to dirt and stone and the mountains receded into the distance. Although still visible like ghosts on the horizon, the tallest peaks remained hazed by the perpetual oceanic cloud cover. The farms in this area are fertile. The soil black and blood red. Crops of wheat, sorghum and canola stretch ad infinitum. Cattle lie with an indifferent languor at our passing. Blue crane, the national bird of South Africa, dot the sky in groups of 6 or more, sometimes landing to pick worms or small mice from the fields.
The farm region eventually meets with a second mountain range into which we plunge headfirst. Here, the landscape changes once again, this time, into thick forest and impenetrable vegetation. Forget the Mediterranean climate, these are the subtropics. The mountain roads begin to form a series of switchbacks, swinging our van closer and closer to cliffs that dive straight down into the crashing surf of the Indian ocean. Houses dot these playful slopes, the space between them filled with the subtropical forest walls. In this place, any person must dance precariously between two powerful forces--mountains that end at the sea, sometimes stretching their spines like defiant peninsulas into the surf. It is a staggeringly dramatic topography.
Small villages are nestled between breaks in the mountains or along calm lagoons. The sun plays like a disco ball through the thick clouds covering the hills. People walk the small streets. This mysterious land is full of pirate lore and centuries of history, however, one would not guess such things from its unassuming situation at the interface of a great land and a great sea. Again, as we pass each small town or village, there is an inevitable shantytown development. Even in modern South Africa, following the end of apartheid in 1994 and an ANC run government, wealth remains in the hands of a few, while the lower class (often black minorities) continue in poverty and persistence.
I am amazed by this land, dwarfed by its size and humbled by its people. It is a paradox of beauty, both epic and profound and, at the same time, subtle and graceful.
Last night we slept in a hostel in the subtropical forests. A chorus of birds and insects, the heavy smell of rain and atmosphere. Today, we venture into the untamed lands of the Eastern Cape.
peace and love,