If time is a river, and the river a road, then the long road winding 1400km from Joburg to Cape Town is both distance and time, surface and depth, ripple and bend, present and past.
All journeys begin with a parting, with a saying of goodbyes: goodbye to our grand-daughter, Olivia, just three days old; goodbye to Tom, aged four; goodbye to my daughter and son-in-law and his parents, who have flown up from the coast to help with the newborn; goodbye to their house in Greenside, where we have stayed since we said goodbye to the house in Parkmore that we rented for more than four years – goodbye, goodbye!
Silence, as you drive through the Sunday suburbs; silence as the distance sinks in, and the river murmurs.
The highway that leads out of the city is a highway leading out of any city, anywhere – a flickering newsreel of bridges and flyovers, rusted rooftops and vibracrete walls, low-cost housing, signs and billboards, traffic crawling like bugs in the brown morning smog.
And then the city vanishes, just like that. The road opens and clears, the river rushes forward, time dips in its oar and away you go. I am alone with my memories and thoughts and my mind wanders, a free flow of recollections, associations, things forgotten and found. All the while I am watching the road, watching the countryside glide by, the car humming pleasantly along in the rhythm of the river. I turn on the music – because I am driving alone, I can turn up the volume as much as I like, and soon the sound fills the car and I am singing lustily along, The Beatles, the Stones, The Police, Bob Dylan, Dire Straits, Elton John, Diana Krall, Melody Gardot, The Eagles, Queen, Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin, Oliver Mtukudzi, Freshly Ground, Mango Groove, Johnny Clegg, the soundtrack of my life.
Over the Vaal River and out of Gauteng, on through the colours, khaki, blue, orange and green of the Free State’s big skies and fertile farmlands, koppies and hills, pushing on and on into the Northern Cape, stony and dry. My first stop is Tzamenkomst, a stone-built lodge on the Orange River, six-and-a-half hour’s drive from the City of Gold, not too long a day but far enough to be well on my way. A green oasis given life by the river, and time for a beer.
Before dinner I take a short walk down to the bank of the river to take a few photographs, and on my way back to the lodge I am diffidently stopped by a middle-aged couple: you look like you’re a professional photographer, the man says, can I ask your advice about what lenses I should buy? I am absolutely not a professional, I tell him, but I am a keen photographer – what kind of photography do you do? Just a beginner, he says, still learning the ropes – but wildlife, birds – he has a new pair of Leica Ultravids round his neck. So we fall into a conversation about lenses and photography and before I know it it is time for dinner and drinks and a whiskey and bed.
The next day is another six hour’s drive, the bands of my youth bouncing off the landscape, the freedom of the road that is time and a river roaring loud in my ears. My lungs are full of fresh air, my heart sings with the tyres and the tarmac and the land sliding by. I’m in Matjiesfontein by two, checking in to the Lord Milner, a grand old colonial dame of a Karoo hotel. There is load-shedding that night, which means the power has gone out, and the hotel’s generator has gone on strike, so I sit outside on the verandah in the gathering dark, alone in the candelight, listening to a tableful of loud brash engineers who are constructing a wind farm somewhere between here and Sutherland, or so I gather, full of bullshit and hot air. I am mildly irritated but at the same time it’s okay – I’ve been there, I know the drill, I was that young man once. I am up the next morning before sunrise to take a few photographs, and the engineers are there already, drifting out of the hotel, climbing into their bakkies, headlights on, heading out to the day’s work.
I make a more leisurely start, knowing I have an easy three-and-a-half hour’s drive, dropping down from the dry stark plateau into the sudden green of the Hex River Valley, through the high magical kloofs that descend into Wellington, climbing again to the Du Toits Kloof tunnel, before the final descent and the waves upon waves of vine-clad hills that fall through the outlying suburbs into the city of Cape Town.
Soon I will turn around again, this time by air, and cover the 1400km back to Johannesburg in just on two hours, leaving my car parked at my mother’s, our goodbyes a foretaste of a longer goodbye, as I prepare for the long flight via Paris in just a few more days to my home in Canada. But first I will take her for lunches and drives, we will chat and remember, and I will remind her when she grows sad that yes, I will be back – Rob and I will both be back – for her 90th birthday, on December 3rd. Just six weeks away – but she knows, and I know, that returning in December is just a pause in the flood, before the river takes us away again, to our lives in Toronto.