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Out of Africa

Out of Africa
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First Published: Fri, Mar 20 2009. 09 14 PM IST

Updated: Fri, Mar 20 2009. 09 14 PM IST
This is where Africa ends.
In a sense, Africa ends wherever the land meets the ocean. But the spot we are headed for is special. It is where the land funnels southward, as if massaged by an invisible hand, shrinking in size, surrounded by strong waves lashing the shore.
We are in a car, moving briskly, and from the window we can see the vegetation turning rougher. The greenery gets darker, the land flat, the ground coarse and brown. There are no birds or animals. The few trees sway rapidly, the strong roots of the dwarf-like trees clinging firmly to the ground even as the branches bend at impossible angles, swinging back promptly, like rhythmic wipers. The vegetation too sways, in a disorderly way, as if pretending to be the surface of the ocean, trembling constantly.
It is when we get off the car that we realize the sheer force of the wind. Later, when we will reach the top of the lighthouse, a tourist with a contraption that can measure the wind’s strength will tell us that the speed is 102.5 miles (165km) per hour. That’s faster than Brett Lee. But there is a crucial difference: When a batsman faces a bowler hurling the ball at such a ferocious speed, his eyes concentrate on that delivery, coming at an angle; and he has his sturdy bat to ward off that ball, and do as he pleases with it. In our case, it is as though we are constantly targeted by hundreds of such balls, of different shapes and sizes, from different directions, and never visible. It is like Bradman facing millions of deliveries from Larwood.
It is impossible to walk without holding on to the railing as I climb up to the top of that lighthouse, now no longer in use, because low-flying clouds have routinely shrouded the lighthouse, leading to more shipwrecks. Each step is an effort, at the end of which you feel you have reached a milestone.
Look out: The lighthouse at Cape Point watches over the confluence of the Indian and Atlantic oceans. Lukas Kaffer
With one hand, I hold the railing, with the other, I hold on to my glasses—there is no guarantee they will remain on their perch, the bridge of my nose, or that my ears will provide a convenient niche from which they won’t fly off.
The magnificent stretch of land shrivels, descending into the water. To my left, beyond the mist, is the hazy blue-grey outline of mountains, which look primordial, untouched from the day the planet was born and continents emerged.
Beyond that is the False Bay, which Bartolomeu Diaz called “the gulf between the mountains” and which seafarers mistook for Table Bay. To my right, the Atlantic churns violently, forming waves that come crashing on the serrated edge of the land mass.
And in front of me, the waves continue their lurch, as if seeking the unmarked boundary where the Atlantic ends and the Indian Ocean begins. That boundary, which is not marked by any border post, is invisible to the eye, but where the land ends, the effect is dramatic because, for miles, on all sides, all you see is water—dark, blue-grey, thrashing and agitating; your hands holding the railing tight, the wind hitting your face with full force, your eyes full of tears, desperate to look ahead, in the direction of the South Pole, searching for the horizon where the sky becomes the ocean.
This is where it ends, you think. Couples wrap their arms around one another as they walk, huddled, taking their steps slowly. The walk down is harder—the elemental image of that expanse of water is mesmerizing, and it is hard to turn away from that sight. The wind pushes me hard, forcing me to run.
I reflect on the sheer force of the wind. In The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje writes about the poetry of warm winds—aajej, the whirlwind of Morocco, against which the fellahin must use knives; the bist roz of Afghanistan, which can bury villages; the Tunisian ghibli, which rolls in dry, producing a nervous condition; and Sudan’s dust storm, the haboob, which is followed by rain.
To defend myself against this wind, I would need a shield, or body armour, which can envelop me with steel, and yet I keep getting pushed back as I advance towards its source. This wind does not whistle, nor does it blow. It rushes at you like an army, and collapses on you like a tree. It sounds like an angry cloudburst but brings no rain. This wind is no respecter of structures—and realizing its ferocity, nature has surrendered to it, and you don’t see any tall tree on the ground, and where there is flat land, the vegetation bends to that wind’s will.
Later that afternoon, we drive towards Simon’s Town, to keep the appointment we have made with penguins. Reaching there is harder—for the penguins congregate on a sandy beach, and the same wind—though now considerably weakened—still has the strength to disrupt the sand, which rises to attack us, invisibly, hitting our eyes, clogging our ears, making inroads into our mouths if we talk. We are lucky there’s no sandstorm to pierce through our bodies, lacing us with grains of sand that become arrows.
At twilight, we are back in Cape Town. I have a glass of Chardonnay for company. The Table Mountain looks like an old man smoking, with the clouds surrounding it. The crescent moon looks fragile, and the sky is pink. I sit alone, but don’t feel lonely any more.
Write to Salil at
detours@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Mar 20 2009. 09 14 PM IST