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Woolley’s Pool
Sheer Kalk Bay Mountain, Kalkbaii’s fringe of steep-stepped houses, Main Road, the train, the tidal rocks, Woolley’s Pool, all close-in to the mountain, then the Atlantic straight out through False Bay, the Indian Ocean off to the east at Cape Agulhas

A fine week of early mornings sloshing with the frothy combers in off the blue of the Great Southern Ocean alone for half an hour in Woolley’s Pool, a marine-terrace tidal pool, before any of the regulars arrived 

Except a strandloper one day picking through, beachcombing the rocks and swash pools below Main Road and the rail tracks that pass toward Muizenberg, early, much as she would have a million years and more ago 

In Sterkfontein off north of Johannesburg are hominid remains from three and a half million years past, forebears of San people and those before them across South Africa as long as Homo sapiens have been

Africa, from where it all comes 

The strandloper passing quickly eight meters from me was San, small, moving gracefully and fast over the rocks, we had quick eye contact, no exchange, it would have taken me too long to clamber out onto the rocks to approach her before she was off down the strand 

Wizened narrow San face, over forty, dark rags, dark even in the low brilliant sun rising out of the bay, slouch hat, torn rubber beach shoes, she was collecting flotsam and jetsam in a large and dirty white polypropylene woven mesh bag 

Many eons ago before Main Road, the train, the houses, before the first Portuguese and Dutch ships entered False Bay possibly Phoenician too, before anything strandlopers of the first humans were passing right here beachcombing 

In another Western Cape sunrise, a 1964 apartheid sunrise on the far side of False Bay, up over a dune into sun glare to a startling head-on silhouette while sure I was alone out there on wild and empty Hangklip 

He was surprised like me but with the sun at his back he may have seen me first

He stopped, I stopped, in the low direct glare and it was difficult to read his African face, I had a tinge of fear, that was apartheid 

We smiled effusively, he seemed not to know English and I had no Xhosa or Afrikaans, but we smiled, passed, and went our ways on across the dunes

That also was apartheid, a feeling that we could not talk, he probably anxious meeting a European (as whites were called) where with no Bantu (as Africans were called) area nearby he maybe had no right to be there but seemed to want to talk

I think we almost touched hands going away

Both of us probably figuratively scratching our heads wondering, but then for him it was the same old story 

Strandlopering off ourselves in opposite directions on white Blesberg sand out on Cape Hangklip to the sound of surf, the precipitous Kogelberg high, kloof-like behind

The geography of the imagination thinking back to what was half a century ago 

On the way to Cape Town from there, then Gordon’s Bay was almost quaint and Strand was a mildly seedy beach town with a wide esplanade 

As Guy Davenport might verify, the way things were matters only as they still exist

A building, a road, a quality of landscape gone is not only gone, to those who do not remember it never was 

We imagine the Ice Age world and down the line they will imagine a steady climate world of wild flower fields and balmy breezes 

Leaving us where we are in our edgy present until the next irregular disruption

Woolley’s Pool will be there for centuries but for some Hottentots Holland seismic mountain shift, the pool’s boulder-bedded marine terrace is anciently stable and only if the swash line moves dramatically inland under the surf of sea-level rise will it disappear 

In the impossibility of comprehensible placement in time-space continuum of anything other than the present’s commonplace 

Three billion years or more of life, and behind that cosmogony’s querulous near-infinity 

Ancient Africa’s first-life rock-pool tufa stromatolites from three billion years past, layered cell skeletons of fossil algae 

Working backwards, from the individual, to the historic, through the human epoch, to sequential eras into the planet’s evolutionary fluorescence, to life-dead volcanism 

Our solar system’s stabilization, to the history of the galaxy, to the perception of the eternity of other galaxies, to the universe’s or double universe’s existence and its vast enigmatic unknown definition of itself 

Sits Africa, sits us 

At the Cape Town Philharmonic in Cape Town City Hall, the evening of February 20th, 2014, for Hector Berlioz, Benevuto Cellini overture; Édouard Lalo, Symphonie espagnole; and Shostakovich, Symphony no. 5 in D Minor

After an anti-Zuma reading by an African journalist critical of the post-Mandela African National Congress in the cellar theater of the Book Lounge on Roeland Street at Buitenkant immediately south of where District Six used to be 

Walked through District Six more than once before it was demolished in 1966 after that close-in valuable real estate was designated a White Group Area 

A lot of stoops and colorful Cape stucco, Caledon Street, or maybe Tennant Street, was wide with large cobbles, high blue sky and the pitching street angle 

Sitting now upstairs in a Book Lounge low-down overstuffed chair browsing the English version of The Afrikaners: Biography of a People to have an engaging woman doing a project at Stellenbosch concerning Afrikanerdom lean in to see the book and talk 

It was nice, one of those bookstore episodes that bookstores foster, ten minutes full of lucid content, then gone, nothing written down, little remembered except how pleasant and attractive she was 

And next February summer day first checking on the wait for the Robben Island ferry and deciding on the city instead

Sunny and calm walking Government Avenue and around St. George’s Cathedral at the top of Adderley Street

On a park bench in the Company’s Gardens, talk with a IT guy who was reading an old Nadine Gordimer novel, The Lying Days, he was from Upington in the far Northern Cape and worked for a startup in Joburg 

Years ago made it down through the desert to Upington on the Orange River on the way out of Kalahari Gemsbok Park 

And then four hundred kilometers farther on to Kimberley to show up greatly unappreciated at a friend’s parents’ house during Jewish High Holidays 

Kimberley, the Big Hole, diamonds and Cecil Rhodes, reputedly assuming that the US had only thirteen states in 1902 when he established his scholarship trust 

Now Upington has a thermo-solar boiler with an immense arena of over four thousand sun-tracking mirrors, heliostats, like big music stands encircling the podium of the high boiler itself 

In 1652 the Dutch East India Company (VOC) dropped off a few Dutch farmers at the Cape of Good Hope to straw-boss Batavian (Java) Muslim slaves transported there for resisting Dutch occupation in the East and then employed in growing produce for their ships to and from

Thus the Company’s Gardens 

The Netherlands to Batavia, fifteen thousand nautical miles that was then usually an eight-month voyage 

Always practical, the scurvy-free Dutch also brought Malay crafts people to the Cape to carpenter, carve, and mason their new port city 

The oblong Company’s Gardens, Cape Town’s smaller version of Central Park, watered from streams off Table Mountain, were what the Western Cape’s first European settlement was all about 

Three hundred years on, 1964, on brightly lit fire stairs of a new office building on the city’s Foreshore locked eyes with a Cape Malay woman a few steps above, we stopped, we talked and moved closer, then a door below opened and closed and she turned and climbed away fast her bare legs flashing, apartheid careful, apartheid discreet 

All that has happened at the Cape of Good Hope has carried more consequence than most ocean-tending episodics 

But round Cape Point either way there and advance into something else

Sail on and be gone

The Cape of Good Hope to which the Phoenicians aspired and may well have rounded twenty-five centuries ago, even the Carthaginians were fixed on the ultimate cape and may have been here, indubitably the Portuguese navigators were, Bartolomeu Dias in 1488 and Vasco da Gama in 1497 

Last century the orange stacks of Union Castle ships on which the exiles from apartheid left for the UK were what stood out in Cape Town’s harbor

Orange River, Orange Free State, William of Orange, the orange livery of the Union Castle Line 

William, born of the House of Orange-Nassau in 1650, then an English king, William III, as old Nassau became Princeton orange and black seated in what was variously at that time an Anglo-Dutch colony 

Long before the Voortrekkers left the Cape frontier, north and east for the interior in 1830s when the British banned slavery depriving the Dutch of free labor 

Some Cape Town Afrikaner farmers packed up too and trekked for Namaqualand north toward the Orange River and the first party of those Trekboers outspanned a day from the city in Philadelphia

With the Klein-Drakensteinberge and the Du Tooitskloof on its eastern horizon, the Western Cape’s Philadelphia is a sheltered village in the open veld down off the ridge of N-7, the way due north to Namibia and Angola 

The embedded lore is that it was William Penn who named the American Philadelphia for Quaker brotherliness, but the Dutch were decades ahead of him on the Delaware 

So Philadelphia here, Philadelphia there, it was all the classical reference anyway

In the steadfast power of Afrikanerdom taking them over three hundred years on the veld to develop that smart, sun-lined perceptive, vulpine alert and crafty visage of theirs, strongest around the eyes 

Their obdurate resolve with no other place to go, Afrikaners are first of all Africans 

Occupying the land in the way Dutch and Boer buildings everywhere take up their space, hold their ground, low, thick walled and sure

Lived once in an eighteenth-century Dutch house in the Delaware Valley, low ceilings, tight stairs, walk-in fireplaces, absolutely solid fieldstone walls and low, sheltering eaves, trundle beds, and I went to a school there that was named Van Dolah 

The New World Dutch flourished at exactly the same time as Dutch at the Cape

New Amsterdam, the Hudson and the Delaware 

And in like fashion across the whole old Dutch empire, the Caribbean island slavery forts and trading factories, the Indian Ocean endeavors like the great Matara Fort on Dondra Head the southernmost promontory of Sri Lanka 

The Dutch ejected the Portuguese in 1640 and the fort became a cinnamon- and elephant-trading station

There once watched a rich Buddhist wedding at Matara, silks lifting in the breeze as the magnificent wedding party moved quietly as Kabuki on Matara’s broad stone landing stage, old elephant stables and elephant bathing pool off to the side

And there are the all-out Dutch leavings in Indonesia, as on Lamakera just east of Flores where in an even older Dutch stone warehouse half a dozen Portuguese cannon barrels have been stored since 1594 covered by dusty palm-frond mats 

Dutch ships plied much of the world then with Cape Town and the Cape’s wineland a way station to Dutch mercantilism, much as Hawaii has been to American militarism 

Three Western Cape valleys with their three individualistic old Dutch towns defined by the ranges of the dramatic Klein-Drakensteinberge, the Jonkershoek and Franschhoek Mountains 

Stellenbosch’s oak-flanked Dorp Street with its European open gutters and white stucco Dutch facades, its big university logically the most sophisticated urban site in Africa

Could live a life in Stellenbosch 

Enter Paarl on Main Street through more thickly magnificent oaks below the eerily funereal Taal Monument, 1975, that celebrates the Boers’ language, Afrikaans

Mandela learned Afrikaans on Robben Island and at the end of twenty-seven years as a political prisoner he walked free in 1990 from Groot Drakenstein Prison there between Paarl and Franschhoek 

From the gate that prison looks like a neatly kept low-rise community college, at the entrance now there is a good bronze Mandela statue, business suit, in stride, right fist raised, the tourist buses come 

Look up from Franschhoek’s mildly Napa County-chichi Huguenot Road that points to Franschhoek Pass, those amazing peaks elevating valleys and the three wineland towns, fynbos to maquis 

Huguenot, Khoisan, San, Dutch, Malay, English, Xhosa, Cape ambience is like Italy or Lebanon or Perigord, the Western Cape’s past resonates like the mountains themselves 

Places with such histories define civilization 

Head north on N-7 up the Atlantic coast toward the Northern Cape into high sky and wonderment

On a western road north that ends only in Tangier at the Straits of Gibraltar, all the way, if there were time, the right 4x4, the means, and if the visas had been arranged

And Boko Haram and Ebola willing

Vast Africa, larger by two million square miles than North America

In 1964 on an eastern road north, the Great North Road, drove off from Ezulwini in Swaziland across what was then the Transvaal thousands of kilometers to the source of the Nile in Uganda before selling the car in Tanzania and leaving Africa from Mombasa on a freighter for the Suez and Europe 

After half a year in Tanga on the Swahili Coast still the whole length of the Nile from Africa’s northeastern end at the Mediterranean in front of Alexandria 

Vast Africa 

Spectacular Africa, both times from Cabo da Boa Esperança

From which now on the western road north into the Swartland through Malmesbury and Piketberg to Citrusdal 

Between two passes on the Olifants River 

The early Boer settlers came off Piekenierskloof out of semidesert over the river valley to come upon elephants there as far as they could see

Herds up and down the rich, grassy, narrow Olifantsrivier alluvial, the ridge of the Middleberg and its peaks to the east up over two thousand meters, redrock barren, abrupt and sheer up from the inland river 

Utterly absorbing to watch a family or clan of African elephants in the bush, imagine seeing thousands there on that pleasant smallish river, there through the ages until they were shot out two and three centuries ago 

There are hot springs off the western slope of the dramatic elephant ghost valley not far south from Citrusdal 

Hot springs like that a short walk down the mountain in Swaziland left fifty years ago where at night the Ezulwini village people would come slipping into the three pools, one above the other, and we would greet one another quietly and over polite murmuring would hear a nightjar’s clean arresting call 

Those springs are cemented in now and part of a golf hotel resort with pool bars, towel boys, and massage tables, the small Ezulwini village school is gone, the hillside pineapple field is fairways and greens, and the house I caretakered is a maintenance shed

The local Swazis in my time said that occasionally a leopard was there on the mountain above the Ezulwini springs 

Here all the way west the Olifantsrivier baths are a modest old spa and campground, the wondrous elephant herds are imagined

On the Cederberg’s high mountain gravel roads from Citrusdal come out in some hours in Clanwilliam back down on the Olifants River 

And then it is either Calvinia direction Uppington with its thermo-solar array and much deeper into the Northern Cape or out to Lambert’s Bay

Where, population six thousand, the fish plant processes frozen French fries now, fish stocks depleted and the local sandy soil fine for potatoes 

Lambert’s Bay’s ex-mayor who has a B&B is a paradigm of Afrikaner rectitude and sensibility, that alert and piercing Afrikaner stare, and with more to be learned about the end of apartheid from him and his wife than in any other conversation had the whole time in South Africa 

That fixed and level Afrikaner stare again in Lambert’s Bay standing with the owner and his friends within his outdoor beach restaurant, the sound of surf, back on the ocean, talking with them, they all looked two meters tall, about having been in their country half a century before, and walking away to the car very sad to leave at all

The Joburg to JFK fourteen-hour South African Airlines flight calls in Dakar after midnight and its landing path to the Senghor International Airport there on Cap Vert is dead over the colonial city

Gorée Island, Dakar’s slave pen from the Portuguese early 1500s, is not obvious at night but the medina and the empty late-night elephant-gray French colonial street layout and architecture come clear in the sodium-vapor light

No sense of the haunt of Ebola, as from a great West African city of nearly three million the immigration and US Homeland Security board the plane, and no lingering sense of South Africa, already two-thirds of the continent and most of the South Atlantic behind  

“With many hundreds of credits I’m beyond what I hoped to do as an independent writer. The only thing I’ve ever taught is swimming, I’ve never studied writing, and I didn’t even major in English. I’ve never had a pedestrian job since college, and never published anything I’m not proud of.” —D. E. Steward