You know the feeling, there is no substitute for it: riding down a curving highway at easy speed, wind in your face. Driving is the ultimate expression of freedom, and travelling is all about freedom. So when Addie and I were in Cape Town, we rented a car for a week. As an American, driving in South Africa was a little bit of an adventure as the South Africans drive on the British side of the road. But one day we decided to get out of the city and see the countryside that surrounds Cape Town. There are three directions one can go from Cape Town: north, along the towns that stud the Atlantic Coast, east into the winery country, or south along the rugged Cape Peninsula. Guided by a love of dramatic landscapes and a strong, poorly articulated desire to see the Cape of Good Hope, we chose to drive the Cape Peninsula.
The drive begins by skirting to the north of Table Mountain and down through the suburbs to the southern coast. Here we found settlements like Simon’s Town, clinging to the side of the mountains, wedged against the shore in long rows of picturesque storefronts. From there we traced the coastline further south, the mountains rising in cliffs from the blue crashing waves of False Bay. The road elevates with the cliffs, the views are spectacular vistas and perfect for driving. Just when it seems the terrain ahead is bound to be impassable, the road turns inland into the peninsula and we entered the national park that occupies most of the Cape Peninsula.
Here the view is long and desolate, the tops of these mountains windswept free of anything taller than a few feet. It is like a desert, or an alien planet. The drive continues south through this foreign landscape and we pass old abandoned homesteads, thinking: who in their right mind settles in this stark place? It is beautiful out here no doubt, but it is relentlessly exposed. At the furthest south point, the farthest southeast point in all of Africa, everything is exposed, even the rocks jutting abruptly into the air and stopping, the last thing between us and the Antarctic.
We climb the tower of rocks and look out into the ocean and I try to imagine what it must have been like for the European sailors, risking far more than the confusion of driving on the opposite side of the road. It seems, looking in one direction at an endless blue expanse of water, and turning around and feeling the rocky weight of an entire continent stretching northward, that we have lost much of our adventurousness these days. We seem to travel with expectations now of what we will find rather than chasing wild dreams of what could be. I find myself looking back at the misted coastline, at the widening tip of the most mysterious of continents wondering if my expectations of this place are clouding my ability to see what is really there, and knowing that the drive back north to Cape Town will be different.
And sure enough, it is. The terrain replays the same map, only in reverse, the stark windswept plains breaking into the trees of settlements, the road gradually refinding the coves of the coast, this time to the west. We pass hopelessly distant towns stuck on rocky knobs or tenuous beaches. We pay the toll to continue along Chapman’s Peak Drive, a roadway seemingly stapled to the side of undulating cliffs, and see the town of Haut Bay nestled in the shadow of the windward peaks. But it is more than just scenery now: these are places where children grow up and live experiences much like, but fundamentally different than my own. This picturesque scenery is normal to someone, what seems like rural desolation to my city eyes has always been home to these thousands and I have no idea where they even get groceries. The possibilities of their lives and adventures are written in this land, a land that I, as a traveler, can only glimpse from the windows of my passing car.
By the time we wind back to the beach town of Camps Bay and over the pass back into Cape Town we have seen a different side of South Africa, but feel all the more isolated for the experience. The road trip has brought us some perspective, but as with many educational experiences, it only serves to expose how little we know. When we limit ourselves to public transportation, we limit our viewpoint to a route map, to lives that exist according to an urban timetable. All over the world cities, despite language and culture, are similar in that they must address the difficulty of, and cope with the consequences of density. Urbanity is in its own way a universal constraint. It is out, away from the city, in places reached only by cars and trucks because there is no economic incentive to connect, that cultures are freest to evolve and flourish. There may be a million lives being lived in a foreign city, but to city dwellers, the thousand lives being lived in the countryside are the most foreign of all.