Up a mountain, down a hill

cable-carI don’t remember much about my first trip up Table Mountain on the famous cable car, 30 years ago.

In fact I’m pretty sure that on the way up I saw only two things: the thighs of adults bunched around me, and scenes from my short life flashing before me as I imagined what would happen if the floor peeled off.

Once we parked and the thighs herded me out into the sunshine I think I was very impressed by the glossy voluptuousness of the dassies which lolled around on the rocks, daring the tourists to “draw me like one of your French girls”.

With hindsight I must concede that they might not have been dassies at all. It was the early 1980s so it’s possible they were small security policemen dressed in dassie suits and tasked with distracting the attention of tourists away from Robben Island and the Cape Flats. But still, dassies remained fixed in my memory as the defining feature of my first summit.

Which is why, when I rode the cable car for just the second time in my life on the weekend, I was somewhat disappointed to discover not a single dassie at the top. Some years ago the mountain’s population of Himalayan Tahrs was exterminated. (I can’t quite remember why but I think it had something to do with them wanting autonomy from China and involved a controversy over their religious leader being denied a tourist visa.) Had the dassies met a similar fate? Or had they simply been eaten by Banting-devoted climbers who had replaced traditional trail mix with low-GI hyrax?

a lizard gave me a long, unblinking, deeply judgmental look

Perhaps asking similar questions, my fellow tourists were busily lowering their expectations. They had come up hoping to see flocks of leopards sharing watering holes with schools of elephants, but now, determined to get the most bang for their buck, they were photographing anything with a pulse. You could almost hear the Attenborough monologues playing out in their heads: “It has been a long winter but the starling’s wait is almost over. The unwary child has wandered from the herd and soon tires. The end is inevitable. Bewildered by the MSG coursing through its tiny veins, it soon drops the Niknak. A flutter of wings, a vicious stab of the beak, and the kill is complete. The starling swoops away to a crag to devour the chip in peace. Soon all that is left is a light dusting of orange powder. The circle of life rolls on…”

Click click click. Another 3,000 photographs of a starling’s foot uploaded to the Cloud…

But life, as the other Attenborough said in Jurassic Park, finds a way; and soon there were other critters to discover. A lizard gave me a long, unblinking, deeply judgmental look of the sort you get when you ask the depressed owner of a comic-book shop if he’s got any Beano annuals. Elsewhere, three beetles trudged along, no doubt lamenting John’s absence and blaming Yoko for it. And yet it was another species – Homo not really sapiens at all – which kept drawing one’s eye.

Two British tourists had climbed over the wall which prevents you from falling to your death and were taking selfies on a teetering pebble over a thousand-metre drop. One couldn’t help feeling that those pictures were going to be published posthumously by a tabloid, as part of a feature called “British heroes thrown to their death by savage African gravity”.

It would feature quotes about South Africa’s crime rate by a geologist (“That mountain has killed hundreds of people and should stop getting welfare benefits at once”) and might lead to travel advisories by Her Majesty’s Government warning tourists that stepping off cliffs a kilometre in the sky could result in their holidays being negatively impacted.

And yet a part of me understood why those idiots had clambered out over crumbling nothingness to take their photographs. I think it was an attempt to find danger in a landscape that is epic, vast, sublime but ultimately too safe and too easy to access. To step off the cable car onto the top of Table Mountain is to summit a famous mountain, and yet how do we reconcile this act with the heroic archetypes of our imagination?

Surely a summit is a needle of pure, non-negotiable death scratching the underbelly of space; the frostbitten, lung-exploding edge of the void? And doesn’t the act of summiting require an ordeal, leaving the weak to retreat or die or finding human popsicles buried in snow since the 1930s?

How can you claim to have had an adventure when the cable car has reduced you and your comrades to a basketful of kittens dangling under a rope?

All the same, I held the handrail all the way down the steps at the bottom.

*

First published in The Times and TimesLive

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