Bainskloof Pass is reopening for a few weeks over the holidays after being closed to the public for more than a year. This is of interest to me as I live at the summit of this national monument, which was first opened in 1853 after being built by esteemed road engineer Andrew Geddes Bain with the help of convict labour.
After lockdown ’21 and lengthy road renovations this year that still have several more months to go before completion, there ought suddenly to be a lot more cars whizzing past my bedroom window along the giddy twists and turns between the towns of Wellington and Ceres.
It’s been a privilege encountering nothing more than klipspringers and Hewitt’s red rock hares along the pass as construction workers belay themselves from cliffs, throwing sods of soil into chain mesh, hoping that succulents will take root in time and stem the landslide into their newly-formed concrete gutters.
There’s a local Cape mountain leopard with an onlooker’s cave; the ladies working at the “stop and go” are often terrified in the evenings when I’m walking along the pass in the evenings and they mistake my chow dogs for a leopard. What’s terrifying though is the thought of all those cars soon to be careering around the corners, right where I lay my head at night.
It was the Black Friday of a few weeks ago when I awoke sometime after midnight with calculated ambitions of buying European hiking boots that a friend offered to bring over from the UK in January. News of a “B1 variant” and SA being placed on the dreaded “red list” scuppered those plans quickly — no money, no travel — and the day was suddenly all too much for me. Be one, sure. But with what or with whom?
Waking again in the afternoon when the heavens of the black south-easterly wind briefly lifted, I was drawn to the scene of a recent accident. The Saturday evening prior, just as I’d returned from rock-hopping delight in the Witte River below the pass, a grandmother had driven off the pass a mere 2km from where I live at Eerste Tol.
With the chows masquerading as leopards and in need of a walk, I set off in the direction of Tweede Tol and asked the rain-drenched stop-and-go ladies peering out from their security booth if they’d been working that past weekend.
They shrugged with a resignation that said “yes” and told me she was driving “baie te vining” (much too fast). Three small children died on impact and were ejected from the car; the grandmother was still alive (according to a subsequent news report) and was taken to Paarl Mediclinic in need of critical care.
There’s something about reliving trauma and witnessing violence that affords me the chance to revisit my pain; to embrace it in some macabre, consolatory hug. I scrambled down the side of the pass where the car had gone off the road, imagining how it must have flown through the air as the cliffside treetops remained unperturbed.
I slid down a steep embankment, noticing a toothbrush embedded in the soil, and places where the rescue workers cleared branches. This was where we cycled our bikes and retrieved our first geocache as a family last summer. This is where, a week before the accident, a pile of stones and building sand would’ve surely prevented their fall.
The car was right there in the river, not a hundred metres away from another car wreck from a year ago. In that accident, miraculously, there were four survivors. But such is the transient nature of living on a pass that I can’t say for sure what’s become of them, or the grandmother. I run a lodge. People come and go. Sometimes too fast.
Inside the car were diapers, bum cream, baby clothes — recent signs of life. A car wheel spun to the gurgle of the river. I retrieved the clothes, callously scavenging, recreating the moments of death and the rescue operation in my mind’s eye.
I swam below the bloodstream, saying a prayer to the departed. Rain pelted my naked back as penance for my thoughts. Rocks cascaded below me as I scrambled back up the embankment. Lightning caused the strangest reflection on the silver puddles that were forming in the half-made road as the heavens again opened and I trudged homewards with a heavy heart.
I thought about what it means to be alive. I tried to allow myself to feel. I can vividly recall, in the way that rich food will repeat on you and leave a bad taste in your mouth, the visceral occasions that I have witnessed death at the side of a road. There’s a gasping for air as you choke on your bile at the recollection. Were that I was stoic when death crosses paths with life and I am there to bear witness.
The dogs must’ve been frightened by the lightning and scampered off home. Downtrodden, I hitched a ride with a safety vehicle passing at shift change for the stop-and-go ladies as it was getting dark. One of the staff in the back of the van has a one-year-old baby, she told me, and so I gave her the clothes I’d retrieved. Life carries on. I’m still alive and this life is all I have. If I was able to commune with the gods of Bainskloof Pass, I would ask that they provide safe passage to all those passing through this festive season. DM