Defend Truth


Mourning the dead, celebrating life, embraced by the light of the Whale Trail


Justin Nurse is ‘the T-shirt guy”’– the guy who went to court with SABMiller over his right to poke fun at Black Label with his infamous ‘Black Labour/White Guilt’ T-shirt, which resulted in a Constitutional Court victory in 2005 and a landmark judgment for freedom of expression in the face of trademark law.

To walk the Whale Trail, you first walk away from where you are eventually going to end up. This seems counter-intuitive: you turn around to move forward. 

Strange Light I

Sitting front row in a church in Joburg, pallbearer for a best friend, I look up in the way you lift your head to avoid a nosebleed, to prevent tears from streaming down my face. 

I can’t help but notice the lofty ceilings in the surreality of this all, so much space between here and heaven. People are saying things I cannot relate to, and Jesus’s name is mentioned more times than that of my friend. 

High up to my left is a blue stained-glass window that holds my gaze. There are well over a hundred small, leaded panes, cut through on the diagonal with the mid-morning light. That must be the shadow of the church steeple, I surmise, or perhaps the steep pitch of the roof. 

The bottom diagonal is a darker blue, caused by the shadow, and the top diagonal features the detail of a cross in the top centre middle pane. 

As we all sit there solemnly in the confusion of it all, and my friend — who is also a father, a son, a brother, a lover, a cousin, and so many more things to many grieving hearts around me — is spoken about in soft, glowing terms, the diagonal shadow moves downwards, allowing the lighter blue hue to fill more of the window panes. 

Were I a religious man, I would see this as a sign that he is ascending before my very eyes. I don’t know if he is in the coffin next to me, and I don’t know why he is now gone. I cannot make sense of anything. 

He is everywhere around me and also nowhere to be found. I weep in the arms of his mother, knowing what it means to lose a child. All of my old friends look old. And shell-shocked. Time will ravage you. Or even more cruelly, simply be taken away. 

Strange Light II

Corlett Drive at night and a billboard that I recall reading, “Keep Walking” next to a Norman Goodfellows bottle store. I did time here in the halcyon days of 2010 soccer fever, and the decline since then is very real. 

A billboard near Wanderers has no PVC cladding to speak of, so backlit LED tube lights glare skittishly back at me as I try to make sense of the traffic intersection.

Were there a sign, this one would say “Keep Driving”. No one stops at robots here anymore, the stories are all true. A bird pops its head out from a pothole in front of me, a canary down a coal mine in erstwhile Egoli. My friends up North know that I loathe it here and Gillooly’s Interchange always has a way to get me lost whenever I land.  

I feel like I am chancing death now as I drive, like Elijah en route to Passover, trying to make a Shabbat dinner and fill the empty place that is always set for an arriving friend. But the GPS doesn’t factor in gated communities and leads me to barricaded cul de sacs while screaming “Proceed to the route”. I am shocked by the static when I open doors in the Highveld and there is an imminent violence to this suburbia that I cannot condone. 

“New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” by LCD Soundsystem would be the soundtrack I’d be playing in my rental as I head back to OR Tambo in under 24 hours, were I not listening so intently to the GPS navigational cues. Joburg, I loathe you, and you’re bringing me down. 

Strange Light III

Driving with the reckless abandon of someone who is chasing freedom and now knows that they are close. The dirt road to De Hoop Nature Reserve is obliterated with potholes. 

Perhaps it is my Western Cape bias, but this kind of degradation seems somewhat fine. After such a wet winter already, these are deep puddles of rain that my car’s wheels hit, causing splashes of dirt and scraping of the chassis that lets me know how I am. 

Up ahead, the yellow-brown Bredasdorp light is reflected up off the puddles and into the fields of hay, and the road is pockmarked with a tortoise-shell pattern that alludes to the random occasionality of all that is to come. 

I am here to hike the Whale Trail. New acquaintances fill the space of old friends still in mourning and the void of my friend who has passed is simply too big to fill. He would have been here, and we would have been watching the rare Cape vulture nest at Black Eagle Cave at sunset from a bird hide that is sublimely above it all. 

Tomorrow we new hikers will walk the 15.5km from Potberg to Cupidoskraal and share the intimacy of things we can eat together at dinner and what it takes to escape the city for a while. 

In the morning it will go from dark to light grey as I sit on the balcony drinking my coffee and watch a fish eagle soar overhead while hadedas cry, making it known that we should soon be on our way. 

Strange Light IV 

To walk the Whale Trail, you first walk away from where you are eventually going to end up. This seems counter-intuitive: you turn around to move forward. 

Up, up, and along the lip of the Potberg mountain towards where the mouth of the Breede River meets the Indian Ocean at Witsand. Memories of Cape Infanta holidays as a teenager off in the distance.  

To our left, you can see the Langeberg while below you the brown Breede River snakes through farmlands and green fields. 

To our right is the coastline, far off in the distance still, teasing you with thoughts of whale watching and summery sea swims. 

To get there (and to extend this mouthy metaphor) you must first pass through the toothy-grinned Tafelberg sandstone crags where the luscious, deep red lips of protea flowers kiss you like a Joburg kugel from your childhood, before picking up pace in the limestone hills as you drop down to sea level and start to forgive. 

From the mountain crest above the newly-built Noetsie huts, you will marvel at your first whale sighting. In all this oceanic expanse in front of you is a whale so large and elusive it has to be watched to be believed. 

Someone in the group has new binoculars with a lifetime guarantee so you have to wear the strap around your neck at all times while southern right whale spotting as a sign of respect. 

The choppy grey swell on the horizon tells of storms still to come and there is a texture to the faraway waves that you can almost touch through the eye glasses. Seagulls, oystercatchers, and white-breasted cormorants are soaking it up in splendour as down goes the day.

At night by the fireside, we are regaled with stories about Genghis Khan, the Mongolian warrior who built the largest land empire in the world some 850-odd years ago. The book being referenced is “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford.  

For my part I’m reading the Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard’s, book, “Let My People Go Surfing”. In it, he humbly brags about how he free-climbed over the Great Wall of China (“only 5.8 in difficulty”), and how it was “built to keep out the Mongol hordes, but they got in anyway by bribing a gate guard”. 

I share the anecdote as we laugh by the light of the near full moon and a well-read friend talks about Lewis Dartnell’s “Origins — How the Earth Shaped Human History”; we piece together Pangea and attempt to solve mankind’s problems with the perspective of a few million years.

Strange Light V

Walking along the high-water mark the next day, discovering caves filled with middens where strandlopers long since past used to shuck oysters and feast on fish we now deem endangered. 

With thoughts of tectonic plates and the creation of atolls from underwater volcanoes still front of mind, I can well imagine these black tidal pools stretching far out into the sea at a time when the shoreline was kilometres away. 

There’s a humility to this exercise in mindfulness, like when you zoom out on our location using Google Maps to get a sense of your own insignificance in the grand scheme of it all, that helps with the feeling of overwhelm in this bleak midwinter. Here, my job is simply to walk, observe, and try to do no harm.

At Stilgat we light a candle for our departed friend and swim in the afternoon effervescence of a deep gully against a strong, incoming tide for just short enough a time to be safe and just long enough to feel even more alive. 

A year ago we were doing the same thing along the Otter Trail and this feels like the kind of send-off he’d appreciate. 

As colours go, the orange lichen on the rocks matches the sunset shortly before the full moon arrives to whiten it all out, making that piss that you get up in the middle of the night to make that much easier to navigate. 

And because the Moon’s orbit is not a perfect circle (thanks to Earth’s gravitational pull), this supermoon is known as a Buck Moon, is orbiting closer to the Earth than usual, and is seemingly full for three days. What a time to be alive. 

We follow in each other’s sunken footprints along thick beach sand as we are now well past the halfway point of our journey. We marvel at blow holes that burst to life through a sea shelf which makes me appreciate that all is not solid underfoot. 

Between the roof of a church and the floor of the sea bed, there is air to breathe. 

On the first morning, during the briefing, we were played a video that hyped up the “indelible memories that will forever be etched in your mind”. At the time it stank to high hell of a marketing mixed metaphor and I didn’t know what it could possibly mean.

Now, here I am, swimming at the last beach before pickup at Koppie Alleen. 

The light is bouncing off the lips of the waves, like the potholes in the road on the way here, the potholes in all roads. There is degradation that is inevitable, and a death that must come for us all. 

Waist deep in the water, I look up at the sun and close my eyes. The tortoise-shell patterns of light play out against my eyelids and the road ahead comes together in a sense-filled moment of bliss. I turn around to move forward. DM


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