September 20, 2013 7:14 pm

Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize winner Hedley Twidle revisits South Africa’s Highway N2

The N2 is the longest highway in South Africa. It starts at an intersection near the docks in Cape Town, follows the eastern seaboard of the country (roughly), then bends inland below Swaziland to end at the town of Ermelo in the province of Mpumalanga.

It is 2,241km long. Can it be done justice in 2,241 words?

DISAMBIGUATION

The N2 we are concerned with here is not a United States Navy term for a senior military intelligence officer. It is not a London bus route, nor the model number of the Yamaha AvantGrand Piano. Neither is it the name of a 2011 anti-nuclear song by the Japanese indie rock band Asian Kung-Fu Generation.

It is not the road connecting Brussels and Maastricht, or Tananarive and Toamasina, or Kaolack and Kidira.

(Notes towards a larger, trans-national project: travel every stretch of N2 highway in the world. Then do a comparative analysis of different motorway cultures, driver behaviours, petrol station protocols…)

Also: it is not the N1. The N1 would be the obvious choice, drawing a showy diagonal from Africa’s tip to the border post on the Limpopo, joining Johannesburg and Cape Town: competing, overweening cities that conspire to make you forget the rest of the country. The N1 carves through the arid heart of the country: the Karoo, wide open spaces, verlore vlaktes. But the aim of this exercise is to get away from all those clichés. No windmills, no sunsets, no empty landscapes.

So, this is not a touring atlas or travel guide that will give you tips about where to turn off for the best-appointed guest house or quaintest village. It doesn’t care about game lodges or the splendours of the (so-called) Garden Route. It is, as far as possible, a non-travelogue, an anti-travel guide.

It is about the road itself, which begins near an unfinished flyover in Cape Town, runs all the way along the eastern flank of the landmass, and peters out somewhere that, at the time of beginning this, I have never been. Minimal geographical or historical significance: we will not be getting anywhere.

Illustration by Toby Whitebread of a road along South Africa©Toby Whitebread
Road reserve: the area of land between property boundaries, state-owned and maintained (in the case of the N2) by the South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL). The road reserve may include: hard shoulder, lay byes, slip roads, culverts, nature strips, indigenous vegetation planting projects, picnic areas, weigh-bridges, emergency sandpits for trucks that have lost their brakes etc etc…

Hitting the open road is one of the great literary starter motors. It is the simplest means for turning over a narrative engine, an instant metaphor for escaping something: routine, the city, your past. But this approach will attempt to stay as literal-minded, as pedestrian, as possible. It mustn’t stray from the tarmac itself, or from the hard shoulder, or the road reserve*. At least, it shouldn’t go beyond what road planners call the “acoustic footsteps” of the route: the envelope of sound that a road creates around it. That is: the N2 must always be in earshot.

CLOSURE

To limit what could be an overly ambitious project, and one that could easily spin out of control, there is the welcome constraint of this first test drive: one word per kilometre. By the end of this paragraph, we will have already burnt up 518km of tarmac.

This brings us to the exact spot of a raised footbridge in the Bitou Municipality. It joins the Bossiesgif-Qolweni informal settlement to a paved area abutting the Piesang Valley Road turn-off: a sad place where unemployed men wait to be picked up as casual labour for the day. Letter writers to the local paper ask why the bridge is so seldom used, why pedestrians still risk their lives on the tarmac.

Ever wondered how that contorted rock face you just passed in your car was formed? Or what those weeping fields of yellow plants that run for kilometres on either side of you are? The name of the purple flowers lining the tar road, or those birds that appear every so often along your route, perched consistently on telephone poles? You will find the answer to these and many other similar questions that arise on long road trips between major centres in this book

- Chris and Tilde Stuart, ‘Sasol Roadside Guide – Discovering Nature along the N2’ (2005)

I know all this because my father lives near this turn-off, and I rang him when the bridge appeared in the Cape Times of February 9 2012, with burning tyres and barricades below it: “Plettenberg Bay service delivery protesters block N2.” It was one of many disruptions to the route last year, so many that “Disruption to the Route” now appears on Wikipedia as a subheading.

Striking truckers closed the highway, then striking farmworkers. A bushfire in Hermanus, then a shack fire in Khayelitsha. Rocks fell on Sir Lowry’s Pass; near Somerset West, criminals planted boulders to wreck and rob vehicles. A 100-metre section of the N2 disappeared into a sinkhole near Grahamstown. These disruptions, both man-made and natural, showed how easy it was to shut down a national highway, fuelling further closures. Protesters kept threatening to cut off Cape Town International airport during the height of the tourist season. With the advent of the 2013 “poo protests”, buckets of faeces were repeatedly hurled at motorists and sloshed across the tarmac. Portable toilets were overturned and set alight by citizens demanding better sanitation. Transport authorities began testing an “indestructible” new fence to separate people from highway.

The N2 was registering larger societal pressures, political ferment, maybe even climate change. It kept forcing its way into the headlines, demanding to be reckoned with.

QUESTIONS ARISING (ON LONG ROAD TRIPS BETWEEN MAJOR CENTRES)

Ever wondered how that contorted rock face you just passed in your car was formed?**

Yes, sometimes, but the aim here is to reverse the usual direction of attention. Not simply to take in scenery through anti-shatter glass but to climb up that contorted rock face and look down at the road in the distance: sedans blinking, trucks engaging low gear because of the gradient. To look back at the built world: how ugly it is, how ingenious, how odd. To enquire how people make do on its cold, hard shoulder.

Why you?

Because I got my driving licence so late, at the age of 26. A certain kind of South Africa (which I now want to reconstruct) was then dissolved almost instantly; it evaporated like solvents off a hot petrol forecourt.

Who is the intended audience for your work?

All those people who will never read it: the woman manning the Stop/Go sign near Humansdorp, wearing clay to protect her skin from the sun, luminous bib flapping in the truck wind. A man I saw 10 years ago, sitting in a field near the turn-off to Butterworth, looking utterly, utterly bored. A woman in a booth of the Storms River Toll Plaza, still point in the holiday season rush.

COINCIDENCE

The first section of the N2 is shared with the N1: a four-lane elevated freeway that begins at the northern end of Buitengracht Street and runs between Cape Town’s Central Business District and the docks. In the language of planners, this is known as “coincidence”, “overlap” or “concurrency” in a road network. It is a relatively common phenomenon, because (and here is where Wikipedia comes into its own – the patient and unaffected stating of the obvious) “where two routes must pass through a single geological feature, or crowded city streets, it is often both economically and practically advantageous for them both to be accommodated on one road”.

It is also true that the complexity of cities, the flows of traffic across ever-changing grids, coupled with the peculiarities of physical addresses, occupations, interests and needs, produces for each one of us a particular pattern of familiar or habitual movement over the skin of the earth, which, if we could see it from a vantage point in the sky, would appear as unique as a fingerprint

- Ivan Vladislavic, ‘Portrait with Keys’ (2006)

I want to take these as the first of many technical road terms that will be made to yield a larger meaning. South Africa remains one of the most divided and spatially segregated countries in the world. That much is obvious. The N2 from the airport to Cape Town offers a crash course in it (despite the pre-World Cup roadside beautification schemes). On Nelson Mandela Boulevard above the Foreshore, curving round the banks and corporate headquarters of Cape Town, the modernist blueprint of high apartheid city planning is all around us. Roads as buffer zones and dividing lines. “Slum” flatteners, state-controlled corridors, cordons sanitaires.

But a road such as the N2 also allows us to see the enormous paradox at the heart of the apartheid city, its cynicism and illogic. Insisting on racial separation, it relied on cross-racial labour. The result was, and still is, a city of movement and daily crossings: between spaces, languages, and ways of being. Of endless and expensive (there is a specific, infinitely weary inflection given to this word by millions of South Africans) transport. Waiting for transport. Money for transport.

Roads then, and in particular a road such as the N2, are spaces that all inhabitants of this country are forced to share. Perhaps the only space. Perhaps share is the wrong word: to overlap, to coincide upon. What can we read off its secret history then? What do its movements allow us to see, or say, about a country that remains locked in so much stuck metaphor and broken-down language?

The following are a series of impressions dictated into a phone on Boxing Day 2012 when travelling back to Cape Town after visiting my father for Christmas. However I reproduce them ‘backwards’ here. That is: the direction of writing is opposite to the direction of travel, producing a sense of contra-flow and oncoming-ness that seems appropriate given the vexed and heavy traffic of the holiday season

PASS (I)

At the Sir Lowry’s Pass viewpoint on a hot afternoon, the sea has gone a brown foil colour. There are Zionist Christian Church members below a wooden cross in their white robes, Lay’s crisp packets in the bushes.

A plaque mentions the “precipitous and dreaded Gantouw Pass” to the north that was the earlier route to the Overberg, before this road was built by soldiers and convicts in the early 19th century. There is a hiking trail where you can see the old ox wagon tracks, scored into the rock. Scored wagon tracks are a recurring theme in the old, antiquarian travelogues – a trope, one might say, in all the literature running west to east. Authors scan the hillsides for these ghost tracks when everywhere around them the landscape has been blasted-through, scraped, remodelled on infinitely greater scales.

Looking down at the concrete slats and stilts of the road you have just travelled, you can sense the resistance of the landmass, the slow geologic heaves that could shake off the whole road business so easily.

Shortly after the pass, an avenue of blue gums produces another significant moment on the route: the first time that shade, not the flicker of cement overpasses but real shade, will touch your vehicle.

THE DIVING BOARD

When behind a truck: the overwhelming importance of passing it, of opening up the road again. It is less about time saved than preserving some kind of psychological illusion of unfettered movement.

But, of course, it’s only to the next truck. There is this inability to see the highway for what it is: a steady state system. Not an open road but a closed system of varying speeds and pressures that will all cancel each other out, eventually. Stop/go, pressure/release. It is something easily proved as soon as you pull over to apply sun cream to your steering arm. How quickly that truck passes you again and, in seconds, all your hard-won gains are gone.

Between Caledon and Swellendam: a bright red Shoprite truck is making its way under a big sky, holding up a queue of traffic. It is almost like lining up to take your turn at the diving board, or some other feat of manly daring and strength. Back in the queue you can watch how other drivers go about it: the cautious ones clinging to the truck’s skirts, the daredevils powering by. How will you perform when it’s your turn to overtake, and all the impatient drivers behind are watching?

Sometimes there is a truly timid driver between you and the truck, clogging things for long minutes, and my Peugeot hardly has the juice to take two at a time. Then in the rear-view: a Merc or an Audi with intricate LED-type headlights, one of these big-engined sedans that never really hold a position on the busy holiday roads. Just dips in and then out, hardly breaking its stride as it jumps all three of you, Chinese checkers, ducks and drakes.

PARALLEL

Off the N2 at Swellendam, following it in parallel through the town as you search for a pie.

When you are on the highway, it is the be-all and end-all. It compels all your attention, structures and convenes the whole world around it. When off it you realise: it’s just an arbitrary line, just another route through the landmass. Suddenly it seems surprisingly distant, unimportant, even peaceful.

FINE

While assembling these notes towards a book that will probably never get written, five speeding fines with photographs have dropped through my letterbox: Somerset West (R500, £32), Swellendam (R100), Riversdale (R300), Groot Brak (R200), Sedgefield (R200). It is a strange moment, seeing your car caught in the act, a crosshair homing in on your number plate. It’s not a view you would ever see, normally, and it feels like an intrusion. It brings out buried libertarian sentiments. The blue Peugeot is just trundling down the highway, looking amiable. What were you doing at that moment? There is a silhouette of your head, your girlfriend’s head. 103kph in a 70 zone, 11.45 in Somerset West and sure enough, the shadow of the car is tucked under the chassis.

My father counsels me not to pay, and tells me that he has racked up a whole sheaf of these letters. It is a surprise to me because he is one of the slowest, most ponderous drivers I have even known. He regards it as a money-making racket, with Garden Route municipalities placing all these unrealistic limits on a national highway, and tells me how to challenge the notice in court. Can we see the calibration records from the officer in charge? Was the instrument zeroed? When was it zeroed? There is a whole book about it, which he promises to send me.

RECALIBRATION

The word to kilometre ratio was always going to be impossible. The N2 is too long, and there is too much weight on a word when it must carry a whole thousand metres. Only poetry could take that kind of abnormal load.

A word per 10 metres is tempting, simply because in a vehicle travelling at around 140kph (above the speed limit but a typical long distance cruising velocity), you would then be clocking “words” as fast as you are scanning them on this page. But, according to this formula, the N2 would furl out to a document just longer than Crime and Punishment.

So, then, what about a word per 100 metres? This seems more in line with human capabilities, since you can see quite clearly to the end of 100 metres, and probably settle on a single word for it.

22,410 words seems doable.

Each way.

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Read Hedley Twidle’s 2012 winning essay ‘Getting Past Coetzee’, plus Simon Schama’s ‘Why I Write’ and 2012’s runner-up entry by Raghu Karnad at www.ft.com/BodleyHeadFTcompetition

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Win £1,000 – and have your work published: how to enter

After the success of last year’s inaugural Bodley Head/Financial Times Essay Prize, which attracted 500 entries and uncovered outstanding new talent, including the winner, Hedley Twidle, we are proud to announce the launch of the 2013 competition. Entries will be judged by a distinguished panel, including historian and FT contributing editor Simon Schama, Tom Weldon, chief executive of Penguin Random House UK, and Caroline Daniel, editor of FT Weekend.

The judges are looking for dynamic, lively and authoritative non-fiction essays of no more than 3,500 words, which must be written in English and can be on any subject. The winner will receive £1,000, epublication by Bodley Head, and a mentoring session with senior Bodley Head/FT editors. Two runners-up will receive £500 each and also have their work published as an ebook.

Entrants must be aged 35 or under, and the closing date is November 24 2013.

For the entry form and full terms and conditions, please visit http://membership.ft.com/PR/bodleyhead

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