x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Beads in the wind: a symbolic gesture at Cape Point

Aound Africa Trying to hurl things off the Cape of Good Hope can result in loss of life.

Two oceans meet at the Cape of Good Hope. Scott MacMillan for The National
Two oceans meet at the Cape of Good Hope. Scott MacMillan for The National

The Cape of Good Hope is, contrary to widespread belief, not the southernmost point of Africa. I didn't know this either when I set out, but the distinction belongs to the little-known Cape Agulhas, about 200km by road to the south-east of Cape Town. I keep the latter as a reminder of things I could have done but didn't: I never made it up to Bizerte, Tunisia, the northernmost point, although it's a short distance from Tunis, and a minor altercation with a Dakar cab driver prevented me from reaching Pointe des Almadies in the far west, but I surely could have walked the remaining distance. The eastern extremity, meanwhile, lies within the semi-autonomous Puntland region and, although it's actually one of the safer parts of Somalia, I shan't be heading there anytime soon. Forgive me if I don't cry in my Yoohoo about not going to Cape Agulhas.

Still, I had some urge to do something corny and personal and dramatic to mark the end of my Africa journey, or at least what I'd assumed would be the end. The Cape of Good Hope, along with the nearby but more dramatically situated Cape Point, seemed a good enough place to chuck some beads into the sea.

On the day I finally persuaded somebody to drive me the 90 minutes down Cape Peninsula, the wind was such that it numbed the facial nerves. People stumbled about as though besotted by the scenery, all cliffs and foam and scrub-covered slopes. The sign at the Cape of Good Hope doesn't do justice to the scene at the promontory's southern edge, where two oceans are said to meet, announcing awkwardly, "The most south-western point of the African continent".

Here, or more properly, in the waters between Cape Point and Cape Agulhas, the Indian Ocean's warm Agulhas current, originating south of Madagascar and moving 80 million cubic metres of water per second in a 160km wide corridor, crashes into the cold Benguela current, moving 15 million cubic metres of water per second from the south in a path 250km wide, resulting in hurricane-force turbulence. The waves begin to break far from shore, sweeping in like a herd of galloping white horses, the wind blowing the caps into a misty trail that resembles snow blown from the top of a Himalayan peak, or perhaps some ludicrous vision of Arthur returning from Avalon.

The crowds climb to the Cape Point lighthouse, far above the sea. This is no place to be throwing anything into the surf, for the headland extends several hundred metres to the south. Down below there's a path, empty of tourists, making its way out to a platform close to the point itself. The wind on this path rages with such intensity I fear I may be blown off the cliff and dashed to pieces on the rocks below - or worse, lose my glasses or a flip-flop and have to return to the car in ignominy.

I'm glad to be alone for a few moments out here. I contemplate the dross accumulated during the past 18 months of travel, and facing the wind head on, I imagine I must be experiencing a moment of purification. There's no special story with these Tibetan prayer beads, by the way: they weren't a gift from a Himalayan lama or anything, just something I happened upon a while back and ended up carrying with me around the world, like a great many less tangible things. When the string finally broke it seemed unbecoming to throw them out with the garbage.

Predictably, I have a moment like the ending of The Big Lebowski, when Donny's ashes fly back into the faces of Walter and the Dude. The southerly gusts don't make it easy for anything to be swept away to Antarctica. One by one I pick up each of the beads and toss them into the bushes down below, where at least I can't see them any more. I return to the parking lot, noting on the way out a faded signpost I'd missed before, warning of a "dangerous walk" to the point.

If there's a coda here, it's that my journey through Africa isn't finished. Circumstances have conspired to send me onward, overland again, northward to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, over 10 days, via Zimbabwe and Zambia. I began in Tunis; three-quarters of the way around the continent isn't bad. And who knows - perhaps the gushing waters of Victoria Falls en route will provide yet another opportunity for a dramatic finish.

Scott MacMillan is blogging about his journey on www.wanderingsavage.com. Read his previous columns at Around Africa.