I’m on the N2, driving from Nature’s Valley to Cape Town and I’m happy. It’s a few years since I’ve driven this road and once again, its beauty beguiles me. But from early on, through the forests of the Valley, the crest of The Crags, the lakes and waterways of Knysna and the breathtaking beaches of The Wilderness, my thoughts are running ahead of me, recalling another time.
I don’t remember the year. I don’t remember my age or the rhyme and reason of the journey but I do remember that I was in the passenger seat. Or the enchantment may have passed me by. It was the same road in another world and I am reminded that ‘we pass this way but once.’ I know I’ll never see it again but still, I can’t help looking.
Today I’m under a blazing blue sky. As the ocean and valleys give way to rolling wheatlands and pastures, all shade evaporates. The temperature beyond the capsule of my car climbs into the mid-thirties. Sun-stunned sheep, incongruous in last year’s coats, huddle in each other’s meagre shadows and cattle, stock-still, cluster under this searing, southern sun. Fences and ploughed furrows etch – sharp and unforgiving – into the brittle, dry earth. I’m crossing Miro’s canvas but I’m searching for Turner.
Leaving Riviersonderend behind me, my focus narrows. I know it was on the left, set against a mountainside, far, far away from the road, a shoebox-sized house. It’s only around Caledon that the mountains, until now on my right, cross the highway and climb the fields on my left and I see, sprinkled across their slopes, small white suggestions of houses. I’ll never know which one it was but I keep looking.
On that day, this exact stretch of road could have been in a different galaxy. It was late afternoon. It had been raining. Maybe it was Autumn. Low, waterlogged clouds folded and unfolded themselves over the farmlands, while shards of dusky sunlight shimmered through their creases, diffusing the mist and casting a lambent light over the hide-and-seek valley below. A wash of watercolours and pooling pastels kept reality at bay.
And then, suddenly, a beam of light, steady and strong, broke through the blurred-grey canopy and shone. It shone down and captured a distant farmhouse – until then quite invisible – and held it, gilt-framed in an unwavering embrace.
All else was in motion; the car in that luminous landscape on that rainswept road, the clouds and the setting sun, but for a fraction of eternity I held that homestead in my gaze. It was long enough to imprint itself indelibly on the pages of my mind; a memory trapped in amber; translucent and tantalising, beckoning me back.
I remember wanting to be in that house. I remember wondering if there was anyone at home just then and hoping there was. And I remember wondering if they knew that at that precise moment, they were standing at the foot of The Stairway to Heaven. I wanted to be there too.
Today, of course, I do not find it. There are several farflung houses that might have been it but I’ll never know which it was. Next time I find myself on that ribbon of road I know I will look for it once more and I know it will be futile. But once again, I’ll have reason to bring that little piece of amber out into the light. I’ll study it once more; I’ll think about it and I’ll remember when one particular farmstead had its own ephemeral moment of glory. For that one moment it was Heaven on Earth and I was there to witness it.