When I was a kid I used to climb mountains. Kommetjie is a tiny town at the end of South Africa’s southern peninsula, right near the bottom of the world, and my back garden was a nature reserve filled with fynbos and pine trees and baboons. My parents were hippies and my sisters and I weren’t allowed to watch TV, so when we weren’t on the beach, almost every day after school, we used to head out of the back gate for a walk up into the mountain. There was a steep hill to begin with, with a flatter stretch all the way to the end: a massive white cross, with a wide-angle view of the town, the city and the sea. We called that first hill Pig Dog, I don’t know why, and on the way back we’d run down as fast as we could; just bolt all the way home, daring ourselves to go flying, head over heels, like crazy hippie kids coming straight out of school, scared of nothing.
Yeah, I grew up with a lot of the world at my feet.
When I was in Grade 9, my mom got me a dog. He was the family labrador, obviously, but I say me because I felt like somehow I belonged to him. We called him Monty, and he slept on my bed, and every morning I’d be late for the bus because he’d find a way out the gate and try to follow us to school. We had a huge, shady, beautiful garden for him to play in, but he wanted more. He was always smiling, except when he was asleep flat on his back, all four legs straight up in the air; he was the kind of dog who naturally just belonged wherever he decided to be. He was always half-covered in mud, from the bottom up, and he used to steam up the windows in my bedroom with the smell of it; he’d rock up at the front door with five porcupine quills sticking out of his neck; he used to eat for free straight out of the local restaurant’s kitchens; my mom liked to say he ate so much he was a kind of walking alimentary canal. The neighbours complained that he went for midnight swims in their pools, and my gran would find him most days on the beach, on his own mission; she used to say Monty moved around Kommetjie like he owned the place.
Every day we’d say we were taking Monty for a walk up the mountain but he was really taking us. He had this way of leading the way right up to the highest point and looking out over two oceans, down at the edge of the world, with a big goofy smile on his face, eyes wide and tongue all over the place, happy like he’d found his own kind of heaven. When I was a kid I used to climb mountains, then I grew up and I didn’t anymore. Maybe it was because Monty wasn’t around to take me, or because that little town wasn’t the same without him. Maybe it was because I felt that I’d outgrown all of that – the hiking, Pig Dog, the running home, the feeling I could fly – but I moved away from Kommetjie and forgot about the mountain. Didn’t think about it, couldn’t look at it. I grew up and I got lazy; I lived on the couch and forgot what it felt like to be fearless, forgot how it felt to be free. It was slow, and subtle, and even stupid, but I got scared, of the future and the world, and I got suffocated by myself and my problems and I got sad.
When I first met my wife Monty was still around. He approved of her, massively, I could tell: by that time he was pretty old and his legs were pretty stiff; he spent most days sleeping on the couch in my bedroom, and he used to climb into the back of her beaten-up little Honda Ballade and she’d take him for slow drives, out to the Kom for a walk in the seaweed, and out to Scarborough in the middle of the day, just for fun. For one of my birthdays she painted a picture of him walking on the beach, and on the day of our wedding Monty paid his respects in the form of two overfed horses who gate crashed the photo shoot then left, off on their own mission, like they knew they belonged wherever they wanted to be. I was surrounded by trees and green and the mountain and it felt like I was a kid again. It felt like going back in time. Like coming up for air.
A few weeks ago my sister called out of the blue and said hey, you wanna go for a walk up Constantia Nek and I said yes before she’d finished asking. I stepped out of the car with her three collie dogs and smelled the fynbos and the pine trees and the rain and it hit me pretty hard, the hurt of missing this, how happy I was to come home. Maybe I wasn’t scared of the mountain anymore, or maybe it didn’t make me sad to think Monty wouldn’t be there to show the way anymore, wouldn’t be just up ahead, tongue all over the show like he owned the place, but I knew that I’d found my own kind of heaven early in life and that it had found me again. I knew then that I somehow belonged to the mountain, and that it would be in me forever, like mud that sticks to you from the ground up. Like something that leads you to the edge of the world.
When I was a kid I had a lot of the world at my feet and I never really understood the magic of that. It was just a hill, a long stretch and big cross; a place to walk the dog. But when Monty died we buried him on his mountain. I’m not sure Cape Nature or whoever would be too stoked with that, but fuck them, that’s his mountain more than theirs. But I understand it now, why he always wanted more than a garden, and why, even when he could hardly walk, he wanted to look out over the ocean. His fearlessness, the natural freedom. That sense of belonging. And I understand Pig Dog. That first little hill is pretty wide, and the sand is white as snow, and it cuts through the mountain like a beacon. It’s visible from right across the bay; you have to go a long way before you stop seeing it, and it runs through the story of my life like a neural pathway straight into my dreams, like a lightning bolt that burns a hole in my heart. Like a crack in the sky of my soul. When I was a kid I used to run up that hill every day, then I ran away from it. Still it runs through me.