Home Page African-Writing Online
HomeAbout UsNewsinterviewsProfiles of South African Women WritersFictionPoetryTributesArtReviews

  Alex Smith
  Amanze Akpuda
  Amatoritsero Ede
  Amitabh Mitra
  Ando Yeva
  Andrew Martin
  Aryan Kaganof

  Ben Williams
  Bongani Madondo
  Chielozona Eze
  Chris Mann
  Chukwu Eke
  Chuma Nwokolo
  Colleen Higgs
  Colleen C. Cousins
  Don Mattera
  Elizabeth Pienaar
  Elleke Boehmer
  Emilia Ilieva
  Fred Khumalo
  Janice Golding
  Lauri Kubuitsile
  Lebogang Mashile
  Manu Herbstein
  Mark Espin
  Molara Wood
  Napo Masheane
  Nduka Otiono
  Nnorom Azuonye
  Ola Awonubi
  Petina Gappah
  Sam Duerden
  Sky Omoniyi
  Toni Kan
  Uzor M. Uzoatu
  Valerie Tagwira
  Vamba Sherif
  Wumi Raji
  Zukiswa Wanner

   Ntone Edjabe
   Rudolf Okonkwo
   Tolu Ogunlesi
   Yomi Ola
   Molara Wood

August Debut

Issue 2; October/November


Colleen Crawford Cousins


Colleen Crawford Cousins

Cousins returned to South Africa in 1991 and began to live in the Afterwards. She lives in Cape Town and consults nationally as a trainer, facilitator and writer. Her poems have been published in New Coin, and she is the co-author, with Pamela Reynolds, of Lwaano Lwanyika, Tonga Book of the Earth.


I've been asked to speak to you about flattish walks of the Western Cape. I’ll divide this talk into different sections - heights and depths, safety, equipment, companions, reminiscences, case studies and so on.

The edge

What’s so frightening about a drop? It’s not so bad, I tell my startled inner horse. But it is, it’s worse than I can imagine. I either freeze or dither when I come to that kind of edge. More accurately, though, the edge comes up to me. One moment it’s sitting there, minding its own business, just the edge of a perfectly ordinary flattish mountain path, and suddenly without a moment’s warning it sickenly falls or veers away – always to the right, to my right side – and I am suddenly too tall, too shaky, there is no stability when the earth rushes past like this, it is too fast. The path is going like a bat out of hell. This path is not safe.


I hear my walking companion say this word, safe. I nod like a horse pretending to learn arithmetic. You could hit me over and over again with safe and I could never really add it up, never would this path here and now equal safe. Safe flickers across the path like a possibly lethal snake, as in: safe sex, safe house – my horse rears up at this, you’ve got to be kidding – any mammal can see that this edge is the knowledge that nothing is solid.

I’ve had these experiences of the not so solid edge of the world since I was four. At once I stopped being reckless on bridges. Ladders can do this almost as well as the decks of ocean liners. Too frightened to have a panic attack, that’s how it feels; the sudden revelation of matter’s non-maternal Kali face.

Matter is made of huge spaces inhabited only by tiny particles spinning lonely in fields of energy, sometimes in the dark. My body is capable of falling. My ankles feel fragile. Standing upright on this world made of unspeakable voids seems foolhardy. The world is nothing but a whirling tenuous mass of carbon and water, loosely connected to a despair that knows that common sense is a reassuring lie. Reassurance is not reassuring. Our planet is not a cozy round beach ball bouncing playfully in space. It is a mysterious plane balanced insecurely above a void – a void full of nothing which can hove up anywhere, anytime. I’ve nearly fallen, in my time, into the void in the middle of a conversation, in the middle of a crowd. And now, on this flattish mountain path, here it is again: the edge of the world, flowing past fast to the right.

This is the problem loosely labeled vertigo. As they say about alcoholics: if you’re worried about it, you probably are. Seek help.

Seeking help

But where? I’m drawn to mountains, to walking, to the inflation of looking down, panting, onto a scene made tiny and nostalgic by distance and separation. I’m drawn to the blueness of certain huge skies, the serene sheep-like clouds that hover around and often beneath these rocky pinnacles. I am drawn to the winking of the little farm dams like broken mirrors. Each one, I know, represents a nasty web of social relations from which I am, at this moment, cut off. The Cape grapes, the bread I have in my daypack, all revision and undermine the sweep of young green wheat rolling far beneath the next great crag.

The challenge is to find a flattish walk to the top of one of these mountains, and as many as possible, since we live in a city built on the foothills of a mountain system, bounded on three sides by two oceans. There are ways over and between these mountains to the flat land beyond, on foot, donkey cart, bike or car, but not too many of these. Look, I have no escape fantasies. I’ve run away before. There is no place to hide from the edges of this flat earth.

Though I never venture alone on mountains, it’s hard to pinpoint the actual source of danger for the vertiginist, even if you are accompanied by the regulation number of red jerseys, waterbottles, companions and dogs.

Who to be with on flattish walks

While it’s important to brief your companions before the edge comes up, they won’t hear or understand, believe me. Or maybe they hear it but they just forget. So that’s what you mean. How neurotic, or psychotic; the politer ones let a look of compassion filter over their sweating features though its non comprehendo, really, while the meaner ones roll their eyes when confronted with my balky horse. Patience is the thing to look out for – patience is a virtue in rapid transit to rage in my montane experience.

Well before the path itself I have already explained that crampons and hand over hand are not for me, and my friends or lovers should have a fair idea of where things lie. But the variation amongst vertiginists is enormous. S., for example, could not tolerate being driven over Chapman’s Peak or endure the rake of certain sports stadiums without disturbing thoughts and experiences. She could not look out of glass lifts. She avoids Cavendish Square, where something strange and menacing has been made of the escalators. Once the descent has been embarked on – boldest foot forward - slow, stately, you fall and fall, a slo-mo drop of water in an endless stream pouring over the harsh metallic escalating lip. No way back.

No way back

What happens when there is no way back? On any walk this is an outcome to be avoided if possible; but the most exciting and worthwhile flattish walks may develop one of these sheer edges at an awkward place in your walking relationship. The worst are most vividly remembered:

“Look, look, you can do it! It’s easy!”

The walking companion is hopping back and forth over the precipice or running up and down the path with the sheer drop to what may in one minute if she’s not careful turn into the void to demonstrate the safety of it all, the sheer comfortable ease of it, the utter irrationality of your position, the roundness of the world, the impossibility of the existence of any physical danger, here and now. Birds are flying and swooping nonchalantly – look! Cheerful grasses cling to the cliff face, being good sports and making the most of things.

Making the most of things

Once I walked as part of a couple. We started out late – leaving as late as possible, since there was so much pulling and pushing to accomplish between us before an expedition, let alone a named mountain, could be agreed on. The dreadful had already happened years before we got anywhere near the nearest foothills. Belief and trust had long ago been suspended. Between us was not a tabletop or the gear lever but a war zone, a field of lies. Lies are like landmines. You can’t see them on the path but you know they’re there, somewhere. One wrongly weighted word could set one off. Books, the fridge, plants, children, the pots and pans fall slowly through the sky. A person could get killed; certainly injured, that I knew. Much safer to say nothing, since it will all end in tears, apologies and trying harder. But – remember one of the safest handholds on a steep path - trying is lying. I was bored, or passively angry all the time, occasionally flickering into rage like a dangerous mountain fire. But more often than not on these mountain Sundays I used to think, make the most of things; the saddest words in the world, replacing the horrible dying fall of too late, or – the really vertiginous one - you will look back on these days as happy and blessed. I used to look out of the car window and the green wheat fields of winter were melancholy, cut off from all human life. They looked like a black and white illustration for an article on the suffering of the farm workers, or the international debt, or the increasing isolation of the Western Cape from the real world. I would think how unhappy I am. But I also thought, this too will pass and that that was the thing to hang onto.

Hanging on

J. taught me, in a hard nosed way, that you mustn’t hang on to mountains. And never sit down while you’re climbing, never. That way the edge comes up harder. Got to keep on your feet, no matter what, no matter how. Sit down, and you cling. Cling, and the edge starts coming up. The edge starts coming up, and you fall forever. That’s never happened; too much like fear to even think of that. Yearning leads to clinging leads to the edge, terror in one smooth swoop, you know it’s coming, like orgasm, like the biggest rush, over that edge. Helpless. Pleasure and danger hand over hand.

When you come to think of it, danger is preceded by a period of insult, of feeling queasy. This is vertigo; it has distinct stages, it’s a process. There’s the moment when you realise an edge is coming up, and you are going to have to deal with it, as in – I love you, but I’m not in love with you. Or, there isn’t much libido in this relationship – I’m much more interested in my work. For the flattish walker the right response to this is swift and final. Well, you say, that’s it. I don’t want to take that walk today. I’m going down, I’m turning around, this is not for me. It really isn’t a question of arguing about this, as in, you don’t really mean that, as in, it’s not really that steep. It is. It’s hand over hand stuff, it’s worse than the chains on Signal Hill, and frankly, the vertiginist needs to ask herself which part of no she doesn’t understand. Standing there hesitating isn’t pleasure, it’s danger. The vertiginist fears the fall, but she’s falling already. Too late to try.


The bad news is that now you’re in the roaring forties. It’s a cold wind system and the waves out here are higher than Devil's Peak. Chances are you were probably born a girl child of a great big family. As the eldest, you were the biggest big girl, and you had to watch while younger babes were brought in, one by one, off the street or from some hospital, who knows. You had to look after them and care for their feelings and their vulnerable little bodies and comfort them when even younger and more entrancing babies arrived. You were told it was wonderful and exciting, it was what was supposed to happen. This is the way the world is. Would you, could you stop your mama fulfilling her nature, litter after litter? You had to shape up or ship out, out of your body if necessary since there’s not a whole lot of other places to go at three and five and seven and eleven. Don’t whine – kiss off that shaky valentine start right in trying to forget her. That’s my Big Girl!

Trying is bad for the vertiginist. “Just try! Look! It’s not that hard!” Ah but it’s a long way down and the world so old and cold and settled in its ways. Just want to lie down peacefully said K. to me today. Sounded like she was on a steep edge and feeling the despair that goes with never and always, those vertical cliffs of stone. I sharply reminded her not to look down and to keep walking, one step at a time. Mentally – we were talking on the phone – I seized her cold and trembling hand. She rebelled at once - “If you think I’m doing this for the next ten years!” I was encouraging but firm. In our weapon free households, I shot back, you’ve only got your finger to shoot yourself with anyway. Blam. Trouble is, flattish walkers live for love. When mister blister turns out to have a cock of clay and a mind of wool, soft and tangled, the vertiginist topples towards devastation as in, crushed to death on jagged rocks. Under these circumstances, rushing over the edge is a preferable strategy.

Rushing over the edge

L. rushed me over the edge once, using the tone of power, of command – Let’s go! Walk! – and she seized my hand in her fierce grip, taking the outside edge, one two three four steps over the abyss, a rotted wooden bridge three poles thick. I would have been there all night, or four hours back to Constantia Nek, sore legs, sore feet. I thanked her for this cruelty. A friend – if you can tell her from a foe in the heat of the vertiginous moment - can sometimes help. Personally, I get so sick to the stomach – and this too is vertigo – of going around and around. This is the worst part of the no worst there is none syndrome.

Stepping back from the edge

We’re getting divorced in two weeks time, and my still-husband walks into my new house holding the divorce date like a dead fish, something that smells, at arm’s length. He holds the dark thing I don’t want to see behind his back. He and I have been on our last flattish walk together. We’re sitting at my table, it’s a sunny Sunday morning just before spring, I’ve got the first jasmine in the glass jasmine bottle, that sad hopeful smell of new beginnings. Love like youth is wasted on the young – my funny valentine -

Corea’s Children’s Songs is standing open on the new piano; the trouble is I am in blood stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er. The edge comes up, sharp and clear. No more sunny Sunday mornings, no more coats, no more home. Close your eyes, close the door. I don’t want to leave you any more…. We could be on the edge all the time. On the bookcase is the wooden crocodile, a puzzle, and inside the crocodile’s stomach is her baby. Crocodiles hang their meat to rot before they eat, and they then let the bones fall gently to the bottom of the river.


There are drugs that make you feel a lot calmer on heights. But don’t mistake the drug for the real thing, which is bound to be far more of a mixed masala. Zoloft sounds like a certain type of wing – it gets you up there, but can you do it long distance? How high can you fly? Poor Icarus, all that hard work and application, all that ingenious plotting and patching and making and mending. There are lots of different ways to fall into the sea, and the fear of falling is the worst, because you can do it over and over again. The same black hole beckoning in the blue sea. Why is the blue sky not blue-oo-oo for me? Guard against self-pity. Don’t whine. Kiss off that shaky valentine. You don’t want to be on the edge all the time, with serotonin running out of your frontal lobe like a steadily bleeding nose.

But here’s the big secret, the one they don’t tell you in the conventional guide books with their cheerful exhortations and their weird directions that get you lost before you even leave the car park. For what it’s worth: falling is OK. Don’t put off flattish walks because you fear to fall or fail. Falling is inevitable; falling is the cure.

The cure

This is a health warning. Don’t try this without advice from your doctor, and don’t do it around children. I was on the way to my job in the Zambezi Valley with K. We got into a very small plane, a four-seater. I noticed that the door had three little round holes in it, and I asked the pilot what they were. Bullet holes, he said, from the War. I was so scared of flying that I said what I was thinking, often a mistake: I’m scared of flying. The pilot, a white man in shorts, smiled. “I’ll cure you”, he said. At once he accelerated, very steeply – we headed straight up into the sun, which always shines in Zimbabwe. We started to turn over. We were upside down. I was hanging out of my seatbelt. I realised, with the despairing mind that always afflicts the vertiginist, that this was looping the loop.

But, just before going over the edge into – yes, this is it, this is what I most fear, it’s worse than anything, it’s not death, I can’t even imagine death – just before going into that endless place, the place of – is this being mad? Is this losing it? What am I losing? - it happened.

I stopped flying the plane. I gave up. I fell. Far below me, below the ragged peaks, the wooly clouds with their tender wistful tendrils were still gently floating.

Copyright © Fonthouse Ltd & respective copyright owners. Enquiries to permissions@african-writing.com.