Mountain Mysteries

Much of South Africa lives in the shadow and the inspiration of mountains — Table Mountain, the Drakensberg, the Winterberge, and many more that lie between the oceans and the great desert plains of the Karoo. They formed the boundary between the settlers and most of the indigenous peoples.

They were the door to liberation for outcastes in the coastal towns as well as the portals to a hopeful new life for rebels against English rule. Their chiseled and folded features are a constant background of everyday life, whether it is the constant hustle of Cape Town or the rolling wheat fields of the Overberg to the east.

Anyone who has lived in the shadow of Table Mountain knows that it is not merely a tourist site reached by a breathtaking cable car ride but also a kind of mystical place, often hidden in its tablecloth of clouds that form at day’s end. In the presence of this mountain over the past weeks this poem came to me.

Table Mountain from Across the Bay
Table Mountain from Across the Bay

For my non-South African readers I need to explain a few of the words that are part of South African English. Many of these are Afrikaans. A kloof is a canyon or arroyo, what we in the Appalachians call a cove, only generally a very steep one. A krans is a cliff edge. A spruit is a fresh-water creek. A klip is a rock or stone.

The poem takes us deeper at each step into the language of Zulu, Xhosa, and even the early language of the Khoi-San. “Muti” is any potion in traditional healing. It can kill as well as heal. “Hoerikwaggo” is the early Khoi-San word for Table Mountain. It simply means “Sea Mountain.”

“Unkulunkulu” is the Almighty and Mysterious High God. “Nkosi” usually means chief, but it can also mean Lord. While isiXhosa makes a distinction between lord as God (“uthixo”) and lord as chief (“nkosi”), I have used “nkosi” here for poetic reasons.

I am indebted to Lukas Mazantsana, a pastor who is also one of the staff here near Hermanus at Volmoed Retreat Center, for this latter information. “Buntu,” now known to many people because of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s popularization of the term “Ubuntu,” is the root word of  “humanity.”

On Table Mountain

            winter rains

            lace rivulets

            down kloofs and cracks

            beneath the roots of aliens

            and native trees

            filling spruits and creeks

            that froth into the waters

            where dark seals play

            in bays below.

On Altar Mountain

            sun struck hearts

            split open

            cleavered in the raging heat

            of land lust, gold, and privilege,

            mixing blood

            that pours down banks

            leaps over krans and klip

            and bones

            evaporating into rainbows

            arching overhead.

On Mystery Mountain

            muti melts in

            morning moon rise

            works a magic

            turning blood and water

            dung and blossoms

            into human beings

            to sing in praise

            on Hoerikwaggo

            Unkulunkulu nkosi wa buntu.

1 thought on “Mountain Mysteries”

  1. Thank you, Bill, for showing us the beauty and drama of far-away mountains, not unlike our own. I look forward to hearing this poem spoken. It almost sings itself.

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