To get here, pick up the N3, heading east from Johannesburg towards Durban. There are back roads that bypass the tolls, but if the traffic’s not too bad, it’s easiest just to stick to the highway. Depending on the season, the road is flanked by mielies, sunflowers, cosmos, always the odd bovine. As the kilometres pass, the Free State’s endless horizon is punctuated by strange flat-topped mountains, cakes taken out of the oven too early.
Beyond Harrismith, turn left. Another 5km down the dirt road and it’s on the left-hand side: Stacey’s farm. A place I have travelled to so many times over the last 10 years that I know I have left grooves in the road along the way, and have offered memories as recompense.
There’s the petrol station where JP once had to stop to be sick after taking a couple of painkillers on an empty stomach; the stretches I remember driving with Dean, with Jean, with Kat and Larry, countless times with Stacey. The drive I did alone once, so preoccupied with the first season of Serial that I barely remember the journey at all.
This stretch of road is carved into the map of my world. It is one of many.
My hometown Johannesburg, of course, is riddled with them: my established routes between the places I sleep, work, exercise, eat, shop, play. My university years – both in Grahamstown and in York – are etched with walking routes, though the latter has a bus route too when the English rain, snow and my inadequate boots made travelling by foot unbearable. And then, airborne journeys from Johannesburg to Toronto: via Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Stockholm and Abu Dhabi. Travels to Australia and zigzagged movements across South America: in and out of Buenos Aires, Santiago and Lima; two sojourns in Mendoza, 16 months apart.
And then, in addition to these deep incisions, slender spider-web lines link me to the places I have only visited once: Nieu Bethesda, Maputo, Borgarfjördur Eystri.
I’ve been making maps in my mind of late – maps beyond the geographical. I’m tracing the path that led me here, professionally, to a freelance life. The words I have uttered over the years make the move feel inevitable, though it felt impossible just six months ago. But I have been etching this path unwittingly for ages, repeating thoughts and impulses that led to the instant, the decision, that changed everything.
I’m plotting emotional maps too. The ebbs and flows of friendships and relationships through time, those that have thrived; those that lapsed and were then revived, fruitfully in some cases, futilely in others; those seemingly lost for good. They’re part of a journey in which repeated footprints are evident – lessons learnt over and over again. Sometimes, I can discern no footprints at all, only massive leaps.
Are we all self-designated mapmakers? Cartographers of internal and external worlds in which we delineate mountains and rivers, deserts and coastlines, plotting pathways from point to point? And do we all find the endeavour so frustrating (haven’t I been here before?), so comforting (I’ve been here before), so exhilarating (I’ve never been here before)?
And is the trick not to keep the pencil sharpened, the compass close at hand? No, rather discard the compass altogether, but keep the pencil close.