Memoir sample: Table Mountain – chapter 1

This is the opening chapter of a memoir I wrote for Rick Campbell about his formative years growing up in South Africa.

I don’t know what made me jump.

We were sitting on a ledge overlooking a waterfall, high up Table Mountain. Below us I could see Cape Town spread out, right up to the Atlantic Ocean. I could see the white line of the swell as it approached the shoreline. I could sit and watch the waves of the sea for hours, hypnotised by the repetition. Surfing was my favourite thing to do, but if I wasn’t riding the waves then the next place you’d most likely find me would be up on this mountain.  

I was with John and Rachel, who were both sitting further along the ledge, just beyond my line of sight. John was one of my surfing friends. Rachel was French, from a rich family and very beautiful. I was in love with her, like all the boys were. We’d been talking all the way up the mountain – about school, about police violence and Apartheid, about sports, reggae and smoking grass – but now I wanted to be by myself.

As usual, I was bunking off school. I was 14 years old, angry and confused. I had to be forced to do anything I didn’t want to do. Mum had given up trying to control me so she’d made me a ward of state, which meant I’d been put in a succession of care homes and boarding schools. But I felt trapped – who wouldn’t? – so I’d take flight, try and get away from it all and find some peace.

Table Mountain is over a thousand metres high – 1,085 metres, to be precise. It’s known for the clouds that build up and lie there like a tablecloth on the flat roof of the mountain. As children we were all told the story about where the clouds came from. A retired Dutch pirate called Van Hunks was sitting at his favourite spot on the mountain, enjoying the view, when a stranger approached and challenged him to a smoking contest. The contest went on for days, creating the great clouds of smoke that cover the mountain. Only when Van Hunks had won the contest did he realise that the stranger was the Devil. The Devil was angry at being beaten by a mortal, so he made Van Hunks disappear in a flash of lightning. The spot where the contest took place is now known as Devil’s Peak. When I reached my teens, I got into smoking too – smoking grass – which I suppose was my way of following in Van Hunks’ footsteps.

Throughout my childhood years, Table Mountain was a constant presence in my life, and it remains a part of who I am. It stands aloof, set aside from Cape Town, separate from everything going on in the world of people. What I loved was the wildness of it. The mountain was so old yet so alive with the heat of the African sun burning into the rocks. I’d lie down in the grass and listen to the wind blowing through the reeds. I felt free. I could lose myself. I could escape everything: school, the city, the police, and everything that had gone wrong at home. It was the same with surfing and smoking pot, it gave me a chance to escape.

Smoking pot has become commonplace, but back then most people thought of it as a bad thing. For me, it was a revelation; it was enlightening. It gave me a sense of inner power that I hadn’t felt before and made me feel special. It opened up channels and put me in a different mental place which made me fearless, and that was why I felt able to go on dangerous missions, like walking into the townships to buy grass. But I also noticed that the special feeling didn’t last, and I remember thinking I ought to enjoy it while I could. In fact, to be honest, I think there were times when I escaped too much – living in my own world, smoking too much – so I would lose all touch with reality. But I suppose that was the point: my reality wasn’t great, so it’s no surprise I wanted to be somewhere else.

The truth is, the older I got – and the more boarding schools I’d run away from – it was becoming less safe for me to be in the city. I was constantly on the run, and being an escapee ward of state meant the Afrikaans police would be looking for me. Sometimes I’d disappear for days or weeks. At one point I had a tent in the mountains, and I even built a hut.

Part of me liked the idea of sleeping rough in the mountains because of the element of danger and the challenge of surviving amid the elements. I remember waking up that first morning after I’d run away. It was really warm and I lay there watching a squirrel running through the trees. There were times when it felt amazing to be out in nature. My eyes adjusted at night so I had ‘night eyes’. I could feel lost in wonder staring at the darkness of the mountain. But while part of me liked this way of life, I knew I was only doing it because I had to – I would rather have been at home. I liked it when my friends visited me, but then they’d go home and I’d be left on my own. I often felt sad or lonely, and there were times when I’d catch myself shaking with some unnameable fear. Running away might look romantic in the movies but in reality it’s very difficult. Naturally I wanted to feel safe and protected, so I’d rather have been at home.

Walking up Table Mountain, with John and Rachel, it took us about an hour to reach our spot. I often walked bare-foot, but not on this particular day. I was wearing a T-shirt, shorts and trainers, so I had very little protection considering the hot sun. I was very tanned.

From where I was sitting, I could see a ledge, about three metres below me, and beyond that was a sheer drop off the cliff face. My attention became focused on this ledge and I felt something inside me compelling me to jump. Maybe I thought that if got there I would get a better view of the waterfall, I don’t know, I just felt this force within me urging me forwards. So, without saying anything, I pushed myself off and jumped down. If I had slipped on landing I would have fallen and died.

It felt exhilarating! When I landed on the ledge I realised my legs were shaking – in fact, my whole body was shaking – and my heart was pounding. Then it came to me that what I’d just done was crazy. John and Rachel hadn’t even seen me do it. I did crazy stuff like that all the time, I don’t know why, just for my own reasons, not to show off. I sat down on the ledge and tried to gather myself, not thinking about anything in particular, adrenalin racing around inside me.

Eventually, I decided it was time to climb back up. I had to be careful, watch my footing. When I got back on my feet I was surprised to see a goat standing a short way off, watching me. I was curious so I started to creep towards it, making clicking sounds, trying to coax it to me. The goat turned and trotted away. I gave chase, following it across the rocks, scrambling all over the place.

After a few minutes of this, I finally turned a corner to see the goat standing there right in front of me, resting no more than a few metres away, and I could see she was pregnant: it was a nanny goat. I crouched down and tried to say hello, making clicking sounds, trying to reassure it. I was always very drawn to animals, I felt a bond with them, as I did with all of nature.

Then I heard John shouting down. ‘Hey, look, it’s Rick and a goat! What are you doing, man? Have you finally flipped?’

He and Rachel were watching me now. But his voice had startled the goat, which had turned and run away.

‘Hey, Rick,’ laughed John. ‘You’re like a mountain goat! You’re completely insane!’

I made my way back up to my friends. And, after that, everyone started calling me ‘Gutu’, I can’t remember exactly why, but it became my nickname. I think Gutu [pronounced ‘hu-too’ with a guttural articulation] is a made-up word, which is something my friends did, but it also sounds like goat and it fitted with how I spent so much time in the mountains.

Ten years later – after all that happened in my life, including spending time in prison and reformatory school – I started splitting my time between South Africa and London, where I eventually hit rock bottom and became homeless. In London, I sought help and went into rehab where my journey to recovery began; I started trying to make sense of all the anger and confusion I’d been feeling in South Africa.

Today, I am a husband and a father. I work as a tree surgeon and I continue to feel a strong connection to nature. I’m also a practising psychotherapist and I’m developing my own model of therapy that combines psychotherapy with dance and the arts.

This small book is the story of my formative years in South Africa, growing up amid a difficult home life and Apartheid. It’s the story of how I found comfort in nature and in my friends, and how all these experiences shaped me.