The Writing Life: Beginning Rock and Thorn: Six Months in South Africa: Oldenburgia Trail (© Vilis Nams)

To immediately immerse readers in my South African memoir-in-progress, Rock and Thorn: Six Months in South Africa, I’ll write it as an evocative journal filled with sights, sounds, action and reflections. Read an excerpt to get a taste of South Africa!


Yesterday, I posted about my new direction in writing. Today, I’m sharing how I’ve decided to write my South African travel memoir. I’ve tentatively titled it Rock and Thorn: Six Months in South Africa and will write it as a journal that immerses readers in my experiences on a continent I’d always dreamed of exploring. Below is one journal entry from Rock and Thorn. Enjoy! (Tap on the photo if you’d like to enlarge it.)


December 12, 2015

Heat licks my skin like invisible fire. Sunlight glares off cream-coloured Rhodes University campus buildings with red tile roofs. My footsteps fall on Grahamstown’s brick sidewalks littered with purple jacaranda flowers. I feel like I’m touching dreams.

Sometimes I run, but mostly I walk. I stride past buxom women talking loudly on street corners, their bodies lush convex and concave curves. Past security personnel whose black-and-yellow uniforms display warning colouration, as though the men and women were wasps or bees. Past blue-coveralled men swinging picks as they dig a deep trench in the sidewalk in front of Albany Museum. Past campus groundskeepers carrying gas-powered, hand-held grass trimmers, the scent of cannabis wafting along with them.

I pause at unknown shrubs to breathe in exotic fragrances and walk past robust balls of purple or white agapanthus flowers on thick stems that rise from fountains of straplike leaves. Past mounds of hot pink bougainvillea that flame against the ordinary like the grace of God.

I climb the stone-and-cement path, with its breath-stealing rock steps, to the summit of Gunfire Hill and look out over Grahamstown. Grahamstown shrouded in cloud. Grahamstown wet and gleaming after rain. Grahamstown lightly blurred by mist that hides its secrets and poverty.

I walk to museums and art galleries. To Pepper Grove Mall to buy groceries and a small bottle of South African brandy for the Christmas fruitcake I’ll bake next year. To Cathedral Square, with its ornately trimmed Victorian shopfronts and Gothic Revival cathedral named for St. Michael and St. George, although to many the imposing stone edifice with its soaring spire is known as Grahamstown Cathedral or simply the Cathedral. 

I walk past dumpy hadeda ibises and scruffy fledgling olive thrushes. Past trees with pendulous grass nests dangling from twig ends. The nests were woven by male Cape weavers, who for months squalled ceaseless, insane-sounding vocalizations while hanging upside down from their creations and fluttering their wings outrageously. Now, in mid-December, the weavers are unobtrusive, their breeding frenzy muted.

I walk soon after dawn, reveling in summer’s fresh, early morning edge. I walk in the heat of the day, crisscrossing streets to find shade, and return to the apartment with my back and underarms wet with sweat. I walk in the evenings, as dusk sifts in around coral trees’ sturdy trunks and widespread boughs that are like sheltering arms.

I walk in my shrunken, foot-pinching sneakers or in open sandals. In rain, I wear my leather hiking boots, the right boot’s toe forever scarred by a metal stake I stumbled over on Tree Dassie Trail in the Cape Woody Section of Addo Elephant National Park four months ago. My legs grow stronger and my waistline, slimmer. I’m not afraid anymore. Still wary, but no longer frozen by fears of vividly imagined dangers, some of which are real in Grahamstown. Muggings. Hijackings. Robberies. Murders. 

And I read. I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, and Frances Hayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun. In reading these travel memoirs, I feel a sudden craving for my own words, a sudden rewakening of my desire to write. The emptiness I brought with me from Canada no longer seems like a dark void, but rather a place to begin a story. A story about six months in South Africa.


The Writing Life: Beginning Rock and Thorn: Six Months in South Africa: Oldenburgia Trail, Eastern Cape, South Africa (© Vilis Nams)

Oldenburgia Trail, Eastern Cape, South Africa (© Vilis Nams)

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