The Dolmen

Once you know it's there you wonder how you didn't notice it before. Like a lot of things in life I guess. I have to admit that I didn't spot it for myself though. I read about it in the local paper. An article about a well- known landmark, or at least well-known to those who take interest in such things- a dolmen on the mountain. A Stonehenge mystery type deal. There's loads of them all over the world, dating back to some prehistoric time when they were the done thing. Providing years of happy argument for the experts trying to figure out how they got those suckers up there.

The one mentioned in the article is above Muizenberg, which is in False Bay at the Cape of Good Hope. Two massive slabs of rock, one standing vertical and the other resting above, the top one perfectly horizontal with one end on the mountain and the other on the upright. When you look up at it from the winding road below, taking care not to drive off and crash down the mountain, you can see the chink of light winking through the inside of the right angle.

Well, once I'd read about it and checked it out, I had to go and take a closer look. Just to make my mind up. Because I had serious doubts about somebody putting it up there, and maybe a closer look would suggest another explanation.

I chose quite a grim day to go up, overcast with a grey and miserly light. I parked as near to what seemed to be directly underneath the dolmen as I could manage. The road hugged the bend and sway of the mountain about half way up, above the road the gradient continued pretty steeply up through the scrub and fynbos to the bare rock faces and cliffs right at the top. Below, the mountain fell sharply down to the sea and Baileys' cottage. Bailey was the lover and secretary of Cecil John Rhodes, famous empire builder and man of vision. Or scurrilous land pincher and running dog capitalist, depending on your persuasion. Apparently he'd breathed his last in the cottage with the words about so much to do and so little time. Although it seems that he got through quite a lot before he came here to die, underneath the dolmen with the salt spray in his doorway.

A tour bus full of Japanese tourists stopped behind me and they all climbed out to take photos of the bay which yawned out below us. But the bay was not playing along. It scowled sulkily at us, the sea subdued and the colour of lead. After a brief and polite Nikon clatter they got back on and headed off.

After this diversion I got down to some route planning. There was a path going up in the saddle between two peaks, the dolmen was on the west one. But there didn't appear to be anything going to the dolmen itself. I lined up a huge rock as the best spot to cut away and across from the path and started up. It was pretty heavy going, more of a clamber than a walk in some places. I put my head down and concentrated on the path immediately in front, my laboured breathing sounding loud in my ears. On getting to the large rock I turned to look at the view, panting like billy-o. The dolmen wasn't visible from where I was but, if I'd lined it up right, it would be straight across and just around the west ridge. I started off into the knee-high fynbos and soon began to regret my shorts as my legs got scratched no end. I started to feel rather resentful at having to bhundu-bash. Surely someone was to blame, the Tourism Board perhaps. Halfway there I stopped to catch my breath again.

Although from a distance the fynbos looked like a green and brown carpet with not much going on, when standing in the middle you could see that there was an incredible variety of small, wildly coloured plants, interspersed with protea bushes and boulders. It was very quiet. Emerald sunbirds thrummed at their nectar brunch. From the tops of boulders dassies monitored my progress suspiciously. Swifts circled high above, sometimes coming down to skim low along the mountainside like hedge-hopping jets and then swooping up again. I still couldn't see the dolmen and carried on to the ridge. Climbing up and over some small cliffs I found myself looking down on to the top of the dolmen, just around the corner of the ridge. It was difficult to get down to it, but after some more rock-climbing I was standing in the centre of the dolmen looking up at the immense slab resting on its brother.

The first thing I noticed was that, even though it was not a windy day, the wind was howling up the side of the mountain into the stone gap from the west side. It would have been impossible, or certainly very difficult, to get to the dolmen from the other side or from directly underneath. It was very steep and totally overgrown with tough looking bushes that had taken root in the tiniest of cracks in the rock. The angles of the slope below and west seemed to concentrate and funnel whatever wind there was directly onto the dolmen. This immediately made me think that that the obvious explanation for the way the rocks were was simply a few million years of wind erosion. I reached up to the crack where the top rested on the upright, feeling around and trying to see if there was some different colour there, some evidence that would indicate a seam of weaker rock that had whittled away so as to make it seem like two separate slabs. It was hard to tell, and certainly I knew nothing about rocks. But the thing was, standing there underneath the dolmen, I suddenly got a very bad feeling. It was a very dank and gloomy kind of place. It felt like the sun had not reached there for millions of years. And the sound of the wind really was very loud. It whistled through the rocks in a most unsettling way. The rock itself was cold and clammy. It reminded me of when I was a kid and we went to visit an ancient dungeon in London. There was a black stone with an eternal moist sheen set in the wall which the wretched prisoners used to lick for water, which at my tender age was the most horrible thing I'd seen. I don't know what my parents were thinking. This rock had the same sheen and feel to it, I hadn't remembered that trip for years but the memory jumped into my mind from nowhere. All of a sardine I seemed to lose my curiosity about how the dolmen got there, who put it there and so on. I even stopped wondering if it was a dolmen at all and felt that the best thing for me at that point was to climb away quite rapidly. So I did. It was something of a relief, on getting down to the road again, to climb into the familiar cocoon of my car and be surrounded by the nifty little ideas of my age and time. But as I said, it was a rather grim day.

Anyway, several days later, I was telling some mates of mine about it. We were on the beach, me and Willem and Greg, and it was a time in our lives when we didn't have anything better to do on a Monday morning. We'd been in for a swim and were drying off, lying in the sun and talking. Once I'd finished my story there was a moments silence from Willem and Greg. I took this to indicate a total lack of interest until Willem asked, " What do you mean, a bad feeling? Do you mean it was a bad place?"

"Well", I answered, "I don't know if there's such a thing as a bad place. But I tell you, I didn't feel like sticking around. Maybe it was the weather. But the whole thing seemed," I had to search for the word, "godless. Ja. That seems the best way to describe it."

Willem now sat up. I could tell that I had him going.

"Hmm. Godless eh," he said mysteriously. He thought about it for a while. He thought about for a bit longer as a group of girls in bikinis came down the beach and dived into the sea in front of us. Then he turned to me, his face lighting up.

"I know what", he said. "We could take a god up there. You know, sort of bless it. Maybe it's been waiting for ages for someone to do it. We could take a bible up and read something from it."

Now you have to understand the kind of guy Willem was. This was not a particularly wild idea by his standards. But he was not a religious type of person at all, apart from going to a Christian coffee bar in Fish Hoek for several weeks when he was sixteen. Although that might have been not unconnected to the fact that Patricia van der Westhuizen used to attend regularly. Anyway, I agreed that it was worth a shot. Because, to be honest, I felt that I'd wimped out at the dolmen. Of course there was no such thing as a bad place, only bad lighting. It would be good to go there with some friends, on a day when the sun was shining and the sea was blue.

So we got into Willem's car and headed off to his house to get the bible that they gave him at the Christian coffee bar. While we were waiting Greg was very quiet, except to ask me how far it was up the mountain to this place. Then we drove up Boyes Drive and parked at the spot. It was indeed a fine day to be out and about at the Cape. Not a cloud to be seen, the sea an encouraging azure and most citizens at their gainful employment. We all stamped up the mountainside, huffing and puffing, across to the ridge and then down to the dolmen. We stood under the slab and looked at the view, the mountains standing out crisp and clear around the bay. But it was immediately apparent. There was no way around it or under it or over it. Even though there was only the balmiest of breezes, on this day when surely all the gods were smiling, there was a wind howling into the stone gap. As we looked up at the impassive rock it was the same cold clamminess as before. I could feel it descending and affecting all of us. The noise of the wind meant that we had to shout at each other. Willem wanted to have a go at reading. He opened his bible and tried to read, but his words were whipped away by the wind the moment he spoke them. Greg and I stood dumbly under the stone watching Willem and we saw that even on the most calm and perfect day this place was inhospitable, unbending and without compassion.

Willem closed the book and looked at us. "Let's go", he shouted. So we did. As we climbed up and away the wind seemed to get louder, whistling and howling about our ears in fury, drumming us out of there. Then we were clear and standing in the warm sunshine above. All was again calm and safe and it was hard to imagine the way it was down there. So we came back down the mountain, taking our god back down with us. Nobody spoke and I wondered if the others were thinking the same thing as me. That the god we had taken was not old enough. That there were other, harsher gods at the dolmen, from another time.

I haven't been up since, and I don't suppose I'll go again. Still, I like to look up when driving on the road below, to see that chink of light winking through the stone.

Stories