It is my first time travelling on the Intercape Sleepliner Coach. With only the memories of a familiar world to fall back on, lingering in the darkness outside the windows, it feels like we are moving through a desolate landscape.
I don’t like travelling at night. I like to see where I am and where I’m going. Tracing my route on a map is favourable to blindly following a GPS. I enjoy the ride and can deviate from the set route, but I’d like to know where I’ll end up, where I roughly am in the greater scheme of things. And I do not like unknowingly passing by any interesting sights and missing out.
But for all we (the coach passengers) know, our coach might be balancing on a thin stretch of who-knows-what, like an invisible wire, on which we are carried along the dark veins of the country as the gaping unknown silently falls away from us on either side.
It is in this way that a coachful of strangers, time and again, leave their safe arrival in the hands and at the mercy of the driver, who becomes just another figure at the front engulfed by the lack of light. And it is like him that we also become part of the night, immersed in its immense inkpot of blackness.
At times I can imagine myself capsuled in a submarine slicing through unchartered waters. Everyone in the hull blends into the shadows and every now and then a glowing object, belonging to a fellow passenger, float like a remnant, a lost treasure, upwards to the surface of one’s vision: a bright pair of fluorescent white trainers like neon fish in an aquarium, a mobile phone screen suddenly gleaming with news from the outside.
And any markers and signposts, bearing the names of familiar places and distances, showing that we are still on track in the vast uncertainty of night, pass too quickly. Becoming only streaks and flashes of indecipherable information like the fast-moving vehicles rushing past us, they too are reduced to shapes in the darkness.
I’m aware of us passing by the fringes of towns as tiny orange lights burn like lit torches in the blackness. But before I can even start to imagine or try to remember (as I think I might have passed through here before) what these places and their inhabitants look like, we have shot past.
Quick toilet stops at petrol stations become random beacons of light. Identical signals along a shore, only ever signifying that one is in the middle of somewhere about to be dispatched. And once the ten minutes of stretching legs and squinting at the sudden brightness of incandescent gas station lights, are over, the unidentified shapes of passengers on seats huddled inside blankets, are sent off again.
Sleep, as we all know, is a private affair and a state in which one would not like to be known in or seen by strangers. Therefore, if one happens to be a lone ranger on a journey, there is one reason to be thankful for the darkness: it provides protection from peering eyes and one can always capsize into the swaying motion of transit and escape the world altogether. An apt thing to do while one is on a Sleepliner on one’s way through shadowland.
At some stage during the journey, I press my face against the window. It’s cold and somewhat steamy and clouded from the breath and the ghosts of dreams of fellow passengers but outside I can see small fragments of lights piercing the sky. Having poked tiny holes for stars and carved a crescent shape for the moon to shine through inside the colourlessness which enfolds our journey, a god has provided us with just enough pinpricks of light to guide us to civilisation. And the longer I gaze, the less I know which way is up or down. As I slowly start to dip down in rhythm with the engine down below, I hope that the driver will follow the clues along the way. Slowly I become submerged by that other land of shadows where time and space become relative: the world of dreams.
I am small again, young and curious about the world and its still hazy edges. Precariously balancing on the fringe of comprehension and reeling inside the adrenalin of not knowing, caught inside an unshaped idea of reality that can so easily spark the delicious notion of contained fear. Like watching a horror movie, frightened but safe within the proximity of one’s living room and the presence of loved ones.
With neighbourhood friends and cousins we are once again playing our favourite nighttime game, ‘donkerkamertjie’: a game of hide and seek in the darkness of a closed room.
It is all about funambulism. We are walking the tightrope of limited senses. Robbed of clear vision, depending on hearing and touching, suddenly familiar objects and people are concealed, unidentified and strange in the eye of the half-blind beholder.
Borne forward, at the mercy of instinct and knowing from experience that the streetlights will cast a shadowy light onto the edges of furniture, I start my journey.
Invaluable sounds make me turn: the scraping of a leg against a chair; the rustling of an arm brushing against a curtain; a suppressed giggle from somewhere behind me. But I am slow in my actions for I am waiting for the slight sheen of streetlights that will cast an outline on the landscape of the bedroom through the curtains. I wait but it doesn’t come.
Inexplicably the streetlights seem to have gone out. I expect my playmates to emerge from their hiding places and comment on the world that has suddenly gone completely blind but silence, thick as the darkness, descends and closes in. And as all goes very dark and very quiet, I move but lose my balance. Panic rises as I can’t locate the light switch. Warped holes seem to appear in the fabric of reality. I am pulled inside a place, like a black hole, bending light and pulling space and time, and me, with it. And in the midst of this twilight state, I continue to spin frantically.
Waking up with a jolt we burst into bright city lights, just as the lights of the coach are switched on. Confusedly I fumble for my phone, my inner compass temporarily deactivated. It is three o’clock in the morning and I’ve arrived at my destination. My fellow passengers reveal themselves and the familiar places are clearly outlined. We are identifiable once again. Slowly I gather my things and leave the cabin, one foot in front of the other. Always one foot in front of the other, I repeat to myself in my head. One step at a time.
Outside I fall into the familiar embrace of a friend, delight in her well-known voice and when she looks into my eyes, she laughingly exclaims, “Your pupils are so dilated! Are you on drugs?”
“I tried to let in more light,” I reply and she giggles as I make no sense and hugs me one more time.
And I realise that the land of shadows are behind me. For now. There is still the return journey. And the continuous challenge of maintaining one’s balance while moving along the path of everyday life.