SMOKE: The Hermit On The Hill

Originally published: 11 November 2005

In the first heady months of my relationship with Tashi, back in that glorious summer of 1994, I'd drive her everywhere. She did a million different things at a million different places and if I wasn't her driver I'd be a stranger.

I didn't have a car but Tashi had a beautiful blue Beetle which was her pride and joy and which had been redone and sparked up. It was in fine shape.

I used to drive her around in that Beetle and it was the original summer of love, baby.

She'd often run workshops and stuff at night and I took to driving her to wherever she needed to be and going off for a few hours while she was busy, before picking her up later and driving her, driving her, driving her home.

I started taking my guitar with me and driving up Table Mountain on evenings like those and it was a magical time in my life.

I'd drive right on up, past the Cableway and the huge cars that had been put to bed, and would keep on going round the mountain until I got to the very end of the road, high up on the slopes of Devil's Peak.

At the end of the road there was a dirt run-off area and I would drive right to the very end of that, where a footpath led off into the forest.

I would park the Beetle at the very edge of the mountain, overlooking the entire Cape Peninsula, then fire up a Slowboat and haul out my old 12-string.

I'd sit there smoking up a generous hotbox and playing and playing and playing that axe, and it's where I found my true soul - writing and singing about the things that suddenly mattered and those that no longer mattered, high up on the mountain.

Other cars would sometimes appear, their headlights catching me in mid-tortured-scream, but once they saw me they'd slowly turn round in a circle and drive off somewhere else to find some privacy.

No prizes for guessing what they were up to.

The interior of the car provided a sonorous acoustic and - heightened by the bad weed - it all sounded good to me.

One evening - as the Lion's Head began eating the sun - I'd just finished playing a really intense song and was sitting there shaking with emotion, dragging deep and staring out over the city.

The next moment a huge, shaggy head of hair rose up in front of my windscreen followed by the emaciated, leather-skinned body of a man of indeterminate age.

Naturally I believed him to be a murderer and nearly choked on my Swazi but after hauling himself up using the bonnet as leverage he gave me one glance then hurried off along the lip of the mountain and into the gloom.

Intrigued by this apparition and relieved that he was obviously not a murderer I got out and followed him to the point I'd last seen him, some 20 metres past the car.

He was nowhere to be seen. I heard a faint rustle from the carpet of leaves on the gentle slope below but could see nothing and deciding there was no more to be gained I returned to the car.

When I got to the car I went to the front of it, and the front bumper was just about touching the lip of the mountain. Maybe half a metre back from the edge.

There was a steep, steep drop for nigh on a kilometre to the bottom of the mountain, from whence this psychedelic dude had arrived.

I surmised that he must have been the Hermit on the Hill. I'd heard stories of him years before - he was a resident of District Six when the forced removals happened and instead of being carted off to the Cape Flats he took to the mountain instead.

Naturally I thought the story was an urban legend, but this guy seriously fitted the description. The fact that he hauled himself up off a steep cliff face was my first indication, followed by his appearance - he had on a pair of old denim shorts but nothing else, and his skin was weatherbeaten like none I've ever seen.

His hair stood up in a wild afro and was mostly grey, and he had the sort of wizened countenance you'd expect described in books by turn-of-the-century colonial explorers on the dark continent.

The more I thought about it the more convinced I became that he was indeed a mountain hermit. I'd always dreamed of being a hermit one day so it was kinda cool to meet one.

Whether he was or wasn't is besides the point, I guess. The point is hermits.

I always wanted to be one because it seemed the perfect solution to any problem - hide away and never come out again. Nobody can get to you, everybody forgets about you.

I've changed, obviously, and although I'd still like to be a hermit it wouldn't be for those reasons. I'd have to be able to take my wife with - she could be a hermit wife. And I'd have to have a decent cottage - preferably on a cold, inaccessible mountain somewhere - and lots and lots of money for monthly trips into the local village.

Doing the real hermit thing, however, is simply not an option. Not once you see what an actual hermit looks like.

The rigours and stresses of having to fend for yourself day and night clearly showed on my hermit, and the tale told was one of extreme hardship.

His mouth was turned inwards as if he had no teeth, and I'll bet that was the case. No dentistry for 50 years could well be a good thing, but in his case it clearly wasn't.

What do you do if you're a hermit and you have no teeth? What the hell do you eat?

Not only do you have to learn how to make fire, you also need to learn how to keep that fire going. You need to find wood to stockpile for the rains and you need to find a decent shelter in which you can keep that fire burning.

There are tons of caves dotted all over the side of Table Mountain and I assume he lived in one of those.

But, problem: baboons.

I loathe baboons and Table Mountain is crawling with them. They too live in caves so our hermit pal no doubt had to spend many nights trying to convince them to stay out of his.

Food. Where do you get it? You need to learn how to kill small animals or birds by setting traps, and you need to go fishing on the mountain pools.

But not only do you have to catch the food - you also have to skin and clean it properly, which in itself is a massive mission.

There's just so much work involved - really nasty work - and you have to be pretty sure you can't handle the real world in order to do it.

I guess that's the thing - some folks simply can't handle the real world. To them fending for themselves in the most basic of ways, not poisoned by the confines of modern living, is the ultimate freedom.

I kinda imagined we were kindred spirits on that mountain sometimes, both of us finding and understanding peace in the stillness of the night, each in our own way, alone.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
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