watching the wheels

From Catalpa Avenue to the Cape of Good Hope


I'm standing at the tip of Africa, at the Cape of Good Hope, looking south. The next land that lies over that horizon is Antarctica, about 2,500 or so miles of frigid, choppy water away.

Sharon and I were finishing up three weeks in Africa with a few days in the beautiful city of Cape Town, South Africa, and we decided to take a daylong tour that visits several sights on the Cape Peninsula, including an island populated with hundreds of seals, a botanical garden, a colony of penguins, and here, the Cape of Good Hope.

The penguins were cool, I loved the seals, but for me, this is the marquee item. But not because there's a lot to see here. As a tourist site, the Cape of Good Hope isn't exactly Disney World. A narrow two-lane road leads down to a parking area near a rocky beach. A cliff juts up to the east of the cape. A brisk breeze, probably 20 miles an hour or so, was coming in off the sea that day, and the sound of the wind and the Atlantic waves hitting the rocky, kelp-scattered shore drowned out most of the chatter from the other tourists.

There's a sign, which most tourists line up to have a picture taken with, that proclaims that this is the "Most South Western Point of the African Continent." This is a scrupulously accurate geographical designation, because the true southernmost point of Africa is about 70 miles to the east at Cape Agulhas, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans geographically meet.

But the Cape of Good Hope became known to sailors hundreds of years ago as the bottom of Africa because it is at this point that two major ocean currents meet, the Agulhas current carrying warm equatorial water from the east and the frigid Benguela current flowing to the west of the cape, pulling water up from the Antarctic region. Water on the west side of the cape is about 10 degrees colder that the water of False Bay, on the east side of the cape. As you'd expect, almost all the popular swimming beaches for the area are on False Bay.

I wanted to go to the Cape of Good Hope, though, not because it was the "Most South Western Point of the African Continent"   and not because two currents meet there.

The fact that I was there that day, hair whipping in the wind, happily having Sharon take my picture behind the Cape of Good Hope sign, is a testament to the fact that you never know what memories from your childhood will come back to influence your adult life.

When I was two or three years old, both my mom and dad worked during the day, and I stayed with my maternal grandmother, whom I always called Nana. At the time, we lived about four blocks away from Nana and Papaw's house on Catalpa Avenue in east Knoxville.

Every afternoon, I would take a nap, and after Nana put me in bed and covered me up, on the way out of the room she would spin the globe by the door. I would watch the continents whirl past, punctuating the blurred blue of the oceans, and by the time it stopped spinning I would be drowsy and soon would be asleep.

As I got older and could read, maybe because I associated that globe with such a happy and secure memory, I began to study it, learning the names of far away places and dreaming of traveling to them. And I still remember the tiny curved italic type that the globe had positioned in the ocean blue off the southern tip of Africa: "Cape of Good Hope."Africa was the most exotic place I could think of, and that place represented the end of Africa.

In some way my desire to stand at the end of Africa gazing toward the South Pole could be directly traced to my naptime in Nana and Papaw's house in 1961.

So a few weeks ago, when I was standing at the Cape of Good Hope, I was   thinking of Nana spinning that globe in that bedroom on Catalpa Avenue. I was thinking how thankful I am to have had a family where I was loved and nurtured, where I was encouraged to read and learn. I thought about how grateful I am to have known all my grandparents and had so much time with them in my life (Nana, my last living grandparent, died three years ago this month).

I'm not sure how much of this I even knew consciously until I began to try to explain to Sharon why I wanted so much to take this tour to the Cape. But I thought of one more thing. I thought with sorrow of the kids whose moms and dads aren't readers, whose families don't encourage them, whose families don't plant those seeds of curiosity and learning that grow in such unexpected ways over the course of a lifetime.

A lot of thinking for a stretch of windswept beach.

The best of Watching the Wheels from the past 20 years has been collected in a book. Watching the Wheels: Cheap Irony, Righteous Indignation, and Semi-Enlightened Opinion is available from and other online booksellers; from the Medical Center Bookstore, and from the Medical Center Hair Salon.

September 2004

COVER PHOTO BCarmen Canedo, Rahul Park

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