The sunsets in Africa looked different from the very start. The plane had not even landed yet but it felt as though we were entering another realm where the air was wilder, purer, and more enigmatic than any I had breathed before.
The first half of the journey, the part we completed in the intense daylight of the high sun, we flew over dry deserts and wizened mountains and the sweeping sands of the Sahara. The sun’s unrelenting rays made it seem like it would not spare even the smallest lizard or tiniest shrub, let alone humans. It had scorched all the rivers whose fossil-like outlines were mere traces of what had been gushes of water before. The clouds looked different too, towering in anthill-like formations over the desert as though part of an ancient civilisation.
When the sun began its descent into the horizon, the landscape changed accordingly, switching from scorching deserts to the densest jungles I had ever seen. The sun is capable not only of drying things out, but also nourishing and supporting some of the richest environments on the planet. Rivers wound their way like murky snakes through the jungles which were darker than the sunless sky, and the only way you could tell that there was land beneath us were the sporadically scattered bushfires. There were no streetlights or cities or neatly trimmed farming plots to be seen.
And whilst before the sun had seemed so intimidating, witnessing it coming closer to the horizon made me lose my initial fear of departing to this unfamiliar continent. It looked more like an inviting campfire, a reassurance that part of me was returning to some ancestral home which had been buried deep into my mind.
I think that was the moment when I began chasing the sun as it set every night. No matter where I was, from that point onwards I actively sought that source of fiery light which was both a source of intriguing adventure and comfort. Every sunset was different to the next, with the clouds never reflecting light in the same way as before, and the landscape changing throughout my travels, but every time seeing it reassured me that a day had passed but another was just around the horizon.
One day we decided to climb Lion’s Head Mountain to watch the sun set from a point where we would be looking down at it instead of our usual parallel perspective. The journey to the top was not an easy one, with steep slippery rocks we had to grasp on to and hoist ourselves upwards whilst taking care not to lose our footing or else face a swift and hard fall. But, of course, we were climbing this mountain whilst racing against time, wanting to reach the peak before the sun disappeared, making our hike all the more challenging. We scrambled up the rocks as quickly as we physically could.
When we began it was already less than an hour to go until it would set, and the sky was already showing its chameleonic side. That’s the magical thing about the sky – most of the day it was blue with the occasional white cloud, but an hour before and after the sun makes its exit or entrance the sky manages to change every few moments. Every few steps or rocks we climbed we could not help but pause and stare at the sky in awe. It evolved quickly but discreetly from a mellow yellow glow to a warm peachy orange, transforming the white cotton clouds into pink fluffy tufts of candy floss and coating the mountain tops in gold.
Once we reached the top we could see a clear blue line radiating from the mountains in the distance like an orb protecting earth from the oncoming night. The sun which had been visible all day turned into a slit which emitted the fiercest of fires before it vanished in a matter of seconds. It seemed at that moment we could breathe fully again and catch the breath the sunset had taken away from us.
We descended at a much slower pace, absorbing our surroundings fully. Night was creeping in, scattering stars above us and wrapping the city in a veil of darkness. There were no lights or signs showing us where to go and Cape Town seemed so far away. All its sirens and cars and lights and bars and people and commotion did not manage reach the mountain top. We could hear the distant rumble of the ocean below, its waves intensifying every now and then, its brisk breeze freezing our noses and fingers. The stars and constellations looked different too but managed to stun us into silence nonetheless. So we just lay there and waited for night to fully paint the sky black, observing how the stars moved from one side of the sky to the other until it was completely dotted in tiny specks of light.
It was an extraordinary feeling. We were isolated from normal life and other people going about their usual business, but we were also reconnecting to what seemed like a past life when language had not been invented yet.