Ultimate On The Dark Continent

Along the south western-most curve of the African continent the Cape peninsula juts tangentially southwards and effectively demarcates the domains of the Atlantic ocean, welling cold and clear out of Antarctica, and of the Indian, flowing tropical from the northeast.  There, rising out of the Cape Flats and nestled among the peaks and oceans of the peninsula, Cape Town extends in a bizarre concoction of the urban, suburban and rural.  In the crescent formed by Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain and Signal Hill, the down town core spreads north along the rim of Table Bay, east into the Cape Flats and the wine regions beyond, and south along either side of  the rambling Table Mountain massif.  Along the Southern-most shorelines of the peninsula the suburban sprawl, increasingly interrupted by vineyards and farms, parkland and wilderness, gives way to quaint villages and hamlets and finally the Cape Point Nature Reserve where at the Cape of Good Hope, the two oceans meet in a slow, inexorable conflict of swell and current and flow.  And it seems everything about Cape Town’s geography is present in the mentality of its denizens.

Conflict seems to lie at the center of Cape Town’s existence.  A cultural conflictual mosaic.  Conflict physically realized in the violence of gangland turf wars and of riots in the townships.  Conflict between race and tribe and class and religion.  Conflict integral to the clash of Western, twentieth century ideals with the bleak economic and political realities consuming post-colonial Southern Africa.  The Cape Peninsula seems like it is trying to escape the African continent and join the Western world while at the same time, the salt marshes of the Cape Flats are being drained and the land reclaimed and solidified from the sea; there is no escaping Africa and it is only a matter of time before Cape Town faces full on what Johannesburg and Durban are facing, what Zimbabwe is contending with, what Zambia has been consumed by, and so on down the line into the depths of third-world squalor.

And yet, at the same time, there is consensus that holds Cape Town together.  It is home.  Home to the Cape Coloureds, the Boers and the Hottentot Bushmen, the original inhabitants of the Cape.  Home to the Africans of countless tribes who have left their traditional lands and descended to the sea, to live in the horrific conditions of the townships and the shanty-towns, in search of a better life.  Home to the Boers and the Whites of  British and German and Hugenot descent, of South and East Asians, and of countless other groups and individuals who have settled on the Cape and who are by inertia or conviction, by politics or economics, bound to stay.  There is consensus forged through the collective egocentricity of their situation and realized in the commonly held and regularly stated belief that Cape Town is the best city on earth in which to live.  And after a day wandering through the multinational markets of the downtown and the waterfront, after exploring the highlands of Table Mountain as the mist descends and the silence becomes palpable and the sunlit ocean far below seems impossibly blue, after lying on your surf board out beyond the breakers as afternoon fades to evening and the sky catches fire, peering down into the clear frothy sea water along a single strand of kelp to the radiant white sandy bottom fifty feet below, you can almost accept their belief as the Truth.  And there, on the Cape, on the brink of Africa, amidst the conflict and violence and fear, amidst the hope and resolve and love, the seed of Ultimate, carried by the Internet, has found purchase and has begun to grow.

Kier and I had been traveling through Southern Africa for almost two months when we arrived in Cape Town this past March.  We were road weary and getting homesick and faced the prospect of two and a half weeks in the Cape as excessive.  This especially given that our main contact, Kier’s uncle, had suddenly found work elsewhere and had moved away days before our arrival.  We ended up staying with a Zimbabwean friend of ours, Russi Travlos, in the student digs that he occupies with a few fellow physiotherapy and med students just down the mountain from the University of Cape Town Hospital.  A block away, across the street from the international YMCA hostel, was a field complex with field hockey and rugby and cricket pitches.  There, on a daily basis, Kier and I threw against the incessant Southeaster and anticipated the season to come back home.  One day, a week into our stay, a neighbor of Russi’s, out on the street unloading his vehicle, noticed the disc we were carrying back from the fields.  He gave me the universal signal for throw me the disc; clapping his hands and giving me the nod.  I tossed to him praying he wouldn’t road our last unmarred piece of plastic and watched as he inspected its graphic.  It was one of the Team Canada 1996 discs that Jeff Redmond had printed up to help finance his trip to Sweden.  “Ultimate,” he said, “I play that.”

That was music to our ears.  We were starving to play and the prospect of adding ultimate to our list of daily activities, ultimate in South Africa none-the-less, was intoxicating.  The guy’s name was Liam and I think we freaked him out we were so eager.  Plans were made and from his description it sounded like the pick-up ultimate scene anywhere; things started roughly when people could get there after work; it was “pretty casual”; some guys could play and were pretty serious, others, like Liam, didn’t really dig on the gnarlyness.  We were pumped.  On the appointed day we left in a small caravan as Cape Townians, at least of the student set that we were running with, all drive old sandy hatchbacks with only two functional seats, and Russi and a couple of his surfer friends were coming to check out the sport that I had been ranting and raving about.  (Russi had actually experienced ultimate of the indoor variety when he had passed through Calgary in January.  He dubbed the sport “ultra-fit” which only served to whet interest more.)

Our arrival at the field was also very much in keeping with Ultimate anywhere.  The field itself was a school yard in a fairly well-to-do residential neighborhood South of the downtown core and carved into the slopes of Table Mountain which loomed above.  The cars were mostly all either hatch-backs or light trucks with covered backs and there was even an old-school VW van.  And the characters all fit the bill too, that odd assortment of looks combining clean-cut business types with hippies, athletes with couch potatoes, and counter-culture with the cutting edge.  Kier and I looked at each other and nodded, “Oh yeah, its time to play some Ultie.”

From that point though, things began to turn increasingly from the familiar to the, exotic.  As we came through the shrubbery that ringed the field a game was just beginning.  The playing field was incredibly long and wide and the end zones were narrow slivers.  Two barefooted teams converged upon one another, some in shirts and some in skins, with seemingly little regard for who was who.  In fact, it was impossible to tell who was on O and who was on D as a cloud of players swarmed the disc, dispersing into the fringes of the field.  As the disc moved, so did the cloud.  It was reminiscent of the kind of ultimate played by junior high school students on ultimate demo day, with one major exception; these guys could throw.  The disc was being blasted from receiver to receiver until one guy with a serious mop of blond hair, who could have been Joe-ultimate-player on any field in North America, cocked this 60-yard hammer into the hands of a receiver standing in the back corner of the end zone.  When she bobbled and dropped the disc, the friendly cries of consternation that arose from the field and the sidelines made me smile and brought the feeling of familiarity welling back.

Kier, Russi and his friends and I were recognized as being new faces and we were welcomed enthusiastically and our names and numbers and e-ddresses were taken by a guy named Andrew who was building a data base.  Its hard to say how Kier and I managed to stand out amidst the confusion of the cloud but we made an impression.  By dusk lots of the players were questioning us as to where we came from, what Ultimate was like in Canada, and how long were we staying.  Over drinks at a nearby pub talk got down to business.  The gnarly players were trying to consolidate a more competitive scene with drills and fitness and strategies but they were facing a great deal of resistance from the more laid back players, and from the inertia of their own inexperience.  There was the beginning of a plan to travel to World Championships in Minnesota that August.  How would they fare against the rest of the world they asked us.  We assured them that they’d get destroyed but that it would be an incredibly worthwhile experience.

As we learned, the Frisbee Invasion hit South Africa just over ten years ago and many of the core players had been throwing religiously on the beach since then, long before any concept of Ultimate had percolated through the stifling umber of apartheid.  I explained to the guys how this seemed to fit in exactly with my understanding of the growth of Ultimate in some of the North American hinterlands.  I know that in Calgary, Steev Limin was a disc fanatic, throwing the Frisbee in the park in the early eighties, playing MTA and a game called Limits well before he ever knew of Ultimate.  I was excited at being there at the beginning after having heard the fond recollections of the seminal characters in my neck of the woods.  I was also excited at potentially playing a major role in this particular creation myth, that of the guy from abroad who brings new knowledge.  How cool would that be I thought, to be enshrined in the pantheon of South African Ultimate.

The guys were of a similar mind.  When I told them that I had coached the Calgary Juniors for the past three years, all the way to a National Championship the previous summer, and that Kier and I were returning to Calgary to run the Junior National Team, they asked us if we’d coach them for the remainder of our stay.  We happily agreed.  I assured the guys that they had all the pieces of the puzzle but that they just weren’t quite putting it together right.  If they would make the mental leap of committing to man-on-man defense as opposed to the amorphous coverage afforded by their cloud, then everything would quickly evolve and they would be playing modern Ultimate in no time.  There was a bit of reluctance expressed in terms of turning their game into the stifling, generically structured styles of game that they had explored in all their diagrammed glory on various sundry Ultimate websites.  Some of the guys were fantasizing about showing up at Blaine and taking on the World, out of the blue, with the South African style.  Innovating new styles of play is great I agreed, but I was deadly serious when I told them that this wasn’t a Kung-Fu movie, and that until they committed to playing defense as a team, they would barely be playing Ultimate, let alone beating anyone in international competition.  As hindsight would have it, it wasn’t until I spent two weeks glued to my TV set watching World Cup France, with the great production and the sky-high aerial views, that I made the connection between soccer and the cloud style that the South Africans were playing when Kier and I first met them.

The clinics we put on went really well.  The guys could throw and some of them could really throw.  We stressed two things:  Stick your man on defense, dog on a bone;  and throw to the space on offense, the Zen of open spaces.  We ran a variety of drills and introduced them to the concepts of IO’s and OI’s and the correlation of force defenses.  We set goals for particular drills and ran punitive sprints when we failed to reach them.  And we cheered when we did.  As had been requested of us, we kicked the guys’ asses.  Some of them loved it and I got huffing and puffing commentary like, “This is awesome, its like a real bloody sport.”  Other guys drifted onto the sidelines when they got tired and deigned not to show up again.  On our last day with the guys we ran zone so they would have some idea of what it looked like in real life and how it differed from the Cloud.  After the game, in the dusk as we took off our cleats, we took some photos and the guys gave us a card and a couple bottles of their favorite Stellenbosch vintages.  We had their e-ddresses and they had ours, and we made solemn promises to meet next in Blaine Minnesota for World Championships.

Fast forward in time five months to the middle of August.  And traverse several thousand kilometers from the Southern tip of Africa to the center of North America; Blaine, Minnesota.  It is the calm before the storm.  After three or four days, Worlds is running smoothly although the weather throughout the competition has been unsettled; at times gusty, rainy and cooler than normal we are assured by the mystified staff of the National Sports Center.  After dinner I am out on the field in between the dorms, the velodrome, and the slue around which the tent city huddles.  The air is hot and super muggy and so still.  The sky above is positively apocalyptic with whole regions slathered in grays infused with purples and yellows and greens, overlapping, looming and swirling, and gathering into menacing blackness.  “This is serious tornado weather,” we are informed by Kyle, a meteorology student from Winnipeg who is playing on an I-Cup team and who is macking one of my Junior girls.  His opinion would be ratified by the National Weather Service and would send everyone out to help move the tent city into the field house only a few hours later.  I’m throwing with a couple of my South African buds, Alistair and  Anthony, a couple of my juniors, and the rest of the world.  Some nut named Craig Mackie is running around naked.  Its a really cool scene mixing an international Olympic village flavor with the best of Ultimate.  Everyone is pretty pumped.

I’m pretty pumped.  The South African’s have made the journey.  For some of them it has been a serious odyssey, Worlds being the icing on the cake of their North American tours.  For others it is a marathon one week off of work with over twenty hours of travel, connecting flights and lay-overs in places like the Sudan and Beirut slapped on either side like grim bookends.  Some of the guys couldn’t swing the finances or the time off.  And at least one of them is completely MIA, last heard from in Scotland.  But they are here in Blaine and are absolutely loving it.  Back in Cape Town I had suggested that they call themselves Dark Continent.  Wisely though they selected for their international debut something a little more extrinsic and have assumed the Xhosa word meaning, “the ones who fly”:  Amababata.  Due to their small numbers the guys picked up a couple of Americans who they had been put in touch with before hand and also Kier who signed on last minute with the approval of Charlie Mead after displaying her Zimbabwean passport; close enough.  As is the norm for any tournament experience, Amababata is improving exponentially, learning, absorbing and integrating.  The legacy of the cloud still haunts them, particularly on transition, but they are watching ultimate played at its highest level, and they are being punished on the field for lingering bad habits.  Already there is talk of an Amababata trip to Scotland next year for World Clubs.  There is enthusiasm at the prospect of returning home with so much new knowledge and understanding.  There are plans to further the growth of Ultimate within South Africa, and to bring South African Ultimate up to par on the World Stage.  There is Love and Passion for the game, its practitioners, and its Spirit.

Amababata, from South Africa, in their international debut, was awarded the Spirit Award in the Open Division at the WFDF 1998 World Ultimate & Guts Championships as voted by their opponents.  And that’s as good a start as anyone could ever want.

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