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Detour Espresso: Often open & occasionally friendly

CAPE TOWN - Strange, grey clouds swill over the Twelve Apostles. It's a quiet, dark morning on the roadside between Hout Bay and Camps Bay. A few shafts of light pour down on to an otherwise monochrome Atlantic Ocean. There's little traffic, apart from the occasional container ship gliding silently across the horizon before disappearing again.

A generator breaks the silence and clouds of smoke emanate from the back of the old, rusty bakkie that is parked at the viewpoint next to a small orange trailer.

Marck Barter momentarily pauses, looking concerned. It's a face that has weathered a few storms over the years. The long hair sticking out from underneath the cowboy hat is that of someone who has spent most of their life in the sun and sea. After a little while the smoke disappears and he resumes his task of setting up his coffee station, housed in the compact wagon.

His old black dog Tokoloshe, greying at the muzzle, limps over to the cliff edge where he barks defiantly at the sea, before assuming his position on an old sun lounger cushion.

The first customer arrives at 6:50am, but does not approach. Instead she sits in her car and waits. She learnt the hard way. The dog hobbles over to greet her. A regular, I guess.

"You've got them well-trained, huh?" I say.

Marck flashes a cheeky smile and gives a quick nod as he takes a drag of his cigarette. He resumes his work.

From his car he takes a bunch of fresh frangipani flowers - crisp, white - and gently arranges them in an enamel cup filled with water.

A second woman arrives and explains why she doesn't dare even greet this barista while the small 'closed' signs are still hanging on the trailer.

"I tried that once. He just pointed at his sign!" she smiles.

Both mention that he was absent earlier in the week - and they were disappointed. Stopping here for a coffee on their way to work is clearly much more than a ritual - it's a highlight of their day.

When the time is right Marck's demeanour switches from grouchy to gracious host and by 7:12am he has already served eight coffees. He knows every customer by name and can guess whether they want a take-away or not. Some elect to take 15 minutes out from their commute to sit looking out over the sea while savouring their cup. One or two even bring a book.

From these interactions it's hard to believe that this is a man who considers himself highly antisocial. Ironic indeed, since it seems he is the primary draw, with the coffee being the secondary reason his customers make a stop at the Detour Espresso trailer.

Many people, having visited and enjoyed the quirky coffee spot since it opened in January 2011, have bugged him for T-shirts or branded mugs. But this is one entrepreneur that is dead set against marketing and proudly states he's never tried to sell anything to anyone.

Curious to find out more about how this person managed to escape a conventional 9 to 5 life and "dance to his own tune", I start to ask questions, but it quickly becomes apparent that this way of living is closely tied to his entire outlook.

The renegade returned to South Africa in 2008 after 25 years in Canada, the majority of which were spent working at a family-run lodge on Manitoulin Island in Ontario's Lake Huron. The seasonal work granted him months of freedom to pursue the outdoor activities he loves - surfing, snowboarding and skating.

"I've never done any sort of conventional work…" says the former expat.

"It's not that I came back to South Africa to do this, it's that I came back to South Africa knowing that this was probably the only thing that I could do because I was unemployed… I didn't have any office skills, a middle-aged white man in this country and also an outsider…

"I knew I'd have to do something myself and I knew that I wanted to do this because it would give me the time to enjoy what I'd missed all those years and what I'd come back for. So start early, finish early and have my afternoons to surf, or skate or hike or visits or sleep or whatever."

When his parents retired from the Canadian lodge he declined to take it over.

"We all just decided to call it quits," he recalls.

When that chapter came to a close he had two choices: Go home or go out west to Vancouver Island.

"And my mom wasn't doing too well so that is actually why I came back to South Africa - to have time with her before she died. So I'm fortunate to have got that eight months with her… that was actually the final deciding factor."

It was when he considered returning home that he recalled an acquaintance who was selling coffees on the roadside in Noordhoek. Marck says he was always inspired by him for "going it alone and doing his own thing".

"He was living a nice lifestyle, he had a corporate wife, so he'd do his coffee, finish early, go for a paddle, do his yoga, pick the kids up from school, get supper started and, you know, it always appealed to me - that sort of lifestyle…

"And it was always kind of at the back of my mind. I didn't really take it too seriously. It was a bit of a daydream, you know."

But the dream soon started taking shape and in 2004 Marck began doing the groundwork, checking in with his sister to find out whether someone was occupying the spot he had in mind.

"And then 2008 when I came back I knew this is what I wanted to do and where I wanted to do it. I actually came here and counted cars one morning to see what the traffic flow was like…"

Marck discusses his philosophy and way of life below:

You seem to have different sorts of priorities to many other people?

Ja, it turns out that I do. It's not calculated or anything, it's just the way I am. I'm not driven by money. I realise I have to make a living, but for me it's more about the quality than the quantity of life and doing things I enjoy on my terms. It's very selfish and maybe that comes from being a surfer since I was a toddler. I've always been a surfer, long before I even stood up on a surfboard. I only stood up on a surfboard for the first time when I was seven, but before that I was playing in the water, I mean, the earliest photographs of me are standing on a piece of driftwood, acting like it's a surfboard.

And let's face it - I mean surfing is one of the most selfish pastimes there is. There's no brotherhood and camaraderie - that all happens in stories and on land. When it gets into the water it's every man for himself; people lie to their wives and bosses and children to go surfing. Once you're hooked, once you're one of those people, then everything revolves around that. And I was the same - when it was snowboarding, surfing, mountain biking - you know, whatever it is that I enjoyed - I wanted to do more of that. So everything else just kind of provided me the means to be able to do those things. And that's in a large way what the lodge did - it would give me a good income and then I'd spend the entire winter travelling and surfing and spending every penny that I'd earned that summer and then go back in the spring and start piling up a stash so I could get out and go surfing and snowboarding or travelling…

Now, I understand that not everyone can do that because they have families and responsibilities and commitments and I'm fortunate enough that my only sort of commitment and responsibility is my dog and that's the way I like it - that's the way I wanted it.

Do you have any regrets now?

Not yet, who knows what will happen down the road - maybe I'll be a decrepit old fart wishing I had children to take care of me, but all we have is now - I can't worry about the future, I can only live in the present and that's what I try to do. But, of course, I'm human and I regret some of the things I've done and said and the way I behaved and all that, but there's nothing I can do about that except apologise and make amends where necessary... but I'm human and you know unfortunately I react to a lot of things that come my way instead of responding in a more mature way, but I'm learning - every day I learn and every day I try to do better and… I mean I've also struggled with depression my whole life. So yeah, I am prone to overanalysing and thinking too much and it didn't take me good places - it didn't serve me any good purpose so I'm trying very hard to remain present - not dwell on the past because that's depressing, not worry about the future because that just leads to anxiety and panic attacks and all of that crap - I'm just trying to do my best in the moment.

(His hands dance around the machine. He seems to - without looking - play the silver espresso machine like a piano.)

I'm not cut out for conventional living or work. The few times I have tried square jobs it hasn't worked out well. And I like this because I don't play well with others - I don't want staff, I don't want to rely on anybody… I'm doing this because it's enough for me; it's enough for me and my dog, it's enough work, it's enough interactions, it's enough socialising, it's enough income…

And you know a lot of people mean it well when they come and they say 'man, what an amazing operation! Man, you've gotta gotta franchise this, you've gotta have one here, you've gotta have one there!'

Well, that defeats the entire purpose of how I live my life and what I'm trying to do…

I don't want more, I'm happy with what I've got. This is fine - it's enough!

It's just a very simple place where the emphasis is on the convenience, the view, the quality of the coffee... It's not about trying to build a f*****g empire and feeding my ego. I'm not into that…

I've witnessed the disgusting behaviour, the waste, the opulence and the excess and the status symbol of wastefulness, and ego. And I don't want any of that - I don't want to be a part of it. And there's a line over there - that's the threshold. And you leave your pretensions and your ego on the other side, otherwise it's gonna bring out the worst in me; it's not gonna be a great experience for anybody and I don't want my nice customers having to witness that…

You say you're socio-phobic but I've watched you for two mornings…

But you've gotta understand that - sure I can do it, because I've had that experience at the lodge for years - I am able to do it. But it doesn't come naturally and it doesn't come easily. A lot of these people you've seen me interacting with I've gotten to know or I've gotten comfortable with them. But part of the reason I don't like working weekends is because now it tips from instead of being 90 percent regulars who are commuting to town in the morning, who I've gotten to know and I feel comfortable with - they know and accept me for my moods and my quirks and my oddities. Now on the weekends its 90 percent strangers doing a weekend drive and they just stumble across me or they've heard of me and they wanna check me out and now all of a sudden I almost get this anxiety. You know that's the f*****g truth of it! Cause I don't like doing weekends not only because I like to sleep in a couple of days a week or I like spending time with Carrie (his partner) or I like to just regroup - I don't like strangers! (laughs)

But once I get familiar with a situation or a person or a place then I'm OK. And this is my place. And I'm comfortable with that. But I find literally 11 o'clock is all I can handle. And sometimes on a nice sunny day I've got people coming all through the morning and I mean I can't wait till 11 o'clock cause I find myself running out of that energy to be able to do that and I start getting nervous that I'm gonna start snapping at people because now I'm not only tired and hungry but I'm also mentally exhausted from the interactions with people. And the longer it goes, the higher the likelihood that I'm not gonna be able to bite my tongue or I'm going to f*****g react - badly - to some stupid question or to some pretentious tw*t or to somebody who parks in the middle of the driveway because the world revolves around them and they have no consideration for other people, so basically I just know that I can handle four hours at a time (laughs) and that's about it!

So, you know, I picked the three things - it turns out it's those three things that I end up having to do: I have to get up early, I have to interact intimately with people and I'm exposed to the world driving past. Whereas I really, really, really enjoyed my anonymity, I enjoyed my privacy and I enjoyed my sleep - at least until eight o'clock or at least seven o'clock!

But it's all been a great learning curve for me and I have grown enormously in the last five years - I've had to. And I have developed the skills that you've witnessed here - me being able to remember people's names and remember their stories, and pick up where we left off and show an interest, but over the years I've actually developed an interest and a care.

Fake it until you make it!

… Ja and an appreciation and a gratitude for those people who have supported me all this time and who supply me with a comfortable living. But it has taken work and let me tell you there were some disasters at first, and I understand that I'm not gonna like everybody and not everyone's gonna like me. And I was taking way too much of that stuff personally because I was so insecure and defensive and hadn't quite found my place or made my place over here yet. You know, that first year, year and a half, was very difficult. And also I was still kind of nervous because it wasn't bringing in enough - it really wasn't bringing in a comfortable living - yet. But I hung in there and after about two years I was doing a bit better and after three years life was becoming comfortable. Not a great - I mean a comfortable - living. I've separated my wants from my needs and my needs are well taken care of. And I don't have a lot of wants.

Can I ask you something about the location? You mentioned that this is the threshold…

That's the line - that driveway line. I'm comfortable on this side of that line. And I have some sort of control over what happens on this side of that line. People have accused me of being a control freak, but this is my place and I want it run a certain way, I want it looking a certain way and I want the vibe here to be a certain way. And if people don't appreciate that or aren't willing to go along with that then maybe it's not their kind of place. Maybe they're expecting it to be like their other favourite coffee shop. This is never gonna be a Giovanni's - as much as I love the place. It's never gonna be a Truth or an Origin, or a Vida. If that's what you want in a coffee shop then that's where you have to go. You're not gonna get that here. But what has happened is that people have adapted to this place and other people have actually immediately embraced it. But the ones who kept coming was because - look - it is a beautiful location, it is a convenient location, (I mean convenient in the sense that you can pull over easily and pull out easily), but also now that you have your coffee, you don't have to go into Camps Bay to Vida or some other place and then have to work your way back to Camps Bay Drive. So those are the key things really.

You also mentioned last time we chatted and, as you said now, you've been working at cultivating a particular atmosphere and that's probably where the name comes in as well, right?

Ja, well. I'm not too sure whether this is in hindsight or not, but look - people have come from a hectic morning, trying to get the kids to school and, you know, doing all those things that I'm unfamiliar with (laughs).

Whatever it is, I know mornings for a lot of people can be very hectic. And what they're going to have to do for the rest of the day can be very trying and hectic - at the office or whatever it is they do - at the building site or this or that.

So this is a little oasis, or a detour, from that as well. You know, not a detour on the side of the road, but it is a detour from life's trials and stresses and whatnot. I try to make it that way.

(He stops to greet a man who arrived to buy some coffee beans.)

Actually I'm really, really thrown off today. It hasn't been the normal sort of flow, you know. I don't know why that first group wasn't here this morning - what happened there. There's a very regular sort of pace here. I get my early morning ones, which kind of ease me into the day. Then half an hour, forty-five minutes later people start coming and I'm hopping and throwing jibes and the whole thing's going - and the back and forth and the games… it just didn't have that normal sort of flow today. By now I'm normally so high on adrenalin from being rushed and the craziness that's going on here and the banter and the back and forth… So it really hasn't been its normal rhythm today I'm actually a bit discombobulated.

(He lights his cigarette.)

And what was it about this particular spot that appealed to you?

I was raised on this stretch of coastline. It's funny - I'm infatuated by the sea. I mean, I can watch the sea all day, there's nothing boring about it to me. Even on a flat, calm day it's constantly changing - not just the tides are changing, everything that goes along the shore - the weather patterns along the sea - and the same with the weather patterns along the mountain. It's fascinating to me.

It's just so immediate and real. And I find the mountains - especially these ones that I'm familiar with - to be very sort of comforting. And they represent a sturdy base and a solidness and nothing is forever - I mean everything is temporary - but that's the one thing that sort of seems to be consistent.

And they're just so f*****g gorgeous. So to have the mountains at my back and the sea in front is ideal. It's like the best of both to me. Also, that there's an upmarket crowd coming from Llandudno and Hout Bay and Constantia and places south. But it's not that I wanted it to be exclusive because I'm not about exclusivity and that goes back to my hatred of pretentiousness and opulence… However, pragmatically, I did need to make a living. And I price my drinks accordingly - it's a good product at a fair price that is available to a wide cross section of people. Not everybody can afford to drink a cappuccino every day. I mean, if I wasn't doing this I couldn't afford to do that. At the end of the month that's a huge chunk of change - I make my own coffee at home… But everybody deserves a good coffee at a fair price in a place that they're comfortable at. And there are places that I'm not comfortable at so I won't go there and I'm not prepared to pay that price for the coffee.

So I try to find some sort of balance - beautiful location, convenience, decent price.

After five years of rocking up here and seeing a lot of the same faces every morning, do you ever get bored?

Um no, I can't say that that's an issue, because every conversation is going to be different. It's funny, I guess everybody at some stage realises that they're on some kind of a treadmill. They seem to be doing the same thing repeatedly every day - doesn't matter what it is you're doing, you're basically going through the same process every day. Now for some people there's a bit more variety - for the architect or the photographer there is gonna be variety - but basically you're doing your work each and every day. And the work that I do, I enjoy. And the location, I enjoy. And when I start getting a bit down because the southeaster's been blowing for two weeks or it's cold and dark and wet in the winter and it can get you down a bit I think 'at least I have my afternoons to myself, I'm dancing to my own tune' - that makes it easier for me.

But the repetitiveness - there's a certain sort of comfort that comes in that. It's so familiar and it comes so naturally that I don't even think about it anymore, so it's not an issue. And every day there's going to be a few new faces, which makes it exciting (laughs).

But, what has happened - OK basically one of my little rambles - I started off with that selfish intent: Just earning enough money to be able to go surfing and enjoy my day and whatnot. And then I started realising - people started telling me - what this place meant to them. And I was actually shocked and I started getting that sort of anxiousness of being responsible for having an effect on people's day. And f**k, so there was a bit of resistance there. You know I didn't want to take on that responsibility (laughs) - whether I was going to be here or whether they were going to be affected by my mood or something. But then I started realising - then I started enjoying or appreciating - that I was having a positive effect on a lot of people's lives; and that they relied on this as part of their daily routine; that it was like such a little treasure for them to be able to escape the craziness from home and the craziness before work, and just to be able to have a nice little break from that and a nice little space to do that in. And then the relationships and the cliques that formed and the networking that went on - it was amazing to be like partially responsible for that. And that started changing my outlook and everything and at some stage I started actually feeling really, really grateful - realising that without these people I wouldn't be making a living and, f**k, I'd be working for somebody or doing something that I hated doing or chasing down jobs... This is nice and simple and straightforward - easy. And without these people I wouldn't be able to do this - I wouldn't be able to live the lifestyle that I do… and I really started feeling a change with that gratitude. And it made it a lot easier as well in a lot of ways to face the day - a windy day or a freezing cold winter's morning - just that little, slight attitudinal change.

No it was funny - I was almost resenting people for a while because I had to be here - I had to be here for them because they were expecting me to be here. And I don't wanna let them down, and ah f**k now I'm in a situation where if I'm not there I'm letting them down and I don't wanna be in that situation where I'm now gonna have an effect on someone's day because I'm not there - almost 's**t, now I'm trapped!' But somewhere along that line I turned it around and I was like, 'f**k, I'm so grateful to these people for supporting me, for being there, for putting up with me.'

It's funny - if I am rained out of blown out for a day I actually miss it. In a lot of ways I actually need it because it reinforces that I have a purpose…

And if I'm not here for a few days because of the wind or the rain I start to lose my sort-of purpose. And I suppose part of it is that it's nice to be needed or wanted, you know. So I need that - I really and truly do - otherwise I start second-guessing myself.

So it has turned around. I really, really do appreciate the support - I'm so grateful for it, and I'm so grateful to be able to work in this place for the hours that I do and for the help that I've received from all of these people to grow personally and to come to realise so many things about life and myself. I'm just very much more at peace with myself now, and that, in turn, makes my interactions with people and newcomers and scary situations a lot easier. So I mean literally - I don't know what I would do without all these people who have supported me and come to rely on me. Everything that I sort-of hated at first - I don't want people to rely on me because I don't trust myself not to let them down - but now I actually thrive on that; I need that. So it is a very symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship that I have with these people. And I've gotta say I'm a little chuffed to see these little communities that formed and the friendships and the intimate relationships that have formed - and this is where I met my lover and partner four years ago.

(It's almost 11 o'clock and time for Marck to pack up for the day.)

He had previously vowed not to give in to his customers' suggestions of 'bettering' his place or their demands for a wider selection of drinks and food. But a basket of crunchies and biscuits now sits perched next to a stuffed toy dassie on the counter and a cooler box with water and soft drinks stands next to the trailer. I smile to myself as I consider the big story behind the gesture to make these small adjustments.

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