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An ode to the back roads of South Africa

An ode to the back roads of South Africa

The TV is on, big screen and flat, pulsing out nerve-racking excitement into my senses. It’s the final T20 cricket match of the South African Proteas against the top-ranked team in the world.  They are batting, 12 runs are needed from the last over with eight wickets down. The on-field cameras pan the full stands of Newlands Cricket Ground while the speakers boom out the song Country Roads. The atmosphere is a blast, the spectators sway, scream, and cheer as my nerves tingle and hover above a crazy breaking point.

I love cricket so much that I hate it. Country roads, take me home to the place I belong. West Virginia, mountain mama. Take me home, country roads. The song reverberates around the stands and fills my head. Then I just crack, clutch my head and do the unthinkable, just walk away into my studio. Minutes later, judging by the cheering, we win.

The tapestry of backroads

country roads

Rain mixed with snow falls on the farm Dassieshoogte on the Agtersneeuberg Mountains south-east of Cradock.

Take me home, country roads. I have played and listened to that 1971 John Denver hit song a thousand times. Well, maybe 989 times. It’s glued in my head with an epoxy so strong, that no roughened road, no potholes, and the worst corrugations can shake it loose.

Please, kindly understand, that all I am, is just a simple traveller – a country-roader, a man who rides the roads through his cameras. My equation is simple: I travel to photograph and photograph to travel. In my studio, from drawers of archival prints, filing cabinets filled with negatives, carousels with transparencies and huge Terabyte-laden computer hard-drives, hundreds of country road memories flood back to me. This is home, my visual land, where the song will play on and on, till I drive over the cliff like in the movie, Thelma & Louise.

Well, probably not that dramatic, and definitely not in a vintage green 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible. More like a grey 2001 clapped-out Isuzu grey double-cab with a tent stuck on the top. (My wife wants to sell the bakkie’s fridge and my cameras before I drive over the cliff).

I have travelled the southern African country roads since 1975. So what, one should add – when perceived in a global sense. The tapestry of our back roads shows us the heartbeat of our land, the complexity of our different cultures; it connects us to the essence and soul of this country. One of the many threads crisscrosses so much of this land, while another thread tries to perceive more, weaves a little deeper into things misunderstood, matters cryptic and strange.

Many, many bars

country roads
On roads less travelled, knowing and understanding is often the nemeses of the photographer, the purely visual creator. In today’s world, photography comes relatively easy, but what the final images express of the subject, is often found to be a lot more complex. When the road turns a corner, what lies beyond? I don’t know, perhaps nothing much, but maybe a glistening surprise?

I want to drink up this county’s unpredictability, put focus on the people who pass, on the crack in the dam wall, lines that run, mists that hover, rock ridges that fall, strange incidents that occur and the little Zulu boy who stops me in the middle of the road and wants a ride. Focus. A visual roadman always travels with intensely focused eyes.

Personally, I take country roads not for their destinations, but rather for what they show, what they reflect. Country roads are the coat hangers of our landscapes, they wear the clothes of place. Being good at something takes practice, repetitive practice brings surety and quickness, and road photography is about searching and sometimes finding scenes that vibrate, landscapes with voices.

I go on country roads for a song. No-no, not just that one, many songs, but for me the ones that have lines and notes and bars. In music, a bar is a section of time, and in photography, it’s similar – just slices of light, that hold the music of sight. Sometimes, to be honest, I do indulge in the other kind of bars. Perhaps that should read – over-indulge. I have been thinking about all this stuff while driving between Avontuur and Kammanassieberg.

Look sharply, with intensity

evening streets lights
Another country road fact during travelling, seen from a photographer’s view, is peripheral vision. In other words, to have the ability to see and notice things on the side when your eyes are focused on the road. I have made a point of practising this over the years and the crux here is to momentarily pick out oddities, imbalances in nature like the Kudu horns behind the thorn tree and the child’s thumb stuck in the crack of the dam wall.

The winds blow my few strands of hair, my bakkie drones the diesel song of dust and freedom and not knowing quite where we’re going. I tap my hand to the rhythms of the road, along farm fences tightly strung, gates and windmills that creak water into cement dams with mossy leaks.

Cattle stand, and sheep too sometimes when it’s hot, each one in the other one’s shadow. I slow and catch some Khakibos leaves in my hand; rubbing them brings forth the pungent smell of Africa. Ah – what delight when, big above the sky blue, thunderclouds gather over the koppies in the distance, dust up my nose, a road-kill with crows that fly away and on the side, the slow death of an abandoned farmhouse, showing the passing of life. To swing wonder eyes from minuteness to grandeur brings total joy or sadness and now and again, a good image.

I hug the road as my eyes wander the surrounds. A cobra slithers swiftly past, two donkeys look up disinterested, bored and then a dune of sand, steep up and down to the riverbed, cracked mud mosaics with spoors of wandering animals, thirsty.
Take me home, country roads. Eskom power lines run slap-bang through my beautifully composed landscape, swallows on the wire, Cicada high-pitched shrills and always a falcon sitting on a single pole, sharp-eyed. I practise what he does best – look sharply, with intensity.

Intensity is a spice of life, and so is enthusiasm and humour. Ag no, I see up front again, the little Zulu boy, waving his arms for another ride in my bakkie. This time he looks a little taller and in the mirror, I see me, grubbier and older.

When the body is too frail

Isuzu, travel, south africa

Selfportrait (Obie Oberholzer) along the Ombonde River between Warmquelle and Weissbrünn west of Etosha National Park.

Take me there, country road, take me there. Behind me you wag your tail of dust and out past my window arm you blur the bossies to a blended greenish-grey. I hold, I look you, I gravel you, and I love you to a pale distant point. I have rolled my tyres on you for over 45 years and still I thrill to ride your endless roughened way.

Take me again and again to new places that change to other spaces. Hell boy, where is Taaiboschfontein se Leegte? You give me freedom, country road, freedom. Along you, I make my photo songs, often just a few and sometimes a couple more. I can never pass you by; your long way connects the landscapes in my mind.

One day, when the body is too frail to change gears through your driffies and curves and passes, I will sit and dream you, country road, dream you. I watch the windmills pass, sheep look up, crows sit on poles, a row of ridges on the right, two, four, five koppies lie ahead. An empty farm dam, a lonely dwelling, and in front, an old rusted sign, with bullet holes, that reads – ‘Babanango 35’. Lead me on, country road, lead me on.


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