Travelling back from Namibia, we cross into the Northern Cape at Vioolsdrif, with my bakkie’s springs, shocks and axle buckling under the weight of rocks, stones, animal bones (from the Skeleton Coast) and a few dry elephant turds.
The border policeman walks around my 17-year-old Isuzu bakkie with an eye-piercing briskness. I hardly have time to ponder the fact that our new president might have introduced a new police force. The vehicle looks like some of the worst country roads I have just been on in Namibia – indescribably bad.
He promptly points to the front of the dust-encrusted vehicle and says that I have lost my front number plate. “Go to the Midas in Springbok, they’ll make you a new one,” he shouts, as I drive back into my beloved land.
Elephant turds? (Just in case you are wondering). After my failed attempts at photojournalism I am planning a fresh start in the world of ART – the creation of unique, designer-mounted, elephant-art turds, (labelled in limited editions). Let’s just say, more about that some other time.
High up into a heavenly space
I immediately turn right off the N7, and follow the flow of the Orange River to Kotzehoop on a gravel road. The river narrows here, feeding greenness to a strip of vineyards, lucerne fields and tomato groves, above which rise steep, bare cliffs with spectacular harshness. Out from my heart tumble long-stored affections I have kept for the Richtersveld and an old ouma who once lived in Eksteenfontein.
Further along, I stop a police van and ask about the road beyond, the one less travelled. The two constables look at me puzzled, and shrug. Must still be stragglers of the old police force that the president has not yet replaced.
When the road becomes a track it turns away from the river, then scrabbles along a steep valley and enters what locals call the Helskloof Pass. When the stones and corrugations return, I rock to a stop with joy, then lean over and kiss my wife on her lips. She screams, half in shock, “A new husband, a new husband!”
And you know what, dear countrymen? After being married for 48 years, I know what she is going to scream before she screams it. That’s called love, or something like that. What I don’t know is what is going to come next.
Oh wait, that is to come after we pass the ancient Khoikhoi petroglyphs of the area. I am back in South Africa, where happiness always mingles with sadness.
Recent travellers have scratched their own names on these ancient relics of our land’s true forefathers. Their spirits must have looked down from the cave shadows of the craggy mountains, with tears, with anguish.
Driving further up the river bed we are suddenly surrounded by hundreds of stone cairns. Stacked stone steeples vibrate in the desert brightness, placed and positioned to reflect and celebrate the beauty of this landscape.
Later we are told that this is no land-art project, but that the cairns have been built there by passing travellers over many years. All around us hangs a quietude, all-encompassing as if the great blue sky has pushed the entire area further upwards, high up into a heavenly space.
Joyful tears of the storyteller
Driving into Eksteenfontein (as I have done so many times before) is not going to shake you up as being the prettiest little village in Africa. This place shares it secrets slowly, the people are friendly, reserved, but it is they who bring so much character and colour to this hardened place of rocks and mountains.
As I am not blessed with the act of pussyfooting, and as there are no tulips here to tip-toe through, I bash through the mesh of political correctness and ask the first elderly man I meet, “Where do you come from? Are you a descendent of the Bosluis Basters?” Answers come to me in slow time, with heartiness, often with lined frowns, smiles, in sighs, shrugs, with prayer-held hands and some hearty laughter.
In the very early years of the Dutch Cape Colony, prospectors and soldiers met up and intermingled with the local Khoikhoi and, in the following decades, the descendants of these mixed races intermingled further with the trekboer farmers who moved north from the Cape. Many settled and established farms in Bushmanland and near today’s town of Pofadder.
Here we have to pause, as the storyteller Oom Kosie has gone into a fitful bout of laughter. I hope that he doesn’t pop over and die, but his wife says that he won’t. God bless all South Africans, I think solemnly. So then Oom Kosie recovers and says that many of the wives of the Khoikhoi were bossies weduwees (probably translated to grass widows) as their men were away with the livestock for long periods.
This is where Kosie’s story changes to a series of chuckles and joyful tears as he mimes the white farmers sneaking into the women’s beds at night. Over the years, many children were born with light complexion, straight hair and blue eyes. The people became known as the Bosluis Basters, a derivative from a farm of the name Bo-Sluis (Upper-Sluice).
The growth of the human spirit
Discrimination by European farmers and other factors contributed to a great unhappiness among these people, till the good reverend Pieter Eksteen helped to settle the Bosluis Basters in the valleys and mountains of the greater Richtersveld area. The town of Eksteenfontein was established in the late 1940s. On a hill, residents have proudly written the name of their town with painted white rocks.
In the pre-dawn darkness, we clamber up the hill to this installation, and I photograph the morning light creeping in over the village as we watch its slow awakening. In small houses, lights brighten and curtains move, cocks crow and opposite hills echo with the barking of dogs. Overhead, a vapour trail streaks across the pale-blue sky, probably one of the many Cape Town-Europe flights.
I am happy, being so far away from all things urban, the crowded city conglomerate. I feel a goodness, a hug of compassion holds me, for here below me lies an isolated community living a difficult existence, a struggled life, often hard-earned, but a life of simplicity and, in most cases, a thankful and cheerful one.
During the day, I drive around, along every street and past almost every house. I jot in my notebook, ‘Here the human spirit far outgrows the few plants in the garden’. I pass a house with a mural on the stoep’s wall, a painting of a springbok and a Secretarybird by the village artist, Ferdie Ramsden. In front stand two old Isuzu bakkies, waiting for the dawning of their new day, the reconditioned-engine day, the coming of their new gearbox day. Whenever.
“Too brown to be white and too white to be black”
Behind the house, I meet Floors Strauss, busy feeding his goats. He views me with a humorous twinkle in his eye, with a lined smile around his mouth. We chat in his house and drink a verbal concoction of history, politics and the hard country all around us. Later, we find ourselves in the times of segregation, years of degradation, discrimination, the non-whites, their struggle through the apartheid years. I feel my heart sagging and my insides cringing.
Floors asks me, “How did the officials do their race classification in our area of residence?” I look outside, to the blinding white light beyond his yellow curtains. He smiles, with a twinkle of sorrow, “We all had to stand in a row, then they would come to each of us in turn and push a pencil into our hair. If it stuck, we were classified coloured and if it fell out, white.” I think of my father’s sins – and mine. He says, “We were too brown to be white and too white to be black.”
The next day I see him driving down the road in a suit. He waves that it’s a Sunday and he’s going to church to worship and perform his duties as a church elder. Momentarily, my vision blurs, as I think back to the last time I spoke to a church elder. 1959.
The next day I hoot in front of Floors’ house, my engine idling with a tired stroke. Then, he appears in full Blue Bull rugby regalia, punching the air, waving and doing whatever Blue Bulls do. My bakkie splutters, chokes on diesel, and then dies from the fumes. I swallow my sporting disgust and photograph on in a flurry.
Him in bull-blue, holding little blue pillows, him smoking a pipe, with the yellowest of yellow curtains, then the kitchen’s most beautiful, old, steel Defy oven and his lovely wife Agnesia, holding a portrait of herself aged three. Only later, in summarising the picture details, am I told that Mrs Strauss is the headmistress of the local primary school.
True love is a noble cause
Photography is making your own luck and guiding this luck into pictorial gaps. It’s a bit of smash and grab, some gentle plundering, some smoke and quite a few mirrors. Experience does teach you something I guess – throw away the chaff and chase the facts of the matter. Light bends and refracts itself, just be ready to catch it, come what may.
So the next morning, at break time, I am at the school photographing the children, the little ones eating their small bowls of provided food. In front of the school, around an old multi-branched quiver tree, older children glance at me, some shy, others giggling. “Who wants to be a model?” I throw the words out to the group. The headmistress rolls her eyes, two girls and a boy jump forward, the giggling quickens, I move, smile, gesture, throw out the boy, then shoot, bam-bam, quick and painless fun, ‘Quiver tree with girls’.
Behind me, the school emblem blazes down on me, sculpted in concrete, painted in red. It reads, ‘Arbeid is Adel’ (Labour is Noble). I roll my naughty eyes and giggle. My assistant and wife gives me a stern look. I know what she’s thinking before she says it. True love is a noble cause.
Looking at the bigger picture of Eksteenfontein, one soon realises that it is connected to the Richtersveld National Park. In 2003, it was named the Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park and is co-managed by the Nama people and SANParks. This brings in much-needed revenue to the towns of Kuboes, Sanddrif, Lekkersing and Eksteenfontein. In 2007, the 160 000-hectare Richtersveld’s cultural and botanical landscape of desert mountains was given Unesco World Heritage status.
A faint apparition
One night, after three days of ethnic and pictorial gathering, the ouma with the pink kappie brightens up in a dream. Besides all else, I have returned to once again pay homage to her spirit. God be with you, Pink Kappie Tannie, Ouma Roos Cloete.
Passing through here circa 1985, I first photographed her sitting on the balcony of her little corrugated-iron house. I returned a few years later to show her my first book with her on the cover. I have had hundreds of visual delights, but this moment must rate as one of my best. And so, over the years that followed, I returned to visit her in her little house.
One year, sometime in the early 1990s, I no longer find her sitting on her veranda in Akker Street, next to the knitted woollen words expressing that ‘God is Love’. A neighbour with saddened eyes explains that Ouma Roos Cloete is now with God, and resting in the cemetery that lies below that hill with the stacked white stones that read ‘Eksteenfontein’ when you drive in from the Springbok road.
During this visit, I spend my last day in the town visiting some of her remaining relatives. First I picture her son Johnny Cloete, with his wife Sarie. Then I am pointed to the house of her daughter, the 65-year-old Rachel Strauss. We speak at length about her mother, and the two brothers and two sisters that are still alive, and later she overcomes her reluctance, her shyness, and poses for me in front of a framed mirror that looks a little like her mother’s pink kappie.
Weird as it sounds, strange as it feels, all the while I am in her daughter’s house, some faint apparition, some fleeting impression of this pink headdress floats around, appears in my view, is somehow there among all the optical artefacts, all the realism, every bit of light that forms a room in a house on the edge of the Richtersveld.
In boxes, and old suitcases and steel crates, we search for that pink kappie of yesteryear. Then, once upon a moment, we find it, lying there among forgotten clothes, as bright, as alive as I remember it in my mind.
That evening, as the soft sounds of twilight descend, a moon already up and boasting fullness, I return to the cemetery beneath the hill, to the grave of Ouma Roos Cloete.
I want to show her my first book again. I feel unsure of what I have become, what I have done over all these years.
But one thing remains a fact. Of all that is me, however much and however little, she hangs on my spirit, wears her kappie and stays with me over all my horizons.
Richtersveld Info www.richtersveld.net
Richtersveld National Park
Eksteenfontein Information Centre Volenti van
der Westhuizen 027 851 7108, [email protected]
Sarie Cloete 076 087 8183