As a child I used to believe that Old Joe winked at me. And why not? We children had been told that the ghost of a man called Old Joe lived inside the 2.5-metre rock, a beacon on the edge of the N4 through Schoemanskloof, Mpumalanga.
Who knows, perhaps there isn’t a ghost inside, but there can be no doubting the existence of the man for whom the rock was named. Johannes Barbas arrived in South Africa from the Netherlands as a young man shortly after the Anglo-Boer War and, in 1927, was placed in charge of a team constructing the road from Pretoria to the Mozambique coast.
The story goes that many of the large rocks unearthed in the construction were placed along the edges of the road and painted white for safety’s sake. The resemblance between one of the rocks and foreman Joe Barbas was so striking that the construction workers gave it a face and nicknamed it Old Joe. The rock had Joe’s large tummy and sometimes even his ubiquitous cigar and hat were added.
Joe Barbas lived most of his life in the Lowveld, working in a number of capacities, and died in 1974 at the age of 91. That’s many years of driving through Schoemanskloof and seeing ‘himself’ at the roadside, in various places.
The rock was moved at least three times in his life, first to the top of the Patatasnek Pass in the Schoemanskloof, a ‘nek’ originally named for the ox-wagon drivers who stopped to outspan, rest their oxen and cook a ‘patata’ (potato) meal before braving the steep downhill.
Even after the wagon trail was turned into a road by the likes of Joe Barbas it was still dusty and treacherous, and Old Joe became the sign that you were nearing the end of a long journey from the Highveld.
In the 1950s the road was widened, straightened and tarred, and Old Joe’s position needed to move. His present resting place, 25 kilometres east of the R36 turn-off to Lydenburg, and 50 kilometres west of Nelspruit, is on a pedestal further down the pass from his original position. Such was his fame that it was deemed safer to place Joe where the cars of curious visitors could pull off the road.
Originally, Old Joe was painted white with a black tuxedo and bow tie, and gazed benignly down the Schoemanskloof Pass. But over the years his character changed and wannabe artists gave him an endless variety of outfits and personalities.
One of the first painters was Major Claude Graham, a farmer from the nearby Plaston area, who used to take schoolchildren on holiday expeditions in the 1950s to paint Old Joe for a bit of fun. Hilton College boys painted him in their school colours, and he was occasionally painted in rugby team colours by an enthusiastic supporter.
Then another ghost in the Lowveld got involved. “I saw Old Joe painted as a Blue Bull and thought what fun,” says Wouter de Witt, known (and signing his artwork) as Ghost, and a cartoonist and graphic designer by profession. “That got my mind working and I decided to paint him.”
Wouter’s various, artistic makeovers since then have certainly taken the look of Old Joe to quite another level. “My children join me to paint him, most often my daughter Nadia who loves it.”
He grew up in the Lowveld, travelled overseas for a while and became involved in all kinds of design work including digital design, book illustrations and signwriting. I ask him about his Ghost nickname and he gives his wide smile and asks me for my signature. Then he begins to doodle on the paper tablecloth.
“I was nicknamed Gees at school which means spirit or ghost in Afrikaans. I don’t know why but when I started signing my work I decided to be different and now Ghost is my signature,” he explains. Wouter then presents me with my own signature turned into a cartoon in all of 60 seconds.
In 2010, TRAC (a company managing the road from Gauteng to Maputo) commissioned ‘Ghost’ to paint Old Joe for the World Cup soccer tournament. Wouter designed Sipho, the TRAC mascot, and painted Old Joe as the mascot. Old Joe was such a success that TRAC commissioned him for another five years.
That’s when Wouter really became creative and, over the years, Old Joe has become a cyclist, a rhino, a Puma and whatever else has taken Wouter’s fancy. Now, travellers looking for the familiar Old Joe landmark of the Lowveld can’t wait to see his next guise.