In April 2016, award-winning magazine designer and art director Vian Roos found himself on a short break in Bloemfontein. By dawn the following day the city had become the stepping stone to a four-day roadtrip that headed east through the small towns that pepper the maize fields and farmlands of this mighty farming province, eventually closing with a drive through the Eastern Free State Highlands in the foothills of the Drakensberg.
Vian’s idea was to take a closer look at the tiny platteland towns that most of us wouldn’t think twice about visiting. To take the time and drive in to each of them, lift back the covers and find the intriguing detail and character that lie beneath.
“Every little town has a story behind the gravestone, the low, garden wall, the huge, abandoned swimming pool, the red, tin roof,” says Vian. “Many times I got so lost out there, but I loved it. I’d stumble on little treasures each day, all of them holding a little bit of history that makes up our heritage, and it all added up to an extraordinary adventure.”
The extraordinary adventure – which Vian called The Vrystad Project – has culminated in a compilation of colour photographs that will be exhibited at Vrynge, part of the Free State Art Festival in Bloemfontein from 11-16 July 2016.
Vredefort seems frozen in time, with beautifully preserved architecture that dates from 1900 to 1950. Most of the houses remain today exactly as they were when built, often with a traditional layout and a simple front garden.
Charming perimeter walls or fences are low, and still have a gate without a lock – their purpose when built was purely to keep the chickens in, and not the neighbours (or intruders out). Many houses of that time had red, tin roofs, as red oxide was more readily available, and the colour was long-lasting on sun-baked roofs. “People were also fond of red roofs because they were closest in colour to that of clay roof tiles,” says Vian.
Here’s the shell of what was once Bothaville’s bustling pedestrian train station, an art-deco-inspired building that lost its use (and shine) when the main lines through this town – the Maize Capital of South Africa – were closed.
“The silos are nearby and there’s still a maize line in use today about 500 metres away,” says Vian. “But in this little deserted station, some of the bricks have fallen out and windows are missing. It’s abandoned now but is a reminder of those great passenger train journeys that were so common across the countryside. And all the little towns and sidings you’d pass through.”
In Bultfontein, as in most small towns across the countryside, the ubiquitous church steeple towers above all else. Certainly most towns were built in a very simple grid system which made getting around very easy, but should you have qualms about finding the centre of a South African dorpie, just take the road that leads to the church, and rest assured the business centre of the town will be nearby. Bultfontein’s church was built by a Mr. Hartman, who lived in Kroonstad, but the architectural style is remarkably similar to that of renowned Gerard Moerdyk (1890-1958).
“He was famous for his churches and public buildings, and designed the Voortrekker Monument,” says Vian. “In Bloemfontein he designed Die Klipkerk and the Reserve Bank, and back then his avant garde architecture was much copied by other architects.”
In Bultfontein, an old swimming pool is reminiscent of the day, decades back, when many small towns boasted a public pool. “In the good old days, no one built a pool in the garden,” says Vian. “All the space around the house was used as an orchard and for some veggies, and of course to keep chickens and even some sheep. But how wonderful to have a pool available that the children could walk to quite safely after school.”
This pool was designed in an L-shape so that ‘serious’ swimmers could do laps up the long section without interference, while the rest had ample space to splash about in the shorter area.