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The Azalea mountains of Haenertsburg

The Azalea mountains of Haenertsburg

OBIE OBERHOLZER trades the old bakkie for his bus of dreams and takes the road of vibrancy and extremes to Haenertsburg.

Cheslin is my new hero. Cheslin Kolbe. I am going to sidestep, swerve and jinx past all the troubles that abound in this land, and then score in the corner of good hope. After that, at 72 years, smash down the door to a place where expressive excessiveness abounds. No worries, what the hell. I couldn’t give a hot syrupy waffle. No more waffling. Waff-waff-waff.

I’m gonna get a real bark, embrace all eccentrics and all slightly crazy South Africans. Forget this sanity, normality, and the sameness of the grey all day. I mean, look at our cauldron, our big, black, bubbling pot of 57 million people, 35 spoken languages (11 official), five racial groups, plus other ethnic visitors from all over Africa. What a wonderful African pot. I’ll add a couple of missionaries and sangomas to the pot’s bubble-bubble, just for extra flavour, for blissful existence and happiness under cumulus clouds and the rainbow of diversity.

I am going to abandon all this photojournalism, the waff-waff-waffling, and drive away from all this magazine stuff. In fact, I am going to buy a bus, yeah, I tell you, a big bus. Buy it with earnings I have collected from magazines over the years, hidden secretly under my bed next to the bricks that fend off the Tokoloshe, the Malema Dilemma, and the return of Jacob Zuma.

A big, colourful bus, like the rock groups of the sixties used to travel around in. The Happysad Bus with a bar and a toilet at the back. We’ll be coming in hot from the pot, stronger together, wannabees, total bee-beings, black, white, Indian, coloured and all the others, together, busing as one.

The road to Haenertsburg

Evening falls over the Pennyfather Complex of shops and cottages in Haenertsburg.

The first journey is a definite, a must, a roadtrip from Polokwane, eastwards on the R71, to Haenertsburg. Each and every South African should do this trip. I travelled it often in my youthful heyday, in the days of separation and desperation, the days of Vorster’s brutal finger waving and, for me, the days of privileged, free-abandon travel. But this trip today is worth 57 million. It’s a road of vibrancy, adversity, extremes, colours, creeds, contrasts so galore it would rock any bus. Driving eastward, our eyes would roll over endless development of brick and concrete, an urban tsunami of hardware outlets, funeral parlours, malls, and every other enterprise imaginable under the gathering spring cumulus.

When I roamed here in the late 1970s it was called a Bantustan, Lebowa homeland, and there was nothing much here but a few thin cattle and some North Sotho kraals. Now the brick homes are large, some ostentatious, with fluted pillars, double, even treble garages, spiked security walls, and the most beauteous of steel, designer, entrance gates. Gigantic, for a bus to pass through, I lie not.

On this road, we’d all be blasted by this endless expansion; the tiny settlements of the past grown together as one – Mphalong-Matshelapata-Thabakgone. In a strange way, I’d get the feeling that the poverty has been paved over, almost cemented closed, in a hideous-macabre kind of way. A little way past the University of the North and Zion City, I’d stop the bus, get out of my dream, and continue in the reality of a 2001 Isuzu double cab with a fridge at the back, a rooftop tent, and my wife in the passenger’s seat.

Everything changes abruptly as we wind up the Strydpoortberge, still driving eastward, to Wolkberg, to the people of the mountain, to the land of the silver mists, to the village of Haenertsburg. Afromontane forests crowd the ravines, mountain streams glitter down from high places, and hills are cloaked in pine and eucalyptus forests. We have arrived in another world.

A country garden on the lid of an English cookie tin

Our Lady of the Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Haenertsburg.

Our Lady of the Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Haenertsburg.

Established in 1887 as a gold rush community, as a collection of log cabins and corrugated-iron buildings, the little hamlet was named after Ferdinand Haenert, who came out from Germany to seek his fortune. My Garmin takes us along Rissik Street to our little prospector’s iron shack, reminiscent of the days when there was ‘gold in them thar hills’. Our place is named Doel Zeederberg, after the man who started the first postal coach service to Haenertsburg.

Let me just add that great accommodation and eating places can be found all around town. Our cottage is a delight, situated in an old-look complex of cottages and shops called The Pennefather Gold Mining Company Ltd. I sidestep all the historic facts and go on a drive-about. Facts would soon start to pilfer the little remaining space in my head. Up and down and around, first up Rush Street, a narrow overgrown lane that takes me up to the Haenertsburg Primary School, which has a magic view from the top of the hill.

‘Hello-hello,’ say my eyes to my Canon. ‘What luck do we have here?’ Brightly coloured suitcases are lined up in rows,
as pupils scramble around, moments before the bell rings for the term-end holiday. I lasso a few, do an old man’s jig, then focus, they laugh, and I take. Simple. A joy for all.

Then I follow the streets named ‘Goud-Mare-Rabe-Kerk-Kruger-President-Kantoor’. Trees abound and the gardens overflow with greenery and flowers. The town looks like a country garden on the lid of an English cookie tin, and as colourful as the carnival in Rio, without the beautiful, half-naked women. Azaleas bloom everywhere, with such profusion that my lens soon rebels at all the focusing and refracting of colours that it must do. I am on a rhododendron high.

Azaleas everywhere

Professor Loius Changuion, a well know South African author and historian, poses in his studio and library in Haenertsburg.

Professor Loius Changuion, a well know South African author and historian, poses in his studio and library in Haenertsburg.

As I turn back into our old frontier square, a tall, handsome man stops me, lowers himself to my window, and says, “The last time we met, you were somewhat intoxicated. BookBedonnerd, the Richmond Literary Festival. April the first, 2014, 3.30pm. You took a group shot of us in the middle of the street.” The Isuzu falters, stutters and dies. I do the same, ashamed. This is the owner of The Pennefather. Louis Changuion. Professor, historian, sage, trailblazer, village icon, author of 25 books, and a walking Afrikaner-Britannica.

There is an awkward, lengthy moment as I flounder around in my dismal past. One of the azaleas stuck in my hair slides down my face. “Ah, yes,” I reply for the sake of saying. “Richmond, Karoo. A group shot in the middle of the street. Oh no.” We shake hands, as Louis verbalises on with pure fact.

“Azaleas are toxic, especially the nectar. Bees are deliberately fed rhododendron nectar in some parts of Turkey, producing a mind-altering, and occasionally lethal, honey known as Mad Honey. According to the Ancient Roman historian Pliny the Elder, an army invading Pontus (in Turkey today) was poisoned with such honey, resulting in their defeat. This poisoning is often called ‘honey intoxication’ and has been known since 400BC.”

A honeycomb of incidents

Linda Chamguion with her pets at her home in Haenertsburg.

Linda Chamguion with her pets at her home in Haenertsburg.

Over the next two days, I try to compile a honeycomb of incidents, moments, and images to reflect my personal take on Haenertsburg. Like the expedition from Polokwane to here, the drive up to the old cemetery is a must. This is top-of-the-
hill stuff. It’s just that the road up, once a tarred one, has pothole degraded to a rutted track. South Africans should learn from the Kenyans. Once a road is rutted, they start making tracks on the side and soon have a good dual road.

As a taphophile, I spend a lot of time with dead people. This old cemetery is a beauty, it quickens me back to life as I take on the eerie sight of stillness, the lichen plants’ slow growth, the tall cedar trees, and Bill, sadly mourned by his family. The view from here over the landscape, shimmering wavelengths of pale blue, fills me with lightness and hope.

Invigorated, a sense of being takes me back along Kerk Street to an Alpine-Gingerbread-Hansel-and-Gretel-type house called Earth Creations House of Art. I am enthralled by these creations, the ceramics and sculptures, the glass and metalwork of Marion and Eric de Jonge. He is from the Netherlands and she’s from Austria. While my wife Lynn chats to them in German, my inability to multitask leads me into their studio, where the allure of an ornate zebra skull talks to me. With a little light from a torch, I try to walk the talk.

A town in the dark hours

A clump pf cedar trees stand below a full moon over Haenertsburg.

A clump pf cedar trees stand below a full moon over Haenertsburg.

I wander the town at pre-dawn, before there’s a glimmer of light in the east, and then again, long after twilight, when, some old folks say, the ghosts of the old prospectors come out again to pan for gold.

I love these times, when no one is around, when street lights shine orange, and the dark-blue heavens are pricked with starlight and, of course, those men of old are rummaging. When there is no wind, throw your caution to the quaint and the kitsch, and record what happens. If we could see like cameras, then we wouldn’t need them, except to do ‘selfies’ ad infinitum.

I hear there is a duchess living in town, but my investigation ends when my new friend and historian, Prof Changuion, with his small spectacles slowly slipping down his long nose, says (in one breath), “Peggy Murray is the duchess and very much alive. She was married to John Murray, 11th Duke of Atholl, 19 January 1929 to 15 May 2012. He was a South African-born hereditary peer of the Peerage of Scotland, hereditary Clan Chief of Clan Murray, and Colonel-in-Chief of the Atholl Highlanders. As Duke of Atholl, he commanded the only legal private army in Europe.”

In my search for the duchess (I am thrilled at the thought of photographing one), I walk downtown. On the commonage there seems to be a festival on the go, with a mountain of stalls selling the same stuff as always – bright, florally, sweetie, woolly, oily, tasty, kitschy, ornate and painterly. Rightly so, each town needs a festival and a party, where the boereworsrolletjies remain boereworsrolletjies – proudly South African, now with organic stickers, nogal.

The Magoebaskloof Spring Festival

Magoebaskloof Spring Festival

Tristan Spurway, in a Springbok rugby jersey, serves drinks at The Eatery Restaurant in Haenertsburg.

I photograph a brightly clad Shangaan woman in ethnic dress at her stall of African beadwork. The craftsmanship is remarkable. I am so absorbed and charmed by the action of the place and people that my pictorial attack is relentless. I grip my Canon like a woman, sorry, make that like a teddy bear. An attractive Afrikaans woman taps me on the shoulder and says, “Ek ook.”

I freeze, but then I remember my Canon dangling limply from my wrist. Her business is named Soxy Lady. I want to say something, but don’t. I just Canon her holding hairy-bear slippers. Normally, sooner rather than later, I would be in the beer tent drinking five beers. Aikhona. No ways, not here at the Haenertsburg Azalea Festival, actually named the Magoebaskloof Spring Festival, as I later discover.

I am tapped on the shoulder once again, and asked by an older woman, “Aren’t you the man from COUNTRY LIFE?” The jumping gym bounces, kids screech, the boerewors on the braai smells lekker. “No, definitely not,” I say with gentleness, then walk to the beer tent. All that five beers do is put more cyan in the colour of the sky, more smoke over the jungle gym, and a little more colour in Miss Soxy.

At last the duchess

A stalwart of the town, dowager Duchess Peggy Murray lets me put flowers in her hair.

The Dowager, Duchess Peggy Murray.

With wasted time lost, I chase down the duchess, Peggy Murray. She tells me that she’s a dowager, the name for the wife of a duke who has died. She is so charming, that I break the written rules, by making the flowers grow out of her head, like a crown. Elegance, surpassing the rigidity of rules.

Then I run into trouble. Where to watch a Rugby World Cup game? I end up at the professor’s house, where there are more books inside than bricks in the walls. The man is a true bibliophile. A collection of Adam Small poetry books obscures my view of Cheslin Kolbe scoring another try in the corner of hope.

To house his ginormous collection of books, Louis purchased a house directly opposite the street where his wife, Linda, lives. She is quite some lady, always dressed in black, a true powerhouse, go-getter and businesswoman with a bright, charming personality. I would guess that she is the real CEO and owner of The Pennefather Gold Mining Company Ltd. She pets up with a black Labrador and a black potbelly pig named Mathilda.

So, folks here’s a bit of advice. If you ever go to Haenertsburg and you see a tall man with long white hair, and glasses sliding down his long nose, drive on quietly. If you see a woman in black, with silver bangles and walking a black pig, drive past even quicker. In fact, go hide under that bed on bricks next to the pot of gold.

The annual Magoebaskloof Spring Festival is held in Haenertsburg in September 2020.

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