The signs read Kinirapoort and then Sogoga along the R56, as we ride ‘bakkie’ towards the high ridges of the Southern Drakensberg in the Eastern Cape. My heart beats, my eyes rejoice in the visuals, the good fortune and the ability to witness such landscapes. Just before Matatiele, a small gravel road turns westwards towards Roamers Rest and Ongeluksnek. Please, pardon me, but I have to write these names again. Roamers Rest. Ongeluksnek. But, as destiny would have it, the momentary turning of a steering wheel, a fleeting decision, and I am driving in the other direction to Matatiele and Cedarville.
If I had taken the other road, all the hours and days and months to follow would be different. Not a moment would be the same. So it has happened throughout my time of being, Lady Luck and Dame Fortune have guided me. (Fortuna is the Roman goddess of fortune and luck).
I have tempted fate many a time, but somehow these two adorable dames and, dare I say it, my wife Lynn and the occasional thought of Julia Roberts’ smile, have guided me safely through most of life’s turbulences.
I travel in a four-women drive. Lucky devil. Let’s just momentarily fast-forward three weeks. I am now sitting in my photography studio staring at two computer screens; on one I have my final 84 images of this Cedarville area and on the other a word document that I am busy with for this story.
The beauty of this is that I can experience two journeys simultaneously, one is the original, the real one, and the other one a two-dimensional representation, an impression, a sketch of the first. The first one is about turning left or right, taking longer or shorter, and the second one just a shortened summary.
Through the years I have courted fate or, rather, been fascinated by its presence. I get up and walk to my studio’s storeroom, a place of everything from discarded analogue film cameras and lenses, to a set of encyclopedias that my father passed down to me.
I liked the word fate years before one could Google anything. FATE. Thus, from the words of a book, ‘The development of events outside a person’s control, regarded as predetermined by a supernatural power’. Then followed the words, destiny, providence, God’s will, nemesis, kismet, astral influence, predestination, serendipity, luck and more.
Then I drive my memory back to Cedarville, a small village tucked in beneath a broad hill, and beyond it to the north to the grand colossus of the Maluti mountain range. On arrival, I first look in at the town’s cemetery but find its presence a little soulless, somewhat ruined and ravaged by time.
Slowly I drive here, there, around this block and aimlessly around another one. I catch a thrill by not halting at any stop signs. Naughty. I search with intensity and pictorial vigour, but nothing much wants to get embedded in my camera’s mind. I am a little lost, pixel-less.
The contrast between the old Dutch Reformed Church and the new one helps, uplifts me pictorially, for there, next to the white-gabled, old church grows a magnificent cedarwood, enormous in size and true to its purpose of being.
Then I pass a very large garden of cabbages surrounding a house. The owner walks over to me and we shake hands through a new ominous razor-wire fence protecting him and his property. The blue-greyness of the wire is almost the colour of the cabbages. I buy a cabbage, smile and drive away to the owner’s happy wave. Friendly town, I think.
As the last sun hits a shop on the main road through town, we enter to buy fresh milk, as a big sign on the wall reads ‘Fresh Milk 4 Sale’. Inside, a man says that he only has expired long-life milk. Fate. Then we journey to our abode for the next four days, up over the hill, to the valleys of Cedarberg Guest Farm.
Fortuna had brought us into the lap of the country. Two Labradors come around to visit, sniff a bit, wag a lot. Loud-mouthed hadidas fly over to the nearby dams, to their evening roosts. Towards twilight, the sun blushes the grasses of the veld even redder. I think of my two sons, long since immigrated to distant lands. A little sadness sets in and, in the sky, the evening star hangs, already bright. Near me, a dog digs a hole in the flowers. Naughty. I pick up a handful of that earth and smell it. Ah, Africa.
The help and friendliness of the owner, Gerrie Nel and his managers, Ingrid and Petrus Bouwer, show us hospitality of the par excellence kind. I decide to do a story on the farming area around Cedarville, not the town that my photographic know-how couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t, capture and my words didn’t write.
I am driven to the top of the nearby Cedarberg mountain and, around us, landscapes stretch as far as Kingdom Come. In an easterly distance, the main tar road between Kokstad and Matatiele shimmers with traffic, its body a taut rope into the blue distance. Imagine views of cattle grazing, a deep reddened brown against the golden grass, horses at one of the dams, a flock of Merino sheep against a nearby hill. Out further, more livestock on other hills that roll southwards into the old Transkei.
I hold my camera like a drunkard his bottle, each pursuing his own pleasures and rewards.
Another day, Gerrie drives us out into the bleached veld, across such roughened terrain that even his Land Cruiser groans with effort. After some while of hard riding, we see what he’s searching for, a group of zedonks standing among his herd of zebras. Zedonks?
“What the hell are they?’’ I gasp, trying to cover up my lack of knowledge. So I am made to believe that a zedonk is a zebra hybrid, a cross between a zebra and a donkey. Later that day, so taken am I by the fertility of donkeys and the abstract design of zebras, I produce an art image, titled The Zeveranbra (a zebra skin photographed on a veranda with the striped shadows of a reed roof).
In the days that follow, we visit a few farmers and ride the gravel roads that link them around the town of Cedarville. I photograph most of the cattle breeds that graze the fields and the green dairy pastures of the area. “Tuesday is cattle-auction day,” a number of farmers tell me. “You’ll see all the bakkies and trucks parked near the old station, just on the edge of town. No trains anymore, but a grand show of prime beef cattle, free range, of the best in the land.”
I shoot quickly, scuttle between cattle pens, bulls, calves, transporters, animals moving and shoving, the auctioneer’s staccato voice loud, cutting through the bright day. There are some beauties up for sale, Brahmans, Bonsmaras and Ngunis and a few Afrikaners, Black Anguses and Herefords.
Before dawn one morning, with coffee in hand, I stroll onto our cottage balcony, just to be slapped in the face by the whitened scene of a crisp layer of overnight snow. We immediately pack camera and tripod and set out onto the farm roads, our breath excited, pushing out puffs of steam. A scene stands out for me, a cow standing dead still in crystal-clear whiteness, lined and held in a moment by the curve of a country road.
Across the long flatness of irrigated fields the locals call the Cedarville Flats, a herd of Friesian dairy cows trudges in for the milking, blowing pockets of white air along the way. In many cases, at least to my mind, life is not always dictated to by big events, but by the accumulation, the gathering of a multitude of small moments like this. I think, once again, of holding the beautifully printed pages of that old encyclopedia. Am I right, Lady Luck?
With the coming of the new day, the contrasts we face so regularly in Africa walk in dressed differently to yesterday’s whiteness. A few kilometres north of Cedarville, we spend time with William and Cathy Green, renowned dairy farmers in the district. Their hospitality percolates during the lunch and we are given interesting stories of the area.
The Greens have 1 500 cows, mostly Friesian and Jerseys that graze on 2 500 hectares on two separate farms, producing more than 27 000 litres of milk per day. I express ‘wows’ before the grilled chicken, then some during the pudding and a couple of louder ‘wows’ before and after coffee. Lynn kicks my shin and tells me that it’s stupid to say so many ‘wows’.
Photographing seems a simple procedure, especially when we are taken to the dairy complex after lunch. The modern machinery and the complexity of the milking procedure wowed me. The Rotary Milking Parlour (often named a ‘Rotolactor’ by the Yanks and the Brits) is a large merry-go-round-style platform, about 20 metres in diameter, holding about
50 cows, completing one rotation every 12 minutes, which is the time required to prepare, milk and feed each cow.
The milk is drawn by a vacuum into sealed, glass containers above the cow’s head and then piped to the weighing and recording apparatuses. The milk never comes into contact with air and isn’t touched by human hands. Cow-Wow.
I walk outside and breathe deeply, sucking in the country air. My lungs fill with the pungent-manure-grassy-cow-pasture-dung-air of a large dairy farm. Its atmosphere is almost overwhelming. I am cloaked by the reality of farm, right in the heart of it, dairy farm. Maybe one day they will make photographs that you can smell.
Just fleetingly, my mind spins back to my days on our little farm in the 1950s. I see the flickering Super-8 frames of our one cow called Daisy, the one dented bucket, the one stool and four pink teats.
Back into the Rotating Rotolactor I find, once again, that in Africa, your best friend is a sense of humour. There in the control room, situated over the merry-go-round, is Brett, William and Cathy’s son, cycling away on his spin-bike, while monitoring the control panel of the whole process. Weird, I tell him, totally weird. He continues spinning, with a grin.
The next morning, sitting on our veranda, I watch the younger Labrador dig another hole in the guest farm’s flower garden. I cheer him on. Naughty. Then he trots down to the dam for a swim. Why is the world so beautiful? The answer comes with the wag of a wet tail.
Then Gerrie arrives, gleaming, freshly washed, and smelling of toast and eggs. “Something else,” he points out. “Behind
the shed.” More zebroids? More hybrids?
In a paddock, two Australian Emus parade up and down the fence pecking at anything that looks vaguely edible. The older Labrador arrives, its snout also muddy, looks at the birds and points. Clever dog.
Then Gerrie Nel looks hard and long at the Australian birds and says, “Both the emu and the ostrich have brains that are as big as a walnut and smaller than their eyes. They are not particularly intelligent but, having the largest eyeball of any bird, they can see as far as three kilometres.” I ponder, wonder, then ask where these emus came from. “The two just arrived one day, out of the blue, just arrived on the farm from over the mountains.” Fate.