My bakkie is rattling along the R56 from Molteno to Dordrecht, while my mind pages backwards in time. We take a lot of time to make progress, as both are old, roughened by wear and tear. When finally, the Voëlvlei Dam shimmers past on the right of the road, my imagination has reached back to 1899, galloping with the Boer Commandos during the early stages of the Anglo-Boer War.
This area of the Eastern Cape Highlands, then part of the Cape Colony, was absorbed into the greatest empire of that time. The British had huge muscle back then and God was an Englishman, who, without fail, repeatedly saved the queen.
Power, greed, gold and diamonds encouraged these imperialists to attack two small Boer republics in South Africa. Many so-called rebels, Afrikaans farmers from the Cape Colony, had joined the Boer forces and were harassing the British supply lines and troops marching northwards.
Then the inconceivable happened.
In December 1899, the Boers defeated the British in the battles of Magersfontein, Colenso and Stormberg (near Molteno).
The international press called it ‘Black Week’. Grocott’s Mail in Grahamstown said of the British commander Lieutenant-General Sir William Forbes Gatacre, ‘His column goes astray, he loses his bearings, his guides did little reconnoitring of the area, the troops were marched in the dark, hungry, tired, disorientated and with fixed bayonets’.
The following day, in the battle that followed at Stormberg junction, 26 British were killed, 68 wounded and 696 captured. General Gatacre retreated in panic and would probably later conclude that Africa was not for sissies. After this victory, the nearby town of Dordrecht was briefly annexed to the Orange Free State.
My wife Lynn’s voice rings out clearly and jerks me back to the present. “Stop riding your dreams, your imagination will still be the end of you.” We drive down a long, straight road into Dordrecht, with the Stormberg mountain on the right, parched yellow-brown by the Highland winter.
Rows of granite graves
I stop on a bridge over the abandoned railway tracks, with the last light of day strafing a large cemetery and a derelict, colonial railway station building. The heyday is gone, just a little sunlight of today remains.
I fire my Canon like a Mauser, on a tripod, with intent and slow accuracy. A large, passing 18-wheeler transport truck nearly wipes me off the bridge and into the cemetery below. ‘Black Moment’, I shrug, refocusing my long lens with lightly increased heartbeat.
The warm colour from the setting sun enhances the repetitiveness of the rows of granite graves. Almost as if those buried there are sitting up momentarily, like the people in a stadium watching the sunset.
Dordrecht. First there was God, of course, and then came Dordrecht in The Netherlands, a city south of Rotterdam founded in 1220, making it the oldest city in the present province of South Holland. Today it is one of the most populated areas in Europe. The contrasts, the atmosphere of this town, like so many other small towns in South Africa, are too enormous to swallow in one gulp.
I cannot fathom or understand, just percolate information via the medium of photography. This South African town of Dordrecht was named and founded in 1856 by Baron Smiddolff (later changed to Smithdorff),
a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church.
My sensors pick up the scars of a damaged town hall and library, the blackened sidewalks where tyres and rubbish were burnt in a recent round of community mobilisation by the local branch of Sanco (the South African National Civic Organisation) against corruption and the mismanagement of the local township.
Bursts of laughter
A mood of depression swirls around me momentarily, but soon lifts along the main street, as I whirl my sights around the visuals that make this country so damn colourful, intense and vibrant. Two women, each wrapped in a blanket, walk along carrying goods on their heads.
An old gabled store now proudly displays the name ‘Mandela Hardware’, the old Snyman’s Hotel is now an enlarged bottle store, and Ebrahima’s second-hand clothes shop is run by Aly from Senegal. A sandstone facade is now a hair salon, and the lights of a corrugated-roof shop called the Bombay Butchery promises the best meat in town.
A taxi stops in the middle of the road, blaring his hooter for customers. I shoot frames of the haphazard, my questions and puzzles seldom fit as I observe the bleak brightness of small-town life beneath a mountain called Storm. Three Xhosa kids kick a can along the cracked pavement, a tractor hoots at the taxi, a man carries
a bed frame on his shoulders and an Africanis dog has his head in a rubbish bin.
A police van stops on a yellow line in front of a café and two constables climb out, talking loudly with bursts of laughter. They emerge after a while with large brown packets of something, probably fish and chips, possibly chicken? Then they stand in front of their van, wide-legged with guns on their hips, eating lustfully. The Africanis dog leaves the bin and stands nearby, begging. It gets a kick. Yelps.
A church bell rings somewhere, the tractor has gone and the street lights come on as the African night slowly blankets the town. On a hill above town in the old township of Sinako, the choir’s chorus of a hymn echoes beautifully, as only African voices can – ‘Hallelujah to God’. I stroll over and pick up two crumpled packets near a yellow line, and in my bakkie’s fridge I find a piece of left-over chicken to give to the dog that has gone back to the bin.
For three nights and two days, we stay at a guest house at 79 Grey Street, where our large room leads into a house with more bedrooms, a lounge and a spacious kitchen. The property next to us is a busy garage called Weirs Agri Centre, and across the road stands one of the tallest and most beautiful sandstone churches in Southern Africa.
Shrouded in fairy mists
The next day we drive out of town to the Birch brothers’ Vogel Vlei Stud farm. Their logo reads, ‘A nursery for many of South Africa’s legendary racing champions’.
We are met by the younger Colin Birch, who is excited to see us, as he was at school with our elder son at St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown. He wants to tell us about the naughty things they got up to at school. I cringe, and take my eyes for a canter to the horse paddocks below the farmhouse. One of South Africa’s most famous racehorses was bred on this stud farm. Sea Cottage won the Durban July in 1967 and was shot by controversial gangsters from Durban’s seedy underworld. The famous horse was shot in its hindquarters, but recovered to race again.
Sleepless one night, I lie and listen, conjure up, and think a little about the town around me. A mole on the face of a beautiful woman is a beauty spot, but the mole on an ugly one is grotesque.
The image of this town oscillates between the two extremes. The quiet of the town’s night is broken sporadically by sounds, common at first, but eerie in isolation. Dogs seem to bark in groups, the shitty little yappers yap-yap-yap. Now and then the deep baritone coughing of a boerboel. Then we have the biker, who sees how fast he can go from the one end of town to the other, in the deadest of night. Then it’s quiet again, till sometime around 2am when a truck starts its engine and lets it run a long while, to heat the cabin, who knows?
I get dressed and walk outside into Grey Street. The town is aglow with orange from the sodium street lamps, and the place is shrouded in a light mist. I think of witches and fairies, for I am sure they both live here, up there past the church steeple, in the dark pine trees, high up against the Stormberg.
The cold lights of an oncoming vehicle
I stroll around the church, gripped by a spirit of wonder. How clear it suddenly seems, Man’s search for the meaning of life on Earth and the afterlife – up in the orange darkness, up past the weathercock on the spire. I take long time exposures, filling in some sections of the scene with my powerful hunting torch. I am slightly mesmerised.
The lights of a vehicle approach, the colder white of LED beams. It stops. It’s the same police van from the previous day. Only when I look a little closer do I recognise the same police officers. They ask me what I am looking for with my spotlight. I take my torch and shine on the marble statue of the Boer soldier standing in front of the church. It’s so brightly lit that I can read the inscription. I hover my beam on it and read, ‘The heroes. Till the last drop of blood, fearless, brave, faithful and good’. They look at me as if I have come from a place on the other side of the steeple and, as they leave with a nod and smile, I sigh, knowing that the South African Police are not all asleep.
That’s what I really love about small-town South Africa. You just never quite know and if you think that you do, beware, you probably don’t. Then I go to bed and sleep till the sun cracks through the gap in the bedroom curtain. Lynn is missing, but there is a note next to me. It reads, ‘Gone for a run, coffee in the flask’. Love comes to you with the first light of day in Dordrecht.
Accommodation in Dordrecht is limited. We had a good stay at 97 Grey Street 045 943 1642
Anderson Museum Grey Street 045 943 1017