Billions of tags and tweets hang between the leaves on the Tree of Travel and I hear the sound of birds twittering when the morning clouds lift into the sky. The word travel is so multifaceted that its connotation has become a universal phenomenon. So many of us go to where the heart yearns, but the wallet limits the distance and the places.
Praying for the light to hold
My travels started in the late 60s, through the pages of strange musings by Jack Kerouac, an American novelist and poet of French-Canadian descent. A quote from his iconic book On the Road still rides the wind with me, hums the rubber around me. It reads, ‘There is nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars’.
So hum I did, roll I did, ride the wind I did on the road to Herbertsdale that I discovered near Mossel Bay, over the hills of the Overberg where the Langeberg mountains slowly find their end. “You know what, Jack?” I said to the passing landscape. “Thanks a lot. I also travel – travel to photograph and photograph to travel.”
Herbertsdale. I like it when a town looks like a town and doesn’t pretend to be a boutique village and a springboard to some unimaginable adventures. Herbertsdale lies in the arms of the Langeberg amid the fields of the Langtou River valley, with a quiet sigh. Although I have passed through here many times in the past, this time I felt that the first impression of this dorpie was a happy kind of sigh. So, for three nights and two days I played with light and line to capture something, to hold, to find, to experience.
The town was established around 1865 on part of the farm Hemelrood belonging to James Benton Herbert. As I entered it from the south, the cemetery lay on the right, up on a hill. After visually navigating a somewhat overgrown graveyard in search of Herbert’s final RIP, I found nothing, just dubbeltjies and cow dung on the soles of my sandals. Only later did I conclude that cow dung was basically cow-dung everywhere on Earth and dubbeltjies were devil thorns, and James Benton Herbert was actually buried in Albertinia.
Into the blue distance
I am riddled with habits, most of them bad. On most occasions, when entering a small South African town, I drive to see how long it takes to pass through it. Heading north at a sedate speed along Main Road (R327), it took me one and a half minutes to the other end of town, while counting 14 houses on the left and five houses on the right.
On this awfully long journey, four major features sprang to light – a couple of churches, a police station painted a dazzling blue-green, an attractive school building and a shop named Bakgat Café. Pure instinct, with Canon’s optical precision, dragged me along to shoot the café first. Bakgat. This move took me up to the Herbertsdale Primary School.
Unfortunately, I landed there at the onset of first break and found myself nearly blown away by an avalanche of maroon-clad, running, screeching little things called children. The headmaster Mr Marius Stander was a steady, friendly man. I asked if I could photograph a couple of children and whether the Grade 7 class could write me a paragraph on Herbertsdale.
Some of the writing was both eye-opening and eye-shutting. Astounding was the general conclusion that Herbertsdale was a friendly, peaceful village. A few pupils mentioned that the surrounding area was beautiful and that it was exciting to walk around the couple of village blocks after dark. One liked the fact that the roads were tarred and another thought it was special that there weren’t many murders.
One boy wrote that the children should be made to collect the plastic packets that had blown up against the fences. A few braver ones wrote that on the weekends there was a lot of partying, swearing, fighting and drinking. One pupil wanted a small community hall with children’s entertainment. The bravest one hinted at the use of drugs and alcohol and suggested that the local bottle store should sell cooldrinks instead of wine. I was slowly getting into the happy-sadness of this place.
My wife Lynn and I stayed most comfortably in the self-catering Sunflower Cottage on the edge of town, owned by Freek and Annake de Waal. The complex had a lawn about the size of a rugby field. Oom Freek, just recovering from a knee replacement, must have been quite a rugby player in his day, judging by the way he criss-crossed his lawn buggy around the field at speed. Sitting on our little stoep we viewed the extended Langeberg range running into the blue distance. The prominent shape of the 1 100m Vreyersberg changed its mood with the passing of the day.
Once Freek had scored his last try, the village sank back into its daily happy-sigh routine. A flock of hadidas flew by, a couple of horses and sheep mingled and munched on nearby fields, and a tractor took a little longer to drive along Main Road. There were a couple of church bells ringing and the end-of-day school bell ringing longer. Then all that was heard for a while was the rhythmic pishh-pishh-pishh of an irrigation system on a neighbouring lucerne field.
My move to photograph the police station was one of excitement and it took only a couple of minutes to walk there with my camera backpack. A number of cows grazed inside the high-fenced property, where a police car was parked next to the station, a building painted neon-bright cyan. Cyan is not a common colour term and can be explained as follows – in the red-green-blue colour model, used to make colours on computer and TV displays, cyan is created by the combination of equal amounts of green and blue light.
The friendly constable explained that the police station was only a satellite station, and that instead of investing in a mower (or Freek’s lawn-buggy) they let the locals graze a few cattle on the police property. I was touched by the innovation of the local SAPS and wished the constable well in fighting the town’s few incidents and solving the last murder.
With gained confidence I now swung my attention to one of the main reasons why the town of Herbertsdale even existed. Its 15 or so streets run deep in church and mission history. The Dutch Reformed Church built the first church and school in the town, where mission work began in 1883. The first Lutherans of the Berlin Missionary Society arrived from Deutschland and took over mission work in the first school in 1872.
Valleys that roll like waves
By the second day of our stay, the well-oiled town chat circuit knew that a creature called a photographer was prowling the streets. A ladies church tea was mentioned to me, so off I went to the Herbert’s Place restaurant for scones and other lekker cookies. There’s nothing quite as vibrant as a group of Dutch Reformed parish tannies between the lively ages of 70 and 90, having tea at their end-of-year function.
I photographed with sweaty palms. Tannie Lorraine Claassen told me the religious history of the area and then, with a happy sigh, I followed 84-year-old Tannie Lettie Muller back to her house, the original Dutch Reformed Church rectory, which had previously belonged to the Lutheran Church. Later she gladly posed for me in the garden of this historic building.
After all of this, I was in bad need of a drink. Tannie Lettie pointed us to the hills, on the tar road to Albertinia, where I would find great beauty and the best of wines at the Jakkalsvlei Private Cellar. Jakkalsvlei has been the home of the Jonker family since 1972 and today it’s proudly farmed by the third generation of Jonkers.
Before I arrived, they knew that I was coming. At the delightful restaurant and wine-tasting area, a young man greeted me warmly. “Delighted,” I said and he replied, “Howzit, Oom Obie.” This was the present owner and winemaker, Jantjie Jonker. He explained that his face was still a little blotchy from a fairly recent accident when he fell off the back of
The exclusive Lord Jackal wine range is produced in limited quantities, and was indeed exceptional, lovingly blended by this young man with a twinkle in his eye and a naughty smile. The range is named after Jim Spitsveld, aka Lord Jackal, who is a well-known character in the Herbertsdale area. For years, he roamed the hills and valleys, protecting the local farmers’ flocks against beasts of prey.
I photographed landscapes with pastured valleys and hills that rolled like waves into each other. Herds of jersey cows looked up at me as I passed them slowly, for this, indeed, was dairy country. This was also Muller country. There were Mullers upon Mullers that farmed the district.
Love and compassion
Early one morning, with the light dazzling the night’s dew, I drove into a dairy on the road up to Cloete’s Pass. There stood another young man, gumboots, shorts, anorak and cap, waving a smile. “Muller?” I asked, waving back. “Nee, Oom,” he said, laughing. “Britz, Oom. Conrad Britz.” I viewed him through my Canon lens with his white bakkie, border collies and farm smile, in the bright Langeberg light.
Later that day I came across two workers weeding the vegetable patch behind the old Lutheran Church, the country setting a little like a scene from a bygone time. Alvino Arendse said that his grandparents were staunch Lutherans and lived in the township, in School Street, up on the hill. The pixels in my camera surged with excitement; they had never measured their sensitivity for a scene with deeply religious Lutherans. What are their names, I asked? “Mullerine and Sydney Kiewiet,” the boy answered, startled at my exclaiming, “Mullerine, Mullerine!”
I reckon that life, simplified of course, is composed of light patches, drops of co-incidences, falling down on you, and then, with time, slowly forming your river of fate. I drove up School Street on the lookout for the Kiewiets. So, as this little ray of time would have it, I found them sitting together, God blessed, I hoped, on their little stoep.
Looking back now at my time with Mullerine and Sydney, I felt their deep bond, the wonder of love and compassion that they projected. I sighed with happiness. May the love, the simple good life, Herbertsdale and all of the country endure. n
Map reference G3 see inside back cover