The high tide builds up from the swells of the Indian Ocean, pushing a faint spray across our house in the Tsitsikamma. You can almost touch the movement of the Agulhas Current as it breathes moisture over the valley.
However, my mind is 9 000 kilometres away, sucking in dry air along Australia’s coastal Eyre Highway that disappears across the Nullarbor Plain. Travellers say there is nothing much there, just an endless road over scrub infinitum, much like some parts of our West Coast.
Tears of happiness
Seconds later, a swarm of travel bugs has whizzed through me and I say to my wife, “Let’s go.” Within a few hours we are packed and driving westwards, the limbs of my 2001 Isuzu bakkie rattling. “Where to this time?” asks Lynn, without much palava. “West Coast area between Koekenaap and Groenriviermond.”
“What’s there?” my wife questions again. “Nothing,” I say, “Have to practise photographing nothing. Making something out of nothing.” Practise for the upcoming, one-month trip over the Nullarbor Plain.
Much of South Africa’s harsh beauty lies in its visual unpredictability and contrast, a true mix of happy-sadness. My character is layered with this after 40 years of country travel, of bundu bashing, of finding a place where the sheep just stare and never go home.
My eyes run tears of happiness. Nothing is dearer to me than to move with slow care, with the rhythmic photo-eye passing of towns and landscapes, one horizon after another. Lynn smiles, knowing what one-liner is to come. “Over one horizon lies another,” I say, as we glide beneath the Cape mountains, through Riviersonderend, Worcester, the Swartland, over the rolling wheat fields near Porterville and over another horizon to Piketberg.
Two days later we lift the rooftop tent in a caravan park in Velddrif on the West Coast. Waking the next morning, the whole place is hugged by a tight, heavy mist that peels in from the cold Benguela Current. This moisture shrouds Voorbaai, the fishing harbour on the estuary of the Berg River.
A designers delight
Misty landscapes bring a quiet serenity to the scene; the lens enhances foreground objects, emphasising them and, in distant perspective, brings a cloak of surrealism to the scene. The 800 kilometres from home to here have brought with them a dynamic change of atmosphere.
Ah, that word atmosphere, elusive and intangible, often easier to explain in words than in electronic pixels. My writing grates grammatical, as I place words like objects in a certain form of balance, my spelling more atrocious than many African governments.
Later that day, I photograph boys in saltwater happiness as they fish off the last pier before the estuary opens up to the enormity of the Atlantic. Even here, subtleties of our land are opened, exposed. Dear beloved land, your happy-sadness holds me. Sometimes I call you ‘Just-Shake-Your-Head-Land’, or I will drop the shot of the boys on the pier into a file titled ‘The-Razor-Wire-Land’.
We spend a day and a night in Lambert’s Bay, gawking with fascination at the Cape Gannet colony on Bird Island. The drama of bird life is so total, so invigorating, so pungent, so dramatic that one visit never satisfies. I have been here so often that I am getting bright blue eyes with black lines around them, my hair is yellowing and I am growing white feathers on my chest.
This place mesmerises; just park at the harbour and stroll to the island. As Chad le Clos’ dad would shout, ‘Just unbelievable. Unbelievable’. From the caravan park in Velddrif, a powerful tall floodlamp lights up the beach and rocks at night. With a designer’s delight, I make images with kelp skeletons, alive and shining, as they tangle long tentacles in their last rites.
Track of so-called nothingness
North from here we travel to Doringbaai, Strandfontein, past Papendorp and into Koekenaap for a quick image. Photography is in a continuous balance with luck and timing. In front of the Welkom Handelaars en Kaffee in Koekenaap I do a quick two-frame image of three Zimbabweans coming out of a trading store with red packets.
Amos Maranda stands in front, with a muscled body and a red T-Shirt. I eat sweet brilliant red; see red for red’s sake, a momentary overdose.
The road from here to the coast is naked and bare, infected with a deadly dose of corrugations, and causing an ailment that occurs often on African roadtrips. Lengthy stretches of this cause Corrugation tremordosis. The symptoms are a shaking head, even after five minutes of stillness.
The acute state of this disease is when, after twenty minutes of parked stillness, your head is still bobbing and you are seeing double. My wife, sitting next to me, is slightly blurred, a double woman. Ag no, I sigh, double dominance, double control, but on a sunny West Coast day like today, hopefully, double happiness.
Our track of so-called nothingness winds along the coast near Koekenaap, past many bays and rocky points. I breathe in deeply here; indulge in the rich aroma from the nutrient-rich Benguela Current on this isolated coast. My map points out Geustyn se Gat, Blinkwater Bay, Malkop Bay and Island Point, where the Namaqua I freighter ran aground in 1876.
Sadness of death
Free camping is allowed here, but there are only a few people in the many spots along this length of coastline. In today’s world of urban helter-skelter and commercial fanaticism, lonely and isolated, coastal landscapes make for a feeling of true serenity. You can fly away along a beach of ocean tranquillity, fly forth in body and mind, no Zuma, no Trump, no Syria, no famine in Yemen and definitely no Kim Jong-un playing with his nuclear toys.
Even smaller tracks slide down to many beaches and I have put the Isuzu into 4×4 on occasion, a few puffs down and some hard huffing on the way up. On a beach lies the great body of a beached humpback whale. Surf and sun have peeled off some of the dark leathery skin but, in a macabre way, I find something pictorially pleasing.
Nature’s own evolved designs hold on to their beauty, even in the sadness of the death of such a beautiful being.
According to marine biologists, the humpback whale numbers have increased over the past years, perhaps explaining the many that now cruise the waters of the West Coast.
I shoot a close-up of the filter-feeding system in its mouth, showing brushes of baleen hair in repetitive abstractions. In the evenings we camp alone, partnered by the pounding of a great ocean, watching the running of fog banks and flocks of birds flying home to roost. If you allow the magic of this place to filter into your mind, true appreciation for your surroundings in all their glory will bring great gratification.
Later, past twilight’s darkening, I use a strong hunting torch to light up a beach with an estimated three-metre deep bank of blue mussel shells. Writing and photographing it is easy, but believing it a bit more difficult. I turn and look at the single dim light glowing at our camp; it’s supper time, soon. In the east a full moon is slow in rising, big and heavy, almost coy in its shimmering fullness.
So here I am, trying to make something out of nothing. I guess that we observe and learn something every day, finding significance in the vast grandeur of minuteness. Here along the West Coast, I am surrounded by a landscape that appears to show little but, in the searching, mind, there is an undiscovered abundance.
I am not a spinner of psychologies, just a seeker of line and light, the illusionist chasing shapes in the mist, and curled kelp on a lonely beach.