Before embarking on yet another country trip to Zoar and the gramadoelas, I make an appointment with my physician and friend, Dr P Bandana. He’s a truly compassionate man, and a supreme adventurer who has been to both the North and South Poles.
Every time I have an appointment, he places a collection of the latest COUNTRY LIFE magazines in his waiting room. As he is very popular, I always have to wait. While doing my waiting-room-wait, I flippantly flip through these country magazines, not really wanting to know where the latest country fair is being held. Until my roving eye notices a pretty woman engrossed in one of my articles in COUNTRY LIFE.
After repeated grunts, I catch her attention and tell her (and the rest of the patients in the room) that I wrote the article she’s reading.
The good doctor’s goodiest receptionist looks up and rolls her eyes at me, embarrassed. I bet my right leg that she’s thinking, ‘What a windgat.’ Then the pretty lady looks over at me, frowns in disgust as if I am deathly ill with some ghastly African virus, neatly lays down the country magazine and picks up another magazine with Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, on the cover.
Actually, I am not sick at all. I’ve just come for Dr P Bandana to freeze off a few small warts on the leg I betted on. He laughs and then asks if we should start with the big one between my ears. Funny-ha-ha. I need more knowledge from him about my next destination, the Klein Karoo village of Zoar, where his farm in the Rooiberg borders some of Zoar’s communal lands.
Route 62 and the Bible
I leave afterwards with the same little warts still on my betting leg but a head lavished with information. I mean, what a true humanitarian he is, allowing the subsistence farmers of Zoar to graze their goats on his land. Hugely Biblical, I say.
On the road to Zoar I phone my only other best friend, the know-all Barend Beterweet, to say that I am heading to Zoar along the R62. He tells me that the R62 is full of tourists and that I should read Genesis 19:22 in the King James Bible. A Vodacom no-signal zone cuts us off. I am relieved, as he can be as langdradig as the endless wire fences that span the sides of the roads in South Africa.
That evening we’re settled into our farm cottage on the outskirts of Zoar, with a balcony that has a spectacular view of the Swartberg mountain range. Lynn, my assistant-wife, brings out a Bible and says, “This will definitely help you.”
I love cryptic messages. In the book of Genesis, I page to verse 19:22 and read, ‘Haste thee, escape thither; for I cannot do anything till thou be come thither. Therefore the name of the city was called Zoar’. I was so enthralled that I kept on reading deep into the quiet of the Klein Karoo night. These verses refer to the words spoken by Abraham to his nephew Lot and his family before the sexually immoral, sinful, neighbouring cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God with brimstone and fire.
Owing to the waters coming down from the mountains of Moab, Zoar was said to have been a flourishing oasis where the balsam, indigo and date trees bloomed luxuriously. Its ruins can still be seen at the opening of the ravine of Kerak, on the south-eastern side of the Dead Sea.
A soft-spoken, ethereal atmosphere
The following morning, the rising sun crackles the landscape so bright that my eyes flicker and tingle, my spirits boosted with a creative fervour. So off we drive to where it all started here in Zoar, to the Amalienstein Mission Church. I have photographed there before but, this time, I have an extra clarity of sight from the good book of Genesis with me.
The present village of Zoar stretches and rolls around the Sandberg, not far from the taller Rooiberg, a wondrous hulk of a red mountain between Ladismith and Calitzdorp. This is a proud, coloured community that, for convenience of place, divides Zoar into names like Karoolande, Holgat, Sandkraal, Lovedale, Bruintjieshoogte, Braklaagte and the recently built Protea Park.
Amalienstein was the first settlement to develop around the church, which was completed in 1853 under the auspices of the Berlin Missionary Society. It was named after Amalie von Stein, a woman of nobility and a benefactor of German missions. Surrounded by a low wall and set in a painted stone garden, the simple, spire church expresses something more than just its religious mission. It has a soft-spoken, ethereal atmosphere about it, and seems to whisper in old sepia tones, soft pious hymns of praise, of goodness, of times long gone, of the Vergangenheit.
I whisper my own thoughts. Photography is brilliant at documenting all linear, colour and tonal values in a scene. In this pictorial context, abstract words like ethereal and spiritual are a lot more difficult to capture. Document, yes, but with what expression and mood?
Over the next three days, I return at hours of low light when, in my opinion, the spirits of day blend with those of the approaching night. One afternoon, almost at twilight, we are blessed by an immense, coloured sunset that reaches over the skies of the Klein Karoo. Beauty comes in multitudes of expressions but, for that brief time, the Klein Karoo transforms itself into a gigantic, glorious canvas.
Synchronicity, fate and intuition
Down from the church, along an avenue of trees, are some sheds, an admin building and a dairy. I speak to Eddie Schröder, the dairy manager and a member of Casidra, a government agency for community help and training in the rural areas.
Somehow, between the lines, I get the feeling that the town is going through difficult times, perhaps just a small microcosm of the larger state. He gives me a few contact numbers and names, stressing that of Daniel Joon, a retired farmer and the secretary of the local agricultural society.
I have heard of synchronicity, fate and intuition, but can put no deeper meaning to the words. Then this happens. I drive around town in search of the strange and unusual, things to complement good photographs. Up this hill, around this corner, around that bend, a stop here, a left there, a look to the right, a glance upward, down and all around. I push hard at
the act of looking, searching the visible.
Suddenly, on a bend, a man in a blue overall and holding a piglet stops us and smiles, saying that he is Daniel Joon. Is this coincidence? Luck? He takes us on a walk-about to the village piggery. I am visually piggeted (don’t worry, no such word). Then I shoot pigs galore, kind of go the whole hog and find myself muddy, photo-bloody but, oh, happy as a pig,
a wild boar in Zoar.
In the Chinese culture, pigs are believed to have a range of personalities and are blessed with good fortune in life. My wife tells me that I was born in the year of the pig.
What a lot of nonsense, this ‘dirty pigsty’ stuff. These pigs are tidy and well-groomed. One Überschwein stands up in his pen, and views with some arrogance the wide landscape, and grunts, “2019 is the year of the pig. Lekker view, hey China.” Mister Joon emphasises that pigs, unlike many other caged animals, do all their ablutions in one corner of their pens.
In the distance, we can see the vehicles travelling along the R62, and we all surmise that most of them have little idea of the heartbeat of a place like Zoar.
Playtime, break time, teatime
We arrange to meet up again in the church. Here Daniel Joon tells this rather amazing story. He was born in a small cottage next to the Amalienstein Church. Many years ago,a visitor took a photograph of this cottage and then the picture faded into the past. Many years after the cottage was demolished, the picture reappeared in a parcel from Germany, posted
to the church, where it hangs today.
Over the next days, we try to scratch a little deeper into the essence of this place. We pass a red-roofed school with a gable that exclaims, ‘For Christ and his Church’ and at the gate, it reads ‘Zoar RP Botha VGK Primêre Skool’.
It’s playtime, break time, teatime, call it what you want, the exuberance of youth vibrates into my old body. On a pole at the school’s gate, an election poster proclaims ‘One South Africa for all’. I pause for the good playground vibrations to linger. Lynn asks, “Why are you pushing at your chest?”
“I’m pushing the rewind button,” then I sing: I’m pickin’ up good vibrations, she’s giving me excitations, oom-bop-bop oom-bop-bop, good vibrations (The Beach Boys, 1968). My assistant just rolls her eyes.
She walks into the school office and asks the principal Mrs Herandien if the singing photographer standing in the playground surrounded by ‘oom-bop-bopping’ children can take a portrait of the head boy and girl? Within minutes, I have Tercia Bosman and Jason Scheepers smiling right through my Canon into my good vibrations. ‘Oom-bop-bop, good vibrations.’
For the rest of the day I let my pixels vibrate along Constable Drive, Hoofstraat, Fontein Avenue and Suikerboslaan. In a side road with no name, two cool dudes stop me and ask to be photographed. “Are you brekers?” I ask. “Nee, Meneer,” they singsong back. “We’re sommer just bros.”
Blessed by an aura of the incredible
Back in Main Street again, my wife looks at me and says, straight-faced, “They’re wafting out fumes, just like you do sometimes.” I love cryptic messages, especially in downtown Zoar. You see, I am just a shallow-minded, pig-headed, road-hogging, self-humouring, visual-vagabond.
Meanwhile, out of town across the veld, the cars whizz past on the R62 to Calitzdorpand Ladismith. Zoar’s greatest tourist asset is the road through the Swartberge, called the Seweweekspoort. It is, as a World Heritage Site, one of South Africa’s greatest visual experiences. Work on it began in 1859, by a team of convicts with no engineering supervision. The work was finally taken over by Adam de Schmidt, and it was completed and opened in 1862.
Unlike its more famous brother, the Swartberg Pass that goes over the mountains, this pass, which starts in Zoar, goes through the mountains and is a gateway to the Groot Karoo. For me, it’s like driving into the heart of the beast, right into the depths, right through the body of a struggling and moving giant, where the geological contortions of the Swartberg quartzite push out waves of gigantic, moving shapes.
Driving through this poort, as I have done many, many times, I always feel blessed by an aura of the incredible. This place is a worldly wonder. Deep in its centre, the highest point contorts upward, spiralling up into the sky-blue. This is the 2 325-metre Seweweekspoort Peak. These places take your breath away.
Spectacular light show
On our last afternoon, late, a thunderstorm moves in along the Swartberg mountains from the south. The lightning flashes fire through to my retina and the thunder rolls into my body, as I am overtaken by amazement. I just sit on the cottage stoep and embrace this spectacular light show. I am, so to speak, shocked into awe.
On the wooden table next to me lies the Bible, open at Genesis. Then I remember a song by Bob Dylan called Thunder on the Mountain, I’m not sure, 2006, perhaps? I quickly Google this song and find that 11 million people have done so before me. ‘Thunder on the mountain, rolling on the ground, gonna get up in the morning, walk the hard road down, some sweet day I’ll stand beside my king, I wouldn’t betray your love or any other thing.’
Later, we witness a rare occurrence, a lightning strike starting a veld fire up high against the slopes of the darkening Swartberg. I flashback to my recent reading in Genesis 19:24, ‘Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire.’
Finding the tension, the drama of all this overwhelming, I sweep up my Canon and tripod and Isuzu-it into the thundering and flaming distance. I, Schwein that I am, tell my wife to stay; after all, after nearly 50 years of marital bliss, I don’t want her to become like Lot’s wife, you know, turning into a salt pillar for looking back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. She just sits there on the stoep, rolling her eyes with thunder and lightning. n
Map reference F3 see inside back cover