Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Of horses and men.

On our trip to Johannesburg, we drove through some sleepy Free State towns. Invariably the town is gathered around a big old Dutch Reformed church, the name of the town is spelled out in white stones on some nearby koppie and without fail, our passing through
brought everything to a standstill.

In Fauresmith, the long legged man bought some ice for the cooler box, bashing the bags to break up the ice.
Within minutes we had a crowd of onlookers.

These towns seem forgotten by the outside world and poverty prevails. Small shops sell cell phones and airtime, but often there is no reception. There is litter - heaps of it, and many abandoned buildings.

Just outside of Philipolis,
we saw a herd of snow white springbok in a field.
Miles and miles of pale golden grass.
Anthills as far as the eye can see.

The anthills reminded me of something I read years ago in Deneys Reitz's book Commando. He was reading a book on an anthill when his horse's reins became entangled. He walked off to free the mare and moments later the anthill was blown apart,
leaving his book full of holes.

This journal is a first-hand account of a young man's experiences during the Boer War. (A teenager in fact - he joined the war at the tender age of seventeen) Far from the stuffy, fact-filled tomes that I've come across, it is written in a matter-of-fact yet poignant way.

"I chatted for a quiet hour with men who were mostly
dead next morning."

During the course of guerilla warfare, he had countless narrow escapes and lost scores of close friends and beloved horses.

My knowledge of the boer War is scanty at best, but the
re-reading of this book has made me curious.

From Thomas Pakenham's The Boer War:
The war declared by the Boers on 11 October 1899 gave the British, in Kipling's famous phrase, 'no end of a lesson'. The British expected the war to be over by Christmas. It proved to be the longest (two and three quarter years), the costliest (over 200 million pounds), the bloodiest (at least 22 000 British, 25 000 Boer and 12 000 African lives) and the most humiliating war for Britain between 1815 and 1914.

New Year, Vanrhynsdorp, 2008, photograph by Christiaan Diedericks
I've always thought of the Free State as Boer War country - as this was the area they were fighting to keep. I little realised that the war stretched into the Western Cape - that towards the end, Vanrhynsdorp, on the edge of the Karoo, was the only town in Boer control and that they considered it their headquarters. Deneys Reitz followed General J.C.Smuts there and acted as scout and messenger, often riding his horse up and down the river.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Jozi love, revisited.

Walking through Cape Town today, I became nostalgic for Johannesburg. This Johannesburg that people say has changed so much, they don't know it anymore. But during my time there, I saw a glimpse of what it is now, and it rekindled something in me - a love for Africa perhaps.

I wish my friend John would write a book, but meanwhile, I share his words here.

Nostalgic for being away from here, in a place where English is not spoken. I am driving around Johannesburg, now an almost strange town, obeying the schoolmistress in the little screen above the dashboard, but often turning too late, or too early, because I am distracted by the sights of Johannesburg - a couple of hundred years of improvised gambits have left the urban landscape crammed with relics of attempts, victories, failures. I am bombarded by the information, new and defunct, on signs, hoardings, facades. It is all, or mainly in English, and it gets mixed up with fragments of the gprs, and with my own verbal thought-stream, sometimes voiced, and with the song on the cd. This is too frantic, and so I long to be somewhere else, some place where, because I am unable to understand anything, I will be able to switch off this almost automatic process of monitoring and collecting, and being lured by, instructions and information, which I know have nothing or little to do with me.

I was fortunate to be with someone who knows the city so well. And very lucky indeed that I didn't have to drive. Distractions abound. There were so many moments that I couldn't catch on film. In the car under a fly-over at dusk and seeing a pool of light up ahead. The traffic stops and I look in. A hole in the wall bakery with a flour-covered man kneading dough. He looks up at me and smiles wide. The ever present ladies with loads on their heads, regally conveying bundles of clothing, a huge bag of spinach, kindling...

The buildings, the beautiful old buildings. Once grand, now falling into decay. The Alhambra Theatre in the morning sunlight, notorious Ponte Tower looming on the hill. Art Deco apartment blocks in Hillbrow: The Alma, Park Lane, Empire Gardens. Covered in satellite dishes and flapping laundry lines. Broken windows criss crossed with brown tape. Early Friday evening crowds on the street, shopping in a supermarket that only sells meat. The hairdressers crowded to bursting point. The Yeoville vegetable market reminiscent of Mozambique. A ruined but inhabited building in Berea. The Radium Beer Hall in Orange Grove, established in 1929 and still going. Imagining the people there in 1937, watching Vangelia Court being built next door, what it was like back then. I wish I knew.

I saw this man from afar - he stood out like a big red pin. When I asked if I could take his picture, he asked: How do you want me?

Hidden graffiti. I fell in love with the work of the mysterious Veronika, who turned out to be a guy named Ben.

I miss the friendliness and the bustling industry of Johannesburg. The instant connections with strangers. I miss the golden afternoon light.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Cool things #1.

The cool thing about hanging around with a kid is that you get to do things that you wouldn't otherwise. Kid things.
The people who work at Eagle Encounters are knowledgeable, kind and helpful. We watched a falcon being tended to: Dubbin on the leathery legs, Zambuk on the chafe place under the wing.

There is also a crow to pet, many other wild birds to look at, a show with an eagle, a porcupine neatly peeling his butternut
before eating it, vultures...
and all the while, the owls call, low and wavering.

Beforehand, we went to see master blacksmith and friend Conrad Hicks's first solo exhibition in the garden at Tokara. Peacocks and iron sculptures dripping in the rain. On till end September and an absolute delight. There are long couches next to a huge fireplace in the deli.
Persian love cake and a glass of inky pinotage, dark and delicious.


Friday, July 19, 2013

The way we live.

One day in Johannesburg, we decided to hop on the Gautrein and go to see Dawid in Hatfield. The train is great, fast and clean. (But not exactly transport for the people, at about R250 each, return) The stations are utilitarian and boring in a grey way. Perhaps the city spent all their money on the train, and that's why it is so broken... the long legged man mused.

I'd heard about Dawid in Cape Town - the industry people call him "The Braam of Pretoria". But nothing could have prepared us for what we found. There is a very fine line between collecting and hoarding. It was almost impossible to take photographs, as you have to squeeze through small gaps to get anywhere. Dawid wasn't home - he said something about taking care of an old sewing machine, but that we should make ourselves at home - wander around, have some coffee. The dalmatian was old and very tired - he lifted his head to bark. The collie and the curly one followed us for a while.
They were very dusty and very happy.

The house may once have been a rather gracious villa, with palms and fruit trees in the garden. Now it is packed to bursting point with anything and everything imaginable. The back garden is a shed with canvas sides, aisles upon aisles of furniture packed in layers. The bathroom, besides a large purple bathtub, is filled with old enamel jugs and basins. There are bags and boxes and crates full of stuff everywhere. Lamps, chairs, umbrellas, crockery, taxidermy, mannequins and statues...

Dawid arrived in due course and we had a good old natter. Even though we'd not met before, he is one of those people who immediately feels like an old friend. I told him I'd heard about him often and he said with a twinkle: Ah - skinner hulle van my in die kaap?
(Are they gossiping about me in the cape?)

By this time, the LLM was feeling rather uneasy - he collects too, but everything in beautifully ordered classes and categories. It is difficult to believe that Dawid runs a thriving props rental business from this extraordinary place, but he does. He also lives here.

As we were leaving, I happened to mention my obsession with wooden cotton reels and he said: Oh! Have you seen my haberdashery?
Lo and behold - he took me to a room I had missed completely. Partly because you have to squeeze behind a wardrobe to enter it. Floor to ceiling drawers filled with buttons and braids, books of needles and cotton reels. Heaps of them. Heaven.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The tottos.

Just after we snapped this sweet mother and daughter, a man in a leather jacket rushed past in the street behind us with a trolley full of black and bloody cattle parts. Heads mostly. That's Africa for you.