Originally published: 07 August 2012
“Ah.. So, finally on the road,” I say into my video-camera as I wind my station-wagon through Eastern Cape game farms and corrugated gravel roads. “A day late, due to unforeseen delays… So here we are… Ah… Wednesday morning, heading to Somerset East, to Wayne Belize, family friend and mystic. Then… hoping to head out to Nieu Bethesda. Along the way, I’m going to stop at some rock art… In Nieu Bethesda I’m hoping to meet some locals living there who I took photographs of about a year ago now, and I sent them the photos a month or two after that. And now I want to see if they ever received those photos, and maybe catch up and hear some stories and see how everyone’s doing… So… Let’s see how it goes.” I finish up with a little smile into the camera, my hair still wet from the early start on the road.
It’s the Easter weekend, and I have decided to take a trip out from Grahamstown, where I am studying, to do a solo camp-out in the cooling desolation of an autumn Karoo. I am documenting the trip with my video-camera, in hope of stitching together a short film with interviews and anecdotes and stories from the pre-historic strata – a story about narrative and storytelling itself – a meta-reflection on the construction of narrative and the process of interpretation…
A year ago I made this trip for my second time with some classmates. We were on a photography camp, and our lecturer thought it best we cast our lenses to the expanses of oblivion, an imaginative task to interpret the scenes of the void with a visual language; a semiotic experiment with nothingness. I had taken a series of portraits of a team of sheep-shearers who reside in the rual location of Nieu Bethesda. I had been welcomed into their homes, and invited to listen to their stories. I had subsequently sent back, via mail, a large bundle of prints, and am now returning to see if the pictures arrived. With me are two large prints, used in an exhibition, which I am planning to give to the respective characters, Jannie and Karel Outdshoorn.
On the road my mind wanders back to that last trip…
…I had arrived that week with a jar of homegrown marijuana and a crate of Black Label quarts, and did more talking and drinking than photography. I recall one night in the sawdust saloon – the only little pub-type cabin in the town – where it was me, a girl from my class, an old fatigued yet feisty farmer, the owner of the bar and a Canadian who’d been driving a Dakar-style bike from Canada, crossed over the Atlantic with it, and is now en route through Russia. It was my final night in the town and I’d finished all my beer. I also had no money. And in Nieu Bethesda, you can’t draw cash nor buy petrol. You have to arrive with everything you may need for the duration of your stay.
The farmer had started off alright, buying rounds non-stop, seemingly happy to have the company to share a drink with. His decorum slowly started deteriorating with every sip taken, until he became obnoxiously arrogant in his overbearing bigotry. The tone – automatically harsh, and his racism an unpleasant stench under the fresh starry firmament. Being a student, I wanted to challenge his archaic platitudes. I managed to hold my tongue until he stepped too far. I cannot remember what exactly happened in the capricious midnight of intoxicated mind-fields, but the next thing I knew, I had a bar stool in my hands, using the length of the legs to keep the farmer at bay. He grabbed an empty quart bottle, and was trying to smash me. It was an absurd scene, a Kafka-like moment of confusion. The owner just sat there. Watching us. It was the Canadian who helped me out, and managed to subdue the situation. I put the chair down, whispered a warning and thanks into the Canadian’s ear, and left into the gravel night with a heartbeat pumping adrenalin throughout the vascular labyrinth of my nervous system.
That was then.
Now: en route to Somerset East, the home of the biltong boys. On the way, I stop to photograph roadkill. I am collecting images for another exhibition – a tribute to Nigerian poet, Wole Soyinka, who writes about the introduction of roads into the rural landscapes of his home, and the devastation which ensues. Anyone who’s ridden African roads knows the accumulated mass of carcasses which line the yellow lane: donkeys, sheep, cattle, owls, numerous birds and small mammals. Never mind the extensive annihilation of entomological life – the callous disregard for the detailed lives of insects…
I pull over on the tar now, somewhere between Fort Beafort and Somerset East. It’s a leguan. Its entrails have been blasted all along the yellow lane. I photograph it, and then pull it by its tail onto the verge, into the long grass, to allow it some decency in its decomposition. Crows and maggots loving the gifts given by our steel speeding juggernauts.
I arrive in Somerset East, and have coffee with a friend. He’s working as a ceramic artist, helping with training projects for the municipality.
“Howzit Timo?” He greets me, and lets me into his small granny-flat. He has recently returned from four years in Belize, where he trooped through old Mayan ruins, studying artifacts and the Mayan calender, and teaching ceramic skills to indigenous communities. He is a seasoned traveller, and built kilns for a San community in Botswana in his youth, living with them for two years or so.
“So Wayne, have you found any more rock-art around here hey?” I ask him.
“No, haven’t really had time to explore yet man. But this sweet old lady next door did mention that in the kloof on the right-hand side, just as you leave Somerset East towards Graafies, after the bridge, up there there should be some caves which look suspiciosly capable of having paintings in them.” He smiles. Since I met up with Wayne in the Eastern Cape, he has shown me two sites of rock art, both closed to the public, yet easily accessible. “But now, if you have the time, head out of Graafies, towards the valley of desolation. Somewhere out there on a farm is an immense collection of paintings, which move in a long sequence, a story, obviously!”
I tell him I am going to look for art in Nieu Bethesda too, and ask if he knows of any places.
“Apparently on Kompassberg there are paintings, as well as engravings. Some even from the days of the Boer War, where commandos were hiding out, surviving in old San caves. The locations of the caves were perfect – they would be in the proximity of water, whilst having a wide view of the landscape, allowing them to see any approaching enemies… Caves weren’t arbritary you know – they are natural cathedrals, churches, built on the contours of the earth’s meridians. Hot spots for spiritual connections and shaministic dances… You won’t find a place with more energy than a San dwelling!”
As I leave Somerset East, I look out for the kloof Wayne had mentioned. Spending time with him, I have cultivated a sort of intuition for rock-art sites. He is able to be driving, suddenly pulling over, and saying “In there! I know it! There’s art up there… I can feel it!”
Nearing Graaf Reinet, I decide to give his suggested mission a miss; it’s getting late, and I want to get to Nieu Bethesda in the light, to put up my tent and go for a stroll.
The landscape starts opening up into the uncanny expanses of the Karoo. The desert. I feel my body getting warm, and my heart starts beating faster. Some magical feeling comes over me…
The landscape! Why does a physical space have such a profound effect on me? The landscape of the Karoo lures the curious dreamer on. Landscape is used here to signify what Jessica Murray, of the University of Johannesburg, calls “a phenomena that a particular person perceives and experiences and it includes, but is not necessarily limited to, the surface of the land, what lies beneath and above the land, as well as the memories, dreams and imaginations that are centred on that place”. Memories and dreams! Phenomena. A phenomoneological exercise, a pilgrimage into the nature of experience.
Story-telling and sense-making…
The landscape is not something static, through which an insulated individual moves. It is fluid, in flux, and alive with its own histories and narratives, being developed and redeveloped in the winds of perpetuation. Beyond the landscape’s very own narrative – its history, collective unconscious and scars – lie our personal narratives, our perceptions, imagination and emotions that are connected to and caused by any given landscape. It is a dialogue which happens organically as we move through spaces as physical and spiritual beings. A song. A dance. A lang-arm even. Landscape is thus inextricably linked to our mind – the way that we make sense of any given landscape is a collaborative project between geographies of both a mental and physical nature. The dreams of our ancestors reside in the sinew of these lands; the songlines and spore which forge shapes in the everchanging sands…
From the visible strata of infinity born on the faces of ageless mesas and buttes, to the droning silence of the omnipresent desolation of the plains, the Karoo speaks loudly from the first reaches of creation. Dinosaur fossils and rock art; the geomorphic narratives are of a time very different to our own. Echoes of experience and stillness, memory and imagination pulsate gently through the dusty avenues of existence.
What? Wait. What? Listen. I hear everything; I hear nothing.
The Karoo possesses a soul-striking silence, and it affects even the most unassuming travellers of the plains. Silence, the lack of sound, is a way of speaking: it pleads experience toward a zen-like state of receptivity. I shouldn’t try and fill this silence with words. Be passive and sensitive; open to the whispers and nudges, winks and wrinkles of old master oblivion. I sit, still, quietly mirroring the silence and stillness experienced in the exterior world, and let the silence reign. By so doing, the landscape is experienced as it is, beyond words and ideas, concepts and meaning. It is a land of narrative, created by us, and made meaning of by us, but that meaning is tangible only insofar as we apply it.
I cease applying my analytical lens. I put my pen down. The words write themselves. My mind has quietened down now. My car is silent. I unwind my windows as I traverse the gravel road leading towards Nieu Bethesda.
I arrive late. Darkness has crept thru the rock silently, a loud hum of stillness persists against the noise of my car. Kestrels, Jackal Buzzards and Pale Chanting Goshawks stand sentinel-like on the telephone poles, alert, alive, placid in the evening air. I drive the last 10 kilometers pondering the existential experience of a bird of prey, mindlessly active and receptive; adaptive and content. The zen-mind of doing just what you must do, thoughtlessly.
Read Part 2 here.
**All images Timothy Gabb.