January continues in the usual way; ashy, slate, dove, manta ray and other greys prevail. Clouding over moods and the sun alike. I don’t think I’ll ever get used this low ceiling feeling of winter cloud cover here. Somehow, I mind it less when it’s raining. Most days clouds just drift through blankly blanketing the sky. All monotone. No action. Rain gives them reason in my mind. And I don’t mind rain. I explained this to someone in a casual conversation about the weather last year. “when you’re from Africa, rain is a blessing; it’s scarce, and you long for it.” When you’re from Africa. You long for it.
I usually return to South Africa around Oct/Nov each year for a pre-winter sun and vitamin D sesh. A return to nature, and a chance to catch up with family, friends and nature scenes. Because of the ongoing pandemic, I wasn’t able to return last year as usual though, and the harsh realisation is setting in that I won’t be able to go there for a long time yet. I listen to parents and friends describe beach house and coastal scenes (it’s summer there right now), and the unknowingness of when I will see them and these places again, breaks me a little.
I hesitate to use the phrase “homesick” about a place that hasn’t been my home for more than a decade, but what other word is there for this longing to return to this place of origin?
A few months back, I listened to podcast in which the travel writer Daniel Scheffler, in exploring his South African roots, says the following of arriving back in South Africa after some time away: “there’s something about that scarlet bloody soil of South Africa, that stays in my being, I leave again and again, and somehow being born in South Africa means you always get tugged home. The umbilical chord is so taut. I know it when I get off the plane and I smell that air, that alters me every time, no matter where I’ve come from. It smells like the Bushveld everywhere; animal sweat, fecund. The clouds are extra enormous, and when the afternoon rolls in, just when you’re thinking of a lovely tea time, they do a dance of storms…..” He describes my own feelings of arriving back in this place of red dust and amazing thunderstorms. A place where I spent more time barefoot than wearing shoes.
What do you do when you miss a place so much, but can’t visit? When you’re a photographer, you go into the archives. I recently scanned in some old films from one of the landscapes in SA that I long to return to some time; the semi-desert Karoo. Specifically my step grandfather’s old sheep farm, which I haven’t been to since my late teens. I’ve never travelled anywhere that evokes the same feeling this place does. The film was quite degraded, and the camera I had as a teen wasn’t the best, but it is still cool to look at these shots, and feel nostalgic for these times. It would be amazing to go back there now with my current gear.
The Karoo landscape is predominately flat with sparse shrubbery and punctuated by the odd rocky hill (koppie) or more rarely larger flat topped “mountains”. Sometimes, quite unexpectedly, the landscape falls away to reveal ravines, as is the case on the farm. One of the ravines on the farm called “die valle” (the falls), had several large rocks with plant fossils embedded in it, and rocks with a corrugated surface that suggested the area had been under water/water had flowed there once. This just blew my little mind when I was young; to know this desert landscape was under water once. It was my favourite place on the farm. It was quite tricky climbing to the bottom of the ravine, but once there you were down there, it was pretty amazing. My bro and I would clamber around for hours looking for fossils. Or lie on our backs on large rock plates in the sun, looking at eagles circling in the blue sky above, listening to dassies in their rock hollows, make their weird little yelp noises.
The shot below shows the scale of it nicely. It is easy to see the layers of solidified sediment deposited over time.
Bit hard to see, because the scan isn’t great, but the rock has the wavy look of a riverbed.
In this place, as well as elsewhere in the veldt on the farm, I always had this eerie feeling of being watched. I’d look around and not see another thing alive, and yet would feel these eyes on me. Even knowing there were dassies hiding among the rocky outcrops all over the farm, it was still a strange feeling. That weird feeling of being alone, but not quite alone. Often in scifi books, there is a seemingly dead planet, with a different world hidden beneath the surface; Magrathea comes comes to mind. Maybe I was reading too much of that at the time. Bit weird, but that’s the vibe I got. Hah.
One of my other best memories was of driving down to a place called Koedoeskloof in the “Landy”. It was a rite of passage of sorts the first time you were allowed to drive down there; a pretty butt clenching affair travelling down the steep gravelly hairpin-bends of the kloof. If you were standing on the back, you would hold on with white knuckles. I always enjoyed standing on the back though, smelling the veldt and feeling the sun and wind. Once down the bottom of the kloof, we’d usually have a braai under the Karee trees next to the dam. Just a simple wire grill balanced on a few bricks. Food cooked this way in the veldt always seemed to taste much greater than food cooked at home.
One of my other best memories was of playing table tennis and pool in the old workshop. Table tennis, until the last of our balls were either broken, lost inside a jumble of boxes piled high on of the work benches, or got stuck in a spot where you could just about touch it with your finger tip, but couldn’t extract it. “So, I guess we’re playing pool now?”
Across the yard from the workshop stood a huge water tank, baking in the sun all day. After a day in the dust and sun of the veldt, we’d come home and run hot water straight from it into a sink bath on the lawn and jump in there with our cozzies. To sit in a warm bath, looking out over the koppies and smelling the sweet summer air; just one of the best things. I have memories of having pictures of this, but none here with me in London.
Once it was dark proper, I’d sometimes go and lie on a patch of cool grass and look at the night sky, which in the place, sometimes felt like it was on fire the stars were so bright. It made your heart jump looking at that immense sky. I want to see it again so badly. I haven’t seen a night sky like that anywhere I’ve been since. You have to be in dark sky country to see the stars like that.
I always thought it would be an interesting litmus test; to see if someone was bored or awed by this landscape. Moved or unmoved by this sky. One of my cousins recently took his girlfriend there for the first time. She loved it, and it meant something to him, and I get it.
There are other cool memories; board games in the sun room. Sleeping on mattresses on the floor with sibs and friends, cackling like hyenas, making jokes in the dark. Standing on the back of the Landy, swaddled in heavy parkas on night drives. The distinct clink of a farm gate hitting a gate post.
Pictures open the gates for it all to flood back.