Some dreams hang on for a while, others fade through time, but this one has persisted as an almost surreal reality to this day.
This story started with a dream in Pretoria some 44 years ago and continued as grains of silver suspended in photographic paper, later becoming electronic pixels – culminating in a lifetime of images.
Back then, the dead end of Louis Trichardt Street in Mayville looked out across the large vegetable fields of three Portuguese brothers – farmers of note, apparently. The view had a kind of on-the-edge-of-the-city, country feel about it.
Beyond the cultivated fields, the ridges of the Magaliesberg Mountains rose up and then rolled into the distance towards the Hartbeestpoort Dam in the west. A man stopped his car in front of a house that looked exactly like so many houses in the lower middle-class white suburbia of South Africa in the 1970s.
There was a metal gate, with frills that held a hand-painted number on a dented post box. A cement path, cracked in places, led straight up to the front door, which held two panes of yellow glass that looked like the bottom of beer bottles.
To the right of the path was a rock garden with mostly khaki bush growing in it and to the left was a lawn with more devil’s thorn than kikuyu grass. In the far corner were three colourful dwarves sitting on three huge mushrooms. Lace curtains and twirled burglar guards beautified the tall but rather narrow windows. Good workmanship on the red bricks gave the place a sturdy feel and a low balcony gave it a facade of respectability, a place of humble goodness.
It’s February 1974 and I remember how that dream continued. A man with unkempt hair and a hat strolls up our path, with what looks like a guitar strapped to his back. “Who are you,” I shout from a half-opened front door. “Bob,” he says. “Bob who, Bob Hope, Bob Marley?” I grunt. “Bob Dylan – I wrote the song that keeps on sounding around in your head. I am your song, your chorus, your refrain and the purpose that you are about to set upon. I am the travel spirit that you will follow for the rest of your life and the winds that will blow with you, to somewhere, to near, to far, to everywhere, over far horizons.”
The neighbour’s boerboel started to bark, lifting the birds up from the trees, but when I looked again, Bob had gone, vanished back into his song. It was a Sunday and up Louis Trichardt Street I could hear the bells of the ice cream sellers’ carts ringing, tring-tring—aling-tring-tring—aling. “Ice cream, ice cream” the black mens’ voices rang out. Then I went inside and played Bob’s song. “How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man? How many seas must a white dove sail before she sleeps in the sand? Yes, and how many times must the canon balls fly – before they are forever banned? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
The previous three years my wife, Lynn, and I had lived in Munich, Germany. Lynn taught English and I studied photography. Now back in our beloved land, many new songs blew in through my head, overturning old ways and freeing new ones.
I was about to enter my Hotazel Years. We soon left Pretoria and moved down to the last Outpost, “Durbs by the Sea”. There I was appointed as a lecturer in photography, purchased a house that bordered the Indian area of Puntans Hill and started to lead students along all roads photographic, from A to B via Z. “Without passion,” I told them, “your photographic boat will never leave port.”
When our landline was installed, the first call that came was from BOSS (The Bureau of State Security) where a voice solemnly said, in a true Sauff-Êfrikin accent, that I should watch my liberal ways. He said that I couldn’t ever sidestep the long arm of John Vorster’s security apparatus. I mumbled obscenities and spat them out the window. Yet, I itched and twitched, to wander forth, to head my eyes into the adventure of distances that shimmered beyond.
The starting gun came for me when our own Jody Scheckter won the Formula 1 Grand Prix at Kyalami in 1975. I bought a yellow souped-up Morris Minor mounted with a Mazda VC 1.8 litre engine. With alloy rims and wide takkies, bucket seats, a rally steering wheel and a stereo tape deck, it pushed my ego through the sound barrier. In the city the girls goggled me out passionately, so in desperation I flung my sights out to the wild gramadoelas.
During the long student holidays at the Natal Technikon, I pressed my foot on the pedal and let my spirits blow into the hinterland. Babanango or Bust was written somewhere on the dashboard in my head. Cutting a hole into the passenger seat’s cubbyhole and swopping the bucket seat for a plank left just enough space for a bed.
As company I had other drifters, especially one called Jack Kerouac. His famous book On the Road lay right next to me, next to my Nikkormat 35 mm camera, two lenses and a Metz flash. Jack was, of course, an inspirational roadster and beatnik; my other favourite passenger was a sense of humour, which was totally necessary when travelling through Africa. So Jack and Humour and me hit the road.
For the love of the land we went, with the wind, Jack Humour Time. My heart pounded behind my eyes, punching the sights, lifting my spirits to the roughness of this troubled but so wonderful land. I threw out my elite, my sheltered and my privileged education to the cosmos flowers and crows that sat on the telephone poles gawking down as we passed.
Up the road past Tugela Ferry I stopped at a Zulu kraal and asked to see the chief. Puzzled, yet friendly, the woman pointed at another kraal on another hill and said that the chief should be there. So I drove up a hill to that other village and found the chief. He was sitting under a big wild fig tree drinking beer with his mates. I told him that it was an honour to meet him, as I had become more ethnic amongst the flowers and the crows in the Zulu hills.
He muttered a smile and then pointed at the silver bangle on my wrist. “Gift me,” he said. I told him that a beautiful woman in Madagascar had given me the bangle in 1968 and that I slept with it every night. He roared with laughter, which, after a few seconds, echoed from the nearby cliffs, like rural Zulu stereo.
Then Chief offered me a whole clay pot of umqombothi beer. There is nothing more punishing than pushing your whole face into the dark delights of a pungent Zulu beer broth and gulping down the stuff that the great Chaka Zulu drank before sending out his Zulu impis to conquer. When I made my frothy emergence from the pot, I wobbled upward, staggered a few paces and then fell in a lump at the Chief’s feet.
The laughter was tribally awesome and in seconds I had become a hero, the kraal’s jester. The cliffs echoed their applause. Rural détente was born. This all happened a few months before the US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, had come for that famous détente meeting with Prime Minister BJ Vorster to discuss the 1976 riots, the Rhodesian racial problem and the Bush War in Angola.
Then, before my departure, the Chief wanted a ride in my souped-up Morris Minor with the Mazda engine. Because I was feeling warrior-like, I threw in a couple of wheelies on our little spin. Chief’s face got a lot blacker and his eyes bigger, whiter. When I stopped, almost all the fields hushed and the hills and the huts and the chief’s topless women stopped, too. So did his large herd of Nguni cattle.
Not a wobble, not a birdie’s twitter, just the silent hiss of the ominous cliffs above. “Again,” the Chief shouted. So I wheeled him around and around again, just a spinning yellow blur in all of Zululand and the entire world.
In the now, here, today, in the year of 2019, I sit and stare at my Mac OS 21.5 inch computer with an extra monitor and a G-Raid 12TB external hard drive with thousands upon thousands of images and stories on it and I get a little nostalgic for those long gone days of haphazard freedom and youthful joie de vivre.
I close my eyes and turn back the hands of time and I see it all, like a dream – driving back again, into that South African dorpie in the sunrise of light. To the right lay the “location”, as they called it back then, little corrugated iron shacks sadly jumbled and huddled together for life’s worth.
Men would stand around a fire and over the settlement a pall of smoke, floating like a flag of desperation, marked the separation from the other side of town, where the wealthier people lived.
On the main street, the Greek grocer and Porro’s, the Portuguese café, are already open. A Ford Anglia and a Valiant Chrysler drive past me and old Uncle Seymour’s 1958 green Vauxhall Velox hoots at a stray dog.
A mother and her two children, dressed spick and span in their school uniforms, wait for the Unie Winkel clothing shop to open. A group of African women walk to the smart houses where the white madams live and the dogs bark hatefully each time they open the garden gates.
At the rail crossing, where the train comes in daily, Farmer Moerdyk doesn’t stop in his pale blue 1973 Dodge D100. Why should he, he’s baas and a proud nationalist. On his farm is an ox wagon, which his great-grandfather rode up from the Cape during the Great Trek. He’s on his way to the Boere Winkel to buy crushed mealies for his chickens, then around the corner to the hotel’s bottle store for a bottle of Mellow Wood Brandy. He waves at Gerrie the barman, in front of the hotel.
The town seems blessed somehow, covered by some veil of decency and deservingness; there is no litter, the town’s three white policemen and black constables are prepared, the pavements are walkable and in front of the town hall a bed of new marigolds grow. On Sundays there’s no parking in front of the church and on a hill, overlooking the town, a big white cross stands, wooden arms embracing.
So you must be wondering about this Hotazel Years thing. Actually, me too, I am still wondering about all this wandering some 44 years later. If one takes Southern Africa south of the Zambezi and the Cunene Rivers as the greater hinterland, then using a compass, traces a circle around the coastlines of these countries and the above-mentioned rivers, the most central point, the one furthest away from all oceans is the mining town of Hotazel in the Northern Cape.
When I arrived there in the mid-1970s, all that really stood out was the bottle store with some locals jiving it up before it opened at ten in the morning. In the prime of my Hotazel Years I used to wear this Ché Guevara beret and a St Pauli T-shirt (the red light district in Hamburg), forming, with Jack and Humour, a somewhat devious but formidable team.
I saw the country in tonal values of black and white, striving for subtle detail in the shadows and highlights. Sometimes this was very difficult, as we lived in a land of extreme contrasts.
Often, coming into a town, we would drive straight to the police station and ask them who the funniest, weirdest oke in town was. Or, when overcome with remorse, I would stall my Morris in front of the pastorie (the minister’s house) of the Dutch Reformed Church and busy myself under the bonnet.
Soon Mrs Dominee would take pity on me standing there in the hot sun and I would be invited in for tea on the red polished stoep. “Love thy neighbour, like thyself,” I would sigh, casting my eyes up to the cock on top of the church steeple. Then the dominee would hold forth about the new liberal policies of the DRC and so on and on and on. (In the 1980s the Dutch Reformed Church was expelled from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches for its support of apartheid. In 1986 it made South African history by welcoming all racial groups back into the church).
While this is all going on I am checking out his pretty wife, biting my lower lip sore, trying not to break the tenth commandment in which the second lines reads: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife”.
Then after I had cast my eyes back up to the weathercock on the steeple, the dominee’s wife showed me her collection of handmade doilies, neatly displayed on a fancy imbuia wood cabinet with ball-and-claw legs.
Above the teapot doily display hung a framed print of Tretchikoff’s Dying Swan. I felt like the ball that the claw was clawing. Then the Dominee showed me the gate while his pretty wife waved goodbye with a giggle.
I can still remember what Jack said all those years ago. “Just go. Just get on the road, as one day when you are old you won’t remember the time in the office or moving the lawn.” I am old now, so perhaps I know. “Where are we going?” Humour wants to know. “I don’t know,” I’d say, “we’ll know when we get there.”
Then I would hang my arm out the window and drive over the horizon. “What’s over the horizon?” Jack asks. After 34 kilometres I answer, “Just another horizon.” Rubber tyres roll and hum on the road like a song. The alter egos harmonise the chorus. “What is the freedom of the road?” Jack asks one night around the campfire. Above in the African night, the stars flicker a distant light and somewhere in the dark a hyena whoops its eerie call. “Freedom,” I say, “is when your right arm is burnt darker than your left arm.”Buro: MvH