N.P. van Wyk Louw
Die swart bleshoenders dryf verby
agter die skraal wit riet
en die hele grys vleilandskap word
vol ou verdriet
ek staan weer by ‘n wit poel
waar ‘n wintermiddag sneeu
en ek is klein en hoor verskrik
‘n jakkals uit die rante skreeu*
The Karoo is full of surprises arising from the ignorance of city folk making their irregular incursions into the vast under-populated interior. Sutherland is widely known for its Observatory and its chilly winters, but how many South Africans are aware that this village in the remote, austere Karoo hinterland produced one of South Africa’s most notable Afrikaans poets, NP van Wyk Louw? Or indeed that it has a Jewish cemetery and a “shul”, now serving some more mundane secular function in the town?
We arrived latish in the afternoon driving into the broad, straight main road, the only tarred road in the village.
I liked it at first glance for its rejection of gentrification despite the fact that it is heavily populated by B & B’s courtesy of the magnetic attraction of the Observatory on the imagination of South Africans and many overseas tourists.
Not that Sutherland has entirely escaped the seductive powers of Dorp Chic, but its efforts along these lines are charmingly naive rather than jarringly dissonant. In any case, time has softened attempts at urban bling into rusty collections of metal objects and faded dreams of Top Billing gloss.
The inevitable church however stands tall and unblemished amongst its cypresses as testament to the power of the Lord, or at least to the faith and tenacity of its builders and their followers.
We had booked two cottages on the farm, Middelfontein, a further kilometer out along the main road to the North. Glowing Poplars silhouetted against the dour dark of the Roggeveld hillside announced the presence of European settlement before we reached the gate of the farm.
I was reassured that whatever concessions were made to tourists, they did not alter the essential uncompromising Karoo ambience of shale and sandstone interspersed with the hardy Karoo fynbos of these arid regions.
The owners had poetry in their souls and alongside the road and paths we encountered short extracts from both Afrikaans and English poems.
But it was at the going down of the sun and in the morning that the deeper beauty of the countryside was revealed. As the sun set, the accumulated warmth of millennia of unrelenting solar exposure was released to emerge in deep browns, reds and purples matched by an increasing flamboyant sky which eventually faded into dark blue and then into the depth of a Karoo night.
John hauled out his telescope and military-grade laser pointer and we spent the chilly evenings gazing back into the depths of our universe to wonder once more at the fathomless strangeness and apparent insignificance of human consciousness. I truly envy those who have ready answers to such mysteries.That evening we returned to Sutherland to mouth-wateringly, delicious lamb shanks redolent with the flavours and aromas of the Karoo veld at the Cluster d’Hote, cheffed by Anelia and hosted by Johan. Never underestimate the Karoo. This was cooking which would be difficult to match at the best restaurants of Cape Town.
Below I have collected the thumbnails of most of the images which did not make it into the body of this post. None of them show the Observatory plateau which was the ostensible reason for our visit, which leaves the door open to yet another trip.
My personal homage to the Karoo remains to be written. But in the absence of that I will end with some lines from Rudyard Kipling. They are inadequate, but better than most of the strained poetry coming from us folk enraptured by the aloof harsh beauty of the South African Karoo. Remember: right click on image to open a high-resolution version in a new tab.
BRIDGE-GUARD IN THE KARROO
Sudden the desert changes,
The raw glare softens and clings,
Till the aching Oudtshoorn ranges
Stand up like the thrones of Kings—
Ramparts of slaughter and peril—
Blazing, amazing, aglow—
’Twixt the sky-line’s belting beryl
And the wine-dark flats below.
Royal the pageant closes,
Lit by the last of the sun—
Opal and ash-of-roses,
Cinnamon, umber, and dun.
The twilight swallows the thicket,
The starlight reveals the ridge.
The whistle shrills to the picket—
We are changing guard on the bridge…