Read the stories behind the photographs:
This is sheep country, baaa!! The first summer rains have not arrived – it’s three months late. The land is grey and brittle – farmers are desperate. The dorpers have chewed the karoo bush down to their roots – when the rain arrives, it will let them thrive again.
Today I’m told is going be a beautiful Nimbus day. The itinerary is set. A trip down the R356 to Loxton. Rocky outcrops are strewn along the way. I’m told Bud Spencer’s ex wife, or ex girlfriend now lives in Loxton and grows the most delicious garlic – I’ve come to buy. I open the window to see if my senses can pick up the pungent flavors of Allium sativum. Two hours later, no garlic, but dust is everywhere, killing my taste buds.
As we drove back, storm clouds were gathering. Nimbus was waking up. Her huge black presence is magnified in long rolling balls across the flat Karoo veld, and in ever decreasing sizes as they reach the horizon. Black dolerite outcrops break the horizon line – the pitch-black rocks are a sharp contrast to the tones of grey above.
Within seconds Nimbus explodes. The torrential rain poured down pummeling the Mercedes. Within minutes the water level was half a meter high, rushing, pushing, shoving, left then right – straight down towards a river I traveled, that now runs through the road. The engine, spluttered, choked; smoke now poured through the bonnet. Then a loud bang . . . silence . . . only the thunderous noise of the downpour pounding the roof as we floated along the Karoo veld. Next another bang as the Merc was caught on a tree stump. Nimbus was in an unforgiving mood but the tree stump is a lifesaver. I always thought that the definition of insanity was Chicken Vindaloo vs. Chicken Madras – now it was being tossed around in a German metal box half-filled with rainwater.
Aided by the local police, eventually help in the shape of Conrad Nel arrived. The few hours of rain had turned the brittle earth into a lush green blanket, stretching to all corners of my eyes. The dolerite black rocks gleamed in the dapple light. Steam drifted up from the rich red earth. The karoo vapors now mingled with the smells of wet dorper wool and the sweet karoo bush – leaning out of the cab I took several mouthfuls of the air.
The dolerite outcrops looked magical – unable to explain myself I asked Conrad Nel to stop. This moment was never going to be repeated. I felt Nimbus breath as it gushed passed me, bringing the scent of torn grass and ravaged wet earth. Her smile promised redemption. And when it came, her blackened face descended from the heavens in twist and turns as she spiraled corkscrew across the landscape between exploding lightning bolts. Totally oblivious of my recent life-threatening experience, I stood there, wishing Nimbus would never go away.
In the harsh world of the karoo, the odors of blue gum and pine mingle with Acacia Karoo – a beautiful sweet spicy, smelling yellow flower that blankets the arid semi-desert. December is a very hot month. Halfway through the afternoon, the temperatures were grazing the early fifties with a hot mist that made my spectacles perspire. If you touch the Karoo earth you’ll get close to the boiling point of water.
The Karoo silence is still. Tawny Eagles and Yellow-Billed Kites swirl in the skies above; while scorpions, termite-eating spiders and snakes hunt their frittatas, before the Karoo furnace drives them into their underground bunkers. It’s now 54 degrees Celsius, perfect for bacon and eggs. Welcome to the Karoo inferno.
I stopped several times to get directions from shuffling locals – suffering from a dop too many in most cases. But everyone gave me different directions, which frankly I don’t understand why, as there is supposed to be only one famous Tafelburg koppie in these parts. The locals claim that their Tafelberg is more famous than the one in Cape Town. I didn’t want to get into that discussion. Have you ever argued with an inebriated wandering farm worker? I wouldn’t advise it.
Finally, I realized that there were several Tafelberg koppies, and everyone seemed to have their own idea, as to which is the ‘Tafelberg Koppie’. So I simply settled on the largest which was about 100 meters in height and sitting behind a typical Karoo Mudstone koppie. After all, they were comparing their Tafelberg with the Cape Tafelberg. So largest would be appropriate.
The clouds had been building up all day. I sensed Nimbus was giving me all the time in the world to get my act together. After dithering as to where I wanted to photograph the Tafelburg, I settled in front of this grand Koppie with my giant blue and yellow-striped umbrella. Anticipating a drenching, I stood watching Nimbus cast her shadows over every stone. Then there was a mighty explosion and the rain came thundering down. A few minutes later it was gone. Briefly the torrential rain left puddles reflecting the contours of Nimbus body but soon it seeped into the parched earth.
Karoo aloes stood regimented along the dirt road. The dark green leaves fused into the blackness. In bloom, the red flowers would be the only colour that stands out in the dark shadows of the landscape. Dassies scurried, taking refuge into the gloom. Suddenly an orange blade of light cuts through the Nimbus clouds, spraying its golden hues over the aloes and deep into the crevices of each blade of grass. Within a few seconds Nimbus covered herself, blanketing out the light to leave deathly shadows scattered everywhere. Sinister and gloom mingled, leaving a mystery in the air.
The Venda call this granite dome Tshamavhudzi, meaning, “The one with no hair”. The owners of the farm, where the dome is situated, and the other tribal groups in the area call it, Klein Bolayi – this seems strange! – It’s neither of Bantu origins or Afrikaans. But rumor has it, that it was used as a place for executing murderers. The method not too dissimilar to the guillotine. This makes it, the Mapungubwe Place de la Revolution.
Tshamavhudzi is a rare granite dome in a landscape littered with sandstone outcrops. The dome reminded me of a discarded WW1 British helmet, split open by a glancing bullet. Its length is around 100 meters, 40 meters high and 60 meters wide.
I was immediately drawn to its striking simplicity. On the side of the dome, a Rock fig tree, probably 800 to 900 years old stood to attention – they’re known to live to double that age. Well rooted into the bald granite, I asked myself the question – how did the Fig tree survive before reaching water? The Limpopo is not exactly Newlands, and there’s at least 40 meters of rock to get through. Also the width of the fracture suggests that the ever-expanding roots widened it.
A fig tree gene continuation depends on fig wasps, as they cannot survive without each other. Called “obligate mutualism”, Iziko South Africa Museum states that only fig wasps can pollinate fig trees and only fig trees can host the wasps’ eggs. This mutualism has evolved over 80 million years and encompasses the 750 species of fig trees; although identification of fig wasps only extends to 300 species. In addition, the mutualism narrows to each fig tree species having only one fig wasp that can pollinate it. What is amazing is that the lifespan of a fig wasp is only a few days, making the actual pollination of a fig tree quite a feat. And in the dry arid climate of the Limpopo, that’s an achievement.
Situated between Musina and Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape; I’d made several trips to and pass it, but all in conditions similar to hell with no shades of Nimbus. Other than transfixed chameleons and darting Black Mambas, nothing extraordinary happened – January is their breeding season. I had stood and waited for many hours in the hope of the right cloud build-up, but I was warned of marauding Zimbabwean hijackers; so I took to flash drives past. When the moment came it was quite by accident.
Returning from a shopping trip to Musina, the clouds were collecting. Running ahead of the clouds I got to Klein Bolayi ten minutes before they arrived. The clouds held out long enough for me to snap twelve frames. Then they were gone – burnt away by the sun.
The sandstone koppies in the Eastern Free State are 20 million years old. Many have San rock paintings of comets, elephant, giraffe and mormyrid fish, sometimes called ‘Elephant fish’. Soapstone dishes and marine shells tell you a lot about the San Bushmen travels and observations.
The roadside grass is tall, easily passing waist-length, dried out beige and Omo white; the farmers call it Climax Grass. Craggy rock formations, etched by the persevering wind, hide secrets of conflict between the Boer and the British – Surrender Hill – 5000 Boer men, women and children left a trail of tears, eventually surrendering to the encircling British army.
This is the land of coffee cups and teacups. Over the hill and to the mountains beyond, lies the Kingdom of Lesotho. Most people in the area are quite hospitable. Farmers next to the Lesotho border unfortunately are not very friendly. You can’t blame them, as marauding cattle thieves cross the border in Lesotho, constantly attempting to steal their animals. Wild West tales of posses pursuing cattle bandits are common.
This morning the church bells started early. The smell of lemons and peaches drifted from an orchard behind me. I had waited five days for Nimbus to arrive. And on the sixth morning, the clouds spilled all the way down to the horizon. The thunderclouds ranged from pitch black to a light grey, with a hint of blue. Tones of white, swirling like a smoking braai, drift in-between, breaking up the tones of ash.
I waited until the sandstone hues of beiges and browns were darkening. The koppie’s naked body lay stretched out gleaming like pearls. My eyes slid over her glowing craggy breast. I was mesmerized. The sun flicked its gleaming light through narrow openings. Then click said the camera. I stayed there, paralyzed, watching for the next thirty minutes. Then the sun dipped below the horizon.
Named teapot and coffeepot by the early Afrikaner Trekboer women, both koppies sit side by side near Schoombee in the Eastern Karoo, separated by the R56. A large, stark white cross sits on top of Theebus, erected by a parson from Herwin children’s home in the early 1960’s. But Mother Nature is not a kind woman in the karoo and the cross needed to be replaced. In the 1980’s, Colonel Jordaan, with the help of an army helicopter erected a new one, which stands today.
Dotted near both koppies are the remains of British blockhouses dating back from the Boer war. Both Theebus and Koffiebus stand tall in a rare lush green belt of the Karoo. All year round the rich waters of the Orange River are channeled through the 83.3 kilometers Theebus tunnel, gushing into the small rivers and streams that feed the local farms.
The San bushman tells his story of how they lived in caves in the area. In their wars with the Afrikaner Trekboers they hid in koppie caves, watching, waiting, to kill the farmers and to steal his cattle. We are what we eat and this reflected in their rock paintings of the Mountain Reed buck, Grey Reedbuck and the strange, plump Rock Rabbit. Some of their etchings have baffled archaeologists for many years. High up in the Little Karoo Mountains, they show creatures with a round head, arms, and a fish tail. Are these paintings of mermaids? Does this mean the San people saw such creatures? After all it has been said the Karoo was a vast inland sea and did their forefathers pass down their knowledge?
This was my second ten-day trip to photograph Theebus and Koffiebus. The first journey provided me with no magical cloud moments. Nimbus didn’t even make an appearance, contrary to weather forecasts. On the third day of my second trip, I waited all morning wondering whether the clouds would build up. The smell of blue gum resin, recently cut Lucerne, wrapped in Kanna hung throughout the countryside – there was a tang in the air. By late afternoon the blackened clouds arrived from the west, showering the Sneeuberg Mountains in the North. The landscape looked fresh like a Jacob van Ruisdael painting. The dome-like cloudscape spanned across the Karoo veldt and the sun licked every blade of Karoo grass at it flicked across Nimbus.
The road to Graaf-Reinet through Lootsberg Pass is mountainous – koppies fall away being replaced by hills with little kops. The fynbos glitters in the early morning dew. Duikers sat ever watchful under kuni bushes and Candelabra trees littered the mountainsides – beware of the milk from this tree spilling onto your skin, as it will burn and blister, leaving you looking like a sufferer of third degree burns.
Ten kilometers from Graaf-Reinet a fog descended, surreptitiously, catching me unawares. Thick and rolling it poured down. The glutinous darkness came from all sides. I had to slow down to a few kilometers an hour. As I drove through the thick walls of grey, I was plunged into sadness – no photographs for me to take. I felt the penetrating chill of the mountains on either side of me.
As I entered the Camdeboo National Park, which surrounds Graaf-Reinet the fog opened up enough for the sun to breathe. Warm sunbeams filtered through, transforming into silvery slithers on my path. I felt some hope. There were two locations I wanted to photograph. Spandaukop and the Valley of Desolation, but from where? I asked myself. Having made several attempts to capture both these beautiful landscapes, I realized that the only place was from the escarpment that overlooked the ‘Valley of Desolation’ in which Spandaukop also lies.
This ancient fossil-rich land is full of surprises. It has the largest variety of succulents found anywhere on earth – over 9000 species of plants are found in the great Karoo – three times more than the British Isles. Once dinosaurs roamed, like Sauropodomorpha, a long-necked herbivore the largest animals to have walked the earth.
High above the town of Graaf-Reinet, the Valley of Desolation, stands like a Black Eagle, spreading its wings. In front of me, dolerite pinnacles stood like grey helmeted soldiers waiting for the order to stand at ease. I watched and waited on the edge of this escarpment, a meter from a sheer drop of several hundred meters that fell into blackened gloom. A reef of nimbus clouds churned across the skies and a mantle of light had slid between nimbus, sprinkling light onto the helmeted soldiers.
I wondered, as I stood 2-meters up on the Land Rover game-viewer, what Gerhard Moerdijk, the architect who designed the Voortrekker Monument thought, when he first saw the Voortrekker koppie, as it’s called today by the locals, who live in and around Mapungubwe National Park? They say this monolith granite koppie was his stimulation. He often visited for tranquility and inspiration. Did he stand at this spot when that moment of inspiration came? Or was it one of the several places I had visited, to view it around the game reserve in the last ten days?
On my sixth visit Nimbus arrived, crossing from northeast to northwest and over where the Shashe and the Limpopo rivers meet that unite Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa in the distance. Like the devil’s shroud she revolved in the sky, growling, occasionally, barking her thunderbolts across the skyline.
We watched, Mr Alie Chauke and I. He is a very knowledgeable Shangaan gentleman, who is my guide and driver. Standing at around 180 centimeters, he’s slim and smiles warmly as he speaks with enthusiasm about the information that surrounds us. Both Mr. Ali Chauke and the Land Rover are courtesy of San Parks. He’s a very able assistant. Stopping traffic while I wait for the magic light (you know there are boy racers, even in the bush); helps sets up my tripod and constantly makes suggestions on composition.
Every morning, we’d go deep into darkest Mapungubwe in search of granite edifices and the darkened Cumulus-Nimbus clouds. Then I’d set about searching his brain for interesting snippets of information – the anthropology of the tribes – Northern Sotho, Venda, Shona and Shangaan. The last few days of our search have been very hot. Although it’s only 8 am in the morning, the barometer was well into the red at over 40 degrees centigrade. Now we stand watching, perspiring and waiting. The cicadas are very active as are the flies buzzing around like a deep mist over a rotting carcass nearby.
I’m waiting for Father Sun to arrive and illuminate the granite monolith so like it’s inspiration, the Voortrekker Monument. The idea to build a monument in honor of the Voortrekkers, was mooted on 16th December 1888, when President Paul Kruger attended the Day of the Covenant Celebrations at Blood River in Natal. The idea gained momentum, eventually with the sod turning ceremony taking place in 1937. Twelve years later it stood proud and erect, a national symbol.
When the moment came, the finger of God-like light reached down and touched this monolith omnipresent signpost in the veld.
I arrived at the Clocolan turn-off. The air-con kept me cool on this hot dusty, blue-sky Free State afternoon. The shimmering haze bent the countryside – windmills looked distorted in a house of mirrors – cows like mutants from a far flung star in a distant galaxy.
Keep to the left and you’ll pass the head of Julius Caesar, neatly beheaded and placed on top of a sandstone koppie. For this somber occasion Nimbus cast her shadows into a prevailing wind reflecting Caesar regal ending. He looks east, reviewing his African empire, all the way to the majestic Lesotho Maluti Mountains. A blanket of wild flowers lay in front of me – what a good time to have leftover turkey sandwiches. I like mine, simply with fresh chives, mint and seasoning. And since today was a day of recovery, a healthy cool drink was in need.
It was an extraordinary day. Every ninety minutes Nimbus would change her clothes, and then pour her eyes out. Saddened by my days of waiting, she would build up her dark wings and gush forth again and again. She spent the day rebuilding herself. Her personalities varied according to her mood. Charging across the skies like Nzingha, Queen of the Matamba’s, slaying all her enemies in her path. By early evening she was spent and I was on my way. Blue skies were fading to grey. Not a Dorper or Merino in sight – this is mielie country.
The flat Karoo veld of thorny tufted bush starts to change as I entered the Southern Free State. Steppe-like, the vast grassy plains of Russia and the Ukraine – as far as your eye can see. The landscape is bleak, unless you’re a raptor with eagle eyes or someone with patience and appreciation. If you have the tenacity to stand in this heat, with an umbrella of course, you’d be surprised at the visitors you’d receive. If you went even further and crouched down on to your haunches, you would see even more. However I would suggest that you tuck a concise dictionary on Entomology in your arms or the pocket version by Dorling Kindersley in your back pocket. But I wouldn’t hang around for to long. Giant ants are quite common.
Nimbus clouds have been following me. I waited patently as she twisted and turned. Screw-shaped and double flick-flacks stretched across the skies. In moments of sheer anger, she’d self-destruct into large fragments of black cotton balls, and then smoldering clouds would reappear. The setting sun caressed her anger with golden hues. By six-o-clock she was heading westwards, leaving a sinuous, wispy trail of white cotton streaks in her wake. Then I knew that my New Year’s Eve was going to sparkle with Zsa Zsa Gabor diamonds in the night.
I call these mudstone koppies of the Karoo, the ‘Cemetery of Fossils’, as a lot of ancient dinosaur fossils have been discovered within them. Bound together by mud, sandstone and minute quartz crystals they have a sparkling appearance in a setting sun. Once in abundance, they are now fast eroding, soon to disappear with the piercing winds that scour them away.
Throughout the morning the temperature in the shade was bearable – outside, a totally unbearable 54 degrees centigrade. Puff Adders, Spitting cobras and Rinkhals seek refuge in farmhouse bedrooms. But as the afternoon progressed, Nimbus arrived bringing the storm clouds of blackened blood, blotting out the moon. Temperatures went down to a sensible 45 degrees centigrade, and day succumbed to night.
About 20 kilometers out of Ladybrand the power steering on my Pajero went dead – It was my cambelt. I dread moments like these, especially that day, as there was beautiful cloud build-up towards Clocolan, where the koppie I called Caesar’s Head lay – a missed opportunity. Eventually I got hold of a garage that said, they would get to me in the next couple of hours. Two hours is a long time, but not for country folk in Ladybrand.
I stood there in silence, listening to the murmurings of the cicadas in the light wind and the birds singing their lyrical nocturnes. In front of me, erect and proud, stood a sandstone part mudstone koppie, in a vast 360-degree expanse of veld. In the distance, along the horizon, koppies hid behind shadows. A thin sandstone necklace that wound around her neck like an African princess, accentuated the gentle flowing curves of this sandstone mudstone koppie. Sheep were wandering down her slopes towards the waiting hands of their volk minders. Dassies like foraging ants, scoured the rock face. The wind rustled the tufted climax grass, bunched up in clumps. By the fence, a farmer’s plough had recently furrowed the rich fertile soil, leaving a trail of clumped earth. The fragrant, sweet-scented soil smelt of garlic, dried wood and no doubt the residue of the disturbed worms that lived beneath.
Looking westwards, I saw Nimbus clouds hurrying towards me. The first to arrive, decided they belonged on the koppie’s head. Many more joined the solitary cloud. The setting sun created a halo around her head – she was now the queen of the African veldt.
Like a thief, the leaden sky had stolen the light from the day, casting shadows deep into the rocks. Bellows and bellows of clouds puffed up above the koppie. Nimbus looked black as soot, casting herself around and towards the next horizon. Now she looked more like a Garratt steam locomotive parked, waiting for the train conductor to blow the whistle, so she could make her journey through this part of Africa.
Solitary moments like this, cast a spell. Sometimes I’d stand all day waiting for the picture to compose itself. I was in another world. To be here, sharing this magical moment with nature. Without knowing, the camera shutter went off, my fingers to close to the button. The spell had been broken. Then the tow-truck arrived.
It is said that the forefathers of the baPhalaborwa tribe came from Bokhalaka (the present Zimbabwe) under the leadership of a chief called Malatshi. It is uncertain when the migration from Bokhalaka began, but early Portuguese records are said to show that during the 17th century the tribes of the so-called “Monomotapa empire” were driven southwards by waves of Rozwi invaders from the north. Driven from the Bokhalaka region, the baPhalaborwa went in search of iron ore. They were metal workers who initially settled in the lowveld, as far as Bushbuck Ridge, but were unsuccessful in their search for the metal in the area.
Chief Malatjie 1, the first chief , heard about this land, just west of present day Kruger Park from his scouts. They returned with tales of a fertile soil filled with kudu, duikers, impalas and the essential iron ore. This land they called Phalaborwa, meaning it is “Better than the south”, because of the iron ore they searched for. And so the name Phalaborwa was born. Inhabited by the Shokane who they quickly routed, they settled on Sealene koppie, a few hundred meters away from Kgopolwe, not far from Loole Kop; and here they began the smelting of iron to manufacture hoes, axes, spearheads and arrowheads. Today Loole Kop does not exist. It has been totally excavated. The hole left, is said to be twice the size of the ‘Great hole of Kimberly and over sixty floors deep.
Both Kgopolwe and Sealene, have been declared national historical monuments by the National Monuments Council, and will be preserved for all time. Kgopolwe is the burial ground of the several Induna, the headmen of the various chiefs and aptly named when translated, The Place of Memories. There is archaeological evidence of metal workings here. Also evidence that shows the Phalaborwa region was occupied by metalworking communities during at least two periods in the last 1 200 years. Two separate phases of occupation, the 9th to 13th and 17th to 20th centuries, coinciding with trade along the East Coast of Africa. There are over 50 metal working sites dotted around the Phalaborwa region.
Koppies have deteriorated or have been destroyed over the years for various commercial reasons. Many have been living sites – Kgopolwe, Masorini, Loole Kop, Shikumbu were lived on by chiefs, headmen and the people of baPhalaborwa.
On the day I stood below Kgopolwe, surrounded by Mopane trees. The shadows of Nimbus had descended with a warm breeze. The butterfly-shaped leaves fell, fluttering down in semi-circles. My first thought in this darkening gloom was to tell my friend Mike Freedman about this cemetery of forgotten Indunas filled with lost memories. The ghostly aura that surrounded Kgopolwe came to life when the sun seeped through Nimbus onto the koppie. Like a flickering candle the sun moved the shadows about on the dark Mopani forest floor. I thought about the long forgotten dead and felt a cold air sliding down my back. At least they were preserved to rest here forever, unlike their friends on the once beautiful Loole Kop.
When winter has passed, the Gauteng grasslands turns into a potential tinderbox. One careless strike of a match and all goes up in flames, and every creature inside is reduced to ash. Not nice, I said to myself standing almost neck-high in Buffalo grass looking at the aged granite koppie, spared by the mining industry, as it was probably a titch too small for their needs.
I’d made several trips to this part of the world; in fact I’d lost count how many times I’d driven from Jo’burg on a hope and prayer, searching for Nimbus. She’s famous in this region for doing a disappearing act. This part of the world is popular for the mining of kitchen tops and precious metals; you can hear the tuc-tuc-tuc of drilling when the thunder of expensive motorcars on their way to Sun City quieten down. I’d brought along sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper – whole-wheat bread, thick crumbly white cheddar cheese wrapped around a prime piece of sliced sirloin, laced with some of my homemade chutney, cos lettuce and watercress.
I stood and watched the sky darken around Nimbus white puffballs, clipped by the descending sun. Then the clatter of an aged motorcar interrupted my empty mind as it braked to a sudden halt – the dust flew up, drifting across my view, spilling into the buffalo grass plain before me. The engine’s droning continued for a few minutes, and then attempted to stop. It shuddered a few times, striving to take one more swig of fuel.
I watched a rather elderly gentleman probably in is mid seventies getting out very slowly. He was wearing a rather expensive Savannah Panama hat – wide brim, colonial style, fine quality hat and probably from Ecuador. All genuine panama hats are hand woven in Ecuador using Toquilla palm fibre. The rest of his attire was somewhat disjointed. From his posture he looked like a Beau Brummel, aged dandy of sorts. First was the Springbok green rugby jersey tucked into his Clam-diggers, flood-pants, highwaters, jams, pedal-pushers – there are so many names for basically a pair of three-quarter pants; held up with a loosely tied leather belt, sagging towards the knees.
He came and stood next to me, curious to see what I was looking at. His right hand held his cane forward, firmly on the bone-dry earth, while his left hand was planted on his waist. I discovered later, his cane was made from Ohio Hickory and handmade by the old order of the Amish. The handle was a polished Minto silver Hame handle. His shoes were Nike. For the next 40 minutes we stood and looked at the gathering of the nimbus clouds. The only sounds were incessant clatter of drills in the distance and chirping jar flies of the cicada family. Cicadas love heat – the hotter it gets the more spirited their singing. They can produce sounds up to 120 decibels. And at close range, it’s loud enough to cause permanent damage to your ears. Right now, however the volume is more bass, suggesting it’s the mating season.
I wondered if my silent, odd-sort-of aging dandy knew this. The next moment he spoke, “Awesome”, in a wispy gravely voice. He turned around; walked to his Mercedes, hand still on his waist, swaggering, and drove off.
In my travels with Mr. Ali Chauke, my guide at Mapungubwe National Park, I’ve learnt not to drive over elephant dung as they contain large thorns that pierce rubber with consummate ease. I’ve also discovered how dung cures headaches. Both pieces of knowledge are poles apart – one bad for you and the other good; so what do I do in the case of a headache? Take Panado of course – I’m not Tarzan, yet.
My other discovery, although it was more of an instruction, is not to carry oranges or any citrus fruit in a vehicle – it seems it drives the elephants insane with desire. Your car will be shaken and not stirred, even if you like vodka and orange, one must resist the citrus temptation. I had a bagful of lemons sealed in my cooler bag. Could this be the ultimate test to an African elephant nose sense? Luckily the elephants were miles away, on this red-hot Mapungubwe Sunday.
On this particular dawn as I waited for Nimbus to compose herself above the Neanderthal koppie in front of me, we spoke about Mopani worms, a recipe passed down from his grandmother’s, mother’s, mother. Mr. Ali Chauke loves them especially when cooked from his family’s secret formula. He’s offered to share his secret – I readily accepted.
Wildebeest wandered, closely followed by Zebras. But at the sight of us they were soon gone. We were left to the silence of the veld and the caterings of over 300 hundred different birds species that reside in the Mapungubwe cultural landscape. I am impressed with the bird count. There are six Bee-eater varieties; so there’s little chance that I’m going to get stung here. And with them around I’m not very likely to find any honey. The Bee-eater birds are so quick, they snap up the bees in mid-flight and like a German Stuka dive-bomber, they descend out of nowhere. However silence does arrive on the birdlife of Mapungubwe when one of the ten varieties of eagles arrives.
The first time I saw the Phalaborwa landscape was from the heavens. As the plane cut through the thick cotton ball clouds, I saw below, a flat never-ending plain, dotted with rock eruptions. Through the clouds the sunlight streaked, sprinkling its dapple-light onto mineral rich encrusted koppies. All that glitters is not gold but platinum, palladium, silver, copper and other equally precious metals.
There were hundred of koppies – stone structures – boulders balancing precariously on each other like ballet dancers frozen in a moment of time. Others neatly piled, creating edifices in all shapes and sizes. Two koppies caught my eye, probably because of their size, Mopokai and Mapotweng. Like twins, they stood side by side, some five kilometers from Phalaborwa, separated by the Gravelotte road. Later with my feet planted firmly on the ground, I went in search of them and discovered an array of Neanderthal stone forms – animal-shaped rocky outcrops – lions, elephants, and a snail deep-rooted into the landscape gazing towards the Northern Kruger. This type of natures’ architecture continues up to Mapungubwe and onto the Matopos koppies in the Matoba Hills near Bulawayo. One, Malindidzimu, Cecil John Rhodes chose as his final resting place.
Sometimes when the heat of the day gets unbearable, the bush releases a smell not too dissimilar to leather, over-ripe apricots and dried earth. On one particular afternoon, it was that kind of day as I stood at the bottom of an embankment looking up at Mopokai. This majestic koppie was the residence of the baPhalaborwa tribe, specifically the families of Monyela, Pilusa, both headman of the tribe and Malatji, the head chief. Shaped like a knobby round breast, it rose up to a pinnacle point, supported by sheer-faced granite rocks. I’d made several visits to photograph Mopokai, all, sadly ended in disappointment. Resolutely I continued going back.
On the particular day I chose to go back, it was unbearably hot. The sun was blazing down, drawing up the cicadas from ten meters below to come up and play. But there was hope – there was cloud build-up – little puffballs of Cumulus clouds. For the next few hours, while I waited for Nimbus to arrive, I was plagued by giant grasshoppers, whose thorny legs ripped into my tender city skin. The angrier I got, the more they multiplied. Like frenzied mutant birds, they clambered all over me jabbing. Some even found comfort in the curve of my Panama hat. Then the temperature dropped as the Nimbus started to glide in. This unsettled them – then they were gone. I waited.
On top of the embankment stood a good-looking Marula tree, wind-shaped like a cobblers shoe-anvil. The sweet smell of ripe Marulas and the Potato shrub scented the air, peppering the African bush. The grass was tall and creepy-crawlies were everywhere – disorder prevailed in the insect world. As I assembled my equipment, a group of guinea fowl took to the air; bursting out of the Marula tree, just below the watchful eyes of a pair of Martial eagles circling above Mopokai. They flew east, away from the darkening glow of the sun, disappearing into the shadows of Nimbus. I waited for several hours before Nimbus showed her compassion. When she did, her thick scent of sandalwood descended, permeating the dense bush around me. She stayed there for almost two hours. Then the sun arrived, scattering her scent into the winds that followed him.
Most dorps have their own signature koppie. Ficksberg has Soutkop – an erect nipple spire, shaped by the wind that rises high, piercing the sky. As we enter Fouriesburg, Hoenderkop sits like a gigantic Perlomen, sucking on the landscape, ever watchful of Fouriesburg. Each koppie has its own history and its own relationship with the people that live there. Translated, Hoenderkop means, ‘You’ve had too much to drink’. Named after a tavern that stood at its base, it also doubled as a trading store. The inn supplied a dop or two for the traders across the border in Basotho. It also provided refreshment to Boer soldiers after a strenuous days’ work against the likes of Sir Archibald Hunter and his Rooineks during the Boer war. To the South Sotho Hoenderkop is called Mokhlonedi meaning, ‘The face that watches over’. If you ever travel there, look carefully from the south towards north and you will see a face on the west side – clearly visible in the setting sun as we arrived.
During the Boer war Fouriesburg was the temporary seat of the Orange Free State government. President Martinus Theunis Steyn resided in Fouriesburg with his wife Rachel Isabella (Tibbie) Steyn. However it turned into a brutal battleground through the British “scorched earth” policy. Tibbie Steyn and the Boer women fled, hiding in the surrounding caves in Hoenderkop Mokhlonedi and other outcrop koppies, keeping an eye on the searching British soldiers below. Eventually they were caught and imprisoned in a British concentration camp. The ‘Vrouemonument’ or Women’s monument in Bloemfontein commemorates the suffering of some 27,000 Boer women and children who died through malnutrition and disease in British concentration camps.
Whichever way I looked at Hoenderkop, she looked beautiful. From the R26, which is the Fourieburg/Ficksburg road or from the R711, the Fouriesburg/Clarens road. She stood out like an imposing monolith. The skies rumbled. Bolts of lightning tore into her – cracking noises of a horseman’s whip echoed across the Eastern Free State veld – dust swirled in the air. The wind whipped up, pursing the shadows that crossed the landscape – fallen leaves rippled along the dirt road like torn sheets of silvery dried-out parchment paper. The young green mielies swayed to and fro, rustling in the easterly wind. Slowly the dusty air started to clear as moisture descended from the heavens, leaving a crisp sharp image for me to capture. The hot mist stayed buoyed in the air, clinging to my spectacles. Slowly it changed to a drizzle and then came the downpour. The earth was drenched and the willows were weeping with rain, and I was sinking into the clay quagmire – an Eastern Free State bog. With muddy legs I plodded back to the sounds of joyous laughter within me.
Every few minutes, streams of sunlight would filter through, caressing the vast fields of mielies, stretching as far as your eye could see. Thunderbolts cracked across the black nimbus skies – she was tormenting me. Her voluptuous breasts had turned into monochrome cauliflowers – the earth lit up – dappled light everywhere. While mesmerized by this spectacular event of nature, I stood in awe, forgetting for a moment, why I was there. The smell of garlic mixed with the grassy aromas of mielie sheathing mingled in the rain.
When John Steinbeck talked about ‘God’s country’, he should have been standing in a mealie field, just outside Fouriesburg. Now was the time to open the Mercedes doors and let Bono sing.
‘In God’s country – Desert sky, Dream beneath a desert sky…’
The story of how ‘Skelmkoppies’, got its name was told to me on June 17th 2010, by Mr. Hennie Coetzee, Middelburg, curator of the Museum who’s lived there for all of his 75 years.
The San people who lived in Middelburg area from the middle ages, lived mostly in caves – rock paintings of fish and buck on Teebus and Koffiebus, bear testament to their lives as hunters and gatherers. In those days the karoo plains were littered with wildlife. Herds of over a 100 000, grazed the karoo bush – Springbok, Rhebuck, Gemsbok, Steenbok, Kudu and Eland. To the San Bushmen, this was their land – their animals.
The immigrant Dutch and German settlers arrived in present day Middelburg area, in the late 1600’s. Conflict began immediately as they hunted the game. The settlers tried to introduce the San Bushmen to cattle farming but the San resisted – they were hunters and gatherers. Instead they chose conflict, but the bows and arrows were no match to the Dutch settlers flintlock guns. Thousands of the San Bushmen were killed.
The settlers traveled in ox wagons. It would take up to two weeks to journey two kilometers across rocky terrain. Life was tough. In winter, the days were hot and the nights bitterly cold. In the daytime they worked the land, while their children stayed in ox wagons. The San warriors always watched and waited, looking for opportunities to retaliate.
In the early 1700’s, one family clan, the ‘Venters’ worked the land, 40 kilometers northeast of Middelburg. One day, the San bushmen, while hiding behind a small group of koppies, now called ‘Skelmkoppies’, saw that the settlers had wandered some distance away from their ox wagons. Seeing this as an opportunity, they came down and entered the ox wagons. They took the screaming children, onto the koppies and in full view of the settlers, slaughtered them.
Angered, the Venter’s wanted vengeance. A cunning plan was hatched. The women dressed as men, got onto horseback and rode away, in full view of the San Bushmen. The men in turn, dressed as women, went about their ‘womanly’ chores, around their ox wagons. The San now believed that the ‘women’ were unprotected. When the san arrived, they fatally realized their mistake. But the settlers vengeance, continued. They hunted down the San Bushmen. Terrified, they sought refuge deep within the caves of Thebus and Koffiebus, which became their tombs. The settlers dynamited their entrances sealing the San bushmen and their families in. Hundreds of men, women and children perished of starvation.
The Venter family buried their children on that land. They stayed for several generations – the family graveyard, always a reminder of their ancestor’s hardship. When they finally sold that portion of the farm in the 1800’s, the contract stipulated that the family’s graveyard, had to be maintained by the new owners and any subsequent owners. Today Skelmkoppies, stands on Moordenaarspoort farm, owned by the Peter McEwan family. If you travel from Middelburg towards Rosmead you’ll see the Shelmkoppies road sign. And if you do, say a prayer for those sadly departed souls.
The distance between the koppies you see and the camera position is were I envisioned the Venter family clan stood when they heard the screams of their beseeching children. The camera angle and height is approximately the average tallness of a person in 1650 – 1.65-meters.
The journey to the Fraserburg escarpment took me up through the Theekloof Pass, which cuts through the Nuweveld mountains – leaving behind the vast expanses of the Karoo veld. We ascended, deep winding roads, skillfully crafted through dolerite volcanic rock. African Willows and Bushmanland Reed grass climb along with me. Forty-five minutes later, we were at the summit of the escarpment. A Taffelburg koppie and a Spitskoppie are the first to be seen in the distance on the edge of the plateau.
Big black Nimbus clouds were waiting – some so low they shrouded the dolerite landscape – a deathly eerie silence hung in the air. A lone wind pump stood still, surrounded by several protruding dolerite koppies. A slight break in the black nimbus clouds and sunlight, the colour of fallen leaves came pouring through. These rocky outcrops glittered across the Northern Cape landscape like diamonds lying scattered on the Port Nolloth ocean floor. The wind pump lit up in the shadows of the dark arid countryside – it was 20000 BC. I imagined Homo Erectus, running, chasing, screaming, hunting an elephant with stone spears for Sunday lunch – enough to feed the whole village for months.
Mapungubwe koppie is a World heritage site. Situated in a region surrounded by mineral wealth. The name means Place of the Jackal. Its origins are unknown. At the peak of its civilization, some say Mapungubwe had 9000 inhabitants. It was a hierarchical, class-based society unlike the kin-based San communities – their approach to life drove the San away. The king and queen lived on summit of the koppie, and as the rank in the tribe diminished, so did their position on the koppie, ending with the peasants at the bottom. It was tough being a peasant in those days, because in a waged war they would be hacked down first, and their screams acting as an early warning system.
Mapungubwe koppie is famous for its three burial graves with richly adorned gold. Beautifully crafted ceramics influenced by trading Chinese were also found. The summit was reserved for royalty, where their sacred leader resided, probably secluded from his underlings in the surrounding valley. His power and wealth lay in farming, flourishing trade and the mining of minerals. The Mapungubwe society traded their gold, ivory, indigenous cotton, ostrich feathers and other precious items for glass beads imported via the East African Coast. They negotiated with traders from Egypt, India, Persia, South East Asia and China.
Mapungubwe itself is a flat-topped sandstone koppie with vertical steep cliffs. In ancient times, in order to reach the top, wooden poles would be wedged between the rocks, up a narrow cleft. Today 147 wooden steps make my ascent far easier. However I have to negotiate a large and rare Wild Fig tree named Ficus Smutsii, named after General Jan Smuts in 1933 on Mapungubwe’s discovery. But be warned if you’re not used to steep climbs, don’t pack a heavy lunch, just a few high-energy bars.
My guide and driver is Mr. Ali Chauke, a very knowledgeable Shangaan gentleman. Standing at around 180 cms, he’s slim and smiles warmly, immediately drawing me to his disposition. Both Mr. Ali Chauke and the Land Rover game viewer are courtesy of San Parks. He’s a very able assistant. Stopping traffic while I wait for the magic light (you know there are boy racers, even in the bush). He helps me set up my tripod and makes suggestions on art direction.
It is in the early hours of the morning when we arrived in front of Mapungubwe koppie. Dawn was seeping through from the east towards Musina – this is my fourth attempt to photograph her. SA Weather promised thunderclouds a week ago, none appeared. Looking southwards into the distance, Wildebeest wandered in the subdued light, closely followed by Zebras. They live in harmony, always traveling together – both are plain grazers. The Wildebeest chows the grass first and when it gets to a certain level where he can’t eat any further because of its mouth structure, the Zebra takes over.
On top of Mapungubwe, on the east side, stand two Shepard trees bound in matrimony. The Shepherd tree got its name from, surprise surprise, a Shepard. While guarding their flocks, they needed protection from predators. As it wasn’t a thorny tree, shepherd would watch their flocks from its branches. The tree also provided valuable sustenance. In the 1600’s the Bantu-speaking people, in times of drought would dry the roots, grind them and make a dish similar to mealie pap – they also used the powder to make a coffee-like drink. The fruit is edible and still eaten today. Berry like; you squeeze the juice and flesh into your mouth. We helped ourselves to several sweet tangy berries.
The discovery of Mapungubwe goes back several decades to 1883. Francois Bernhard Lotrie, also know as Lottering, was responsible for the first recorded discovery. Lotrie was born in Grahamstown on 11th February 1825. He was a nimrod, a skillful hunter, a pioneer, a lover of nature and an odd character. Well educated and the son of a French botanist, he chose a life of adventure, exploring darkest Southern Africa, prospecting for gold and hunting game. At the age of twenty-four, Lotrie acted as a guide to the famous Dr David Livingstone and accompanied him from Kuruman to Lake Ngami in the Kalahari. Lotrie was an eccentric character, his adventures attracted much attention and rumours spread that he had explored a forbidden koppie and found priceless treasures of gold. Lotrie took up residence in a secluded cave at the base of Mapungubwe, while still in his early eighties. He died a hermit in February 1917 at the age of 92. It was this wandering recluse who gave his African friend Mowena, an unusual earthenware pot, who more than thirty years later, led to the discovery to the Mapungubwe gold.
Mapungubwe’s name originates from the ramblings of, by then, an old, partially blind Mowena who upon meeting Jerry van Graan, told him that a white man, by the name of Lotrie had taken the earthenware pot, among other items, from a mountain where kings were buried. Jerry van Graan enquired as to where the mountain was, Mowena refused to point out the koppie’s location. In late December 1932, Mowena’s son, for a few silver coins, agreed to show a group of adventurers, consisting of the Van Graans, the van der Walts and du Plessis, Mapungubwe koppie.
As dawn flew away, Nimbus arrived with her voluminous body, cascading across the sky. The forlorn tree in front of me, lit up in the early morning backlight and the Mapungubwe rock face shone like wet mussels shells on an undiscovered beach. The shadows over Mapungubwe had finally arrived.
My relationship with this dolomite koppie started in ±1985. Several years earlier I was looking for a location for Sony. At the time I thought what a fabulous place to have a lunch party. I then duly rounded up all my adventure seeking friends and over one summer made several trips with cooler boxes filled with ice, wine and other goodies up the East side. The South Africa Air Force also joined in the fun. Passing squadrons of French Mirages on seeing all the revelry, would do fly-overs of the close kind, always adding double backflips and free falls. As summer came to an end so did our koppie lunches.
When I started this project, I thought of this Koppie. It was perfectly situated. – North facing, ideal for a morning or dusk shoot. I went and spoke to the owner of the property. He warned me that the North side was not only a breeding ground for Black Mamba’s and Spitting Cobra’s but also it was their home. Popsicles of sweat immediately flooded my body. Thank goodness we picked the East side to climb up.