I picked up this remarkable find, published by Maskew Miller around 1954, for R5 at a book sale at a school hall in Hartenbos last summer. Ah, yes, those summers in Hartenbos, reading under the canvas of a tent blowing with the Port Jackson trees and salty air, trying to keep the greasy chips paper’s vinegar and the juice of the nectarines from the place across the road away from the pages of a new find. It is time for another one of those soon!
I had never heard of the book or the author before, but the title drew my eyes away from the rest. (I did buy a few of the others too, will tell you about them soon enough here in the corner of Dusty Books) Here’s the first part of the prologue where the author writes about his choice for the title:
The old man put down his glass to gaze across the dining table. For a long time he had talked of out-of-the-way places – Damaraland, the Kalahari, and the Skeleton Coast – until at last the waiter had wearied and gone to the kitchens while we sat on in an empty room. Now he said quizzically:
“Of course you’re travelling in Africa to see lonely deserts and primitive men.”
Then he grinned at my hasty disclaimer.
“Well, that’s what most of your kind mean when they talk of ‘the unusual’. But for a change, I wish one of you writer fellows would tell us about the unusual things near at home, the curious things we miss because they’re just off the beaten track; things which the average man might see, but doesn’t.”
Later, we sat together on the stoep and looked out across Umtata to watch the moonlight silver the rounded hills of the Transkei.
“You’ll agree that Africa, more than most lands, is packed with unexpected things and places, with unexpected people,” the old man continued. “Yet the average person, whether South African, British, or American traveller, just doesn’t find them. He hasn’t the trained eye. Why should he? To use a hunting parallel, he is like the townsman tracking game.”
A sudden idea caused me to ask questions about his experiences with South African game, particularly the Springbok.
“Springbok!”, he exclaimed his voice cracking in excitement, “The Springbok is always unpredictable. It’s this way with him. You may cover his country for many miles and not see him, even though he is nearby all the time. For the untrained eye may look straight at him and yet pass on, suspecting nothing. That patch of deeper brown had blended perfectly with the landscape. Then, perhaps, there comes a very slight movement in that very spot, the flick of the ears, the quick turn of the graceful head. And there’s your Springbok! He has developed, so to speak, against the background of the veld almost as a picture appears when a film lies in developing liquid. He has been there all along but you have not been able to see him.” (ix)
En nou moet ek oorswitch na Die Taal want ek is net steeds, ‘n jaar later, hopeloos te opgewonde oor hierdie boek. Ek kon my oë nie glo toe ek sien watter plekke in die inhoudsopgawe en onderaan die foto’s is nie: Senekal, Vierfontein, Umtata, die Bluff…
En dit is wat die boek so besonders maak. Wat my nog meer opgewonde gemaak het, is wat hy om al die hoeke en draaie ontdek het. Hy praat met ‘n ou man en vrou wat onthou hoe hulle as slawe op ‘n skip aan wal gekom het in Natal. Hy kry fossiele in ‘n ringmuur om ‘n kerk in Senekal. Senekal! Hy vat die spoor van sandduine op die Berg van die Nag en praat met myners wat nog ly aan die goudkoors op die delwerye.
He drives this old car, The Cannibal Queen, all over some obscure dirt roads to corners of South Africa like The Bluff in Durban and Odendaalsrus. Constantly tracking the stories of farmers and miners and descendants of figures in South African history, giving you that feeling of when you stumble across an old black and white film of a person you’ve only read about in history books so often that you’ve forgotten that they were real.
“Springbok round the Corner” may be a travel guide to places and people that you’ll never be able to travel to anymore, and still should be in your cubbyhole to remind you that whatever you’re setting out to see in this beautiful country, lies beyond the sensational and the obvious: around the corner.