Dusty Roads: Mapping Toilets

One of Dana Snyman’s books with descriptions of his travels Op die Agterpaaie has an introduction where he unfolds a Shell Map of South Africa and traces his journeys along its roads and back roads,  reading all the cryptic notes he jotted down on the well-used paper. And it always makes me smile to read that introduction, not only because I love his writing, but also because I often come across similar journeys mapped out in my black and red A6 exercise books.

So I’m doing something similar today, but instead of opening a faded map with a glass of wine, I fill the plastic mug with coffee and flip through the battered little notebook I always carry in my handbag. Somewhere towards the middle, scratched out with a blunt pencil, the pages are filled with a recent road trip through the Eastern Cape, tracing names like Mt Frere,  Ugie and Alice. Next to the names (of met pyltjies wat wys waar die Steers of die kerk by die verkeerde dorp se naam neergeskryf is) are useful things I wanted to remember for future trips. Here it reads Wimpy in hoofstraat and KFC by die garage. Other bits are reminders of incidents or memorable sights, those moments from which stories are strung together: mooi ou kerk (pretty old church), uitkykpunt by grondpad langs hotel (view point on gravel road next to hotel), motorfiets met krukke (motorbike with crutches) (?!).

But even more cryptic and urgent scribbles fill the bits in between: R2 Toilet, skoon R1 toilet (clean one Rand toilet) and binne-in winkel by Engen Garage (inside shop at Engen Garage). I give you: The Toilet Map of the Eastern Cape – Northern Route from Kokstad to Jeffreys Bay and back through Hogsback, Queenstown and Matatiele. 

Logging the rest stops like this, suddenly reminds me of another journey way back when I studied in Germany for a bit and traveled during the holidays. After a trip with a friend from Cologne to Leipzig I was going to go to Berlin, before returning to Stuttgart for the semester. But somewhere along the way I had caught a bad cold and didn’t feel up to traipsing around a big city like Berlin. So I opened the map in my crumpled purple and golden Let’s Go Germany!, closed my eyes and pressed my finger on that little corner where Germany meets Poland and the Czech Republic. My destination was a town called Zittau.

When I open that Let’s Go today, you can still see all the places where the pages are wrinkled from getting lost in the rain. Scribbled phone numbers written down after calling the tourist office in Zittau. Circles or crosses at places visited. Numbers of buses and trains. Notes in the back of the time we got stranded in Villingen – a town that didn’t make it to the guide book. Anyway, before I get carried off to the story of Villingen or Zittau, this story is actually about my trip from Zittau to Berlin afterwards on a little local train network called the Oberlausitz.

On this jolly little train going up to Berlin along Germany’s border with Poland and the Czech Republic, the announcements on the train are in different languages and as it squeaks around the bends you can actually imagine it sticking its toes across the border. A tiny little Polish woman with dark, beady eyes and a headscarf stands next to me in the swaying toilet queue. Jy weet mos hoe daai treinvloer onder jou kan beweeg soos ‘n bootjie. En almal in die ry staan en tuur in die verte asof hulle maar altyd so vir tydkorting rondhang buite ‘n stinkende deurtjie om hulle “moves” te oefen. The little wrinkled face turns to me and starts talking in what sounds like very heavy Sächsisch. Proud of myself that someone can mistake me for a German speaker, I lean into those sounds, listening in the way that reminds me of tuning an instrument or catching a moth on a curtain. Slowly, careful and with a tense concentration that almost feels like precision.

She’s on her way to Cottbus or somewhere to do her monthly shopping and starts listing which products are cheaper to buy in Germany than in Poland and the other way round. A vague memory of potatoes and coffee. Soon the conversation steers to our present situation: of course one has to make use of the train on the toilet – because it’s free. I, the broke student, agree in my best, most gravelly German noises. She can list them: all the places along that line where the toilets are free. Behind that station there, inside that building there, on the trains… I give you: The Map of Free Toilets along the Oberlausitz. The story is quite funny; but to this day I’m very moved by that conversation. The urgency of her tone, helping the young girl on the train with such meticulous detail: “Kohlen sparen”, she called it. Saving coals, kole spaar: dialect for saving money. For a few minutes, she made me a local.

Squinting at promising-looking boulders, signs pointing at fast food outlets and queues at revolving doors at garages; I clenched these scribbles out of a pencil, and told my Eastern Cape road trip buddy that story of the train toilets. Dana Snyman looked down at that map of his, and wrote about how it’s all about the people he meets along the way and their stories. That Polish lady and her story I’ll never forget. But as close the notebook and stuff it back into the bag, I realise that it also holds the promise of “next time”. Why else map a toilet on a dusty road?

Topic Tuesday: That Time a Book made me do Something

When I was about ten years old, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson was one of my very favourite books. Besides the fact that I was very proud of the fact that I had read the whole thing (it was one of the first proper English books I ever read), I was captivated by the world created in that book. I ran outside to build a raft, complete with a Jolly Roger made out of a black trash bag and some white paper stapled to it. This story is probably not that funny – until I tell you that I grew up in the Little Karoo and that the raft was built to sail on a sheet of that grey-blue rock we call nabank.

When was the last time a book made you do something? And I don’t mean non-fiction, even though I love telling the story of how Barbara Sher’s I could do Anything got me onto a plane. No, today I’m talking story books. I’m talking about the time a scene in a Mills&Boon made you want to try cold potatoes with roast chicken and a jug of milk. Die keer toe Trompie en die Boksombende jou geleer kettie skiet het.  Oupa Landman se Viool made me build a bit of stone wall when I was about eleven, because of a glorious scene in it describing exactly how to build a stone wall. Here’s a bit I translated from the conversation between the young Johan, who wants to be a farmer, and his father, teaching him how his grandfather, Oupa Landman, used to build with stone:

Johan, if you want to be a farmer, nothing on this earth should be able to throw you. I also struggled back in the day to find my direction with a stone, but once you have the knack and the feel for a stone inside of you, it becomes real easy. The place where you want to lay a stone, you must fix properly in your mind first, and then you pick out the right stone from among all the others with your eyes. That stone there, in front of your left foot, give it to me for a bit.

But, Dad, I already had that one!

Just give it, lemme see. See, you must always remember: a stone has a face; and if he does not have one, then you hit one onto him with a hammer. Yes, and then he also has a backside and a belly side. Look at this stone: if he lies this way, he won’t lie right out of pure embarrassment, because his face is facing inside. Now turn him like thís and then he says: ‘No, I don’t want to lie on my back, turn me over onto my belly.’ And… see, there he lies now and he laughs with pure glee!

– (Oupa Landman se Viool – GG Joubert)


More recently The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels pulled me into the worlds of postwar Poland, gardening and words so sharply, that I could feel myself stuffing sentences in my pocket like a collector. Candace Bushnell’s Summer in the City got me to say “I’m a writer!” and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian shoved a map of Eastern Europe into my hands. Dan Sleigh’s Wals met Mathilda made me sing and Dalene Matthee’s forest books let me hear Benjamin call “Meisiekind!” in the Knysna Forest. Will Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop get me onto a river boat? Will John Steinbeck’s The Winter of our Discontent make me talk to the canned food in my kitchen? Who knows. But if you go down that dusty road in the Little Karoo, my stone wall is still standing there.  The one you see in the picture up there is a different story and a different builder altogether, I’ll tell you another time.

So tell me, what did that novel make you do?

The Haiku Dust-off

Come read the fabulous haikus from our readers! So on Tuesday we started talking about all the things haikus can do. When last did you write a bit of poem? Miskien is hierdie klein 5-7-5 prentjies net wat jy nodig het om weer aan die gang te kom. Thank you Pat, Caren and Jade! If you missed Topic Tuesday about Haiku, click here.

Think haikus are to small and compact to fit everything in you’re feeling? Look at this picture by Pat Louw, she captures not only the tiredness of a long day but also the entire body of the tired person. Isn’t “Tatters of the day” just every scattered day you’ve ever had?

Mid afternoon slump
Tatters of the day melt down
In pools of sunlight

She’s also the person who showed me how well haikus and photographs can go together. Here’s mine that goes with the picture up there:

Kruipende blink neut

in skatkis van stukkies bas


A haiku can contain something so big you can just marvel at it. Look how Caren Zimmermann  fits the change from Winter to Spring into just a few words. That Robin is so alive!

The wind still blows cold
But sun, light and joy return
Hear Red Robin sing

Caren’s haiku contains two contrasting images. A haiku often contains a contrast like this, often this contrast is a sudden break. I love how Jade Herriman shows in this haiku how a sound can have a completely different effect on different people. Look how she built the contrast into single words: “grind” and “Aches” clash beatifully with “renewal” and evokes a variety of feelings:

The grind of ban saw
Aches through my window, the sound
Of neighbourhood renewal

Hilke Sudergat sent a haiku this morning that’s alive with possibilities. Look at how she plays with the image of the painting!

In the morning me
the sunshine makes the color
inside painting now

See what only a few words can do? Would you like to give it a try? If you feel like just writing one little line, come and add it to our Big Fat Haiku Chain, just for fun.

Dusty Roads #3: Stream in the Little Karoo

Even in this hottest, driest December we’ve had in a while, the beauty of this corner of the world lingers up its dusty roads. The other morning I was up early, before the sun pushed over the koppie across the river. Some bits between the rocks still gurgle in clear splashes over the red and blue-grey rocks. Die rivier loop steeds floutjies tussen die diep kuile. This time of the morning, the water is still cold and for a while the water catches the blue sky and holds it.

Take care not to slip on the slimy green stones under the surface of those patches of sky when you make your way to one of the big flat bluish rocks in the middle of the stream. After a big splash you’ll have a small Jack Russell frowning at you.

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Naaldekokers bewe bokant die hoppende waterhondjies en deur die vars oggendlug trek jy die reuk van bergwater in. Even though the brackish water from the borehole nearby will always be the taste of home for me, nothing tastes quite as wonderful as water straight from the dripping mountain. That yellowish brown is not mud, no, it gets it’s colour from the roots of the plants as it filters into tiny little waterfalls that eventually become rivers.

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It is a taste that I’ve never been able to describe, except that the sharp freshness of real mountain water sends a shot of life through you. It tastes like stone and moss and bubbles and cracking air of an early morning.

What does home taste like to you?

Topic Tuesday #1: Going after your dreams

Tuesday at The Dusty Shelf Academy is Topic day. Hoekom nie Maandag nie? Want dis makliker om jou week te begin op ‘n Dinsdag 🙂 The topic of this week is going after your dreams. One of the most profound insights I’ve ever read on this, was Barbara Sher saying that you can go after your dreams even if you “have no goals, no character and you’re often in a lousy mood.” It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of her work and it simply because her take on things is humorous, practical and original. Who else ever told you that positive thinking is overrated AND at the same time made you feel that you can actually get what you really want?

We’ll watch her recent TEDx talk in Prague to kick off the week. You can find the link here. Watch it, leave a comment below it if you enjoyed it as much as I did. Don’t feel in the mood because you’re having a lousy Tuesday? Aw, just go watch it anyway for the hilarious Ronnie story.

Next week’s topic, Italian?

Dusty Roads #2: Umlalazi just beyond the front stoep

2015-11-18 08.48.16So we’re still on the topic of expeditions down the old familiar roads close by. Toe besluit ek laasweek om weer ‘n slag onder by die krappe te gaan kuier. Destyds toe ek Zululand toe getrek het, was een van die vele stukkies raad wat my uit die bekender Kaap na die Ooskus gevolg het: “Daa’s krappe daar!”

I headed down to the Umlalazi Nature Reserve a couple of times during the past few weeks to go see what the little creatures of the lagoon, beach and forest are up to. It’s been really dry in KZN this year and the forest floor had been an ominous light brown crackle the last time I had ventured there. But the past few weeks rain soaked the red soil of Zululand again.

Prinses patiently waits at the parking lot each time, looking out over the Mlalazi river close to the sign that warns against crocodiles – ek mis die prentjie van die seekoei wat altyd daarby was. 2015-10-31 08.58.53But it’s not hippos and crocs we’re after in the mangrove swamp. Poking from their assorted holes below the mangrove trees, the crabs retract their jolly red selves away from the camera. They’re always sitting there, each in front of a hole, sometimes scuttling back a little bit more slowly, so you can catch a glimpse of an altercation or of a leaf being dragged. Hierdie twee was te besig met ‘n huismoles of ‘n “hies-jou-kesj” om ons raak te sien:


Mangliete is mos nie ‘n naam wat lekker sê nie, maar hierdie goed is iets besonders. Onder langs die lagoon staan ‘n moeras vol van hulle. See that long peg-like thing on the picture here below? It’s a seed than pegs like a rocket into the ground when the time is right and shoot out some roots before the tide can wash it away again. And those yellow leaves are full of extra salt, because these incredible plants grow in thick mud in the salty coastal water. Bits of roots stick up like snorkels between the crab tunnels. There are different kinds of mangrove trees here and when you walk on the little wooden path winding through them to John Dunn’s Bath, the sounds of the lagoon parking lot become slightly muted. Like when snow starts falling – if you can imagine snow in this sweltering humidity. Onwillekeurig kyk ‘n mens altyd boontoe om te sien of die visvanger nie dalk hier iewers sit nie. The Mangrove Kingfisher is not showing himself today but in the distance the Fish Eagles are squealing and fish are plopping in the lagoon as the path winds around the corner. Red claws disappear into holes and maybe if someone is walking with you when you visit here, point out the magrove snails on the trunks of the trees.


Some other time I might tell you the story of John Dunn, one of the characters from the region’s colourful past. But this thing over here between the Mangrove Swamp and the Umlalazi river is not just a muddy puddle. It was a pool, dug for John’s wives to take a bath a safe distance away from the crocodiles and hippo’s. It’s a story all by itself, but today I’m here for the mudskippers. I don’t always see them, but few things can cheer me up like watching one of these prehistoric-looking little creatures skip across the surface of the water leaving tracks of tiny spiraling waves like heavy raindrops. Look carefully where this one is making a stop on the mud:


Their funny little fins and bulging eyes can hush the shaky photographer, squatting in the squelching mud into the kind of awe that makes the world beyond the mangrove tops fade away for a few moments. Later, cutting through the forest on the  way to the beach, the big ferns flicker in the same quiet light. Die klein pilduisendpoot wat in ‘n bolletjie opkrul wanneer mens aan hom raak en die rooi duiker met die wikkelende stertjie bly hier in die duinewoud. Our man pill millipede over here curls up into a perfect little ball when you disturb his slow crawl across his buffet of forest detritus. And that wagging little red tail disappearing between the trees and elk ferns is a red duiker.


On the other side of the forested dunes, the Indian Ocean is roaring. Next time, we’ll go there.


Dusty Books #3 The Ageless Land – Olga Levinson

This is the first in a series of discussions about desert books that have found their way to my dusty shelf. The desert is often described as ageless and timeless and a country with as much arid land as Namibia, is often written down on the same pages as the desert.

“South West Africa is a strange land, engendering a love that goes beyond all logical reasoning. For it is a hard country, and will always remain so; hard and uncompromising; it nevertheless has an inexplicable appeal for all those who live there. It seems to grow on the traveller too, and time and again the early explorers found themselves drawn to return in spite of all they had suffered. At first there might be disappointment – even dismay, certainly discomfort. But before long the spell of the country holds the traveller, and he can never forget what he sees.

With nostalgia he will always recall the awesome loneliness of the desert, the vast arid land of the south, the red dune-veld of the eastern border, …”(Levinson 1961:9)

In  The Ageless Land.The Story of South West Africa (1961) Olga Levinson writes about the landscape, people and history of a country that she seems to love dearly. Levinson seems to have been a scanner with a keen interest in all sorts of things and also lived in South West Africa, the Namibia of today. Nou ja, jy mag vra hoekom ek dikwels sulke ou boeke met verouderde inligting hier onder jou neus kom druk. Ja, baie dinge het verander sedert die verskying van hierdie boek en selfs in die tyd toe dit geskryf is, was sommige dinge anders as in haar beskrywings. Maar dis die soort boeke wat dikwels op my stowwerige rak beland, want haar beskrywings van die landskap is in woorde wat ‘n mens nie maklik loslaat nie. Especially her description of the Skeleton Coast is a delight to the imagination:

Few places in the world can offer a more lonely and desolate scene than the barren white sandy wastes of the coast of South West Africa…For over seven months of the year a pitiless wind lashes this arid coastal belt, cutting fretful patterns into the vast restless dunes …it may temporarily uncover the bleached bones of forgotten skeletons, which have given the northern stretch of this land the sinister name of Skeleton Coast…It is a weird and waterless world, battered by the cold relentless Atlantic waves on the one side, and stretching in stricken rejection for some sixty to a hundred miles inland on the other. Its sand dunes, which are the highest in the world, form a formidable barrier between the coast and the interior…Yet, even here in this desolation, beats the primeval rhythm of life. Curiosities of the vegetable kingdom, shedding all unnecessary trappings in their desperate struggle to survive, cling to their precarious existence with a crystalline singleness of purpose. Their only regular moisture is the dew that forms on cold winter nights (11).

I read this book around the fringes, skipping a lot of the history and people, and getting lost in the landscape. I’ve been there, and now this dusty book took me back there again.

Dusty Books #2 Ferns – Roger Grounds

Often we have to carve a little bit of expedition into our daily lives when the open road has to be ignored for a little bit as we get other things done. So on Friday morning, I had one of those makeshift expeditions and it turned into a whole series of unexpected adventure: I went looking for ferns.IMG_20151121_101132.jpg

Well, not really. I often duck into the library on a whim just to see where my nose leads me and whenever a book pulls me in, I stop right there and that’s where the expedition goes. IMG_20151120_115810.jpgThis time I got pulled over by Robert Grounds’ Ferns – stopping me in my tracks to remind me how much I’ve always loved these lacy little plants that conjure up forests and waterfalls and slow, fat dinosaurs with the unexplained, unspoken warmth of nodding old friends. I pulled out my notebook on the floor between the shelves of dusty books and get lost in that special feeling of long distance kinship when a writer puts one of your fondest vague loves into words:

“Ferns are indisputably the most beautiful of all the non-flowering plants. They have a grace and charm that is uniquely their own. Whether they are grown in a shaded border along with hostas, hardy terrestrial orchids and shrubs, in bottle gardens and Wardian cases, in the pampered environment of the greenhouse, or whether they are simply encountered in their native haunts in woodlands and hedgegrows, it is the delicacy of their finely finely divided fronds and their flowing habit of growth that makes them so attractive.”

“The ferns of the modern world could easily be taken at face value simply as a successful group of plants, like any other group of plants that has survived the modern age. Yet things are not so simple. Ferns are indeed one of the most successful of all groups of plants, and yet they are plants of enormous antiquity. The ferns of today are but the diminutive relatives of the great forests of tree ferns that flourished together with giant clubmosses and horsetails in the Carboniferous Age some 350,000,000 years ago. It was these giant ancestors of the modern ferns that laid down those rich seams of carbon upon which not only the Industrial Revolution, but also the structure of modern society were to be founded.”(Grounds 1974:14)

There is something to be said for old nature guide books. Some of them have lines that read like poetry. Just look at these lines from the section on cultivating ferns:“Ferns are among the easiest plants to cultivate. In the first place, they will thrive on neglect…; even so, that is not to recommend neglect as an ideal mode of cultivation.” (Grounds 1974:48) As I pulled out its neighbour, the glossy, thick Ferns of Southern Africa (Crouch et al. 2011) I keep them next to each other. The new one with its fat wads of delicious pictures and information, the one that will lift the usual suspects in the garden to celebrity status. And the old one, with its fond recounting of the story of ferns from the coalmakers to the Victorian grottoes to the fact that my hands are itching to copy all these beautiful sketches in ink. I love that there is something as splendid and alive as a brand new book with the latest information, showing that there is growth and interest. IMG_20151120_115759.jpgAnd I love that a book from 1974 can still tell me something I’ve always wanted to know – enthusiasm shining through the outdated and still pointing somewhere.

Soon I gave up the noble and uncomfortable exercise of trying to jot down field notes from these two excellent specimens and I tuck them under my arm to carry home.

Lost in the shiny pictures of the field guide, the sounds of the night are tuned out as fern after fern the surprising expedition continues. There are ferns in deserts? In arid places? In water? That look like that? But hovering over all of these questions, is still the question that halted me at the botany shelf: What is it about ferns?

The next day I set out on another expedition. Counting 5 different ferns in the yard before it starts raining again. IMG_20151121_100521.jpgEk het gou agtergekom dat dit my nie regtig ‘n bloue duit skeel wat hulle name is en watter een nou die nefie of die antie is van watter een nie. IMG_20151121_101100.jpgEk hou daarvan om die blare om te draai vir die spore wat wys dis varings. En om te kyk na hulle. Ek hou daarvan om na varings te kyk en meer kloes as dit sal ek nie sommer maklik kry nie. So I start taking pictures of them. And telling people about them And writing about them.

Ek en die varing en die tuin sit en kyk vir mekaar. IMG_20151121_101107.jpgIt’ll take more expeditions to get to the bottom of this strange affinity. I like the way Grounds says it at the end of the first section of his introduction: “The more one knows about ferns the more they intrigue one, and to appreciate them fully it is well worth examining in some detail their place in the plant kingdom and their evolutionary history.” (1974:15)

Miskien is varings net mooi. Maar hoekom?