Cast your fate to the Platteland wind

Cast your fate to the Platteland wind
(​​Photo by redcharlie on Unsplash)

Take to the road when the darkness descends, catching the nation off guard. Find a place to burrow, pull the veil around you.

When chaos falls on the faraway lands, surrender to the terrain you yearn for, the land you trust still to be there when the madness has lifted. The land that has always been your escape, your place of succour, and which you need now to enfold you, to whisper sweet words and stroke your hair. The land that calls you when you hear The Scream.

When you’re down and troubled, when the sky grows dark and full of clouds, come to the Karoo. When yesterday is dead and gone and tomorrow’s out of sight, come, we’re waiting for you. When the Sunday smell of someone frying chicken takes you back to something that you’d lost somewhere along the way, head on out of town on the big wide road and don’t stop until, in every direction, there’s nothing else to see but Big Sky and distant blue mountains, punctuated by windmills, rickety wire fences and occasional roadkill. Your Karoo Salve.

Don’t make detailed plans about where to go, where to stay, which way to turn. You don’t need every stop to be neatly planned; cast your fate to the Platteland winds and see where they take you. You might head off towards Beaufort West then take a random turn left or right to follow a sign that says Fraserburg or Williston, Prince Albert or Hopetown. You might find yourself near Calitzdorp or Calvinia, Murraysburg or Victoria West, but whichever way you turn you’ll find variations on something familiar and as genuine as a real leather cowboy hat.

Drive aimlessly, on and on, and let the terrain take you up like a trophy in the claws of a bird of prey. You’re there to be toyed with, for the veld to have its way with you. To show you and to teach you, to disarm you and to charm you; to hold you, to scold you, ’cause when it’s bad it’s so so bad. Teaching you to dance the Karoo Dance among agave and aloe, succulent and thorn. Let go, allow yourself to be a plaything of the gods who hold sway over these mountains and these plains; the unseen yet omniscient Thirst Kings who are watching you and will have you take some of it into your heart and into your soul before they dismiss you back to the humdrum of the city, staring after you with uncomprehending eyes as you disappear beyond the mountains and into Mordor.

But don’t stay in your car endlessly. Stop, climb out and be still. That smell. It’s wild rosemary and wildeals, veldtee and wild mint. It’s the scent of soil infused with the dung of a thousand antelope and a million birds; they all leave their invisible traces to perfume the air and drift on the breeze that touches your face.

The Karoo night calls you too. Come back on a windless night when the light has gone to where the sun goes when the Platteland night falls. Drive into the deep veld in the pry of the blackness that has fallen, far from even the remotest farmhouse, and climb out again. Turn off the engine. Be still. And look up.

It’s just you and a million stars. You and eternity. You and the unknowable disappearing into the unfathomable. You and infinity, yet still something beyond. Where is that? Is there life there? Do they wonder about us? About you, standing there in night-shrouded nothingness, yet where there seems nothing there is life, all around you. Lying behind a bush you cannot see, sniffing the air, smelling you, wondering what you are and why you’re there. Tense creatures in burrows beneath the soil, listening to your breathing. Snaking between a karoobossie and a cactus. Tucked between scrubby leaves of gnarled shrubs. In a nest in an acacia tree where a mother warms her young, soon to emerge from shell and see their terrain for the first time. Hiding in the folds of a succulent’s scaled leaves. Do far distant minds gaze up from some plain on their unknowably distant planet and wonder … about you. You in your invisiblity; a complete unknown, like a rolling stone, standing there in your Karoo night, distant and unknowable. Seeing but unseeing. Your body there, but your mind countless light years beyond the farthest star that you can barely see. That star; the one that seems to assemble and dissolve, to be there and then not.

And on we go. On the road again, going places that we’ve never been, seeing things we might never see again. Insisting that the world keep turning our way, even if it doesn’t. But under the Karoo sky, we can pretend it does. We can hide from that world out there, from the siren and the scream, the accusation and the threat. We can burrow like the silent critter. Be still and listen. Pull the veil around us and wait for the faraway disturbance to be quelled.

On the road again. Pull in at that café over there at the desert one-stop and they’ll sell you a ginger beer brewed by the aunty of the lady with the mocking eyes at the counter. She’ll try to sell you a packet of her dad’s biltong, and you should buy it, because no one around here makes biltong like Oom Kallie with his secret spices that most people have guessed but are too kind to tell him. You should try some of those karringmelk rusks too, the ones made to his ouma’s recipe that she keeps tucked behind a loose brick in the kitchen behind the Aga, then tell the lady they’re the best you’ve ever tasted. It doesn’t have to be true. They won’t be the worst you’ve ever tasted. And nobody else has that recipe unless you count all the other oumas with their secret recipes scrawled in treasured yellowed notebooks.

Pull up a riempie stoel at the old oak table. Here’s a little something to still the blight of the city now far behind you where Paradise was paved to put up a parking lot and a monolith to excess. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, said Joni; here, you don’t know what you’ve missed till you’ve left all that behind you. We’ll stoke the fire, slap something on the grid. We’ll make jars of fig preserve for you, cubes of makataan and slices of preserved orange. We’ll soothe your soul with the hum of the veld and music played on blik kitaars. Don’t tell Oom Cyril about the naartjie liqueur you saw in the pantry last night. It was there long before All This. Shhhh.

Make sure you fill up before you get back on the road again in the morning, because the next town is 190 km away and the gauge is looking a bit low. You know you can’t go on thinking nothing’s wrong; that you need to find the place where the kind hand is that will pay attention to your dreams and plug your ears when you hear The Scream. The hand that will hold you when you shake, come around when you break. The hand of the endless plains and the watchful mountains. 

Drive on and on, to find the place where the salve lies waiting silently for you. The place where that strange thing happens to those who’ve lived in the Karoo for a while. Those moments when you haven’t been to the city for a long time and you feel like a change of scenery; those moments which, one day a long time ago, had you climbing into your car because of That Thing that happened, and had you driving on and on. Away from the city, that time. But the city has its allure too. So you pack up the car and get on the road back. You could fly, you could, but it’s much more fun to drive for two or three days stopping overnight somewhere you’ve never stayed before. Somewhere with a surprise and an unexpected eccentricity, a stranger who seems familiar or a friend behaving strangely, as if something’s happened to them that they don’t want you to know about. Somewhere else with a rustling in the eaves and a ghost in the passage. 

There’s the city again and you’re already shaking your head and wondering why. You do the things you wanted to do and see the people you wanted to see. But it’s not too long before you can see the long, long road stretching out before you in your mind and you long to point the car back to it and keep going until there they are. The lonely old mountains ranging far to the left of you, the ostriches in the veld to the right; not the movies and the factories in shades of mediocrity but the windmills and the sheep, the cactus and the karoobossie, the solitary soul on the verge walking from nowhere to nowhere else; but he knows where he’s going and he’s just like you; he knows it’s not a road to nowhere.

It’s time. You have to go back. We’re waiting for you. We’re patient and we don’t say much. We won’t huck you and demand your story. But when the Karoo liquor has had its way with you beneath the starscape and the last morsel off the braai below the sky has been savoured, your story will flow despite yourself, and the salve of the Karoo will soothe your weary soul. Take that ride to the nowhere that’s somewhere; come on into our kitchen and our padstal, step inside for the sweet-as-heaven fig preserve and the dry-as-hell droëwors. You might not know where you’re going but the Thirst Kings do. We’ll take you there. DM/TGIFood

To enquire about Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau) please email him at [email protected]

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