Aliens & Antiquity: Close Encounters of the Thirst Kind
On these parched plains, strangers wander like waifs adrift, far from home and bewildered in their new unfamiliar environment. Does anybody or anything really belong here, other than the makataan and the hands that forged the art of the old rock caves?
Aliens live their lives quietly in the Karoo, unhindered, largely ignored, and hiding in plain sight. Scan the veld as you drive from Aberdeen to Willowmore, or from Colesberg to Hanover, and you will see them. Tall and spindly, often crouching in masses as if corralled against an unseen enemy; others wave their spiky arms while smaller denizens closer to the ground huddle in knobbly groups, storing their sustenance against the relentless sun. They all share a common enemy: the latterday humans who would usurp them.
Do they know that some of our number want them gone, I wonder. Do they know that not all of the inhabitants of these infinite plains are happy to coexist in peace with them? That there are people who would arm themselves with the means to rid the Karoo of them, laying them waste until their numbers are decimated and even the stray remnants eradicated?
And will the Karoo be the same, look the same, feel the same, even smell the same, without them?
I had a close encounter with an alien once. It was in Nieu-Bethesda, that ethereal hamlet that seems to be nowhere until you suddenly come upon it and it reveals itself. But before you do finally see its low-slung houses and feel the otherworldliness of the Karoo’s strangest town, you meet its forbidding mountain, its monolith to the Gods which seems to have been lowered into its spot by a giant spacecraft and left there to entice or perplex us. Where could Kompasberg have come from, surely not here where no other mountain in hundreds of miles looks anything like it? Perhaps it’s a compass for beings from another planet to help them find this gateway to Nieu-Bethesda when they return one day.
Did Helen Martins know the secrets of Kompasberg, I wondered, the first time I visited The Owl House three decades ago and spent company with the watchful figures of wise men, even wiser birds and camels, then wondered about the gossamer orange curtain shifting in a breeze that wasn’t there, just near Miss Helen’s bedroom where she dreamt her eclectic dreams. Did alien craft land here once to visit an interplanetary outpost their own ancestors had passed on stories about, with an injunction that the seventh generation would return to inspect this mysterious valley and report back on how the bewildering human inhabitants were faring? And what did Miss Helen have to do with it?
It was in the back garden of a friend’s property in Nieu-Bethesda that I came face to face with my alien. A queen of another place and time, she bathed and gloried in darkness but was coy and remote by day, like a vampire stricken by light and yearning for night to return. Tall and elegant she was, and as I approached her with eyes wide and mouth agape she seemed impervious to my presence, as if her ilk had no interest in the humans that were as alien to her as she was to us.
As the sunset deepened into night, she slowly revealed her smile, and it was as if a spotlight had found the diva as she was about to give her final performance before taking her bows and disappearing into the wings forever. And it was her final performance, for the flower of the Queen of the Night cactus blooms only once, only in the night, and dies before dawn.
Being the writer that I am, naturally I wrote about the encounter. And it elicited many comments and observations, but the one that has stuck with me was the strident woman whose rebuke to me was stern and emphatic.
“The Queen of the Night cactus is an alien and must be eradicated!” I could sense my lady flinching in her back garden in Nieu-Bethesda. #CactusMustFall!
It got me thinking. How? How exactly do you expect to rid the entire Karoo of its cacti? The “alien” cactus is everywhere in the Karoo, north, south, east, west, high and low. Very serious people have done deep research into it and believe, against all odds, that this and other cacti and many species of succulent can be eradicated. And that money spent on achieving this is money worth spending.
You will see these cacti and spiky agave with the piña at its core that holds its nectar in the veld alongside every road you drive on and on every farm and in the lee of every koppie. To “eradicate” the cactus is simply not possible, not in a million years, and any battle with those odds is not worth engaging in. There comes a time when the victor must welcome the remnants of the enemy into the fold and learn to live alongside them. Work can be done to limit the spread of the more invasive species, to protect the terrain, but eradicate? There’s no point in taking on an unwinnable challenge.
The cactus, like the agave, is now a part of the Karoo as much as the sentinel ragged mountains and knobbly, scrubby wild herbs. And if we want to eradicate anything that is alien to this terrain, where do we start and where do we end?
Well, we would have to go for one. We aliens. By which I mean every inhabitant of the Karoo who is not descended from the Bushmen who arguably are the only humans who truly belong here. Lawrence Green wrote: “Pioneers (he meant white) had reached the Sneeuberg to the north of the present Graaff-Reinet in the seventeen-seventies, and there were so many Bushmen in the mountains that they named the country the ‘Boesmanstreek’. Great herds of wildebeest, springbok and zebra roamed the plains.”
Green wrote elsewhere: “For a long time, the Bushmen believed they were the only people on earth.”
And we would come along in our latterday wagons and outlandish attire and presume to decide who or what is an alien and who or what isn’t? Having conquered the true inhabitants of the terrain? What must these people have thought of these palefaces and their condescending ways? And which of them is the alien? We are nearly all newcomers on the vast canvas of Karoo antiquity. We’ve been airbrushed in, and only recently; even the least artistic eye can easily spot us in our own otherworldliness. We belong here no more than the agave and the cactus, the willow trying vainly to look as if it belongs, the dogs yapping in every yard. We’re all aliens now.
Those who would eradicate our cacti would also, consequently, put to the death our prickly pears. What is a Karoo farm stall without a bottle of prickly pear syrup?
And succulents. What is the Karoo without these low-slung water carriers, not to mention the beauty they hold for the eyes of the human aliens who admire them. Yet many of these succulents are alien too, and Scielo-org.za is stern on the subject. Under the sub headline “Cactaceae as invaders in the Karoo”, they conclude: “Most of the important alien plant invaders of the Karoo biomes are succulents (Richardson et al. 1997). The unique shapes and sizes of cacti results in these species being planted widely in gardens by people. This is done mainly for ornamental and aesthetic reasons. There is a large cactus nursery in Graaff-Reinet, on the edge of the Sundays River (which runs from the town into the park), which sells many types, shapes and forms of cacti. A number of cacti species appear to have been dumped into the adjacent river, which will promote invasion in the Camdeboo municipality.”
There’s a large succulent nursery 10 km outside Cradock too, where a fuzzy-haired lady with a laconic smile, the kind of smile that somehow holds on despite hardship, cultivates these beauties for the living she makes after she and her husband endured great loss. In the Karoo, our gardens are full of these vetplante, and they belong there as much as their human alien counterparts do; that would be you and me. Perhaps I should get the Succulent Police over to help me identify which succulents to eradicate (hope it’s not all the beautiful ones) and which are okay to keep. And then to take me too, alien that I am, and put me back in England where my ancestors came from.
In her adjacent farm stall there are the jams, preserves and syrups that the sun-wisened tannies in their Karoo kitchens have made for centuries, passing on recipes to generation after generation, made with love and aliens.
From reeds and grasses to ferns, willows and even pepper trees, they are “aliens and must be eradicated”. What is a Karoo riverbed without a weeping willow? What is a Karoo farm without the windmill, invented in America in 1854 by Daniel Halladay but soon thereafter a familiar sight on our Platteland?
Our every dwelling is alien to the Karoo. Shall we destroy them? Introduce a Scorched Earth policy to Kitchenerise everything that did not always belong here?
Lemons are everywhere in my part of the Karoo. They originate in North India. #LemonsMustFall? What is the Karoo without lemon syrup and turksvystroop? #TurksvystroopMustFall? Figs are foreign too, yet what is a Karoo cheese board without green fig preserve? What is my fridge without a jar of it? #GreenFigPreserveMustFall?
I suppose we could cull many of our beloved fruit preserves and retain the one which is naturally endemic to southern African soil: the makataan, the green watermelon from which we make makataan preserve. But what is the Karoo farm stall without the variety of preserves they hold on their many shelves? Shall we lay waste to them and keep only the few that were here before we were?
How will we recognise our Karoo without its pepper tree or willow, its cactus and agave? How will our gardens grow without the succulents at our feet, delighting our eye while we catch our breath at the beauty of its rare flower? How will we know how the Karoo tastes and smells without the prickly pear and sweet green fig? Will we know the Karoo at all without its aliens?
Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned the aloe which proliferates in great swathes of the region. It’s from the Arabian Peninsula. DM/TGIFood
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks. Share your versions of his recipes with him on Instagram and he’ll see them and respond.