High mountains and the slow life below

High mountains and the slow life below
The View from Buffelskop of the mountain road that took us there, by Tony Jackman, watercolour and pastel. (Image: Tony Jackman)

Days like these have me thinking of older times and people long dead but whose lives still shine for some of us today.

There’s a desultory air in the Fish River Valley today. The memory of the Christmas tree in the corner has dissipated, the trimmings have been put away for another year, the strange early January chill has been consumed by a more familiar 30-odd heat, and there’s that feeling that comes over you at the start of any year. Hope, perhaps, but always where there’s hope, fear. Determination that it should be a good one, but tempered by the knowledge that it’s best not to tempt fate. Rather expect the worst, and hope for the best. Like baking a cake or a loaf of bread; never presume it will turn out all right. You never truly know.

It’s the sort of day that turns your mind to the outdoors. You open the kitchen doors to the vine-trailed werf and check the pantry shelf for flour and yeast. It’s a day for braai bread.

While preparing a potbrood on a lazy Sunday afternoon out back on the werf, my mind goes to the mountain half an hour from town and the most seminal weekend of the past year, when a ragtag group of us creaked and stumbled our way to the top of Buffelskop to pay tribute to a collective hero. It was a century, and a year, since a famous interment high in the sky of a woman who still affects some of us even today. We are, I suppose, Schreinerphiles.

My mind has a habit of going everywhere Olive Schreiner goes, taking my body with it. Matjiesfontein, Hannover, Cradock, not so much De Aar and, a very long time ago, when my sister and brother-in-law lived there, Kimberley. Even when I’m in London, I try to picture it as it was in late Victorian times when she lived there, assimilated into the capital’s life but longing for the Karoo sky and her Buffelskop, the mountain giant beloved of her young eyes. Schreiner lived in Cape Town at stages too, and in Johannesburg, but it is in the Karoo that her heart lay, most especially Cradock, where as a teenager she lived in the little cottage in Cross Street that is now the Schreiner Museum. This poky dwelling played a role in bringing us to Cradock, and her spirit keeps us here.

I can’t imagine being far from Buffelskop now that I have met this mountain and understood her. She is more than earth piled high, more than rock and crag, witgatboom and the hot breeze that draws sweat from your brow. There’s a dead witgatboom at the very summit of Buffelskop, and it seems to stand sentinel for Scheiner, guarding the half-moon stone tomb where lie the bones of the writer, her husband Cron, the baby whose young death tortured her mind, and the dog, Nita. She had climbed it only once in 1894, if “climbed” is the most apt word. She was borne up by strong hands.

On this desultory day, my watercolours and pastels are still on the table in the front room, wondering when I will come back to paint some more, or whether I will at all. The trio of paintings that resulted from my rare free time last week lie on the bed in the study alongside me. I cannot see Buffelskop from my study window, but I can honour the great berg and her tree, dare I say also say my tree now, just by glancing to my left mid-sentence.

The first painting is the view back towards the massive mountain along which you climb and climb in four-wheel drive vehicles until you reach a summit of awe-inspiring views back from where you’ve come. The second is of a tree; that tree. The third is of the tomb, with the novelist Mpush Ntabeni leaning against it being photographed. Other writers were on the pilgrimage, including Etienne van Heerden and Henrietta Rose-Innes, whose antecedent Jessie Rose-Innes was among Schreiner’s confidantes.

Dead Tree on Buffelskop (a witgatboom), by Tony Jackman, watercolour and pastel. (Image: Tony Jackman)

The paintings took me three days each, every added brushstroke and flick of paint or rub of pastel having me fearful that this one, or that one, might be the one stroke too many that the artist fears.

Then came the weekend that separates the past year and the carefree days of Christmas and New Year from the unknown year we now await.

Olive Schreiner’s tomb atop Buffelskop, by Tony Jackman, watercolour and pastel. (Image: Tony Jackman)

On a chair out back, there’s a mound of dough rising in the sun in one of the big beige baking bowls that always remind me of my mother. Round the corner, in the rustic old brick braai, a fire’s burning in one corner, and the flat potjie is in the kitchen ready for the risen dough to go in it. There’s thyme in the dough and sugar and yeast, and soon it’s going in the pot, to be surrounded by coals. In an hour, it will have turned into a big thyme-flavoured round loaf of bread.

When I knock around my distressed small town, I often wonder what Olive would make of it now. She could be nothing but horrified and, I imagine, angry, even livid, at how much damage has been done by neglect and wilful greed, but she would also be angry about the lack of foresight that she warned us of, and what might happen if we did not all learn to live together. A warning grimly ignored for generations, until we all reapt the whirlwind. But my salve for these soulful, blue thoughts is to think and to write and to paint and to light a fire. Like that one out there. For Olive and for all of us. DM/TGIFood


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Colleen du Toit says:

    Hi Tony – I love your writing – and the paintings are beautiful – thank you!
    I am wondering when all the foodie reviews will re-commence please? (My Saturday morning treat read has been missing for a while!)

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