Churches, rubber ducks and the wide open skies of the Karoo. It’s been a fun few days and felt like it has been a lot longer than it really has. On a journey through the Kaga mountains through to the Owl House of Nieu Bethesda and many destinations besides, I am more convinced than ever of at least one thing. It really isn’t where we travel that counts. It’s the stories we fashion as we go that truly make a journey.
It all kicked off on Wednesday, after the general election (much queuing and marking of thumbs with indelible ink), which would make for an entire story on its own. This one though, begins after voting, with me driving thorugh to the (smaller than Grahamstown) town of Bedford, at the foot of the Kaga Mountains – a range at the beginning (depending on your point of view) of the Karoo, which rises suddenly and awesomely from the flat plain you travel as you approach.
Skipping ahead slightly, the next day saw an afternoon roadtrip to explore the surrounding areas – more of the stuff that makes the Karoo so fascinating. In particular, on the road between Bedford and Tarkastad further north, we came by a lonely pair of old churches in the mountainside, with National Heritage badges indicating that one was the oldest Presbyterian church in South Africa. Which, by extension, likely makes it one of the oldest on the continent (I think?). Sitting unlocked and uncurated, and more than a little unloved in recent decades, it was like stepping back in time to walk between the pews, covered in cobwebs, and see the light shining through the small windows into the ambient dust. It looked something like this.
It was, I am told, also the original church to whose congregation a cup was recently brought – all the way from England – by the Lord Mayor of London, for permanent safekeeping. The cup had belonged, a very long time ago, to a farmer in the area who was shot dead one night as he drank tea by a fire erected in the course of tracking a Boer commando through the mountains during the Anglo Boer war. Through fate, or luck, the man who had shot the owner of the cup would find himself in his widow’ house a few days onward, where the cup was returned – with the unhappy news of how it had been retrieved. More than a century later, the descendant of that widow managed to present that cup to the Queen, and tell her its tale as she held it – after which it was returned to the community of Bedford, to be held in memory of the past. And, it seems to me, as a reminder that stories from the past indeed walk with us, even if not always obviously.
Fast forward a few days. I am driving back towards Bedford. This time with three new traveling companions on our way to Nieu Bethesda. Its a strange little artists community in the middle of pretty much nowhere. Made famous by the Owl House – decorated top to bottom with glass work, and set in a garden filled with haunting statues of camels, sphinxes, owls and other strange creatures fashioned from concrete and glass. It’s a haunting place, I have always felt, but it draws people looking for things different in the world. Like the artists who choose to live there. And us, journeying to see. Yet I digress – we had yet to arrive.
Past Bedford, the road to Nieu Bethesda is a two-lane strip of tar pulled far into the distance, by mountains so far off, yet so large, that they have faded into hues of dark blue on the rich sky. Pressing your face up to either window of the car makes for delicious viewing as the yellows and browns of the bush fly by, punctuated by an occasional farm house, or an aging husk of one, being overwhelmed by a nature which has patiently waited a good hundred or more years for a chance to return to the spot it lost to human activity. A lonely community hall which appears not to have had a community in many, many years, reminds me a little of the story of Ozymandias.
We did eventually reach Nieu Bethesda, which should really be something to write about by itself. These thoughts are really more about the trip and the landscape that you move through as you draw closer to some arbitrary point on a map. It’s not just that the Karoo is a beautiful place (it is) – it’s that you are travelling through more than a natural landscape. You are travelling over the space occupied by minds and dreams of men and women of which no trace now remains beyond the barest markings that there were people here. That they built such things as community halls and churches from the stones of the Kaga mountains. Built those things with such resolve that they now stand long beyond the lives and traces of their authors. What little of these remaining sentinels has crumbled over the years has merely mixed in with a soil already rich with the grains of so many ghosts of stories.