Living in the Eastern Cape is living in a graveyard. The bleached bones of stories pierce the landscape in silence, clung to by the sinewy dust roads poking off the tar where life still moves. They relinquish their stories only to those who go looking. Quietly asking passers by to take a detour, explore. There is a treasure down every vein of tarless dirt.
Once, I found the first Presbyterian church in South Africa. I compared it to the story of Ozymandias. I stay committed to that view. There is almost too much history buried in these hills. Almost.
Fifteen minutes from Grahamstown, a dirty tendon leads to Alicedale. There was once a time that you could travel there by train. Daily from Port Elizabeth. Once every so often from Grahamstown. But the people who make the Big Decisions decided that Alicedale was expensive to connect to the world. They cut it off and the hills swallowed it whole. Its economy imploded. Everyone, by and large, forgot the town. It became marked by the same brown gravestone road that reminds the world that places like Glenmore still exist.
Some folk stayed on. Made the most of working on the surrounding farms. Until, over time, they stopped farming livestock and started farming game. More efficient. Required less labour. So the last opportunities to stay and make a life slipped beyond the fingers of Alicedale. Along with the last of the work, the last of the opportunities, went many of the children of the town. Moved on to Grahamstown. To other, larger cities. For the most part, the only evidence that remains of their presence are the farm schools. Closed, abandoned, falling back into the orange sand by the quiet rails.
Farm schools like the Alicedale Farm School. Founded in 1900 and closed on the eve of its centenary. Its gravestone is marked 1999, now buried under a lick of paint and trim gardens as the Bushman Sands hotel. An attempt by the world outside to build a hidden enclave for the rich over the whispers of what once was.They have four stars now. And golf.
None of the Alicedale residents seem to play there.
They will say that development was necessary for the town. That the local economy will benefit from being able to work as groundskeepers, support staff. It seems to me that what was lost was more than income. When those farm schools ended, so did a community. No amount of golfing ever created one of those.