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Letter Photography - Karoo III

Even though i wasn’t born in the Karoo and even though we lived in a town (as opposed to living on a farm), i consider myself a child of the Karoo. To those who’ve lived their lives elsewhere, the Karoo seems barren and lifeless, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, stuck in the middle of nowhere. They consider the Karoo a necessary halfway stop en route between their homes and their holiday destinations. They see very little of value and do their best to shake the dust off their feet as fast as you can say “Vat jou goed en trek, Ferreira!” (An Afrikaans folk song with the title “Take your things and go, Ferreira!”)

That-Man is one of those who feel extreme discomfort at the thought of spending even a single night in the Karoo. His modus operandi when we pass through this part of South Africa is pedal-to-the-metal. He wants to get to the mountains and the forests and the ocean that beckon beyond and will barely tolerate this thorn in his side to get there. If he has taught me anything in life, it’s the value of bearing suffering in order to reach your goal, and he bears this suffering stoically.

Despite such callous treatment from many, the Karoo offers the most spectacular soul-cleansing available to mankind. This is what i attempted to illustrate with “Karoo 3”, the most recent addition to my letter photography collection. Let’s start at the beginning: “K.” If every other beautiful aspect of the Karoo is lost and this alone remains, it will still encompass the very essence of the Karoo. Geologically speaking, these kinds of “koppies” (hills) are the remains of volcanic activity and erosion, but to a Karoo child, they offer a most-prized opportunity: solitude. What more could you require of a wintry Saturday afternoon than a few hours atop a “koppie” with only the sound of the breeze, just enough sun on your face to break through the chill, and a vast panorama of Karoo plains before you? There is no better way to gather your thoughts, or to discard them all in favour of savouring the deep joy of the moment.

Next up is the “A,” a church tower, pointing to the vital role faith communities play in the life of Karoo towns. This was where a town’s people gathered every week to seek spiritual guidance, but also to catch up with friends. This was where new babies were welcomed as part of a bigger family. This was where the joys and sorrows of all were shared at weddings and funerals. This used to be the heart of a town, and still remains that way in many places. This is where a deep wonder at the mysterious workings of the pipe organ was born in my soul. In many towns, the bulk of architectural splendour is wrapped up in one single building, and this is it.

“R” represents many roads winding through the heartland of South Africa. Many times, the only view from a Karoo road is some rocks, a sprinkling of vegetation and dusty plains. At other times, you may find yourself in a surprising corner, all green as it is fed from a fountain and curving through a kloof, filtering the sweltering heat through foliage and the fresh smell of clean water. The roads of the Karoo lead you through some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes and to some of the coziest and friendliest towns you’ll ever enter.

There are two “O’s” in Karoo, and to be inclusive, one should be an ostrich egg. Our landscape is filled with weird and wonderful phenomena of all sorts, shapes and sizes, and the ostrich is definitely one of the most spectacularly weird of all these. It’s the largest bird, the fastest-running bird, a flightless bird. It grows up to 2.8 meters tall. In its first year, it grows almost 1cm per day! Did you know that an ostrich can live for 45 years?! Even longer in captivity. Their eyes are 5cm in diameter, supposedly the biggest eyes of any land vertebrate. It can run as fast as 70km/h with only two toes on each foot. Even though an ostrich egg is the largest egg of any bird, it is the smallest egg if measured relative to the size of the hen (only 1 to 4 percent.) The ostrich represents the quintessentially quirky Karoo in many ways, and always reminds me that even though the Karoo may seem from the outside to be grey and monotonous, there is a treasure trove of extraordinarily fascinating things to learn about.

The last letter, another “O”, is the most representative item of all of these. It is found at regular intervals throughout the Karoo. For many years no-one living in this vast land could survive without it, and even though technology replaces the need for it in some places, it symbolizes to many of us a place we call home. It is the multi-bladed wind pump, which has changed the landscape since the late nineteenth century, and made the Karoo accessible to farmers who would otherwise not have had access to water for themselves and their livestock. The sound of a solitary wind pump creaking in the wind, pumping sweet, cool water into a corrugated iron dam loosens a flood of memories from the mind of any Karoo native. It reminds you of the dam in which your father taught you to swim – your very first tentative splashes which surprisingly fast morphed into confident strokes. It brings back memories of sheep drinking at the cribs and for hunters, it may have them reminiscing of an icy bath on a winter’s morning. As the wind pump supplies the arid land with water, drawing the liquid gold from deep within the earth, we are reminded that to sustain our souls, we need to pursue the hidden waters of love, wisdom, justice, kindness and grace rather than the vague mirages promised by lives lived in the vain pursuit of material things.

This is “Karoo III” and what it reminds me of.


K - Spandaukop, Valley of Desolation, Graaff-Reinet, Great Karoo

A - Dutch Reformed Church Tower, Beaufort West, Great Karoo

R - Route 62, Little Karoo

O - Ostrich Egg, De Rust, Little Karoo

O - Wind Pump, Victoria West, Great Karoo

Canvas Print - 120x35cm

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