Track 09: Eating The Land

Album: Last Days of Beautiful

Prev 08: Koedoes In Die Heelal


in hierie republiek van ons
klou ons snags aan mekaar vas
en hou elke droom by die brug
aan die hand en stap
saam met die nou pad
na die blou lug en
sing die stil gesang
van wintervoëls weg

in hierie republiek van ons
met die donker hart en
swaar gewonde geskiedenis en
bloedspoor deur die wattelwoud
en pyl wat ratel deur die longe en
die honde onder in die kloof
wat spoorkry en vat
en nes uitmekaar pluk
en kis, spyker en hamer
vind die hand van die volk

in hierie republiek van ons
dryf die busse en die karre
vol kinders onderwater
en waai die blaaie van die boeke
verdoof deur die gange
van die skole waar die woorde
op swartborde staan en stol

in hierie republiek van ons
rol die tolbos deur die dorp
met ’n naelstring agterna
en tarentale skreeu en skrou
hou die dag terug
hou die haan plat
hou die stom stil
dek die storm op die tafel
onderhuids of bo-op beens
in die vleis en spier en siel
van die elkeen hier verniel
van die almal hier vermal
van die mal en gek
en doodnormaal

in hierie republiek van ons
is die steen des aanstoots
steeds stadig aan die blom
in die ploeg van die land om
die drom waar die hande
die vuur se verbande
afskil en naderherd
vreet en eet
ieder en elk
sy broer

in hierie republiek van ons
is die laaste kans
die stadig dans
deur die verkeersirkel vleg
van die sterre en maan
met ’n hond onder die arm
deur die smeulende boorde
van die selfmoorde en andermoorde
en moorde wat nie eens
bedoel was
te moor nie

in hierie republiek van ons
die sagte glimlag van die laaste vrou
in die tent van lig
waaruit die poel ’n otter
snoet en duik
en wegdrup
en wink
en weeg
en wik
en wip
en weg

wink en weeg en wik en wip en weg
waar die snoet van die otter wink en wip en wegduik
in hierie republiek van ons, in hierdie republiek

(eating the land)
I roll away from the sea, and the smell of the Cape as the tide at the command of a moon yet to be named pulls me up the N1, past sleeping suburbs and early risers, headlights lashing yellow snakes along the wet road, yet I’m in a dusty dream, kicking my pirogue away from the quay at Mopti, Mali, on the colourful, warm, muddy banks of the Niger River, and I turn it downstream through the smoky Saharan sands towards Timbuktu with my lone passenger, a goat, looking at me with coin-slot black pupils floating in patient yellow orbs. Tonight, we shall read the scrolls together, and the stars.

Sleepwalking, I fill up and buy coffee at the Engen Winelands where I wander the forecourt, like everyone else, just a hungry mouth atop time-fermented organs, watching the low clouds slink away as the sun tries to rise behind the mountains to the east. I remember Mali, it was a long time ago, but I remember handprints on rock walls, the damp darkness inside the Djenne mud mosque, the meal we ate with our hands on the dune. One journey is like the next in the way they loosen us from our skins, sometimes instantaneously the second you step off the plane as if you’re the meat of an avocado scooped from its previously known home. Or slowly, like an orange being squeezed dry until only a semblance of the outside remains while the inside has leaked out of your mouth and nose and ears and eyes and you evaporate – into, for example, the oven-hot, Wolof-speaking landscape of Mali where men, women, children, sheep, camels and Land Cruiser roam and within all this, that Mali, this South Africa, all of the continent and the globe of this earth which was blown from it by a nameless glass-blower, billions of time ago.

I am alone entering the suffocating Huguenot Tunnel where I hold my breath for long minutes – I am in a James Bond film and I must make it through this underwater tunnel and on the other side my PPK must still fire and then I must duck and dodge a bullet and roll away but, as the sun hits the front window from a high angle, there’s none of that, no one-eyed, golden-handed villain, only the tall, skew skyscraper mountains and a change in weather, baboons picking up roadside bits, ticks off the land, tearing along the dotted lines, a stream topped with hundreds of white-sheeted unmade beds flapping along happily under which trout dart from one wet shadow to the next: Du Toit’s Kloof.

Because I am alone my face is not mine, no-one who sees it knows it, and I am as good as a spy, embedded for decades here in the platteland, my stories unfolding on the brittle, fishmoth-travelled pages as the husband of many wives, father of many children, owner of many sins: a man who mows the lawn, one that spits and sleeps in rags under bridges, another whose chin is smooth and eau de cologned. I am air-conditioned, Platinum-carded and manicured but also dirty, diesel-coated and rolled in sand, I am the robber that stole the grapes and the farmer who stole the land and the burner of tyres and the tapper of rubber, I am Belgian and with a whip, I am the teeth sunk into the rubber tree in the Congo, into the rare earth pit held open by the invisible surgical tongs of the AK47’s in the Chinese, Russian, American, Australian and French-sponsored container office blocks beyond the uncoiled barbed wire of the cosy compound where the Wi-Fi helps me to pretend that I’m elsewhere, a friendly neighbour, the life of the party, donating money to the poor.

In the mirror my eyes bounce into the blind spots of the car and on the landscape on all sides flickering its pixels at my brain, its rocks and trees, grass and lichen, houses and roofs, street lamps and cat’s eyes, bridges and pylons, signs and poles, fences and sheds, smoke and dagger – and the second is over and my eyes are back on the road, back on autopilot, back to peripheral vision with my hands here, the vital signs of the car all where they should be, a radio station breaking up and then hissing like water on a hot stove plate as I shimmy into the poort past Worcester, here is a siding called De Wet, there I have bought boxes of peaches, through the narrow, high cleft like the sight of a rifle, through which I’m shot into the hard lines of the Hex River, past De Doorns, up the pass and into the place where the land swirls between one foot in fynbos, another in grape farm and fold mountains, and early onset Karoo koppies, a glance at the Tankwa through a certain gap to the left, onion farms, solar mosaics, the Donkiesrivier, Touws River, Matjiesfontein, Boelhouer and then Laingsburg, where I observe the speed limit, dropping from 120 to 100 to 80 to 60 to a just in case 40 through town past the new chicken place on the left and then I hold my breath again as the car goes underwater, crossing the Buffels River under the 1981 flood-line where, should you stop here at night and unimagine all the air brakes and the hellos of prostitutes and the lingering smell of boerewors, petrol and tardust, you’ll feel the mud-drenched tug of the floodwater and the debris and bodies it carried through here, kolking by the bridge, pulling the walls of mud-plastered houses along, dogs, donkeys, goats, sheep, cattle, dominees, farmers, children, visitors, neighbours: some swallowed all the way down to the silt of the Floriskraal Dam to become fossils a couple of layers up from the Triassic era, when more suitably adapted marsh creatures inhabited the shores of the great inland lake of the Karoo: sheep-sized parrot-beaked tortoises, warthogs with scales, leguans both docile and angry at the rock they had been allocated.

ver op die droomsee
ontmoet ons in die golwe
met ’n bak varsgesnyde mango
bokkems en melk
lê onder ’n laken
tot die wind bedaar
die blaaie en blaai
die boeke en lees
die verte nader
met ons harte op die dek
waar die meeue daaraan lek
en die boegte fyntjies knaaf
in die wier en mis en nag
wyl ons kerse aansteek en dan
met die hoofgemaal began
en die fosfor en die sterre
uit die ruimte en die spieël
oproep en ratel
klingel en klatel
visweb uitsuig en komeetstert streel
kieu, kop en kosmos-kleinte
oer-atoom en ou peperboom
die speld in die water
die blom in die berg
en die blom in die berg

(eating the land)
Now the car has settled in and has taken over the controls, and I sit back and ease along between the yellow and the dotted line, the land stretching like wings on either side of the road, lifting up at the tips, the primaries, where the vlakte rolls out to become mountain range and wisp of cloud to the south, where cool ocean air dares to show its face, but not to the north, for beyond that mountain lies more desert, more crows, more prickly pear overgrown sidings, and name boards to towns and farms riddled with rust-eyed bullet-holes through which the wind sometimes sings, to an audience of none, the song of the land touched by humans, once by stone, once by iron and net so gelaat staan.

(die groot verstaan)
net soos die hare op my arm regopstaan
die son en die maan, die groot verstaan
die water uit die poel opgedrink
die voël met die tak rinkink
die duiker in die kloof verdwyn
die oumense in die stede aan’t kwyn
slaan die weerlig die veld aan die brand
en brand die berge die bome tot sand
sodat die verlede se hande oopvou
die son en maan, die groot onthou
die son en maan, die groot onthou
tot ’n beker aan ’n moeë mond
die soldaat se bebloede wond
die graf in die grond ’n reghoek
uit die oond ’n varsgebakte koek
die kombuis is waar die mense huil
terwyl die winde buite huil
hier is die hart vandaan
hier is die groot verstaan
die son en maan, die groot onthou
tot ’n beker aan ’n moeë mond
die soldaat se bebloede wond
die graf in die grond ’n reghoek
uit die oond ’n varsgebakte koek
die kombuis is waar die mense skuil
terwyl die wind buite huil
hier is die hart vandaan
hier is die groot verstaan
die kombuis is waar die mense skuil
terwyl die wind buite huil
hier is die hart vandaan
hier is die groot verstaan
die groot verstaan

(eating the land)
And so I soar on the thermals, the car as the roving eyes of the raptor across the land
of shifting thorns, the gravel upon which sheep subside, single-storey white-walled zinc-roofed buildings, some houses, some sheds, some tiny rooms in which generators used to thrum before Eskom came (the old people still hear them at night), and now also, besides windmills, the only other double-storey structures: cell phone towers, Telkom towers, Eskom pylons walking the land like a chain-gang of robots confirming our reliance on magic channelled from some other place, far from here to where we move, GPS-triangulated over the known map of our own making, visible to aeroplanes above, satellites beyond, and possibly the prying eyes of another civilisation eagerly awaiting our demise.

At Leeu Gamka the sun belts down from above and from behind, from the sides and from straight ahead, and from below, where the tar is hot like the Danakil Depression. Everything is hot, the train tracks, the coins in the till at the Ultra City, the corrugated iron roofs, the eyes of a pale chanting goshawk glow like dots of coal, the cheeks of hitch-hikers hoping on a miracle emit a shimmer of heat so strong it feels like a train of trucks shuddering past. The road, the heat, the landscape – it is relentless, there is no respite, I am being swallowed by a boiling python.

And then I enter Beaufort West, or is this Baghdad? Zombies drop their flattened cardboard box shields and charge as I slow down to stop at a robot, so I put my foot down, swerve to dodge their flailing arms and Molotov cocktails thrown half-heartedly, lethargically, hanging in the air like blurry, badly built suns – but then up ahead a trio of bakkies with guns (I believe they call them technicals in Somalia) mounted on the back appear and I’m trying to change the channel but I’m stuck on CNN or Al-Jazeera or is it a channel showing Mad Max or Starship Troopers or District 9? It’s all of them at once and a mortar misses me narrowly as I pull into the parking lot at the Steers and as I jump from the car and run to the door of the shop the cement bricks behind me are bit into by a rat-tat-tat of machine gun bullets from a rag-tag platoon forted in behind the bins at the western end of the forecourt. But the automatic doors swallow me and I’m safe, and in here the air-con half-works and the fridges are half-full with half-cold Cokes and Energades and I take a naartjie one and start drinking it while I order a burger and medium chips.

Five minutes later I leave the shop and the forecourt seems clear, except for a small man asking me for money and a boy lying on his stomach and face by the side of the building, sleeping, or praying, or crying and I’m in the car and I reverse and join the main street traffic up past the church with its white epaulettes and then I slingshot around the circle at the northern end of Beaufort West and I’m back on the N1, ‘the country of our skulls’, the rear-view mirror soon showing the fading horsemen of the Janjaweed, dropping back like tired ghosts, saving their steeds for another day and another less watchful man.
There’s a turnoff to a place called Nelspoort and I take it because I know though the town is now but forgotten except to train drivers who still pass through here, because a train track cannot be picked up and moved with ease, so their choice in the matter is small, and the people who call it home, who have no choice but to know it too, and the hard way, the way through the bottom of a bottle of beer or cheap wine or vodka or brandy or rum. But there was a time when Nelspoort was significant, when the only people who lived here – for the other inhabitants were animals, dassies and mongooses, lions and springbok, leguans and adders, rain frogs and pipits, hartebeest and martial eagles – would come from far away, they would walk from far away, to come here specifically, you could say in a way it was a pilgrimage, though the concept would’ve made no sense to them, for their god wasn’t a god in the way we know gods to be today, and in fact they didn’t worship a god but, in a way of seeing now – because we have to see from where we are now, because we cannot see the way they saw at all anymore, which is the biggest sadness of them all – they were all gods, and everything they touched were gods, what they ate were made of the fibres, sinews and cells of gods, and when they looked out across the land all they saw were gods: the smallest grains of sand were gods, the scraggiest of bushes were gods, thorns were gods, eland were gods, a lone cloud was a god, a tear was a god.

And so when they came here as pilgrims they didn’t come to worship at the feet of a visiting, distant god, but they came to celebrate their own existence as gods in a country made for gods – not by gods, but made by time and the deft and accidental twists and aerodynamic nudges of evolution and chance, of the dice being shaken and rolled across the land to bounce off koppies and along the slight indentations of the Karoo to come to rest here at this place we now call Nelspoort but which they certainly called something else, something that might have sounded like many rain drops falling on animal tracks in a thick path of dust, or like the sound your teeth makes when you bite into a handful of spekboom leaves or maybe they called this place the name they had for the smell of liver, freshly cut from the carcass of a blesbok, now held aloft in your hand and about to be bitten into.

When those people came to Nelspoort they brought with them their favourite memories which they proceeded to turn into what we call art but which they didn’t call art because art was unnecessary then and they took those memories from their minds and tongues and eyes and carefully chiselled them into the charred black outer layer of the dolerite boulders that litter the koppies and hillsides around Nelspoort. In that way, in our way of seeing, the seasonal gathering at Nelspoort was a kind of Venice Biennale, where around every corner you could see creation at work and so the shiny, almost oily boulders would reveal the giant buffaloes that once roamed here, their horns so wide they would almost not fit on the rock itself, or mysterious centipedes, fat balloon-like eland, or elephant shrews carved out to look like humans in disguise, and the humans themselves: some lone figures carrying bows, others huddled together making a plan, some in formation doing a dance while their shaman spoke his heart out of his mouth in little slices of blood so that the gods he or she knew to be the very ants and flies and antelope and predators of the land could understand him or her better.

I drive through Nelspoort and park the car by the roadside about a kilometre beyond the last house. There is a small gate in the fence here and I walk through it and wait for my eyes to pick out the faint path between the rocks and shrubs and then I follow it to the back of a clutter of rocks. I climb up to the top of these rocks and sit there. I am now at the centre of the universe. In front of me lies a gong rock. You can’t see it if you don’t know what to look for. But I have been here before and someone showed me. I pick up a small rock that fits neatly in my hand. Then I strike the gong rock in one of the faint indentations left there by the people who left this place a hundred, or two hundred years ago, four hundred years ago, to never return. The rock rings with a clear tone, and the veld around me goes silent. I strike another indent on the flat gong rock which is at the height of a keyboard in front of me and again I can feel how everything around me moves closer, paying closer attention. A rock pigeon has diverted course to land ten metres from me, and now cocks its red-ringed eye at me, considering me as an alien maybe, or a lost man from a lost time. Around my feet lizards gather, and the curious triangles of dassie faces appear. At the crest of the ridge to my right the figures of baboons stand up, and they settle down with their elbows on their knees to listen as I play the gong rock.

From where I sit and play, a vista stretches to the horizon. If it is the only thing I ever see in the world it will be fine. Everything that can be seen in the world can be seen right here. As the lonely notes of the gong rock ring through the afternoon air all that hear it is invigorated, succulents fatten their leaves, aloes point their leaves more particularly and the bat-eared fox family that paused five kilometres away find themselves entranced, their ears soaking up the rich fullness of the sound and in their hearts stir a previously stifled sense of purpose and urgency and they start making small howls and pawing the ground and jumping up and down: they have missed the gong rock, and now the gong rock is back, the gong rock is back.

Back in the car I rejoin the N1, coast past Three Sisters and settle in for Richmond, Hanover, Colesberg. The sun is low in the west now and shadows flow across the landscape: the koppies like dark pools from which, in places, flaming tufts of grass, twisted firmaments of ancient dried wood (the paused thoughts of slow-moving creatures, century-spanning plants that can name-drop all the way back to the purest of times, of quaggas, blue buck, trekbokke and beyond even that), rocks that glitter and shimmer like golden motorcycle helmets in a 1970s movie, all jump from as if small fish, then dive deep down into the shade as the sun sets another tick, the light cascading off the horizon behind me – unchecked – off the coasts of the continent and into unmarked seas upon which it dances on the smiling snouts of dolphins, and the shadow of the car, bouncing on its unsure wheels which seem to want to leave its tentative hold on the surface behind to tiptoe unseen into the air, first a foot, then two, then ten, then high enough to float over oncoming traffic – a startled truck driver points wordlessly, to no-one, a Translux driver too, but to a half-blind old man who can’t quite see what he means to be shown – and into the last wash of light which now breaks lightly onto the shore of the oncoming night, here on the footprint and spoor strewn beaches of dusk, where the unused telephone poles, the twigs of the unmade crows’ nests and the limp spaghetti-string wires are the flotsam in the ankle-deep waves of thought as the car joins a small flock of blue crane for a few blissful seconds of perfectly synched, slow beat of wing and soft, steel-grey aerodynamicism before the illusion shudders and stalls as the wheel nuts of all four wheels come undone simultaneously, the engine falls from its block and I tumble down to the now purple warzone of a land below surrounded by different bits of automobile and I crash-land in a trench in the veld just to the left of the road behind a row of tall agave plants settled here half a century ago to curb soil erosion in those heady years just after the wool boom bust and the Karoo was left with magnificent shearing sheds, farmsteads, kraal complexes and grand entrances to farms with names given to them by the new owners of the land who got the distant descendants of the old owners of the land – not that anyone ever thought of owning the land back in the heyday of the gong rock (because what is owning? isn’t everything here? isn’t everything that is known held between the tentatively measuring claws of the praying mantis?) – to work for them by a trick of the pen, a quick draw of the line, a deft tumble of coins and brandy.

Slowly I reassemble the car, and with it the parts of my body, feeling around in the dark, scrambling in the dusty, oily, bloodiness for screws and rivets, nuts and bolts though sometimes only finding sticks and stones, discarded barbed wire bits and rusted, flattened, burnt old tin cans, pieces of bent corrugated metal sheets – what’s left of a long-gone shack maybe, or an itinerant road camp – and shards of bone showing signs of gnawing, handfuls of slippery cartilage and hair, shavings of skin and plump, still warm organ, all mine, all fine, all reassembled and now roaring back up the road with sparks showering off the back wheels, the night dark and welcoming, a living coat of past and present, simultaneously peeling and wrapping itself, threatening to eat into the future with every hungry beat of the heart.

I realise I have lost control. The car and I have been masticated, consumed, crushed, fermented and scatted out as one indistinguishable mass. Armpit and cubbyhole, femur and indicator paddle, rubber mat and big toe, dashboard and throat: the clawless otter has eaten the crab, crushed the oily sweetmeats from its egglike shell and left me – us, this – behind to mark a distant fencepost of its endless galaxy of crab pools, shiny springs where nothing but the earliest of mountain reedbuck or latest of robin ever catches even a glimpse of its thick, silky body wriggling along the kikuyu embankments or disappearing like molten lead in the moonlight held in the meniscus of the pond.

Far below, the Free State flickers on: Gariep, Springfontein, Trompsburg, Reddersburg along the highway, and then to the sides, the scattered shovels full of coal, glowing in the brown, wintry night: Philippolis, Fauresmith, Jagersfontein, Bethulie, Smithfield, until Bloemfontein blooms bright and cheerful in the distance, which bring us to the Highveld, which is a shit place to be in winter. The Highveld is a big road flanked by roads and towns and cities and smoking chimneys and empty grasslands which are always burnt for our pleasure. I’m always in a car hands stuck in a cubby-hole fingers in a tape deck clothes to my seat dust and smoke the endless flavour of winter. There’s frozen dogshit in the suburbs where the mornings start white and frosty and the afternoons end white and crusty with streetlamps and Egoli on M-NET Open Time. I panic when I can’t see the stars I panic when the sun is a central smog and my direction is a stoned pigeon wrapped in a map. There’s tea and milktart from relatives in cages good people who sigh in their homes and lock their toilets and hide their doormats under their keys. In the flat parts of the Free State the weavers flock aimlessly under dimmed lights, build their nests dangling from concrete silos and steel pylons. Even in the marshes the reeds bend and break on their own under a heavy low sky waiting for the slime dam to sweep them into definition. Farming here is an endless wait for December rains an endless locking of gates to keep the cattle in and the locusts out and the violence in the paper. Little kids buy ice-cream and NikNaks from the One Stop and their stuffed cheeks full of sharp teeth clatter and glisten and laugh at roadkill. There are places called Florida and Philadelphia and Virginia in the United States, and Monte Video is the capital of Paraguay or Uruguay so why the fuck do they also exist on the Highveld? The people here are ugly in their cars and pretty in their bars where hands are for counting money, changing gears throwing signs and clenching fists. Life becomes a fiddling for frequencies in between disruptive factories for foreigners and the retracing of daily steps to All Bran Flakes and uncomfortable sex. You’re never on solid ground there are people everywhere digging out gold and hiding places and finding bad lungs and unexpected sinkholes in bathtubs. People think of murder when they eat in restaurants, they consider rape when they go for a jog while Golden Retrievers lounge in Northcliff and think of Alaska. The city is littered with untidy people who look at hands on the corners of tables and buildings with the reflection of a cloud framed by a neon triangle. The open veld is rare and littered with derelict pig farms and soot-filled sunflower fields with only remote aspirations of becoming Floro margarine. The cement is a passive smoker with filters growing on it like disorganised ticks and the red dust mixes with smoke at sunset to become sentimental gravel. I’m never here because I want to I’m a co-pilot, a navigator, a shotgun-sitter measuring the miles between historical sites and toilets for my mom. If you sit still for long enough they’ll steal your kidneys and while a friendly nod can kill you, a playful wink can cost you a weekend. If I stay here for too long I’ll become an active abuser a topflight loser a successful gimmick or a professional skunk with labels and a mean piss. The Highveld is a shit place to be in winter.

We lose altitude and slowly descend, alighting back on the N1 with the touch of barely a feather back on the road, which I now realise could be what tears us apart, and that all to the sides of it lies the black abyss of what once was – that is, if the sun will never rise again, that is, if we are all already dead, that is, if the country of our skull has filled with clear rainwater and is begin held aloft atop an outcrop overlooking the confluence of the Limpopo and the Shashe rivers – for that is where the road leads, through the Verkeerdevlei Plaza and Kroonvaal, Grasmere, Pumulani, Hammanskraal, Pienaarsrivier, Kranskop and Capricorn, through the spinning dervishes of Johannesburg, the meted out mundane of Midrand, the ridgetop strongholds of Pretoria, and all the towns that follow, some more broken than others until nothing remains but a deep, dreamless sleep from which the questions rise like smoke seen from a distance, leaving a homely chimney like birds:

Where am I? What am I? Where am I? What am I? Where am I? What am I? Where am I? What am I? Where am I? What am I? Where am I? What am I?

(En in die skaduwees van kremetartbome, in the shade of a baobab, waar ek vassit aan lemmetjiesdraad of ’n haak-en-steek, deep in an aardvarkhole, sitting somewhere on a comfortable chair, driving at night, brights, dim, brights, dim, and the radio playing, and the radio playing and the news coming and going and the weather forecast and the sports result and something about the rand, and the night on all sides, and the road, the road that keeps going beyond Polokwane, beyond Louis Trichardt, beyond Musina, beyond Beit Bridge, beyond Masvingo, beyond Harare, onwards to Vic Falls, onwards to Lusaka, Kapiri Mposhi, Mkushi, and Mpika, and Mpulungu, and Sumbawanga, and Mbeya, and Matubaruka, down towards the coastal flats to Dar es Salaam, and beyond on a dhow into the blue sea, beyond the furthest wave, towards where the sun rises, and the music and the words and the stories slowly run out and sink down and filter down to the bottom of the sea to the bottom of the sea to the bottom of the sea to the bottom of the sea to the bottom of the sea to the bottom of the sea to the bottom of the sea to the bottom of the sea to the bottom of the sea)