Thursday, 24 June 2010

The girl ghost

It’s a long journey (about 10 hours) to Nieu-Bethesda from Riebeek-Kasteel, so by the time Tanya and I arrived we were very tired. We were directed to our cottage, Aandster, and it was bloody cold, so we immediately set about lighting a fire and opening some red wine.

And then we, you know, sat about jawing and opening another bottle of wine until the sheep came home. (This is sheep, not cow, country – I can still taste our host Katrin’s succulent slow-roasted Karoo lamb, mmmmm.)

So we got to bed at about 2am, a little the worse for wear. (Hey, we’d come a long way!)

There was a girl in my room – a teenager, very angsty. I am used to this – I have a sometimes-angsty teenage girl of my own at home. But I’m not entirely comfortable with it in spirit form, and particularly not when my own spirit levels are quite so high.

So I abandoned my bedroom and went and slept in the lounge.

The next morning Tanya admitted to having resorted to sleeping with a crystal in her hand – she too had felt a not-entirely-happy presence in the house. (And no, we had not discussed the possibility of ghosts in any way, shape or form before stumbling off to bed.)

This isn’t madly surprising. The very isolated village of Nieu-Bethesda, in a narrow, fertile valley in the Sneeuberg mountains of the Eastern Cape in the vast Karoo semi-desert of South Africa, is situated – like many small towns in South Africa – on what was originally a farm. There were communities around here for ages before it finally gained municipal status in the late 1800s – there’s a spring that bubbles out of the mountain, and water in this region is scarce, so it was a lodestone in the area. It has a long history.

Aandster, the house we stayed in (as related by Jakob, on a donkey-drawn-cart traverse we did of the town; Jackob addressed his lovely little donkeys as ‘my k√™rels’, ‘my darlings’), was once the grocer’s dwelling. Who knows what human dramas unfolded in it, but both Tanya and I picked up the echoes of, well, something.

The local graveyard – which we visited on a day that was so cold it took balls to get out the car – is filled with sweet sentiment. From the gravestone of ‘the man who listens’ to the rough stone dedicated to a ‘dear friend’, from a child’s final resting place (born and died on the same day) to Helen’s owl memorial, it told lots of stories. The same names came up repeatedly – this is a very small community.

The one Boer War memorial (1901) is interesting in that it stands solo here – all the other Boer War graves are on a nearby farm, and you have to get permission to visit them.

I took Johann’s advice and asked the girl ghost for permission to stay in (what I imagine was) her room, and she didn’t bother us for the rest of the time we stayed in Aandster.

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On the road again: a serendipitous meeting

Some years ago, Ronaldo and I (who have done some trips together and are comfortable travelling companions) realised, by random SMSs and phonecalls, that we were both on road trips through South Africa. Although we never met up, we did keep crossing paths – our itineraries were peculiarly similar, even if they didn’t match in time.

So imagine my happy surprise this morning, when another random SMS revealed Ronaldo to be on the road to Barrydale (an intriguing small town on Route 62 in the Western Cape) at the very moment Tanya and I were sitting down for breakfast at the fabulous Clarke of the Karoo in that very village.

Here we are (with Zippo the puppy and a football that Ronaldo insisted must be in the picture, to commemorate both his name and the World Cup happening here now), serendipitously together.

(Seriously, you MUST visit Clarke’s. It’s packed with fabulous stuff, and Mike Clarke’s Klein Karoo breakfast was resoundingly the best we had in our travels around the southern part of the country.)

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The Karoo is a searing-hot semi-desert, right?

Uh, ja. It gets about 400 mm of rain annually and the winter months are almost completely dry. And Nieu-Bethesda in the Karoo, where my friend Tanya and I have just spent some rather astonishing time communing with the spirit of the remarkable Helen Martins (and a girl ghost, about which more in another post), gets as little as 255 mm.

Most of it, apparently, in winter.

Above is a pic of the snow that was just melting as we arrived. Alongside is our car, early on Wednesday morning, with enough ice coating it to be able to write in it.

And below is me, huddled on the back verandah of Aandster, the house kindly loaned to us by long-time residents Katrin and Ian, trying to thaw in the early-morning sun. (Have cow pajamas, will travel.)

* For accommodation in Nieu-Bethesda, go to Katrin and Ian have a range of options to suit most tastes and pockets.

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Who was Helen Martins?

It’s the late 1920s – between the World Wars – and you’re an educated woman in her early 30s who’s worked as a teacher in what was then the Transvaal (now Gauteng, South Africa), far from the place of your birth.

Your parents are in their 70s and frail, and as the only unmarried sibling (there were 10 of you but four died in infancy so now there are six; and you have been married but without success), it falls to you to return to where you began, and nurse the Elders through their dotage.

The place of your birth happens to be Nieu-Bethesda, a tiny farming village deep in the Karoo. It’s over a day’s trip to the nearest ‘big’ town, Graaff-Reinet – the only way to get there is by donkey cart, up and out of a deep valley and across what must have seemed an endless plain.

You’ve also lived in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, and travelled in the USA and Europe (with your husband, who has since absconded), and worked as a waitress and a chemist-shop assistant (among other things), so you’ve had a taste of a more sophisticated life than that offered by the tiny community of very conservative farmers and tradesmen, and their wives and families, that are the core of the white population of Nieu-Bethesda – but what can you do?

Your mother, long an invalid, finally expires twenty years later; your father (a cantankerous old bastard) takes another four years to shuffle off.

You’re now in your 50s. It’s too late to re-enter the world – 20 years of hermit-like existence, with only your decrepit Elders for company, have eroded your courage (of which you once had plenty). Your parents have left you their very modest Karoo house but little else – a state grant is your sole source of income. Your siblings (with the exception of one, a sister) think you’re batty and have little patience with your impatience with your tiny world.

You are fit and strong, and fiercely intelligent, but by now the villagers are thinking you’re markedly eccentric, and the deep valley in which you live is closing in on you. The sharp-edged, washed-out colours of the Karoo summers, and the bitterly cold winters, are leeching the brightness from your world. Your horizons have become frighteningly narrow.

What do you do?

If you’re Helen Martins, you use the materials at your disposal – cement, wire and coloured glass – to transform your dull and limited reality into a world you feel you can inhabit, one defined by symbolism, light and colour. You make your own paradise.

It begins in the little three-bedroomed Karoo house in which you’ve spent so much of your life. Grinding bottles of different colours into glass granules, you use these to transform the walls of your house into a jewel box which, when lit by the morning or evening sun, or, at night, by lamps and candles (there will be no electricity in the town until after your death), glitters and shimmers.

In the meantime, you’ve begun an intense relationship with a married man (who, interestingly, after being struck not once but twice by lightning, has decided to move his family to this remote Karoo village – perhaps in the hope that the very deepness of the valley will keep the searching fingers of electricity at bay). He has remodelled himself as a builder, and he helps you knock out some of the house’s interior walls and replace them with glass panels in red, green and yellow. These catch the sunlight and bounce it, via carefully placed mirrors, through the house.

Once every single millimetre of the entire interior of the house has been completely transformed, and you’ve embellished the jewel-box feeling of it with a multitude of mirrors (many in the shapes of moons and stars), hundreds of figurines, illustrations from framed Mona Lisas (an icon with which you closely identify, and which appears in various forms throughout the house) to family photographs and picture-postcards, and blankets tacked to walls and bright clothing hung on pegs – you move outside.

Here, until you die about 20 years later, you build a remarkable installation. You do this with very little reference to the outside world and with no contact whatsoever with other artists (your work will come to be recognised as ‘Outsider Art’). With the help of a local odd-job man, Koos Malgas, you fill your small garden with over 300 cement/wire/glass sculptures, differing in size and construction from delicately small to monumental, creating tableaux from the Bible and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (among others), and incorporating a vast array of owls and other creatures. You call your creation The Owl House. (While you are alive, this space is also filled with plants, fish and living birds.)

Your close working relationship with Koos is regarded with suspicion by the villagers (this is, after all, Apartheid South Africa – and you live in a super-conservative community), and it doesn’t help that you’re secretive about what you’re doing – you regard The Owl House as a place apart, and you’re prickly about visitors. You become ever more isolated, and your siblings grow tremendously impatient with you when they learn that the money they send you for food is being ‘squandered’ on the supplies you need to feed your vision. Their annoyance knows no bounds, for instance, when they learn that you’ve removed the kitchen range to replace it with an owl tableau backed by bright-red coloured glass. Where in heaven’s name are you going to prepare food?

Twenty-five years after you began it, your vision is nearing completion. Which is just as well, as you’re now in your 70s and suffering from a range of age-related complaints, as well as some stemming directly from your frugal lifestyle and the unforgiving materials with which you work passionately every day – cement, wire and ground glass. Much more tragic, however, is that your eyesight is failing – and without the ability to see it, your Camel Yard garden and Jewel Box house, with their multitude of figurines and symbolic sculptures, are as dust.

You tell Koos what you’re going to do, then you do it. This is no cry for help: it is a genuine suicide. You drink caustic soda, and you take three days to die in a hospital in Graaff-Reinet.

More about Helen Martins, the Owl House and Nieu-Bethesda to come in following posts.

• Thanks to Katrin and Ian at The Karoo Lamb for accommodating Tanya and me on our Karoo sojourn.

Pictures, from the top

* Helen Martins as a young woman.

* Helen’s only sculptural rendition of herself. We know it’s her because the figurine has only four toes on each foot – Helen had her baby toes amputated as a result of painful bunions. Here, she sits in the camel train (my favourite tableau) and reaches up to her personally designated (but not directionally accurate) East/Oos.

* The canisters of ground glass, graded by colour and size, that Helen kept in her pantry (where other people kept food).

* Helen dressed simply and lived frugally, but she hung these luxurious garments on pegs in her front hall – she wanted to create a feeling of opulence and abundance in her home.

* One of the three bedrooms in the house.

* This owl and her baby guard the entrance from the house to the Camel Yard.

* Helen’s sister was the inspiration for this supine figure; next to it is one of the many tableaux inspired by the Rubaiyat: ‘A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou beside me singing in the wilderness – and wilderness is paradise now.’ The Owl House and Camel Yard were Helen’s own paradise.

* These life-size women with their bottle skirts and ground-glasses bodices are two of three that welcome you to Helen’s garden - although, ironically, not many people were permitted entry while she was alive; now, 18 000 people a year make the pilgrimage to this remote town to experience Helen's unique vision.

* This is Helen’s memorial stone in the local cemetery. Its simplicity stands in stark relief against the more sophisticated headstones that surround it. Helen was apart in his fascinating little place, even in death.

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Tuesday, 1 June 2010

How do you make a cat bark?

Pour some petrol on it and set it on fire. It’ll go ‘woof!

Okay, it’s a terrible joke, but it did come to mind in the early hours of Sunday morning when Ronaldo, TOT and I were sitting at the dining-room table, testing the neighbours’ patience by endlessly playing ’70s and ’80s music, and laying waste to the better portion of a case of wine.

Suddenly, TOT made a strange screamy sound.

Ronaldo and I, completely missing the point, stared around the room, trying to find the source of TOT’s distress. ‘The cat! The cat!’ she blurted.

Maui, the oldest resident cat, often wanders about on the table, flicking his tail flirtatiously in people’s faces and generally being charming (if you’re me) or annoying (if you’re practically anyone else). But this time he flicked his tail into a candle, which instantly set him on fire.

Fortunately, I was able to grab him and quickly snuff out the flames before he’d realised what was happening. (I shudder to think what might have transpired if he’d run off with his tail on fire… Eeek!)


Ronaldo and I are very bad at judging time when we’re together. Even when we swear we’re not going to pull an all-nighter, it often just happens. Once, in what we fondly imagined to be the small hours of a weekday morning, my son, then in grade 7, came through to the kitchen, knotting his school tie.

‘What are you doing up?’ I asked. ‘It’s the middle of the night.’

‘It’s not. It’s 6 am and my bus is coming in half an hour,’ he said with admirable calm (and complete accuracy).

Last weekend was the same, and when it got to around 6 am (TOT had left 'sensibly' about half an hour before), I suggested that Ronaldo and I may as well meet the day head-on – the less attractive alternative being to sneak into it, knowing what kind of horrendous hangover was waiting just a few hours down the line. 'Why don't we take the dogs for a walk and watch the sun rise?' I said.

‘Okaaaay,’ Ronaldo replied, with notable lack of enthusiasm, ‘but I’m not going on one of your route marches.’

The ‘route march’ he was referring to was actually a very pleasant seaside walk in Yzerfontein. He found it somewhat challenging because while his woman M and I went to bed at the relatively sensible hour of 3 am, he and my boyfriend of the time stayed up until the break of dawn, and therefore weren’t at all happy when M and I shook them awake about an hour later and told them to get their shoes on. Ronaldo was an absolute brat on that walk, trailing behind me, whining, ‘Are we theeeeere yet?’ and eventually sitting down on a rock and refusing to go any further. ‘Go and get the car,’ he said. ‘I’m dying.’

Last weekend we did have to climb a steepish slope to get the views Ronaldo snapped in these pics, but we made it to the top just as the sun came over the distant mountains – and it was worth it (hey, Ronaldo??!).

Pics from the top: Moonset over the Kasteelberg; morning sun just touching the top of the mountain; sunrise over the valley; Ronaldo has a word with his godchild Hullabaloo while Sara the Wobbly Dog looks on.

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