Perhaps more than anything else, when I lived in England I missed the pristine clarity and light of the Free State landscape.  Our photograph this week is taken on a farm just off the Clarens road to Bethlehem.  The sun has almost set, casting its rays horizontally against the poplars, pushing long fingers of shadow into the veld.  Even in the fading light, the sky retains its ethereal blue, flaunting its perfect reflection in a muddy pond.  The Free State doesn’t show off nature in half measures.  It exaggerates its smallest beauty.

These are the things I anticipated when I used to travel home from boarding school by train.  Waking in the morning in the Eastern Free State, the steam engine hammering its winding way across the veld, I always had a sense that I had arrived at the top of the world.  Pulling into Fouriesburg station, with its neat platform and bright potted flowers, I would drag down the window to feel the Free State air on my face and not regret for a moment leaving behind the warm pea soup air of Natal.

And towards the evening, when the cool air ran like rivulets down growing shadows, we would stop at Sannaspos.  There the steam engine would wheeze patiently for many minutes while we waited for the signal.  Then, with the last straining effort of the great iron wheels, we’d be off on the final stretch.  As we flew along the gleaming lines into the sunset, I would stare into the fading distance ahead, waiting.  And at last I would see it – like angel dust sprinkled on the horizon, the distant lights of Bloemfontein.

Navel Hill, around which Bloemfontein grew, was a special place.  My Dad would take my brother, John, and I there some Sunday afternoons, to mosey round and see a zebra or a springbok, catch a glimpse of dassies.  As the sun dipped in the west, we would sit on the rim of the flat topped hill, perched on sun warmed rocks, and imagine we could see to the ends of all the Free State.  To the north the goldfields,  to the south the low hills stretching to the Orange River,  to the west the desolate sheep farms and the salt pans of my mother’s childhood, to the east the distant mountains and Lesotho.  Our eyes would follow the ribbon of the road that would lead to Brandfort, Winburg and beyond.  Below us the city lights would slowly flicker on.

Many times we took that road to Winburg en route to our relatives in Natal.  I remember leaving very early in the cool dry darkness and driving till the east grew light.  Then we’d pull off the road a little way and my Dad would build a fire, my Ma would fix the breakfast, John and I would scout around for mice and scorpions.  The long journey across the Free State would lose its appeal as the day grew hotter.  My Dad would sing songs from before the war, my Ma would mop her forehead and smoke her cigarettes, John and I would conduct warfare on the back seat – mostly over territory, triggered by the encroachments of an elbow or a foot.

Sometimes my Dad would take us on his business field trips.  On one such occasion we travelled through the Eastern Free State.  It became dark and after driving for a long time on a winding dirt road we came to a very small hotel.  We stayed the night.  In the morning when the sun came up we were spellbound.  We were surrounded by the most beautiful views I had ever seen.  All around, high up and topping the green slopes, were great sandstone cliffs of every shape and shade.  The valley surrounding us was resplendent with trees more luscious and bright than I could ever have imagined.  Winding down the middle of all this was a perfect little stream.  This is how we discovered Golden Gate, about 49 years ago, just after it was proclaimed a National Park.  We became weekend regulars.

This is where I learnt to ride a horse.  Golden Gate horses, having been ridden by all manner of inexperienced rider, had finally chosen to ignore any kind of command from those who rode them.  They moved at two speeds only, ambling at snail’s pace, or running at full tilt.  The first time I got into the saddle, having been positioned there by my Dad, we ambled at snail’s pace along the valley path.  As we approached a clump of trees my horse, now perking up, deftly manoeuvred under a low branch and neatly swiped me from the saddle, slinging me into the undergrowth.

On another occasion, after a lengthy amble at snail’s pace up a long winding road, my horse decided to go no further.  Eventually my Dad took the reins from me and attempted to tug the horse alongside his own.  At this the entire bridle left the horse’s head.  This new development had a transforming effect on my horse and, gleefully and with great enthusiasm, he wheeled around and took off down the hill at full tilt.  Good fortune somehow kept me from crashing to the ground.  However, when the horse had skidded to a halt at the bottom of the hill, I found myself nowhere near the saddle, clinging determinedly to bunches of mane, my eyes only inches from the horse’s ears.

In the late 60s we started coming to Clarens as part of our weekends away.  We would approach along the dirt road from Bethlehem, passing close to where this week’s photograph was taken, and would pull in at the Maluti Motel.  After dinner John and I would leave my Dad to the strains of Jeanette McDonald coming from the gramophone, and head out into the night.

Somewhere, sufficiently removed from electric light and human sound, we would each find a place to sit, a stone or wall or a decent patch of grass.  My brother and I shared an enthusiasm for the unspoilt sounds of nature, the promise of the vast outdoors, the mystery of dark nights.  Further on from our position the sparse lights of Clarens village would glow dimly on the rise.  In the distance we would make out the darker silhouette of the far Maluti mountains against the faint night sky.  Above us the velvet blackness would be pieced by countless stars.

From somewhere in the night would come the mellow hooting of an owl or the faint rasping of a nightjar, sounds that were a thrill to our ears.  Tense and unmoving, we would wonder at the sudden lull of crickets and, focussing our eyes intently on the darkness, we would listen to the distinctive sound of silence.

I first knew Clarens and its valley in this way.  I can’t imagine that it ever occurred to me then, or even over the many years that followed, that I would someday live here, so many decades afterwards.

The picture insert features in the 2014 calendar produced by and sold in aid of Cluny Animal Trust.  Calendars can be purchased at Clarens Gallery, Clementines Restaurant and the Old Stone Bottle Store, in Clarens.  Alternatively they can be ordered from Katherine on 0827886287, Jan on 0782462553, Helen on 0582230918 or by email to .

Mary WalkerArticle and photograph by Mary Walker

Clarens News: October 2013





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