As I looked out over the plains of the Karoo at four thirty on a December summers morning, I realised that the monolith that is the Swartberg Mountain is purple not black. Maybe at the time when the old people named this colossus, the word purple was considered too close to the colour of the European royalty that they, my great grandfather, European refugees and settlers had fled from and so being affiliated to the various protestant churches of the day, and in a time when it was popular to stride around Africa with a gun in one hand and a bible in the other, black was the pious colour of this white tribe. Perhaps that is why so many places in South Africa start with the word Swart which is the Afrikaans word for black. There again there are also a tremendous amount of names beginning with Wit, the Afrikaans word for white. Ah yes that's it, in antiquity things were a lot more black and white.
There is of course nothing black about the soul of Africa. The statement, "Black Africa", is a "White European" term and misrepresents both the colour of the people, their nature, their spiritual understanding and how the world looks in Africa.
Southern Africans are by their very nature some of the most colourful people one could ever meet, with a ready smile and quick mocking wit. Their many languages and dialects are also enormously descriptive and persistently use adjectives and comparatives of nature to describe their lives or situations they find themselves in. They have, in addition to their cultural attributes, an uncanny linguistic ability with the majority fluent in over seven languages and are far more spiritual than Europeans. They see spirituality as part of which they are not something they will become.
But it was four thirty in the morning and my cousin James and I had been tasked to travel on horse back on a round trip of six hours, rounding up the cattle grazing on the scrub on the vast plains of this Karoo. It may sound like an exciting task, but it isn't and the reason I had volunteered was the opportunity it presented to me to be alone with my thoughts and take in the sights, sounds and smells of this paradox which in my view was unsurpassed.
The Karoo is described as a semi desert, yet my thoughts of a Desert led me to think of the unending sea of sand that covers the western half of Namibia. The Karoo isn't anything like that; it is a magical place, arid yes, but devoid of life, no. It is however similar in one aspect, it can be freezing cold in the morning and deathly hot in the afternoon. This morning at four thirty it was freezing.
Until man had interfered, this huge expanse of earth with its nutrient rich Karoo bush and grasslands, its wonderful underground water and crystal clear perennial mountain streams, had seen some of the largest migrations ever witnessed of springbok as they crossed from the North West to take up their seasonal residence in the South East, a distance of some one thousand kilometres each way. In the early to mid 1800's witnesses to this migration resident in the towns of the great Karoo talked about how it used to take over three days for these millions of springbok to pass through their towns. The reason for this migration was very simple, it was to follow the weather patterns and search for new water and grazing.
The weather of Southern Africa has two distinct climates. In the South a winter rainfall is prevalent. This precipitation is the result of cold fronts coming in from the Antarctic bringing with them mostly gentle, long lasting and continuous rain. This pattern is referred to as a Mediterranean climate. In the north, summer thundershowers are the order of the day as the tropical rainfall from central Africa deposits its heavy and intermittent rainfall accompanied with the rumble of thunder and bright violent lightening. As a result of this climatic phenomenon these animals could move from a Mediterranean climate with its winter rainfall, to further Northwest in the summer where the land received its annual thundershowers. This is one of the reason mammals inhabited Southern Africa in such vast numbers. The duality of the seasons and the resultant abundant, rich and diverse flora with over eight thousand species resident just in the Karoo area alone had not let them down for the past fourteen million years.
So where we now guided our horses along the old inland seabed that the Karoo had been billions of years before, I dreamt of the days when the three to four million springbok migrated across this area, not every year but when the time was right. What a spectacle that must have been, as the San prepared for a bountiful hunt and as the Cape Lions, Leopards and Lynx moved in to pick off the newly born, weak and old animals.
But today we had changed all that, had replaced the massive migration with our two thousand head of cattle. Why I thought, why would you kill off three million unique and beautiful animals so as to farm imported dumb bulls and cows? Of course I knew the commercial answer however from an aesthetic and ethic view point I simply couldn't get to grips with the logic of it.
But I was but a young boy and these questions would have to wait as James's father did not take kindly to questioning the families past and present purpose. He was revered by other farmers and had two Mercedes Benz's as proof of his success as he, like my grand father and great grand father before him, narcissistically endeavoured to tame the Karoo, naively attempting to change its purpose.
All around this place were old bones and horns of the animals that once roamed free. Around the farm house there were thousands of Kudu horns, in the lounge the heads of once proud Leopard and Lynx adorned the walls like some macabre scene from Virgil's inferno, reminders of the blood lusting hunts the Europeans had undertaken over the past two hundred years.
Is that all it took, just two hundred years to remove what had been the natural order of things for millions of years. It couldn't be, surely it was impossible. But then Europeans had done this in America and decimated almost to the point of extinction the once millions of Buffalo that roamed its plains and in so doing starved the soul keepers, the Indian tribes who depended on this source of sustenance, just as the Europeans in Africa had done to the San and then hunted and killed them like vermin. Interesting enough that these two ancient hunting tribes, the San of Southern Africa and the Red Indian tribes of America both had rituals of thanks giving to the spirit of the animal they had successfully hunted down. They both, through chanting, song and dance thanked the spirit of the animal for giving up its life so that they could live. Today as the earth heats up with mans insatiable hunger for more under the false banner of progress we are now forced to accept that both these tribes were far more wise and understanding of mans place on this earth than we could have ever imagined.
Perhaps our history is not as black and white as I had thought.
I looked up to the beauty of the Karoo sunrise for an answer and watched as the clouds turned from dark red through almost the complete colour spectrum ending in a silver white. In the distance a single out of place dark cloud with the shape of an old man's face began to drop its rain and I swear it looked like my great grandfather, sad at my revelations and his implied guilt, crying.
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