Literature, travel and geography blend in this wonderful evocation our country

Review: Vivien Horler

Place – South African literary journeys, by Justin Fox (Umlazi)

Overberg Landscape, by Erik Laubscher

Where is your best place? When you die, where do you want your ashes scattered?

(If you believe in burial, I assume you would not want to be interred in the sandy wastes of Maitland Cemetery. Well, I wouldn’t.)

I grew up the daughter of a woman born in the shadow of Trencrom Hill in Cornwall, the site of an ancient hill fort. The family was not wealthy and toys were few, but the hill was where they climbed, walked and played. “Poor Granny,” my young son once commented. “She only had a hill to play with.”

I have lived on the edge of Zandvlei in Cape Town’s Lakeside for the past 24 years, watching the sun rise and set over the water, the coots and terns and cormorants. We have swum in the vlei (not so much now), paddled our canoes, and walked along its shores.

My aangetroude family own a beach house on the Island at Great Brak River, which I have been visiting since 1976. I was 24 when I first went there, 72 now, and that beach, that wide expanse of sand and rock and sea and sky, have been central to my life.

These are the places that are intrinsic to me, and many of the people I love.

Justin Fox’s wonderful account of a series of literary journeys around SA, focusing on the places that were meaningful to a galaxy of our most distinguished writers, is a great read.

The probable genesis of his life as a traveller – he has done many things but at one stage was editor of Getaway magazine – was a family journey to Europe in 1973, when he was about six. This culminated in two months in Greece, on the islands of Patmos and Santorini. It was, he writes, his “season in paradise”.

Shortly after that he was taken to the Cederberg for the first time, and the view from the top of Kouberg Pass down to the whitewashed village of Wupperthal, gave him “a jolt of recognition. Everything about the village was familiar: the whitewashed houses, the chiming church bell, donkey traffic…”

And so was born a lifelong love of travel, much of which has been around South Africa and Africa. But he’s not just a travel junkie – he’s also a reader and a thinker, and this volume is the result.

He writes a thoughtful and philosophical introduction, titled Spirits of Place, which is certainly worth reading, but if you find it a touch academic (Fox has a PhD in English from Oxford, after all), don’t let that put you off.

The descriptions of the actual journeys are lively and interesting, and a fabulous reminder of our rich heritage.

He writes of setting off in his trusty 4X4 with a bag of books on the passenger seat instead of maps, intent on following “the meandering paths through the landscapes of literature, [to] celebrate how local authors, characters and readers are shaped and inspired by place…”

His series of journeys celebrate places and writers he loves. It is a travelogue that takes him “to the mountainous, moonstruck eastern Karoo of Olive Schreiner, to the towering Drakensberg escarpment and big-game Lowveld of Sir Percy FitzPatrick, to the vast emptiness of the open veld evoked by Denys Reitz, to the pioneer highlands of Eugene Marais’s Waterberg, to the dreamy bushveld of Herman Charles Bosman’s Marico, to the plains of thirst, dust and heat of JM Coetzee’s Moordenaars Karoo, to the ancient forest of Dalene Matthee’s Garden Route, to the rondavel-topped hills and tropical shores of Zakes Mda’s Wild Coast, and finally to the sandstone heights of Stephen Watson’s Cederberg”.

He adds: “My choice of literary works is all about places of the heart, both for the authors and myself… All the books chosen are in a sense love letters to South Africa, saturated with a passion for the land.”

The authors he focuses on are all products of their pasts, and yet the collage created is an evocative history of our country, from colonialism to revolt against colonialism, from war to the charm of the Marico, and the concern for the threatened beauty of places like the Wild Coast and the Knysna forest.

This travelogue can be read on a number of levels – history, geographical beauty, literature and how landscape affects literature.

But he also considers his own growing disillusionment with South Africa, the crime, corruption, economic depression “and the erosion of things I hold dear”. He looks at the record of SA literary superstars JM Coetzee and Stephen Watson, who both considered emigration, with Coetzee leaving for Australia and Watson choosing to stay.

In his afterword, titled Praesidio, he returns to this theme. “Colonial SA destroyed so much of what indigenous SA held dear, and it seems inevitable that one way or another, whether by intent or as collateral damage, the new custodians will destroy much of what conservationist SA holds dear. Such is history.”

Visitors say, “Ah, but your land is beautiful,” but he asks, “is beauty enough in this land of damaged people”?

He writes: “Though Watson, I’ve begun to believe that perhaps beauty is enough. This place is home, and one’s attachment to the first places one learns to love, one’s sacred spaces, is unshakeable.”

He concludes: “Perhaps there is a lesson in localism here: to be locally patriotic, to love the spirit of a certain corner of the land rather than biting off the whole nation, which is indigestible.”

If you love books, if you love this country of ours, read this book.

  • Place was one of Exclusive Books’s top reads for May.


2 thoughts on “Literature, travel and geography blend in this wonderful evocation our country

  1. David Bristow

    Through the hard work of many people, in council and out, the water in Zandvlei is once again as clean as it’s ever been. An elderley lady (like us!) came swimming up our canal just last week. But it will take some time before it catches on again. There are still occassional “leaks”.


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