Merweville is a tiny town situated in the arid Karoo region of South Africa. I went there to look after someones cottage for a week and documented life in this quiet place. This is the first part of a planned series about Karoo towns.
WARNING: this is a GONZO style blog and the contents may contain profanity and radical views.
It’s an early, dark and cold morning in Calvinia. For the last three weeks I have been having severe chest problems, sucking on my inhaler like a chemical lusting vampire; missing the warm Malawi sun every minute. Months ago Theresa Ryan asked me if can look after her place in a town I know nothing about: Merweville is the tiny hub of a far flung farming community in the Western Cape province of South Africa.
For the first 100 kilometres I’m getting a lift with Martin Swart, a two night visitor to the Calvinia Magic Garden, the place I currently call home for who knows how long?
I have no expectations about my destination, the tiny settlement I will reach at some point today (hopefully). Through the past two years of travels I have learnt to set expectations aside. Travel in the moment, go with the flow, and take it as it comes. The rest is just an unnecessary burden. It will be what it will be.
The first part is easy. I do not have to wait long for rides, but just when I start to think that this is going to be a piece of cake after catching a fast lift on the outskirts of Fraserburg, I get stranded at a lesser known turnoff to Merweville which is seemingly hardly ever used to reach the town.
I only have about 40 kilometres to go. I find myself at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere and a feeling of vulnerability start to set in. I spent a few hours inventing activities to pass the time: throwing rocks at signs, playing guitar while making up silly songs and stepping on road markings while counting out aloud. Eventually I am picked up by a truck full of road workers.
The last 40 kilometres into town is a harrowing ride over wet gravel, the tyres slightly skidding from time to time as the young driver pushes on like he is trying out for the Dakar Rally, and once again I have to remind myself that there is nothing I can do but sit and give myself over to the ride, the movie that is spinning out of my control. There is nothing I can do about it anyway so there is no point in fearing the inevitable. It will be what it will be, but despite this I cannot help myself from imagining the yellow truck skidding and rolling over.
Eventually we make it all the way after the driver goes about 20 kilometres past their compound for an additional R 10, apparently a contribution for their nightly wine fund.
Merweville is a very small place consisting of one tarred main road with dirt streets branching off for about a block on either side. My first impressions is that it is way more charming than many other one horse towns I’ve been to in the past. It conjures up memories of innocent times when life was pure and beautiful, of a less complicated time when the world was made novel by the eyes of youth and innocence.
Theresa said all I had to do was ask around and that I will find her. In a town of this size you don’t need an address or Google maps, you simply ask: “I’m looking for Theresa…” the first name being enough. Chances are there is only on Theresa in town of whom most folks are aware.
I am directed to a tiny white cottage on the other side of the ‘river’, a wide dry bed that probably hasn’t seen any moisture since the drought began many years ago. Once there we finish off a quart of beer while getting to know each other. She would leave early the next morning and she explains what my duties would be: taking care of the two dogs, one semi-paralyzed cat, the chickens and the tame dove that has to be locked up every evening and set free again from its nightly voluntarily prison in the backyard shack in the mornings.
She warns me that some of the hens might lay their eggs in her bed, apparently to show off their produce to all occupiers of her home.
And so on my first morning alone I take the first egg from the bottom of her bedroom cupboard, still warm to the touch, and have it for breakfast.
I start following a routine of going for walks in the mornings and late afternoons to capture whatever happens to be going on, (which isn’t much). Mostly people hang around on the curbs making idle chatter, creating entertainment for each other with their thoughts, imagination and dexterous tongues.
The nights are deathly quiet. It’s quiet enough to hear your own thoughts. I imagine myself hearing the blood pulsing through my veins as I look at the stars while lying on the couch that is situated right next to the front door which is not used as a door any longer. For now it becomes my nightly window into space. (I’m still hoping for my first extra-terrestrial sighting).
I go visit the coloured community on the one side of town. Yes, it’s predominantly still like that all over South Africa, for the most part the coloured ‘working’ class and the white middle class are still separated, and in most Karoo towns I know the black community is so small that they become mere white noise; being there but almost not there at all.
This is not me being a ‘liberal’ or some sort of social activist, I’m tired of wasting my energy on shit that will probably never change; it’s simply an observation about how things stand. (Racism from all sides is still common, the only difference between now and the past is that people have learned to hide it better, out of necessity, because of the fear political correctness creates. These things cannot be changed with laws and ethics, real and lasting change must happen in the heart space. It takes a real and profound epiphany and deep understanding to change decades of collective programing.)
Like in the rest of the Karoo, people are poor and job opportunities are severely limited; and if the vegans had their way the Karoo; (which is predominantly a sheep farming region), would be filled with meaty, rotting, human corpses. Someone or something has to suffer or die so that others can live. This is the law of the universe. We humans ran the harrowing gauntlet of survival and we won, so now some of us feasts while others watch and wait for kitchen scraps. We are our own worst enemy, as I am mine.
The week passes at a slow pace. I visit the clinic and am surprised to see that it is highly functional. My anxiety brought on by the lack of inhalers dissipates when I leave with more than enough stash.
I’m eager to get lost in the bustle of the city again for a while. I cook simple meals with medium to low quality ingredients that are available from two shops and I crave for the culinary variety of the city. I see a young female baboon named Bella chained to a pole and become sad. (Fuck the human race!). Of course I know the counter argument will be some moral rationalization about the mother that died and that this is the only way… blah-blah-blah-bullshit… but still. At least build her a large cage or something man.
A human’s unique power to rationalize, a double edged sword, a curse and a blessing.
Slowly, without realizing it, the peace and the quiet, the stars and my newfound nuclear animal family slowly creeps into my heart. On my last night I am gripped with a strange dualistic sadness. One part of me craves other human company and the city lights, yet a deeper more mysterious part of me despairs at the thought of detaching from this solitary peace and dusty tranquillity.
On the last day I leave early in the morning. I have to walk a kilometre or so to get to the edge of town from where I can hitch, and this stroll gives me time to gradually extract myself from the strange spell I was put under by this place. I get a lift fairly quickly to a truck stop next to the N1. The car stops next to a trucker on his way towards Cape Town and I ask him for a lift in exchange for some cash. He obliges and drops me next to Worcester from where I catch another lift in a company bakkie. All these people were coloured. In general white people are too paranoid to pick up hitchers. They still think Africa and the rest of the world is out to get them. A minority group hangover I wish especially the hardegat Afrikaners will someday overcome.
By late afternoon I’m having a beer with my friend J.J. Stoltzman at his house in Sea Point. Merweville? Merweville… Oh yes, it’s that tiny town with a huge silence somewhere in the Karoo….