Songs of the Road

If time is a river, and the river a road, then the long road winding 1400km from Joburg to Cape Town is both distance and time, surface and depth, ripple and bend, present and past.

All journeys begin with a parting, with a saying of goodbyes: goodbye to our grand-daughter, Olivia, just three days old; goodbye to Tom, aged four; goodbye to my daughter and son-in-law and his parents, who have flown up from the coast to help with the newborn; goodbye to their house in Greenside, where we have stayed since we said goodbye to the house in Parkmore that we rented for more than four years – goodbye, goodbye!

Silence, as you drive through the Sunday suburbs; silence as the distance sinks in, and the river murmurs.

The highway that leads out of the city is a highway leading out of any city, anywhere – a flickering newsreel of bridges and flyovers, rusted rooftops and vibracrete walls, low-cost housing, signs and billboards, traffic crawling like bugs in the brown morning smog.

And then the city vanishes, just like that. The road opens and clears, the river rushes forward, time dips in its oar and away you go. I am alone with my memories and thoughts and my mind wanders, a free flow of recollections, associations, things forgotten and found. All the while I am watching the road, watching the countryside glide by, the car humming pleasantly along in the rhythm of the river. I turn on the music – because I am driving alone, I can turn up the volume as much as I like, and soon the sound fills the car and I am singing lustily along, The Beatles, the Stones, The Police, Bob Dylan, Dire Straits, Elton John, Diana Krall, Melody Gardot, The Eagles, Queen, Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin, Oliver Mtukudzi, Freshly Ground, Mango Groove, Johnny Clegg, the soundtrack of my life.

Over the Vaal River and out of Gauteng, on through the colours, khaki, blue, orange and green of the Free State’s big skies and fertile farmlands, koppies and hills, pushing on and on into the Northern Cape, stony and dry. My first stop is Tzamenkomst, a stone-built lodge on the Orange River, six-and-a-half hour’s drive from the City of Gold, not too long a day but far enough to be well on my way. A green oasis given life by the river, and time for a beer.

Before dinner I take a short walk down to the bank of the river to take a few photographs, and on my way back to the lodge I am diffidently stopped by a middle-aged couple: you look like you’re a professional photographer, the man says, can I ask your advice about what lenses I should buy? I am absolutely not a professional, I tell him, but I am a keen photographer – what kind of photography do you do? Just a beginner, he says, still learning the ropes – but wildlife, birds – he has a new pair of Leica Ultravids round his neck. So we fall into a conversation about lenses and photography and before I know it it is time for dinner and drinks and a whiskey and bed.

The next day is another six hour’s drive, the bands of my youth bouncing off the landscape, the freedom of the road that is time and a river roaring loud in my ears. My lungs are full of fresh air, my heart sings with the tyres and the tarmac and the land sliding by. I’m in Matjiesfontein by two, checking in to the Lord Milner, a grand old colonial dame of a Karoo hotel. There is load-shedding that night, which means the power has gone out, and the hotel’s generator has gone on strike, so I sit outside on the verandah in the gathering dark, alone in the candelight, listening to a tableful of loud brash engineers who are constructing a wind farm somewhere between here and Sutherland, or so I gather, full of bullshit and hot air. I am mildly irritated but at the same time it’s okay – I’ve been there, I know the drill, I was that young man once. I am up the next morning before sunrise to take a few photographs, and the engineers are there already, drifting out of the hotel, climbing into their bakkies, headlights on, heading out to the day’s work.

I make a more leisurely start, knowing I have an easy three-and-a-half hour’s drive, dropping down from the dry stark plateau into the sudden green of the Hex River Valley, through the high magical kloofs that descend into Wellington, climbing again to the Du Toits Kloof tunnel, before the final descent and the waves upon waves of vine-clad hills that fall through the outlying suburbs into the city of Cape Town.

Soon I will turn around again, this time by air, and cover the 1400km back to Johannesburg in just on two hours, leaving my car parked at my mother’s, our goodbyes a foretaste of a longer goodbye, as I prepare for the long flight via Paris in just a few more days to my home in Canada. But first I will take her for lunches and drives, we will chat and remember, and I will remind her when she grows sad that yes, I will be back – Rob and I will both be back – for her 90th birthday, on December 3rd. Just six weeks away – but she knows, and I know, that returning in December is just a pause in the flood, before the river takes us away again, to our lives in Toronto.

I interview myself

In this series of posts, Glen the apprentice writer interviews Glen the apprentice photographer.

There are common threads.

First up, as a non-professional – someone with a day job, a family, obligations and commitments – how on earth do you create a viable path between the pressures of daily life and the urge to write or the need to make photographs?

How do you keep the dream, whatever it is, alive – how do you keep going?

How have my ideas about writing and photography, my passion for words and images, been shaped by my family background and personal history – by my parents and grandparents, by where I grew up, when, and with who?

In other words, what are the many conscious and unconscious influences that have shaped me as an apprentice writer or photographer? What debts do I owe?

Not to mention the one big, mysterious and perhaps unanswerable question: why does one choose to write or make images in the first place?

So this is not a blog about photographic gear, lists of photographic do’s or don’ts, tips and techniques – though I may, as the interviewer in me probes, touch on some of these things. It is a blog about image-making, in words and in pictures, and how making images arises from the rich or sandy soils of our lives. My life, in this case.

If life is a journey, so too is the business of learning to write and make photographs. As with most journeys there are unexpected twists and turns, dead-ends and highways, roads not taken and surprising destinations. It’s not a straight road, by any means.

So let’s get on with it.

Interviewer: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you become interested in photography?

Me: I must have been eight or nine, maybe ten. I was given an old Brownie

box camera Browniewhich must have belonged to my grandfather, and which I never actually used, so far as I can remember. But there it was, with its dusty leatherette covering, its smeary little lens, it’s really very basic construction, and it somehow took up a place on the empty shelf of my imagination.

Later there was a Fuji camera (I think) and a Kodak Instamatic,

DCF 1.0also gifts from my grandfather.

Pooch, as we called him, was in the film and photography business. As a younger man he had worked for MGM in South Africa, and he had a watch to prove it. He had gone on to become owner of a cinema in Cape Town, and was involved in establishing one of the first drive-in cinemas in the city. But he was cheated out of the business by his partner – this at least was the story, whispered but not really communicated – that I picked up as a child.

My grandfather went on to establish a small viewing cinema where the Censorship Board would view – and cut – movies before they could be viewed by the public, and one of my enduring memories is of standing in the projection room, turning the dials on the projector to keep the carbon rods that provided the light aligned, while the censors were sitting below busy banning Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night. Which means I must have been about 14 at the time.

Having a camera was one thing, having film was another. And getting the film developed and printed was another thing again. I would be given some film as a present, for birthdays or Christmas; I would (very sparingly) compose, and focus, and press the shutter a few times – and then, when the 12 or 24 exposures were made, I would hand the film to my dad in the hope it would be processed. And that, often as not, was that. By the time I saw my pictures – if I saw them at all – I would have forgotten what was in them, let alone remember how I had taken them.

My grandfather, though, was always taking pictures of us, or shooting home movies – he had a 16mm Bolex

Bolexwith which he sometimes shot commercial footage. And my dad was a very capable, if conventional photographer. So there were always cameras and photographs – slides, mostly, from my dad’s business trips abroad, and of course family photos – about. I guess that must have had an effect.

Interviewer: Tell me about these images.

Me: Well, at one level, they’re about a family reunion. My son and his wife and my grandson came out to South Africa from London, just before Easter, my wife and I, my eldest daughter and her son flew down from Johannesburg, and we had a big family get-together in Simonstown, about 40km round the False Bay coast from Cape Town. We rented an AirBnB above the historic naval harbour, and these are the views from our balcony.

But these images of course are also about the light, the sky, the sea, the cloudscapes. As a photographer you want to do more than simply say, ‘we were here. This is what it looked like.’ So you try to choose the moment.

Interviewer: Have you always approached your photography this way? Choosing your moment?

Me: Yes and no. When you’re an amateur photographer, as I am, not a pro, photography is something you have to fit into the rest of your life – growing up, getting married, having children, finding a job, pursuing a career. So your photography changes according to your circumstances, according to which stage of your life you’re in. At least, that’s been my experience.

Interviewer: Are you pleased with these images?

Me: Yes. I think I am. As images go, they’re not what you’d call out of the ordinary. But they are workmanlike, I think, and I worked quite carefully on the post-production, to try to bring out the qualities of the light, and the skies, and lift the images up a bit, without getting into that dreadful over-saturation and over-sharpening that is something of a disease these days.

Of penguins and travel

We have been up and down the country, Rob and I, over the past two weeks – two weeks ago we were in Cape Town, on business, and last weekend we drove a rented car up to the Marakele National Park, near Thabazimbi in Limpopo Province.

Cape Town was gorgeous, blue skies, sunshine – and of course no rain. The water situation is critical. Every sip and drop precious.

We stayed with my mom, and over the weekend took her out for lunch at The Cellars restaurant at the Hohenort, where we took in an exhibition of Ardmore ceramics. This was the stuff we had seen last year in the Natal Midlands – crazy, fantastical, and way beyond our snack bracket. But still fun to look at.

On Sunday Rob and I took off for the V&A Waterfront, and a visit to the Zeitz-Mocaa – this will be a fixture on our calendar, I can see. And then in the afternoon we took my mom down to Boulders Beach, to see the penguins, and followed this up with dinner in Simonstown, down in the harbour. All rather pleasant.

Marakele was a rather different experience – glamping at the Bontle campsite, with rain making the Saturday pretty much a washout. Still, we slipped and slithered over the muddy roads, and had a few sightings before heading back to ‘camp’ for red wine and a braai. Sunday saw the weather improve – we drove up to the upper camp, and did a great circuit high up in the mountains above the Tlope campsite, and saw giraffe and zebra, a huge elephant, kudu, a variety of birds and so on.

Drove back to Joburg on the Sunday afternoon, with a memory card of photos and a tick bite to remember Marakele by. By mid-week the bite had become a nasty swelling, and by Friday the ominous black centre was more than visible. A visit to the doctor may just have averted a full-on dose of tick bite fever, though I have had a slight temperature, swollen glands etc.

Woke feeling quite a bit better this morning, which means there are photographs – this first lot is of the penguins at Boulders. There will be more from our travels to follow.

Cape Town, Table Mountain

We have for today only one offering, photographically speaking: a tongue-in-cheek image of Table Mountain, masked by a garage forecourt – the city undisturbed by and unaware of its extraordinarily beautiful and majestic natural surroundings.

The image may mildly amuse you, or it may leave you stone cold – I offer it merely as a pictorial token of life’s little ironies.

For friends and family, all well on the home front here, and on the work front too. Oh, and we are booked to fly back to Canada via London on the 20th of April, for a two week visit (me) and a slightly longer stay (Rob). Details to follow, via the appropriate channels.


Cape Town, Table Mountain

Zeitz-MOCAA Cape Town

The new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa – Zeitz-MOCAA – is an instant architural landmark, both global and local, and an extraordinary addition to Cape Town’s cultural scene and to the V&A Waterfront.

Rob and I were lucky enough to get in on the opening weekend (there were 1 ½ hour line-ups, but we bought memberships, and skipped the queue) but the place was way too crowded to enjoy the artworks, and in any case the architecture itself was a thing of wonder.

So we wandered around, gazing up into the cathedral-like concrete flutes that rose towards the skylights, looking down the spiralling iron staircase and into the well of the cathedral, and I took a few photographs.

The structure itself is light-filled and airy, a honey-comb or corn cob, but the lines are so strong and dramatic, the architecture so bold, that I have chosen to adopt a more dramatic treatment.

My new photo blog is still under construction, so here are the images. Some or all of them are likely to be repeated, when the new blog is up. I hope you enjoy them here meanwhile.

The Cape, Mothers Day

I had had my misgivings, as readers of this blog will know, about the weather expected across South Africa on Mothers Day, last Sunday. But, contrary to expectation, the Cape was in glorious form – warm, bright, still, the sea on both sides of Cape Point calm as a pond, the waves turning crisply white as they reached the shore.

I took my 85 year-old mom – she could pass easily for 70, and a pretty nimble 70 year-old at that – for a variant on one of our usual drives, this time over the high road above Kalk Bay, along the coast toward Simonstown, and up over the steep Redhill pass to the crest of the mountain and down again onto the Scarborough side.

At Scarborough we drove down to the beach, a picture of tranquillity, and then on to Witsand, where I was taken by the shadow-lines on the white sands from the wind-breaks, and stopped to take some more pictures with the Leica (Digilux Typ 109) – still my go-to camera when I’m traveling light, or traveling on business.

Here are some images – old hat for Capetonians, but maybe an incentive for some of our family and friends in Canada and the US – and indeed elsewhere – to consider a visit.