Anticipating mirages

The activity around departure. The great decayed sogginess of dead leaves cleaned out of the roof gutters, more gravel layered on the new herb beds, the dogs smartly kitted out in their laundered tartan coats, kitchen floors washed. The shabby threadbare house set in order.

Half-asleep at dawn, I imagined the fata morgana of the long road ahead, those shimmering castles in the air, ghostly oases and peaks that appear in the middle of nowhere and then vanish as you reach them, the rainbow’s end deferred.

South African writer Pauline Smith of the mirages of the Karoo:

The country ahead of them now was flat as a calm grey sea, its veld unbroken by any kopje until the long low line of the Hermansdorp hills was reached. Yet in the shimmering heat of noon this sea became a strange fantastic world that slipped into being, vanished and slipped into being again as they gazed upon it. Around them now were ridges of hills where no hills could be, banks of trees where no trees grew, and water that was not water lying in sheets and lakes out of which rose strange dark islands and cliffs.

We don’t get to choose our heartland always, it is given or even forced upon us like an unwanted gift, it creeps into memories, nostalgia and hopefulness and just makes a home there. An accidental belonging that baffles others, monotonous and unceasing passion for place.  The Low Country of Carolina, the Rocky Mountains, forested mountain slopes in Montana, the chalky cliffs of Dover, the austere Welsh Marches, the jungles of Cambodia. We don’t always get to live there — for decades now I have been in political exile from Zimbabwe and die a little each year when I know the msasa trees of the Bvumba are turning  red and I am not there to see them — but the great lonely spaces of the Karoo are where my spirit is able to breathe. An ambuscade of light and cloud, dust-devils and shivering grasses, elusive shape-shifting horizons that recede as you approach.

Karel Schoeman

It is just there, a flat monotonous land, vast under the sun, with its profound silence and its remote distances, faraway hills hazy in the heat, the wind in the long grass and the dry scent of the afternoon; thorn trees, a rare road, an arching heaven — what else can one say of it?  An aloof detached land that asks no love, but when love has been given irrevocably, and nothing else matters, nothing else worth loving remains.


Karoo 2

Lemons in season

A surplus of bumpy thick-skinned organic Eureka lemons on the tree I planted as a tiddly sapling eight or nine years ago. Plugged up a heavy glass jar of salted preserved lemons that will be ready to be rinsed and julienned for tagines in about five weeks. Giving lemons away to anyone who wants them, squeezing lemon juice over ripe avocados, chopped salads, sliced apples. For my solitary lunch today, I shall make a small barley risotto with lemon juice, feta and bright green petits pois, with a handful of chopped mint from the garden. Earlier I had a splash of lemon juice in hot water in my ‘healthy living’ glass.  Tomorrow I shall roast a chicken with lemons and garlic. Then make a lemony syrup  polenta cake, maybe? Lemons and black peppercorns, freshly ground, are standbys in the kitchen, but it is possible to have too many lemons.


Chasing the Great Dane out of the new herb bed, which looks muddier than ever and lacking proportion.  My protective herb garden excitement makes the dogs want to sit down on  small spriggy thymes so as to get my undivided attention. That is how dogs work. I want the kind of herb garden that wins acclaim at French design shows and  is still rustic, simple, practical and informal, with endless variety and culinary appeal. That is a gardener’s crackpot vanity.

Planning my next trip and realising I made a mistake in not booking mountain  huts sooner. I need to get up into big red mountains and look at delicate faded rock art, find out old names for plants and  geological formations, old paths through the kloofs leading to semi-desert plains. I want to take cuttings of  succulents (not in the wild, not illegally) to repot at home — there are lithops collectors to see. I want to make sure I have binoculars on me in case I spot a Black Sparrowhawk or African Olive Pigeon. And then there is the question of beds and fireplaces and a sunny spot  overlooking the river where I can read and make notes. Supplies of  basic foods, torches, firewood, extra blankets for winter nights. A notebook in which to write down translations of  the ancient Khoi and San names for places and  rivers and  rock formations.


… indigenous people, whether in the Arctic Circle or the Australian bush, have always known what some people in the so-called developed world are just discovering: that language and the land are continuous. Indigenous people have always known that the land (and the other, human and non-human, creatures who live there) informs the language of its inhabitants. Only an illiterate invader thinks of this river, that herd of bison, or the wind itself as a mere resource; only a benighted land-management consultant can blissfully ignore the fact that our relationship to the land around us is, or should be, a dialogue and that participation in that dialogue can involve deep knowledge, not only of the words, but also of the things they denote

After the storm, a rainbow

Luminous moments. Hearing Obama’s eulogy for the Rev Clementa Pinckney in Charleston and his a capella rendition of Amazing Grace. Seamlessly in keeping with the  grace and forgiveness shown by grieving church members towards a loathsome killer, the moral high ground claimed and held, far more significant and powerful a gesture than the rantings about gun control or race hatred. Obama’s clarity in sounding a warning against mercy without justice:

But it would be a betrayal of everything Rev. Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again. Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on—to go back to business as usual. That’s what we so often do, to avoid the uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society. To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change. That’s how we lose our way again.


Glancing up from my desk to see my Twitter feed go crazy right after the US Supreme Court ruling on marriage. News of impromptu ‘rainbow’ parties all; around Cape Town, rejoicing  in a country  where LGBT rights have been law since 1994, on a continent where lesbian women and gay men can still be killed or persecuted for living together openly. A long way to go but  change  sometimes takes us by surprise.


Tom Robbins:

“Love is the ultimate outlaw. It just won’t adhere to any rules. The most any of us can do is to sign on as its accomplice. Instead of vowing to honor and obey, maybe we should swear to aid and abet. That would mean that security is out of the question. The words “make” and “stay” become inappropriate. My love for you has no strings attached. I love you for free.”