The Kingdom of Mier
The border of the Kgalagadi, Namibia and Botswana is a harsh, tough place. You can see it in the people’s eyes. It’s our gramadoelas, our hinterland, our outback. But look closely and you will find true humanity and love
In the harsh gramadoelas of our Northern Cape lie true humanity and love COVER STORY
My friend had a Colt 45. My memory of this pistol still lies heavy and strong in my hand even if many years have passed since we played Pat Garret and Billy the Kid with it. Once or twice we even played Russian roulette with this Colt. Even though the player who spun the chamber with a used round didn’t end up with his brains against a wall, the click of the pistol’s hammer against the cartridge brought a deathly jerk.
Now that my friend, my outlaw ego and Pat and Billy are long dead, I might as well tell you about how I got to a place called Mier.
One of the greatest things about travel, for me, is its unpredictability. To travel to places that all reason tells me not to go to, I play map roulette, preferably with a spinning sushi table. I don’t have one, so I use my wife instead, as she is strong and good at spinning me all sorts of stuff.
Firstly, I start off by ‘spinning the bottle’. No-no... not the one we played as teenagers where you had the off chance of kissing a girl, but the one that I do at times now, spinning a couple of drinks. So you lay the map out on a table and you put on one of those ‘aeroplane sleeping masks’ and your wife spins a map of Southern Africa around and around. In the darkness, with the map spinning and your head also slightly moving, you wait – wait – wait, until your intuition takes you and only then do you press down on a point. One press – one place.
I am enthralled to see that I have pressed between Groot Mier and Klein Mier. These dorpies lie in a finger of land that borders the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Namibia and Botswana. So I saddle my posse, pack my colts (well, cameras), sleeping bag, Lynn and biltong, and gallop away to the north from my ranch in the south. Many kilometres north, in Kenhart, I walk into the saloon and thump my fist down on the counter and say, “More whisky and fresh horses for my men.”
After crossing the Orange River at a place called Upington, we enter the vast hinterland and municipality of Mier, said to be one of the biggest in South Africa. It includes the communities of Rietfontein, Philandersbron, Loubos, Askham, Noenieput and, wait for it – (the sound of a bugle fanfare) – Groot and Klein Mier. It comes as a happy surprise to me that one of the world’s ancient tribes, the ‡Khomani San, owns farms in the Mier area.
Travelling a good long way north from Upington, I note that my posse is getting increasingly raucous from the whisky they have obtained, so in a swift movement I swop my horse bridal for the worn steering wheel of my 2001 Isuzu bakkie, and leave Pat and Billy whooping it up behind.
As the tar road stretches north, long, red sand dunes start to form linear streets at a north-west, south-east direction to the road. Later, a farmer of the area tells me they are formed over millennia by the prevailing winds of the Kalahari.
Recent good rains have layered this part of the Kalahari with a green quilt of grass, with only patches of the famed red sands showing at the top of the sand dunes. I move my arm out of the window across the endless landscape and say, “Looks like Wyoming.” We have arrived in the heartland of the Green Kalahari.
Finally driving into Groot Mier, I am not transported into visual jubilation. There are a few houses dotted at irregular intervals, a municipality building, a church and a primary school. We drive into town, looking rough and toughened like an outlaw posse. We arrive in the late afternoon, with the locals
already sitting on their verandas enjoying the peaceful vistas that by all measures stretch from yesterday, through today and probably well into tomorrow.
My senses tell me that this is a place of goodness, a town of humble and religious people. How right intuition comes to be. We wave and the townsfolk smile and wave back. I have arranged to meet up with Gertruida from the local Mier tourism office. This proves to be a cinch as, unbeknown to me, everyone in town knows everybody else and is related in some way or other.
So one old man says that Getruida is his second cousin and, two roads further down, Auntie Hessie explains that Getruida is her second husband’s daughter’s mother’s sister. This takes a while to explain and makes me realise that time takes a lot longer here in the Kingdom of Mier.
When I finally stop in front of Getruida’s house she is sitting where she is supposed to be – on her stoep. She is surprised, almost embarrassed, to see a slightly ruffled traveller who doesn’t really look like a tourist. In fact, she glares at me as if I am from Planet Pluto. I shake her hand gently, calm her with a smile and say that we are not from Planet Pluto, but from Plastic Plett.
She explains at length that tourist accommodation in the Mier District is as scarce as floods in summer. Would we mind staying in the abandoned, famed mansion of the legend of the area, Dirk Philander? I hug her with joy, as the word ‘abandoned’ always conjures up pictorial delights for me.
We drive to an enormous, brick mansion (now called Strauss Guesthouse) that looks a lot like the Kalahari version of Bram Stoker’s castle in the Count Dracula stories. There is not a knife or a fork in this rambling house, all the windows had been covered with newspaper, and not one piece of furniture exists in the whole damn place.
With delight we throw our mattress in one corner with our camping equipment nearby and do a little zombie jig into the darkened passages. Beneath our balcony is a large empty swimming pool with a puddle of brown water with dead frogs in it. Off to the right past a wall with little turrets and broken lights on it is a once-gurgling water feature, now as dry and sad as a Namib rock garden. To the side of the property is a small spaza shop and a heavily burglar-barred bottle store. Behind this is a small building with a sign in the window that reads, ‘Lyk[s]huis’ (mortuary).
So each day that arrives with a painted yellow-orange in the east, I throw out my antennae of perception and sketch what I can. Time and fate place objects in my path and I gather them up, however small they are.
The first Lutheran missionaries who passed through here from the then-neighbouring Deutsch Südwestafrika, called this area Mere, due to the many salt pans in the area. Time and
Afrikaans slowly twisted it to Mier.
In my wanderings through Groot and
Klein Mier, I speak to Ben Boorman and Gert Pottebrood and Klaas Oortjies and Bernhard Maakklaar and Barend Bakore and Ouma Hannebreek. They all exist on the edge of harshness, squeezing out a living with subsistence farming. Most of the houses are small and well kept with pride, often with a small patch of lawn and a few plants and shrubs that wait in hope for rain.
In the backyards there are often old cars hoping for spare parts, lying patiently under dust, waiting to be driven again someday. Then there are drums, water pipes, tiles, gutters, frayed tyres and always, without fail, washed sheets and clothes dancing in the breeze.
At intervals there are kraals for the donkeys, mules, goats, sheep and some good-looking horses. Once, on my drive-abouts, four teenage boys pass me in a donkey cart. The beauty of simplicity, the whispers of a time slowly fading, is being overtaken by a cart filled with laughing boys.
I stop my bakkie and scribble in my notebook, ‘Here the toughness of life affects all, but faith and humility and a relentless belief in the joys of life win many a day, many a year. Learn and observe I can do right here, for indeed there are many lessons here in this faraway place between the saltpans and the dunes of the Kalahari. In this area, life walks the corrugated road of hope and sometimes despair, with a sincere belief that a greater being exists, in fact abounds, in the hearts of those that live here’.
Frikkie, a chubby young man with a shining, laughing face, takes me around the Klein Mier Pan to his brother’s farm over the sand dunes on the other side. Soon we are locked into four-wheel drive and the Isuzu bakkie struggles valiantly up and down the red sand dunes. Briefly, we spot a jackal watching us from behind some saltbushes, then it runs for dear life as it senses that death comes quickly here from the barrel of a gun.
Finally, the track throws down a challenge on the tallest dune in the area. Almost at the top, my bakkie throws in the towel and we laugh, climb out and huff and puff our way to the top. Once there, we pause awhile to catch our breath and then view the 360-degree vista.
Frikkie looks at me and says that I did well for an old man. Funny, I think, with a smirk. In the distance, stretching out from almost one horizon to another, lies the famous Hakskeen Pan. In the past two years, under the auspices of the Bloodhound SSC, a 20-kilometre-long, 1 100metre-wide stretch of the pan has been swept clean by a large group of locals for
a new land-speed record attempt of more than 1 300km/h. Frikkie explains that the name
(heel) was given to this enormous hakskeen salt pan by British colonial troops who blistered their heels while stationed here during World War I, to keep an eye on the Deutsche Schutztruppen across the border in German South West Africa.
With our easier downhill slide, I enquire about the funniest storyteller in the two communities. Without a blink of an eye, Frikkie replies that it is, without doubt, his father.
How much time do we have – three weeks? We slither further down the red dune; another jackal scampers off and, in the distance, a herd of cattle grazes peacefully.
Albertus ‘Allie’ Mouton greets us in warm friendliness, and I see without knowing that this is going to be like talking to the salt of the earth. We sit in the shade of an old camel thorn tree where the shadow of the branches forms intricate patterns like graphic doodles in a book. He is 70 years old, the same as me and, after some laughter about our undeniable youthfulness, he starts his storytelling until the shadows slowly stretch over the hard gravel of Klein Mier.
By the time Allie’s father died, he had fathered 15 children, and had 73 grandchildren and 39 great-grandchildren. I have chosen only one of the many stories, for there are so many that the rest will fill this magazine from front to back and back to front.
His parents lived in two small stone houses close to the old Kalahari Gemsbok Park, where his father worked as a ranger. The exactness of the numbers spoken here has been covered a little by the red sand of time. How strange it was that, each time the two midwives came to deliver another baby, a pride of lions would come from the wilderness and circle the birth hut. When evening came, they would spend the night around the hut. The door was kept bolted and nobody could enter or leave. This uncanny animal behaviour occurred several times when his wife was giving birth. Maybe the lions knew a lot more about the human psyche than we think? ‘Maybe’ and ‘perhaps’ are words tied to heaven and earth by an unknowing bow.
I thank Albertus Mouton with a handshake and a bow. Then I pack the bow in my bakkie and drive on towards Namibia. “Wait, wait,” he waves and shouts as we leave, “Did you know that there are a lot more people living in Klein Mier than in Groot Mier!”
I leave him standing there shaking with laughter, right there, in the shade of his camel thorn.
Johannes Titus tells Obie that life in Mier is hard, like the stones on the land and the scars on the trunk of the old shepherd’s tree that stands in his yard.
Nicklaas Kootjies (72) gives his cowboy hat a few last John Wayne strokes, before heading out to his flock of goats in the veld.
ABOVE RIGHT: Elizabeth Diergaardt loves her chickens that live in the coop behind her small RDP house in Mier.
RIGHT: Pointing his camera with a smile, Obie asks Abraham Beukes what he and his wife are doing sleeping outside in front of their house. “Simple,” he says. “It’s cooler with no mosquitoes.”
ABOVE: A locked gate protects and a camel thorn shades the tent of the Golden Star Ministries.
BELOW LEFT: Morning sun brings some warmth to the cold walls of the abandoned mortuary behind the shop and the bottle store on the outskirts of town.
ABOVE RIGHT: The first glow from the east brings early activity in a house beneath a windmill in Mier.
ABOVE: Plastic cool drink bottles, some filled with coloured dye, lie as decorations beneath a tree in the Klein Mier cemetery.
BELOW RIGHT: A broken television reflects the somewhat strange ambience of the rambling, deserted Strauss Guesthouse.
ABOVE RIGHT: Obie feels that, if space and distance and freedom and infinite lines with the earth touching the sky can be found, it must be here on the Hakskeenpan.
BELOW LEFT: In the yard behind Nicklaas Kootjies’ shed, a bakkie waits patiently for its resurrection day.
BELOW RIGHT: When Gerrit Snyders leaves to tend his goats in the Kalahari hills beyond town, his wife Liza’s mind takes her to her daily chores, to the cleaning and the sweeping and the washing of the clothes.
ABOVE: Boys on a donkey cart wave at Obie, on the gravel road between the villages of Groot Mier and Klein Mier.
ABOVE RIGHT: Obie writes, ‘A camera captures a smile and background patterns in a short moment of Allie Mouton’s life. My mind holds the stories that come from a lifetime of memories’.
ABOVE LEFT: Violet Snyders (14) gives a smile as large and sweet as the watermelon grown in her garden.
RIGHT: Obie drives out of Mier and into the sunset. ‘The people who live here remain as true and friendly as any I have met. For here, between the pans, lives the salt of the Earth’.