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

South African Country Life - - In This Issue - WORDS AND PIC­TURES OBIE OBER­HOLZER

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’.

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