Photo es­say

The charm of road­side ru­ins and their sto­ries

go! Platteland - - CONTENTS -

The crunch of old bro­ken glass un­der my feet, the rus­tle of pi­geons star­tled from their sleep on rot­ting rafters, the musty smell of crum­bling walls and the view through a win­dow­less frame that looks over a for­got­ten wheat field. This is what fu­els my imag­i­na­tion.

I’ve al­ways had a fas­ci­na­tion with ru­ins. I think it’s the mys­tery of them that at­tracts me. Who lived there? Why did they leave? Was it some fam­ily tragedy, like the death of a child or a wife in child­birth, or a farm that be­came un­pro­duc­tive and had to be aban­doned? There is also the im­mense si­lence that I find ther­a­peu­tic in this noisy age of bur­glar alarms, hoot­ing cars and bustling city life.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve been try­ing to doc­u­ment as many ru­ins as pos­si­ble, be­fore they dis­solve into the ground or are swept away by mod­ern de­vel­op­ment. A big pho­to­graphic in­flu­ence was Arthur El­liott, a US am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­pher who came to the Cape as a refugee in 1900 and had the fore­sight to doc­u­ment many old build­ings with his prized quar­ter-plate cam­era as they were dis­ap­pear­ing or crum­bling to dust, even then. He would wait for hours or even days un­til he got ex­actly the right light, and found peo­ple – some­times a res­i­dent or a model – to pose in the photo, thought­fully placed in a scene to add a bit of drama or mys­tery.

I usu­ally don’t have as much time as he did: my ruin pho­tos are of­ten taken dur­ing road trips when my trav­el­ling part­ner has to en­dure be­ing pulled over to the verge of many a high­way or farm road as I snap away at some rot­ting ar­chi­tec­tural relic while other mo­torists whizz by or shout ob­scen­i­ties at me for ob­struct­ing the road… >

But I don’t see a rot­ting relic – to me, as the Imo­gen Heap song says, “There’s beauty in the break­down.” As the old plas­ter peels off, I can mar­vel at the skil­fully built stone walls re­vealed be­neath (some­times built by slaves), or crudely packed to­gether rocks and koffiek­lip filled in with beach or river peb­bles. My sharp eye can spot pieces of pot­tery and porce­lain catch­ing the sun­light along­side an old ruin, some­times still ly­ing undis­turbed on the sur­face ex­actly where they were dis­carded decades or even cen­turies ago. A prized wil­low-pat­tern din­ner plate that sur­vived an ar­du­ous ox-wagon trek, only to be dropped and bro­ken dur­ing a care­less mo­ment, or a wine bot­tle tossed into the veld af­ter the con­tents have been emp­tied with gusto – each shard has a story.

And here’s the rub: although I’m a pas­sion­ate preser­va­tion­ist, I have to ad­mit that when a ru­ined house is oc­ca­sion­ally re­stored I feel a lit­tle sad. Although the build­ing has been saved for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to en­joy, a lit­tle bit of the mys­tery and magic is lost. I’d pre­fer that the build­ing was pre­served at the ex­pense of the mys­tery, though.

There’s still one place I haven’t pho­tographed, the holy grail of ru­ins as far as I’m con­cerned: the aban­doned Ger­man di­a­mond­min­ing town of Kol­man­skop near Lüderitz in Namibia. Its at­trac­tive houses half-sub­merged in sand dunes have al­ways fas­ci­nated me, and I must get there soon – it’s def­i­nitely one for my bucket list. Any­body want to drive there with me?

Last stand Point­ing like a sculp­tural fin­ger into the sky, this dis­solv­ing frag­ment is all that’s left of a mud brick house not far from Matjies­fontein. Brick by brick An­other one bites the dust on the Houtk­loof Road near Napier.

A piece of the puz­zle Of­ten I find small shards of old bro­ken porce­lain, earth­en­ware or glass near a ruin. These frag­ments can help ar­chae­ol­o­gists to date the build­ing, and should never be moved or re­moved from the site. I pho­to­graph them and leave...

Stair­way to yes­ter­day One of the most fas­ci­nat­ing ru­ins I’ve come across is De Gren­del, a beau­ti­fully built stone struc­ture that is rapidly de­te­ri­o­rat­ing at the top of Deer Park in Cape Town. Now hid­den un­der thick bushes and trees, the house was...

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