Not many peo­ple cel­e­brate their 95th birth­day by pub­lish­ing a new book! Au­thor Elsa Jou­bert talks to us about her trav­els and the jour­ney of get­ting older.


Cyn­thia Mtini, Elsa Jou­bert’s care­giver, guides the au­thor to a chair at a ta­ble next to a big win­dow with a view of Lion’s Head and Sig­nal Hill. “My legs are giv­ing me trou­ble,” Elsa says. “I strug­gle to walk. I lose my bal­ance.” She is 95 and has had two hip re­place­ments. Cyn­thia puts a glass of wa­ter down in front of her. It’s just af­ter 3 pm on a Fri­day and I’m sit­ting with Elsa in her two-bed­room flat in the Berghof re­tire­ment vil­lage in Gardens, Cape Town. Berghof is home to about 60 other res­i­dents – the av­er­age age is 88. Elsa pub­lished her first book, Wa­ter en Woestyn, 60 years ago. With a cam­era, a type­writer and a few trav­eller’s cheques, she trav­elled through Uganda, Su­dan and Egypt, fol­low­ing the Nile River from source to sea. “I wanted to travel alone be­cause you’re so much more de­pen­dent and more re­cep­tive when you’re on your own,” she writes in that first book. Elsa was a travel writ­ing pi­o­neer, vis­it­ing places in Africa, Europe, the Amer­i­cas and the Far East. Her trav­els were more than ge­o­graph­i­cal, how­ever, they were deeply per­sonal. Later, as an in­flu­en­tial nov­el­ist, she en­riched lo­cal literature with award-win­ning books like Die swer­f­jare van Pop­pie Non­gena (1978) – which was trans­lated into 13 lan­guages, in­clud­ing English as The Long Jour­ney of Pop­pie Non­gena. In 2002, Pop­pie Non­gena was named one of Africa’s 100 best books of the 20th cen­tury. It tells the story of a young woman’s long strug­gle against South Africa’s seg­re­ga­tion poli­cies and forced re­movals, while try­ing to keep her grow­ing fam­ily to­gether.

Elsa’s lat­est book Sper­tyd, which means “Dead­line”, was pub­lished in 2017, mak­ing her the old­est Afrikaans au­thor still work­ing. It’s an un­sen­ti­men­tal, in­tro­spec­tive and of­ten hu­mor­ous look at grow­ing old. “I never en­joyed dead­lines,” she says. “But when I told my son Nico that I’d be tak­ing my time with this book, he was quick to re­mind me that I would have to fin­ish it be­fore my dead­line. Nico was the one who in­spired the book. He said, ‘Mom, you’ve vis­ited so many strange places and writ­ten about your trav­els. Now you can ex­plore the con­ti­nent of old age.’” She leans for­ward and takes a sip of wa­ter. “It’s an odd place to be. I’m on the home stretch; few peo­ple make it past 95. It is how it is: You don’t have a say in how long you get to live.” Build­ing on Nico’s metaphor, she likens old age to an undis­cov­ered con­ti­nent. “You don’t know whether ev­ery­thing will be taken away from you or if you’ll re­main cheer­ful un­til the very end. No two ages are the same.” She doesn’t be­lieve that you’re only as old as you feel. “That’s rub­bish. You’re as young or as old as your body al­lows you to be. Once you re­alise this, you no longer feel guilty. You shouldn’t be self­cen­tred and only think about your own ail­ments. And don’t com­plain be­cause it only makes it worse for you and for those around you.”

To de­cide for your­self

Elsa wrote Sper­tyd in her study in the flat where we’re sit­ting. Her rou­tine was to write for a few hours in the morn­ing, take a break and work for an­other hour

in the af­ter­noon. Her grand­daugh­ter, Is­abeau Steytler, helped her with the tech­ni­cal as­pects of the man­u­script. “I worked on a com­puter and fin­ished just in time be­cause my typ­ing isn’t as pre­cise as it used to be. A com­puter is like an oc­to­pus – you’re typ­ing away and then it lifts a ten­ta­cle and makes a mess of things. It just stops or it does some­thing un­ex­pected. I’ve never even had a cell­phone. I’m not good with tech­nol­ogy.” Her late hus­band – her soul­mate – was the writer Klaas Steytler. He passed away in 1998 af­ter a bat­tle with cancer and he’s a con­stant pres­ence in Sper­tyd. Some­times a few words speak vol­umes: “I miss Klaas – where is Klaas?” Elsa has been a res­i­dent of Berghof for 16 years. “Writ­ing has made the past two decades mean­ing­ful for me,” she says. “How will I know what I thought if I can’t see what I wrote? It might sound silly, but my thoughts and be­liefs take form when I can see words on a page.” Some­where in the book, she men­tions that she’d like to take a note­book and a BIC pen with her to the af­ter­life. I ask her what her first jour­nal en­try will be when she gets there. She hes­i­tates and says: “Nee man, that’s a stretch too far for the imag­i­na­tion.”

Un­sur­pris­ingly, death is a ma­jor theme in Sper­tyd. “Death is played down in so­ci­ety and I’m not sure that’s a healthy way of deal­ing with it,” she says. “Peo­ple are scared and they’d pre­fer not to talk about it. But the only thing I can be sure of at my age is that I will die.” We pon­der death for a few more min­utes, then Elsa says: “My fa­ther-in­law of­ten told the story of some­thing a boy once said to him when he was work­ing as a school in­spec­tor in the Free State. The boy said, ‘But Sir, you ask very heavy asks.’ What we’re talk­ing about here is a heavy ask.” There’s real travel in Sper­tyd, too. Jou­bert was in her 80s when she went on a tour of the North­ern Cape and Namibia by train and bus. She trav­elled with a friend and vis­ited places like Au­gra­bies, Kol­man­skop, Wind­hoek, Etosha and Swakop­mund. It wasn’t plain sail­ing: She suf­fered from se­vere dizzi­ness and re­alised the phys­i­cal toll of such a trip was too much for her to bear at such an ad­vanced age. Com­ing home was a rev­e­la­tion: “My flat is my sal­va­tion, a refuge, a shel­ter…” she writes. “I can lie still and see trees through the win­dow, more scenic than the fa­mous desert views; the fur­thest, mys­ti­cal stone ridges.” Af­ter her tour of Namibia, Elsa de­cided long-dis­tance travel was no longer fea­si­ble. “It was eas­ier to ac­cept be­cause I was the one who had made the de­ci­sion,” she says. “No one told me what I could or couldn’t do. I also learnt an­other les­son: If you can no longer do some­thing, ac­cept your fate. Don’t keep try­ing.”

Keep the wheels turn­ing

Elsa never kept count of how many coun­tries she trav­elled to, but there were many. “I no longer have the en­ergy to go to all those places, but I can still think of them,” she says. “Es­pe­cially when I read some­thing in a news­pa­per about a place I once vis­ited.” As one of South Africa’s fore­most lit­er­ary voices, she has also had the op­por­tu­nity to meet some in­ter­est­ing peo­ple, in­clud­ing the late Nel­son Man­dela – a meet­ing she de­scribes in her book Reisiger. Madiba greeted her in Afrikaans and said, “Dis so ’n eer om die skry­wer van Die Staf van Monomo­tapa te ont­moet.” He’d read her Mozam­bique trav­el­ogue many times while im­pris­oned on Robben Is­land. “I would have known noth­ing about my new wife’s coun­try if I hadn’t read your book,” he said to her later. In Reisiger she also re­counts a visit to Madrid in 1949, and de­scribes the over­crowded tube sta­tion in de­tail. “It all comes back,” she says. “When I think of an event, I have a vis­ual mem­ory of it. Some­times it’s a bother be­cause there’s too much to think about. The mem­o­ries just keep com­ing. Ger­man au­thor WG Se­bald called it the writer’s ‘pe­cu­liar be­havioural dis­tur­bance’ – those wheels in your mind that won’t stop turn­ing.” She be­lieves in keep­ing busy. “You have to have some­thing to look for­ward to ev­ery day. I can’t go for my daily walks any more, which I find dif­fi­cult. I loved go­ing for a stroll, even if it was just around the gar­den out­side.” Cyn­thia en­ters the room and Elsa or­ders tea for the two of us. “The care­givers here play such an im­por­tant role if you’re on your own,” she says. “I ded­i­cated Sper­tyd to ev­ery­one who looks af­ter us here. It’s won­der­ful to get a cup of tea in bed in the morn­ing.” Her fam­ily mem­bers – in­clud­ing her four great-grand­chil­dren – form a valu­able sup­port sys­tem. “I can’t be­gin to tell you what my fam­ily means to me,” she says. “Klaas al­ways said that chil­dren sur­round you like cedar trees.”

Tran­quil­lity is some­thing the writer val­ues highly. In Sper­tyd, she writes that she can only find her­self in si­lence. “It’s about the quiet within,” she says. “Es­pe­cially when those wheels in your mind are spin­ning. You have to be open. You make con­tact with your­self and ex­pose your­self to in­de­scrib­able forces. Si­lence solves your prob­lems. You wake up the next day and your prob­lems are gone. It gives you per­spec­tive.” She has made peace with what the

“It all comes back,” she says. “When I think of an event, I have a vis­ual mem­ory of it. Some­times it’s a bother be­cause there’s too much to think about. The mem­o­ries just keep com­ing.”

rest of her life’s jour­ney may bring – and the in­evitable end. “Still, I don’t trust my­self,” she says. “When I feel death draw­ing near, there might be some­thing that will scare, sur­prise or stun me. You never know how you will re­act. I’ve seen the devout be­come hys­ter­i­cal on their deathbeds.” She re­cently had a rev­e­la­tion that put her mind at ease. “I’m not a mys­tic, and I didn’t nec­es­sar­ily hear these words, but they came to me none­the­less: ‘I was with you at birth and I will be with you in death.’” It’s like the line from the TS Eliot poem “East Coker”, which Klaas trans­lated into Afrikaans years ago: “In my end is my be­gin­ning.” We drink tea and eat bis­cuits. It’s still a bit early for an­other of Elsa’s favourite rit­u­als. “I usu­ally have a whiskey on the rocks at 5.30 pm,” she says. “I some­times get a headache if I drink gin, but never with whiskey. It’s my go-to drink.”

Flow­ers, books and time

De­spite her age, Elsa re­mains an avid reader and is cur­rently mak­ing her way through a large-print ver­sion of The Book­shop, a novel by Pene­lope Fitzger­ald. She signs my copy of Sper­tyd, grip­ping the pen with de­ter­mi­na­tion and writ­ing with dif­fi­culty. Her hands are cov­ered in a net­work of blue veins, like rivers flow­ing across the con­ti­nent of old age. She leans back and stud­ies her hand­writ­ing. “I don’t know why ev­ery­thing shrinks with age,” she says. “En­joy your hand­writ­ing while you still can. It’s ephemeral, like all things; the body be­ing stronger than the will.” We sit to­gether in si­lence for a few sec­onds. Elsa looks out of the win­dow. “My win­dows are liv­ing paint­ings,” she writes in Reisiger. It’s true – I look out into the gar­den filled with arum lilies and aga­pan­thus, and fur­ther to­wards Lion’s Head. It seems that Elsa finds mean­ing among her flow­ers and books, and she still trav­els through the land­scapes of her mind and soul. In Sper­tyd she writes about her fi­nal jour­ney: “The flow­ers bring me joy, peace and rest; the books un­set­tle the calm and send me off on jour­neys. Jour­neys of the mind and of clash­ing ideas; they vex and stir up the peace the flow­ers bring. But that’s a good thing – it makes me feel alive, I reach to the ends of the earth, I dis­ap­pear, I grow as big as a di­nosaur, I shrink down to an atom.” Wa­ter en Woestyn, Reisiger and Sper­tyd were pub­lished in Afrikaans. The English trans­la­tions are our own.

THE WAN­DER YEARS. Elsa Jou­bert with Klaas Steytler in Dublin in 1949. They mar­ried the fol­low­ing year.

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