THE HOTAZEL YEARS (1974 —1980)
Photographer Obie Oberholzer recalls a nomadic period, when he crisscrossed the country in a bright yellow car, his trusty Nikkormat by his side
Some dreams hang on for a while, others fade through time, but this one has persisted as an almost surreal reality to this day. It’s February 1974 and a man walks up the path of our house on Louis Trichardt Street in Mayville, Pretoria. There is a metal gate, with frills that hold a hand-painted number on a dented post box. A cement path, cracked in places, leads straight to the front door, which holds two panes of yellow glass. Lace curtains and twirled burglar bars beautify the long, narrow windows. The man has unkempt hair and a hat, and carries what looks like a guitar strapped to his back. “Who are you?” I shout, from a half-opened front door. “Bob” he says. “Bob who? Bob Hope? Bob Marley?” I grunt. “Bob Dylan.” The neighbour’s boerboel starts to bark, lifting the birds up from the trees. When I look again, Bob is gone. I go inside and play his song. How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?
For the previous three years, my wife Lynn and I had lived in Munich, Germany.
Lynn taught English and I studied photography. Now back in our beloved land, many new songs blew through my head, overturning old ways and freeing new ones. I was about to enter my Hotazel Years.
We soon left Pretoria and moved down to “Durbs by the Sea”. There I was appointed as a lecturer in photography,
purchased a house and started to lead students along all roads photographic. “Without passion” I told them, “Your photographic boat will never leave port.”
When our landline was installed, the first call that came was from the Bureau of State Security. A voice solemnly said, in a heavy accent, that I should watch my liberal ways. He said I couldn’t ever sidestep the long arm of John Vorster’s security apparatus. I mumbled obscenities and spat them out the window.
Iitched and twitched to wander forth, to head my eyes into the adventure of distances that shimmered beyond.
I bought a souped-up, yellow Morris Minor and, during the long student holidays at the Natal Technikon, I pressed my foot on the pedal and let my spirits blow into the hinterland.
As company I had other drifters, especially one called Jack Kerouac, whose inspirational On the Road lay on the seat next to me, alongside my Nikkormat 35mm camera, two lenses and a Metz flash.
My other favourite passenger was a sense of humour, which was totally necessary when travelling through Africa.
So Jack, Humour and I hit the road.
For the love of the land we went, with the wind. My heart pounded behind my eyes, punching the sights, lifting my spirits to the roughness of this troubled but so wonderful of lands.
I threw my privileged, sheltered education out to the cosmos flowers and the crows that sat on the telephone poles gawking down as we passed.
Up the road past Tugela Ferry, I stopped at a Zulu homestead and asked to see the chief. He was sitting under a big wild fig tree drinking beer with his mates. I told him it was an honour to meet him.
He pointed at the silver bangle on my wrist. “Gift me” he said. I told him a beautiful woman in Madagascar had given it to me in 1968 and that I slept with it every night. He roared with laughter.
Then he offered me a whole clay pot of umqombothi beer. When I made my frothy emergence from the pot, I wobbled upward, staggered a few paces and then fell in a lump at the Chief’s feet. In seconds I had become a hero, the king’s jester. The cliffs echoed their applause.
Before my departure, the Chief wanted a ride in my soupedup Morris Minor. Because I was feeling warrior-like, I threw in a couple of wheelies.
His eyes got a lot bigger. When I stopped, all the women stopped, and all the fields and the hills and the huts hushed too. So did his large herd of Nguni cattle. Not a wobble, not a birdie’s twitter.
“Again,” he shouted. So I wheeled him around and around again, just a spinning yellow blur in all of Zululand and the entire world.
Today, in the year of 2018, I sit and stare at my Mac OS 21.5 inch computer with an extra monitor and external hard drive with thousands upon thousands of images and stories on it, and I get a little nostalgic for those long-gone days of haphazard freedom and joie de vivre.
I close my eyes and see it all, like a dream — driving back again, into that South African dorpie in the sunrise. To the right lay the “location”, little corrugated-iron shacks sadly jumbled and huddled together for life’s worth.
Men would stand around a fire. Over the settlement, a pall of smoke marked the separation from the other side of town, where the wealthier people lived.
On the main street, old Uncle Seymour’s 1958 green Vauxhall Velox hoots at a stray dog.
A mother and her two children, dressed spick and span in their school uniforms, wait for the Unie Winkel Clothing shop to open.
A group of domestic workers walk to the smart houses where the white madams live and the dogs bark hatefully each time they open the garden gates.
At the rail crossing, where the train comes in daily, Farmer Moerdyk doesn’t stop in his pale blue 1973 Dodge D100. Why should he? He’s baas and a proud nationalist. He’s on his way to the Boere Winkel to buy crushed mealies for his chickens, then around the corner for a bottle of brandy.
In front of the town hall, new marigolds grow. On Sundays there’s no parking in front of the church and on a hilloverlooking town, a big white cross stands, wooden arms embracing.
So you must be wondering about this “Hotazel Years” thing? Actually, me too, I am still wondering about all this wandering some 44 years later.
If one takes southern Africa south of the Zambezi and the Cunene rivers as the greater hinterland then, using a compass, traces a circle around the coastlines of these countries and the above-mentioned rivers, the most central point, the one furthest away from all oceans, is the mining town of Hotazel in the Northern Cape.
When I arrived there in the mid 1970s, all that really stood out was the bottle store with some locals jiving it up before it opened at 10am.
In the prime of my Hotazel Years I used to wear this Ché Guevara beret, and with Jack and Humour formed a somewhat devious, but formidable team.
I saw the country in tonal values of black and white, striving for subtle detail in the shadows and highlights. Sometimes this was very difficult, as we lived in a land of extreme contrasts. Often, coming into a town, we would drive straight to the police station and ask them who the funniest, weirdest oke in town was.
Or, when overcome with remorse, I would stall my Morris in front of the Pastorie (the minister’s house) of the Dutch Reformed Church and busy myself under the bonnet. Soon Mrs Dominee would bless pity on me and I would be invited in for tea on the polished stoep.
“Love thy neighbour, like thyself,” I would sigh, casting my eyes up to the cock on top of the church steeple.
Then the dominee would hold forth about the new liberal policies of the NG Church and so on and on and on.
Meanwhile, I’d be checking out his pretty wife, biting my lower lip sore as I tried not to break the 10th Commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.”
Ican still remember what Jack said all those years ago: “Just go. Just get on the road, as one day when you are old you won’t remember the time in the office or mowing the lawn.” I am old now, so perhaps I know. “Where are we going?” Humour wants to know. “I don’t know,” I’d say, “We’ll know when we get there.”
“What is the freedom of the road?” Jack asks one night around the campfire. Above in the African night, the stars flicker a distant light and somewhere in the dark a hyena whoops its eerie call. “Freedom,” I say, “Is when your right arm is burnt darker than your left arm.”