Words by Julia Lloyd
Photographs by Chris Marais
We really are talking about giants here. An extraordinary husband and wife team of travelling writers who have produced, in turn, a giant of a book – a chronicle of their love affair with the characters, creatures and towns of the Karoo, an area many of us have regarded as little more than a vast stubborn space in our way between north and south.
Read their collection of tales in Karoo Keepsakes II, and let Chris and Julienne introduce you to the generous, eccentric, tough, optimistic soul of their beloved Heartland. And then join the throng of fans who want this duo crowned King and Queen of the Karoo.
Nobody deserves this title more. How else but through their exceptional nose for ferreting out stories by the potjievol, would we learn of the singers, the healers, the dancing queens, the wind pump surgeons and the rogues of this semi-desert? The artists, the book collectors, the home cooks, the restorers and the holders of the secret recipe to Oom Daan’s pie?
“I’ve been a journalist for 40 years and I’ve always wanted to find a patch of this world to play and work in,”says Chris. “The Karoo has become that patch. Every year I spend in the Karoo I find new stuff: fantastic people, great critters, wide landscapes, lots of space, the light at the bookends of day. Legends and eccentrics and saints, and hedgehogs in the headlights at sundown.”
Veterans of travel, the pair spent decades (jointly and separately) visiting and writing about some of the most exotic and far-flung spots on earth before bee-lining for the Karoo. Julienne, a journalist of 25 years, also edited an award-winning ecology magazine and remains hugely committed to environmental issues (Don’t Frack with the Karoo is up there on her list).
She clearly remembers the moment she knew she and Chris would settle in the Karoo. “It was in 2001. We stopped beside a spinning wind pump in the Karoo and listened as it clanked and creaked to itself, pulling up the fresh water that splashed into a nearby dam. When the wind stopped for a few minutes, the utter silence and the space brought a feeling of such indescribable sweetness. The fragrance of the Karoo bossies rose in the summer heat, and then the road began to sing as a distant truck approached. I was enchanted. That was when the Karoo had me.”
Seven years ago, with four co-written books behind them – two on Namibia and two on the people and places along South Africa’s coastline – they moved from the Big Smoke to Cradock in the Eastern Cape. It signalled the start of their first Karoo treasure Karoo Keepsakes, also an anthology of Heartland stories that was published in 2009.
As with Keepsakes II, it just evolved. There was no Big Decision To Write A Book. Just the decision to take on any adventure, and pack up the diesel bakkie, oftentimes on a whim, settle TwoPack (their German shepherd) into his spot on the back seat, and hit the road. At the end of Karoo Keepsakes they write, ‘It’s not the last word on the Karoo – that book lies somewhere in the future for someone to write.’
Well, here it is, and hopefully there will be another. And another. It’s a likely scenario because it’s hard, no impossible, to imagine this story ending for Chris and Julienne. And in any case, as Julienne says, “Karoo people are wonderful storytellers. Perhaps it’s so many years of living without television, or simply because people who live in wide-open spaces like to be sociable, and are generous with their knowledge.”
But the real treat of this book is that it’s firsthand and spontaneous, each story illustrated with Chris’s exuberant photographs. It makes it so easy to rejoice with Jules and Chris at the festivals they take us to, to share their feast at Auntie Evelyn se Eetplek, to listen with them to Calvinia’s traffic cop Boeta Gammie strum a mean riff on his guitar, and to join in and watch Margrieta Botha use boeremusiek to better train her donkeys.
It’s their never-ending quilt, stitched in place with sensitivity and delight, and one that invites us to revel in all the people and all the places of our country’s heart, and kick up our heels in its glorious, gritty dust.
This review appears in the November 2013 issue of Country Life Magazine, our major print partner. For more on Country Life, visit http://www.countrylife.co.za