Text & Photographs by Obie Oberholzer
To find the Great Karoo, place your hand on a map of southern Africa. Find the Tropic of Capricorn with your ring finger at longitude 23 degrees east. Now slowly pull it in a southerly direction. The first sensation will be soft and warm as you are travelling over the red dunes of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. Once you have wet your fingers in the Orange river, you are in the Bushmanland of South Africa’s Northern Cape.
Here I suggest that you remove all rings, as harsh bushes, ridges and koppies may rip them off. You’ll find it hot, bright and dusty here, so put on some shades and rub some Zam-Buk on your hands. This green ointment has been the real “Makoya” for generations of South Africans: it cures everything except HIV-Aids. To cure Aids, you must eat a lot of beetroot (according to our previous minister of health).
Back to the map! The little pinpricks you will now feel on your hands are the dolerite outcrops of the northern Karoo. It is on these rocks that you will find the most beautiful Bushman rock engravings, or petroglyphs. Going farther south, the left section of your hand will lift considerably as you transverse the Roggeveld plateau. It freezes here in winter, so mittens are advised.
Still farther south, your hand will come to the escarpments of the Komsberg, Nuweveld and Sneeuberg Mountains. Here, on a clear day, if you use your hand to shield your eyes, you can see the high mountains of the Swartberg that form the southern boundary of the Great Karoo, some 75 miles away. Beyond this lies the Little Karoo, which once again ends in a mountain range to the south, the Langeberge.
The same hand-journey can be done from west to east. Place your ring finger on latitude 32 degrees south along the Cederberg Mountains. After 375 miles you will be in Hofmeyr, on the outer reaches of the eastern Karoo. By then your hand will have travelled over an area of 115,000 square miles.
My hands are old now, but they have steered my bakkie and me over the gravel roads of the Karoo for more than 40 years. My book, Karoo: Long Time Passing, covers the most recent journeys of 2012, some five trips with my wife, Lynn, driving nearly 9,400 miles.
I guess that this is a meaningless distance when it comes to this ancient land mass. I had read about Gondwanaland and the continents drifting apart, but until this year it seemed like fiction. Then, one evening, I was lighting a paleo-surface in readiness to take a photograph outside Fraserburg. The guide pointed out the claw-print of a brachiosaurus that had fossilised in the rock some 255 million years ago. This creature had walked on this exact surface so long ago that I found it difficult to grasp, and yet here I was, standing in front of the proof.
I placed my hand inside the print, and in the quiet of that Karoo night I felt some surreal vibration go through me. I understood then just a little more of this mysterious land.
In the new book, my eyes do the wanderings, the visual alignments and designs, and that brachio-hand holds the steering wheel, which travels the dust roads to places of beauty, strangeness and wonder. Sometimes that hand points the camera that stimulates the brain to make the heart feel happy and sometimes a little sad. These images are only one man’s take on the Karoo as it is now.
This is a love affair with a colossus. If you put your ear to the dry, hard earth and your hand on your heart and listen and listen some more and look and feel again and again, you can touch the Karoo’s spirit, its heartbeat, its essence. Behind you in the light of the dark past, a brachiosaurus with mud between its claws grazes on the lush vegetation of that time.
Karoo: Long Time Passing – published by Jacana – is on sale at leading bookshops. Oberholzer’s latest publication – Obie: A Photographic Storybook – has been published by Quivertree and is being launched in December 2016.
Tailpiece – Karoo Road – South Africa 2014
Take me there, Karoo Road, take me there. Behind me you wag your tail of dust and out past my window-arm you blur the bossies to a blended greenish grey. I hold you, I look you, I gravel you and I love you to a pale distant point. I have rolled tyres on you for forty years and still I thrill to ride your endless roughened way. Take me again and again to a place that becomes another space. Hell Boy, where is Taaiboschfontein se Leegte? You give me freedom, Karoo road, freedom. Along you, I make photo songs, often just a few and sometimes a couple more. I can never pass you by; your long way connects the landscapes in my mind. One day, when the body is too frail to change gears through your driffies and curves and passes, I will sit and dream you Karoo road, dream you. I watch the windmills pass, sheep look up, crows sit on poles, a row of ridges on the right, two, four, five koppies lie up ahead’ a cracked dam, a lonely farm house and in front, an old sign, with bullet holes, that reads —-‘Merweville 30’ Lead me on, Great Karoo road, lead me on.