Text and Photographs by Chris Marais
The question most people ask when we meet them somewhere on our travels through the vast dry Karoo region of South Africa is:
“How do you find your stories?”
Those who read our Karoo books and our regular features in SA Country Life magazine and various other publications want to know what sets us on our journeys, besides our love for distant horizons and the need to pay the rent.
It’s an interesting question. What feeds the brainstorm session that leads to the lightbulb moment and, eventually, to a completed feature or an item in our Karoo Keepsakes series?
For us, it seems to begin with a simple sense of curiosity.
The Quirky & the Curious
I’m for the quirky stuff, the offbeat, the magical moment, the eccentric historical item. That’s probably because I have the attention span of a gnat, an insatiable need to be entertained and a burning desire to know what lies over the next hill.
For my wife and working partner, Julienne du Toit, it’s about the environment we move through and the human interest angles she picks up en route. Give her the open veld, tell her your story and she’s happy. Jules is the best listener I know.
Brainstorm in the Bakkie
When you’re curious and you listen and you dig around a bit, the formerly inscrutable Karoo landscape transforms itself into many layers of storylines. Where we live and play, the skies are big, the blacktop highways are mostly empty and there is time to think. Many ideas are born in the cab of the Karoo Space bakkie – some of them even turn out to be good ones.
Jules ponders on the ironstone ridges of the Upper Karoo on a dawn outing near the Northern Cape village of Williston.
When we return to home base, she dives into her stash of geological books, calls up the experts, scours her journals and six months later there’s a fascinating feature about dolerite in Country Life.
A guy in a bar buys me a drink and tells me about dancing Bushman statues on a distant farm near Loxton. Something ignites in my brain and a few weeks later we’re bumbling through the bush in search of this mystical spot. It leads to an article about the artist, the setting and the origin of the frozen dancers on a moonscape in the middle of nowhere.
Sometimes a story comes to mind as we trawl through our old books. Was it something Lawrence Green said in Lords of the Last Frontier? Maybe a comment dropped by Guy Butler in Karoo Morning? Or a reference to a Karoo dagga stash on a farm in a journal written by an 18th Century explorer?
One of our editors calls up with a story commission. We follow it through and find, at the other end, a completely different angle to the original one. It sometimes turns out to be even better.
Our local knock & drop newspaper, the Mid-Karoo Express, is a weekly delight of information on our home town of Cradock and surrounding settlements. We never miss an issue. What was it Uncle Warren Buffett said about the value of community newspapers? He was dead right.
A New Slant
Look at life from a certain angle, and the mundane becomes the magnificent. Who would have thought, for instance, that anyone is stirring at 3am every day in Cradock? Meet our army of bakers, in central Cradock and out in the townships, who are in fact stirring the cake mix to feed a seemingly insatiable local sweet tooth. Their baking tales will have you riveted – and slavering.
And when we visit one of the 100-odd small towns, villages and settlements of the Karoo, we rarely fail to stop at the local museum. Many of them are run-down, full of musty old dioramas and mannequins with limbs missing. But they invariably add something of value to our stories.
Digital Highways & Open Roads
We have quite good broadband out here, so digital detective work on a subject often eats up a chunk of the day. We’ll hunt through our social media feeds, emails, newsletters from afar, the myriad search engine channels available for curated information on a particular subject and, quite importantly, the comments section at the end of our story posts on Karoo Space. We sometimes help friendly readers with their Karoo travel plans.
But no Google search or Facebook foray beats driving out on the R63 into the quiet heart of the Karoo and sitting down in the company of a farmer, an old friend or someone interesting you just bumped into at an isolated padstal. Even the random travellers from afar just seem so much more interesting to talk to when you meet them somewhere on the road out here. And everybody has a story to tell…
- Try Moving to the Platteland – Life in Small Town South Africa by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais for a glimpse of country life beyond the headlines. PRINT copy here and E-BOOK copy here.
- Julienne and Chris are also tutors with the internationally-recognised SA Writers College. They teach Travel Writing and Freelancing for Magazines and Webzines.