Namaqualand is the pure essence of spring. The proof that nature is a wonderfully precious gift. But this year my new wife and I couldn’t find it. Spring has vanished!
It hasn’t vanished as a result of pesticides, as in Rachel Carsons’ famous book. No, this time, it is due to insidious drought brought about again, perhaps, by the very same culprits: Humankind.
With just 9% of the annual rain falling, this blessed floral region is looking towards a long and brutal summer. The last time it was as bad was 1961.
Travelling to Namaqualand in spring has become a quixotic exercise for me. A process of repeatedly visiting at different times of year in search of an ephemeral landscape that never quite seems to present itself. This year was no different.
I found barely a blade of fresh green grass let alone swathes of flowers. In the Quivertree forest just north of Nieuwoudtville the trees are dropping branches and leaves in an attempt to save themselves. In the fields roundabout town, the grass is short and the grazing sparse. The road verges, normally liberally painted with blooms, are dry, dusty and bare.
However, one can still find a few vestiges of spring: in the call and flight of the clapper lark, or the barely detectable trail of green tracing a water seep. It’s also evident in the sky, up there, a thin network of clouds hint that spring may still come - but no one knows when - least of all the larks.
As a photographer, for whom the weather and seasons never seem to play out correctly, it was another demoralising visit to the North and West of South Africa. Especially, when burdened with the thoughts and knowledge of what spring should be like in Namaqualand.
After all, how many more visits will it be possible to make? As Galen Rowell, a hero of mine, said:
“You only get one sunrise and one sunset a day, and you only get so many days on the planet. A good photographer does the math and doesn't waste either.”
I have to admit I felt lost, in that impossibly wide and arid landscape. Challenged to make a worthwhile image. What does one do when one has planned and banked on spring and it simply doesn’t show up?
It took a while to shake my mood. I suppose it always does take a while, to blow the creative cobwebs clear and truly feel a place (can one even do that in so short a space of time?)
While searching for inspiration I try to look for the important messages in the landscape - those totems that provide its’ sense of purpose or place.
I’ve discovered, over time, that these things can deliver rich seams of creativity if only, like the dull gleam of copper in rock, they can be found and unearthed. I’ve also discovered that these messages are personal - the land speaks to us all differently, as individuals. Finding its’ voice is a journey that cannot be undertaken without a good deal of introspection.
Sometimes it helps to put the camera aside and instead, participate in the rythms of life. Talk, drink, walk, experience, see, understand. When you are ready, pick up the camera and try to selectively explain what you feel.
Eventually, I think I found my seam and may even have unearthed a few nuggets. As the days passed I felt more confident and more sure. I know there is still so much more to discover, particularly as I am a shy photographer, who finds it very difficult to photograph people and I know that, in Namaqualand, the people and the land are inextricably bound to each other.
Exploring that relationship, of life and land, could really have tempered the meaning and tragedy of this silent spring.
In the end, perhaps it is not the flowers that are missing from my images but instead, a failure to recognise my true subject: The patient and understated beauty of the Hantam Karoo?
We spent three nights of our honeymoon on this beautiful farm. It was the first time we'd stayed on a South African farm and it was fantastic, not just because it is home to a huge Quivertree forest but also because it gave us a wonderful opportunity to meet local people and glimpse a little of life in the harsh Hantam Karoo.
The group of cottages and farm buildings comprising Papkuilsfontein stretch over 9km north to south close to Nieuwoudtville. We spent a couple of nights in the Matjiesfontein cottage. Built in the 1740's the cottage offers a magnificent base from which to explore the rest of the region. Impeccable country dinners and breakfasts are served at De Lande, a mile up the road (I have a newfound love of lamb - I am dreaming of it!). While the Waenhuis restaurant on the Papkuilsfontein farm served me one of the most memorable meals of my life. Simple springbok fillet - but what a fillet!