Jewel in the Midlands
We all grew up believing that jewels, especially diamonds, are forever. Mostly that’s true, but only when talking about precious stones. There are other jewels around us, places and things that have a beauty that seems permanent, that have taken great effort and dedication to create and so will be nurtured and looked after for all time.
The broken farm that Nola and I stumbled upon just a few kilometres from Mooi River on one of our recent roamings had undoubtedly been a jewel. It’s setting was such that our cameras were gorging themselves on the trees, the lanes, the stone walls, the stretches of still water. The colours were everything that we’d set out to look for, and we were fascinated by the effects of the morning light as the sun grew brighter and assumed a higher angle. We photographed a small herd of goats that were covered in pale burrs, and looked carefully for unusual textures on tree trunks and for bright leaves against a deep blue sky.
From a man who came driving by we’d asked permission to be there, and he told us it wasn’t a farm, but some kind of communal property. This sounded odd, but at least we weren’t trespassing. As the air warmed (Mooi River is always cold,) we took time off for sandwiches and coffee, discussing many aspects of photography like camera settings and which lenses to use for particular results.
Preceding its own trail of dust in the slanting sunlight, a bakkie passed us, the couple inside giving us a friendly wave as the drove up the hill. We were closely examined by the Rottweillers, the Ridgeback and Jack Russell in the load bin, but they must have decided that we were okay to have around. We took a walk down a grassy corridor between two fences, hoping not to incur the attention of an cantankerous bull that we hadn’t spotted. The stream at the bottom of the field turned out not to be even a trickle, and we made our way back to Nola’s car, arriving just as the bakkie with the friendly couple returned.
I flagged them down, hoping for a clearer answer about the ownership of the land, and spent some time chatting, patting dogs and photographing the lovely beasts. They were local farmers, and when we asked them about the farm, they pointed out a pair of overgrown white gate posts among the trees. That, they said, had been the entrance to the farmhouse. We hadn’t seen a house apart from some distant shacks on the far-off high ground, and were told that what was left of the house was behind the dense screen of trees that lined the gravel road. It had been a beautiful “Garden and Home” kind of homestead with rolling lawns, a tennis court and stables for more than a dozen horses. The elderly lady who’d been the owner had died some years previously, and the government had purchased the property and handed it to the local community, probably as the result of a land claim.
That had happened just three years ago, said our new friends, and there was nothing left. Nola and I realised then that what we’d thought was the result of poor maintenance was in fact the upshot of complete and utter dereliction. As we took this in we realised what had happened to the timber fences that were now just rows of wooding poles reaching up through the rampant grass and the ocean of weeds. The roofless little building at the water’s edge had been the pump house, but all the pumps and piping, as well as the roof had been stripped, leaving just a bright orange electrical panel with doors sagging open to reveal the absence of switchgear. I’d noticed the proliferation of scheduled invasive alien plants that grew everywhere like small forests, and all about us was an eerie absence of activity apart from an occasional passing vehicle. The goats had wandered off back up the road, helping themselves to whatever vegetation they desired, and on a faraway hillside was a stationary herd of cattle.
The couple drove off leaving another dust trail, the now friendly dogs with lolling tongues and wagging tails seeming to say “Good to have met you.” Nola and I packed our belongings back into her car and drove up the hill to look for the house which was only about a hundred metres from where we’d been, but had been hidden by the verdant growth. We parked at what had once been the service entrance, hefted our cameras again, and stepped into a world of devastation and ruin.
There was nothing left beside most of the brick walls and the bare floor slabs. All the roofs had gone, all the doors and frames, all the windows, the piping, the light switches and plugs. There was hardly a piece of timber to be seen anywhere, what had been there presumably used as firewood. The few sanitary fittings that remained were smashed, and it took some thought to work out which rooms had served what purposes. Only the lounge with its fireplace and chimney pointing accusingly at an empty sky gave is any clue. The cottage behind the main house had received the same treatment, and the goat leaning out of a gaping window opening to reach a tasty morsel against the outer face of the wall put into a grim context the loss that had befallen the homestead that had for generations graced the family farm.
The rolling expanses of lawn, now tangled and thigh-high, played host to yet more weeds and saplings that had found a fertile home around and between the buildings. A few metres from the veranda that must once have been the venue of many gatherings of family and friends stood an Oak tree that could well have been the pride of Stellenbosch or Constantia, with an autumn-clad Plane tree of nearly the same height. The hedges, now ragged and untrimmed for some years, were infested with all manner of dreadful creepers, creating an impenetrable border around the gardens. To one side the tennis court was recognisable only by a single net-post peering about just above the level of the undergrowth, while beyond that the rows of staff accommodation and stores were also bereft of roofs and any suggestion of woodwork. Some ancillary buildings, also ruined, one burned out, stood forlornly in the deep shade of a copse of tall conifer trees.
The only activity was that of the goats that came and went freely, as all gates and timber fencing had been stripped long before, leaving only a perimeter of brick piers like despondent sentinels standing guard over the shattered space. It seemed that we were the first visitors to the ruins since the last of the usable, saleable or combustible had been hauled away.
I found it difficult to believe that even a ghost remained to brood upon the paradise lost and the bleak future that had taken its place.
We photographed the remains, already intending to write about our macabre discovery, saying little. I’d seen this sort of destruction elsewhere in the past, but it was a new experience for Nola, who remarked several times on how lovely the home must have been. Our normal banter had dried up, and it was with an air of sadness that we drove away, our pleasure at having found such a lovely setting deeply affected by what we’d witnessed. What had been a thriving, productive operation run by a family that had loved this place without reservation, now stood idle, just waiting for one day to succeed another. There was a feeling of futility there, and I felt the first stirrings of anger and resentment as we left.
This jewel was not forever.