Late summer in 1970. The Becker family is driving down south to Plettenberg Bay. The mountains are covered in pink heather as we catch our first glimpse of the sea. We peer over a bridge spanning a vast chasm. Far below us, raptors ride the thermals rising up from the Bloukrans river. In the Tsitsikamma forest we visit the Big Tree. Mysterious scents rise up from the forest floor. Somewhere close by, elephants pad about, us kids can feel it. Huge yellowoods tower over the canopy, trailing long billowing vines. Later, we get into the Fiat and drive down to Knysna. First stop, George Rex’s grave. The royal son (so the story went) who settled here in 1816. Then we wind our way up to The Heads. I run through the scented scrub, and suddenly I pull up short as the cliffs drop away into the vast ocean. And I haven’t been there since. So on a rainy day early this month I went back to this iconic South African tourist site to see what Pierneef saw.


There were patches of drizzle from Oudsthoorn and I had the lights on over the Outeniqua Pass. George to Knysna takes longer than you think: most of it is an 80 kph speed zone: most of it is a suburb. Navigating through a maze of expensive SUVs, I made my to the Heads. The road angles up through expensive real estate, those ever creeping global bunkers that announce our worldly success. A light rain came and went. The large chunks of rock and forest looked sombre and foreboding. No chance of a painting session yet, so I called my old friend Chris du Plessis, the former owner of the world famous Xai Xai bar. Glamorously, we met in the parking lot of Fruit and Veg City, where we obtained two Paninis. We went up the road to Thesen Island, and sat in Chris’s Jeep eating our lunch. In front of us a raincoated fisherman cast out into the placid lagoon. Assorted sea vessels bobbed nearby, remote from their purpose as pleasure craft.

Back at the Heads the light was better and I got out the painting kit. A timber viewpoint juts out where Pierneef would have made his sketches, but I set up a bit higher up the road. After a while I was joined by a bloke from Pretoria called Wessel Loubser, who turned out to be an amateur watercolourist. That made two of us, so we talked about hot pressed vs cold pressed papers, and how to properly stretch them (dont oversoak before you tape it down!) Wessel got called away by his wife, and I was left alone with the urgency of getting it all down and the usual struggles with ineptitude. Frankly, I can do without the puzzle of rendering light falling on an expanse of water. For that, we modern watercolourists are forever taunted by the genius of good old JMW Turner’s Venice masterstrokes.

knysna heads watercolour

For over a  hundred  years, ships were piloted through these monuments of stone, and departed laden with forest plunder. All those yellowood roof beams and that stinkwood furniture! Oh well. The light was fading, and I would be going back in the dark. But I had what I wanted for now. Its just a note, but one day I’ll be back to see it as first light reddens the rocks, the way Pierneef saw it.