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The milestone. That round white concrete thing squatting next to the road. A remnant of a bygone era, the pre-signpost era, the era of coach and rider. If the milestone does have a function, hardly anyone these days knows what it is. The numbers on it never seem to tally. Joburg writer Ivan Vladislavic, on his daily walks through town, discovers many of these mysterious remnants. They speak to us of hidden histories.  A Japanese writer calls this category of thing a “tomason”and obsessively notes the locations of hundreds of them.

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Back in the days when Kobus Kloppers traveled the dusty roads of the interior, he did some fine drawings of milestones. Perhaps with Kobus’ drawings in mind, I found myself staring fondly at the milestone above, on the R62 near Barrydale. Sometimes we notice things because artists paint them. A feedback loop of attention is put in place. New vistas open up, and commonplace things are suddenly elevated. Oscar Wilde claimed that Londoners had never actually seen their fog until Monet painted it swirling over Waterloo bridge. Now that the milestone had me thinking about it,  I finally – after 37 years of driving – figured out how it works: Should you see the stone to your left, it tells you how far you are from the last town. One on the right tells you how far away the next town is. The milestone – or kilometer stone – still has a function! Who knows, there may even be a small roads department team out there right now maintaining the milestones, checking that the distances are correct, getting ready to lay down another wash of white paint.

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The milestone makes good as a metaphor too. From infancy to senescence the road of life is marked with them. Mandela’s death, of course, was a major symbolic milestone. On the road near Graaff Reinet I picked up a few of the memorial day speeches on the radio. I got verbose dignitaries in adjectival over -reach, trying to grasp the man’s greatness. In effect, they were highlighting the gap between then and now. This half mast flag on a karoo farm was so much more eloquent than all the overblown waffle. Here was proof of Madiba’s reach, a homage to a high road which we may never find our way back to.

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Back down the N9, through Aberdeen and heading for the coast. I stop to take a look at one of those karoo dammetjies, the kind that Kobus Kloppers paints so beautifully:

bel vir kobus

Left at Uniondale and to Knysna via the fabled Prince Alfred pass. Another one of Uberpassbuilder Thomas Bain’s creations, the pass was built in 1867 and is 80k of dirt snaking through the majestic Outeniqua Mountains. I don’t know if Oom Henk took this path on his way to paint the Knysna Heads, but he should have. It’s wild, in an Alpine kind of way. Very…um….German.

Germanicus Africana

Pierneef was the son of a Dutch immigrant to Paul Kruger’s Transvaal Republic. He spent some of his school years in Holland, and visited Europe again in 1925. He was influenced by Art Nouveau and there are links to Piet Mondrian in the flatness and simplification of planes (and the obsessive renderings of trees). You can place him in the tradition of Northern European Romanicism. While the Francophone painters of the South sought to capture the passing moment, the depressed Northern painters looked to the landscape for something lasting and transcendental. This often involved intense almost scientific study of botany and geology.

Mondrian 'The Blue Tree" 1910

Pierneef, Boomstudies, Waterberg. 1915

After an hour of driving in honeyed afternoon light, you get into the belt of Knysna forest and the tall trees loom. I’m dozing now, tired out by all this beauty. Right at the end of the pass, some wit has left a message:

ja boet, loer is my job

J H Pierneef’s Station Panels are cornerstones of South African landscape painting. They were placed in the old Johannesburg Station as adverts to travel the country.

But did these alluring places ever really exist? And how have they changed?

Taking up the invitation to travel 80 years later, Carl Becker set off to find out.

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