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JH Pierneef, Mont au Sources. c 1931

JH Pierneef, Mont au Sources. c 1931

Mont aux Sources. Not the usual view of the famed Amphitheatre, but a view taken from deep down in the Thukela Gorge. On the map, an 8 to 10k roundabout walk from Tendele bungalows. On a fine morning, I strode out manfully. OK, I set out, slowly. For the last two decades, I’ve been bizarrely plagued by chronic fatigue syndrome. Walking -as we normally know it- has been a bit of a challenge, and this was a big walk in my book. But I figured if I walked really slowly I could do it. In my bag, I had an A4 size sketchbook, pencils, a watercolour kit, digital camera, phone, water, boerewors, a boiled egg, salt, and some cherries from Ficksburg. I also had a sachet of D- Ribose, a magic sugar that is supposed to support the mitochondria, those little energy factories in our cells.

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The landscape is splendid, invigorating. It’s no co-incidence that landscape painting took off in the late 1700s just as people were losing their religion. For the new agnostics, the spiritual path went to Nature rather than the Church. Landscape painting will, at some stage, make you ponder forces larger than yourself. Aside from the sheer scale of things, there’s non- human time. Away from our usual distractions, a day can be a very long thing as the sun works its way over the 150 million -year -old cliffs. Even in Pierneef’s time, Nature was seen as eternal, proof of an Almighty. But in the 21st century, this is a fragile remnant, a world threatened by us in all sorts of ways.

Along the way I met plenty of pale skinned European hikers, sunning themselves in the African Alps. One of them was a German called Mark Muller who offered to send me a pic if he found the Pierneef site.

Greetings from the North!

Greetings from the North!

I ambled on, making sketches along the way. But two and half hours in, there were still plenty of hills to walk around before the fabled Gorge. I turned back, knowing that I was frustratingly close but also with relief. I was getting way out of my league. A week later, I got this photo from Mr Muller. See how those hills on the right match the original Pierneef?  Yes, this was the site. Now I’ll have to get back there somehow. Anybody got any steroids?

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The oil painting is “Good day Monsieur Courbet.” by Gustave Courbet. (1854)

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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