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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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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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