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I’m leaving the volstruisdorpie for Graaf Reinet to check out the Pierneef Museum and the Valley of Desolation.  Its about 270 kms, which could take 3 hours, or maybe the whole day.  The road to Willowmore takes me through some wide open country with hills and aloes in bright sunlight.

No one else on the road….

ah...kudu country!

You go through the mountains at Buyspoort and you’re out of the Klein Karoo. As the landscape simplifies, the man-made mark on it seems more distinct. In Willowmore, a carefully put together but symbolically obscure piece:

draai of braai

But as I get into the Great Karoo I start to notice an array of enigmatic structures and curiosities that look like the interventions of a contemporary artist…

Back up the pass from Prince Albert now, sketchbook in hand. On both sides of the road there are outrageous rock formations, shaped by mighty forces:

I get to the site around 12.30 and settle in. A lot of the sites I’ve been to have changed since Pierneef painted them, the landscape encroached upon by highways or housing. But this is unchanged since Thomas Bain and his crew hammered their way through here in 1886. The year of Pierneef’s birth. (And Johannesburg’s too)

built to last:stonewalling at the site

But the gravel road is showing the wear and tear of fairly high traffic volumes, so while I’m doing the watercolour I make a list  of the passing traffic: Fortuner, Isuzu, Land Rover, Toyota sedan, 2 cyclists, Suzuki, Bakkie, two Dutch people in a small car, Correctional Services Toyota, Poephol in a Prado, CA Yaris, Silver merc, Silver Toyota, White Toyota, 2 cyclists at speed, Landcruiser, Party of 8 cyclists, Isuzu bakkie van Bredasdorp, Kia, Colt with a Staffie, Big yellow truck (12.30 – 4.30pm). The cyclists, by the way, had pedalled over from the Oudtshoorn side and after spending the night in PA were coming back over the next day. Eina.

Three years ago I looked on the North side of the Swartberg Pass for the Pierneef site – nothing doing. Its definitely on the south, or Oudtshoorn, side. I take a farm road. No traffic, no cell reception, not much of a road. Probably pretty much how it was for Pierneef in the 30’s.

eensaamheid in die klein karoo

You take it slowly on a dirt road, and that makes you look at where you are. I’m looking at some pretty big mountains, feeling suitably insignificant. I’m sure I’ll find the site near the bottom of the pass, but I don’t. I do a watercolour and carry on up. There’s nothing that looks vaguely like the place I’m looking for, but the Pass is stunning, something new around every corner. Quite near the top I have something to eat and do another watercolour, then head to the top. There’s a fierce wind , so I stay in the car and do a third little watercolour sketch.

view from 'die top'

OK. I’ve got a page of watercolours but no idea where the site is. Perhaps he made it up?

I’m padding through to the kitchen to make my morning tea and under the kitchen table there’s a heaving and a slithering thing heading away from me towards the bathroom door where it thrashes for a bit before finding its way underneath. I calmly seal the door before noticing I’m sweating. Then I go looking for the town’s snake catcher. A guy called Gerhard offers to shoot it. I still don’t know exactly what type of snake this is, so I head to my painter friend Diane McLean who tells me what to look for. And then I get a good look at it through the bathroom window.

gooie more suid afrika!

After quite a few calls and a flurry of sms to Hermann (there’s a cobra in the bathroom! Qrtrfgtr! Sit tight! Don’t let those fuckers kill that snake!) I get through to the Oudtshoorn Fire Department and half an hour later the okes arrive and deftly remove the snake: “Jy moet kalm wees. As jy woel, dan begin die slang ook woel .” They released it on the way back.

In the afternoon instead of going to the Poort I head out on a farm road and find myself in a kraal with some slightly haughty goats.

what's HE doing here?

Snakes. Goats. What the hell am I doing here? Get me to a shopping mall!

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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carlbecker.art@gmail.com

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