Soon after I returned from England last year I was invited to spend the night on a farm in the Rooiberg, between Clarens and Fouriesburg. I went along with enthusiasm and spent a pleasant afternoon being shown around the farm. Our photograph this week is of a flock of sheep resting in a pen and, in the background, the Rooiberg Mountains rise up impressively into the perfectly still winter sky.
This mountain range forms the northern slope of the Brandwater basin, stretching from the watershed at Golden Gate in the east, to the Witteberg range in the west, and to the Maloti Mountains beyond the Caledon River in the south. Within this basin, along the south facing slopes of the Rooiberg, lie the villages of Clarens and Fouriesburg. These mountains are particularly well known for their sandstone formations, and the late afternoon light transforms their sculpted precipices into lavish shades of pink and orange and ochre. This gave the mountain range its name – Red Mountains.
In the evening, well after darkness had fallen, my host received a message that sheep had strayed. I was invited to come along. We piled into the bakkie and clattered along dirt roads and tracks, up and down winding slopes, through thick darkness. It had become bracingly cold, the temperature having plummeted, it seemed, as soon as the sun had disappeared. Despite my hand being bare and aching with cold, I clung onto the handle above the door while the vehicle lurched and bucked its way through the dark night, frenetically chasing the headlamps’ beam barreling ahead along the rutted road.
We finally pulled up. I could not see anything. My host jumped out and told me to stay in the bakkie. I gingerly opened the window, wrapping my coat and scarf closer. I made out a gate close to my side of the bakkie and watched my host’s shadowy form disappear beyond it. There was a long silence. Finally I heard a faint whistle way down in the valley, and another in answer, then several more. Then silence.
My eyes had adjusted and I could make out the line of mountain tops against a starry sky. There was no moon. Everything below the mountain top was shrouded in complete darkness. There was not a sound. My senses were alert. I felt alive. I waited, but not impatiently. This was a freedom and a purity I had yearned for during those long years in London, where my consciousness had been under constant siege by excessive hurry, noise and light. Where dampness and greyness and overheated buildings had entombed my senses in a cloying bondage of synthetic smells. Where open space amounted to the gap between council flats and terrace housing, and where horizons were the tops of tower blocks. Where the commute of people and traffic and public transport were in perpetual motion on an eternal circuit.
I waited, feeling privileged and liberated, comfortable in the silence and darkness and cold. Like in great thirst, and in profound relief, I drank every moment of it. Then I heard a faint rumbling.
I couldn’t make out where it came from. It grew more distinct and I listened hard. It seemed to come from the darkness down the slope beyond the open gate. I strained my eyes into the dark night, trying to perceive some indication of its source. Then a faint haze began emerging in the darkness. My eyes were unable at first to focus on it, so faint it was in the black night. I stared, unmoving and unblinking, as the rumbling drew closer. The haze became a pale cloud in the darkness and the sound merged with it as it grew beyond the gate. It seemed to flow forward into a column as it narrowed; then I saw the sheep.
A great flock of them, their hundreds of little hoofs pounding the hard earth as they ran together. Like a stream of pale lava, they surged into the gap between the gateposts and came, flowing like liquid wool, past the bakkie, right beneath my window. I could have touched them as they passed. I smelled the oily scent of lanolin on the warm breeze they carried with them. They continued on, flowing in a long stream up the road, the head of the column turning suddenly through an open gate. The flock followed, through the gate and out of sight, like silver mercury receding back into the darkness. The rumble faded. They were gone.
I sat transfixed. In mere moments they had come and gone. The earthiness of their proximity lingered with me, the pounding of their little hoofs, their oblivion to my presence, their unthinking cooperation, their warm smell of lanolin. Two figures emerged from the darkness and came through the gate; one continued up the road to follow the sheep, the other came towards the bakkie.
We drove home in silence; I, alone with my thoughts, my host still out of breath from such exertion.
The picture insert features in the 2014 calendar produced by and sold in aid of Cluny Animal Trust. Calendars can be purchased at Clarens Gallery, Clementines Restaurant and the Old Stone Bottle Store, in Clarens. Alternatively they can be ordered from Katherine on 0827886287, Jan on 0782462553, Helen on 0582230918 or by email email@example.com .
Article and photograph by Mary Walker
Clarens News: November 2013
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