The following article appeared in the Equinox Magazine at the end of the previous millenium (1999):
The Marico is magic!
Written by Darrel Bristow-Bovey
The stillness of the Marico overlays a deep, persistent voice, and as I stood nervously clutching a second tumbler of mampoer, it seemed to me that it spoke with the tongue of Oom Joos Combrink.
I had eventually found Oom Joos's farm after winding between citrus groves and maroelas, along dirt roads better suited to ox-wagons or 4x4s than a small but game Opel Corsa. In the yard, ubiquitous Marico dogs chased each other round a lemon tree, while ducks and puffed-up turkeys watched from the slim shade of a square, stone shed. Oom Joos slapped the walls of the farmhouse, built of large, russet-coloured stones bound with hard Marico clay. The stones were quarried from the ground beneath our feet; the clay baked and hardened by drought and heat. "With my own hands I made this house," said Oom Joos Combrink. "It is hard to farm a place with little to offer but stones and the sun." He drew thoughtfully at his pipe. "But I would rather have the Marico's stones and sun than all the fortunes of the world."
The hamlet of Groot Marico lies north-west of Johannesburg, past Swartruggens and Koster, three hours by car, several lifetimes in the imagination. The Marico region stretches northwards, following the green valley of the Marico river, a tributary of the Limpopo. It stretches up over Zeerust, past Nietverdiend, Zwingli, over the crocodile-spine of the Dwarsberge to the Botswana border. It is a hard land, but also a land of haunting beauty, the kind that burns itself into the back of your eye, so that you still see its moods and images days later, as though you have been staring too long into the sun.
Herman Charles Bosman, for my money the finest writer South Africa has produced, and certainly the only one I can re-read without feeling the compulsion to poke myself violently in the eye, came to the Marico in 1926 to teach at a small farmschool at Heimweeberg. He stayed only six months (before being imprisoned for the murder of his step-brother while on vacation in Johannesburg), but he carried away with him enough of the stuff of life to sustain nearly 150 precisely crafted stories of high humour, high tragedy and the achingly beautiful poetry of the bushveld. For Bosman, the Marico was a place older than time, a land that has already seen all that humans are capable of. It is a land of half-heard voices and soft echoes and strange figures under the new moon; a patient land which cannot be surprised.
I asked Johan Moolman, former Johannesburg lecturer in fine art and now Groot Marico's resident sculptor, what brought him here. He looked at the shadows moving beneath the trees. "There are old spirits here," he smiled. I frowned, and he smiled again. "The Marico forces new values upon you. You have to leave behind the things of the city. You have to. The Marico makes you. It comes up out of the earth."
Johan Moolman's old spirits are not merely the shades of early Boers, who first started settling around 1815. The Marico is studded with koppies and sheer rises of scrub and stone; high on the crown of many of these, invisible from below, are the ruins of stone kraals - walls and shelters and look-out points. Kaditswene, high in the nearby Enzelsberge, was the largest iron-age settlement south of the Limpopo. In 1820 it held a population of 20 000 Bahurutshe, who were renowned for their skill as miners and stone masons and smelters of iron and copper. According to John Campbell, who visited them at that time, the interiors of the huts were decorated with clay sculptures and paintings easily matching the work of contemporary European craftsmen.
I asked Oom Joos Combrink about the ruins. He sipped his mampoer and winced contemplatively. "Some say it was the Setswana who first made them. Some say the Matabele, on their way north." He poured another tumbler and eyed it appreciatively. "I once met a man in the bioscope at Zeerust who told me the Chinese built them, long ago."
He poured me another tumbler and I eyed it apprehensively. "The Chinese?" I said. "You can never tell with Chinese," said Oom Joos Combrink. After another mampoer I was ready to agree. Of course, we weren't drinking Oom Joos Combrink's home-distilled citrus mampoer, made in the old boer tradition. Oom Joos Combrink doesn't make mampoer, because he doesn't have a license to do so (even though, as Oom Joos puts it, "Mampoer is made by the law of the Bible, not the law of the land").
So we didn't stand in the Marico sun, sipping Oom Joos's mampoer, and then after that we didn't retire to the stoep and sit on a rimpies stoel and sip mampoer and watch the land change its complexion. But if we had, no doubt a strange sensation would have crept over me: a sensation of becoming one with the grass and the trees and the sun falling heavy on the koppies, a sensation of momentarily becoming a motionless part of this hot, hard piece of Africa. In the distance I heard Oom Joos: "If a man wants to live here, he must become a little like a stone himself."
Mampoer is the fruit of the Marico, and it is as unflinching and unforgiving as the men who make it. It is nature boiled down its essence, and its essence is 65 - 75% alcohol. Mampoer makes no promises and tells no lies, and that is as it is in the Marico. It is a land that generates legends, and stories, but although they may not be facts, the stories are never untrue.
The Marico is a place of contradictions that combine to tell a truth. It is a place where the locals welcome visitors with astonishing warmth, but where - as a lonely young man complained that night in the hotel bar - it is possible to live for fifteen years without being accepted as a local. It is a place where Flori-Anne Esterhuysen made me a delicious guinea-fowl pie in a wood-burning oven, but where andalusite is mined to provide material for components of the space shuttle. It is home to Johan van As, the local NGK dominee who is also the webmaster of the official Groot Marico website. It is home to Egbert van Bart, who lives in a house without electricity and stood with me under a star-choked night sky, pointing out Magellanic clouds and explaining what a pulsar is.
You cannot understand the Marico in a weekend. I didn't even have time to meet Oom Piet van Niekerk the whip-maker, or hike to where Egbert saw a leopard walk out of the tall grass, or swim in the clear waters of the Eye of the Marico, seventeen metres deep. I wanted to stay. But as I drove away under a sliver moon, the Marico seemed to smile, as it always has at human whimsy and high ideas. It has seen people like me, in various disguises, come and go. Because I am not, in the end, like a stone.
* For accommodation or tours, contact Santa at the Groot Marico Information Centre: 083 272 2958
Not all plain surfing for Groot-Marico's webmaster
mampoer on the net
Darrel Bristow-Bovey finds that some internet access requires more patience than usual
Johan van As is the dominee in the town, which is 200 km from Johannesburg by car, a lifetime away in the imagination. Johan is also the proud webmaster of the Groot Marico’s website, the first place to visit if you’re interested in holiday accommodation, the history of the area, or a closely reasoned treatise on the pros and cons of monkey hunting.
Anyone who can access the Internet, say the smart alecs, can have their own website, but accessing the Internet is not so easy when your telephone operates through a manual exchange. When Johan first considered putting his corner of the bushveld in cyber-space, he phoned the exchange for advice.
"I want to go on the Internet," he said.
"What’s that?" said the operator.
Johan thought a while. "Like a fax machine, only through your computer." That satisfied the operator. The ladies in the Groot Marico telephone exchange pride themselves on their knowledge of fax machines.
The problem is that Johan can’t get a line with a dialling tone unless the Marico gets an automatic exchange. The good news is Telkom has promised to provide one. The bad news is they promised it several years ago. They did once start constructing a building to house the exchange, but then they ran out of money.
To understand the difficulty of dialing up the Internet on a manual exchange, you must understand what it’s like just to make an ordinary call. You pick up the phone, then you wait. Sometimes you wait for 20 minutes. Finally the operator answers and says: "Nommer asseblief?" (= "Number please?")
Johan used to get into his car and drive down to the exchange to ask someone to pick up his call. "Nowadays," he says, "I ring them with my cellphone and tell them to answer."
You then tell the operator the number, and listen to her dial. "If it’s a local call," says Johan, "the number will be engaged. If it’s long-distance, you will be told that the phone lines have been stolen. If you somehow get through, the person you’re ringing will not be at home."
Whether you made the call succesfully or not, you must get hold of the operator again to tell her you are finished, or you will receive a phone bill more frightening than Oom Piet van Niekerk’s home-brewed mampoer.
In months of research, Johan could find no advice on accessing the Internet through a manual exchange. The MWeb helpline thought he was a prank caller.
Finally he began configuring his PC for the Internet, more in hope than expectation. The nub of the problem was the telephone number for his service provider’s POP (point of presence). The computer wants to dial the number, and so does the exchange. Old and new technology eyeball each other across a line drawn in the electronic sand.
The secret, finally, is to configure the PC for manual dialling, and in place of the POP number insert a comma. Then dial via the exchange, and once the call is made, manually click the "connect" tab on the screen.
On rare occasions, Johan gets through first time, but more often he stops after the sixth attempt, and tries again later. Each failed attempt can involve 20 minutes of waiting and two cellphone calls to the exchange. "You need," says Johan, "patience."
Once you’re online, setting up the website is simple, even from the far side of Swartruggens. Johan uses a shareware FTP (file transfer protocol) programme to upload page content, which he programmes on his PC at home. The actual site is hosted by a company in Cape Town. As his nearest service provider is in Rustenberg, 100 km away, every connection is on trunk-call rates. He became briefly excited about Telkom’s flat R7 call rate on weekends, but that, of course, is valid only for automatic exchanges. It’s not all picnics and cheap liquor in the countryside.
Johan appreciates feedback about his site – he is especially proud of mail he received from a certain Bob of Michigan.
"Wishing you happy monkey-hunting from the heart of America’s fruit belt," said Bob.
Sadly, Johan doesn’t receive much comment from the Marico locals. No one else has the Internet.
Proposed Plans for
cause an uproar in the Media
All of the farmers are nature lovers. They work in nature with nature all day. Many of them spend yearly thousands of rands trying to preserve the nature. That is more than we can say about many of the people who are protesting at the moment.
When man moved in, leopards moved out - either by their own choice, or they were helped out by people, almost to the brink of extinction in this area. You see, leopards do not love monkeys only, they also love cattle. Young cattle (called calves) are totally defenseless, even more so than monkeys as they are not as agile as monkeys. They cannot help or defend themselves. The result is that many cattle are killed every year by leopards, and it is a big financial loss for the farmers. Many farmers catch the leopards in cages and take them to game reserves where they are free to continue their lives. Sometimes leopards are killed. The result is that only a few leopards are left - those that stay away from people and their cattle.
Now that's enough about leopards, let's get back to the monkey business. Due to the lack of natural enemies, the monkeys have multiplied and multiplied to a point where there are thousands of them in the area. Because they are so plenty, they cannot find enough food in nature. So they went to plan B, and that is to raid the farms of the farmers. Farmers spend thousands of rands to put a crop on the land, and when they want to harvest the crop, there is nothing to harvest because the poor monkeys have stolen everything there is to eat. With stealing I mean taking food without asking for it and without the permission to do so, and without paying or working for it. This thieving behaviour of the monkeys result in huge losses for the farmers, and some of them are actually on the brink of bankruptcy. If this situation continuous, it will mean the extinction of a species we previously called farmers. You know the poor farmers also have got a right to survive.
On the other hand, the monkeys were here first, long before any of the farmers. They also have a right.
So then, who is the real culprit in this story?
It is a difficult situation with a difficult solution.
Possible solutions to the problem:
This last solution is the solution that the farmers have decided upon, because they also want to survive.
If you have any better suggestions / solutions to the problem, please let me know.
Johan van As
The reaction to the article above was tremendous. It is obvious that some people would like to exterminate the farmers, while others would not hesitate for one moment to exterminate the monkeys. This debate is becoming very interesting. Let us know if you have a solution for the problem.
Please note: We don't want to start a war, we are looking for an environment-friendly solution to a problem. I hereby wish to confirm that no monkey has been caught, hurt, castrated or injured in any way. The farmers have decided to postpone any idea of culling indefinitely. Study groups have been appointed to look at the situation and to suggest a solution.
Here are some of the letters / email we have received so far:
All the way from Michigan, U.S.A. (27/08/99)
When the farmers have gone bankrupt and left the land to the monkeys, the people who seem to worship creation more than their Creator will be left with a choice - starve or eat the monkeys. We see the "tree huggers" here in the States, generally city people who've never touched soil that didn't come in a bag from a garden shop, raising similar issues out of total ignorance of what it takes to keep their super market shelves full of reasonably priced food.
I salute the farmers and "Happy Hunting"!
Bob from SW Michigan, the "Heart of America's Fruit Belt"
A letter from a journalist (08/10/99)
I found out about the Marico website through Business Day and I'm thrilled. Thank-you, I'm a great fan of the Oom Schalk stories and the area I feel I know from the Bosman stories.
But, about the monkey hunting...
I am a journalist for the S.T. and there's nothing I like better than getting my hands on a juicy story like a bloody hunt for monkeys. In fact monkeys are my specialty and I have even spent one or two evenings hiding outside a university laboratory waiting for a truckload of poor vervet monkeys to be delivered - for scientific purposes! So I can speak with a little authority on the subject of the media and monkey killing.
You have an extraordinarily good argument as to why the monkey population needs to be reduced - and from reading your article I could even agree with you that culling is the best solution. But as a monkey-lover I'll only approve if the culling process is done ethically and with restraint. I'd like to emphasise the "with restraint" part - if open season is declared on monkeys, it will not be long before they disappear from the area just like the leopards have.
As a journalist I'll have a better story if I discover that the farmers ENJOY hunting the monkeys. But if it is a once-off culling spree done to maintain the environmental and economic feasability of the area - I don't have a story to write. This is the way the farmers must approach the monkey problem. If they shoot monkeys with tears of sorrow in their eyes, even the sturdiest tree-hugger won't be able to object too loud.
To keep the newspapers and nature lovers at bay, I also suggest that you call out somebody from the National S.P.C.A. first to confirm that the area is actually overpopulated and to give you an idea of how many monkeys should be destroyed.
Good luck and wishing you all a prosperous future in the Groot Marico
A letter from Stellenbosch: (08/10/99)
Comments: Ek het die artikel van jou in die "Busines Day" terdee geniet.
Wat moet ek doen om 'n aap of twee te kom skiet daar. Aanvaar julle gelisensieerde boog skutte om ook van die geleentheid gebruik te maak.
Voorspoed met die 'nommer-asseblief-sentrale'
Translation: I have enjoyed your article in the "Busines Day" tremendously.
What must I do to come and shoot one or more of the monkeys? Do you accept licenced bow hunters for the occasion?
Good luck with the 'number-please-telephone exchange.'
Another letter from the U.S.A. (19/10/99)
Subject: yet another solution to the dread monkey problem
Here is yet another solution to the dread monkey problem.
Rather than kill or relocate them, instead, return the leopards to the area and relocate the farmers, perhaps to zoos, where they may be displayed as a newly discovered mammal, the Goofus Africanus (distinguished both by its choice of inhospitable farm land and its inability to outwit the simians).
Just a thought, anyway.
PS We have a similar species of farmer here, Goofus Americanus
A letter from Gauteng: (27/10/2009)
You mos know the story of van der Merwe – or someone laaik thet. Well he had them blerrie baboons that he had to contend with. But he also hed the the bottel to contend with – but enniway... Year after year the baboons became more boisterous and devastated one corn crop after the other and year after year Koos, yes that was van der Merwe’s name, became more and more dependant on the voggies (liquor) an the increasing bank loan. He sat on his stoep while the baboons were devastating his latest crop, and said: “Julle kan maar f... te kere gaan ek drink nog hierdie plaas onder julle gatte uit” (You guys can do what you want, I’ll liquidate the farm from under your backsides without you even realising!”) or something in that vein – of iets in dier voege.
My solution with the monkeys – bring back the leopoards and the tourists and tell them your stories, sell them real mampoer and ...have fun in Maricoland.
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