Rob makes his porridge in a special way so that it comes out smooth and tastes just right, and I enjoy the fruits of his efforts. Funny, I’m normally not crazy about porridge, but on this occasion it hits the spot perfectly. Pack in some sarmies and two big oranges, and Rob lifts me to the ‘main road’ to Alicedale at the end of his farm. It is still windy and cold, but not as bad as yesterday. This time, however, I have taken out my beanie, and I revel in its warmth and protection. Why didn’t I think of this before?
After a couple of quiet crisp kilometers I come across the beautiful grey-green olive groves belonging to Craig Rippon on Springvale. I feel a nostalgic thrill of excitement as I’m immediately taken back to the walks we’ve done amongst the olive trees of Italy – a gentle meander along the Cinque Terre, a hike through the fields of Tuscany, a wander around St Francis’ Assisi, and the Walk of the Gods high above the Amalfi coast.
The old farmhouse is filled with photographs which capture studied moments in time of generations of Rippon family (as well as the history of changing fashions in dress and facial hair). All these people colourfully lived and loved, struggled and triumphed, in this very place, in their time, but now they’re nothing more than rather austere images in black and white. Is that it? They seemed to somehow live on with Craig, who carefully pointed out who was who and where each fitted in to the bigger family picture, right up to him today. But when Craig goes, do they go back to being just historical images? I go into dualistic mode and am challenged both to set up a photographic record of my own ancestors - who deserve to be remembered with much appreciation - and to note that I need to live my life fully here for the world will move on and me and my time will soon be over and forgotten.
I am fascinated by Craig’s work with olives. What makes someone start to cultivate olives in the Eastern Cape? Is this the kind of creative imagination – and bloody hard work – needed to make a go of farming today? I come from farming stock myself, but my forebears never seemed to think too far beyond doing what they had always done. But the reality is that what worked yesterday doesn’t necessarily work today, or rather what gave you a living yesterday might not give you a decent living today. I’m filled with admiration for Craig as he explains how he has travelled through Spain, Italy, Greece, Australia and elsewhere, learning about the cultivation and harvesting of olives, and how he has sourced trees for his groves, and then experimented with differing ways of storing the olives and extracting their oils. It has been a real battle though, and the last seven years of drought have not helped. But Craig assures me that we’re now in for seven years of plenty and the reassurance is comforting.
I think of Rob and Boekenhout where I have just spent the night. He has stuck to his sheep while almost all the farms around him have changed, mostly to game. This has brought a fresh influx of predators onto his property, to add to the stock losses from theft on those sections bordering public roads. Should he be changing his farming practice too? The photos in the family loo show Rob’s Dad and Mom achieving record wool prices at the annual sales, but are those days over? Maybe, but maybe not. As more and more sheep and cattle farms change to game, so there is less production of and greater demand for meat, especially meat on the hoof. Maybe the same will go for wool. Maybe the farmers like Rob who hang in there will earn their rewards.
Craig is wonderfully supportive of what I am doing, and drives me up the hill to look at possible routes. We pass the continuation of the wagon trails from Highlands, and I think it could be really nice to follow these from Highlands to Springvale, and then get a taste of what is happening on this revamped Eastern Cape farm. Craig points out an alternative way through Death Valley which he tells me is wildly beautiful, but which currently has no obvious paths through it. I need to return and explore this further and also discuss possibilities with neighbouring game farmers.
I am surprised how much I enjoy walking on the road to Alicedale. I have only driven it in the past, and have not found it particularly inspiring. My original idea had been to keep to the old Highlands Road all the way to Alicedale but this has now been blocked off by game farmers. There are very few cars today and I gently descend long desolate downhills with big open vistas. On the side of the road I think I recognize the black shale in which many of our local fossils are found, and spend ages trying to find some ancient bones in the rocks. Wouldn’t it be exciting for future pilgrims to know that a 250 million year old fossil was found right here, and that they must keep their eyes open for more? Soon Alicedale appears in the distance as a lush green oasis. Ah the deception of appearances.
But there is no deception about the magnificent beast that suddenly comes into view next to me. I’ve seen many elephants in my life, but each time I am awed and humbled. What a dignified giant of an animal, what a powerhouse of gentleness! I’m not sure that this reverence is returned, however, as the great tusker regards my puny presence with utter indifference, turns his back on me, and continues slowly feeding from the bushes and trees around it. We humans are indeed small fry compared to such beings, and hardly deserve to have any dominion over them. I wonder how they would have treated us if it had been the other way around?
A man comes down the hill on his bicycle, loaded with firewood, his big axe precariously balanced on top. I stop him, show him the elephant, and he is overwhelmed. Yhu, yindlovu! He has never seen one before and we have a hell of an animated chat about it. He eventually rides off, and I hear him continuing to ncokola in great glee to himself all the way into the distance.
Alicedale is a town of confusing contrasts. From afar it appears green and lush, but up close it has little colour and little life. At the end of the main street about a dozen signposts suggest a springboard to romantic road travel, but there isn’t a car in sight. The upmarket Bushman Sands boasts a golfing estate and a life of exotic relaxation, but the plots stand empty, the Conference Centre closed up. The place has the numb feel of doomed dreams and deceptive development. A depressed air of debt hangs over everything like an invisible mist. What really happened here?
I buy a coke and decamp on a little tablecloth of green grass outside the pretentious gates of the hotel. A young man shouts a greeting across the road to three young girls walking past, but they ignore him. He moves into flirt mode, but they still pay no attention. Emboldened or goaded, he ups a gear and becomes sexually suggestive, in both tone and content. Still no response, until he pushes some pre-ordained collective button in the girls and in a spontaneously choreographed flash they turn on him and verbally rip him to shreds. Chastened he slinks off with his penis between his legs.
When I get to the Olkers farm Doornkom 7km north-west of Alicedale, Prop is fixing a trailer to take some cattle to the stock fair the next day, and Jacky arrives back from a two-day excursion to the necessities and temptations of the big city. Although I have only met them on one previous occasion, they take me in as an old friend coming home, and I savour the warmth of it. Another indulgent hot bath and I forget that my legs are still hurting. And as I snuggle into bed after a wonderful home-made meat pie, veggies and pudding, I feel pampered and at peace with the world.