Kaleidoscopic landscapes

Her physical journey, 1800 km long, takes us from the coast to the enchanting arid expanse of the Karoo, to the barren hills of Stormbergen, the green valleys around Utrecht, the high plateau of Amersfoort and the bosveld near Marken. The unchanging landscapes transcend the actual presence of mankind. They are hypnotizing and intimidating, they get you in their grip. Is there a pot with gold waiti


65 locations in 7 provinces. 7000 km, 45 Days on the road.  


This is a journey I want to make before all traces of Dutch history are erased. I understand the need of a free South Africa to reclaim its African identity from a colonial past, but Dutch place names in South Africa represent the intertwined, convoluted history of the countries and its peoples, and I cannot deny my feelings of loss. With the changes of the names of Dutch places, the stories and the people of their naming will disappear, an era closed, a lacuna left.

My 1800 km journey begins in Cape Town. Kaapstad in Afrikaans. The place of first Dutch settlement, and where I once lived and still feel most at home. In houses bordered by high walls live the new middle class. At a traffic light, young Black boys ask if they can wash my windscreen. I’m afraid to say no. I hand one boy some cents through a tiny crack of my window.

I feel the pain of leaving my old home as I drive into the interior, following the tracks of the early Dutch-speaking Voortrekkers, pioneers in search of a promised land away from British rule. Their ox-drawn carriages moved a lot slower than I do.

Landscapes and villages glide by that many Dutch people know from travel guides. Beautiful Cape-Dutch style farms and houses, vineyards, picturesque Stellenbosch and Calitzdorp, their houses adorned with flowering bougainvillea. Stellenbosch was named after the then Dutch Governor of the Cape Colony, who was partly of Indian slave ancestry, and Calitzdorp after a Dutch descendent family. What I see are images of wealth and well-being. But in the towns of Langkloof Valley there are no visible remains of Cape-Dutch architecture, development is scarce and villages are poor.

In Haarlem, likely named after the city about 20km west of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, a soft-spoken resident tells me a story: “Two brothers moored at the banks of the Grootrivier, the fast-flowing river in which, according to legend, hides a dangerous watermeid – a mermaid. They felt homesick and therefore named this place Haarlem, after their place of birth. They died here.” Today smallholders work small plots of land in the middle of the village. The apple orchards the village was once known for have vanished, and the railway line that ran straight through Haarlem to the port town of Port Elizabeth lies rusted. People here still plough their fields using horses and lift potatoes by hand, just like the Dutch colonists once did.

I drive on to Middelburg in the Karoo. A woman tending a vegetable stall tells me she is glad the white residents have left. Black people were then never allowed to sell goods on the streets. I catch myself thinking the opposite: the Kerkstraat, once so neat and tidy, now looks a mess.

From there the flat, pale Karoo makes way for the softly sloping green hills of KwaZulu Natal as I make the long drive to Utrecht. The trees are green and well-tended. The memorial gently beckons attention. You feel welcome as you drive onto the main square. But Utrecht is a textbook case of mismanagement. Here a number of white farmers were expropriated. Their land was placed in a Community Trust Fund for beginner black farmers, who were also provided with money to buy seed and machinery. The first deposit to the fund, however, was used by the secretary to buy first-class plane tickets on a shopping spree in London. The farmers can only watch idly as their land lies unploughed and unsown while the government attempts to reclaim the embezzled money.

Settled along the Buffalo River by Dutch Vortrekkers, on land ceded to them for political reasons by the Zulu king Mpande, it would seem it evoked the canal city of The Netherlands. But a Black schoolgirl in a brown school uniform tells me that the village was originally called Schoonstroom. When the then residents were in search of a reverend, they found one who insisted he would only come if they renamed the place after the Dutch city where his father once studied. Utrecht was later allotted to a Reverend Frans Lion Cachet, a Dutch missionary zealot. The village practically smells of Dutch preachers and schoolmasters.

I head up further north and pass through Amersfoort and Ermelo, which were named by Cachet. Surrounded by vast open spaces, used predominantly for sheep rearing and maize farming, Amersfoort was so named because it is north of Utrecht, as in The Netherlands. In the farm and rural areas, access to water, electricity and sanitation as well as to clinics and schools is lacking. Ermelo is a tribute to a special friend and colleague of Cachet’s. People sit down in front of the camera. I let them take their time. They talk to me about my roots. “Why did you leave?” I let their words sink in.

I drive on to Rotterdam, a hamlet amidst savannah landscape, gigantic red anthills and rocky cliffs where baboons shelter for the night in nooks and ledges so as not to fall prey to leopards. The hamlet is made up of a handful of farms, a petrol station, and a bottle store. Friday is pay-day for farm workers. The bottle store is full to the brim. I ask if they know that their settlement carries the same name as a major Dutch international port. I imagine they do not really care. Unemployment and alcohol abuse to a large extent determines life in this remote countryside. Present, everyday survival, is what is important. Not the past. I sink deeper and deeper into my jumble of feelings. Where fear, melancholy and superiority before took turns inside me, here amid deprivation, I feel a sense of sisterhood creep in. It’s as if we need a common enemy to understand one other.

Finally, Amsterdam, 77km east of Ermelo. Surrounded by grassland and gum, pine and wattle plantations, it is a decrepit village not far from the border with Swaziland. Named after the famous Dutch city, where either the State Secretary of the then South African Republic, Eduard Bok, was born or, after the hometown of two Dutch farmers in the region who donated land for a new Dutch Reformed parish. It was apparently named in thanks too for Dutch sympathy during the First Anglo-Boer War in 1880-1881. Unemployment in Amsterdam has now reached 95%. It is rapidly being abandoned and will eventually disappear due to a lack of employment. Most of the younger people have already moved. There are still a few shops, including a halaal butcher’s and a kaffee (small supermarket) with near-empty shelves. I ask the residents if they feel sorry about the decline of Amsterdam. I know I am sorry that the village will probably soon be rechristened KwaThandeka, “the loved one”.

g for her at the end of the rainbow?

The map below shows a selection of places of Dutch Descent. Only a selection of these will be included in the final film.  Click one for more info.