Kimberley’s mythical past

FOR someone of a certain age and disposition the autumn of 1977 left an indelible mark: it marked the publication of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and for some people Chatwin’s magic spell of imagery, history and geography never quite left their blood-stream.

Which was partly why one late afternoon in 1999 I turned left off the R49 Kimberley to Vryburg road at Taung in South Africa’s Northern Cape. Like Chatwin’s Patagonia this part of South Africa is ‘off the map’ with its vast expanses of low thorn-bush and grey, acidic soil that whips up into plumes of powdery dust that can be spotted from miles away: but just as Chatwin uncovered a rich brew of history in the vastness of Patagonia so does the Northern Cape where History and the Present merge across the boundless horizon to the Kalahari Desert.

In a limestone quarry near Taung Raymond Dart, a young Australian professor of anatomy at Witwatersrand University, recognised a fossillised skull that was later christened the Taung Child. It was 1924 and finding the first-ever Australopithecus africanus, the African southern ape, was seen not only as ‘the missing link’ but also provided some meaning to Life after the recent blood-bath of the First World War.

The Northern Cape has had its own large share of blood-shedding, both human and wildlife, particularly in the 19th century; what with the escalating drama of Boer Trekkers versus British dominion, the vast tribal upheavals, and the Christian missionary zealots. All parties, however, liberally helped themselves to whatever was available from the land.

The zebra-like quagga has disappeared altogether, with the land now covered by cattle and sheep and broken up by fence-lines and the odd metal wind-mill fanning the breeze. Today small herds of springbok and hartebeest graze on land that hosted tens of thousands; the lion and leopard are long gone in the wild, as have the rhino, buffalo, giraffe and wildebeest who developed special teeth and stomachs for survival in arid conditions over six million years.

Under the soil the story is the same. In the heady diamond-days at the end of the nineteenth century the Oppenheimers and their ilk lubricated the supply of natural resources to insatiable European empire-builders.

Today Kimberley is an open time-capsule; Ernest Oppenheimer’s home that launched the De Beers empire looks out blankly onto Old De Beers Road while other street names point to another era, even world, while the ghost of Cecil Rhodes stalks the old diamond slag-heaps and big holes murmuring the words: ‘where did it all go’. Jasper Humphreys, The Marjan Centre

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