The lonely hearts column in 'Farmer's Weekly' proves land-loving South Africans aren't afraid to say what they want - no matter how weird it is
Way before there were dating TV shows like Boer Soek 'n Vrou' way before there were dating apps like Tinder, there was The Hitching Post in Farmer's Weekly — a national treasure.
"Do you like animals?" inquired a friendly assistant at the library, while depositing on my desk the dusty copies of Farmer's Weekly I'd requested from the archives. I looked at him blankly.
South Africa's oldest agricultural magazine may well contain vital information about how to assist a sheep in labour or select the perfect trout for your hatchery. I wouldn't know.
Whenever I get my hands on a copy, I turn straight to its most enchanting section: The Hitching Post, where lonely hearts place personal ads seeking love.
Where else can you find singletons who hope to win a mate by drawing on elaborate cow metaphors? Here is a classic of the genre, from a July 2002 edition. "Youngish heifer, 31, with good conformation, excellent wedge, well-developed udder, 1.81m, and a pleasant temperament," the female author announces herself.
Take a moment, if you need it, to dwell on the phrase "well-developed udder".
We press on. "She is no surrogate mother," the cow-woman warns, and "has no love of calves and weaners." She is looking for a "working bull" who "must be prepared to conform to one heifer and no longer work in a stud situation". Signed, "MAD COW NO DISEASE", Howick. If that doesn't get your juices flowing, what will?
The Hitching Post claims to help people "banish loneliness", but it also helps people banish landlessness. The EFF should tell its supporters to be all over it. Most people who advertise on The Hitching Post are looking for companionship, yes; but many are also seeking a large piece of land on which to settle.
There is no taboo around stating this openly. A farmer's daughter is looking for "a game ranch or vineyard owner countrywide". An attractive brunette "would like to relocate to your place in the sun". An artistic lady "needs a quiet area to live in, preferably along the Cape coast". A woman in her late 50s generously tosses her net wide: "Any scenic part of South Africa could be considered."
An increasingly desperate 73-year-old man... is looking for a female companion 'with her own home or farm'
The men are at it, too. An increasingly desperate 73-year-old man whose ads recur throughout the mid-'90s is looking for a female companion "with her own home or farm". To sweeten the deal: "I have composed a song said to have potential by the SABC."
On occasion, one wants to reach back through time and yank two separate writers together. In January 2002, a single Asian lady confesses that she seeks a soulmate with a "4x4 or bike". Just a few weeks later, a man asks: "Are you humble enough to drive in my bakkie and ride on my motorbike?" Get a room, you two!
After poring through many iterations of The Hitching Post, you become adept at translating its language. If a writer specifies "no encumbrances" in his ideal mate, he means you should jog on if you have children.
Saying that you "don't drink" can mean that you are tee-total. It can also mean simply that you don't routinely binge yourself into an alcoholic stupor, as per a correspondent who "doesn't drink but enjoys the occasional glass of wine". You will also learn that the olden-days term for "gold-digger" was the more genteel "fortune-seeker".
Some phrasing is more opaque, unless you are an expert like me. Wrote one woman: "I am the snake of this cycle, returned from hibernation to accept the pains of the past and I'm very lively again." This means she got divorced.
On other occasions, you wonder if the wording is coded in ways that may not be immediately apparent. A slim widow, 54, "tired of being self-motivated", would love to hear from a slim gentleman "who could assist with motivation problems". Is that a self-help book in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?
Sex is not normally a topic for straightforward discussion, but there are exceptions. A divorced man in his 40s hopes to find "an uninhibited outdoor lover, seeking to break from her conventional past and explore on weekends".
One perceives the tiniest eau de creep from a divorced white male seeking "lonely young Taiwanese female with no ties, no family". One is comforted by the presumably low odds of there existing a Farmer's Weekly-subscribing Taipei orphan on some Eastern Cape plot, tapping that ad and murmuring "Finally!"
A similar no-no feeling is derived from the contribution of a man who opens with the alluring appeal: "Calling all females above legal age!" It's not just the male authors who can emit dubious vibes. A retired nurse who especially enjoys "those who are very lonely" summons up a picture of Kathy Bates in Misery.
The Hitching Post operates as a map through shifting social terrain over the years. You are reminded that in simpler times the descriptor "white widow" was not an ominous phrase. Good luck with that now.
In the era before "1652s" became a derogatory term for white people, Hitching Post writers were making proud boasts of their settler stock: "Gent, 52, with 17th-century South African ancestry, seeks lady appreciative of exotic historic romanticism and unbridled mental stimulation."
A retired nurse who especially enjoys 'those who are very lonely' summons up a picture of Kathy Bates in Misery
By May 1994, the changing spirit of the age is starting to penetrate the Hitching Post. A 28-year-old male from a farm in the Northern Transvaal announces: "I believe in peace, freedom, democracy, non-racialism and the notion that all we need is love. Only women with similar ideals need apply." By the early 2000s, a singleton specifies that her match must be HIV-negative.
In an age when women knew their place, a male writer seeks a Caucasian lady who "genuinely likes doing what keeps her husband interested in her". Come 2010, a woman grudgingly records: "I suppose I could learn how to cook if it means that I can live and work on a farm or at a remote bush camp."
My favourite Hitching Post ad, from late last year, is authored by a woman I like to think of as wearing goggles and a flowing scarf. "I am a happy lady in mid-50s, and am a pilot with my own plane," she writes.
"I am looking for fun and companionship with a non-smoking and adventurous farmer, who has an airstrip. Please send a photo of your airstrip and co-ordinates!" The farmer himself is relatively inconsequential, one understands. Let's see if that airstrip of yours deserves my plane!