A Bosman weekend in Groot Marico
Groot Marico on a Bosman weekend is awash with tales as captivating as a hookthorn tree, writes Janine Stephen
EGBERT van Bart's eyes are bright with moer coffee. He's been brewing a potent version of the stuff over smoky coals until it carries a kick not dissimilar to fellow local resident Jacques du Plessis's citrus mampoer.
Another cup inspires the appearance of an unlikely musical instrument, of which Egbert has a formidable supply. This one is fashioned from the neck of an ancient banjo. Within moments, he's zithering away under the stars like an excited cicada, part of the soundtrack to 2012's Bietjie Bosman festival, held in the bushveld town of Groot Marico.
Twice a year, fans of the teacher, murderer and Oom Schalk Lourens raconteur Herman Charles Bosman gather here to celebrate the writer's life and wit. Locals, from sculptors to philosophers - some sporting impressive quantities of facial hair and a penchant for kaftans - are interspersed with pharmacists and psychologists, actors and students. They've all come to absorb the Marico spirit: this place that "is so heavy with atmosphere, so strangely and darkly impregnated with that stuff of life that bears the authentic stamp of South Africa".
Groot Marico itself is a fine example of what Bosman called a dorp, with its surface placidity, verging on somnolence. It's two main streets masquerading as back alleys; an NG Kerk; well-frequented bottle stores; a mosque; one lone ATM; and a pub, all baking gently in a miasma of bushveld dust. To call a local, you can dial an ancient telephone exchange (014252) and speak to the operator.
There is no real central point to the low-slung town, no stand-out monument or landmark aside from Die Oog, the source of the Marico River's clear water. It's the people and their stories that give the dorp its sense of place. Bosman again: In a dorp, "people have got a lot of time in which to talk; a lot of time to stand and stare . and indulge in the most virulent type of scandalmongering" - which of course springs merely from the all-too-human "taking of a sincere interest in life and people".
Like its neighbours, North West towns Zeerust and Swartruggens, Groot Marico is a social and business locus for surrounding farmers. Unlike them, it's tolerant of arty, literary types. It boasts a fair-trade-minded craft shop and a glass studio. B&B owners talk of literature, healing and sustainability rather than thread counts and occupancy rates. The info centre is crammed with Bosman tomes. The town's best restaurant has a hip, expansive red couch in the restroom. But there is nothing cultivated or twee about Groot Marico. There are daddy-long-legs on the ceilings and the locals look you in the eye when they speak.
"Yes, Groot Marico is different (to its neighbours)," agrees Egbert van Bart, a Bosman Literary Society member and resident. "They have too many loveless activities." Exploitation of the land has "attracted bad spirits"; from Brits to Jo'burg the landscape is devastated and destroyed, he explains. Because it hurts to see it, people stop looking. And without care and conscious attention, things whither further.
Not just plants or the environment, but people. And stories.
Right here in Groot Marico, stories are a currency. Words tie the inhabitants together.
The weekend is just a teaser for the grand event in October, when I'm told you really need to be a "serious Bosman fan" to get the most out of the experience. Not that the Bietjie Bosman variant is blasé about its namesake. From breakfast with roosterbrood to the last jerepigo at night, the great man is quoted copiously and at length. But unlike in October, when hundreds of out-of-towners come to pay their respects, local Bosman Literary Society members are not outnumbered by visitors. This means members like Jolene Muir, who puts Bosman poems to music and whose voice raises goosebumps in the balmy night air, play a key part. And Santa van Bart, the unsung queen organiser of the Bosman event, who for years helped locals access essentials such as ID books, and whose office was shot at by hardcore right-wingers pre-1994.
Bosman did not actually live in Groot Marico itself for the six months that inspired so many Oom Schalk Lourens tales - he taught near Zwingli, closer to the Dwarsberge and the Botswana border. The old Heimweeberg farm school has since succumbed to the elements, but the Bosman Lit Soc members have built an exact copy in Groot Marico. The "living museum" stands at the heart of the festival and contains items once owned by actor Patrick Mynhardt, who for years brought Oom Schalk Lourens to life in his one-man shows.
The society itself began some decades ago, when the local branch of the dendrological society would go wandering the Dwarsberge "to look at trees", as founder Arno Faul puts it. "We'd make a fire, braai some wors and read some Bosman stories." It was on top of a mountain at sunset that they first decided to try to save the old school and began fundraising - building the replica came later. And things grew from there.
As one resident wryly commented: "Groot Marico has two things going for it: mampoer and Bosman. And one is unmarketable. Promote mampoer and you'll just get hordes of Philistines with big bellies hanging over their socks."
The weekend passed in a blur that had nothing to do with mampoer. I sat in the schoolhouse, damp with heat, listening to Dr Salome Snyman describe comparing manuscripts and unearthing a Bosman sketch deep in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre at the University of Texas. There were numerous Bosman stories, some recounted around the campfire, such as the bittersweet tale of Gerrit van Biljon, who plants a line of bluegums for his wife because nothing sounds quite like the wind through bluegum trees - but who is himself buried in the thorny shade of a withaak.
There was poetry and drumming, readings from Cold Stone Jug, about Bosman's time in jail after shooting his stepbrother; and a ferocious quiz littered with Bosman minutiae. Quizmasters Tim Sandham (half of a duo that has just released A Bosman Companion) and actor Angus Douglas wrinkled their noses in disapproval as Bosman newbies failed to identify "the biggest liar in the Marico" - Krisjan Lemmer, of course.
In between all this, there was time to drive down rocky roads - the tarmac in Groot Marico runs out fast - to admire the Marico gossiping over stones. There was a welcome drink in a shady pub with groundscraper thrushes on the lawns and a chrome miner within; and a happy hour spent talking about buying property with a newish resident. She remembers a house with a hole in the bedroom floor, which her husband nearly disappeared into. The homeowner shrugged casually and said it was "net 'n gat van die boom wat ons afgesny het (just a hole from the tree we cut down)".
Many residents smugly recounted the same story: once the dust of Groot Marico settles on your feet, you'll be back. It's not just the dust, magical as it may be. It's people like Santa, or Theo, a lit soc member who says he loves Bosman "because I love crazy people. He was not in the norm in his time. And I support anyone with a mindset that veers away. That's why I like you people too."
© Janine Stephen
GETTING THERE: Groot Marico is an easy 2.5 to three-hour drive west on the N4 from Pretoria and Jo'burg.
WHAT IT HAS: Eccentric and erudite locals; a glass studio; bushveld birds; litres of mampoer; and a plethora of chilled-out accommodation options along the banks of the Groot Marico.
WHY GO: On Bosman weekends, to treat your ears to the wry humour and potent words of scribe Herman Charles Bosman. His work is celebrated in Groot Marico twice a year. The next full Bosman festival is set for October 19 to 21. On non-Bosman weekends, to kick back in Oom Schalk territory and immerse yourself in Marico dust and silence.
THE FOOD: Shops offer pretty basic fare. There are at least two bottle stores, plus the Wag-'n-Bietjie pub (just off the N4), which does a decent plate of grub. Otherwise weekenders can head for the more genteel A Twist of Lime (0145030926) for such delights as red pepper and mushroom quiche or honey chicken wraps.
VISIT: Johann Moolman's studio. The resident sculptor's work is held in private and public collections.
WHERE TO STAY: Djembe Backpackers (079 955 8119) offers two idiosyncratic, comfortable cottage rooms with outdoor shower for R150 per person per night. They also have backpacker dorms. Anyone averse to drumming or dogs should go elsewhere, and there is plenty to choose from.
CONTACT: Santa van Bart at the information centre can book you into over 30 places in and around Groot Marico and can also help you find anything from a mampoer tour to a choice Bosman quote. Mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 083 272 2958.