The haunting of Prince Albert: ghosts abound in this quaint Karoo town

Perhaps the spectres who linger in this pretty place are an eerie reminder to the living to pause and take pleasure in life

12 January 2020 - 00:00 By
The past is as much a reality as the present in Prince Albert.
The past is as much a reality as the present in Prince Albert.
Image: Siphu Gqwetha

Prince Albert shimmers. In the December heat it looks almost phantasmagorical in the morning light. The heat, the drought, the honeyed air, all conspire towards a slow unfolding of the Platonic ideal of a Karoo town.

Marked out in increments — charmed Cape cottages, Victorian farmsteads, antiquated leiwater channels — the town unfolds in small ordered rivulets of cold, clear water and beyond the neat grid — the endless, barely discernable susurration of the desert and the purple hills.

There is a sweetness to this place. As if the entire town had drunk from the eternal spring flowing down from the Swartberg pass and now everyone and everything is preserved in a shell of timeless amber. Like an ancient insect — a mythical place which by sheer force of goodwill has eliminated all the horrors of time — the forced removals of apartheid, the occupation of the Anglo-Boer War, the mass extermination of the San — and left only this pretty bubble.

[It's] as if the entire town had drunk from the eternal spring flowing down from the Swartberg pass and now everyone and everything is preserved in a shell of timeless amber

It seems apt then, since the town has been granted a kind of immortal pass on the passage of time, that ghosts should be a narrative feature of the landscape, popping in and out of view like nebulous reminders of the past. Perhaps here time functions in a weird loop through which these ghostly apparitions manifest — reminding those who glimpse them that once these other people lived their lives here, felt their feelings and walked these pretty streets just as we do today.

I took the tour and drank all the Prince Albert Kool Aid. My guide was one Ailsa Tudhope, lay minister and all-round fabulist with an arcane knowledge of all the goings-on in Prince Albert. All of them. The multiple Piets, the plentiful gossip, the unrequited love affairs, the collections, the war stories, the stoep conversations of yore, trip off her tongue and into visceral ghostly reality.

Was that the curtain twitching in the loft of the Doctor's house? The young woman bouncing with childish delight on the bed in her virginal white could be peering out at us as we peer up at her bolt hole from the street. The grandfatherly poltergeist moving the paintings somebody dared to take down. They are going back onto his wall, thank you very much. The old tannie who came to check on the newborn in her house. The misguided suicide in the municipal office keeping an eye on the property. Even Krisjan Swanepoel — a young man shot on the pass in the bloom of youth by a stray sheriff's bullet at the turn of the last century might manifest and accompany walkers who have strayed out too late at night.

The multiple ranks of ghosts, it seems, are real. And pining. Spectral outsiders longing for the gentle daily pleasures now forever lost to them. Their manifestations perhaps really just an eerie reminder to the living to pause and take pleasure in life.

Philosopher Jacques Derrida coined the term hauntology to describe the idea of the return or the persistence of elements from the past. As in Hamlet — "time is out of joint". The ghosts we see mediate the past, but equally mourn a future that never happened. In this state of haunting there is never a moment where something begins and something finishes, there is only the "always — already absent present."

In Prince Albert nostalgia for some ideal past — a kinder, more benevolent place, plays out in the recycling of the retro aesthetics and the amberficiation of the place.

Why do we see these ghosts and not the hunted San or the displaced coloured community elders? Perhaps those ghosts are haunting elsewhere.

Now it seems to me that the gentle haunting of the small Karoo town of Prince Albert is paradoxical. These dead who have tampered with time to manifest in the sweetness of an idealised village life of the present are sick with longing. But so are we, and these ghostly apparitions are fictions of an imperfect cultural memory, some place we all wished existed — outside time and place and, above all, history.