Sunday, October 24, 2010

Beyond the Flames courtroom drama

Hit and run: The Camdeboo region of the Great Karoo where
Boer guerrillas hid from British columns during the Anglo Boer War.
Below is an extract from the courtroom drama in my screenplay Beyond the Flames, loosely based on actual Boer War history (see picture below). It is on option with a producer in New York.


Anton sits at the front of the table as Simon addresses the court.


Your Honor, Mr. Potgieter was born in the Cape Colony before his family moved to the Orange Free State, where he became a citizen. He has worked as a journalist in Johannesburg and was employed at the Cape Town Chronicle at the time hostilities began. He was sent to the Free State to cover the rebellion there. He met and interviewed De Waal and then joined a British column to see the war from the British side, as a disciplined, professional journalist wanting to give the public a balanced view of events. We have brought his hearing forward in order that his suitability as a state witness in the case against Hermanus de Waal may be tested by the court. I submit that his evidence will be pivotal to the case.


Mr Watson?


I have no objection, sir, if it advances the case against the accused, but the evidence led by my learned colleague should be watertight. All we have at this stage are the assertions of a man found under arms with De Waal, for all intents and purposes just another rebel who is now trying to get himself off the hook.


Very well Your Honor, I would like to call Mr. Fred Hutchings, editor of the Cape Town Chronicle.

Hutchings is shown into the court and Anton stares at him, completely astonished. Hutchings looks around the room and catches Anton's eye. He takes the oath.


Mr Hutchings, is the man at the table your war correspondent sent to the Orange Free State?


He is.


How long was he in your employ?


He was transferred from a sister newspaper in Johannesburg at about the time of the outbreak of the war.


As his editor, how did you find him?


I found him independent-minded and capable, but I didn't like what I considered his pro-Boer sentiments and I didn't trust him. However, when the publisher decided he should go to the Free State, there was nothing I could do about it.


Mr. Simon, is this testimony for or against the prisoner?


Apologies, Your Honour, we are getting to the point... Mr. Hutchings, were his dispatches from the front credible?


Oh yes, they made good reading and sold many newspapers, especially the one alleging the imminent invasion of the Colony.


(Aside) Which turned out to be accurate. Mr. Hutchings, are you aware that Potgieter's brother was in the same unit?


Yes, I am.


Do you think that had anything to do with his actions?


I doubt it. Potgieter was never influenced by other people's opinions, I venture even his brother's.


So, sir, you confirm that Potgieter was an excellent journalist, but that you continued to harbor distrust of him?




So why are you here?


His fiancée came to see me to plead for my support. At first I dismissed the idea with contempt, but then, with some consideration, I realized I had been mistaken - that this was a young man of great courage who was able to see both sides and put his principles before politics and prejudice, and was, after all, probably the type of person we will badly need in a newly unified South Africa when the war ends and Boer and Brit will have to work together. (Pause) Take his evidence seriously, he will tell you the truth.

Hutchings and Anton stare at one another.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A touch of Karoo, a taste of olives

Magnificent: The Swartberg Pass.
Finding oneself at 1500m above sea level in swirling mist, in a small car on a slippery, narrow gravel road with a sheer drop into the rocky unknown on the passenger side is not easy on the stomach, even after a hearty Oudtshoorn ostrich burger for lunch. I had driven over the historical Swartberg Pass before in good weather, but this was a little different.

In spite of our slow speed, before too long we passed Die Top, the crest of the pass, and were on our way down through the clouds to late afternoon sun-drenched sheer mountainsides of bright reds and oranges, greens and greys. The danger now past – and my partner Estelle’s grip on the ejector seat lever released - we pulled over to admire the stunning vista, allowing a few 4x4s with smiling, waving drivers to go past before making the final descent into the Great Karoo and Prince Albert.

The Swartberg Pass, a National Monument, with its steep zigzags and sudden switchbacks, is another masterpiece by Thomas Charles John Bain, the road engineer who built no fewer than 24 mountain roads and passes in South Africa during the 1800s. Begun in 1887, this one took six years to build with convict labour and is supported in many places by substantial hand-packed stone walls. No wonder the mortality rate among the workers was high.

Charming is too trite a word to describe the town of Prince Albert, named after Queen Victoria’s Prince Consort, Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg and Gotha. Unlike other such villages, it has not become overly commercialised or overtly fashionable. It’s too small and thoroughly historical for that. The supermarket is basic and the guesthouses, shops, galleries, cafés and restaurants are almost all too unusual to categorise.

Among the informal eateries, for example, are Café Albert, The Lazy Lizzard, La-di-Da farm stall, the Prince Albert Country Store and the Gallery Café, as well as the well-known Karoo Kombuis and the heartwarmingly old-fashioned Swartberg Hotel, where we enjoyed a tasty, well-presented lunch on the patio.

The town represents everything I find attractive about the Karoo, especially in spring when everything is fresh and green and blooming. The constant supply from the mountain gives residents apparently inexhaustible water via the leiwater system of streetside furrows which provide individual properties with a flowing, glittering stream of life for their plants in the rich soil.

Tranquil: Olive House on the outskirts of Prince Albert.
 What makes Prince Albert remarkable is its high content of beautifully preserved architecture - Cape Dutch, Victorian, Cape Cottage and Karoo buildings, 13 of them listed National Monuments. There is a set route one can follow to take in the beauty and historical interest of the built town, as well as other walks into the country.

Estelle and I were lucky enough find the perfect place to stay in order to get the full impact of this quaint semi-rural environment which is loaded with history: a 150-year-old cottage called Olive House, on the edge of the town. It belongs to resident Elaine Hurford, a freelance writer, communications consultant and estate agent with a passion for the beauty and vibrancy of her country and her town.

The house is spacious and comfortable, sleeping six, with two bathrooms, while at the same time providing an old world ambience, including a wood burning stove (as well as the electric equivalent and a microwave oven, if you prefer) and comfortable, down-to-earth furnishing. Sitting in the little dining room transported me to the days when one would have sheltered from the sun for a midday meal after a morning in the fields.

When I awoke on the first morning there I had a view of the real thing as I drew the curtains in the bedroom. As the sun rose, the next door farmer went about selecting some vegetables from the long rows flourishing near his house, tucked away in some trees, with the mountain backdrop as beautiful in the morning sun as in the evening.

Down on the farm: An Angora goat with newborn twin kids.
 Down a path along the edge of the farmer’s land we found a green camp full of female Angora goats – all heavily pregnant. One was in labour, with much agonised bleating. We watched as she gave birth, the little kid trying to stand up almost immediately. Within a short time others began to bear down and by that afternoon the camp was alive with newborn kids, mostly twins. Prince Albert is the centre of the mohair producing region of South Africa and is home to some champion Angora breeders. These animals were probably owned by one, judging by the quick and efficient matched marking and tagging of the kids and their mothers.

By mid-morning on Saturday Church Street was busy, with locals and visitors in and out of the shops, cafés and the Saturday market which offered plenty of local produce, including olives and olive oil, dried fruit, fresh fruit and other homemade delights.

Nearby is the Fransie Pienaar Museum which, like other small town museums, only more so, is packed with fascinating relics. It is named after the woman who started her collection on a farm in the district and later relocated it six times to accommodate its growth. It is now presented in the prominent house built by Jan Haak in 1906.

Being a Boer War history enthusiast, in the museum I soon found references to Gideon Scheepers, Deneys Reitz and Jan Smuts, all prominent Boer fighters who operated in the area. The story of the exploits of Scheepers has long fascinated me, and in a glass case below the photographic portrait of him taken in the prison at Graaff Reinet, is one of his stirrups. He was known for his dashing style of military dress and the stirrup appears to be of above average quality!

While operating against the British, Scheepers fell ill in the Prince Albert district with what is believed to have been appendicitis. Unable to continue on commando, he was left to his fate by his grieving men in a small house on a farm, where he was captured with alacrity by the British, nursed partially back to health, put on trial and later executed as a criminal at Graaff Reinet for trainwrecking, murder, arson and other charges. One of the protected houses in Prince Albert, the Doktershuis, was used at the time by a Dr Mearns who was summoned by Scheepers’ men to come and help him, but failed to treat his condition successfully.

In a separate room off the stoep of the museum is a fibreglass exhibition of the tracks left by a Bradysaurus – an animal about the size of a rhino - about 240 million years ago. The footprints were discovered in the Prince Albert district accidentally by Vivienne Muller in 1989 and confirmed by palaeontologists shorly afterwards.

 A highlight of our visit was being hosted to dinner in the restaurant at African Relish recreational cooking school by one of the partners, Jeremy Freemantle and his wife Di. The well-equipped school and restaurant, in central Prince Albert, offers a fun way to learn to cook in the true South African culinary tradition. It has an open-plan working kitchen which is designed for hands-on training and is easily accessible by visitors who can see the chefs at work. We loved the original fresh tastes of the dishes served, which are influenced particularly by the “heritage cooking” of the Khoi-Khoi veldkos from the area, as well as Malay, Dutch, English, French and Indian traditions. African Relish offers regular courses, and accommodation is available. It caters specifically for specialist groups, small functions and corporate team building – an ideal diversion for jaded city-dwellers.

Charming: The town has a high content of historical houses.
We took the easier, and equally scenic route back to the N2 via Meiringspoort with its spectacular cliffs and twisted rock formations (Vincent van Gogh would have flipped out in this place) via the beautifully maintained tarred road which winds along the floor of the gorge, crossing the Groot River 25 times in this gateway between the Little and Great Karoo. After emerging from the gorge you are welcomed by another lovely little historical village, De Rust, a recommended destination in itself, on the way back to Oudsthoorn which offers a whole world of Little Karoo attractions and places of interest.

Call Prince Albert Tourism on 023 541 1366.

This story appeared in Saturday Star Travel.