Matthew Parris

Thank God for the rain — and for the gentle Afrikaners

Thank God for the rain — and for the gentle Afrikaners

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Limpopo Province, South Africa

Ottoshoek means ‘Otto’s corner’ or perhaps more colloquially ‘Otto’s place’ in Afrikaans. But this cabin in the Soutpansberg mountains is not so much a den as a lookout. Perched on the very edge of a green, rocky ridge, it overlooks the bushveld plain at the range’s feet, stretching grey-brown to the flat southern horizon perhaps 80 miles away. At Ottoshoek, on top of a lonely mountain range in the extreme north of South Africa — the Limpopo region — you are 2,000 feet higher, a great deal windier and cloudier, and about ten degrees cooler than the sweltering world beneath.

It is a sort of God’s-eye view: all-seeing but unobserved. You can trace the Sand River and the railway snaking towards infinity, as on a map. Almost randomly —and seemingly as the wind blows — your mobile phone picks up signals from transmitters 100 miles away. Your FM radio can be tuned to a miscellany of local stations aiming at the rural Afrikaner community, hardly supposing themselves to be broadcasting to a couple of Englishmen spending an October week in a friend’s cabin on top of a distant mountain.

October is when the rains are supposed to come. The dry season from April to October — their winter and our summer — started this year with the plains and mountains already dry, for the preceding rains had failed and less than half the expected rainfall had arrived. As it happens, I was also at Ottoshoek then, in April. Everyone feared for the winter ahead, with trees unnourished and animals unfattened and no rain in store until October. That April my friends and I turned out to be the last guests in the cabin before its water supply dried up. Returning now (with a couple of tanks of water in the pick-up truck) we entered a cabin undisturbed for a season. All around the trees brown and hungry cattle trampled the stock-fences. Bush-pigs, monkeys, deer and porcupines seemed to have retreated to the few small green gorges where moisture could still be found.

Two days ensued of what was for us glorious weather. Between dawn and dusk a fierce sun travelled (for us Europeans) the wrong way — from right to left — across a hot and cloudless sky. That first night I got up before dawn and walked outside, staring sleepily up at what a poet called the ‘strange constellations’ of bright stars above. During the second night a wind got up and blew some mist and cloud about at dawn, but this soon burned off. The wind, however, continued and grew stronger.

And on the third night the rains came. The wind had become violent, gusting up the cliffs beneath us and under our eaves of corrugated iron, lifting the looser sheets an inch or two with a shuddering bang. Hurricane lamps extinguished for the night, I tucked myself into bed early and, excited by the weather, drifted off to sleep as the iron sheets clattered above me. Around midnight I was awoken by the hammer of raindrops on the roof.

It rained on and off for two days. In one sense that was a pity, of course, putting an end to walks and climbs. But to be present by chance at such an important turn in the season seemed somehow — I do not want to sound pretentious — a privilege. For us, of course, a cloud over our holiday plans; but for the humans, animals and plants that depended on this land, a wonderful time. And the rain was of the best type for a dry African terrain: gentle, intermittent and soaking — the kind which sinks right in rather than washing down the hillside in torrents, eroding the topsoil in its path.

So for two days we were prisoners at Ottoshoek: sitting by the fireside while outside nature began her renewal; reading, writing or listening to the radio. And on the radio we chanced upon a station broadcasting in Afrikaans what seemed to be a blend of phone-in and These You Have Loved classical selection. We soon became absorbed in this strangely out-of-time, out-of-place programme, beamed out (we speculated) to white farming homesteads in the African bush.

The compère had a pleasant, dignified, old-fashioned manner. The callers sounded (though I understand only a smattering of Afrikaans) like respectable middle-aged or elderly people, very courteous but a little formal; and quite unhurried. They were requesting their selections, I think, and explaining to the compère why this choice meant something to them. Outside the African rain beat harder.

The first caller’s Afrikaans suddenly yielded to a phrase I could understand: ‘I dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair.’ The rendition, in the overly produced voice and accent of a bygone era, competed with the clanking of the corrugated iron on our roof and the hiss of our pressure-lamp. The next caller wanted what I recall was one of my grandad’s favourites: Sir Arthur Sullivan’s ‘The Lost Chord’. By way of an incongruous response, tree-frogs outside began their curious, liquid beep.

There followed some songs in Afrikaans — but from another time: not the folksy, country, Jim Reeves-style music that seems popular among white farmers in South Africa now, but Edwardian songs, or their equivalent, delivered in a dated, stilted tenor, the last of which sounded as though it might translate into ‘My little grey house’. A crack of thunder and howl of warm wind outside accompanied the next selection: ‘Just a Song at Twilight’.

Dame Nellie Melba was riding the South African airwaves and filling the sitting-rooms of a thousand isolated homesteads, followed by ‘O sole mio’ from Caruso, then Ezio Pinza singing Donizetti, as a thousand porcupines beyond our walls huddled into their burrows, against the wind.

Finally, a gentleman rang in to request a favourite warmly endorsed by the compère himself: Kathleen Ferrier singing ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’. Nobody, certainly not I, can be unmoved by Kathleen Ferrier’s voice; my grandmother was unable to listen to her and used to switch off the wireless because it made her cry. But the wind was not blowing southerly, or blowing to bring back a lover to the shores of Great Britain. It was blowing easterly, from the Mozambique Channel, and bringing back life to the African bushveld. Outside there were snakes in the trees.

What an odd little pocket of experience this moment was, in October 2003 in the tropics of southern Africa. An English contralto singing in the night to white farmers of Dutch extraction as a drought broke in the African bush. Was this really the present — it was certainly the past — and could it be the future? Was this really Africa — it was certainly Europe — and can the two carry on meeting like this? When I was young I thought time would help me give shape to experience, but the reverse is happening.

Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.