"Shadows Over Stones"
by Mike Rossi
A story of two journeys that started in 2005. The first journey was planned, chasing Nimbus clouds over koppies that were disappearing across the South African landscape.
The second journey evolved, as I discovered that buried within the shadows of these koppies, is the living. My passage through ‘Shadow over Stones’ opened me to the people who lived there, their cultures, dreams, and desires, from past to present.
I pursued Nimbus with a Hasselblad x-pan, photographing the landscapes on black and white negative film in a landscape format. Sadly this camera is no longer made. It was an unintended irony to film disappearing koppies with a disappearing camera.
Koppies have supported Southern African life for millions of years. The wandering San people who hunted the Mountain Reed Buck on ‘Thebus’ and ‘Koffiebus’ koppies in the Middelburg area left their imprint in rock paintings. Indigenous tribes like the Ba-Phalaborwa, the early inhabitants of the Lowveld, established villages on top and around koppies. The king and queen lived on top of the koppie, and as the rank in the tribe diminished, so did their position on the koppie, ending with the peasants at the bottom.
Hundreds of animal and plant species live and depend on the ecosystems of koppies. The large-leafed Rock fig (Ficus abutilifolia) only survives on rocky outcrops with its dependents. You could call it ‘self mutualism’. Fig trees and fig wasps cannot exist without each other. Only fig wasps can pollinate fig trees, and only fig trees can host the wasps’ eggs. This mutualism narrows it down to each fig tree species having only one fig wasp that can pollinate it. The lifespan of a fig wasp is only a few days, making the actual pollination of a fig tree quite a feat.
The Trek Boer women named these freestanding hillocks, koppies, meaning, ‘an upside-down teacup’. Some certainly look like a teacup on the horizon. In the Eastern Cape, dotted in-between table mountains, koppies shaped like Perlemoen shells hug the landscape. In the West, on the Fraserburg escarpment, blackened dolerite rock outcrop koppies lie scattered in a bleak arid landscape, which took me back to 50000 BC. I almost half expected Neanderthal man to appear, pursuing a mammoth. Large female breasts in various sizes litter the Eastern Free State. Others take on different guises like a mother carrying her baby in a Nimbus thunderstorm; lions guarding the gates to Lesotho and the sculptured Caesar head gazing into the distance.
Over the years, many koppies have vanished from the landscape for commercial gain. Industry has transformed nature. Desire for minerals like copper, gold, silver, uranium, palladium, platinum, granite for kitchen tops and mica for paint, has left the landscape scarred. Mother Nature also plays her part. The mudstone koppies in the Karoo are eroding and could disappear in a few hundred years – some already have.
Most South Africans have seen them in their travels. For me, I’ve always looked at koppies in the shadows of Nimbus. Nimbus dark moods symbolized the tragedy of the lost and eroding koppies. My journey took over 40 000 kilometers and several hundreds of towns passed. These journeys have taken me from Messina to Cape Town – from Durban to Port Nolloth and deep into the Matoba Hills, Zimbabwe, which have a deep connection with the San people and the tribes of the Northern Limpopo. As I traveled these towns, images of wide dusty streets surrounding the tall spires of Dutch Reformed churches in a structural grid remain in my mind. Dotting the street pavements like regimented soldiers with outstretched arms, acacias, pines, cypresses, blue gums reach out to the skies, their body odors mingling with the heat of the day.
Vegetable patches carved into the open veld; bright rows of white mielies; scraggly pumpkins lie strewn across the naked red earth, and chickens scratch around amid sparsely grown Morogo vegetables. Clustered in bunches, Dorpers (sheep) nibble the sparse bush. Dotted in-between are the rocky outcrops of nature. Some beautifully well-rounded orbs and others jagged-like spires that reach up for the skies. Scents abound, such as eucalyptus, ginger, rosemary, honey, apricots and kanna, drifting across the Karoo landscape, often causing hunger pangs. The lemon smells of the Baobab seeds in Mapungubwe. Fragrances of dark chocolate, garlic and baked potato waft through Acacias and the undergrowth of potato bush that spreads wild along the Limpopo River. Milky sandalwood odors mingle with honeyed jasmine, sweet oranges of the False Acacia and fried sweet onions in the bush that surrounds Phalaborwa.
My journey through the Karoo took me alongside never-ending railway lines, watchful Martial eagles, shy Caracals and some of the 29 species of buck that reside in the Karoo. Silvery wind pumps would flick by, often with several blades missing. In the silence of the day, eerie noises screech out. The air dried-out, as I traveled north under the shadows over the Limpopo. Baobabs, Sausage, Knob thorn, Marula, Fever and Mopane trees loom everywhere – their scents rustle through the air. Then my journey continued through Mpumalanga where the clouds would spill down from the sky, swamping the evergreen tropical vegetation, with droplets of moisture clinging to the leaves like perspiration.
My compulsion to chase Nimbus over koppies had from time to time put me in danger. So why did I take this risk? To almost drown in a flood? Or to discover while having abolitions one morning, I shared the same toilet bowl as a Snouted-Cobra? Or for that matter, to get stone-whipped by dust devils?
I’ve spent many years chasing Nimbus’s shadows. All too often in temperatures more fit for a sinner from hell. Nimbus only appears when the heat starts to rise. Flashfloods would materialize out of nowhere to remind me, not only of her power but also of her unexpected behavior. Even with this schizophrenic behavior, I am still drawn to her, even when sitting within the protection of the four walls of my home. But when all is said and done, I would gladly stand and watch her again, in the shadows over stones.