The chickens won’t stop chit chatting with, telling each other stories. The rooster sings his song incessantly, regardless of what time of day it is. These are happy chickens – they know nothing of coops where birds are stacked in cages, on top of each other, five tall. They go around all day pecking in this huge garden, among fruit trees, fiery lavender and rosemary bushes and vegetable patches. The aroma is intoxicating, from lavender and from trees I don’t know, whose smell is akin to honey. We are staying at an old Dutch farm-house, prettily restored and now rented to tourists. It’s tucked away near the school, a bit far from the main road, where other pretty Dutch farm houses can be seen. Not that anything is too far away from anything else in Prince Albert. Or Prins Albert, that Saxon Coburg offspring from whom this town takes its name. Originally it must have been a Dutch farming outpost in the Karoo Desert. It’s now been gentrified, some folks are retiring here, some farming is still done but it’s still far away from most conveniences of the modern world. A long car drive is required for groceries, hardware or whatever other necessities of daily life. On the other hand, at the antique store everything is priced for tourists, with not a bargain to be had.
The Karoo is a vast desert, similar to the Californian one, just much bigger, its mountains higher, its earth redder. It’s our last stop on our road trip along the Garden Route and by now we are so unwound and unmotivated that, after exploring the town (which took the whole of 20 minutes) we spend the rest of the day in our farmhouse garden, with the chickens, the cats and the dogs. They all seem to get along famously well.
But the sleepiness and the tidiness of this tiny little place is deceptive. What the tourist doesn’t see, nor is he particularly encouraged to see, is the North End at the very edge of town – where the extremely impoverished blacks and coloreds live (“coloreds” here is the official term to describe citizens of mixed race). There is no possibility for a black middle class here, just menial jobs and probably not too many. The town is making some effort at integration although I didn’t see any dark faces strolling along the main street – just a couple of kids on the way to a softball game and an old, drunk woman. As in the old days, alcoholism is still a problem, thanks to the homemade brews that are made in the townships.
And as in most places, the unlikeliest people can be found to bridge a cultural or social gap. Or just to wake people up to a different reality. Look at me, I am different and I am here and what are you going to do about it? That is what Hennie Boshoff metaphorically screamed at us when he introduced himself. Villa Kruger is described by the pamphlet as an art house and sculpture garden and it offers tours twice a month, at sunset. Smart move because, being situated slightly higher than the center of town, right where North End begins, it affords a spectacular view of the desert and when the fading sun hits the slopes, it’s a riot of colours. Meanwhile, if taking the tour, you will be standing in a cacti and succulents garden, surrounded by sculptures that Hanni, an art dealer and artist himself, brought back from his previous lives around the world.
With each tour, Hennie recounts a personal exploration of his life as a poor Afrikaner child in Durban, a child who made art and who escaped the regime at his first opportunity. I suspect the story being told is for the benefit of the listener but for Hennie’s as well, a man who might have found his place in this town and extravagant house, with Rosetta as a companion and a couple of dogs, but a man with demons still trying to find answers. He came back to South Africa and, with Rossetta, he makes art with a Zulu group and has created a counterpoint to the nature hikes and the fake antiques with his provocative art choices. It was only the three of us that night and what started with some apprehension on our part upon meeting our hosts, turned into 90 minutes that could have stretched into dinner and, who knows, if we all lived here even a friendship. The man with demon who prodded me to move to Venice, his enigmatic and pale friend and the three of us. A desert rose?