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Liesl Jobson

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Getting Boekbedonnerd in Richmond

Wagon Wheel, RichmondLilac Tree, RichmondExcelsior Garage, Richmond

Ten days ago, I left home at 4am and drove 800 km to Richmond, with my friend, Isabella. Truth is she drove in her very nice BMW, and the combination of a nice car and being driven was too marvellous for words.

My contribution to the road trip was to unscrew bottles of water, holding the bag of biltong open periodically and reading aloud from a rather lovely collection of short stories, The Children’s Hours: Stories About Childhood. I glanced up now and again to peer at a passing windmill or admire the vastness of the sky.

I find reading aloud one of the best ways to really hear how a story works. Some other part of the brain must get engaged. Or would that be the ears, maybe?

The purpose of the journey was our attendance at the Boekbedonnerd festival, in the Northern Cape’s Richmond, which is now officially a booktown. Sadly, my little Sony compact digital camera took its last photos before curling up its toes. Worst of all, I lost my really good shots of Denis Beckett and Melina Smit in the Cybershot’s dying breaths…

That said, I was pleased enough to get some nice photos of Richmond on the photography walk with Chris Marais.

Here’s my article that appeared The Weekender:

Words — and wine — flow in the Karoo town as bibliophiles flock to the inaugural Boekbedonnerd Festival, writes LIESL JOBSON

WHEN Peter Baker stood on the stoep of his Richmond restaurant, Die Supper Klub, on a Thursday morning 10 days ago his chef, Janine Viljoen, wondered aloud how many would arrive for the town’s first ever Boekbedonnerd Festival.

“Maybe 25; though I’d be really thrilled if 50 came and ecstatic to get 60,” he replied. They came all right. By car and by bike. From Cradock, De Aar, Howick and Johannesburg; and many of the dorp’s locals. Around 1000 guests passed through the three-day festival that bragged an array of activities for the whole family.

Apart from literary discussions and readings with authors Denis Beckett, Wium van Zyl, JC Kannemeyer, Abraham de Vries and Peter Stiff, there were sheep-shearing displays and cookery demonstrations, photography, architectural and botany walks, and a trip by donkey trap to the local brick-making factory where Daniel Kiewido still uses centuries-old techniques and a blindfolded donkey.

Art stalls jostled beside vintage clothes sellers, organ recitals in the historic church competed with wine tastings. From the stoep of the ouetehuis, which was once the town’s hotel, came the scents of pancakes frying, cinnamon and lemon. There were more things to do than hours in the day.

Baker, a Canadian veterinarian and practising sangoma, is part of a trio of men leading the initiative to make Richmond, which is approximately the midpoint between Cape Town and Johannesburg, SA’s first “booktown”.

He has invested in the town’s properties and is dedicated to its rejuvenation and the protection of its cultural heritage.

Another partner in this extraordinary initiative is the only Indian lecturing Afrikaans in a South African university, Darryl David. Based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, David’s PhD research focused on literary tourism. He first envisaged Richmond as a booktown, based on the concept of Wales’s Hay-on-Wye.

A booktown is typically a small rural village with a high concentration of secondhand and antiquarian book dealers, attracting bibliophiles and collectors to the shops and literary events.

“Ideally, a booktown needs to be placed in an area of historic significance or scenic beauty but the availability of cheap property shifts the idea from possibility into reality,” says David. “Booksellers need lots of inexpensive display space and small rural areas are usually in need of economic and other revitalisation.”

The last in the threesome is John Donaldson, proprietor of three bookshops in Richmond, one of which hosted the literary events. He’d expected six or eight people to arrive at the talks but at the launch of Denis Beckett’s debut novel, Magenta, there were more than 40 people sitting on riempie stools, rickety benches and dining room chairs borrowed from neighbours.

Donaldson says he became involved in the booktown initiative because the garage of his Northcliff home had filled up with books he’d collected over the years. “I needed space to park my car,” he says wryly.

He is more than happy with the turnout at the festival. “We’ll build on this; it’ll be bigger next year.”

The intellectual highlight of the festival was an intriguing presentation from political scientist Doreen Atkinson of the Heartland and Karoo Institute, Philippolis. Her talk — Who, what and where is the Karoo? And why should we care? — articulated the problems and the potential of the area.

At the heart of the problem is the failure of a national policy that recognises “the desert” as an asset, rich in resources for social and economic upliftment — not least of which are the uranium deposits around Beaufort West.

Enormous opportunities present themselves for marketing its “biblical” fruits — figs, olives and pomegranates — and its abundant hoodia, buchu, lavender, aloe ferox and cactus pear.

“What small towns need is initiatives such as the development of police colleges, teacher training institutes and orphanages that grow the local community and take the pressure off the cities which are full and buckling under the strain,” Atkinson says.

She says a Karoo development foundation is needed to establish and protect the Karoo brand, to oversee the historical rejuvenation of old buildings that are vulnerable to those who strip them of their original fittings and fixtures . The promotion of the Australian outback as a precious national resource offers a vibrant model to follow.

Another profoundly untapped resource is the Karoo’s potential to develop space tourism. Due to the benefits it offers with the diminished land mass of the southern hemisphere, and reduced light pollution by comparison, it could conceivably be a viable place to locate a space port in the future.

The literary highlight of the festival was Wium van Zyl presenting the work of SA ’s first short story writer, Thomas François Burgers (1834- 81).

The first president of the Zuid Afrikaanse Republic and something of an eccentric, he was the Karoo town of Hanover’s dominee and a thorn in the flesh of the synod.

Curiously, he wrote in Nederlands but his characters spoke in Afrikaans. Van Zyl translated and edited Burgers’s collection, Tonele Uit Ons Dorp, which was republished by African Uitgewers earlier this year.

The sensual highlight of the festival was the Karoo Crawl — a walk up the koppie just outside the town with botanist Sue Milton. The terrain, studded with dolorite or ysterklip boulders, revealed wonderful finds.

There were minuscule succulents disguising themselves as sand, brown and pebbly on top but when prised away with a pen-knife they revealed their bright green flesh below; euphorbia that oozed poisonous milk if bruised; aromatic grasses with names such as kapokbos and wortelsaadgras that give Karoo lamb its distinctive flavour; and delicate Karoo violets, blossoms the size of a child’s fingernail, which have a tap root used for treating sepsis.

The scabby earth yielded a flintstone axe head, sharp to the touch, a reminder from our ancestors who knew the area for thousands of years before us.

Die Supper Klub offered a wine tasting and cabaret with Karoo diva Melina Smit.

It was hard to tell which was smoother — Smit’s velvet voice or the Topaz shiraz blended by garagiste winemaker Clive Torr, who buys in grapes from Elgin and makes the wine in his garage at home.

The delicious menu prepared by Janine Viljoen included oysters in champagne sauce, tomato tartlet with a creamy garlic and thyme sauce, a supremely delicious palate-cleansing strawberry merlot smoothie, medium-roasted beef served on a potato rosti with a mushroom duxelle and red wine jus.

Between courses Smit performed a range of numbers, haunting and funny, including her own compositions. She also recited the wistful and poignant poetry of Breyten Breytenbach.

All this heavenliness was topped with a chocolat marquis with caramel swirls.

Notably absent from the programme was any involvement from the Richmond public library, which was closed for most of the weekend.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://www.sapartridge.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    Sally
    November 5th, 2008 @08:38 #
     
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    I wish I knew this was happening. I would have loved to have gone, especially since the story I'm working on at the moment is set in the Karoo. So sorry to have missed this.

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  • <a href="http://sarahlotz.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sarah Lotz</a>
    Sarah Lotz
    November 5th, 2008 @11:35 #
     
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    Oh god, a booktown. That's such a lovely image. I shall definitely make a plan to go there next year. Wanna share petrol, Sally? Great article.

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  • <a href="http://www.sapartridge.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    Sally
    November 5th, 2008 @11:42 #
     
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    lets do it :D

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  • <a href="http://liesljobson.bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">Liesl</a>
    Liesl
    December 3rd, 2008 @06:35 #
     
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    I'll chip in on the petrol bill. I'm definitely going back next year!

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    December 3rd, 2008 @07:55 #
     
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    Does sound fab! Nice article Liesl. Richmond, funny how it just used to be a place on the N1 between CT and Jhb in the days when one drove between the two cities, haven't done that since 19 voetsak. Now it is a destination!

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  • <a href="http://hamiltonwende.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Hamilton</a>
    Hamilton
    December 5th, 2008 @15:30 #
     
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    This is a great article. Really want to get there next year,

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  • Estelle
    Estelle
    January 11th, 2009 @11:26 #
     
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    Well done, Liesl! A lovely article.I loved the photos. Another place to stop in at on a CT to Jhb drive is Philipolis, which has a little gem of a second-hand book shop and a dorpie of characters second to none.

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  • <a href="http://kathrynwhite.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kathryn</a>
    Kathryn
    November 12th, 2009 @10:07 #
     
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    Such a wonderful piece. And a great place - my dad used to make us go on rd trips - yes, for real - and one time we stopped in Richmond. It has a big gold tree? And the pool was thick peagreen and there was a vine of purple flowers with thousands of bees and we sat under that drinking Fanta Grape on those wire chairs that no one has any more and i was so hot and so incredibly bored that i felt like i was having an ephiphany. Perfect for readers and writers.

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