The Forgotten Highway Summit

By Phakamisa Mayaba / If you rode north of the Cape Colony in the late 18th century, few could say for certain what awaited except a barren, untamed wilderness of savage beasts, unknown tribes, dust and locusts. Daunted but resolute, European missionaries nonetheless heeded the scriptural directive to be “fishers of men” and consequently fanned themselves out into this sprawling desolation.

Before, with and after them were – amongst others – run-away slaves, Coloured farmers, explorers and potential settlers who would saddle up a few horse-drawn wagons, load these with supplies and shot, pray, before tugging on the reins.

Tourism manager Thabiso Mashobane delivered an inspiring talk.

In this sunburnt odyssey also came trekboere seeking new beginnings in a vast land that already had its indigenous people, chief amongst them the San and Khoi who’d been hunter-gathering around here since Stone Age days. amaXhosa had fetched up around Prieska and Canarvon; there were the Griekwa, Thlaping, Tswana dispersed at various other areas – a blueprint of the Rainbow Nation long before the moniker.

Initially starting out at Tulbagh and Ceres, the documented of these journeys would span hundreds to a staggering thousand kilometres over terrains that were lush and green, growing ever more arid and desert-like the further one delved into what is today known as the Karoo.

Prof Nigel Penn, secretly known as the ‘guru’ of the Highway Project.

Needless to say that the country’s prejudiced colonial history meant that these stories, history and heritage would mostly find expression through the lens and voice of the “inkommer” – the literate European who jotted down in his journals and mapped out the landscape whilst the indigenous voice went largely forgotten without say.

Against this backdrop, people like Prof. Doreen Atkinson, trustee of the Karoo Development Foundation, have embarked on a revival mission: to revisit this period and resurrect that silenced ancestral narrative.

So it came to be that on a winter’s day in May 2023, when the mercury in the Karoo had dropped to near zero and the trees stood stark naked, a local farmer and a tourism enthusiast (associates of eParkeni) set out from Colesberg in a jeep packed full of camping equipment, towing a teardrop caravan. They are Maeder Osler and Mbulelo Kafi, madmen in our opinion, which I suppose one must be to drive a few hundred kilometres to the Melton Wold guest farm lying somewhere between Loxton and Victoria West, only to pitch an extra tent and and sit in on lectures on what was glamorously called The Forgotten Highway Summit. In practical terms, though, the Highway is far from glam. Off the beaten the track, it’s more of a rugged tract of gustblown platteland nothingness.

Roads, some gravel, where you can drive for miles seeing nothing but the graying veldt, the tenacious karoobossies and the glazen-eyed sheep who feed on it with relish. Sheep country, a hammock-easy bohemian carelessness, not for the restless at heart but exactly the place for those who wish to reflect, meditate and maybe slip a word in with the ancestors.

Prof Atkinson, keen academic and researcher, but mostly just one of those feisty tannies who can’t stomach a good opportunity gone to waste, was inspired by one such brooding individual, Piet Coetzer. In 2021, the silverbearded horseman harnessed six of his Vreugde Vlaamperd studs to an old-fashioned wagon and travelled roughly 700km from Hopetown to Ceres. It was the utter irrationality of it all – one man, no funding, no logical reason other than something telling him to do this – that caught Atkinson’s attention.

Together they would go out on a limb; planning, marketing, promoting, making calls that often rang dead. Knocking on doors that sometimes slammed in their faces. Fortunately for Atkinson she is also not the sort of woman who takes no for an answer. And last year the trek took earnest form, complete with an itinerary, entertainment and educational functions, but most importantly – fellow travellers.

Maeder Osler and Mbulelo Kafi in the Melton Wold campsite.

With more buy-in, this year’s event was something of a deconstructed Oppiekoppie sans distorted guitars and adolescent debauchery. In their place were history enthusiasts, academics, developmentalists, locals, and a few bored crashers with nothing else to do. Taking place at the Melton Wold, the programme was a microcosm of SA – an eclectic, multicultural convergence of voices from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds. There were highly knowledgeable cognoscenti who could drop names, dates and explain things in terms understandable to all in sundry.

Children from a local school dropped by and gave a wonderful song and dance performance.

More than the talks on the history of the region were the more immediate matters of community, local economic development, heritage, tourism and the often absent entrepreneurial spirit of the getting up and doing things for oneself. They delved into environmental issues like how mines often run roughshod over things with a deeper cultural and heritage significance and how the Highway and broader tourism sector could contribute significantly to local economic development.

Many amongst the audience keenly hoped that their history, buried beneath the murky rubble of the nation’s historical injustices might in due course be unravelled. In this regard, the Karoo Development Foundation hopes to play its part in the ongoing quest towards that realisation.

Though the lectures didn’t touch on specifics like the clanial lineage or surnames of the early indigenous African settlers, our correspondent Kafi did experience something of an epiphany. Perhaps, he thought, for more revealing and clinical answers as to his specific clan’s history he might have to pore over the books that are nowadays being regularly published on this history. Or better yet, write his own.

Through relentless networking, it dawned on him that the Highway had no shortage of open-minded people who seemed like they wouldn’t mind sharing their expertise with someone who was genuine about such endeavours.

As for Maeder Osler, he took down notes, caught up with old friends and even made a new one: an emu (a sort of Australian ostrich) called Joseph, with an affable and at times vicious temper. So cantankerous was the bird that during of his mood swings, he – according to a concerned Mrs Osler – ‘zanged’ one of the old man’s ears. No hard feelings on the part of Maeder, who hopes to catch up with Joseph when The Forgotten Highway Summit gets underway again next year.

To connect with Doreen Atkinson, WhatsApp her on 071 401 2583.

Maeder Osler in the campsite with Joseph the Emu.


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