Magazine article The Spectator

Thank God for the Rain - and for the Gentle Afrikaners

Magazine article The Spectator

Thank God for the Rain - and for the Gentle Afrikaners

Article excerpt

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. …

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