Travelling through the Hotazel years


Travelling through the Hotazel years

Photographer OBIE OBERHOLZER discovered the meaning of the freedom of the road when he allowed the winds to blow him over distant horizons. He tells the story of his ‘Hotazel years’ (1974-1980).


SOME dreams linger for a while, others fade through time, but this one has persisted as an almost surreal reality to this day. This story started with a dream in Pretoria some 44 years ago and continued as grains of silver suspended in photographic paper, later becoming electronic pixels — culminating in a lifetime of images.

Back then, the dead-end of Louis Trichardt Street in Mayville overlooked the large vegetable fields of three Portuguese brothers, farmers of note. Beyond the cultivated fields, the ridges of the Magaliesberg rose and rolled into the distance towards the Hartbeespoort Dam in the west.

A man stopped his car in front of a house that resembled so many houses in the lower middle-class white suburbia of South Africa in the 1970s. There was a metal gate with a hand-painted number on a dented post box. A cement path, cracked in places, led to the front door, which held two panes of yellow glass resembling the bottom of beer bottles.

On the right of the path was a rock garden with mostly khakibos and to the left a lawn with more devil’s thorns than kikuyu grass. In the far corner, three colourful dwarves sat on three huge mushrooms. Lace curtains and twirled burglar guards beautified the long, narrow windows. Good workmanship on the red bricks and a low balcony completed the picture.


Bob Dylan on my doorstep

It’s February 1974 and I remember how that dream continued. A man with unkempt hair and a hat strolls up our path with what looks like a guitar strapped to his back.

“Who are you?” I shout from the front door. “Bob,” he says. “Bob who? Bob Hope, Bob Marley?” I grunt. “Bob Dylan — I wrote the song that is on repeat in your head. I am your song, your chorus, your refrain, and the purpose that you are about to set out upon. I am the travel spirit that you will follow for the rest of your life and the wind that will blow you: to somewhere, to near, to far, to everywhere, over far horizons.”

The neighbour’s boerboel started barking, causing the birds in the trees to take flight. When I looked again, Bob had gone.

I went inside and played his song: “How many roads must a man walk down / Before you can call him a man? / Yes, and how many seas must a white dove sail / Before she sleeps in the sand? / Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly / Before they’re forever banned? /The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. / The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

A barber in Durban.
A barber in Durban.

Triggered by Bob, BOSS and Jody

For the previous three years my wife Lynn and I had lived in Munich, Germany. Lynn taught English and I studied photography. Now back in our beloved land, many new songs blew in through my head, overturning old ways and freeing new ones.

I was about to enter my “Hotazel years". We soon left Pretoria and moved down to the last outpost, “Durbs by the sea”. There, I was appointed as a lecturer in photography, purchased a house that bordered the Indian area of Puntans Hill, and started to lead students along all roads photographic, from A to B via Z.

“Without passion, your photographic boat will never leave port,” I told them.

When our landline was installed, the first call was from BOSS (the Bureau of State Security). A voice with a true Suaff-Êfrikan accent solemnly said I should watch my liberal ways and couldn’t ever sidestep the long arm of John Vorster’s security apparatus. I mumbled obscenities.

Yet, I itched and twitched to wander forth into the adventure of distances that shimmered beyond. The starting gun sounded when our own Jody Scheckter won the Formula 1 Grand Prix at Kyalami in 1975.

I bought a yellow souped-up Morris Minor fitted with a Mazda VC 1.8-litre engine. With alloy rims and wide takkies, bucket seats, a rally steering wheel and a stereo tape player, it pushed my ego through the sound barrier.

Women with their shopping near Tugela Ferry, KwaZulu-Natal.
Women with their shopping near Tugela Ferry, KwaZulu-Natal.

During the long student holidays at the Natal Technikon, I pressed my foot on the pedal and let my spirits blow into the hinterland. “Babanango or Bust" was written somewhere on the dashboard in my head.

As company I had other drifters, especially one called Jack Kerouac. His famous book, On the Road, lay next to my Nikkormat 35mm camera, two lenses and a Metz flash. Jack was, of course, an inspirational roadster and beatnik. My other favourite passenger was a sense of humour, which was totally necessary when travelling through Africa.

So, Jack and Humour and me hit the road. For the love of the land we went, with the wind, Jack Humour Time.

My heart pounded behind my eyes, punching the sights, lifting my spirits to the roughness of this troubled but so wonderful of lands. I threw my elite, sheltered and privileged education out to the cosmos flowers as we passed.


The chief and a clay pot of beer

Up the road past Tugela Ferry I stopped at a Zulu kraal and asked to see the chief. A woman pointed to another kraal on another hill, so I drove there and found the chief under a big wild fig tree drinking beer with his mates. I told him it was an honour to meet him.

He smiled and pointed at the silver bangle on my wrist. “Gift me,” he said. I told him that a beautiful woman in Madagascar had given me the bangle in 1968 and that I slept with it every night. He roared with laughter which echoed from the nearby cliffs, like rural Zulu stereo.

Then he offered me a whole clay pot of umqombothi beer. There is nothing more punishing than pushing your whole face into the dark delights of a pungent Zulu beer broth and gulping down the stuff that the great Shaka Zulu drank before sending forth his impis to conquer. When I made my frothy emergence from the pot, I wobbled upward, staggered a few paces, then fell in a lump at the chief’s feet. The laughter was tribally awesome and in seconds I had become a hero, the kraal jester. The cliffs echoed their applause. Rural détente was born.


This all happened a few months before the US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had come for that famous détente meeting with Prime Minister Vorster, to discuss the 1976 riots, the Rhodesian racial problem and the Bush War in Angola.

Before my departure, the chief wanted a ride in my Morris Minor. Because I was feeling warrior-like, I threw in a couple of wheelies. Chief’s face got a lot blacker and his eyes bigger, whiter. When I stopped, everything had come to a hushed standstill: the fields and the hills and the huts and the chief’s topless women; as well as his large herd of Nguni cattle. Nothing, just the silent hiss of the ominous cliffs above.

“Again!” the chief shouted. So, I wheeled him around and around again, just a spinning yellow blur in all of Zululand.


Nostalgia for days long gone

In the year 2023, I stare at my Mac OS 21.5-inch computer with an extra monitor and a G-RAID 12TB external hard drive containing thousands upon thousands of images and stories and I become a little nostalgic for those long-gone days of haphazard freedom and youthful joie de vivre. I close my eyes, turn back the hands of time and see it all, like a dream — driving back again into that South African dorpie in the sunrise of light.

To the right lies the “location”, as they called it back then: little corrugated iron shacks sadly jumbled and huddled together. Men stand around a fire, and over the settlement a pall of smoke, floating like a flag of desperation, marks the separation from the other side of town where the wealthier people live.

On the main street, the Greek grocer and Porro’s, the Portuguese café, are already open. A Ford Anglia and a Valiant Chrysler drive past me and old Uncle Seymour’s 1958 green Vauxhall Velox hoots at a stray dog. A mother and her two children, spick and span in their school uniforms, wait for the Unie Winkel clothing shop to open.

A group of African women walk to the smart houses where the white madams live and the dogs bark hatefully whenever they open the garden gates.

The town seems blessed somehow, covered by some veil of decency and entitlement. There is no litter, the three white policemen and black constables are prepared, the pavements are in fair condition and a bed of new marigolds grows in front of the town hall.

On Sundays, there’s no parking in front of the church, and a big white cross overlooks the town from a hill.

So, you must be wondering about this “Hotazel Years” thing? Actually, me too. I’m still wondering about all this wandering some 50 years later.

The Kleinsee meat festival on the West Coast.
The Kleinsee meat festival on the West Coast.
A fisherman from Lamberts Bay on the West Coast.
A fisherman from Lamberts Bay on the West Coast.

If you take Southern Africa south of the Zambezi and the Cunene rivers as the greater hinterland and then, using a compass, you trace a circle around the coastlines of these countries and the above-mentioned rivers, the most central point, the one furthest away from all the oceans, is the mining town of Hotazel in the Northern Cape.

When I arrived there in the mid-1970s, all that really stood out was the bottle store with some locals jiving it up before it opened at 10am. In the prime of my Hotazel years I used to wear this Che Guevara beret, a St Pauli T-shirt (the red light district in Hamburg) and with Jack and Humour formed a somewhat devious but formidable team.

I saw the country in tonal values of black and white, striving for subtle detail in the shadows and highlights. Sometimes this was very difficult, as we lived in a land of extreme contrasts.

Often, coming into a town, we would drive straight to the police station and ask who the funniest, weirdest oke in town was.

Or, overcome with remorse, I would stall my Morris in front of the pastorie of the Dutch Reformed Church and busy myself under the bonnet. Soon, Mrs Dominee would take pity on me and I would be invited for tea on the polished red stoep. “Love thy neighbour as thyself,” I would sigh, casting my eyes up to the cock on top of the church steeple.

Then the dominee would hold forth about the new liberal policies of the NG Church and so on and on and on.

While this was going on, I would be checking out his pretty wife, biting my lower lip hard in an attempt not to break the 10th commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.” Then the dominee’s wife would show me her collection of handmade doilies. Above this display hung a framed print of Tretchikoff’s “The Dying Swan”.

Then the dominee would show me to the gate, while his pretty wife waved goodbye with a giggle.

The boy with the plastic hat in Mthatha.
The boy with the plastic hat in Mthatha.

A tanned right arm

I can still remember what Jack said all those years ago: “Just go. Just get on the road, because one day when you are old you won’t remember the time in the office or moving the lawn.” I am old now, so perhaps I know.

“Where are we going?” Humour wants to know. “I don’t know,” I say, “we’ll know when we get there.” Then I hang my arm out of the window and drive over the horizon. “What’s over the horizon?” Jack asks. After 34km I answer: “Just another horizon.” Rubber tyres roll and hum on the road like a song. The alter egos harmonise the chorus.

“What is the freedom of the road?” Jack asks one night at the campfire. Above, in the African night, the stars flicker a distant light and somewhere in the dark a hyena whoops its eerie call.

“Freedom,” I answer, “is when your right arm is burnt darker than your left arm.”

♦ VWB ♦

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