|The Plains of Camdeboo & Return to Camdeboo|
|Monday, 27 February 2012 14:10|
By Eve Palmer
Review by Camille Tabosa-Vaz
“A story [is] like the wind, it comes from a far-off quarter, and we feel it…” (2011: 82). In The Plains of Camdeboo and Return to Camdeboo, Eve Palmer finely weaves stories of a family, a farm, family farm cooking recipes and several of the most significant events in South Africa’s past into a delicate and enchanting memoir of the Eastern Cape.
You cannot walk away from both books without a sense of the magnitude of the Karoo as a protagonist in historical landscape of South Africa. The Plains of Camdeboo cannot be confined to a historical and botanical study, and Palmer adamantly states that Return to Camdeboo is “…not a cookery book…it is a book about food.” (2011: vii) These books are both unassuming, intimate accounts of travellers through and tales of the Karoo and the indelible marks they have left on the family of Cranemere Farm and world history.
Palmer recounts, in The Plains of Camdeboo, the legends of explorers and collectors like Thomas Pringle, David Livingstone and the stoic women who travelled with them. Livingstone described his wife, Mary, as “…a little, thick, black-haired girl, sturdy and all I want.” (2011: 65) These distinctive and individual accounts make for a unique book with surprising revelations about the country in which we live. Palmer offers a very different version of Bushmen as “terrifying opponents” (2011: 72) who battled the settlers in the Eastern Cape with ferocity. The settlers, needing food and water, simply took them , forcing the hand of Bushmen who retaliated, prompting a savage war with tragic consequences. Bushmen were “very fine toxicologists” (2011: 80) and it was well-known that, once hit by their poisoned arrow, “…a man never recovered unless the limb where he had been hit were immediately hacked off” (2011: 73). G.E. Cory, the historian, described the bushmen’s countenances as “crafty and repulsive”, and documented reports of a farmer returning from a day’s work to find his home burnt down and his wife and children dead, “…a favourite horse dying in agony with its entrails ripped out, or… cattle with great gaping wounds…” did little to mitigate Cory’s impression. (2011: 73) Sir Laurens van der Post, according to Palmer, details how Bushmen’s faces were “heart-shaped…altogether beautiful and in build and movement.” And so Palmer advises, the reader must make his/her own choice (2011: 76). The reader should not infer, however, that Palmer is an impartial observer. This is what transforms the Karoo from a space to place in the reader’s consciousness. It is Palmer’s idiosyncratic style that magically captures the charmed history of the Karoo. This magic is evident in Palmer’s understanding of the Bushmen and their relationship to nature: “They felt animal ‘messages’, they told the Bleeks, messages that were within their bodies, a tapping within that heralded the approach of game and which was never false.” (2011: 78) In his own body, states Palmer, the Bushman could “…feel the buck scratching itself with its horns; and a sensation in the calves of his legs where the blood of the slaughtered buck would drip as he carried it. He was Homo sapiens, modern man, but he was also part of the animal world. It is said that like a wild animal he could, even as a child, find his way to any place where he had been before.” (2011: 79)
The household of Cranemere farm developed a life-long thirst for fossils from the legendary Dr Rubidge. A well-known figure in the Eastern Cape, and later worldwide due to his extraordinary fossil collection, the neighbourhood found the doctor, who treated colds and broken bones, rather amusing. Eve Palmer and her family visited the Rubidges and were treated to a “sumptuous Karoo tea” (2011: 92), proceeding to Dr Rubidge’s tiny and remote museum in the Karoo , where they each held in their hands a tiny reptile: “We were heirs of that little lizard of 180 million years ago. For the story Dr Rubidge’s fossils showed us was the story of the beginning of man himself.” (2011: 92) Eve Palmer affectionately recounts how the search for fossils was punctuated by impromptu spreads in the sand, and in Return to Camdeboo Palmer elaborates: “We were eating goat and rosemary frikkadels when we first saw the bones at the Dig…it was a moment of sheer drama and I think that for everybody at that picnic goat will always have a special aura of adventure.” (2011: 98).
Palmer lovingly gathers stories that will transport any reader on a journey of self-discovery down the “historic highway” that is the inimitable Karoo. (2011: 329) These classic books will forever embed the Karoo in the South African consciousness.