The South African Highveld in the winter has a unique flavour to it. There are things about it that I could do without – the dryness, the frosted cold of the evenings and early mornings, the caustic stink and catastrophe of fire-blackened veld, and the resulting, monotonous haziness of the thinned air.
But on crisp, clear days it can be irresistible. Days when the risen sun treats the landscape to a generous helping of kind, glowing warmth. Days when the air is filled with the clean, evocative smell of acres and acres (and acres) of short, golden grass. And days when sounds are somehow filtered and subtly softened by the sheer, universal expanse of land and sky.
I spent a few days in the Aliwal North area of the south-eastern Free State last week, and found myself spellbound and inspired by the halcyon highveld conditions I experienced there. This is a land dominated by a subtle variety of burnished yellows, emanating from the endless undulating plains of sun-baked, freeze-dried grass. Grass that whispers historical secrets to the wind, and is invaded by a widely-scattered army of porous, beige termite mounds. Offsetting a matrix of arid earth-tones that stretches endlessly away from any given point with the curvature of the earth, is a sparse but pleasing distribution of shallow dams. Each of these waterbodies is a rare, translucent blue, reflecting the sparkling sapphire shades of the over-arching sky.
Many of the birds that live in this place are small, skittish denizens of the grass, their lives sometimes dependent on the ubiquitous termite castles, and strangely interwoven with the network of steel-wired fences that segregates and controls the region’s livestock. These fences impose straight lines and constraints on the naturally free and curvaceous land, but also serve as much desired, elevated perches for otherwise essentially grounded birdlife.
Groups and gatherings of brown-clad, hardy little birds are everywhere in this very big country. At first they might seem vague and peripheral. Inconsequential. But if you look closely, they have vital brilliance, detail and drama. And their twittering, whistling calls provide a non-stop, soothing sound-track to what is a demanding but epic and compelling piece of cinema.