Receding into time: Elim and it’s craftsman:
NON-FICTION: Published in Country Life:
It’s a rainy day in the Strandveld, and I’m passing through the small missionary town of Elim. It’s a magical place and has changed very little since it was founded in 1824 as a Moravian mission station. The streets are lined by small whitewashed cottages, the typical vernacular of the Agulhas Plain: mud-brick walls and A-framed roofs thatched with fynbos riete from the surrounding veld. On the outskirts are smallholdings with vineyards and farm animals, and in the center is the old thatched church – the pride of this town at the bottom of Africa.
After a slow amble through the town, on my way out, I notice a collection of six horse carts, all painted green and red, parked outside a shed. They’re almost glowing in the soft light of the rain-filled sky, and I make my way up a gravel road to have a closer look. I get out of my car to inspect these incredible constructs which seem so apt to the old town – my imagination runs with imagery of what this place must have been like in its founding days. You can still go and have some homemade milk-tart at the largest working water wheel in South Africa.
During my perusal, I am drawn to a man standing in the open door of a large shed. Behind him in the dark is an old Landcruiser, with its bonnet ajar, gaping like a yawning and tired old mule. I greet him, and walk towards him to get out of the rain. He’s wearing a bright blue cap, pulled low over his spectacled eyes, and a warm jacket. He greets me. His name is Godfrey. I introduce myself, and ask about the carts outside. “They’re for the Blommefees tomorrow,” he says. “We’ll be riding through the streets as a group, and will be playing music from my cart. We built these carts ourselves.” He turns around and heads into the back of the dark shed. He pulls a blanket off a box in the shadows, and reveals a car battery from “Yusuf’s auto electric” attached to an old sound system from the 90s, framed in old worn wood, with shiny steel knobs to control the volume. It’s connected to his Motorola cellphone, and he fiddles a bit, till he’s tuned it into the right song. He turns it up, and a blasting melody fills the workshop. “Nice song,” I smile to him. He keeps the music going, and heads to his workbench, and sits down.
“I built this chair,” Godfrey explains to me. He’s busy doing leatherwork, fixing all the tack for the Big Ride tomorrow. The chair he’s sitting on has a vice protruding from beneath it, which holds the tack in place in front of him. He winds the vice tight, and shows me how to thread the leather. “Look, we grew up with our parents doing this, but we didn’t do it ourselves,” he says. “So we know this stuff.” He tells me he’s been working with leather since 1995. He does all the leatherwork for the horses. “We train the horses in our own way. First they tow a big tractor tire, to get used to the weight. Once they are familiar with the tire, we move onto the cart.”
He gets up and leans against the wall. “There’s only one Elim – this Elim, so the name can take us far.” Godfrey is part of a group called the Elim Perde, and they meet every so often to go on long outrides through the gravel roads of the Overberg. “Our horses help us forget about our stress,” he smiles. The rain has subsided. Godfrey tells me he must go and feed the horses quickly, so I offer to give him a lift up the hill to where the paddocks are. When we get there, he whistles, and six horses start cantering out of the wet bush, and storm towards us. Each horse has its own feeding station – a frame built with planks, and a bucket secured on the front of the frame, which Godfrey fills with high protein food. He’s done for the day, and as I take him back down the hill to the workshop, he invites me to join him tomorrow, for the ride through the town.
I get to Elim at half-past seven in the morning. The area in front of the workshop is transformed, as is most of the town. There are people everywhere; there’s music playing, and the sky has cleared to reveal warm beams which soak up the pools from yesterday’s rain. The horses are all fastened to the carts. Some horses have yellow rosettes on their foreheads. The riders are all dressed in blue, with big Stetson hats on. The energy is high, and I find Godfrey working on his single cart, waterproofing the sound system should the heavens decide to fall. He’s quite busy, but he manages to introduce me to the driver of a bigger cart, a six-seater. “Freddy Goliath, nice to meet you,” says the driver. He’s the one who built these carts, and works in Cape Town building yachts. Riding with Freddy is oom Dawie, an elderly man who Freddy says taught him everything he knows. I get on board and the ride begins.
Driving a horse drawn cart is nothing like it looks. It’s a few decades away from the responsiveness and predictability of driving a car. The horses need to be gently persuaded to move along, towing, in our case, some 500kgs behind them. We head out of town along the gravel road towards Baardskeerdersbos, and turn around, waiting for all the other carts to gather. Once we’re all together, and the dangerously difficult U-turn has been performed, we head back to Elim, with Godfrey in the front, music blearing through the breeze.
It’s a beautiful sight! Us charging down the gravel straights, a convoy of horses and carts, whips in the air, the fresh moist Saturday morning vitalizing my senses. We get to Elim, and the parade is all lined up: all the youngsters are dressed to kill, and preparing for their grand march. The town is buzzing for our arrival, and we reach the tar, and carry on, through the streets, up into the smaller streets. Our bigger cart struggled up a few of the hills, in which case we jumped off, and helped push the massive cart a bit, offering some relief to the sweating horses. Zigzagging through the lanes, people standing in their barn-doors, with the top half open, leaning over, waving to us on the carts.
We finish our ride near a massive stage that’s already pumping music into the still morning air. Freddy gets off, smiling like a new father. “This is the first journey we’ve done this well,” he tells me, holding onto the edge of his cart. “The others weren’t this good. So that means we’re improving with our horse skills,” and he laughs with a beautiful honesty and pride for what he does. The horses must rest now, because in 20 minutes they’re going to be taking children on rides around the village. Freddy tells me that he eventually wants to start passing down his knowledge to the kids of Elim, carpentry and leatherwork, so that they themselves can start with the wonderfully rewarding and creative process of craftsmanship and tradition. Elim in the Blommefees is like going back 100 years, so be sure to leave behind your modern pace at the tar road, and glide back into a time of thatch, leatherwork, Stetson hats and simple fun.