Travelling from Paarl

by Tim Dawe


I’m travelling in South Africa – more on travelling, and travel, later. My current destination is Paarl, a pleasant and historic town 60km north-east of Cape Town on the major road (N1) joining Johannesburg. It’s pleasant because of its 11km-long Main St lined with old oak trees and Cape Dutch architecture – even a vineyard homestead. It’s historic because this is the third oldest European settlement (1637), once the colony’s fruit and vegetable producer, now an important wine and brandy area. It is the headquarters for South Africa’s wine industry, the KWV. Stellenbosch is 30km away.

Like most towns in the Cape Winelands, Paarl is surrounded by a carpet of green vines with the dramatic backdrop of high jagged mountains. But turn a little and on the outskirts of town are four or five massive domes of white granite glistening in the sun. They are half buried gigantic marbles yet they look organic. In the mid-seventeenth century an official from the Dutch East India Company proclaimed the Diamond and Pearl Mountains, and Paarl evolved. By contrast this magnificent outcrop – second largest in the world – is now marketed as the kitsch, “Paarl Rocks!”

A prosperous town of 100,000 people, Paarl attracts city visitors on a break, golfers, wine tours and auctions, and conference-goers. It’s popular for weddings, corporate events, art galleries and long-table vineyard dining. The fine wines are matched with highly-rated restaurants and picturesque B&B to five-star accommodation. And winding the length of Main St is the pretty little Berg River.

You may even have seen Paarl. In 1990 the world witnessed TV images of a fist-pumping Nelson Mandela, accompanied by Winnie, outside the local prison completing his long walk to freedom striding down the road to president of a democratic Republic of South Africa.

As well as luxury and beautiful scenery I’m informed by the mayor in his written welcome that Paarl is the centre for the Afrikaans language. Pointedly, some of his welcome is in untranslated Afrikaans. Dominating the skyline on hills next to the granite domes are the sweeping spires of The Afrikaans Language Monument (1975) – or more aptly put, Die Afrikaanse Taalmonument. It is my first stop on a short tour. In a grand, highly symbolic gesture the sweeping, ascending steps and spires of the monument, looking like it’s formed from wet sand, represent the “ingredients” of Afrikaans: Dutch, German, French (European migrants and refugees); Malay/Portuguese (indentured so-called Cape Malays/Coloureds); and Khoi-San, Xhosa (indigenous peoples and slaves). Other symbolic architecture has these languages join in a stepped bridge that rises in a high, tapering tower. It is a bit over the top but there’s a heavy mist swirling that softens its stridency.

My second stop is just off Main St: Afrikaans Language Museum (1875). And here, before I enter this restored Georgian-style building, I make a disclaimer. I have long held anti-apartheid sentiments and views. (Oddly, apartheid rule and I started in the same year.) I suddenly realise that my distaste for apartheid, its oppression and zealotry, extends to its language. I can’t seem to separate my antipathy of apartheid with Afrikaans. After several minutes overlooking the interactive, multimedia exhibits on the ground floor, I still feel uncomfortable. It’s quite irrational. Then I meet Anje. She’s a volunteer guide doing a PhD on Afrikaans. With her assistance and quiet enthusiasm I see the well-curated museum for what it is: a repository of information on the unique language of a culture and a people once fairly described as the white tribe of Africa.

Yes, the 1948 landslide election gave South Africa a Nationalist coalition government and apartheid (separateness) foisted Afrikaans on all the population. But I need to see the 300-year-old history of Afrikanerdom without the British prism; a people who, more than other colonists, develop a separate culture and identity in Africa. No, scales do not fall from my eyes but I dimly see the non-political sense of loss and marginalisation of this white tribe, their pride and desire to preserve their way of life. Anje’s gentle advocacy reminds me that language is the cohesive link to culture. It’s her academic interest and linguistic passion. I leave this museum more rational and informed, determined to use some everyday Afrikaans words. I leave Paarl reflecting on travel and transformation.

Travel writers, of course, are keen to encapsulate this transformation. Henry Miller wrote: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” Paul Theroux wrote: “You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back.” But perhaps for me, Mark Twain wrote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”

Paarl and its scenic surrounds are well worth a visit. Personally it remains memorable for the power of travel to see the world in a new light.


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