25 Sep 2020
When Gondwana Gondwana Collection Namibia bought its first pieces of land in the area bordering the Fish River Canyon in the late 90s, the area was bone dry after a severe drought. It wasn’t the first major drought and wouldn’t be the last. In the 70s, another brutal drought had ravaged the land, testing the mettle of all men. I came across the farm, Altdoring, one of the last farms to survive in the area, where the Fouries had persevered against all odds; a place that - regardless of the hardships - had entered their hearts, a place they called home.
By the time I visited, the old people with their sun-kissed faces and wide smiles had already passed on and their children had inherited the farm. In the simple farmstead, we leafed through the old timeworn photographs and reminisced about the Fouries and their lives at Altdoring (‘Altdorn’ - Old Thorn). I later gained more detail from the article written by August Sycholt that appeared in Ster magazine in 1973. At that stage Christiaan and Johanna Fourie hadn’t had a neighbour for nine years.
They lived from karakul farming and their goats. Sometimes grazing was so scarce that there was only dust for the animals to eat. Although Christiaan had sunk over sixty boreholes on the 15 000-hectare property, only a few gave water, and the extreme heat that builds up in the canyon and blows the clouds away to the east and west, left little chance of rainshowers. When they had moved to the farm in the 50s, they arrived on a small donkey cart and lived in a shelter among the rocks until they could build up their karakul herd sufficiently to afford to build a house.
Three or four times in the year they would travel to town to buy groceries and sell their karakul pelts. They were mostly self-sufficient. Johanna made her own ‘boereseep’ from karakul fat, baked her own bread and made her own ‘konfyt’ (jam). Occasionally they would hunt for the pot. If the drought was particularly bad, they moved to other areas and lived in tents. Life was simple, and although they didn’t have much in the way of possessions, they were rich in spirit. They loved their land and wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world.
The farm was not far from the grave of Thilo von Trotha (nephew of the infamous Lothar von Trotha) in the southern section of the canyon. Thilo was killed there in 1905 in a skirmish between German and Nama groups while he was engaged in peace talks with Nama leader, Cornelius Frederiks. Christiaan Fourie was one of the only people who knew where the grave was located and on occasion would take Trotha relatives from overseas to visit the site, building up friendships over the years.
As the sun shone down on the canyon land, the two Fourie sons drove me around the farm and recounted the story of their childhood. They told me how they had lived in the school hostel in Karasburg and that their vacations at home involved a lot of farm work. There were rarely workers employed and the children were put to work, repairing fences and lending a hand where needed. When they completed their schooling, they moved to the towns and took up other professions. With the old folk gone and another drought having recently swept by, they finally felt it was time to sell the farm.
They were among the farmers who were eager to sell their land in the late 1990s, no longer able to survive after the drought and the collapse of the karakul market. It was at this time that a handful of like-minded men envisioned a conservation area in the canyon surrounds. The land had been denuded by years of drought and extensive sheep farming, and little wildlife remained. They realised that tourism would be the only sustainable avenue to fund such a conservation area. The seed that would become the Gondwana Collection Namibia was planted and would grow over the next twenty-five years into the collection of lodges countrywide. Altdoring became part of the 116 000-hectare Gondwana Canyon Park, one of the largest privately-owned conservation areas in southern Africa. As the land was rewilded, animal species that once lived in the area were gradually reintroduced, farm fences were dismantled to allow wildlife to roam freely and all signs of human habituation were removed. All that remains of Altdoring today is an old rusting vehicle that stands along the roadside between Canyon Lodge and Ai-Ais. Once used to convey rocks for jackal-proof fencing, the bakkie was abandoned when it stopped working and was too costly to repair. Picturesque and riddled with bullet holes, it has become a landmark along the route where travellers now stop for a photograph that exudes canyon character and charm.
I often stop here on my way past, switching off the engine of my car and walking to the old bakkie. I am usually alone and I remember the Fouries, grateful for having learned their story and appreciating their deep love for the land. The flat-tops of the canyon plateau stretch around me, punctuated by scraggly bushes and a robust quiver tree that rises from the stony ground. It is eerily silent except for the fan of the old car that spins perpetually in the wind, forever remembering the lives that grew and blossomed in this unlikely setting on the edge of the second largest canyon in the world.
Main - Ron Swilling
Other photos - Fourie Collection
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