‘We don’t want you doing research in twenty years’ time. You have to start writing the story around it.’
My creative writing lecturer had been aghast to hear that I’d been on Harry’s case since the late 1990’s. She had a point.
Probing the past is a powerful drug, enhanced by the continual release of new information. Every time an email arrives in my inbox advising of some hitherto unseen resource, the urge to sneak a peek is almost too much to resist. I think I’m getting better at it.
Recently I’ve had a shift in thinking about where the research is taking me. This came about after I finished reading Robert Eales’ book on Emily Hobhouse, A Compassionate Englishwoman. There had to be a back story to an Englishman being in a Boer town occupied by British forces during a war. So here I am about to do more research, but with one difference: I’m going to do it in South Africa.
It had started drizzling when I walked through the entrance of the Bathers Pavilion, a beach-side restaurant and café on Mosman’s Balmoral Beach. I’d been delighted to discover that not only did Robert Eales and I live in the same town, we live in the same suburb. I had a mental image of Robert from the head shot on his website. The live version was shorter than I’d expected, but trim and with clear blue eyes. I noticed that he had a small backpack with him. We settled at a table near the windows that look out across Middle Harbour to North Head. The rain had eased, but I knew it would be back later, and with insufficient notice. Sydney is like that.
Ahead of my trip to South Africa, I wanted to probe Robert’s knowledge of Bloemfontein during the Anglo-Boer War and his contacts. As he spoke, I took notes. He pulled out a map and pointed to the site of the Bloemfontein concentration camp; a large freeway, built with apparent disregard for the history of the area, has alienated a section of the site. It is less than five kilometres from the town centre, closer in than I’d expected. He didn’t think there was much to look at there; but if I wanted a better example of a concentration camp, I could go to Orange River Station, about 100 kilometres south of Kimberley. There was a contingency, however: that camp was on private property and the entrance gate padlocked. He gave me the name of the owner and suggested I contact her.
I offered to drive Robert home.
‘Thanks, but I’ll walk.’
When he told me where home was, I knew that he would be walking up Awaba Street – the venue for the annual Balmoral Burn – and up and down a few other ‘hills’ before arriving at his front gate. He proffered his backpack; it must have weighed at least four kilos. ‘That’s for extra effort,’ he said.
Back home, I looked for Orange River Station on Google Maps. Having pinpointed Robert’s co-ordinates – ‘if you find the two silos, the camp is next door’ – I switched to Google Earth for a view of the landscape. Apart from a few splotches of green along the river banks, the terrain was barren and desolate-looking. I counted fewer than 20 houses in the small settlement that takes its name from the railway stop.
The only contact I could find for Rina Wiid, custodian of the Orange River Station concentration camp, was a phone number. I called yesterday at around 11am, South African time. The recorded message, in Afrikaans, implied that Rina was out and could the caller please leave a contact phone number. I blurted out an email address, then thought how useless that was. My husband called today and Rina picked up. We’re booked in for a night in a few weeks’ time.
It may not be in Bloemfontein, but this camp site comes complete with imprints of where the tents stood and a swag of artefacts that Rina has harvested and put on display. It is as close as I am going to get a sense of what it must have been like to live there. Downstream is another special place: the old railway bridge, from which I inadvertently pitched my wallet into the Orange River in the 1960s. All that is left are the original columns that supported the bridge. But it would be good to see it again.