The Peach Brandy Blur

The Groot Marico has a spirit of its very own but it’s hard to pin down, as LEON DE KOCK discovers

GOING IN DEEP: Marico's burnished red roads lead all manner of people into altered states

THERE’S something about the Groot Marico that stops people in their tracks. And it’s not just the thick, enclosing green bush, or the vividly buzzing silence in valleys that shape the Groot Marico River like enormous verdant thighs.

It’s something that people struggle to put into words. It recalls the overlapping threads of story, foreboding and half-realised joy in the tales of the region’s great mythmaker, Herman Charles Bosman.

Fifty years after the tilt-lipped raconteur’s death, the Herman Charles Bosman Literary Society now throws the kind of shindigs — seemingly normal but severely intoxicating — that remind you why Willem Prinsloo’s peach brandy remains a factor in these lush, unsettling valleys.

It was Willem Prinsloo’s peach brandy that was the undoing of Oom Schalk Lourens’s plans to outplay Fritz Pretorius for the heart of Grieta, Willem Prinsloo’s daughter. She had just returned from finishing school in Zeerust, and she was a big catch.

Fritz Pretorius threw a party to celebrate his daughter’s triumphant return to the backveld. He invited just about all of Marico. All the whites, that is.

Oom Schalk arrived with a plan. He wore a black jacket, fawn trousers and a pink shirt. He also wore the brown boots he’d bought a year earlier but never yet had occasion to wear.

But somewhere between the kitchen, where the peach brandy was being taken, and the voorkamer, where men with concertinas and guitars were trying to lift lost hearts, Oom Schalk fell victim to a famous Marico condition: the peach brandy blur.

It’s the moment when the calculating consciousness — the kind that led Oom Schalk to rip the 12-times table off the back of a school writing book and shove it in his jacket pocket for his encounter with Grieta — when that kind of scheming mind gives way to unsteadiness. When the earth moves beneath your feet.

“When I had been in the kitchen for about half an hour I decided to go into the voorhuis,” Oom Schalk writes.

“It seemed a long way, now, from the kitchen to the voorhuis, and I had to lean against the wall several times to think.”

There is something in this moment of trying to hold onto a wall, that awful — or thrilling — feeling that you’re in deeper than you’d bargained for, that almost defines the mystery of the Groot Marico. Almost.

But in order to feel the peach brandy blur, to know its exact quality of disorientation, you need to understand its opposite — the illusion of open-sky clarity. The sense that you have the cosmos in the palm of your hand. This is a true-blue Marico experience, every bit as heady as the mampoer.

A lot of the characters one meets in the Marico — out-of-towners as well as locals — suffer from the illusion that they suddenly understand the nature of things.

Such visitors include very special, and unusually charming, individuals from places like Joburg and Durban who bring copious aids with them to the ingathering of wisdom, organic as well as pharmaceutical, musical as well as poetic.

It’s almost as though they bring the idea of the Marico with them. “A deep place, my bru.” Or: “Hey man, something weird happens when I come into these valleys. It’s like everything feels more potent, like the earth is kind of embracing me.”

Bosman made good use of the individual’s path from apparent clarity to outright blur to typify the Marico experience. Which is why there is almost nothing in his stories that you can take for certain. Not even his own narrator’s voice.

Behind that narrative mask — usually the sly, twinkling face of Oom Schalk Lourens — lies Bosman’s own inscrutable gaze. And he loves playing with the idea that people know what they’re talking about.

Which is why it’s almost impossible to take seriously anything you hear about the Marico — and for some reason, people are in the habit of saying deep-Marico-things a lot of the time.

Bosman’s mocking spirit has infused the place and rendered people’s words ironic. But however sceptical one may be tempted to feel, there can be no doubt that people do feel something big in the Marico. Something quite extraordinary.

Almost every visitor to the area feels it, and then they haltingly describe it with words like “deep” or “profound” or — among the more lyrically inclined — “the pull of the red earth”, “the warmth of the red rocks”, “the precipitous silence”, the “mystic aura”.

One man you might want to take more seriously than most is Egbert van Bart, an Oom Schalk avatar in looks, speech and wit. Egbert has impish blue eyes and a contemplative grey beard that reaches down to his chest.

I ask Egbert: “So what is it about this place, this thing everyone talks about?”

“Now you’re asking me something,” he says. “All I know is that this is where you see the burning bush. That’s when you know you have to take your shoes off because it’s sacred ground.”

And he laughs softly while his eyes twinkle at you.

Egbert grew up in the Marico and then came back 20 years ago for good. Now he lives with wife Santa in a kaya without electricity. They have hunkered down deep, for good. There’s a clear margin between what Egbert actually says and a great unspoken knowledge which he holds within his own, private world. The stuff Egbert talks about can’t be traded easily in words. You have to live in it.

Jacques du Plessis is another local who looks like someone from whom you can learn something. Four years ago Jacques was broke. He had a dire meeting scheduled with his bank manager the next day. Then a friend of his suddenly came into some money. They made a deal and went off to the Carousel, where Jacques hit the million-bucks slot-machine jackpot.

True to their agreement, Jacques gave his friend half the money. With the other half he set up River Still, the guest farm where Santa and Egbert now throw their best Bosman Society makieties.

I ask Jacques: “So what is it about this place?”

“It’s the rocks,” he answers. “The rocks are magnetic. You know, it’s the magnetic force of the rocks. It centres everything. It’s very powerful,” he says, puffing at his well-used pipe — another blue-eyed Marico mystic with genuine warmth and a thoroughly convincing demeanour. No jokes.

Or you can ask Demos Takoulas, son of a Witbank café owner who grew up so naughty he’s never grown out of it. Demos has made good. He has succeeded in his mission in life to be a better businessman than his father by a factor of at least 100, and — as a result — he part-owns the Marico farm next door to River Still.

“It’s the harmony,” says Demos, his steel-Greek-Gauteng voice crackling with a sense of savoir-faire.

“It comes from nature, there’s a natural harmony here. The influence of the river and the mountains is so powerful it induces a sense of harmony.” Yeah right, baby.

But it’s all true. It’s actually all completely true. Syd Kitchen will tell you the same, in between expostulating about the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic diaspora and unleashing the scent of crushed Durban Poison in his practised, maestro-guitar hands.

Chris Tokolon will tell you, after making the kind of noises via his mouth — mystic chants with overtones that sound like the songs of six-inch fairies — that leave people flat on their backs, entranced. He does it for a living. Chris will tell you: In the Marico, it was seriously deep, man.

And it was. It really was.

Tony Cox, Steve Newman, Greg Georgiades, Syd Kitchen and Chris Tokolon were the featured musicians at a Herman Charles Bosman Literary Society event held at River Still, Groot Marico, last weekend.