So often I have driven to Pietermaritzburg and briefly admired the view on the left – of the Thandubantu homelands and the little roads that cut through a valley of hills. I wondered what the view must be like on the top of those hills. A spectacular sunrise I imagined, with a maze of little dirt roads that brave the steep inclines, taking me into another world, one I know nothing about.
Well of course there would only be one thing to do and that is to explore it! To set off early with a big flask of coffee and a couple of apples, taking the road that looks most interesting. I discovered a photographer’s paradise and possibly the best location for sunrises since Lake Malawi!
As with all these little road trips, along with the extraordinary landscapes I discover, I meet and connect with people, giving me a glimpse of what life must be like here. I found Thandubantu to be an interesting experience. It became glaringly obvious that not many white people venture into these parts. With the few people that I passed a long the way, I noted that they would stop in their tracks and stare at me, a stranger. Who is she? What does she want here?!
I’m never offended when people initially treat me with suspicion. They eye me out first, often frowning, keeping me at a safe distance. I can see all the thoughts going through their head and it’s times like these when I truly feel like I am back in South Africa, so different to the countries we have recently come from. Here ‘race issues’ boil uncontrollably, constantly being stoked by politicians and leaders as well as by it’s people; often fearful of the unknown, imagining the worst of someone before they’ve even connected. And it seems as the pot gets hotter – the more suspicious, fearful and resentful we become, building higher and higher walls around our own insular worlds.
Photography aside, this is why I love these little random road trips. It’s an opportunity to connect, though often brief, but always positive. Even when driving passed someone and waving with a smile. They’ll often stop and stare, though not returning the wave. I’ll continue to hold my hand up and smile and 9 out of 10 times, in a few split seconds, I’ll manage to knock that high wall down with a bit of friendly persistence and they’ll smile back and wave. And this is what I try to remember – most South Africans are good people, but we’re a guarded bunch, deeply rooted in the past.
I’ve done a few trips to Thandubanto now, always marveling at the spectacular views. But it’s the little connections I make that stand out, no matter how small. On one particular morning while positioning my tripod on the top of a hill next to a homestead, a man stood outside his house, shining his red car. He observed me suspiciously remaining guarded and with a tense expression fixed on his face. As I do, I jovially greeted him with my best Zulu (which is fairly poor and probably quite amusing to listen to) and explained to him that I am here to take pictures of the sunrise. I told him how beautiful this area is and how it’s the best view in all of Ixopo, which it truly is! Within a couple of minutes and with my terrible attempt at speaking Zulu, the ice was broken. He then went back inside his house and soon came out holding an old tripod and a manual canon camera. He explained to me that before he joined the ‘Emergency Services Unit,’ he was a photographer. I was so pleased by this encounter. Not only was a positive connection made, but we had a common interest too.
It’s times like these that I truly love what I do. How travel and social photography is as much about the places you discover as it is the connections you make with the people. It’s about arriving with an open mind and leaving with a story and most often, a great big smile from a stranger.
“I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.” – John Wyeth