Rubbish Day this week is a little different. Well, it’s a lot different. For starters, it didn’t take place at home. I took my rubbish on the road to the home of my very dear friend and brave genius, photographer and artivist, Germaine De Larch and equally talented writer and journalist, Ang Lloyd. Ang and Germaine live in a suburb of Johannesburg called Bez Valley. And this is where Rubbish Day becomes even more different, because Bez Valley has an extraordinary history and one particularly dear to me as my mother was born in a house not two streets from Ang and Germaine’s. So today is a little bit of rubbish, a little bit of history, a mystery, a snake, a dead dog, a ghost house, and a whole lot of heartbreak and ache.
Before gold was discovered in Johannesburg (which wasn’t then Johannesburg) the area around the Witwatersrand was sparsely populated, mainly by the farming descendants of the Boers who had left the Cape of Good Hope in the 1830s and 1840s with their ox wagons, their organs, their bibles, their faith, and their biltong, to settle beyond the control of the British, whose penchant for tea over coffee, for all things British over Afrikaaner, for the abolition of slavery over servitude, for their Johhny-come-lately insistence that they could run The Cape better than their Afrikaaner countrymen who had been doing it since 1652, had become impossible to live with. It is difficult for me to imagine this journey and its hardships when I drive the N1 from Cape Town to Johannesburg. 1500km is a long time in a car. It is very long. There are huge mountain ranges to cross, and then miles of semi-desert where once dinosaurs roamed, and where even before that an inland sea covered the landscape. There are parts of the trip so flat and dusty that you can see for days. There is a town in The Freestate called Woestalleen. It means terribly alone, savagely alone. Every time I read the road signs to it, my heart hurts a little at the prospect of being that kind of alone. But I digress. So, the Transvaal was populated by these savagely tough Boers. They set up farms, they started a new life beyond the British, beyond the Orange River and then beyond the Vaal River.
But then in 1886, gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand in ‘die ou Transvaal’ and the world descended upon this isolated farming community. Miners from the Australian gold rush left their homes behind, Cornish tin miners arrived, unfortunates who had lost out to De Beers in Kimberley and never found their diamond passports to prosperity, some of those who had found riches, Irish immigrants. The world came to this incredibly rich reef with gold stars in their eyes.
This must have come as somewhat of a shock to the Bezuidenhout family who owned one of the largest farms in the area. Their farm was in the valley between two old ridges. There was a river, a dam. There was the red red soil, the red dust. When the gold fields were proclaimed by Oom Paul Kruger, the president of the Transvaal Republic, the Bezuidenhout family lost part of the original farm but I don’t imagine they minded terribly. They must have been doing a roaring trade with all the new folk in town. It became a fun day out for the people of this new gold rush city, to take an ox cart to the Bezuidenhout farm and spend the day picnicking alongside the dam.
As Johannesburg grew, the Bezuidenhout family auctioned off portions of their land and a new working-class suburb was born. In 1903 the Bezuidenhout family built themselves a rather grand home and settled down to life in the new suburb of Bezuidenhout Valley. Bez Valley.
And now, after that rather long preamble, and with 111 years separating the two stories I can get back to Rubbish Day. More specifically, Rubbish Day outside of that grand house built by Afrikaaner pioneer farmers a long time ago. This is Morf Lodge today. It is an abandoned ruin in a secret garden. The gate is welded shut, the windows are almost all broken, there are no doors. It is a haunting and haunted space. It is so beautiful it gives me goosebumps.
The story of how this house has come to be more memory than substance, more mould than mortar is devastating. In he late 1980s the de Carvahlo family bought the house and lived there happily until one night in 1994, the elderly de Carvahlo seniors were attacked at knifepoint by burglars looking for their own brand of gold rush. Following this night the de Carvahlo son, Tino, visited his parents’ house one last time to grab a few essentials. He popped toothbrushes, a change of clothes, perhaps a pair of shoes into a small bag to take to the hospital rooms where his parents were in a critical but stable condition, he closed the doors, he locked them and he never went back.
Over the years vandals have broken into the house, stolen the brass light fixtures, rummaged through cupboards of clothes, boxes of children’s games and newspapers. Anything deemed not of value was left on the wooden floors. The house is a time capsule falling into ruin. Scratch that, it has fallen into ruin. In the early 2000s, an artist was allowed by Tino (who still lives a few doors down from his childhood home) into the house. You can view some of the images here</a
And now, if you thought we were done. If you thought you had had enough heartbreak and ‘oh, wow! The rubbish lady is talking a LOT today’, brace yourselves because we drove around and walked around a little more. Bez Valley is a strange suburb these days. It has the lovely old working class houses and semis with Oregon floors and pressed steel ceilings, but it has also got a fair amount of ghetto to it. It has the old municipal swimming pool reserved for whites only/ net blankes, it’s depths marked diep kant/ deep end, vlakkant/ shallow end. It is surrounded by barbed wire fencing but it is a bright, clear blue and my decidedly white friend swims in it daily with decidedly black companions. It is a good place. People walk down the streets, they chat to each other. Tino of the ‘ghost house’ stands on the street corner in the evenings to ward off more wannabe vandals. It is – there is just no other word for it – cool. The incumbent, Ang, wrote a cool blog about her cool suburb. Read why she chooses “ghetto” over lager any day of the week. She’s cool too, by the way.
Now, a little bit of ghetto means a whole lot of rubbish on the streets. If you can’t find a bin, you can always find a sidewalk.
Germaine and I were being a little goofy here. We were standing looking over the wall into the Apartheid swimming pool. We were standing in a pile of rubbish to do it. I was feigning dying Victorian swan. It smelt a little. Rubbish does. But then we noticed a little maggotty writhing – after we’d giggled at the F**k Bush graffiti. Imagine being motivated-enough-by-political-issues vandal to swear at the ex-US president in spray paint – and we took a closer look at the thing in the yellow blanket. It was somebody’s family pet, wrapped up and laid to rest. Now, not only had we found dreams laid waste, we had a body! A whole life festering on the pavement. I was, at this stage, rather sad that my tranquilliser prescription ran out two years ago. But I had not even nearly scratched the surface of creepy.
Just around the corner from the swimming pool is a small bridge over a concreted sloot. A manhole cover on the road has been missing for quite some time and a yellow bollard has been in place to warn drivers. Recently, however, a local resident, tired of the dumping in the streets, has put together a warning display that is frankly terrifying. I had wanted to see the spot since Ang wrote about it here. Subsequent to her publishing her article friends have suggested it is an art project. I assure you, it feels far more sinister than that. It is quite genuinely like standing and staring at somebody’s psychosis splattered over the pavement. There are pregnancy scan pictures, random photographs, a notepad with an ‘I love you heart’ on a page and bible verses on others, there are chip packets, there is a weird little voodoo hidey-hole made from Palm fronds, there is an animal skin defleshed and drying on a coil of barbed wire- Hannibal Lecter’s washing line. It is shudderingly, wrap-your-arms-around-yourself, look-over-your-shoulder creepy.
I drove home from my epic Rubbish Day outing alternately sobbing, giggling and shuddering. I drove home slowly looking for the house down whose steps my mother walked in her wedding day photographs. She is long dead as is my father, and there is nobody who can tell me the actual street address. I look for that house every time I visit Germaine. I drove on Sylvia’s Pass and remembered when my dad had a car accident there in his red Honda Ballade, past the old Radium Beer Hall, past my old high school’s lych gate, past the school my dad’s friend “Boysie” went to. So many ghosts; so many abandoned places. So much time, like water, slipping through the palms of memory. It was an extraordinary day!
Have a wonderful week, all. I will be silly again in a colander hat next week!
All photographs taken on my iPad mini are copyright GermaineDeLarch Images. She’s a biscuit 😀