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Open Features: Don't Look Up

Jacqueline Dowling brings the sights, the sounds, the scents of South Africa in this vivid tale.

A change in tempo of the aircraft's engines drags me into consciousness. I yawn hugely, wriggle numb, swollen feet into life, slowly ratchet stiff joints from their frozen position and check in with myself. All good. I'm still twenty five year old Sue Tranter, photojournalist and film maker. Stiff and smelly, but in one piece.

The flight from Santiago, Chile, seems endless: seat area limited to fit an anorexic fairy: dead and exhausted air blows back and forth distributing a toxic mix of stale bodies, rhino breath, eggs and feet. In an untidy sprawl of long limbs and blanket, my colleague, videographer and soul-mate Jo, emerges groaning: his neck resembling that of a carelessly strangled chicken, his eyes sticky and red. For this African assignment he has chosen the rasta look, his ash blond hair a mop-top of beaded dreadlocks, strong Nordic features deeply tanned from months of hiking in the Andes: we never did find the ruined Inca cities, or Atahualpa's treasure trove, but it made a good story: and Discovery bought the television rights.

This time we have a broad brief: to capture and shoot the spirit of rural southern Africa. Customs cleared, we meet up with our fixer, guide and general factotem, Jabu and quickly move on to the Hertz counter, sign for a Jeep Cherokee with sunroof and head for the exit. The arrivals hall is in the process of being extended and improved: formwork and makeshift walkways everywhere. We pass under a massive hi-viz sign: 'DANGER! CONCRETE WORK IN PROGRESS. DO NOT LOOK UP'

Jabu turns out to be an old hand at crewing for a shoot. He and Jo pack the Jeep, set the satnav for South Africa's south coast and we're away. The urban sprawl of Johannesburg gradually yields to a softer and greener landscape: wide open spaces, high cerulean sky with white puffy clouds and air so fresh it makes me want to spread wings and fly. Through the sunroof I shoot frame after frame of maize fields, tasseled silver in the wind, sunflowers stretch to the horizon and beyond, buttery yellow, their heads moving with the sun. Small boys sell clay animals at the roadside, apples and bags of oddly shaped corn cobs.

I ask Jabu to stop. The children gather around holding out their little animals, begging us to buy in chorus like a swarm of hungry starlings. I shoot more and more: expressions, movement, colour while Jo follows on, quietly capturing his own impressions. Fascinated by his hair, they touch the beads, jiggle them a little and laugh behind grubby hands. The clay oxen and goats are primitive, brittle and quaintly misshapen. Two baboons copulate in joyful exaggerated contortions. Their grins set with straw. One tiny figure of a child has no back or front details, just two blank surfaces with head, hat, arms and legs. I ask Jabu why this is.

'It is because the boy cannot see. He does not go to school because he cannot read so he's learned to make mugs and animals and child figures which he sells, like now.' He slips a R20 note into the child's hand, tells him to give it to his Mama. Sensing a story, I ask Jabu to get contact details: maybe we can help. And we leave. Jo carries on shooting through the sunroof, small bodies growing ever smaller and less distinct: waving as red dust swirls beneath our wheels, maize giving way to wheatlands, massive silos breaching the Highveld flatness, not a cloud in the sky.

Suddenly we hit a swarm of locusts.

'Close the sunroof, don't look up' yells Jabu.

Too late. We've ingested a couple of dozen of the angry chirring creatures: the windscreen's completely covered in viscous yellow locust squelch, the grid in front jammed with dead bodies, and the air around thick and dark. They come and come and keep on coming, crashing into our now stationary Jeep, demolishing any crops in their flight path.

Terrified, Jo and I swipe at the ones inside but only succeed in angering them more. They cling to our hair and clothes with spiny legs, almost worse than bats. Jo's WWF 'Save The Rhino' tee-shirt is alive with scratching, snapping locusts. I shoot the chaos in the car, Jo manages to get footage of what's happening to him while Jabu diligently catches, squashes and drops whatever crawls towards him.

'I'll put it in the road for the birds later. It's OK to go now.' Peering out of his side window, he pulls back onto the road and we limp towards the nearest filling station, the salvation of unlimited water and, hopefully, a hosepipe. Jo calls me over to a trestle table under an awning away from the pumps: trays of hot spicy Bobotie, a traditional dish made with mince and eggs: milk tarts and Koeksusters, ultra sweet plaited syrupy pastries cover the surface. It's Monday: Bobotie day. We shoot a feast of material, buy bags of take-aways and, Jeep shining like new, depart to find a shady tree somewhere in the wide open veld.

Drowsing in post-prandial jet-lagged stupor, under a massive and noisy Social Weaverbirds' nest, I hear the distant rumble of a seriously out-of-tune big engine as a psychedelic apparition from the Hippie 60s heaves into view, passes us in a blast of clapping and Hallelujahs from its passengers. On the back is sprayed 'Hallelujah Happy Bus'. I miss the shot but visualise it as an animation: back crabbing in the opposite direction from the front, purple diesel belching from its exhaust and the centre, brilliantly illustrated with happy spirits and ghouls, bulging in time to the syncopated claps and Hallelujahs. Pity. It would have made a brilliant shot.

A dusty sign signalling a turnoff sends us into a valley of stupendous beauty. Rolling green foothills gentling the slopes of massive granitic peaks. Ochred kraals surrounded by the flame of aloes in full bloom, women walking upright with buckets of water balanced on their heads, single file, singing. Goats and cattle roaming at large, winding roads where buzzards and crows hack at roadkill and shabby little towns with row upon row of mini-bus taxis lined up for the next trip. Paint peels from wooden doors: decaying posts hold up rusted corrugated shop roofs while on the stoeps lines of bright clothing blow in the wind. Women in traditional orange and blue dress squat behind enamel basins of muhti plants, medicine for the believers: cabbages teeter in carefully arranged pyramids by potatoes by pumpkins, onions and oranges. All blending into a montage of amazing colour and texture. And poverty.

Hallelujah! The bus passes us with a voluntary of tooting and clapping. We wave, and clap back. And move on to a bigger town. Women in tight black lycra pants, lacy blouses, massive fly-away sunglasses blinging in the sun, gloves and hats: Buxom bottoms and the slenderest of high heels pick their way between the cabbages lying in stagnant drain water. Everyone has a mobile phone or i-pad which they use at full volume whether the callee is nearby or in another town. Cars blast their hooters, cyclists swerve madly in and out of the crazy traffic, some with goats slung around their shoulders, others in business suits. We draw up at the only traffic light in town, Jabu at the wheel, Jo and me at the sunroof, shooting in different directions, unaware of our immediate situation until Jabu yells 'Get down. Shut the roof. Don't look up.'

Too late. In a burst of song and clapping, which would have put the strongest oompah band under strain, the bus stops alongside us. Driver's door opens high above, and a boot descends through the sunroof: comes to rest on my head. As quickly, it is withdrawn amid a volley of invective from the outraged Jabu. Along the side of the bus, surrounded by day-glo whorls and spirits, is the message : 'Hallelujah. He is Here!' Pity I didn't read it sooner...

Our great adventure sadly drawing to a close, we make one more sortie into the wild blue yonder to find the royal and much prized 'Nguni cattle. They of the remarkable colourings and horns which seem to grow halfway down their heads. Jabu knows a friendly Sangoma who, for a small consideration, will allow us to spend time filming his cattle, and do an interview for a little extra. It's a brilliant ending. As we head off into the dusk, a cab and two trailers carrying cattle grind up the hill behind us. Jo and I pop up with our cameras and start shooting: the road winds away into the hills, we look up at the emerging evening star just as the truck decides to overtake. Jabu is concentrating on keeping on the road, we're busy with the sunset : and the cows, as they pass, decide to let fly and heed nature's call in its fullest sense.

And nobody shouts 'Don't Look Up.'

jacqueline dowling 2013


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