Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Small town South Africa; Bela Bela

Pin It It's a dusty and dry area around the outkirts of Bela-Bela, the town formerly known as Warmbaths to the north of Pretoria, the nation's administrative capital. It's very flat, and very brown and hasn't rained for sometime. The turn-off sign says "Raduim" and not "Radium", presumably named after the radioactive substance, but out here in the middle of nowhere, it's probably unoticed by most. I encounter a dead fox on the roadside; Africa's wild spaces are being inexorably contained.

I'm on my way to a farmhouse some 10 miles outside of Bela-Bela to do an assignment for National Geographic's Traveler magazine, called Trading Places. I'll be with US writer Tom Dunkel who will be staying at the farmhouse of South African based author, David Lambkin, who has in turn gone to Tom's house in Baltimore. Essentially it's a transcontinental house swap and I'm there to cover Tom's experiences of holidaying in someone else's home in Africa. But that's another story that deserves a separate telling, and now that I'm free to use the images, it's something I will relate in time. It will be of interest to photographers who go on assignment.

In the meantime, while covering the assignment, I get a chance to drive into Bela Bela to take some images of the people; to put the story into its African context. The town became famous for its hot springs..and still is. There are also a number of large private game farms all over the area, and one of the richest men in the world, US Billionaire Warren Buffett reportedly owns large game farms in the area. Or so we are told by various townsfolk quite eager to talk to us.

Despite all of this, it's not a pretty town. It could be anywhere in the Midwest US, or the Australian outback. A few dreary streets, some dull and unappealing stores, agricultural supplies, pubs, franchise foods and gas stations. There's not much charm to be found, and it's a strange place for US writer Tom Dunkel to get his first taste of Africa.

My romantic vision of the hot springs themselves was also somewhat shattered. Far from being water bubbling through rocks in a leafy forest pool, the springs turned ot to be a very large swimming bath, in which hundreds of kids romped around gleefully, oblivious to the elusive charms of a more natural setting. There is another hot spring a few miles out of town, and while the setting is quite attractive, the same swimming pool environment is one's only way of sampling the supposedly health-giving waters.

Bela-Bela was, in the apartheid days, known as Warmbaths (in English) and as Warmbad in Afrikaans, a direct translation. Bela-Bela means quite simply "Boiling", refering to the waters. It has no bearing to the Italian for pretty..."Bella", as any visitor to the town would be able to easily confirm.

The township part of the town is quite relaxed, accessible and feels safe. For those of you not familiar with the township concept, I'll explain it simply..and simplistically. In the apartheid days, whites lived in the main part of the town, in the suburbs surrounding the town centre. People of colour lived in dormitory areas outside of the town, close enough for them to provide labour, and far enough away for them to be contained and apart. Although South Africa's democracy is over a decade old, poverty keeps the demographics from changing spatially in any rapid way, and in the small towns, such as Bela-Bela, change is not very apparent at all. In the big cities, it's very different. There is much more integration at the upper ends of society, but the townships still remain (and some Black people will tell you that they prefer living there; the former "white" suburbs are too dull) .

So, here follows a selection of images from a typical small South African town; poor whites, poor blacks, the young, the elderly, those with land and those without. Those with houses that are grand, those with houses smaller than a kid's backyard wendy house.

It could be any small town, anywhere in South Africa.

(These images were originally commissioned by National Geographic Traveller magazine)

Cameras Nikon D2X, D50

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