“The Island is as curious about the visitor as the visitor is about the island”
“Webster’s Passage” is a 100 kilometers of unspeakably beautiful Botswana savanna, starting close to the town of Nata and ending at LeKhubu Island in the makgadikgadi pans. Personally I prefer to experience this journey from the top of the landrover rather than inside it. Bowen dubbed it “Webster’s Passage” because a guy called Webster recommended it as a route for getting to the incomparable Kubu Island: birthplace of these pictures.
Webster’s dictionary differs from Webster’s Passage in one crucial regard. It is a dictionary and not a dirt road. Webster’s dictionary says that the word Romanticism is often capitalized. I agree that it should be. It also says, amongst other things, that ROMANTICISM is a literary, artistic, and philosophical movement originating in the 18th century, characterized chiefly by an emphasis on the imagination and emotions. It is an exaltation of the primitive and the common man; an appreciation of external nature, an interest in the remote, and a predilection for melancholy. Bowen and I are definitely ROMANTICS. He is the primitive man, and I am the common man, and between us we share the load of the melancholy. And this “Remote” in which Webster’s dictionary predicts we will be interested is of course “The Hinterland,” which in turn is defined as “the remote part of a country, an area lying beyond what is seen or known.” Amusingly, the Antonym of Hinterland is “civilisation.”
You can see how all this dovetails very nicely indeed. Add a third Romantic, a writer called Sally (life partner to Bowen) and then add a landrover called Leonard (after Leonard Cohen) and you have the makings of a charmingly dysfunctional and thoroughly romantic invasion of The Hinterland.
One of my internal hobbies is the invention of different religions or world views. My current favourite – and one I am actually tempted to embrace – is called Pendulism. Its most sacred symbol is the pendulum – the pendulum that swings between joy and grief, between work and rest, between city and wilderness, between masculine and feminine, and on and on. Pendulists believe that the point of life is not arriving at a certain understanding or asset or place or relationship or spiritual state but rather the constant pursuit of harmony with the omniscience of change itself. I mention Pendulism because for me one of the most satisfying journeys of the pendulum is the swing between HOME and, AWAY. Like ROMANTICISM, these two words should be Capitalised, and you cannot have one without the other. But to really be HOME (in capital letters) you have to do things like sit on the floor before a bookshelf and press your nose into the fragrant, memory-rich middles of your oldest books, or lie on the floor and look up at the dusty underside of your bed, or just sit and listen to the creaking silence of your home, syncopated perhaps by the soothing and menacing ticking of the kitchen clock. Conversely: to really say that you have been AWAY (in capital letters) something has to have shifted within you. If this has not happened you have not really travelled in any meaningful sense, you have merely burned fossil fuels in order to move your body from one coordinate on the planet to another.
Bowen has enriched my life immeasurably by reintroducing me to the river of travel for its own sake, and for taking me to some of the most goose-fleshing wilderness areas in Southern Africa, one of the most eccentric of which is Kubu Island – a little hill covered in giant Boulders and deformed dwarf baobabs, surrounded by an ocean of compact sand in winter, and shallow water in the rainy summers – nursery to a hundred thousand flamingos. In summer you can be stranded for weeks due to mud and in winter you might find abandoned eggs and fledgelings on the windswept 1,2 million hectare plain. This is a place that is so special to me that I don’t even like talking about it. But I am deeply indebted to my colleague for the introduction.
There is no way one can do justice to Hinterland. The very idea is absurd. One can – and indeed one does – celebrate wilderness through the strongest artworks one is able to produce but it would be laughable to pretend one was somehow representing hinterland. Anyone who has dissolved themselves in wilderness knows that IT cannot be represented by humans, because its essence is utterly non human. Perversely this doesn’t put us off trying to share our glimpses, in fact it only makes us more eager. Just as one is probably not going to become enlightened in this life but that shouldn’t stop one trying. So I hope that this will be the first of many hinterland exhibitions. Because we have to keep traveling into the unknown, and we have to keep returning with what the unknowable inspires. One of these exhibitions will hopefully coincide with the release of a book on the subject that Bowen and Sally and I have started gathering writings and artworks for.
The greatest conceivable value for which art can aim is the reawakening of life-affirming truth in the viewer. So tonight as we celebrate travel to wild and quiet wilderness our fondest dream has to be that these images will inspire you all to embark on your own travels to profound places.
I’d like to end by thanking my wife Ciska for carrying our household single-handedly during my long absenses, and leave you all with two quotes by the wonderful John Muir.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”
and my favourite:
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”