Dean Allen reviews Hidden Karoo by Patricia Kramer and Alain Proust

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Title: Hidden Karoo
Author: Patricia Kramer
Photographer: Alain Proust
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 9781432310042
Date: March 2021

The Karoo is indeed a special place. According to Olive Schreiner, the “effect of the scenery is to make you so silent and strong and self-contained”. For the famous novelist, a long-time resident of this part of South Africa, it was a place of escape, tranquillity and inspiration. Today, for South Africans and visitors alike, the Karoo still holds the mystique of a region largely unchanged for centuries. Hidden Karoo is a lavishly produced book that adds to a growing library of works that explore this unique landscape. Published by Struik Lifestyle and combining the descriptive flair of archaeologist Patricia Kramer and the photography of Alain Proust, this 300-page volume provides wonderful insight into some of South Africa’s lesser known towns and regions.

For historians and writers like me, the Karoo provides a treasure trove of stories, of people and of places. When I first set my eyes on this vast, arid landscape, I was transfixed by its light and its atmosphere. Matjiesfontein and its people were going to provide my own contribution to the Karoo story, but I soon realised that there are so many other tales and towns worth exploring. Within Hidden Karoo, Kramer’s passion for historical architecture is evident as she explores the question of preserving some of South Africa’s most iconic buildings. Coupled with the stunning photography of Proust, one the country’s foremost architectural and landscape photographers, the narrative provides for an interesting guide throughout the book. Some of the true detail may, however, be lacking. At Matjiesfontein, for example, there is a reliance on outdated sources, and while my own book is acknowledged in the reference list, it was not used. Instead, Kramer relies on existing folklore, and it does appear that other more reliable and credible accounts may have also been overlooked elsewhere in the detail. Perhaps the old adage, “Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?” is at play here, as the book deviates from a historical travelogue to a splendid coffee table edition.

The route chosen within the book is logical and follows the old railway route from the Western Cape, via Matjiesfontein and Touws River, towards the Camdeboo and the Eastern Karoo. The book is divided into broad regions as well as themes, and while an attractive map helps the reader to navigate the journey, an index would have been helpful. Well-known places such as Prince Albert, Nieu-Bethesda and Graaff-Reinet are again given ample coverage here, but for me the real appeal of the book comes in the detail afforded some of the private homes. The interior photography alone will appeal to lovers of period architecture and interior design. There will always be omissions, and the classic Karoo scene of the colourful “Tuishuise” of Market Street in Cradock is an interesting one to exclude. The churches in the book, however, provide a wonderful balance to the landscape photography and images of the dereliction and neglect of many of the once-proud Karoo buildings. “All I need to make my cup of happiness full is the Karoo,” Olive Schreiner once proclaimed. And here, in this beautifully produced book, is enough to fill the cup of anyone who shares a passion for this intriguing region of our misunderstood country. Hidden Karoo should have a place on the coffee tables of homes throughout South Africa and beyond.

See also:

Hidden Johannesburg by Paul Duncan and Alain Proust, a review

Hidden Karoo by Patricia Kramer and Alain Proust, a preview

Finding architectural heritage in Hidden Pretoria

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