This new collection of 27 travel sketches takes us on a journey around the globe with master raconteur Johan Bakkes. Most of the stories first appeared in the MyTyd section of Rapport newspaper. Editor Magda Swart’s instruction to Bakkes was: “Ek hoop jy onthou nog dat jy belowe het om af en toe ’n reisrubriek /storie /wat ook al te doen. Jy kan so 1 600 woorde skryf en daar is ’n sterk klem op foto’s. Van die goed wat ek in gedagte het, is die sielsdinge van reis en verken, veel eerder as die plek en die pad soontoe …”
The best of the MyTyd stories appear in Oepse Daisy. Journeys and the “wat ook al” of travel remain the theme, but age and illness bring melancholy and nostalgia into the mix, making for poignant meditations on life’s journey. Over a lifetime of travel Bakkes has taken the Leonard Cohen lyrics “the frontiers are my prison” to heart. For Bakkes, the lure of the open road started with books: “Dit is die rusteloosheid en die bleddie gelees oor vreemde plekke wat my uiteindelik op die pad gesit het. Die pad na wat ook al. Reis en lees is ’n terminale siekte en ’n bose kringloop.”
Oepse Daisy takes the reader on numerous adventures across Africa and beyond. We visit Bakkes’s favourite South African haunts, such as the West Coast and Kalahari; there are long expeditions through Namibia, Angola and Tanzania; visits to Mali, the Ivory Coast and Morocco; trips to Italy, Greece and Russia. Bakkes favours going off the beaten track, far from tourist routes. Instead of spending money on expensive accommodation he unrolls his sleeping bag and nestles down exactly where he finds himself at the end of each day. This freedom allows him to meet fascinating characters and often puts him in the hands of common people who welcome him into their hearts. It is a brave and rewarding way to travel.
There are a number of themes that resurface throughout the collection. Bakkes’s response to other writers and their experience of the places he visits is a recurring interest. So, too, his passion for food and drink which weaves itself into almost every tale. Music is an abiding love and Bakkes frequently marries the place with its characteristic sound, often the folk music tradition of the region. For instance, he shows us how he comes to a closer understanding of Mali through the music of Ali Farka Toure, of Benin through Angelique Kidjo, of Senegal through Ismaël Lo. Indeed, the music seems to infect his prose, and its lyricism reinforces Bakkes’s romantic vision of travel.
Another common theme is the use of historical figures as a means to investigate a region. One of his finest sketches recounts an evening spent in a bar cum brothel in the back streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar. He strikes up a conversation with an elderly gent sitting in the corner writing. It is only at the end of the tale that we discover his is an imaginary conversation with Ernest Hemingway.
Bakkes frequently uses traditional short-story techniques in his ostensibly simple, factual telling. For instance, he employs a teaser at the beginning of many sketches, such as “’n Italjaner in Afrika”, where he mentions in passing an 18th-century Italian who joined Napoleon’s army, and then goes on a tangential tale about a contemporary South African Italian living in Port Nolloth. It is only at the end of the story that these two threads come together.
Another effective Bakkes device is the flashback. “Die Weduwee” contains a series of anecdotes concerning the 1904 rebellion in Namibia juxtaposed with a contemporary journey in search of the story behind a grieving widow. In “Diamond Lil” we flash back and forth between a 19th-century lady of the night and a modern bar girl. The past and present continually collide, adding resonance and deepening the meaning of both trajectories.
Similarly, in “Die Rylopersgids deur Keimoes”, Bakkes uses the device of two converging tales, concerning two distinct characters: a driver and a hitchhiker. Only in the tale’s twisted ending does the reader realise that the two characters are the same person, representing two different aspects of the narrator, and two different eras. We discover that the story is really a lament for a mode of travelling that is no longer possible in South Africa.
All the stories are written in an intimate, assured and accessible style. You could almost be sitting around the fire with Bakkes, listening to him spin his yarns deep into the night, a mug of brandy in hand and jackals howling in the distance. There’s humour and wit, drama and sadness. The humour is often delightfully self-deprecating, as in “alkoholgebruik het my lewer groot genoeg gekry dat hy al hoërskool toe gaan”.
Bakkes is obviously very comfortable with the short-sketch format, but the form can also be a hindrance. There are times when the 1 600-word limit imposed by the newspaper prevents deeper exploration of ideas. This is a problem that often arises when journalists republish their articles in book form. On occasion there needs to be a rewriting and reconfiguration of the original piece. At times one wishes that Bakkes had sunk deeper shafts, pushed a theme further, explored more of the literary potential. In so doing, some stories could have been lengthened and others cut. For instance, sketches that perhaps stretch the travel metaphor too far, such as his meditation on hamburgers or his visit to Glenda Kemp’s strip show, could have made way for a lengthening and deepening of other narratives.
The one sketch that firmly breaks with these journalistic strictures is “Oepse Daisy”, the final and title story of the collection. This was not written for a newspaper and deals with his own ill health and journey through cancer. Where he uses the travel metaphor to explore sickness, time, aging and death we have Bakkes at his best. He writes, “Met die reise wat vir ons saak maak, weet ons nie aldag wat op die pad gaan gebeur nie.” And so begins his journey through “hospitaalsale, X-straalkamers, MR-masjiene en operasieteaters”. It’s told with absolute honesty and without sentimentality.
Oepse Daisy is a colourful, richly diverse collection of travel sketches told in an earthy, no-nonsense style. At times poignant and nostalgic, at times witty and playful, it is a uniquely South African take on travel. This is an easy read, with bite-size anecdotes, and is highly recommended for those with itchy feet, especially lovers of off-the-beaten-track travel.