Capturing the state of a catchment area

Words and photos by Villiers Steyn

My wife, Tabby and I were recently commissioned by the Association for Water and Rural Development (AWARD) to photograph the state of the Olifants River Catchment Area between Groblersdal and Phalaborwa and to interview locals along the way to find out what their hopes, dreams and problems were. We jumped at the opportunity to get involved in a big project like this, but little did we know that four days on the road would end up being some of the most challenging and rewarding we’ve ever experienced as travel journalists.

Woman pushing wheelbarrow in rural area

My task was simple: Visit ten designated districts along the Olifants River and highlight their essence by capturing the poverty, pollution, over-grazing, water dependence, health care, consumerism, agriculture, economic growth, and any other influential factor or concept that stood out along the way. This is a far stretch from the usual misty mountains, winding two-tracks and yawning lions that I’m used to photographing on the average magazine assignment.

The plan of action was to drive with this long list on our laps and to try and spot them in our surroundings as we made our way along the Olifants River. This was easy enough… “There! That gully was caused by erosion” or “Aren’t those plants alien?” Tabby would call out. Stop. Get out. Take a pho…wait a second! How on earth do you make a ditch in the soil look good? Or a caster oil bush?

Getting eye-catching photographs of things that most people consider ugly is a real challenge, but one thing that years of experience on the road has taught me is that a small change in angle and a little bit of back light can make a world of a difference. So that’s exactly what I did. Every time we came across an abandoned building, a burnt out car or a graffiti-covered wall I would simply move up, down and around until the ugly turned into, well…something almost beautiful.

Plants shot with backlight
Abandoned house

Of course there were many things that were stunning and much easier to photograph right from the start – children playing barefoot-soccer on a dusty pitch in the middle of nowhere, long lines of colourful clothes hanging on barbed wire washing lines, and crystal clear water cascading down cement channels for as far as the eye could see

Locals standing at bus stop
Local kids playing soccer on dirt field
Clothes hanging to dry on a fence

This is where it got really tough. While I was snapping away, Tabby interviewed random people and found that those kids who played soccer have to walk hours to get to and from school, the ladies with the colourful clothes have to do their washing in disease-ridden rivulets and those cement channels are only available to the farmers who can afford to maintain them – everyone else in the area makes do with a slow trickle down a muddy furrow and a large rock to channel it long enough to water their crops.

Water flowing throw channel
Watusi cattle lying in dry riverbed

Despite the doom and gloom that we encountered each day, there were moments of pure astonishment that filled us with pride and hope for the rural communities of the Olifants River Catchment Area. Take 55 year-old ex-convict, Alfred Nkadimeng, for example. Instead of surrendering to his ‘fate’ after a 15-year prison sentence, he decided to seize the day and start his own recycling business in Jane Furse. Despite being ostracised by his family, he and his new wife have committed to keeping their surroundings clean and in doing so earn a decent living.

Man collecting plastic bottels to recycle

Life along the Olifants River is simultaneously harsh and delightful, sullied and stunning, and it’s our responsibility to help keep it in tact. Next time you drive through the wheat fields of Groblersdal or down the scenic Abel Erasmus Pass, don’t just watch the scenery fly by. Buy oranges next to the road, or perhaps a curio or two from the locals that are making the best of what they have. Stop for a chat with a fisherman and enjoy the multifaceted beauty of the Olifants River Catchment Area.

You may just leave with a smile…

Wheat field in Groblersdal