Monday, September 16, 2013

Discovering the Karoo Mermaid

The legendary Karoo Mermaid. Wendy Hardie

The Karoo always seemed like such a macho destination - dry, arid, dusty and deserted. So imagine how charmed we were to hear the local legend of a Karoo Mermaid - a beautiful woman, with blue eyes and pink cheeks, spotted through the ages sitting at deep pools of water, combing her long black hair.
Googling "Karoo mermaid" in 2006 offered up nothing but sketchy one-liners on tourism sites in the area, making vague mention of a legendary mermaid living in the pool at Meiringspoort.
It was all too much for us, we simply had to go out there and find out more. So, in September 2006, a filmmaker colleague and myself set off on a two week road-trip - to make our film Searching for Mermaids in the Karoo. And what better way to ramble one's way through the dry, arid, dusty Karoo than to stop every now and then for a cup of tea and a rusk in the shade of a welcoming stoep and ask local people about this intriguing legend.
Maya Morgan and Wendy Hardie in search of the Karoo Mermaid. Photo: Wendy Hardie
I love the Karoo - it's so dizzyingly beautiful and it's difficult to put into words why. It feels untouched and authentic, with none of the glitzy commercial veneer of most other places - here what you see is what you get. The people are real salt of the earth types, welcoming and warm - with no pretensions or judgements.
Village by village, dusty road by tumbleweed, by clanking windmill, shaded stoep and quirky coffee shop - from Warmwaterberg near Barrydale to the Owl House in Nieu Bethesda - we began piecing together the tale - and what a curious "tail" it was!
It seems that from very young, people here have been told stories of a Watermeid - who inhabits places where there is deep water. Most people we met spoke in hushed voices, saying that they were afraid of her and that if she became angry she could pull you into the water and drown you. They also believe that she causes rain, floods and droughts. In a place like the Karoo - which has such an extreme relationship with water, going for months, even years without rain and then enduring massive floods - people appreciate the true power of water.
250 million years ago the Karoo was under the sea, so perhaps people born here have some sort of ancient memory of this aquatic time, causing images of mermaids to bubble to the surface?
Jung certainly talked about there being certain universal images (archetypes) which occur in all of our unconscious memories and which sometime pop up in myths and fairytales. If Darwin was right when he said that human beings evolved from fish, then maybe even this fish-woman is some sort of symbol of our evolution, reminding us of where we come from? Maybe we would all be able to "see" this symbol too, if our lives were less cluttered and we were more in touch with our connection to nature, instead of our domination of it, which we now see is backfiring rather badly in the form of climate change.
I would highly recommend a ramble along this Karoo route to anyone interested in exploring small villages and taking time to meet and talk to the real people who live there. Many of those we met were elderly, their children having left to search for work in the big towns. The stories handed down from their grandparents - or their own sightings of the Watermeid - were just amazing and I didn't doubt them for a single second.
The people of the Karoo all have a mermaid story to tell. Photo: Wendy Hardie
There was nothing commercialised about the route we drove or about the people or the mermaid belief itself. Apart from a university researcher doing her PhD, as far as I know we were the first visitors to ever hear these stories firsthand and it was a huge privilege. I asked the elderly people we met if they would like me to include their details in a travel guide to go with the film, so that other people could visit their village to find out more - buy teas, lunches, handicrafts, listen to their stories and go for walks to the place where the Watermeid was seen - and they all said yes, they would like that very much... as long as people phone first to make an appointment.
We also came across wonderful rock paintings of mermaid like creatures that occur only in this area. The images were painted on the inside of caves - which were like little churches - and had sacred meaning to their creators. African and San legends often talk about water spirits and water animals and mermaid beliefs occur in other African countries too.
Hidden spots in the feature rock art of what people believe to be mermaids. Photos: Wendy Hardie
I know that the Karoo appeals to many people, but they don't always know what to do with it - it's so vast, and "empty". My advice - fill up a tank, and ramble. Be prepared for some rough night sleeps, and some luxurious cosy ones; some towns where there are no restaurants to eat in and some towns where there is delectable cuisine in quirky establishments. There are also wonderful second-hand bookshops and small galleries all springing up in response to the steadily growing, but still small, trickle of curious, discerning travellers who are daring to put time aside and venture forth.
In March this year I attended the Karoo Development Conference in Graaff-Reinet - where farmers, entrepreneurs, academics, government and Karoo lovers of every description gathered to discuss ways of uplifting the area. The Karoo is shared by four different provinces, each with a tendency to invest in their large cities and coastal areas, overlooking their dry, empty backyards. Some Australian experts at the conference outlined how they had turned their dry, empty backyard into "The Outback" - now a highly attractive, evocative and sought after travel destination, precisely because of its intrinsic qualities of being dry and empty.
The other thing to come out of the conference was how useful routes are: flower route, whale route, literary route or even the mermaid or legend route act as vehicles to get you from A to B and, along the way, to a whole lot more.
A Karoo Mermaid Route could do more than simply get you from A to B. Photo: Wendy Hardie
The conference concluded that "nothing" is actually a rather valuable commodity in today's world, where there is such an overload of everything - traffic, stress, noise, crowds and information. And we have a treasure trove of "nothing" right on our doorstep - wide open space, time, clean air, stars - oh my word the stars -, a slow pace of life and the most amazing birdsong I've ever heard. Not to mentuon the wonderful stories and legends that we know so little about and which may even reflect something archetypal swimming about deep down inside all of us, something which links us to this wild, wonderful world we live in.
The film "Searching for Mermaids in the Karoo" was first screened on the SABC in 2007 (re-screened August 2009), and is available on DVD, accompanied by a guidebook and map - with how to get there, places to stay and who to contact - so that interested people can follow the route and find out more about the Karoo and the legend. It can be found in selected Exclusive Book stores, or ordered directly from

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