It’s Not Mytrekker, It’s Not Yourtrekker…It’s Voortrekker. And, it’s Freedom.

OK, I admit it: I learned most of what I know about the world by watching SportsCenter.

I learned, for example, that games aren’t played on paper, they’re played inside television sets. I learned that if a person is unfazed by pressure, he is as cool as the other side of the pillow. I learned that if a man is motivated enough, he Could. Go. All. The. Way.

I also learned that the legendary Lithuanian basketball giant is not Myvydas, not Yourvydas, but Arvydas Sabonis. Knowing this, it makes sense that the giant, toaster-looking shrine to Afrikaner history on Proclamation Hill, overlooking all of Pretoria, is not the Mytrekker, not the Yourtrekker, but the Voortrekker Monument.

At least, I think that’s how it goes. But, since all the photos below were shot with my iPhone, maybe we should call it the iTrekker.

Regardless, Jenny and I set out last Saturday morning to visit the Voortrekker Monument, as well as the newer Freedom Park, which was designed and built as a tribute to democracy and the South African and continental leaders who fought for independence and self-determination. Some say it is the yin to Voortrekker’s yang, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

First, a bike ride.

And, my first ride since I spilled at Nkomazi.

On the "Intermediate" trails at the Voortrekker Monument

It wasn’t exactly the confidence booster I needed. See, the grounds around the Voortrekker Monument have three kinds of mountain bike trails: 4×4 track, the easiest; single track, for intermediate level riders; and black diamond, for crazy people. We tried to stick to the single track, but with the tall brush and minimal signage, I think we sometimes found ourselves on the wrong rock-hopping, ravine-spanning, cliff-jumping paths. And, did we mention that Voortrekker is on Proclamation Hill?

Looking UP towards the Voortrekker Monument from the bike trails

Knackered and sweaty from our ride, we set off to see what was so hot about the toaster. With tight hamstrings and burning quads, we faced the first of the Voortrekker’s many staircases.

Ascending to the Voortoaster

The whole idea of the monument is – and I will quote the official website here so as not to incite the volk with a misinterpretation – to commemorate “the Pioneer history of Southern Africa and the history of the Afrikaner.” I suppose it does that. It certainly does relate a history. But, as those who have some familiarity with the history of the Afrikaner, both ancient and modern, can attest, the story part of that history has many sides. I’m not sure how many were presented inside the Voortrekker Monument. I think I’ll leave it at that.

What I am sure of is that the monument is much more interesting, and much less like a kitchen appliance, up close than it is from a distance. The façade, while fashioned from a relatively drab stone, has an incredibly intricate detail and multiple, subtle lines. Its hulking frame stands firm, but it also strains upward toward the heavens, as if appealing for divine blessing. The sum of all these parts evokes senses of strength, pride and reverence. Of manifest destiny.

Voortrekker, stretching into the heavens

For each emotion conjured on the outside, the inside invoked three more. The true purpose of the place became instantly blurred. It’s a church. It’s a museum. It’s a mausoleum. It’s the Halls of Justice. It’s a secret lair. It’s a…

It’s everything. It’s visual history of the Great Trek. It’s flags of former territories. It’s a sunbeam on an empty tomb. It’s panels and dioramas. It’s mannequins and oxcarts. It’s guns and knives. It’s Boers and Bantus. It’s battles and bloodshed. It’s spices and spirituality. It’s sculptures of serious men.

Inside the Voortrekker: The Historical Frieze and Belgian glass windows

It’s time to leave.

After a short spell overlooking the city from the parapet near the top of the monument – we spotted the grassy field on campus where we walk Indie every morning – we grabbed a snack and lit out for Freedom Park.

Freedom Park is…well…a lot. Again, just to stay relatively neutral on all this, I quote the official website: “Freedom Park is the creation of a memorial that narrates the story of South Africa’s pre-colonial, colonial, apartheid, and post-apartheid history and heritage, spanning a period of 3.6 billion years of humanity, to acknowledge those that contributed to the freedom of the country.”

All things to all people, ne?

Officially opened in 2007 (from what I can gather), Freedom Park is a beautiful, thoughtful, peaceful and, on the day we visited, deserted place. Though there was another car parked in the lot, Jenny and I didn’t encounter another soul up there. (Except for the gardeners, whose weed whackers sometimes shattered the otherwise serene atmosphere.)

We meandered along the curving walkways, around the S’khumbuto (a siSwati word meaning “place of remembrance”) and Wall of Names, which serve as memorials to the conflicts of South Africa’s distant and recent past.

The S'khumbuto at Freedom Park

Inside the S’khumbuto is the Gallery of Leaders. We wanted this to be more. As it is, the only exhibit consists of ceiling-to-floor banners depicting African leaders who fought for national independence and racial equality. Oh, and Che Guevara. Perhaps for his role in Angola.

However, with no one around to explain things – granted, we did decline the tour guide – the park was kinda mysterious. Well designed. Important. But, somewhat elusive.

And that brings us back to the question of whether Freedom Park is the intentional antithesis of the Voortrekker Monument.

Eish. Not for me to say.

If I had to say, I’d say this: Some of the accounts offered at the Voortrekker could use a counterbalance, methinks, but Freedom Park does not necessarily serve that purpose. Nor should it. There’s already enough tension still hanging in the air, even up in the hills atop which the parks are perched, about history and its revisions. Freedom Park plays a different role, one that it will hopefully grow into over time. And one that, hopefully, more people will pay to see.

Otherwise, the next engraving on the Wall of Names will be that of Freedom Park itself. Except no one will care enough to bring flowers.

Flowers at the Wall of Names, Freedom Park

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How do you say…

So I realized that we’ve been sharing all sorts of new words and names of places here on the blog, but we’ve not described how you actually say them. I remember how surprised I was to learn that Havmandsvej Street in Herlev (suburban Copenhagen), where I was to live during my college semester abroad, was not have-MAN-dis-veg in HER-lev, it was HOW-mands-vie in HARE-lou. (Tusind tak til Familien Jørgensen for undervisning mig lidt dansk.)

HOW do you say Gauteng?

To this point, most of the new words we are using on an everyday basis are rooted in Afrikaans, which derives primarily from Dutch. For example, the province that includes Pretoria and Johannesburg is called Gauteng. Not GOW-teng with a hard g, more like HOW-teng. But since we are talking about a relative of Dutch, the g sounds are more like ch sounds in English words like school, or the proper German pronunciation of Bach, or borrowed Scottish words like loch. As the sound comes at the beginning of the word, it isn’t quite as hard a sound as school or loch, but softer and more “throaty” — like if someone from Chicago said (in a derogatory way??) that they spotted Hanukkah Harry in Highland Park.

There are quite a lot of these g sounds in our life these days:

  • The new, high-speed train between Pretoria and Johannesburg is called the Gautrain (HOW-train).
  • The main road behind Menlyn Mall is Garsfontein (HARS-fon-tayn).
  • The suburb, the nature reserve and the name of the campus where we live is Groenkloof (HROON-kloof)

As “ugly” as the sound may seem to an American English speaker, The Starry Night remains just as beautiful as painted by Vincent van HOCH as by Vincent van GO. But I digress…

Another consonant sound that differs slightly from English is the Afrikaans v. Take the word Voortrekker, which is a big word here, for many reasons. Voortrekker literally means “those who trek ahead” and has great historical significance in South Africa. The Voortrekkers were the Afrikaners who left the Cape Colony (on the west coast, where Cape Town was settled) under British rule in order to find independence in the interior. Many ended up in the area where we live now, formerly part of the Transvaal, as well as the (Orange) Free State. [Of course, there were already people living here at that time, but that’s another story…] Anyway, the word is not pronounced VORE-trekker, as we might want to say it in English; it is FOUR-trekker.

If you visit us in Pretoria, we might see you staring off quizzically into the distance before asking, “What, on Earth, is that giant toaster-looking thing on the side of that mountain?” We would smile, nod, chuckle knowingly and say, “Eish. That’s the Fourtrekker Monument. Shame…”

Vowels can be equally tricky, actually. In English, by and large, when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking (I eat pie on the boat!). In German, when two vowels go walking, the second does the talking (Ich liebe Fleisch!). In Afrikaans, it’s every vowel for itself! Run for your lives!

Examples:

  • Jenny likes to drink a Windhoek on the front stoep after a nice meal of snoek. (VIND-hook, stoop, snook)
  • Ryan likes to buy koeksisters from the oumas at the tuisnywerheid. (COOK-sisters, AH-mas, TIES-nee-vehr-hide)

See the inconsistency?

Now, for an added degree of difficulty, there are the African names and words, which can be derived from any of a dozen or more languages and dialects. My attempts to learn a few words in Sotho from our friend and former housekeeper, Maria, have not helped me greatly in attempts to pronounce names of cities, surnames, etc. Some can be tackled in a fairly straightforward, phonetic manner (Polokwane =  po-lo-KWA-nay), but others follow rules we don’t have experience with just yet (Tshwane = TSWA-nay).

These last two examples are indicative of something that’s very interesting here: Since 1994, when the ANC became the governing party and the majority black population gained more influence, many cities and areas were given new names to replace — or in some cases coincide — with their Afrikaans or English names. Polokwane was formerly called Pietersburg; Bela Bela was called Warmbaths; and Tshwane was just kinda made up

Perhaps our favorite pronunciations, though, are our own names. Tannie Elsje, who manages our guest flat at Groenkloof, is a lovely auntie with a strong Afrikaans accent. “Jaynie!” she yells. “Are you and Keelpatreek OK here?”

Yes. Yes, we are. Buy a donkey.