Justin Fox is a former editor of Getaway travel magazine and the author of more than 20 books. His latest travelogue is called Place: South African Literary Journeys, published by Penguin Random House.
This book has been 15 years in the making and is the product of a number of journeys around South Africa. Much of my career has been in travel writing, either as a photojournalist or author of books ranging from coffee table to literary travel. But I also have a background in academia, having taught part time at the Unversity of Cape Town (both in the English and Film & Media departments) off and on for 20 years.
The aim of Place was to try to marry those two worlds. I have an abiding love for travel literature (Chatwin, Raban, MacFarlane, Thubron, Dyer) as well as literature that foregrounds travel (Sebald, Conrad, Kerouac, McCarthy). Indeed, my own novels and poetry mostly have journeys of one kind or another as central themes.
Place is the account of a series of journeys around South Africa in which I use literary works instead of maps as my guides. While it is rewarding to engage with landscape through the pages of great books, it’s even better to put boots on the ground, text in hand, and experience first hand something of the authors’ relationship with place, to hear the voices of their characters in situ.
This travelogue is, in a sense, my own love letter to South Africa, combining places and books that are close to my heart. It gave me a chance to explore notions about ‘spirit of place’, home and emigration, patriotism and the particular attraction of the South African landscape. Place is thus a kind of manifesto, bringing together my ideas about writing and travel, land and literature.
The journeys for this book took me to the mountainous, moonstruck eastern Karoo of Olive Schreiner; the big-game Lowveld of Sir Percy FitzPatrick; the vast expanses and star-spangled nights of the open veld evoked by Deneys Reitz; the Bushveld of Eugène Marais’s Waterberg; the savannah of Herman Charles Bosman’s Marico; the plains of thirst and dust of JM Coetzee’s Moordenaars Karoo; the subtropical hamlets of Zakes Mda’s Wild Coast; and finally to the sandstone crags of Stephen Watson’s Cederberg.
My choice of literary works was all about places of the heart, both for the authors and for myself. In some chapters, such as with Deneys Reitz, I set out to pursue plotlines, following a forensic trail that sniffed out the book’s exact locations, mirroring my work as a travel journalist. In other chapters, such as with JM Coetzee, my attention shifted to the authors’ intellectual and emotional response to a particular locale, and leant more towards academic delving.
The works I have chosen depict landscapes that have remained wild and largely unspoilt, rather than built environments. In each case, setting is no mere backdrop, but an integral part of the work and a reflection of the authors’ heart-land. I wanted to celebrate how local writers, characters and readers are shaped and inspired by the South African landscape … and how this troubled, beloved country of ours continues to be shaped by the vagrancy of our footloose imaginations.