‘It’s a queer thing, though,’ the schoolmaster said, ‘when you come to think of it, that for so many hundreds of years, when the interior of South Africa was still unexplored, there should have been a legend of a Golden City. And people were so convinced of the existence of this city that they went searching for it. They were so sure that there was that city of gold that they even marked it on their maps. And what seems so extraordinary to me is that one day the Golden City actually would arise, and not too far away, either, from where the old geographers had, centuries before, indicated on their maps. It was as though they were all prophesying the rise of Johannesburg. And at most they were only a few hundred miles out.’
That men should have been able to mark on a map, centuries beforehand, a city that was not there yet – that, to him, was one of the mysteries of Africa, the schoolmaster declared.
Thereupon Oupa Bekker said that if it was a thing like that, that the schoolmaster thought wonderful, then the schoolmaster still had a lot to learn.
‘After all, with South Africa so big,’ Oupa Bekker said, ‘they were bound to go and build cities in it, somewhere. That stands to reason. And so, for a person to go and put a mark on a map, and to say that someday there is going to be a city there, or thereabouts – well, what would have been wonderful was if it didn’t work out, some time. And to say that it’s surprising how that man made that mark on the map, centuries ago, even, well, I think that only shows how bad he was at it. If Johannesburg had got started soon after he had prophesied it, then there might have been something in it. But it seems to me that the man who made that map wasn’t only a few hundred miles out, as Meneer Vermaak says, but that he was also a few hundred years out. What’s more, he also got the name wrong. Unless you all think that that name – what’s it again?’
‘Monomotapa,’ young Vermaak announced.
‘… isn’t far out from sounding like Johannesburg,’ Oupa Bekker said.
It made him think of his grand-uncle Toons, all this, Oupa Bekker said. Now, there was something that really did come as a surprise to us. The general feeling we had about Oupa Bekker was a feeling of immense antiquity, of green and immemorial age. In the lost, olden-time cities that our talk was about we could, without thinking twice, accord to Oupa Bekker the rights of a venerable citizenship. And in that crumbled town, we could conceive of Oupa Bekker as walking about in the evening, among the cobwebbed monuments. He seemed to belong with the battered, though timeless, antique.
It was foolish, of course, to have ideas like that. But that was the impression, in point of appearance and personality, that Oupa Bekker made on us.
And so, when Oupa Bekker spoke of himself as having had a grand-uncle, it just about took our breath away.
‘You were saying about your grand-uncle?’ Jurie Steyn, who was the first to recover, remarked. From the tone in his voice, you could hear that Jurie Steyn pictured Oupa Bekker’s grand-uncle as a lost city in himself, with weeds clambering over his ruined walls.
‘My grand-uncle Toons,’ Oupa Bekker continued, unaware of the stir he had caused, ‘also had the habit, when he first trekked into the Transvaal – that was all just open veld, then – of stopping every so often and looking around him and saying that one day a great city would arise, right there where he was standing, where it was now just empty veld. On his way up, when he trekked into the Northern Transvaal, he stopped to say it at where there is today Potchefstroom, and also at where there is today Johannesburg and Pretoria. In that way, you could say that he was just as good as the man who did that map. And I suppose he was, too. That is, if you don’t count all those hundreds of other places where my grand-uncle Toons also stopped to say the same thing, and where there is today still just open veld.’
It was Jurie Steyn who brought the conversation back to where we had started from.
‘Those expeditions going in search of the lost city,’ he asked of At Naudé, ‘have they set out yet? And do you know if they are likely to pass this way, at all? Because, if it’s last letters they want to send home, and so on, then my post office is as good as any. I mean, their last letters have got a good chance of getting to where they are addressed to. I don’t say the expeditions have got the same chance of getting to the lost city. But instead of taking all that trouble, why don’t they just drop a letter in the post to the lost city – writing to the mayor, say? Then they’ll at least know if the lost city is there or not.’
But At Naudé said that, from what he had heard over the wireless, the expeditions were on the point of leaving, or had already left, Johannesburg. And as for what Jurie Steyn had said about writing letters – well, he had the feeling that more than one letter, that he himself had posted, had ended up there, in that lost city.
‘Johannesburg?’ Oupa Bekker queried, talking as though he was emerging from a dream. ‘Well, I’ve been in Johannesburg only a few times. Like with the Show, say. And I’ve passed through there on the way to Cape Town. And I’ve always tried to pull down the curtains of the compartment I was in when we went through Johannesburg. And I have thought of the Good Book, then.
‘And I have thought that if ever there was a lost city, it was Johannesburg, I have thought. And how lost, I have thought … The expedition doesn’t need to leave Johannesburg, if it’s a lost city that it wants.’