Somewhere along the railway line between Worcester and Matjiesfontein, between the lush Cape and the stark Karoo, lies the fictional hamlet of Aloe Glen, setting for The Fire Portrait. Bitterly cold in winter, broiling in summer, often wracked with drought year-round, this small tight-knit community of farmers, railway workers and random travellers need grit to survive. A store, a café, a petrol station, a church, a primary school and a train station line the main road that leads in and out of town. Most motorists do not stop but keep going on their way north.
But if they do stop, they could marvel at the silence, the vast cloudless skies, the slabbed mountains that rise up to Aloe Peak. Or they could wander the endless veld to spot the cryptic flowers and aloes that captivate Frances McDonald, heroine of the novel.
I drew what I saw: squat, thorny plants that grew slowly and bloomed sparingly. I waited to capture flowers that appeared on fleshy stems for a few weeks and then died of heat. I waited until the bulb I’d first seen as a shrivelled stem flowered in the spring. And I saw springbok leaping across the veld, agile, fleeting beauty…