Named after a river that flows nearby into the Swartvlei, Karatara is a small rural settlement, that was originally intended for displaced woodcutters and their families. Hardy, strong and resilient, they were ruthlessly exploited by wood merchants who accumulated huge wealth but kept them in bondage. They were nevertheless proud, proud to be working for themselves, in their own time and place, their lives entwined and deeply rooted to the life and rhythm of the ancient indigenous forests. When the forest that was their work and home and life was threatened by over-harvesting, they were moved to Karatara.

Many of the current residents of Karatara are directly descended from the original woodcutters. Many are not. Here, black and white and coloured live together. There are no apartheid era segregated suburbs here. Pride and poverty live side by side also…

The signs are everywhere. Beer bottle shards appear spread like a constellation of stars in the fractured pavement as I walk into the sun. A drunk man sails past me, shouting obscenities at some invisible foe. There are old cars busy rusting away in backyards, or disappearing into uncut lawns. But then there is a also a sense of stoicism here that I feel acutely. And pride. Here and there, like diamonds in the rough, are homes with tended gardens, freshly painted walls and child whoops and giggles. The poverty hasn’t broken everyone.


There are two things that draw me here. Karatara is set, almost in deliberate contrast, to the incredible beauty of the surrounding countryside. The town is part of the 7 passes route, that connects Knysna and George with a ribbon of undulating dirt in way more style and character than the swift flowing paved N2. Every time I travel the route, I get sucked into the pure earth and air and incredible views and light, and come out the other side breathing more deeply, with a lighter heart. And then, the other thing that draws me here…

The buildings that form Karatara, as they are, all identical, very much institutional, have in themselves become a vehicle for the illuminating how individual and creative and original we are as human beings. We are never completely alike.  The fact that all the houses are structurally identical to each other amplifies the human imprint and texture that each family leaves on their home. The way the house is painted, the garden cultivated, or perhaps fenced, all these mundane seeming details tell fragmented stories about the families that have lived in these homes.