There is an Afrikaans icon that graces the area on the hill directly next to the ubiquitous Paarl rock above the town of the same name. It’s not quite on Paarl rock, as some would have you believe, but a little to the left of it, depending on from which angle you come at it. But it is on the lower reaches of Paarl Mountain. You can’t help but notice it either. The Taal Monument is huge, for one thing, but it’s also rather unusual – with twin dome shaped and irregular towers that reach high enough in the air to compete with Paarl’s rock for attention, which is saying something …
You might, like me, have passed it by on numerous occasions without a backward glance. Which is unfortunate because it really is worth a visit. Actually it’s impressive enough to warrant more than one visit.
I was gobsmacked at its beauty and spellbound by the gentle symbolism, both obvious and inherent; I was swept up in the curves, awed by its balance and simplicity, and humbled by the grace of the art work that celebrates the uniqueness of the Afrikaans language.
Calling it a monument is arguably a misnomer. The term brings to mind a granite block on which a plaque filled with important sounding attributes recognises a particular event or person in history. This, by comparison, is a work of art. The work was designed by an architect, Jan van Wijk, who was inspired by the granite rocks of the immediate environment but also by the words of NP van Wyk Louw, who speaks about how Afrikaans is the language that unites Western Europe and Africa; that it forms a bridge between the two.
Photographs – Left: Up on the hill / Centre: Twin fingers / Right: The back side
And CJ Langenhoven who speaks about a ‘swiftly soaring curve, not only rapidly rising, but rising toward a rapidly increasing use of the spoken word’ in his description of the relative use of the written word in Afrikaans. (You will find more on these works on a plaque at the entrance to the monument).
We arrive at the foot of the monument, having parked our car in an area rich with trees, overlooking a children’s play area and tea room with sweeping views out over Paarl. Our guide is making her way, rather rapidly, through her ‘spiel’ about the monument’s significance. Another couple of visitors applaud at the end, although I’m not sure if this is due to the speed at which it is imparted or due to its significance.
I’ve already read that the monument has been here since late 1975, that it commemorates the semicentenary of the declaration of Afrikaans as an official language of South Africa, and that its various structures symbolise the different languages and cultures that have affected Afrikaans – so that the three rounded domes represent Africa’s contribution, the wall that of the Malaysian people, the fountain new ideas, and the soaring granite pillar above the fountain, the growth of the language.
But what you don’t read about, or know until you’re there, is that you can walk through parts of the structure, that the soaring column is in fact hollow, and that, if you lie on your back and stare way up along its length, you can see the sky through an aperture at the very top.
You won’t know without a visit that there are tiny holes that sweep in a gentle curve right up the column, through which light spills, allowing a different play of light at different times of the day, but also illuminating a path, so to speak, all the way to the tip.
Photographs – Left: The fountain at the foot of the dome / Right: Exploring with my toes
Lying down on the granite floor, the sound of the little water fountain above my head, the sight is almost surreal. I experience vertigo, if that’s possible lying on rock solid ground.
As we leave the vertical column and head back out of the tunnel into the daylight, down yet another sweeping slope towards the three domes, we laugh at how much fun skateboarders would have here, if it weren’t for the rough granite. And my son asserts all of his five-year old strength balancing with his feet against the wall, his hands on one of the domes, and pokes his toes into the little round hollows at the tip of each dome.
I’m surprised. I think I expected that a monument erected during the Apartheid era would smack of political will and separatism; an overly pompous looking and sounding structure. Instead I am faced with what must have been a rather progressive piece of art for 1975. I wonder, did it meet expectation, or did it see dignitaries and politically inclined individuals muttering into their beards…
The Afrikaans Taal Monument is 35 years old now. It is incredibly peaceful and beautiful. The structure lacks the stately, heavily patriarchal feeling I’ve come to associate with Apartheid. Instead there is a suggestion of the freedom that was yet to come, of lack of boundaries, of a sweeping elegance and refined symmetry. I can understand how this engenders a pride in the Afrikaans language.
Up away from the monument, there are further paths and gardens filled with succulents and sun-loving fynbos. It gets hot up here. Blistering actually, considering all the surrounding granite. Every now and again there is a bench in the shade where you can sit and contemplate.
Photographs – Left: Up the dome / Right: Vertical climb
I believe there are full moon picnics one can attend here – quite beautiful in summer. You can either bring your own or pre-book a basket from a slection of products from the restaurant’s picnic menu. You don’t have to wait for full moon either, to eat up here with the views spread below you.
There is also a walk that starts in the gardens here – the Amphitheatre hiking trail – that takes you to the amphitheatre that can seat up to 4 000 people. You can even book an event for inside the hollow of the monument itself, which seats 400. I can imagine the accoustics are pretty phenomenal.