Along the southeastern coast of South Africa, the cattle of Pondoland make a daily pilgrimage to the seaside, spending their afternoons luxuriating and dipping their hooves into the cool, lapping waves. For generations, the cows and bulls kept by members of the area’s Xhosa tribe have led their calves from their corrals toward the beach, for reasons mysterious to mankind. For Amapondo, Melbourne-based photographer Christopher Rimmer captures the enigmatical beasts silhouetted against the tide, their majestic figures reflected in the glossy sand below.
Rimmer, who spent his youth in the Eastern Cape, explains that the Xhosa people have a deeply felt spiritual reverence for their cattle, their very language formulated to make subtle distinctions between skin shades, patterns, and markings. By night, the animals are housed within a paddock bounded by Acacia thorn trees, enveloped by the thatched huts in which the people sleep. At daybreak, the cows are let free to wander the landscape, returning at noontime to be milked. After a morning of grazing, they will make their way to the beach, a ritual that takes place daily in the summertime heat. When the air is sweltering, they situate themselves within the rolling surf.
The Pondo cattle have been observed making their way to these sandy shores since the 1500s, during which time sailors documented sightings. Rimmer watched as one alpha male led the herd down each day, and noticed that the cows often separated from the bulls in smaller social groups. All returned day after day seemingly for the simple beauty of the open seas and small pleasure of the coastal breeze.
In the gentle giants, he observed the delight and serenity we normally associate only with human beings, awestruck by the tender bond between sow and calf and the quiet dignity of the mammoth bulls. In photographing them alone or on their daily journey, he captures something of the animals’ pathos, their unspoken appreciation for the land and for their lives. Since becoming acquainted with the intelligent and sensitive creatures, he says, he has seriously reconsidered using or eating beef products, discovering in the cattle’s gaze something undeniably human.
Amapondo opens at New York Art Expo on April 24th, 2015 and will be on view in Cape Town, Melbourne, Munich, San Diego, and Miami throughout the summer and fall.
All images © Christopher Rimmer