You slowly form an impression of the man when you listen to Peter Slingsby on the phone. He is friendly, precise, crisply knowledgeable, seldom at a loss for a memory or place-name. In photographs he is large and balding, with an impressive white beard, comfortably and lightly dishevelled.

Facts and anecdotes skim the surface of his conversation like pebbles across flat water. He feels like the kind of man you could sit around a campfire for hours with, nursing your sterk drank as you listen.

Slingsby — yes, you’ve heard the name somewhere before — is SA’s one and only great cartographer, a practice which demands both care and love. There’s now a line in excellent, mildly eccentric Slingsby maps running to 15 all told, but before he headed off into his own business he did maps of the National Hiking Way in the mid-1970s for the then department of forestry.

They were superbly detailed and magnificent in their own way, double-sided and full of breathy, concertina-like life as they unfolded

Describing himself as a self-taught mapmaker, Slingsby says he has always been an enthusiastic hiker and climber. He lives in Cape Town and in 1972 was exposed to a rough map of Table Mountain that he felt could be improved upon. "It wasn’t particularly helpful if you didn’t know where you were going," says Slingsby wryly of his improved version, but it was a beginning.

His mapmaking steps became larger and more confident as the 1970s progressed. Though he didn’t draw the original National Hiking Way maps for either the Fanie Botha or the Soutpansberg hiking trails he did pretty much everything else, including maps for the old Transvaal conservation department and Cape Nature.

They were superbly detailed and magnificent in their own way, double-sided and full of breathy, concertina-like life as they unfolded. "My father was scathing because he said you don’t approach the minister [with the idea of hand-drawn maps] you approach his secretary," says Slingsby. "It was 1975 and we gave the minister three quotations. I found out years later that they were originally set aside on the basis that they were too cheap — we went on to get the contract in the end."

For a variety of unimportant reasons there was a lull in map-making after his National Hiking Way work but in about 1995, with no real portfolio of his own, he resumed production. Slingsby wrote a little guide book for the "Agter Pakhuis" region of the Cederberg and the book came with "a fairly crude map" as part of the package.

Artistic aptitude

Around the same time, sophisticated graphics programs for Windows started hitting the market. Such programs were freely available and relatively easy to use. After the "Agter Pakhuis" guide Slingsby started burrowing into what remained of his back catalogue. His mother was a "competent artist" and his cousin is well-known in art circles. He found he had an aptitude. "I do have an artist’s sense of what looks good on a map," he says. "I suppose that runs in the family."

Covering most of SA but particularly the Cape, the Slingsby catalogue is reliant on previous maps of any given area. He says he isn’t one to head out with a theodolite and compass, traversing original terrain. Instead he uses original 1:20,000, 1:40,000 and 1: 50,000 scale maps produced by the department of lands & surveys as a kind of cartographic bedrock. These general-purpose maps, with their dams, farms and farm roads, are bereft of useful tourist information; they also lack the idiosyncratic asides and flourishes that make Slingsby’s maps such a pleasure to consult.

On his incredibly popular map of the Cape Peninsula, for example, there are helpful little clouds of information among the place names and contours. One such tells of the people of Brooklands, who lived on the tableland above Simon’s Town. "The Brooklands community, who farmed here and worked in Simon’s Town, were evicted under apartheid because they were not ‘white’. The ruins of their village are their monument," says the bubble.

Slingsby’s sensitivity to the landscape and the people and names of that landscape takes its sharpest form in his updated hiking and touring maps of the Cederberg, of which there are two. In 2012 he decided he needed to drive the roads and update the paths of the area. Almost without realising it he discovered he was becoming a de facto anthropologist of the land, recording memories, stories and place names that he hadn’t realised existed.

Artistic, historic and social sensitivity to landscapes make for brilliant products

"There are villages that run out across a vast commonage around Wuppertal (or sometimes Wupperthal) where people tend either to walk or travel by donkey cart," he says. "We met and hiked with people who have names for places we didn’t even know about — we must have collected about 500 totally new names in all.

"Some are poetic, some are interesting, but none of them has ever been included on a map before. Take the example of Heuningvlei and Witwater, with 23 and 11 houses respectively. There’s a road between the two and a low hillock of loose boulders, called Sitkoppie, where people from the towns come to sit and talk on Sunday afternoons. Then there’s an enormous boulder in the road between Wuppertal and Matjiesrivier which forces you to either take the left-hand or the right-hand fork around it. The boulder is called Kloekieseklip after ‘Kloekie’, an individual in the area who is a rooibos tea grower."

The Cederberg’s rough beauty is particularly dear to Slingsby’s heart. He talks with passion of the many small communities of the Grootkloof who had no land rights and were summarily evicted from the kloof approximately 120 years ago. For him there is great pathos to the old family graves of the area and the extraordinary richness of cultures lost and left behind.

Despite pretensions to being a social anthropologist and cultural historian, Slingsby’s first love is still cartography. Either he or somebody else drives every road and tries to walk every path in an area designated for a map, if this is possible.

He’s keenly aware of the need for accuracy, though he concedes reluctantly that a map probably becomes outdated the moment it is printed. "A map has a print life of about three years so we try to re-draw our maps as soon as possible thereafter," he says.

"One of our two maps of the Cederberg — which is one of our most popular — is now in its 12th edition, and we’ve sold about 50,000 of them.

"I’m very keen on the idea that overseas tourists are going to be using them so they need to be as accurate as humanly possible. A GPS is all very well but you can’t take a GPS and spread it out over the boot of your car. They’re fantastically useful but they don’t tell you what’s over the rise of the hill."

Slingsby has many stories of inaccuracy. He tells the tale of one (fairly well-consulted) map that confused Bokfontein and Op-die-Berg, a distance of 15km and a post office apart. "In 1953 the post office moved from Bokfontein to Op-die-Berg but it was corrected only in 2003," he says in a tone of outraged disbelief.

More outrageous still, he says, were the communists of both East and West and their propensity to either re-draw maps or simply exclude towns or settlements they considered ideologically suspect or inconvenient.

It’s not something that you feel Slingsby — with his great, cobwebby curiosity shop of a memory — would do in a hurry. In point of fact you feel that he does very little in a hurry. Just as well, when you’re addicted to finding every "Sitkoppie" in what might otherwise remain a drab and uninteresting landscape.

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