This is an undated view of my childhood home at Sheba Gold Mine in the then Eastern Transvaal Lowveld (now Mpumalanga), where I lived from the age of about three weeks. It is from here that I walked to my primary school down the road; it is where I came home to from boarding school; it is where many memories were created – and it is no more.
It was nothing fancy, as you can see: basically built from wood and corrugated iron on a foundation of local stone. These red-polished steps (mimicked on the other side) led straight into our living room. The open door you see there is a screen door – very common in those days to keep out mosquitoes especially; we also had screens fitted to our bedroom windows. It was while sitting on these steps that I, in the company of my family, observed Sputnik I on 4th October 1957 with such excitement. Commentary on the radio indoors kept us informed of its progress as we scanned the sky for what would look like an exceptionally large and bright ‘shooting star’ travelling across from one horizon to the other. Now we take satellites for granted, barely looking up at them if we happen to notice one in passing.
The far window is where our dining room was. I still have the table that we sat around for meals. It is there that my father encouraged us to know about a world wider than the small community we lived in. We discussed what he called ‘general knowledge’; he asked for our opinions; he told us about earthquakes and volcanoes; and would talk to us about interesting events he had seen or heard about. That is where I did my homework in primary school and thought hard about what to write in the obligatory thank you letters for cards or gifts from my grandparents.
You might notice a sprig of leaves in the top left hand corner of the picture. This is a glimpse of rambling roses that twisted their way this way and that through wooden lattice-work at the side of a shady veranda that ran the width of the house – providing protection from the sun for the two bedrooms that faced onto it. Believe me, the house used to get so hot during summer that on some evenings my mother would hose down the corrugated iron roof to bring down the temperature a little. We would sometimes see snakes threading their way through the roses: a fascinating yet fearful sight when we were small. Now I would be interested and reach for my camera. We were taught to have a healthy respect for snakes.
The building at the back was our garage – also constructed of wood and corrugated iron. More often than not there was one vehicle or another being taken apart to be fixed by my father and brothers. I loved being there with them; loved the smell of grease and oil; loved the way they worked together; loved being asked to hold something or to fetch a tool. The bicycle would have belonged to one of my older brothers and the Jeep to my Dad.
An enormous Brazilian pepper tree grows behind the garage – a challenge to climb, along with the jacaranda just peeping out from behind the house and the Erythrina lysistemon on the right hand side of the picture. We grew up walking along the hills behind our house – a factor that probably influenced my decision to join the Mountain Club at university.
The driveway is not paved, which meant it was a wonderful place to make mud pies after heavy rains or to use a thin twig to tease the ant lions from their hollows when the weather was hot and dry. We used the driveway to play marbles or hopscotch – sometimes even gouging out a hollow so that we could play a game with two sticks called kennetjie. My childhood home was an unpretentious house filled with love.