Let me be clear from the start that when we go on holiday, our default accommodation is camping. We enjoy the freedom of camping along with the inherent possibilities of meeting fellow campers and being able to closely observe the bird-life especially. There are other possibilities though. While I have never stayed at the Champagne Castle Hotel in the Natal Drakensberg, I have enjoyed walking around their beautiful gardens. This is a distant view of the hotel from one of the small dams in its large grounds.

There are a number of holiday cottages nearby and we were privileged once to share one with friends. It had a magnificent view of Cathkin Peak from its veranda.

The chalets in the Mountain Zebra National Park come in a variety of sizes. On a few occasions we have stayed in one – again in the company of family or friends.

I assure you that the outdoor furniture provided here is very heavy indeed. Nonetheless, this open area proved to be an excellent place from which to watch birds.

On one trip through the Eastern Cape, we stopped in to visit the campus of the University of Fort Hare, where I was struck by this mural outside their Department of Fine Arts.

If you are anything like us, a visit to local museums are a must whenever we travel through towns in this country. This is Fort Durnford, the former frontier post built in 1875 to protect the townspeople of Estcourt (in KwaZulu-Natal) from attacks by Zulus. It is now a very interesting museum. Note the beautiful dressed stone.

An interesting museum in my own town is Amazwi, which began life as the National English Literature Museum (NELM) and has since become more inclusive of housing archival material in a variety of languages.



The farm had been in their family for generations. Even as a young girl, Sarah had been fascinated by the drawings, diaries and farm journals stored in her father’s study that looked out across the valley. “All tamed now,” he would sometimes tell her, referring to the bush-covered land his ancestors had come to in the 1820s.

Sarah often begged her father to tell her stories from the diaries and letters in his possession. She was transfixed by the beautifully detailed family tree that adorned the passage wall. Her mother had spent years locating photographs and sketches that breathed life into some of the names carefully noted behind glass.

She was already in high school when she and Paul du Plessis had walked hand-in-hand through the maize lands to the grazing area at the bottom of the farm – far away from the prying eyes of her parents. Pigeon Cottage had already lost its roof by then, the windows were gaping holes and the chimney stack had fallen down. The remnants of the floor boards were covered with loose stones, bat droppings and owl pellets. They loved being there. Sarah and Paul had been meeting there for four years, ever since his sixteenth birthday.

Home from boarding school, Paul rode his horse across the open fields of Stony Brae to deliver a basket of apples to Sarah’s mother. Sarah sat in the shade covering the gaping doorway when Paul dismounted and looped the reins loosely over a wooden post that had once been part of a fence surrounding the cottage.

They munched on apples and drank water from the stream a little distance away. There was so much to talk about: both enjoyed watching the birds – Paul could imitate a lot of their calls – and loved animals. Paul wanted to become a vet. Sarah laughed at his ambition for even at the age of twelve she knew where her future lay.

“I am going to have to marry a farmer who wants to take Stony Brae over from Dad. I can’t plan to be anything because I will have to be a farmer’s wife.”

They met at Pigeon Cottage as often as they could after that. “The family outgrew the place generations ago,” her father told her one evening. “If you look at the ruins carefully, you will see it probably had three rooms at the most.”

“Our ancestors built this stone house from scratch, you know,” Sarah told Paul late one summer afternoon. “Some of these stones are so big that I wonder how they managed to lift them so high.”

Together they traced the uneven patterns in the roughly hewn stone. “They must have made some sort of plaster, look at these remnants here.” Paul guided her hand across the different textures.

He was in his final year of schooling at the start of what would be known as the Second World War. To Paul’s chagrin, his father insisted that he finish school. Sarah had seen his older brother in uniform and knew that it was a matter of time before Paul joined him. The two of them tugged at the weeds growing inside Pigeon Cottage – somehow it seemed important to hold onto what had been there for years. Paul tried to cut down the sapling growing up where the kitchen had once been. His penknife wasn’t strong enough though and they had more urgent things to do anyway.

Sarah’s father began involving her in more of the heavier farming activities as the pain in his legs and lower back began impinging on his ability to move.

“I hear you can drive a tractor straight these days,” Paul teased her on one of his later visits. “I had a look at the mealies on the way here. You have planted them well.” He kissed her on her cheek and then softly on her mouth. “Marry me, Sarah.” He breathed into her ear and was rewarded with a hot blush.

It was no fun having a birthday against the backdrop of a war, the scale of which reached deep into the rural areas. Sarah milked the cows early on her seventeenth birthday, fed the chickens and then joined her parents for breakfast in their farm kitchen. A small parcel and an envelope had been placed next to her plate.

“Open them, sweetheart,” her mother encouraged her. She pulled at the thin red ribbon and carefully unwrapped the tissue paper that hid a small hard box. Sarah held up the gold locket on a long gold chain.

“This is beautiful!”

“It belonged to a ‘great-great’,” her father held her hand in his. “We think you’re old enough and wise enough to start owning some of the family treasures.” His voice was gruff.

“Open it,” her mother encouraged.

The locket opened easily to reveal places for four items. Her mother had already inserted a picture of herself, her husband, and a recent picture of Sarah. The fourth space was empty. “What happened to the ‘great-greats’ that were in here?”

“Quite honestly, I don’t know who they are. I’ve put them in the family Bible. They can ‘begat’ and ‘begat’ in there.” Her father chuckled.

The envelope contained a hand-written note: Pigeon Cottage four o’clock. It didn’t need to be signed. She had a box filled with the letters Paul had written. “When did this come?”

“Paul brought it late last night.” Her mother collected the plates. “You were asleep and he didn’t want to wake you.” Sarah had been helping her father load bales of hay to take to the cows.

Paul was wearing his military uniform when he met Sarah at Pigeon Cottage. She hadn’t seen him for almost a year and knew as soon as she saw him that he would be going away. He swept her into his arms. “Happy seventeenth birthday.” His embrace nearly knocked the breath out of her. “I spoke to your parents last night. They know I’m going away, but have given me their blessing.” He pulled her closer to him on the broad stone step where the front door had been. “Sarah,” he swallowed hard. “Sarah, please say you’ll marry me when this war is over.”

“That was in 1941,” Sarah explained to the young woman who had driven her to Pigeon Cottage in a smart-looking 4×4 vehicle. She got out of it with difficulty and gratefully accepted the wooden walking stick, polished with age. Sarah stood still for a few minutes as she stared at the remains of the stone cottage she had last visited on her seventeenth birthday.

The sapling Paul had once tried to cut down now towered over the building and smaller bushes filled the interior.

The front end wall had been rent asunder by the tree roots, leaving a gaping hole and a pile of stone rubble. A section of the wall had fallen away, its stones now covered by grass and tall weeds. Two sections of the wooden fence posts made from Sneezewood remained. “That is where Paul hitched his horse once.” Sarah felt giddy and her eyes watered as she gazed around her: there were no neat mealie fields anymore; no farm road; no fences; no cows …

“Would you like me to take your arm, Mrs Upton?” The young woman moved closer.

Sarah shook her head and chuckled. “Miss Upton it is I’m afraid.” She held onto the wooden post, feeling its warmth in the sun. She could smell the horse, taste the tangy juiciness of the apples, and felt sure that Paul was nearby. Sarah touched her locket. Her clumsy fingers couldn’t open it as easily anymore. At ninety-four years old, she found that not much of her worked as well as it used to. “Open this, Lauren, and you will see Paul.”

Her father had died soon after the war had ended. The farm had been sold and Sarah’s mother had encouraged her to become a teacher. It was Lauren’s great-great grandfather who had gradually turned Stony Brae into a game farm.

“He’s in uniform – very handsome.” Lauren clicked the locket shut. “What happened to him?”

In the silence that followed, Sarah could feel the sun on her bare legs; her neck tickled the way it did when Paul kissed her there. She turned away from the 2018 view of Pigeon Cottage and gave Lauren her walking stick to hold. “Paul never came home,” she sighed.


My father had been mining diamonds at Premier Mine, near Cullinan, for three years when he reached a point of no return: the conditions he worked under were extremely dangerous and the accident rate was unacceptably high.

He resigned from his position as Mine Captain there to take up a similar post at Sheba Gold Mine in the Eastern Transvaal. My father recalled his Mine Manager being angry when he handed in his notice, demanding to know why he was giving up his prospects in the diamond industry. My father later wrote in his memoir: I was perfectly honest with him, telling him that if I never saw another diamond in my life, it would not break my heart, also that if I wanted honour and glory, along with a medal, I could have gone to Korea. My mind was made up, I was leaving. I was born in the Premier Mine Hospital two weeks later on 20th May 1951.

My mother was the only patient in the maternity section and so my eldest brother often slipped into the ward during the day to visit her. My maternal grandparents were holidaying in Italy at the time and my father sent them a telegram: IT’S A GIRL!

We moved to Sheba Gold Mine when I was three weeks old. We lived in this corrugated iron and wood house until I left home to attend university in Natal.

It was nothing fancy, as you can see: basically built from wood and corrugated iron on a foundation built of local stone. These red-polished steps (mimicked on the other side) led straight into our living room. The open door your 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’ travel across from one horizon to the next.

The far window is where our dining room was. 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. 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. The building at the back was our garage – also constructed of wood and corrugated iron.

My father was also a part-time farmer, with a farm – Dunduff – in the beautiful De Kaap valley stretching out from Barberton.

I think we enjoyed the best of both worlds: able to take advantage of the amenities of the mine such as the primary school, tennis courts, public swimming pool, being able to watch a film in the recreational hall every week, as well as having the freedom to explore the veld on our farm. That is where my life-long interest in nature had its roots.

My senior school years were spent in boarding at the Barberton High School. Those years proved to be important in terms of me developing a sense of independence and forming my own opinions. It was ostensibly a parallel medium school, but with a ratio at the time of one English class to three or four Afrikaans classes, it is not surprising that most subjects were taught in Afrikaans with only a sprinkling of English!

It was with a heavy heart that I left the bosom of my family and the comfortable familiarity of the Lowveld to attend the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg at the start of 1969. Little did I know that I would never return to live within easy visiting distance of my immediate family.

I met my husband while I was a student and ended up living in Natal for about seventeen years. During that time I got to know the Natal Drakensberg very well and bore two sons before we moved to Johannesburg for a brief sojourn.

After that we spent about eight very happy years living in both Mmabatho and Mafikeng in the then independent homeland of Bophuthatswana. Our daughter was born during this time and was in pre-primary when we made a final move to Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape during 1988.



It was on 2nd November seven years ago that I found myself ensconced in a tiny room adjacent to a school hall. The room was only large enough to hold a single school desk and two chairs. This is where a Grade 11 pupil was in the throes of writing a Life Orientation examination. I had read the question paper to her – her concession required her to have a reader and so I doubled up as her invigilator. I had reread several questions at her request and she had finally reached the last question which required an answer in the form of an essay. This gave me a brief respite in which to observe my surroundings.

Apart from keeping an eye on the time, I was now more or less left to my own devices until the end of the examination. By turning my chair slightly, I could see the 1820 Settler’s Monument brooding above the bush-covered Signal Hill that overlooks the town.

In the late afternoon its sombre brick exterior looked foreboding against the heavy grey sky above it. Bulges of dark clouds moved slowly across the hilly horizon before merging with the steely mass above.

The wind whistled and howled, sounding at times like a banshee and at others like waves curling and crashing in a stormy sea. Raindrops began to fall solidly. The heavy streaks of rain fell at an oblique angle that formed silvery slivers against the moisture-darkened trunks of the oak trees in the foreground.

The lighter branches of a wild olive tree swayed and shook as the wind picked up speed and roared past as if in a rush to move on. Only the deep red clusters of huilboerboon flowers provided colourful relief in the grim, wet, cold landscape I could see from the narrow doorway.

As the wind abated, these flowers were visited by redwinged starlings and green woodhoopoes feeding on their rich source of nourishing nectar. Almost unnoticed, growing as it was at the base of a wild olive tree, a yellow dandelion nodded in the wind.

It seemed to be greeting a damp speckled pigeon strutting passed it along the wet brick pathway where blades of bright green grass, too short to bow to the wind, poked between the cracks.

At last the wind died down to a low hum that barely caressed the leaves of the trees growing outside the examination venue. Patches of blue sky appeared as the grey clouds turned paler before dissipating. The late afternoon sunlight highlighted remnants of the distant towers of cumulus clouds. It briefly turned their tops into a brilliant white, while shadows lower down emphasised still boiling bulges in the clouds.

For a moment the Monument donned a more benign mantle, its walls looked brighter and is west-facing windows winked in the golden sunlight. The grass and bushes on Signal Hill appeared to glow from within as the sun lowered towards the horizon.

The sun had won the battle against the clouds. Its mellowing light enhanced the hues of green, enriched the colour of the crimson flowers and made the tiny dandelion appear larger than it was. Raindrops sparkled on the grass. Hadeda ibises rejoiced raucously as they flew across the valley and a village weaver emerged from its temporary shelter to inspect the huilboerboon flowers.

The examination was over and we were both free to leave.