ABOUT ME I

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.

 

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OBSERVATIONS WHILST INVIGILATING AN EXAMINATION

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.

RED IS THE COLOUR OF THE FESTIVE SEASON

Let us start off in the right direction and enjoy some reddish bougainvillea along our way:

We stop in to see some beautiful flowers in remembrance of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice:

Just around the corner from my home are these Erythrina lysistemon:

Some food is required, so visit a fish market along the coast:

As tea is welcome at any time of the day, I regard this as one of the most perfect Advent calendars I have ever seen:

Finally, a stained glass window to remind us of one of the many layers of this festive season:

Wishing all of my readers happiness, cheerful company, good food and a pleasant festive season.

GARGOYLES

Gargoyle … don’t you think that is a lovely sounding word? Similar to gargle you might say. All that gurgling and spluttering … which brings gullet to mind. These words all have something in common. Most gargoyles are shaped in the form of monsters, laughing or scowling humans, dragons, or demons. A distinctive feature of Gothic architecture, many gargoyles have troughs cut into their backs to catch rain water and  spouts that direct water away from the sides of buildings. This prevents rainwater from running down the stone walls and eroding the mortar that holds them together.

According to Oxford Languages, gargoyle comes from Middle English, which is derived from the Old French gargouille, meaning ‘throat or gullet’; also ‘gargoyle’ (because of the water passing through the throat and mouth of the figure); and is in turn related to the Greek gargarizein  which means ‘to gargle’ (imitating the sounds made in the throat). There we have it, this lovely sounding word is actually onomatopoeic because it resembles the gurgling sound of the water as it passes through the gargoyle and out its mouth.

Gargoyles became less common after the eighteenth century, once more modern drainpipes were developed. This one – on the Cathedral Church of St. Michael and All Angels in the Eastern Cape town of Queenstown (now called Komani) – has clearly been made superfluous thanks to the modern guttering.

 

SOME CHEERING PATTERNS

After the gloom of venting about load shedding and in the gloom of a heavily overcast morning, it is time to cheer up by looking at more patterns around us. The first one isn’t a ‘natural’ pattern – and sadly is no more – but is of a garage door in the suburbs that used to sport a plain zebra that was brightened up when the residents changed hands.

The potato bush that pokes through the fence from the neighbouring garden to share its bountiful blooms with us is particularly cheering.

So are the pelargoniums that are flowering profusely in a fairly neglected part of my garden.

My garden – which was a desert of gravel and exotic succulents thirty-four years ago – has grown into a beautiful jungle of indigenous trees and bushes with a variety of textures, shapes and hues of green.

I came across this caterpillar while I was mowing the lawn last week.

When I was driving along a road out of town at around sunrise, I marvelled at the pattern made by the dew on this seed.