TAPHOPHILIA

I was introduced to cemeteries as interesting places to visit while I was still in primary school. My father had taken it upon himself to clear the bush encroaching on a chapel and cemetery situated not far from Sheba Gold Mine in the then Eastern Transvaal, where he was the Mine Captain. It was from seeing the graves of babies and children younger than I was that I learned about the scourge of malaria, while other graves informed me of the horror of a local train disaster.

It was in this half-forgotten cemetery that I became fascinated by the different epitaphs and shapes of gravestones; where I discovered my interest in the choice of symbols and biblical verses; where I learned something of the life expectancy in the late nineteenth century; and found interesting references to where people had come from – these were all things my father was happy to talk about.

Over the years I have discovered that there is much of historical significance to learn from visiting cemeteries, be it social, military, or related to families and religions. Should you spend any time there, you soon realise that cemeteries are, in a manner of speaking, outdoor museums that require you to look carefully – and possibly do later research – in order to interpret what you are seeing. My father was a keen amateur historian, who was particularly interested in the turbulent military history of his adopted country. As a result, many of our journeys were broken so that we could visit significant graves and monuments along the way.

I did not know then that during the years to come I would continue in this vein, as well as visiting various battle sites, with my husband. I also didn’t know that there is a word, tapophilia, to describe this interest in what old cemeteries have to offer. The word comes from the Greek taph (tomb) and philia (fondness or admiration). Sadly, many cemeteries in our platteland towns have been more or less abandoned either because of indifference by the local municipalities or simply because the towns are no longer thriving. Some, like the old cemetery in our town, are no longer safe to visit on one’s own although the aptly named New Cemetery is a different matter.

Of particular interest to me are the many symbols evident in older cemeteries especially. Angels are commonly regarded as the messengers of God who act as a guide to help the soul of the departed towards Heaven. Winged cherubs watch over the graves of babies and children to convey their innocence. The unbroken circle of a wreath represents everlasting life.

While the Celtic or Irish cross, taking the form of a cross within a circle, generally represents eternity.

A broken column indicates a life cut short; a memorial to the death of someone who died young or in the prime of life, before reaching old age.

Obelisks, on the other hand, apparently became popular after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1801.This one also depicts the commonly used Masonic symbol of the compass and square, which represent faith and reason.

Having found the word, tapophilia, and given my interest in cemeteries, the depiction of symbols and the history reflected by gravestones, I realise I must be a taphophile.

DUNDUFF FARM

I last visited our family farm, Dunduff, in the De Kaap Valley near Barberton about thirty-four years ago. This was a sad visit for my father had died some years earlier and my mother, having sold the farm, had already made great progress with sorting and packing in order to move into town. The memories of that farm remain with me still – and even more pleasingly, it is remembered by my children too. I have written before that the house burned down long after we’d left and of my sadness that the entire farm has been turned into an orchard of nut trees that have obliterated all the roads, buildings and trees that meant so much to us. Clearly, I have nothing to go back to.

This Google map shows the dirt road that we used to drive along, having turned off the tarred road at the Caledonian station and passed several other farms before reaching that curve in the road you can see so clearly. The farm gate was not far from there and our house was more or less where the red pointer is on the map.

The original farm house – which had been added onto over many years – was constructed in 1910, mainly of wood and iron. Some of these materials – I imagine especially the corrugated iron – had been brought in by ox wagon from Delagoa Bay, which is on the south-east coast of Mozambique.

This undated photograph shows one of the most pleasing features of the house, the cool, cement-floored veranda that ran along three sides of the house. This is a perfect architectural feature that wards off the main heat of the Lowveld summers. It kept the bedrooms cool and proved to be a wonderful place to sit to catch the breezes and from where one could look over the farmlands, across the De Kaap Valley towards the town of Barberton nestling in the foothills of the Makhonjwa Mountains.

The water tank on the right was essential as we relied on both rain water and borehole water for our needs. Two tanks were perched on very high tank stands in the back garden. These were filled from a borehole behind the house and sported clear markers so that my father could keep an eye on the water levels and know which tank required filling. We learned from a very early age not to waste water – a good lesson, given that where I live now we only get water every second day!

It was on those steps leading up to the veranda that late one afternoon we came home to wonder who had left the garden hosepipe there – on closer inspection this proved to be a black mamba which my father got rid of once he had made sure the rest of us were well out of the way.

The windows on the right is where the lounge was – also commanding a beautiful view across the valley. The wooden walls consisted of tongue-in-groove panelling as was the floor and ceiling. It was a lovely room to sit in – the original sash windows were replaced by metal framed ones. The single window on the left is where one of the bedrooms was. This particular one had two sash windows while the one next to it only had one. The back section had been added on with bricks and all of those windows (bedroom, bathroom, dining room, scullery and kitchen) had metal framed-windows.

An enormous white mulberry tree provided shade on the left-hand side of the house. The leaves of an African tulip tree are in the foreground of this photograph. Silky oaks dominated the rondavel outside the kitchen; there were also syringas and an elm tree in the garden. One side of the driveway was lined with poinsettia trees and on the other was a coffee tree, an oak tree and even some pawpaw trees. A very productive vegetable garden was behind the house.

MAN ON THE BLADE

I have told you about the traffic jam on a country road, when we were held up by the arrival of what we later discovered were sections of an enormous crane that was going to remove a blade from one of the turbines on a local wind farm. It had been struck by lightening and it must have been a delicate operation to both remove the blade and to repair it for the crane was in position for a very long time. The blade was missing for ages too. A day came when we saw the last of the crane sections leaving and noticed that the turbine was operational once more. As with so many stories, this one ended well or so I thought.

I happened to look up at this particular turbine as we passed below it at the weekend and called a halt because I thought I saw a dark patch on the blade – lightening damage perhaps? My camera was at home and so you will have to share my frustration at only having my cell phone at hand.

Not a mark – that much was obvious from the shadow. My binoculars revealed the ‘mark’ to be a man suspended from a very long rope, who appeared to be painting the blade. Of course it could be something quite different that he was doing. When passing the same turbine an hour later, I saw he was still suspended up there but had worked his way slightly lower down.

Who knows? This is nonetheless a sight I have not witnessed before.

ANOTHER ABANDONED CHURCH

There are a number of abandoned churches dotted all over the Eastern Cape, some harking back to the early days of various settlers who needed a spiritual meeting place where they could draw succour from their belief in God and from each other as they battled to tame the land and deal with the drought or unfamiliar pests that attacked their crops. Perhaps some were abandoned once larger churches had been built and the means to get there had improved. There might have been changes in the communities themselves, with people moving away to try their luck elsewhere or through a waning relationship with formal worship. Who can tell? One such church is very close to the Southwell road.

This simple, white-washed church must have served a community for many years. The corrugated iron roof and fairly modern window frames with brass handles suggest that it may have been refurbished and used into the last century at least. There are no window panes left and the window in the transept has been boarded up with corrugated iron. This makes me wonder if it had perhaps been a stained glass window that now adorns someone’s home. As you can see, the veld has been allowed to grow to the buttressed walls and trees have seeded themselves nearby. The cement steps leading into the vestibule are broken.

Note the pale blue crosses added to the plaster on either side of the door as well as the cross-shaped hole higher up on the tower.

Surprisingly, there is still a bench in the vestibule.

The interior is cool, the walls painted a mixture of earthy tones and what had probably been white. Low brick steps lead up to the crossing, with a higher level indicating where the altar might have been. A broken bench is against the wall of the apse and a single broken wooden door leans against the entrance to one of them.

This is what the church looks like on the side away from the road: the windows open to the elements and the natural grass, shrubs and trees look ready to claim their own.

Unfortunately, it looks as though the foundation stone has been removed – putting an end to finding out when this church was built or consecrated. The building nonetheless remains as a reminder of an earlier time in this area when life was very different to what we experience these days.

POST SCRIPT TO THE TRAFFIC JAM …

… on a country road.

The mystery of that late afternoon/early evening encounter has been solved. Given the size of the wind turbines, we now realise that all those heavy trucks that kept us waiting as darkness crept in were actually carrying not several cranes, but parts of a single crane brought in to repair one of the turbines.

It appears that this particular turbine was struck by lightning that sheared off the tip of one of its 55-metre blades. These blades are made from carbon and are coated with fibreglass and, according to local sources, about three metres were shattered from the end of the blade, scattering debris around the area. The turbine was subsequently stopped and will be out of commission for while it is repaired.

So, this gargantuan crane arrived, was put together and has been set to work removing the 20-25 ton blade.

These photographs were taken on my cell phone from some distance as the turbine is situated on private property. Interestingly, according to Eskom, the eight turbines that make up the Waainek Wind Farm generates sufficient power to service 16 000 households – not that we benefit from it directly. Instead, the power feeds into the national grid.