KGALAGADI TRANSFRONTIER PARK

The yearning is swelling within to make another long trek to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park: to experience the space, the silence, the starlit skies you can almost touch, and the complete lack of connectivity with cell phones and the internet.

It can be hot and dry; the wind can whip up clouds of desert sand; it can also be icy cold. It is a remote place that has crept into my heart and tugs at me every so often. Here are some examples of why this is one of the places I love to visit:

Gemsbok are endemic to this arid region – they are such regal animals.

Springbuck appear in large herds, reminiscent of what it must have been like before senseless European hunters bagged as many as they could in the name of fun.

Spotted hyenas help clean the veld of bones and so help prevent the spread of diseases.

Blue wildebeest gather around the small, concrete-lined waterholes and seek the shade of scrawny trees during the hottest part of the day.

What a privilege it is to see a ratel / honey badger out in the open like this.

Then, of course, everyone keeps a sharp eye out for lions!

THE WOMAN IN GREEN

She is there every morning at around seven, walking her dog along Finch Street. Her plump figure echoes that of her small dog, which never strains at its lead. She is very protective of it, halting at the side of the road even if an oncoming car is some distance from her and is obviously going to turn down the side road before reaching her. She looks the same every day: her short, dark curly hair never alters its shape or style; her square face and brown eyes show no emotion or even a flicker of acknowledgement of any passing traffic. Instead, her eyes appear to bore into mine while she hugs the leash closer to her chest and sets her mouth in a grim unsmiling look until I have driven past. She dresses in a loose green tracksuit – plain green pants offset by a green patterned top. I have noticed that she always walks in the same direction and I see her in much the same spot every day. This implies a routine on her part, a willingness to leave home before sunrise and a desire to maintain a level of fitness for both herself and her dog.

Where do they come from?

How far do they walk?

What does she do for the rest of the day?

Crystal Pike loved reaching the relatively level surface of Finch Street that wound round the base of Stacke Hill. From there the street rose gently past the enormous fig trees and eucalyptus, the few remaining Scots pines, and the spreading Erythrinas that must have been planted by the earliest inhabitants of what had been a new suburb at the time. She had overheard someone mention once that the first houses in the area were built at the end of the Second World War. That would make them over seventy years old!

By the time she reached her home in Nerina Street, just short of the top of the hill, Crystal became acutely aware of the smaller plots, boxier houses and the uniformity of the well-pruned Pride of India trees that lined the slightly narrower streets. Each tree grew in a brick-lined circle breaking up the closely mowed grass verge. How different this was from the large, mature trees, creepers and bushy hedges lower down – and much less private! Privacy was something she had forgotten the existence of over the past year.

Both Crystal and Pippin felt pooped by the time they reached the creaking metal gate set within the sagging fence weighed down by a creeper she had never learned the name of. She poured fresh water into the shiny aluminium bowl and set it down outside the blistered blue kitchen door, unclipped Pippin’s leash and panted quietly while he lapped the water noisily. She waited until her breathing had evened out before entering the drab kitchen. At half past seven on the dot her mother would have her back to the door, impatiently watching and waiting for the kettle to boil.

“Did you have a lovely walk, dear?” The question never varied; her mother’s back never turned until the teapot had been filled and the knitted cosy pulled over it. The small white kitchen table would already have been set with three plastic placemats, the glass butter dish, jam jar, side plates, spoons and spreading knives. The porridge would be kept warm in an enamel double-boiler until her father came into the room, freshly showered and impeccably dressed for work.

They never touched food or drink until he arrived.

“Same, same,” Crystal replied as she always did. Her mother wouldn’t expect any different. Would she care to know that the gazanias brightened the edge of the street below them, or that the Cape Chestnuts were blooming late this year? Would it make any difference to her mother’s life if she was told about the Yellow-billed Kite being chased away by a flock of Red-winged Starlings? Would she show any interest in the repainting of the double-storey house at the end of Willow Street, the one that had looked so shabby for years? “Is Dad going to be long?”

“He’s just shaving.” Her mother removed the bowls from the sideboard more noisily than was necessary: a sign that she too was tired of waiting. “Put the sugar bowl on the table. There’s a dear. Did I fill it this morning?”

“You did.” Crystal willed her mother to look at her. “I won’t join you with oats today.” She hesitated at the pursed lips. “It’s just that I’d rather have boiled eggs on toast. Don’t worry, I’ll do them.” This was said against the background of her father’s footsteps thumping on the wooden floor of the passage leading into the kitchen.

“Morning Daphne.” He kissed his wife drily on her proffered cheek before sitting down. “And how’s my Fatso today?”

Crystal watched the two eggs bouncing in the boiling water and breathed in the steam from a distance while glaring at her father. “Are you two ever going to let up? It’s not as though either of you is skinny anyway.” She could feel the heat rushing to her cheeks. “At least Pippin and I walk every day!”

Her father scraped back his chair while dabbing the corner of his moustache with a large green linen napkin. “How dare you, Crystal? How dare you insult us like that?” His voice quivered. He moved to the side of the table and continued, “We, who have taken you in when your husband threw you out because you are too fat for his liking.”

“That is such a lie Father and you know it!” Crystal willed herself to stay near the relative safety of the stove and rested her hand on the toaster already filled with slices of bread. “Calling me ‘Fatso’ is not an insult then?”

“Roger, your porridge is getting cold.” The calm undertone to her mother’s voice was oddly comforting – almost as if she cared. Her father sat down again, grumbling about the need for the family to sit together at the table as a family and to eat in a civilised manner. Crystal took her time about getting her eggs and toast ready before she joined them.

This routine hardly varied from one day to the next except that Crystal woke earlier every week so that she could walk further before the cast-in-stone breakfast time. She wasn’t sure this was good for Pippin and worried about his welfare. Her bathroom scale seemed to indicate that walking at his pace, no matter how far, was not going to make a difference to her. That is why she had decided to experiment with breakfast. Her daily food diary indicated that she cheated a lot – especially with those bags of creamy toffee squares she kept hidden in her cupboard.

Pippin loved her unconditionally. If anything untoward happened to him she would be lost. Her mother was cold, biting even, and her father made her feel like something under his shoe – unless they happened to be entertaining visitors. Then they were told that she was taking some ‘time out’, was ‘such a help in the house’, and that ‘they would be sorry when she leaves.’

It was her parents who had wanted her to leave home and get married before she had felt ready. They were the ones who jumped at the first boyfriend she had brought home. It was them who had pressured her and Clive to get married only a week after they had come to terms with the fact that she had not come home until the early hours of the morning after the Rotary Valentine’s Dance. Crystal felt trapped. Clive had used her savings to purchase the bakkie he said they needed for their honeymoon. He had not minded her plumpness then. She recalled him often saying “I like to have something to hold.”

That was until he met the willowy blonde, Sarah McDuff, who manned the reception desk at the fitment centre. Clive had spent four hours in her company while the canopy was being fitted – another ‘must have’ according to him. Even though they had been married only six months, Clive had chosen to take Sarah out for supper (“Only because she went out of her way to get things done quickly”) and hadn’t come home to Crystal until lunchtime the following day.

He had brushed her off with ‘there were complications’ and complained that because of the dust coming in he would have to ‘take it back’ on the Friday. She didn’t see him again until the Monday. In the weeks that followed his absences were explained by working out of town and ‘having to go to head office.’

What could she do but believe him? Despite her misgivings, the truth only dawned on her when she noticed Peter and Christine exchanging glances at the pub after she had excused Clive’s presence with one of the many reasons he had fed her at the time. Peter had spluttered into his beer saying, “Since when do seed salesmen have to go to head office as often as he does?” Crystal had finished her drink quickly and walked home.

She resigned from her job at the local municipal offices the following day and had moved to her parents’ home a month later. Clive had not opposed the divorce. Her father had drummed into her how stupid she had been. He regularly warned her she would never get her money back and reminded her that she was a drain on their resources. “You are meant to look after us in our old age,” he was apt to sneer at her. Crystal was only twenty-one.

‘Get a job! Get a job!’ This was the mantra that echoed her footsteps around the streets every morning and thumped in tandem with her heartbeat throughout the day. Sometimes it was drowned out by the screeching ‘Get thin! Get thin!’ This was especially loud after she’d popped another toffee into her mouth. Crystal had been plump since the age of fifteen! How could she get a job when her mother had got rid of the maid as ‘an economy measure’ and loaded her with all the housework? She had no transport; no real time to herself – what chance did she have to get a job? Pippin was the only one who didn’t mind what she looked like or cared whether she had a paying job or not.

Crystal drooled over recipe books and often hauled out her secret stash of food-related magazines. She yearned for a beautiful kitchen; dreamed of people talking in hushed tones about her food; she squirmed with pleasure at the imagined accolades she would receive from grateful clients. No chance of trying a single recipe at home though – her parents were sticklers for the menu they had decided on before she had been born: nothing more, nothing less. She had done some private catering while living with Clive. It hadn’t come to anything though as he firmly believed she should be waiting for him at home when he finished work. Life could be so unfair!

The woman in green was missing yesterday, but was on the road again this morning, halting more or less in the same place as I drove past her. She almost leaned into the pavement even though there was plenty of space. I could see that her face was flawlessly covered with foundation, her dark eyes still boring into mine, and her mouth a closed slit. Today she was wearing cream pants with a plain green top. The clouds on the horizon glowed red from the rising sun, as embers do when the flames of a fire have died away. The early morning air smelled fresh and crisp, carrying with it the sweet damp scent of dry leaves and the ground that had been blanketed by the thick mist filling the valley after midnight. There was no sign in her gait or the way she looked to show that the day was different from any other. What made her miss yesterday’s encounter? Or, what had made her too late for me to pass her at the usual spot?

Hugo, she only found out his name eight weeks after first seeing him, ran past her every day as she turned to walk up the last steep road leading to the top of Stacke Hill. Increasingly, he had passed her twice along the route and then one day he stopped, sweating profusely, in front of her. “We really must stop meeting like this,” he said lamely and bent down to stroke Pippin. He introduced himself as they walked up the rest of the hill together. Over the course of the next few weeks Crystal got to know that Hugo also enjoyed solving crossword puzzles, that he worked in the local bank, and that he was interested in wild flowers.

“Will you come to Attrus Dam with me on Sunday?” Hugo had passed her twice that morning before puffing to a halt near their usual meeting place. “There are a lot of flowers blooming at this time of the year and it’s very peaceful out there.”

Crystal hesitated only a fraction before responding, “I would love to! Shall I pack a picnic?”

She missed her Tuesday morning walk to plan the picnic and get a head start on the housework so that her mother wouldn’t object to taking her to the shops later in the week.

“He’s a banker, mother, not a seed seller. You and Dad virtually foisted me on the seed seller!” Crystal felt the warmth glowing in her cheeks. ”It’s only one day out. Why make an issue of it?”

“What about Sunday dinner?” Her mother sounded grumpy. “You always cook Sunday dinner!”

“You cooked it quite adequately before I came home. Do it again – it won’t hurt you.” Crystal wondered at the source of her steely reserve; she had felt so down-trodden and worthless for so long.

I missed the woman in green again today. In fact, I checked my watch as I turned down the side road and looked up to see her still at the far end of the street. Why was she late?

Her packing was complete – not much left of her lifetime, she reflected sadly. She had got rid of anything that reminded her of Clive. Her mother had cleared away everything related to her childhood within days of Crystal leaving home. No sentimentality there. Crystal was sure she would be different if she had children of her own. She glanced at her watch. She was late and would miss Hugo at their usual spot! No matter, she said to Pippin, he was coming to collect her after work anyway. A new life awaited her. Her face was wreathed in smiles as she turned the corner that hid her parents’ home from view.

What has happened to the Woman in Green?

It has been well over two months now and the clockwork, check-your-watch-by-her Woman in Green has disappeared.

Advertisement in the local newspaper:

Crystal Clear Catering

For all your catering requirements, large or small, phone Crystal Pike at …

That’s odd. Come to think of it, the young woman who catered for Fiona’s fortieth birthday bash looked remarkably like the Woman in Green. That short, dark, curly hair is a give-away. Her brown eyes were dancing though, she was smiling throughout and her face looked a lot softer – rather pretty in fact. I wonder …?

 

LETTER WRITING

I recently wrote about the waning art of letter writing and return to it again for this is a subject that resonates with me: I enjoy writing letters. Real letters. Letters that give the recipient a flavour of what we have been doing, what is happening in this country, and that share opinions about cultural and social issues. My favourite form of letter-writing is by hand. I usually sit at the small stinkwood desk that used to belong to my grandmother and later my mother.

Holding a pen in my hand seems to provide a connection of some sort to the person I am addressing. More importantly, sitting at my desk focuses my attention on the act of writing. True, I look up now and then to watch birds as the pass the window or call from the tree tops; to observe the effect of the changing light on the landscape; or simply to gaze into the distance while my thoughts flow.

Letter-writing is a pleasurable activity for me. I have three, maybe four, faraway friends who also still use what has disparagingly come to be known as snail mail. One only writes by hand and another often adds a page or two of handwritten comments at the end of a typed letter – often a ‘one-size-fits-all.

I used to assume that most people resort to e-mail. I certainly type a lot of letters these days and attach them to e-mails – more often because I am unable to get postage stamps. Even these ones though are composed with care, the recipient always in my mind as though we are having a conversation. They are satisfying to compose and I look forward to receiving some interesting replies.

Articles and blogs I have read during recent weeks decrying the waning art of letter-writing and ‘old-fashioned’ face-to-face communication have confirmed that ‘most people’ do not resort to e-mail after all. Like SMSes/text messaging, e-mails have become passé, used for internal business communications and as a vehicle for would-be scammers.

We were discussing the role of Facebook the other evening. One brave soul commented that she had withdrawn from Facebook and faced a barrage of reasons from the others present why Facebook is such an important vehicle for communication these days. I remained silent for I have never joined that community. One person said “I rely on Facebook to remind me of birthdays” while another wondered aloud whether wishing all one’s ‘friends’ a happy birthday through that medium was as meaningful as sending a message via Whatsapp – or even e-mail – might be.

Articles about the benefits of taking a break from Facebook, switching off Twitter, and promoting family time without the ubiquitous cell phones abound. A recent article pointed out that modern society has become so dependent on social media that people feel they are losing out if they are not constantly ‘plugged in’. This reminded me of articles discussing the etiquette of watching television that were published once South Africans were at last able to have that broadcasting medium in their homes!

An apt phrase that is often repeated follows the lines of ‘don’t miss the actual beauty of the sunset because you are so busy Tweeting it.’

I leave you with this thought from Matthew Arnold:

Is it so small a thing to have enjoyed the sun, to have lived light in the spring, to have loved, to have thought, to have done?