Perhaps if I had grown up in a city I might have been different. I remain, however, a bundu (a largely uninhabited region some distance from towns) girl whose early playground was the veld in what was then known as the Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga) Lowveld. We walked everywhere as children, exploring the narrow paths twisting their way through tall grass and climbed trees with gay abandon.
The different colours, patterns and texture of the bark of trees have always fascinated me, as have the wide variety of seedpods which the bounty of Lowveld trees presented. Stones too, of all shapes, colours and sizes were at one time deemed worthy of collection. I still cannot resist bringing the odd one home now and then. Ants, beetles and songololos (millipedes) became magnificent creatures when scrutinised under a magnifying glass – one of the best gifts a young child can receive.
Snakes used to paralyse me with fear until I reached high school when a boy (that he was closely surrounded by grinning friends should have been taken as a warning sign) gave me a snake to hold. It was only a second later that I realised this was no rubber snake. I held onto it, stroked it with my finger, and assured him it was beautiful before handing it back to the disappointed bevy of boys. He did me a favour though, for I no longer fear snakes and can now fully appreciate their beauty and diversity.
We encountered many snakes during my childhood. Ones that remain etched on my memory include a Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) coiled on the farmhouse steps; a large African Rock Python (Python sebae) stretched across the narrow farm road; and a Boomslang – tree snake – (Dispholidus typus) threading its way through the roses that clambered over the veranda. My eldest brother was bitten by a Brown House Snake (Boaedon capensis). I remember our fascination with the puncture marks from the fangs, There were many more.
The natural world was our playground in which we made mud pies, dug in the coarse river sand, and drew pictures in the dust. We tried to catch tiny frogs, discovered fresh water crabs, chased lizards, looked for birds’ eggs, and kept a close watch out for chameleons. Birds were plentiful and somewhat taken for granted.
We watched clouds gather, boil, and dissipate. Sometimes we would shiver in anticipation of the next lightning strike as our home shook in response to the rolling thunder overhead. Occasionally we would see a tall Eucalyptus tree being struck by lightning with a loud crack and watch the tree burst into flames. It was always fun to describe the shapes we saw in the constantly shifting and melting clouds on a hot day or match them with the dark shadows caressing the Makhonjwa Mountains.
It was as a child that my interest in thorns developed; that I grew to love the smell of dry grass; that I was struck by the beauty and variety of aloes; and learned to appreciate the tinkling sound of water flowing over rocks.
While my brothers fished in the farm dam, I would watch the Red Bishops building their nests in the bulrushes and try to keep count of the colourful dragonflies crossing the water. It is early experiences such as these that have entrenched a life-long interest in the natural world around me. Give me a holiday in a game reserve over a city anytime!