It is well over fifty years ago since I accompanied my Dad to the smaller portion of his farm, Dunduff, in the De Kaap Valley. This section had access to water from the Noord Kaap River, which he used to plant various vegetables – mostly gem squash – under irrigation. What was particularly special about this visit is that when we stopped at the home of the Swazi family who kept an eye on the farm during my Dad’s absence, I was presented with a gift of two small clay pots decorated with beads.
Sadly, only one has survived my many moves around the country. Still, all these years later, this little clay pot brings to the fore memories of the happy times we spent on that farm as children. We used to pick up delicately honed stone arrow heads and even larger hand axes – learning from my Dad about the ancient cultures that had lived on this land long before we did. I discovered the ‘soap plant’ (I wish I could still recognise it!) that grew along the edges of the irrigation furrow – it exuded a soapy liquid that would foam slightly if you rubbed it between your hands, which would have a lovely ‘clean’ scent after rinsing in the water. My Mom would sometimes walk in the veld with me to look at wild flowers blooming (all nameless at the time, except for the ubiquitous Barberton Daisy, yet greatly appreciated). My brothers and I would find large stick insects, try to catch frogs and watched birds in the veld. This little clay pot still conjures up such memories and more!
This is an undated view of my childhood home at Sheba Gold Mine in the then Eastern Transvaal Lowveld (now Mpumalanga), where I lived from the age of about three weeks. It is from here that I walked to my primary school down the road; it is where I came home to from boarding school; it is where many memories were created – and it is no more.
It was nothing fancy, as you can see: basically built from wood and corrugated iron on a foundation of local stone. These red-polished steps (mimicked on the other side) led straight into our living room. The open door you 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’ travelling across from one horizon to the other. Now we take satellites for granted, barely looking up at them if we happen to notice one in passing.
The far window is where our dining room was. I still have the table that we sat around for meals. 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. Believe me, 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. Now I would be interested and reach for my camera. We were taught to have a healthy respect for snakes.
The building at the back was our garage – also constructed of wood and corrugated iron. More often than not there was one vehicle or another being taken apart to be fixed by my father and brothers. I loved being there with them; loved the smell of grease and oil; loved the way they worked together; loved being asked to hold something or to fetch a tool. The bicycle would have belonged to one of my older brothers and the Jeep to my Dad.
An enormous Brazilian pepper tree grows behind the garage – a challenge to climb, along with the jacaranda just peeping out from behind the house and the Erythrina lysistemon on the right hand side of the picture. We grew up walking along the hills behind our house – a factor that probably influenced my decision to join the Mountain Club at university.
The driveway is not paved, which meant it was a wonderful place to make mud pies after heavy rains or to use a thin twig to tease the ant lions from their hollows when the weather was hot and dry. We used the driveway to play marbles or hopscotch – sometimes even gouging out a hollow so that we could play a game with two sticks called kennetjie. My childhood home was an unpretentious house filled with love.
Coming across this porcelain wash basin and jug in the Prince Albert museum jogged my memory back to when I was about ten years old, visiting my Great Aunt Mary in Colesberg.
Even then it was like walking through a living museum for every bedroom was equipped not only with such basins and jugs, but there was a porcelain potty discreetly tucked under every bed! I swore blind that I could feel the ghosts around me and the creaking wooden floorboards during the night convinced me I was not far from wrong. How I wish I could own one of these now!
My Great-Granny Joan Donald lived in that house until she died at the age of almost 101. Her daughter, Mary, continued living there until her death in her eighties, after which some artifacts from her home ended up in the Colesberg museum where I saw them many years later.
Their family name lives on, for that house has been renovated completely and is now run as Donalds Guest House – looking very different from when I first visited it and yet still strangely familiar.
It was some time before my father was able to get a generator to provide electricity to our farmhouse when we were very young. Even then, the power was used strictly from when it was too dark to see indoors and switched off when my parents retired for the night – far too early for me, especially during my university holidays when I read late into the night by candle light!
My memories of the warm atmosphere created by oil lamps, and the Tilley lamps – sometimes even hurricane lamps – were brought to the fore by the sight of this oil lamp perched on the edge of a desk in the tiny museum at Calitzdorp.
How wonderful it would have been to have some of these during the many months of Eskom power outages! The lovely glow of lamplight in the farmhouse all those years ago seems like yesterday: no cell phones, televisions or iPads, only the soft light that brought the family together to read, play cards, or to write … conversations were quieter, communication was interesting and we grew to be unafraid of the dark.
I remember having to purchase new wicks, the task of keeping them neatly trimmed for a steady light … such warmth emanated from these lamps compared to the ice cold efficiency – and convenience – of LED lamps!
These are the last two illustrated pages of my Granny’s album. The first is dated 1905.
The second, undated entry, is penned by her husband and is indicative of my Grandfather’s wonderful sense of humour.
For years there was no electricity at our farm, except when the generator was switched on in the evenings. A coal stove burned in the kitchen throughout the day, having been lit early in the mornings – apart from providing boiling water for tea and heat for cooking, it also heated the water in the geyser. Food was kept cool in a paraffin ‘fridge – note I said ‘cool’ for the Lowveld summers were hot enough to make even an electric ‘fridge battle – or preserved for longer in a paraffin chest freezer. Laundry was done by hand, mostly in cold water, and dried in the sun and the breeze.
With no electricity, we relied on sadirons to iron our clothes. My mother accumulated quite a collection of them, ranging from very simple ones, similar to the image below, to more expensive ones that had place to add charcoal to make the heat last longer.
The large wooden table in the kitchen would be covered with layers of old blankets and sheets. A bundled up wet cloth was placed next to the metal trivet on which we would rest the sadiron whilst reaching for another item to be ironed or while folding a garment. The various sadirons heated up on the stove and were used in a particular order so that one always had the hottest one to use. Each had to be wiped on the wet cloth to remove any dirt or soot from the stove before being gingerly applied to the garment. The old sheets bore many scorch marks from testing an iron that was too hot.
When they were young, my children would laugh when they saw an array of sadirons in museum, knowing that their mother had used similar ones in her youth – I’m not that old, even though these useful domestic appliances have been around since the mid-1700s! I wish with all my heart that I had one of the original farm ones in my possession. My wise, kind and eminently practical mother quite rightly passed them on to the farm workers she left behind when she exchanged farm living for the security of urban living: they needed them far more than I ever have. This one was purchased for me fairly recently by one of my brothers – apparently they are still popular items among migrant workers returning to their homes in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa, where electricity is not necessarily an option.
I used to wonder why these irons were called ‘sad’ – did one ever find ‘happy’ irons? I have since discovered that the ‘sad’ comes from the now obsolete sense of the word meaning heavy or solid – which is an apt description for them!
This painting in my Granny’s album is undated. The entry before it though is dated August 1905.