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.