“Ben! Ben! Where are you?” Fiona slammed the door of her vehicle and raced across the farmyard, still calling her husband. She found him fixing a tractor in the shed.

“What’s up?” Ben looked up as she ran towards him.

“Ben, the cows …” She paused to catch her breath. “The cows have got out onto the road. They’re everywhere!”

Ben gently placed the carburettor on the workbench and wiped his hands on his already grimy shorts. “Armand!” He picked up the keys of his truck. “Was the gate open?”

“No, I opened it with the remote.” Fiona was still panting from her exertion and the sense of urgency of the situation.

“This could be tricky.” Ben called again, “Armand!” then turned to her. “We’ll need your help – drive down to Land 2 and ask Siseko to bring the men up to the road on the trailer. Then I want you stationed at one end of the cows on the road with your hazard lights on.” He touched her arm lightly, leaving a splodge of oil on her skin.

Armand approached the truck at a jog. “The cattle are out,” he panted.

“I know. Hop in. There must be a hole in the fence.”

Fiona watched the two men drive off in a cloud of dust before she made her way through the maize lands to find Siseko.

It was early evening before Ben joined Fiona on the front veranda of their farm house. He sipped his cold beer appreciatively and reached for a slice of the cheese and bacon quiche Fiona had made. “The fence was cut in two places,” he said as if they had simply paused their conversation.

“Cattle rustlers?”

“There’s been a lot of that further down the valley. I’ve informed the Stock Theft Unit, but there’s not much they can do. We’ve got them all back, fixed the fence and Vuyo has organised a rotation of guards for the night.” He picked up another slice of quiche. “Thanks for your help Fi – your haircut looks nice by the way.”

She felt pleased. “I’m surprised you noticed it in the midst of today’s upheavals. Thank you. I’m going to fetch the fruit salad. Shall I bring you another beer?”

He shook his head. “Fruit salad will be fine. I just want some peace – now who is this?” He broke off to retrieve his cell phone from his trouser pocket.

Fiona returned from the kitchen to find Ben looking angry. “Problem?” she asked tentatively.

“Nic called to say a herd of kudu are being a nuisance among his pumpkins. He wants to shoot the lot.”

“Surely not!”

“Surely yes. Sorry Fiona, but I’m going to help him drive them off.” He left his bowl of fruit salad untouched and disappeared into the gloom.

The following morning Fiona was surprised to see two horsemen approaching the area where she was hanging up the laundry. She squinted up against the sun. “Hello Paul, what brings you here on horseback?”

“Ian and I are doing perimeter fence patrols. I hear your cows were in the main road yesterday.”

“Our fence was cut.”

Paul patted his horse’s neck. “A brazen thing to do in broad daylight. Tell Ben we’re around if you see him. We’re going to ride along the Hanegraaf’s fence. Look after yourself, Fiona. Keep a lookout for strangers in the area.”

Fiona felt inclined to weep as she pegged the towels in a rising wind. Andrew and Taryn would be home from university soon and she didn’t want them to get caught up in the tensions that were becoming an increasingly integral part of farm life.

“Mom, I’m not coming home for the vac. Luke and I want to spend the week visiting the Drakensberg.” Fiona felt disappointment squeeze the breath out of her.

“I don’t think you have told us about Luke,” she responded evenly.

“We just ‘clicked’ at the Spring Ball. Are you okay with this, Mom?”

“Sure. Of course Dad will also be disappointed that you’re not coming home. Have fun my darling and let us know how you are.” Fiona wept into the pillowcases she had been taking to Tarryn’s room.

“Dad, Luke is gutless, yet manipulative. He’s stealing Tarryn’s money too.” Andrew was walking around the farm with his father. “Don’t tell Mom, but Tarryn’s paying for the fuel and accommodation for this jaunt of theirs.”

“Mom? Do you think you could deposit some money into my account?” Fiona was struck by the unusual tremor in her daughter’s voice. “It’s just that we hadn’t bargained for the increase in the price of fuel.”

“Is Luke with you Tarryn?” Fiona’s protection antennae bristled at the sound of raucous laughter and music in the background.


“Are you in a pub?” Fiona couldn’t make out the muffled sound which seemed to be close to her daughter.

“Yes, but … Mom, I really need the money. Please don’t tell Dad.” It was the slight whine in Tarryn’s voice that put Fiona on high alert. She found out where Tarryn and Luke were overnighting. Glimpsing her menfolk returning from their walk, she spoke with grim determination. “Tarryn, listen to me. I’m coming to fetch you. If I set off now I should reach you by sunrise. Don’t argue and don’t leave until I get there!”

She laid her cards on the table. “She is in trouble, Ben. I just know that.”

“Don’t be daft Fiona. You can’t drive alone through the night!”

“Dad, I think Tarryn needs to come home.” Andrew turned to his mother. “Give me five minutes and I’ll come with you, Mom.” Andrew punched his father’s shoulder and winked at him.

“What are those marks on your arms, Tarryn?” Fiona had been observing her daughter closely while they breakfasted at a roadside padstal. Her hair was limp and her eyes still bore traces of crying.

“Insect bites,” came the mumbled reply.

“Fresh round ones.” Ben pushed up his sister’s sleeve. “More like cigarette burns I’d say.” He looked meaningfully at his mother.

“Well, Luke did try to stop the itching.” Tarryn pulled her sleeve down and clutched at the cuffs of her loose jersey.

“With a cigarette?” Fiona could feel anger coursing through her. Luke had apparently still been sleeping when they had met Tarryn outside the motel before sunrise. “Since when could that be regarded as an anaesthetic?”

They drove home in silence, broken only by the periodic sobbing from Tarryn who was huddled under a blanket on the back seat. “Let’s make a stop in town before we go home, Andrew.” Fiona turned to face her daughter. “We’ll stop at the next picnic site so that you can splash your face and change your top and jersey. I’ll make an appointment with my hairdresser.”


“I’m not having you arrive home looking the way you are, Tarryn. Dad has enough on his plate without having to worry about the welfare of his daughter.” She patted Tarryn’s knee. “We’ll work something out, perhaps even postpone your return for a few days until you at least look well again.”

Once in town, she gave Andrew a hastily compiled list of groceries to purchase while she waited for Tarryn at the hairdresser. “Oh, and get some burn ointment from the pharmacy too please,” she called after her son.

“Tarryn my love, you look gorgeous.” Ben winked at Andrew over her head. “You got tired of your boyfriend did you?”

Tarryn pulled away. “Dad, he’s not my boyfriend!” Then she hugged her father. “Actually, he’s my big mistake.”

A week later Fiona scanned her e-mails to find the quotation for the milking machines she was expecting. To her surprise there was a message from Tarryn: I don’t think I have ever told you and Dad how much I love you. You guys are the best!

Ben smiled when he read it after locking the workshop door. “She’s lost a fortune to that knucklehead, you know.”

“He burned her because I didn’t deposit the money immediately. I just sensed there was something wrong.”

Ben put his arm around his wife’s shoulders as they walked towards the house. “Farm life is gripping and tense at times. I wouldn’t manage it without you. You are like the stakes that support the tomatoes through each season – only, you are forever.”




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.


She felt the familiar tightening of her chest as the car began to descend the winding mountain pass which would take them to the enormous valley that stretched out far below them. Even the excited chatter of the children couldn’t intrude upon the private pleasure she always felt when the familiar mountain range was glimpsed for the first time. The hazy smoke hid the familiar landmarks from view, yet she was still able to point out – even from so far away – the short strip of dusty road that led to the farm.

The mountain pass flattened and straightened out, entered the valley and at last they were achingly close to the world of which she had been a part forever. The car sped on under a canopy of acacia trees, crossed the bridge over a river long since hidden by a tangled mass of syringa trees, reeds and some bushes indigenous to the area. She wondered whatever had happened to the muddy river of her youth and to the floods that had drawn them to the river almost every summer to witness the turbulent waves and broken, tossing trees …

The children had been looking out for the dusty road. They chatted excitedly all the way, oblivious to their mother’s inner world where she remembered riding a bicycle that was much too large for her, recognised the place along the road where she had skidded and grazed her arms and legs in the fall: her mother had disliked the idea of her leaving the relative safety of the farm …

And there it was … the water tanks on their tall stand, bright splashes of deep purple and red bougainvillea, the jacaranda trees … one last turn in the driveway and the familiar farmhouse was there. This time there was no welcoming bark, for the dogs hadn’t been replaced as each had found their Elysium in turn. The clean-swept back yard, the bright flowers  nodding merrily around the stone rondavel – even the smoke rising from the chimney of the combustion stove were welcome enough until her mother emerged from the kitchen door, her face wreathed in smiles and her arms outstretched.

The welcome was too bright, their happiness too intense – even the children seemed determined to extract every bit of pleasure and happiness they could before the farm changed hands and was theirs no more. Her eyes darted around the farm house, which looked much the same even though a lot of packing had already been done. The sealed cardboard boxes that lined the wooden-floored passage and spilled into the bedrooms bore mute testimony to the end of more than thirty years of occupation. The family had only two days in which to bid farewell to another way of life.

Sitting on the high veranda, she noted that the view was as breathtakingly beautiful as always, stretching as it did across the whole valley to the small town nestling at the foot of the encircling mountain range. From there too, one was privy to the ceaseless coming and going of a great variety of birds as they bathed, preened, or drank from the stone bird bath half hidden by creepers. The water spraying on the lawn reminded her of the shortage of water that had always been drummed into them as children. Even the vegetable garden had had to be abandoned as one borehole after another had dried up. It was ironic that the lawn her mother had battled to save for so long was now lush – waiting expectantly for the new owners.

Beyond the thick, neatly trimmed hedge of spekboom (she recalled in a flash the short sticks with fleshy leaves that had been planted – when?) were the lands which had once produced a plentiful supply of dryland cotton, and later maize, before giving way to the natural grasses to provide grazing for the cattle. These had been sold a long time ago and so now the tall grass waved in the wind and hid the children from view as they walked around the farm for the last time. They picked up stray guineafowl feathers, interesting looking sticks, and skipped along the narrow road while their mother remembered doing the same in her own childhood and their father recorded their movements and laughter on film.

They measured themselves against familiar landmarks almost lost in the tall grass and picked lemons they didn’t really need. At the clump of bamboo, the children collected fans and old bird nests and sticks, while their mother recalled a time when this had been her only world … the children were getting tired and all were conscious of returning to the farmhouse in time for lunch.

She longed to break free and lose herself in the land stretching away from them and to follow the watercourse which occasionally oozed to the surface in spongy damp areas. She ached to smell again that strong odour of wet clay, to pick her way through the thorn scrub along half-forgotten footpaths. She needed to commune silently with her childhood. Instead, she hoisted her daughter to her shoulders and listened to her sons complain about the pepper ticks and the prickles caused by the fine hairs of the bamboo.

The early morning mist hid the valley and the mountains from view, revealing them only once the sun had warmed sufficiently to disperse it. In the front garden, the elm tree shed its delicate leaves in beautiful shades of yellow, orange, red, and brown; the sunbirds stood out clearly each afternoon as they fed on the nectar in the bright orange flowers of the spathodia tree or flitted in and out of the yellow tecomaria blooms. The rhythm of nature pulsed on, oblivious to the encroaching sorrow of the people who loved it so.

The day of the final parting was tinged with a sense of loss from the beginning, even though everyone made an effort to behave normally. It reminded her of the time her father had died – everyone being cheerful when together, but grieving quietly and alone, just as she wished to do then: quietly and alone. Her outward calm was dented further each time she passed her daughter on her way to and from packing the car. The little girl sat glumly on the step separating the lounge and dining room, her head held between her hands: the five years the farm had been part of her was a lifetime. Earlier, the boys had been determined to prove for the last time their ability to climb the swaying chain ladder leading the way to the wooden base of the tank stand so very high above the ground.

Her reserve finally broke when she set out to find her younger son, missing from the group gathered for the final farewell. He was sobbing with his face pressed against the rough stone of the rondavel wall. She pulled him away gently, not daring to speak as she guided him towards the tall syringa tree. Together they looked at the mango orchard and to the mountains beyond. He reached out to touch the rusty barbed wire fence. Memories crowded in while the tall Indian cane rustled its mournful farewells in the autumn breeze. It was time to leave.

As the car left the dusty road for the last time to join the tar, all eyes turned to the mountains. Those mountains which were always there, and yet were always changing. She saw them in her memory emerging from the early morning mist; slashed with ribbons of flame at night during the fire season; and once even mysteriously covered with snow.

Sorrow hung heavily about the family as they drove on in silence. All too soon it was time to turn away from those softly beckoning mountains and begin the long winding ascent out of the valley to the highveld beyond. Her husband looked at her tear-stained face, filled with grief at the final parting from her childhood. Acting from years of experience, he automatically slowed down at the last corner from which the receding valley could be seen below them.

She never looked back.

Note: It was in 1988 that I bid farewell to our family farm.


The fertile Belmont Valley lies on the eastern side of Grahamstown and is dissected by a stream that forms part of the upper catchment of the Blaaukrantz River, a tributary of the Kowie River that enters the coast at Port Alfred. Apart from the narrowness of the dirt road that is used extensively by farmers in the area, one is struck by the fertility of the soil. Garlic grows in abundance.

Rows of cabbages peep through the trees.

Other crops include cherry peppers.

Such irrigated abundance is made possible because the valley has ready access to water. The treated sewerage effluent that flows into the valley also contributes to the land’s fertility. The road crosses the stream in several places.

The water isn’t always as clean as it looks and below one of the low bridges there is clear evidence of the long-lasting foamy residues from the sewage treatment works upstream.