Encounters in South Africa 1998

Nelspruit, Transvaal

I arrive on 24th March 1998 together with my South African partner Tula, just a day after receiving the news in Cambridge, England that her father is in a coma on his deathbed.
After an expensive last minute flight from London, we’re picked up by relatives in a buckie (pick up truck) at Jo’burg International terminal and raced round to a small airfield to board a private four-seat plane. The pilot offers me the controls for a moment as we fly over the empty veld but I can’t for the life of me keep her steady towards the point on the featureless horizon that I’m told to steer for. As soon as we land we are rushed off to the hospital where they give Tula a few moments with her father and then declare him officially dead.

Our first night is spent at Tula’s sister place on the edge of town. I walk out beyond the houses, my feet feeling mysteriously rooted, my whole body energised as I clamber up through thorn bushes onto bare three and half billion-year old rock, a rounded outcrop of the primordial craton underlying much of southern Africa.

We spend our time at the farmhouse outside the city where Tula and her sister were raised by their father following the death of their mother when they were young. It is stuffed with the past that her father horded, cluttered with cheap sixties furniture, the walls crowded with tasteless reproductions. We are told that with the news that the ‘Old Man’ is now gone spreading throughout the area, it is vital that we uphold the impression of family continuity by living at the house, otherwise the place will be stripped by thieves. An outhouse is given over to a cheerful protection force of AK7-wielding Angolan security guards (ex-UNITA, a South African-backed contra army fighting Angola’s Marxist government in the ‘80s). One night we are woken by the arrival of their obese white boss, who tells us we must come outside and be seen to witness, in company with the rest of the black labourers who have been rounded up for the occasion, the physical humiliation of a thief who has been caught stealing avocados. This is the only way the message will go out that stealing from this farm will not go unpunished. Protests are useless and we stand there squirming while the poor man is thrown to the ground, shouted at and threatened with a large stick.

We sleep in fear and insecurity here. But the days are gorgeous: African light, a private swimming pool, extensive avocado and pecan orchards to explore (gingerly, there are snakes around). There are monkeys and baboons in the trees down by the river, antelopes cross our lawn. Tula remembers in her childhood how to general astonishment, a lion was spotted one day near the house (the nearest must be a hundred miles away today). The local river is called the Crocodile and they too are long gone. But there are vast views from the grassy hilltop above the house, strange twisted trees and long vistas of wild ground.

Tula sings African gibberish songs as we walk the farm. The labourers greet us “Sowbona” (good morning), “Njani?” (how are you) and “ko-bo na” (good!). Her childhood nanny and family live in a thatched hut amidst the tall grass.
One morning I’m given the keys to the farm buckie to drive a crowd of smiling black farm labourers to the Old Man’s funeral, being teased all the way in incomprehensible Swazi. On another the police arrive to impound the five firearms legally licensed by the Old Man. It’s a long search before the fifth is finally found inside the piano.

Our other task is to deal with the executors of the family trust. We attend uncomfortable meetings in town where my presence is clearly considered an unwanted interference and where the trust’s paternalistic head allocates Tula Rand 5,000 (600 pounds) a month while they sort out the farm sale.

We escape from the oppressive atmosphere (we are sleeping in Tula’s old bedroom surrounded by her toys; the whole house is steeped in memories of a traumatic childhood) and take one of her dad’s cars off to Kruger National Park for a few days wildlife watching. We drive the parks long empty roads, bagging pretty much everything except a lion. The park rules require visitors to remain in their cars whenever they leave camp and I’m so frustrated by lack of exercise that I risk a few minutes of running alongside ours while Tula drives. Round a bend we bump straight into a heavily armed military anti-poaching patrol; I’m back inside the vehicle in a flash. At night we stand inside the perimeter fence at the campground and watch the hyenas patrol outside.

Another trip takes us to her grandmother’s house on a 700 hectare vegetable farm in Hectorspruit. The frail old lady was Tula’s surrogate mother after her real mother’s death and welcomes her now with tears and caresses. The place is another museum piece, heavy with groups of dark Dutch paintings and antique furniture. I wander the elaborate gardens while Tula spends time closeted with her granny.

18th May
After a month we get our freedom at last. The farming has been put out to management, there has been no further thieving; the trust’s affairs grind on slowly without us. We have three and a half weeks and five and a half thousand kilometers ahead of us.
We’re driving her dad’s nice car. We have been direly warned that we must keep our doors locked and our windows up whenever we drive through towns, especially Johannesburg. FIrst we have an errand in the form of a visit to the British High Commission in Pretoria to apply for a UK resident visa for Tula (not that we plan to live there, her thinking is that this will help her application for a better India visa in London). Then a well-recommended bookshop in Jo’burg. After that our first night away is a little Africaaner dorf, Edenburg, dark and gothic out of some old American horror movie. Walking the empty streets is scary, so we retreat to a lumpy bed.

A full day of driving empty landscapes next day takes us down to the south coast at Tsitikamma National Park for three nights, each night in a different hut amidst Yellowood forests. These giants can almost rival redwoods in height or make a good site for Tarzan, draped as they are in tropical lianas and creepers. They are the nineteenth-century setting of ‘Fiela’s Child’, one of my favourite books involving elephants, though very few of the largest trees from those days have survived the loggers. There are rumours of a last, solitary jungle tusker surviving somewhere in the remaining unlogged forests. Doubtful – he hasn’t been spotted reliably for decades.

One night outside our hut by the river, a wild cat walks calmly past our cooking fire. We hire a canoe and paddle upstream through a gorge into the jungle, baboons screeching at us from the branches. There’s a sense of endless wilderness ahead that I have never experienced before. I’m reading a book about South African fossicking, that mentions mountain tops not far from here where no-one has really yet hunted properly for semi-precious gems and crystals. But a glance at the map shows they would be far too much for me to take on.

Outside Knysna we stay in a tent in the garden of two Osho sannyasins, Archen and Vanita, whose number we have picked up somewhere and who welcome us in. Suddenly we’re back in civilization –soy milk, tahini, the company of fellow- seekers. Nearby is the cavernous Drupkelders gorge, where I nerve myself up for a dip in the black river and emerge in terror of what might have been about to snatch me from it’s inky depths.. The place gives us both the chills.

Inland through vertiginous gorges and passes into the dry lands of the Karoo, to find more expanses of rocky mountains and plains and the usual empty roads. We spend two nights in Calitzdorp, exploring the bush along the Gouritz river into another semi-wilderness of brightly-coloured boulders and cliffs spattered with Bushman caves. My English upbringing and long India experience insists that eventually the river will curve back towards the village, or reveal a path branching off in the right direction, or meet a road but – no – it keeps to its lonely path leading us further and further afield until we turn around to make the long slog back.

Capetown is now in our sights; over ‘Seven Weeks Pass’ to the hot springs at Warmwatersburg, where we have the pools to ourselves. Then on to the European-style wine town of Franscheek, nestling in green mountains, to walk in autumnal orchards and wake to find the place blanketed in mist and clouds. In Capetown a friend of Tula’s family has given us a prettily-painted cottage above the bustle of the city to stay in. By the first afternoon we’ve done the steep climb to Lion’s Head, by the next the tougher one up to the crest above the city. And by the third we’ve been to the market and out into the famous fynbos towards the Cape itself. Three days of city are enough, we are up for adventures in nature.

I thought I’d got used to South Africa’s empty spaces by this point but as we drive north through semi-desert towards the Cederberg Mountains, the views open out to even more immense distances as we cross vast shelves of rock stretching off to a limitless horizon. Up to now we have at least passed the odd vehicle but once we turn off onto a dirt road not a single car or house comes into view for what feels like hours. Dusk arrives and I’m starting to panic: can this really be the the right road to our guesthouse? Might I have dropped into a nightmare in which we drive on like this for ever? Finally a bend reveals a group of buildings – and it is indeed our guesthouse at Krom Rivier.

After a night of sub-zero temperatures we head for the Stadsaal caves, a cathedral of multi-coloured rock, open to the sky. We do the typical tourist photoshoot, but as we have the place to ourselves, do them al fresco. The results have us looking part of some abstract painting. I clamber up to get closer to San Bushman paintings of elephants (both long gone from the area) and their self-portrayals: little men with erections and women with protruding buttocks. It’s deeply touching to feel the presence of these people, hunted to extinction, the last of their painters gunned down with his palette and brushes in his hand a hundred years ago. Back at the guesthouse a tip and the owners permission takes us nearby onto private land, where the San long ago etched animal portraits onto the rocks.

Now home is calling. Probate has been granted and the Old Man’s house must be cleared out completely. We head back via freezing Kimberly and Bloemfontain, stopping at one point at an abandoned farm beside the road. Autumn leafall, sheep grazing between lichen-clad stone walls. Fantasies of a future in the place take flight to melt away once we are back in the car.

19th May, Nelspruit
We arrive back and are rushed to the hospital the next morning. Tula’s grandmother is seriously ill. “I feel so lucky” she whispers me when Tula goes off to the bathroom. “Why?” I ask. “To be loved by her”, she says pointing towards the bathroom. “You will look after her?” she asks me anxiously. What can I say? I make the promise. The next day we go in and -shock- she’s grey and almost gone. Tula stays together with her two uncles to watch her die. I can’t imagine what Tula is going through inside, to have lost both her father and her mother-substitute suddenly within a few weeks.
Now we re-vamp Tula’s old childhood bedroom at the farm to wipe the past and search along the river looking for a spot for her to keep when the rest of the farm is sold. A little further on from the spot at which she and her family used to picnic, we come upon a steep little island formed by a fork in the river. There’s a deep backwater, guarded at its narrow entrance by huge rocks. Twisted indigenous forest clings to rocky cliffs all around. On the way back we come across a snared bushpig, magnificent rusty red and white. We have to return to show a neighbour the place so he can shoot it but don’t stick around for the deed itself.
28th May
Finally we start on cleaning the house out with Tula’s sister. It’s clear that the old man never threw anything away. Rifling through piles of paper on his desk, in stacks of boxes and inside books on shelves I come across uncashed travellers cheques, hundred-rand notes, bits of jewelry. The rest – a lifetime of miscellaneous junk and tired furniture, is laid out on the lawn one morning for a fire sale to the farm labourers.
In our final days I explore (‘bundebash’) every corner of this place that I am growing to love: its abandoned fields, long-overgrown corners. its old mine shafts with piles of fools gold decaying at their entrances. I swim in the river (not recommended in our favourite corner apparently, as the flow is so slow there that nasty parasites lurk….) and bless this land in my heart. We go back to

rope a boundary around that piece of the river that Tula has chosen for her inheritance. We discover that the local Forestry company has done a controlled burning on their land next to it and fire has got into an old tree at the edge. We put it out, collect rock crystals from the house and bury them at its roots. It’s a message: we will come back.

Tula and I left and headed for Maui via London (her India visa story not improved) and had split up by the end of the year. My promise to her dying grandmother did not last long.
I never did go back.

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