In The Forest

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I have missed it. The filtered sunlight, the iridescent, aromatic green, the smell of vegetation decomposing, creatures burrowing in the deep, dark, earth, the canopy above enveloping me, a lush, emerald embrace that clears the head, fills the lungs. Bare foot on cool, fertile soil, beautiful roots of ancient trees, impossibly clear streams. Exhale.

Inhale the forest. I have missed it.

Then I visited KwaZulu Natal, and there, miracle of all miracles… Wheelchair-friendly walkways beneath that canopy of green, through that earthy aroma, beside the fern fronds, earthworms busy-busy beneath us. What bliss.

uMthoma Aerial Boardwalk, iSimangaliso

IMG_2139iSimangaliso Wetland Park was our first experience of it. Following a narrow two-track road through quiet bush, we parked next to the start of the uMthoma aerial walkway, warning notices of elephant, hippo and crocs. We were entirely alone, the loud, chirruping quiet of the bush the only sound. The elephant, hippo and crocs hid behind tree trunks, breathing softly, watching us pass on the path, as I breathed and breathed, that emerald air filling my lungs.

Reaching the viewpoint, a postcard vista across the St Lucia Wetlands, metres above the earth, in the canopy, in the Syringa tree house of my childhood. I can breathe.

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Estuary Boardwalk, St Lucia

IMG_2196Then to St Lucia, and a wooden walkway through the coastal forest, all beset by crocodiles, hippos grunting over there in the estuary. This one is different to uMthoma (but still lovely). It’s human-busy with Sunday afternoon strollers. A grandson walks with his Granny, slowly, carefully.

Just across the river, a huge crocodile suns himself on the shore, seemingly unconcerned by the human noise floating across the water. I imagine, though, that he’s listening to the conversations, his Sunday radio soapie.

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Dlinza Forest Aerial Walkway, eShowe

IMG_2603A few days later, we’re lucky to have the Dlinza Forest entirely to ourselves again. It’s deep green, mossy, lichen-filled forest, huge strangler fig trees whisper as we walk. Staying at the first lookout as GM heads on in (it’s fairly hard work, wheelchair-wise), I sit happily in the birdsong-filled air, 10 m above the ground. This is what it feels like to be a bird, to sit on a branch, to just breathe gently and listen.

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Thank you, iSimangaliso and KZN Parks and everybody else who was involved in creating these beautiful walkways and allowing me (and my ilk) to get back into the forest, to breathe in the emerald, damp soil-filled forest air. Sigh.

***Anybody in a wheelchair wanting to visit these spots, drop me an e-mail and I’ll let you know the nitty-gritty. Some of the paths have fairly steep climbs and some shaking boards along the way, but with a willing helper/strong arms, it’s do-able.

 

 

Star Light, Star Bright at Leopard Walk

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When people talk of the exquisite quiet of the African bush at night, it’s not an actual silence they’re talking about. It’s a peacefulness, a calmness, a joyous dark solitude, for sure. Uninterrupted by streetlights or the white noise of the city, the night gets to flap its cape about, turning everything to a deep blue, flecked with a gazillion stars. The bushes wiggle and dance in your eye’s periphery, as the night creatures wake.

It’s not really quiet, though. In truth, it’s incredibly loud, a night in the wilds of Africa. At Leopard Walk Lodge, in northern KZN, I sat on the huge stoep of the main lodge, privileged to be the only one there at the time, looking over to the waterhole as shy buck came down to drink in the deepening dusk. And listening, to that raucous silence. As the sun set, prehistoric hadedas shouted their day’s news at each other flapping heavily across the sky, returning to their roosts after a hard day of hadeda-ing about.

The sky turned deep blue (that shade so startling that it squeezes my heart tight each time I see it), the full moon rose above the thorn tree in front and the Evening Star showed herself. The insects whirred and cackled, hissed and giggled, as I made my wish on that first star I saw. The same wish I’ve been making since March, each time I see the first star light up in the night sky. A plea to the universe.

And then the crickets start up, ‘n groot geraas, and the frogs begin their croaking chorus, as the full fat moon climbs higher in the darkening sky. A slight movement on the sidelines as more buck pass by, a buffalo, so quietly they could be tip-toeing. Maybe they are. They’re quiet, for sure, those creatures (and, probably, hopefully, a leopard or two, silently hidden in a tree nearby, watching me not seeing them), but the African night itself is the most silent, soothing, cacophony one could wish for.

Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. Wish I may, wish I might, wish upon this star tonight.

Non-Remembering in Cradock

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It’s not surprising that I can’t remember, it’ll be twenty years, in December, since the accident. Twenty years. It’s hard to believe, but there it is.

I had been back once since that fateful day, a couple of years back. That time, I made myself go along the road, to where I estimated that it had happened. The sky was just as vast, just as blue, just as beautiful. The road, still beautiful too, stretched ahead as we drove with Florence & The Machine blaring through The Silver Unicorn’s speakers, making conversation impossible. I had no words.

I’m not sure what made me go back, it just seemed important. Perhaps I’ve watched too many Hollywood movies. Mainly, I think I wanted to prove that I could still go down that road, that even though it broke me, it hadn’t scared me away.

This visit was just to Cradock, not via that road. It was part of the work road trip and I’d included it on purpose. They were lovely to me there, at that little hospital, on that bright, hot December day in 1996 when I was brought in by ambulance.

‘I’ve been in an accident,’ I remember saying to my Mom on the phone in Casualty. ‘But I’m okay.’

The doctor took the phone from me ‘You need to come. We’re transferring her to PE.’

That conversation? That phone call? That, too, I’m not sure if I remember it right, or if it’s just my love of a good story. It’s too long ago, the details blur.

Back to this visit. We drove into Cradock and stopped, as always, in awe of the hugeness of the big church, it’s spire piercing the blue Karoo sky as the sun turned the surrounding hills pink.

Driving up the hill looking for our accommodation for the night, I burst into tears, snot streaming, huge fat teardrops rolling down my cheeks.

GM was horrified. ‘Let’s drive on. We don’t have to stay here. It’s too much.’ She stopped the car on the side of the road, exactly opposite the place that had elicited my outburst.

‘I can’t remember,’ I snuffled.

‘What can’t you remember?’

‘I can’t remember if I went to the loo there.’ Sob, sniffle.

We were parked opposite the garage where we’d stopped to fill the car with petrol, to stretch our legs, that morning, almost twenty years ago. It was the last place I walked: the forecourt of a generic South African petrol station in a small Karoo town. And I couldn’t remember what I’d done with those few, precious, last steps. And that broke my heart.

I looked back up at the garage and the wide road leading down to the bottom of town, to the surrounding pink hills and felt myself calm and laugh.

I had just had a good, hard cry because I couldn’t remember if I’d gone to a grimy garage bathroom? Yip, that’d be about right.

And off we went, down to the peaceful old Anglican churchyard to look for Great, Great Grandpa Gilfillan’s grave, the church cat eyeing us suspiciously, and then on to the welcoming Tuishuisies and the old Victoria Hotel, filled with ghosts and stories, and I was okay.

I am okay.

The Emerald Green of Hogsback

image.jpegThere is something delicious about visiting a place you visited as a youth. This makes me sound old. I guess I am old. I’m certainly older than I was when I last visited.

Hogsback in the early- to mid-90’s seemed so far from our small university town, a magical faraway land atop a hill shrouded in fog. The first time I went, I went with my boyfriend and his family (all of whom I still adore). We stayed in a lovely lodge and the mist swirled and the fire roared in the hearth and we were young and in love.

The second time, I went with the same boyfriend, also in the early-mid-90’s. We drove in my 1975 deep green Ford Escort (as old as me) and camped in the campsite. The emerald green car became almost completely camouflaged in the delicious-smelling forest. We were the only people there and we walked and walked and swam in icy rivers and frolicked next to waterfalls, then huddled next to the fire and then in our tent as the rain came down and whipped around us, dripping on our heads and forcing us to sleep in the car. The next day we fought, and left in a huff, a day early. Only on getting home and eating did we realise it was just because we were hungry. I’ve never been good at being hungry. He neither.

The third time was for a friend’s 21st, still in those heady ‘varsity days. A bunch of us in a house on the forest’s edge, beset by fairies. Wandering the paths through magical woodlands, filled with the freedom of being young.

Twenty year’s later (how did that happen?), I returned, older, wiser (but that’s arguable) and able to buy food to ensure I didn’t get hungry and mean.

And it’s still as emerald and magic and filled with esoteric beings as it was (and a good few more restaurants/pubs and a chocolate shop!). Reading the community notices wall, we were blessed with gratitude and authenticity and plenty of potential tarot readings, including one promising that she worked ‘with fairies for wisdom, insight and joy’.

The spectacular road in and the view from the edge of the cliffs was all I needed to grow my wisdom, and bless me with insight and joy. No tarot, eco-shrine or yogi-humming necessary. It’s breath-takingly beautiful, and made me think of this:

Road Tripping: Free State

IMG_9521As I frantically and frenetically prepare for the second installment of the Road Trip, I have been forced to take a break. My laptop stubbornly put its little laptop foot down and refused to start up (eek!), so has been sent off to the geek to be put right. I’m quite glad, really, as it’s making me write the blog I’ve been meaning to write for the last six weeks, about the first road trip.

I was born in the Free State, with its big skies (this trip filled with looming thunderclouds, the dusty smell of African rain hanging heavily in the air), vast mielie fields, piglets on the pavements of small towns, prolific cosmos-lined lonely roads through golden fields of sunflowers and friendly people. It has the feeling of home for me.

At the Herberg Hotel in Oranjeville, we were the only guests on an out-of-season Sunday night. Both weekend visitors and staff had left, leaving just us on the huge grounds. We bought bread, cheese and avo from the only open shop in the one-tar-road town, which we ate on the river bank as the sun set, using a teaspoon as a knife. The hotel proprietor kindly gave us two beers before disappearing home. The sun showed off, brilliant orange fading to pink as she sank into the Wilge River, the sky turning from that deep blue that makes my heart squelch, to inky black.

Walking back up to the (70’s-style) hotel buildings, I turned back and looked over the rolling lawn to the river. It was like a scene from the Great Gatsby with boats heading to silent Sunday parties, their green and red lights leaving emeralds and rubies in their wake, to sink to the bottom of the Wilge River.

In the Free State, the water tastes like the earth smells when it finally rains on a dust road on a sweltering summer day.

In Petrus Steyn, in a thick stone-walled guesthouse stuffed to the gills with family heirlooms, we were reminded that there’s a lot to be said for air and open windows, that old men tell good stories, that wonderful Gogos who cook regte egte boerekos are bringing up delightful grandaughters, and that no matter how you arrange porcelain dolls, they’re always like something out of a horror movie. And they watch you.

Through dusty towns that felt like the 80’s, we saw empty and abandoned public swimming pools, townships bustling with markets and gospel spreaders, an incredible number of golf ball post boxes. We marvelled at spotted pigs sunning themselves in driveways, watched a little boy at Soetwater Clinic delightedly swoosh the fat drops of rain clinging to the bottom of a pole, saw graceful Basotho women wrapped in blankets as the winter chill cut into the wind.

And then suddenly we were in the town of my birth and first ten years on this earth and it was raining and then it wasn’t anymore and it was familiar and unfamiliar all at once and everything was smaller than it had been in my head and we found the house I grew up in (or where it used to be) and my nursery school and the school my sister and I went to. I wrote about that before.

At the busy public clinics we stopped at, I checked myself, and was reminded at each one, of the enormous gap that still exists in this country. The number of times I have heard people complain at the private hospitals in Cape Town (and I have, too) about the lack of parking in the shiny, tarred parking lot, faces grim. Parking. Here, the rutted dust roads outside clinics are clear. Here, people walk, some of them kilometres, to spend the day in a queue, to get primary health care. Here, the health care workers work themselves to the bone, often with little support. Here, some of the clinics have no phones, intermittent power and water. And at not one of them were we not welcomed with a smile (and plenty of curiosity from the littlies with their moms and grannies).

What a privilege, to travel this country’s back roads, to meet its people. The Eastern Cape awaits next week. I hope to write more.

#Chapter212

My first boyfriend in my first year at university pinned me down on his bed in his res room. He was smaller than me, I was a lithe, fit, almost-6-foot, 17-year old who thought she was invincible. In that moment, I realised that I wasn’t. I freaked out completely, he was horrified and let me go, apologising and comforting me. He was a nice guy. I was lucky. So, so many women weren’t so lucky, and still aren’t.

Some months later, it was a typical Friday night in Grahamstown in the early 90’s: meet up with friends at The Union, have a couple of drinks, amble down to The Vic for a bit of a dance. Except that that night stands out for me, because that night, as we stood in the queue at The Vic to pay our R5 entrance fee, I saw the burly bouncer aggressively pin a petite young girl in front of me against the wall, his hand around her neck. She had tried to dodge the admission fee.

I saw red at this show of violent, unnecessary bullying (not for the first, or last, time in my life) and promptly pushed forward, pushing said bouncer who, despite my being 6-foot, was much bigger than me, and bloody scary, and shouted at him to let her go. Luckily for me, my childhood friend, Hector, had just walked in behind me and got between me and the bully and told the bouncer in no uncertain terms that what he was doing was utterly despicable and completely unacceptable. Had he not have been there, I’d probably have been involved in a brawl, a one-sided one that I would’ve lost. And therin lies the rub. Had it not been for my male friend, coming to ‘save’ me, I’d have been in some serious danger. I am grateful for his being there, but I am still angry that he needed to be.

These were not isolated events, this was everyday, and my two (true) examples are tame compared to so many that were happening then and have happened since then, and continue happening. But it’s ALL of them that need to be stopped: from the lecturer ‘harmlessly’ looking down your top as he shows you how to focus the microscope, to the brute who takes you back to his room and rapes you. NONE of it is okay.

It’s been brushed over, ignored, placated, not believed. Women keep getting told ‘not to invite it’, ‘not to walk in the dark’, ‘not to wear short skirts’, or, or… STOP. It’s not okay to rape. Bottom line. Turn your eyes and anger to the rapists, turn your hearts to those raped.

That is why I am so proud of the brave young students of my Alma Mater, who are now standing up, saying no, demanding that attention is paid, support systems are established – proper support systems. They have been lacking in our universities forever, and it’s not okay. Rape culture is not okay. Not. Okay.

Rhodes #Chapter212, we’re standing behind you, every single step of the way.

They Paved Paradise And Put Up A Parking Lot

 

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On Saturday (or was it Sunday?) afternoons in 1980’s Welkom, the thing to do was drive around The Horseshoe (a horseshoe-shaped park) in the middle of town, with a (horseshoe-shaped) road around it, along which all the shops stood. We used to join the fun, most often parking and going for a walk through the gardens. I remember them as being green and lush. Sometimes we’d be treated to an ice cream from the corner cafe or, treat-of-all-treats, a Coke Float at the Wimpy.

Last week, over thirty years later, I went back, and drove around The Horseshoe. Like a set from an apocalyptic film with a moral about the ills of capitalism, half the park has been guzzled by a shopping mall, now abandoned by the looks of it. The other half is dry and desolate. The furniture stores, the clothes shops, the Wimpy (gasp!) are gone, leaving empty shells and broken windows plastered  with adverts for back-street abortionists.

I was ten when we moved from Welkom, having lived my entire life there. In other words, I was old enough to have stored up a bundle of incredibly happy childhood memories, of friends and family, lazy days and a school I loved, weekends of swimming and playing and exploring and imagining and growing and becoming. When we left (which broke my little 10-year old heart), I was young enough not to have developed any teen-hormone-filled angst and misery aimed at everything and anyone, or to have seen the dirt under the town’s carpet. Every town has it, I was too young (and happily protected), yet, to know of it. Keep that in mind as I tell this little tale.

On the second of February in 1975, at 1 PM, on the day I was due (I’m still very punctual), I arrived. My father ate the hospital lunch that had been brought to my mother (before I spoilt her lunch plans) as she was wheeled into theatre for me to make my entrance into this wild world we live in. That was 41 years ago, way before fathers (and now photographers, instagrammers and the rest of the social media personnel) were allowed into the delivery room.

We went there, to the hospital, last week. I wanted to see the very place on earth where I entered this world. Past the murderous malls that have killed the little shops around The Horseshoe and to the imposing and now also abandoned and decrepit building we drove. To its entrance, where the door hung sadly, glass smashed, no longer welcoming the sick to be healed or delivering the new to the world. Torn blinds still flap through broken sixth floor windows, ghosts waving plastic white flags of defeat.

And then back to my childhood home, in Stateway, past yet another mall, one with a casino in it. It’s a business now, our house. The beautiful big garden with its huge trees – the two that held our hammock in their arms, the huge syringa with our tree house, built by my Dad, in it, the one with the foofy slide; my Mum’s prolific vegetable garden with its feast of Jerusalem artichokes, golden treasures dug from fertile ground; the lawn on which we ran and ran and played Musical Statues at our birthday parties, sugar-highed on my Mother’s homemade birthday cake, always a surprise shape, always exactly what our little hearts had desired; the perfect-for-hide-and-seek coal shed; the metal bar in the backyard (what even was that?) that we made ourselves dizzy on, doing rolly-pollies; the tree I climbed to say hello to the back neighbours after I’d had my mole cut out of my back resulting in ripped out stitches and some admonishing; the back courtyard with our Portapool in which we’d skinny dip on hot Free State nights, our nighties crumpled next to it… It’s all gone, replaced by a brick parking lot. An empty brick parking lot, for an accounting firm.

It looks like my bedroom, where the flower children curtains hung and my Mother made up stories of magical lands that those flower children visited for my sister and I, is now the reception room. The spirit of Zinia, Rose, Marigold, Peter and John and the flowers on their heads still hangs in the air, I’m sure (I hope), spreading some magic about and lighting up what I’d imagine to be a rather boring place.

The air of Welkom feels decrepit and desolate, as if beneath the old tarred roads the very earth is decomposing. But this is not aromatic, forest-type decomposition. This is foul, chemical degradation from the very mines that produced that fertile opulence of my idyllic (and privileged) childhood. The mines are closing, the town is dying, under the watchful flickering neon eyes of Adult World on The Horseshoe.

This may be an unfair reflection on Welkom, but it’s mine, from a ‘then and now’ perspective which, often, is exactly that – unfair and unwarranted. The people we met were still the lovely, friendly, Free State people I remembered, my nursery school still looked cheerful and bright (if security-gated and barred), as I remember it, and the tree-lined streets still scatter dappled shade. There just seems to be a thickness to the air, and a distinct lack of kids riding their bikes through that dappled shade.

And that, dear friends, is why sometimes it’s better to leave your childhood memories just as they are, with birds singing in the syringa tree and Bessie the dog barking as you make whirlpools in the pool with your big sister.