Monday, 30 April 2012

Comments on Facebook and via e-mail

'Have just started "Ride the Wings of Morning" & really enjoying it!' Penelope Bossom

'I was reading the first chapters of the Kindle to my daughter last night before she went to bed. She laughed so much, and loved the pictures in colour. Hopefully it'll encourage her to continue reading in the paperback.' Lisa Scullard
' It's lovely, so tempting to put all else aside and get lost in your descriptions. It must have been such a joy to put the book together. Such rich memories, and I love your way of seeing things and the words you use. You are a truly gifted writer and illustrator and I rejoice with you. I think my girls will get more out of this one, especially since it's letters between sisters.' Wendy Chandler, South Africa


I LOVED this book! Even more than 'Funnily Enough', which I also loved! Your family is a hoot, and your letters tell so much about your life. What fun that you found a place that allows to be well, and that you have met such wonderful people in the process :-)  ... Thank-you, Sophie & Amazon! I am so excited to have another of your books on my Kindle.  :-)" Elizabeth Rondthaler Jolley, USA


'...extraordinary, unique, inspiring, real -  I don't know how else to describe what I have just read' Annie Ogilvy, South Africa
'I couldn't resist looking at Wings of Morning this afternoon.  I love the way you write to your sisters and the close and easy style you all use with one another.   It's all very readable, funny and sweet.' Lucy Woodd, Scotland
'What a beautiful title.' Chronic Fatigue Support

'Love Sophie's book...' Jane van der Westhuizen, Perth, Australia
'Have enjoyed both books and look forward to more... keep writing.'  Jane Edgar
 "I had a hard time setting your book down--such a good read! And I was really disappointed when it ended :-)"

'I'm also enjoying "Wings" - too much - I'm failing to get my next OU essay done ...' Paul Fernandez  '...lovely book. My wife is making her way through "Funnily Enough" at the moment and I've little doubt will move on to "Wings". We also have some ex-pat readerly South Africans in the church, to whom I've recommended the books ....'
'....your book works so well at the moment because the format you've chosen simply takes life as it comes.' Paul Fernandez, again

'Will try Amazon. I must have this book!!' Topsy Eschenburg

 'By hook or by crook we will find a copy.'  Douglas A Groves

In the African tradition, Jenny Nash has written about Ride the Wings of Morning in her Blog ~ Shamwari Chaidzo

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Book Reviews ~

I would highly recommend this book to anyone. Its enlightening, funny and addictive reading. After reading Funnily Enough it was nice to see what the author did next. Brilliant read!!!  Sara Maughan ~ Hampshire, UK

Just a pleasure to read  
Thank you Sophie for sharing your delightful letters and wonderful insights into South Africa. I loved the pictures, although they were a bit hard to see on my tiny kindle screen. I think you have a beautiful family, funny, smart, compassionate and loving. Your horses are marvelous and your style of writing is gripping. I couldn't put my kindle down! ~  Vivienne

African Odessy 
We're really enjoying this. Since just before the Book Fair I've been reading this aloud to my daughter on my Android colour Kindle app. She is schooled at home, and wildlife facts and anecdotes are some of her favourite things. It also contains the political history recorded as it happened, from possibly the time of the greatest late 20th Century upheavals occurring in Southern Africa.

The colour illustrations are great - if you only have a b/w Kindle, download the Kindle app for your PC as well, and you can retrieve the book from your archived items to see them in colour.

We love the humour, it follows on really well from the first memoir 'Funnily Enough' - comments about 'alien invader species' and what it's like trying to sleep outdoors on a groundsheet next to a flatulent horse meant I had to keep stopping reading while my daughter rolled around laughing and making sound effects. Great stuff :)

As this one is written in the form of letters, not a diary as the first book is, and is in the genre of Travel this time rather than Christian reading, the subject of God retires gently to arm's length here, but what you do get is more of the wonderful endearing sibling exchanges and comedy pratfalls being recounted back and forth between Sophie and her friends and family in the UK. Sophie even has a visit from a BBC wildlife crew she has arranged to help find rhino, who are annoyingly elusive that day, and is harangued on the phone by a young TV executive who wants 'wild leopards, at dawn, in a tree, eating antelope'. Worth every pixel ~ Lisa Scullard, UK 
An extraordinary, funny, enchanting, book that will surprise the reader - a delicious soufflé of reading pleasure.

Sophie writes of her adventures in Africa. After a busy life in television, and recovering from debilitating illness in England, she determines on a radical change and moves from a chilly, damp British winter to the blistering heat of Southern Africa. And there she can no longer be an invalid. She plunges into the hectic life of horseback safari camps, driving trucks through rivers and desert, cooking, handling horses, killing snakes, organising the tourists and supervising the always characterful local labour. With her we meet fascinating, heart-breaking, funny, and sometimes infuriating characters. And the animals: thrilling, or entertaining encounters with elephants, aardvarks, crocodiles, antelopes, lions, leopards, hyenas, hippopotamus and rhinoceros, and a panoply of other exciting wildlife.

But the core of this wonderfully entertaining book is Sophie's correspondence with her wonderful family; Granny, Mummy and Dad, her three sisters and a bevy of children, friends, and other relations who create a web of hilarious anecdotes. Anecdotes and other adventures in love, life, dogs, cats, rabbits, donkeys, otters, and babies.

Sophie is as delicious an artist as she is a writer. The book is packed with wonderful sketches and watercolours that make these stories spring to life. A minor criticism would be that the exigencies of Kindle eBook publishing results in all the illustrations being very small. Happily I soon discovered that a little finger work can zoom to larger images, and every single one is worth expanding.

Such a light-hearted story is also pervaded by a keen awareness of reality. The struggles of a African post-Apartheid society, the deadly spread of Aids, the chaos after civil war, the problems of life for a British army wife . . . and just bringing up all those kids. These stories contain all the contradictions of life itself, but are told with such heart-warming honesty, humour and humanity.

I must admit to a personal interest in Sophie. In 1973 I produced the feature film of Arthur Ransome's SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS. One of my childhood stars was a delightful twelve-year-old Sophie. This book suggests that she grew up to be a most special woman.

A delightful book. Strongly recommended to bring a real ray of sunshine into your life. ~ Richard Pilbrow ~ Connecticut

Sunday, 15 April 2012

'Ride the Wings of Morning' ~ on Kindle and in print

Out now on Amazon Kindle worldwide:

Please click here for Kindle Amazon UK
Please click here for Kindle Amazon USA and S.Africa
For the paperback click here - Ride the Wings of Morning on
For the hardback click here - Ride the Wings of Morning hardback on


Ride the Wings of Morning’ reached #2 in the UK Kindle store for Bestsellers in African Travel, ahead of all the Lonely Planet Guides, Bill Bryson and Tim Butcher's 'Chasing the Devil'

‘Ride the Wings of Morning’
on its first day in the London Book Fair free promotion
#1 in the free Kindle Store under the category of  Non-Fiction/Travel/Africa in the USA and UK
#1 in the free USA Kindle store for Biographies/Memoirs Adventurers and Explorers
and #2 in the free UK Kindle store under Non-Fiction Biographies & Memoirs

I hope you enjoy the books ~ please let me know what you think.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Book Trailer with illustrations

An extract ~ Chapter Three

Dear Soph,
Here are medical insurance papers you asked for. I hope you don’t need to make a claim.
All is well except that Bellevue has been on the market for two weeks and we’ve only had one couple round.
They called everything ‘quaint’ or ‘feature’ and loved the crass name. (So much for Raddy telling me to change it to get a better sale). They were worried about the noise from the sawmill at the end of the garden. I said it was infrequent and didn’t bother me. (This is a lie). They’re coming back for a second gawp tomorrow, when no doubt the circular saw will be going all the time.
We went to see Perry and Robert’s new house. It’s odd; open-plan with the most enormous sitting room. You could stand fifty people in it. Or park up two tanks. Atalanta zooms around in her Noddy car. Oh, how I long for such space.
I spoke to Mum last night. With more violence being reported from South Africa, she is anxious about you and needs a letter. She had an interview for a job as a dinner-lady yesterday, so is excited but isn’t happy about Granny, who after another bout of ’flu is threatening to go into a nursing home again.
Raddy is rather upset. She made friends with a man she thought would like to rent Mum’s cottage, only to discover he is a sitting-tenant with a strange past. Last week he was walking down the track that runs above her farm and started chatting to her while she was feeding the chickens. This wouldn’t normally be alarming, but he was wearing surgical rubber gloves.
Her husband is away for a week so she has set up booby traps in case the creepy man comes back.
I shall keep you in touch with house developments.
Lots of love,
Tamzin, Johnty, Maude, Bod and Thelma xxx

PS: Johnty only noticed the organic under-blanket, the sheepskin you gave me, last week when I stripped the bed. I’ve been sleeping on it for over a month. He wanted to know what ‘all that revolting white hair’ was.

Equus Horse Safaris
PO Box, Marken
Northern Transvaal
South Africa
Dear Tamzin,
I’m rather wishing that I brought out the dead sheep Johnty is complaining about, so that I have something to lie on in the bush. I did have a blow-up Thermarest mat but lent it to Sarah-Jane who rolled it out onto paperbark thorns. It will never inflate again. The suede chaps that you persuaded me to buy in Farnham are a great success. I just zip them on over my shorts and ride, without having to squeeze into jodhpurs. As I don’t think I’ve owned a pair since I was fifteen, this is just as well. The chaps stop me getting scratched by acacia bushes and are useful for cooking in. I’m meant to be the chef, which entails trying to do complicated things like roast a whole chicken on the campfire. I struggled with this, getting hot legs, but have found the answer:
You say, brightly, ‘We’re having fillet tonight.’
It’s not expensive here, and, it’s a man’s job, as Perry would say, to cook the meat.
A South African braai is completely different to one of our barbeques. A huge emphasis is made on collecting dry wood, preferably stuff baked so hard by the sun even the termites have rejected it. A fire is lit but nothing happens for a while except that numerous cans of beer are opened. Then the man in charge takes a graaf, which is a spade, and drags out the coals, lifting them onto a higher level area where he cooks, while everyone else can still sit round the fire. I just have to make a few salads. And lay the table, search frantically for the horseradish sauce, take round snacks, do something about potatoes, and make a pudding. The same sort of thing applies to starting diesel pumps. Our water has to be pumped two kilometres, which entails starting a massive engine. I just stand looking at it. I thought I was a practical person, but this thing’s bigger than me and only starts if you can turn the flywheel. You need to weigh more than 80kgs to do this. I only weigh 47kgs.

We had the strangest guests this weekend. A gruff looking man arrived with his little daughter who was keen on riding. I put her on Guido as he trots all the time. Well, it turned out that the man, despite being small and quite weedy looking, was a Colonel in the Special Forces, the Koevoets, which, I gather, means ‘crowbars’ and is the South African equivalent of the SAS. He told Andrew, who was recently an army conscript, all about his time fighting on the Angolan border. He was there seventeen years. One job was to spring ambushes. To make a lasting impression on the enemy his men would chop off their ears. He said he had quite a collection. And there was his little daughter, trotting along happily on her one-eared pony.
I took out an evening ride with two sweet old ladies, ‘here on a jaunt’ and a rather good-looking Swiss chap who had never been to Africa before.
I packed drinks in our saddlebags, and thought we would sit watching the sunset before riding back in the moonlight, which is an amazing experience. You can see quite clearly; the moon is so bright it casts shadows.
Only I miscalculated things. The sun went down and then it was dark. Pitch black. There was no moon at all. I had to lead them back, through the rocks, along a streambed, winding through towering reeds and thick vegetation, across a dam wall and over open country for a good hour in starlight. It’s not like going through the woods in England either. The clients said all they could see was the white top to the tail of the piebald horse I was riding, so they followed that and were amazingly cheerful, considering it was rather dangerous. I learnt how well horses can see in the dark and how forgiving people can be. Sarah-Jane was good about it and the old ladies assured me that the reason they had come was for adventure. As we reached home a huge moon rose over the flat-topped trees. We could see quite clearly when we got off the horses.

We’re so busy that my attempts to learn an African language have gone right out of the window.
As Sarah-Jane has never attempted to speak anything but rather precarious Spanish, she’s ‘Looking for local staff who can speak English.’
Somewhere, whose real name turns out to be Samuel, rather alarmed her by asking for ‘flesh’ at 6 o’clock in the morning. He meant meat. Nelly who works in the kitchen said,
‘This English makes me tired. Why can’t everyone speak Northern Sotho?’
‘Well, Nelly, Northern Sotho isn’t an international language.’
Although English does appear to be becoming the language of this world but I’m assured that when we get to heaven it’ll be Afrikaans. Better try to extend my vocabulary.
Nelly is horrified that I don’t have a boyfriend, ‘The blood,’ she said, ominously. ‘It will go to your head.’
Andrew explained that African girls are told you will die if you don’t get enough sex but it’s more likely they’ll die if they do. AIDS is hovering over the people here. A nurse from the government clinic, who drives around the farms providing contraceptives, told me that anyone with a sexually transmitted disease (and these are rife) is probably HIV+. She said that South Africa has been largely protected by the trade embargo. Because AIDS is mainly spread from place to place by lorry drivers who use prostitutes, the fact that trucks couldn’t cross the border curtailed the spread. Until now.
There has been a National referendum. Being English Sarah-Jane couldn’t vote but she made Andrew go.
‘Why doesn’t he take Nelly?’
‘Sophie,’ she said looking at me as if I was mentally disturbed, ‘Nelly doesn’t have a vote; that’s the whole point.’
Apparently the Prime Minister, FW de Klerk, has asked all those who are enfranchised, ie: the white people, if they support him in pursuing a new constitution, ie: whether forthcoming elections should be multi-racial. And this is 1992. I suppose it marks the end of apartheid but all round Marken there were posters saying NO. Andrew thought this quite funny. But while most of the rest of South Africa voted YES, the people round here did, indeed, vote NO.
You will be so impressed; I’ve learnt how to cure acne. We have a shrub with huge pods called the Sumac bean, which does the job. I always wanted to make a television programme on acne. Seriously; some people get so depressed about having bad skin that they resort to suicide. My proposal was entitled; ‘Spots’ with that song Spotty Muldoon played over an opening sequence composed of famous acne-fied people. I didn’t know any offhand, but thought I could ask the film library to look for shots of spotty world leaders.
Here’s a porcupine quill I found for you. Don’t touch the tip, it’s poisonous.
Lots of love,

15th April 1992
Dear Sophie,
Thank you for your letter. I was fascinated by the ear collection. What kind of ears? Does he still have them?
We went home the other day to celebrate Mum and Dad’s wedding anniversary; 35 years. I gave Mary-Dieu your address but she says she never writes and isn’t going to start now. She was there with Daisy, who is two now and chatting away quite confidently.
I was listening to one of the neighbours telling me how much money her husband earns, thinking, ‘I don’t believe I’m hearing this,’ when Mum announced to one and all that she can, henceforth, be seen as a large, smiley dinner-lady in a pink nylon overall, pushing around fifty trolleys of dirty dishes.
‘Oh, no, Mum. Where?’
‘Through the streets of Birmingh-gam,’ she said, putting on a funny accent and taking another drink. ‘It’s for a Fairy Liquid ad-vertize-ment; I’m going to be gracing the bill boards.’
How can she do this to us? It happens time and again. The embarrassment.
I told Dad about the ears. He said that during the Second World War the Ghurkhas collected German ears. They were paid half-a-crown for each one. He read your letter and said that Spotty Muldoon died in the end but met lots of acned angels in heaven and was very happy.
I actually entered at The County Show last week. I put Bod in for the ‘Handy Hunter Class’, which means the judge has to ride your horse. She wouldn’t ride mine. No sense of adventure.
It wasn’t too disgraceful except that my number came loose and was flapping around. There was a shout from the crowd.
‘Don’t worry,’ called a voice, as a rather dishevelled woman ran towards me. ‘Your Mummy’s here.’
And Mum ran into the arena with her arms outstretched, about to make the necessary adjustments. I didn’t even know she was at the show.
We came second to last.
I had Atalanta to stay for a week. She was great and only cried once when she fell out of the wheelbarrow. Her favourite thing is to sneak up to you looking totally expressionless and then raise her eyebrows up and down.
Raddy and her husband have been skiing, leaving me with all their animals – my penance as Raddy kindly lets me stable my enormous horse on her farm. Before they left, Raddy made the most of April Fool’s Day, I can tell you. My April Fool was a dead rat hanging out of Bod’s feed bin.
However we had a shock far worse than that. Every time I went to make up Bod’s food I could smell something really foul. Raddy and I went to investigate. We moved a huge pile of wood to no avail. Just as we were about to give up, Raddy said that she was going to look in the old pram… Ha ha ha. She went white with shock. I went over to investigate. Inside was Henry, the ginger cat. He’d been decomposing for over three months. The smell was dreadful. We wheeled the pram backwards up into the wood. Raddy removed him with a spade, buried him and cried a lot. I said to Raddy that I would take the pram in the back of the Land Rover to the dump and burn it. She was livid and said she was going to sell it at the Quellington Car Boot Sale.
Not much acting work about. Richard Eyre, the director I once worked for in a BBC Play for the Day, asked me to be in Tumbledown, a drama series about the Falklands war.
When I turned up at Brize Norton, he took one look at me and said: ‘You’re not pregnant.’
They must have muddled me up with Perry, as I’d just been told to come dressed in my own clothes, as a soldier’s wife. I had to play the part with a quilted jacket stuffed up my front, which was a bit difficult. You try running across an airfield, bringing on the tears with a padded arm determined to fall down between your legs.
We’ve still had no luck with the house. Raddy will have to think of a better sales ploy than changing the name. We have to move for Bod’s sake. I need to find a place with a bit of land for him. And Maud. She started chasing cows yesterday, the naughty little dog, and got a wallop, but then I dropped a tin of cat food on her head and was instantly immersed in guilt. You must treasure bullterriers; they’re such angel creatures.
Write soon,
lots of love,
Tamzin and Johnty xxx

Equus Horse Safaris
PO Box
Northern Transvaal
South Africa
Dear Tamzin,
When I asked Andrew about the collection he said they were Cuban ears. Would you warrant it? Cubans were employed as mercenaries by the Angolans.
Sarah-Jane’s boyfriend, Billy, was in the South African Defence Force Mounted Division and used to patrol the Namibian border on horses. They would ride through the desert with Bushmen trackers; the idea being that the enemy could be approached silently. But what about land mines? Military service is compulsory for all South African men, well, all the white ones. There is no obligation if you are black.
We have a new guide called Andy, so now we have Andrew and Andy, both of whom are blonde and rather good looking. Andy has come from a smart game lodge in the Eastern Transvaal called Londolozi and is going to teach us all he knows. I can now identify an agama, a gymnogene and wild gladioli. The only thing he can’t do is ride.
‘But Andy, I thought all Army recruits have to learn how to vault onto a cantering horse and trot endlessly without stirrups,’ Sarah-Jane said in dismay.
‘Yes, M’am, but I served in the Air Force.’
We put him on an old grey mare called Smokey Joe, but she trod in an aardvark hole and he fell off onto his head. All the guests were looking.
We have an unpleasant group staying; nine men led by a pompous and autocratic nitwit wearing an eagle feather in his hat. He arrived early, ‘to inspect the horses’ and, without asking us, plonked an Austrian Army saddle on Jigsaw, Sarah-Jane’s frantic horse, who stood there snorting and twitching in revolt. It was far too big for him. The man had special, handmade canvas saddlebags for his video camera, which he slapped on behind the saddle. They had emblems on the sides; little shields which he’d drawn on, in felt-tip pen.
‘I intend to take video footage while we are riding along.’
‘That saddle slipped and Jigsaw bucked like a two-stroke,’ Andrew said later. ‘I found the video camera swinging from a branch.’
I wish Perry was here to organize the kitchen. I did manage to make marmalade from our own oranges. They are so bitter it tasted quite good but every single thing in the kitchen was sticky for the next week. It’s difficult cooking impressive food when you have a low budget, especially when the nearest supermarket is 100 kilometres away. Marken, where we post our letters, consists of a mortuary, a doctor’s surgery and a farmers’ co-op; the Ko-operaserie of the Northern Transvaal, where you can buy farm implements and diesel. There’s a sort of cafĂ© shop, but just stocks plastic bottles of Handy Andy. It must be the last outpost of apartheid; you find two different counters at the post office and separate examination rooms at the surgery. I haven’t asked what happens at the morgue. You certainly can’t find lettuce.
In each of the last three groups of riders at least one person has been a professional chef, and they can tell how hopeless I am. When I made macaroni cheese; everyone was late and it turned to concrete. I tried to roast potatoes in the traditional way, using an iron pot on the fire. They turned to mush. I should have pretended it was some new dish. Then I attempted to cook gemsquash, vegetables that look like dark green tennis balls, by putting them around the fire. I knew you had to bake them but didn’t realise they ought to be pierced first. They exploded in all directions.
I have to use tinned tomatoes. Oh, the shame. As I was walking down to the dining-tent with their breakfast, some English clients were talking about what good tinned food you can get and what amazing things they managed to find to take on their boat.
‘But it has to be said,’ the husband declared resolutely. ‘Tinned tomatoes are absolutely h o r r i b l e.’
At this point in time I placed before him a great, steaming bowl of the long red Italian type, pathetically sprinkled with dried herbs.
We go to a neighbouring farm, about fifteen kilometres away, for eggs. The farmer’s wife is a sweet lady called Meisie. Meisie means girl in Afrikaans. She always has bright make-up and wears delicate lacy dresses with her hair set immaculately in a doll-like way, but she is about seventy-five. She has an old-fashioned farm shop, which sells everything under the sun. A white bullterrier ominously guards her fruit trees. Meisie loves receiving customers and flutters from shelf to high shelf collecting all the things you need, writing a long itemised receipt in neat, loopy writing. All the food is terribly expensive and all the funny things she has had for years are ridiculously cheap. You can buy a reel of thread for about 2p, but as Sarah-Jane pointed out, it is so decrepit it would perish if you tried to use it.
Lots of love,

Friday, 6 April 2012

An extract ~ Chapter Two

BBC Television
Elstree Studios

27th February 1992

Dear Sophie,
Guess what I’m doing? Another couple of weeks’ filming, playing an expectant mother in frumpy clothes and greasy hair. Not glamorous. The BBC must have me down as a permanently pregnant actress. Only this time my bump is real and the ‘wrap’ is around 2.00am.
I’m sitting outside Make-up with a polystyrene cup of tea, waiting to be used. I must be mad to give up my comfortable suburban existence, but Robert is on leave from soldiering, so I might as well earn some pennies whilst I have a resident babysitter for Atalanta.
We are now well installed in Surrey. I was quite shell-shocked at first. The outside of our quarter is perfectly hideous, but inside is a great improvement on the last. It feels more like living in an ice-cream container than a tub of margarine. And it has a DISHWASHER, yes I’m becoming quite ordinary. Just to make you feel a million miles away I’ll tell you about my local supermarket. Sophie, it is horrific – it has sixty, yes, 60 checkout tills. It takes half a packet of biscuits to get Atalanta around without whingeing.
The real walks here are great though, straight from the back door into the ferny woods. Only problem is that Teddy and his pushchair usually have to come too, so my relaxing stroll is spent heaving him over tree stumps and dykes. The Army keep spraying vanilla smoke everywhere, which is a bit weird. It turns your nostrils black.
Mum and Dad dropped in; Mum had just finished a two-hour photo session in London, dressed as a policewoman in a size 12 mini-skirt and high, black, patent leather shoes.
One of the other policewomen said, ‘There’s a man over there peeing himself.’ (laughing)
It was Dad. He got glared at, which he said made him laugh even more. Mum said, indignantly, that she was doing it for an important German advertising company and was staggeringly well paid. She wasn’t clear about what product they were promoting. By the time she reached us she was not in a good mood, demanding a hot-water bottle and a pair of Robert’s socks.
‘Daddy,’ she said, tartly, ‘has done nothing all week except strip the old paint off his boat. I hope he’s not expecting me to go onboard.’
She hates getting cold feet.
Tamzin and Jonnie came to supper. They were very naughty about the people coming to see their cottage. Tamzin took a brief look round and declared that my house looks like a squash court; it’s quite true. Perhaps I should mark out the floor with red lines.
I need to get Atalanta a tricycle for her birthday – she wants a pink one, isn’t that typical? Tamzin said her friend Raddy has a little girl who wanted a pink one too. Raddy found an old bike on the dump and just painted it herself. The child caught her at it but seemed quite satisfied, despite the fact that it definitely looked a bit ropey.
Your car has been a real help. We even managed to get £7 a month off the insurance for keeping it out of London - Damnit, you could have claimed for all that time you were staying with Mum and Dad in Gloucestershire.
I’m visualising your very different existence now. I bet you won’t want to come back, but you will have to, to meet your new nephew/niece. I’m due in June, (if you can say that).
Lots of love,

Equus Horse Safaris
PO Box, Marken
Northern Transvaal
South Africa

Dear Perry,
I finally worked out how to light a gas fridge. You say to a man, ‘Maak ’n vuur onder die yskas,’ and do you know; it works. I’m not sure why. A direct translation would be, ‘Make a fire under the ice box.’ When I needed something done at the BBC, I used to say, ‘Would you mind…’ or ‘When you have time…’ or ‘Would you be very sweet and…’ It doesn’t work here. You have to say, ‘You must make this beautifully clean; now.’ Otherwise nothing gets achieved at all.
We have a great big Afrikaans builder called Johann, who just sits in his beaten up bakkie (or pick-up truck) swigging brandy, while he watches his labourers slowly clear the ground. We have clients arriving at the weekend and need the loos, or a ‘communal ablution block’, as he insists on calling the facility, finished and working. This, he fails to comprehend.
I said, ‘Johann, would you like to collect the cement sometime this afternoon?’
He looked at me, laughed and said ‘No.’
He was so frustrating that I ended up hitting him on the chest with my pen. Standing in the middle of the bush surrounded by lavatory bowls. Word has gone around that I clobbered him, which everyone seems to think very funny. I expect it’s because they all want to ‘bop him one’ too, as Mary-Dieu would say. Anyway, you can just imagine me striding round saying, ‘Do this, do that,’ sounding more like an archetypal film director than I ever was when I was one.
There’s still terrible, green algae coming out of the taps. We don’t have a dishwasher, or a washing machine, but Sarah-Jane has found a redoubtable maid called Nelly. I asked her to teach me to speak Northern Sotho but she insisted we should concentrate on Afrikaans, saying I will suffer at the Co-op otherwise.
Afrikaans seems a very odd language. A hose is a ‘tuin slang’, which means ‘garden snake’. You don’t put water into a kettle, you fling it in ~ very descriptive. And then you have a ‘koppie koffie’ as there are no Cs. While a kop is a cup, a kop is also a head, and I’m sure I asked Johann if he was a coffee head, instead of asking if he wanted a cup of coffee. Whatever I said, Andrew, who is bilingual, walked out of the room making grunty noises. I think he was laughing. Johann must just think I’m mad. I have to say he proceeded to add six teaspoons of sugar to his coffee.
Learning Northern Sotho is worse. The word for a child is the same as for a man, only with a different intonation. In my great effort to make conversation I asked Nelly’s friend how many children she had, only it came out as ‘how many men do you have?’ It might have meant ‘how many men have you had?’ Either way, she didn’t take it well. I looked on, speechless with horror, as she put eight spoons of sugar into her baby’s bottle.
At this stage, while Nelly was busy with the laundry in an outside wash-sink Johann breezed past referring to her as a ‘Black-a-matic’.
I was so outraged I could neither speak nor hit out before he swung into his bakkie and disappeared in a cloud of dust. Sarah-Jane assured me that he was just doing it to get a rise. Although I fell for it hook, line and sinker, Nelly was completely unperturbed.
The clients seem devoid of obtuse attitudes and all seem to speak English fluently, thank Goodness. I can readily identify with them. Taut executives arrive all hot and prickly, but once you get them onto a horse and into the bush they begin to relax and laugh a bit, discarding all their tension and tight clothes.
‘This is the first time,’ one man told me as we were watering the horses, ‘that I’ve been to a place where you don’t hear manmade sounds.’
It’s true. You look out over miles of untouched bushveld without seeing a single light. Sarah-Jane and I sit round the fire watching our visitors become real people again. You would so admire my hostess skills; I get them to lie on their backs and look at the stars through binoculars, pointing out constellations of the southern hemisphere like Orion and the Southern Cross. My knowledge of astronomy is not particularly wonderful but I feel that by chatting about Taurus and Betelgeuse I’m justifying my existence as a safari guide, while Nelly crashes around with the washing up. Does this qualify as ‘Imperialist guilt’?
How do you cope with putting on endless Army dinner parties? I suppose electrical gadgets do help. I have to cook on an open fire here. Rebecca even makes pudding on the fire. When it was my turn everyone got handed a baked banana with chocolate in the middle. Thankfully they couldn’t see very well by paraffin lamp.
The bush is beautiful. You ride across wide, open plains with warthog running around; past hartebeest standing on anthills, and then drop down into gorges where great red blocks of sandstone rise from secret pools of water. There’s always a lot of barking as you approach because baboons like roosting on the cliffs at night. They have sentries who sit high up in the gnarled fig trees that grow straight out of the rocks, rocks worn smooth by the feet of their ancestors over thousands of years. We, who invade their territory so haughtily, take drinks and sit watching them as the sun goes down.
Funny isn’t it? I thought losing my job in London was such a disaster but if I hadn’t fallen ill and been forced to give up my career I wouldn’t be here, drinking all this in. I’m learning so much. Andrew has been teaching me about the indigenous trees. I can now tell you about Diplorhynchus condylocarpon, the wild rubber. It has pods, which are full of what looks exactly like Copydex and can pretty well stick your fingers together. This is not something you want to do when you’re sitting on a difficult horse. Actually none of the horses are difficult except for Sarah-Jane’s own pony Jigsaw, who is a black and white demon.
‘He’s just sensitive and highly-strung,’ she’s telling me.
He is not too bad with girls, but hates men, especially men wearing hats, probably because he was once badly treated. I suppose human personalities get damaged in the same way. But the other problem with Jigsaw is that he wasn’t castrated until he was about seven and still behaves like a stallion. He even managed to father a foal after he was cut. She is called Puzzle, and is a funny little grey and white thing.
Jigsaw is fine once you manage to get on top of him; responsive with a good sense of direction. This is a great relief when you’re leading the ride, as he thinks nothing of plunging into unknown territory. We are exploring the whole time so you need a horse that will cross marshy ground or take you up rocky zebra paths into the hills without getting lost. He snorts when we come across wildebeest. They snort back or sneeze at you. We had giraffe at the camp today, which was exciting. They must think we are most peculiar. I suppose we are.
Sarah-Jane’s partner Wendy, who looks after the marketing and accounts, drove up from the office in Johannesburg for the weekend with her boyfriend Donald. Donald is tall with bright red hair and freckles. He adores animals and thought Rebecca’s baby rat was sweet. I don’t.
‘It can’t stay,’ Sarah-Jane said, ‘You’ll have to take it ballooning with you.’

Donald is good at fixing things. Rebecca said,
‘Donald, there’s something wrong with the electricity in this kitchen.’ There was too. He found two dead rats in the fuse box. They had been electrocuted.
‘ROUSES!’ said Sarah-Jane at the top of her voice. Her bullterrier, Tigger, who normally spends the whole day asleep on the sofa, sped into the kitchen and started looking about frantically. Donald moved the fridge. There was a streak and another rodent, the size of a cat I might say, was exterminated.
‘They have to go,’ said Donald, the animal lover, ‘Or you will attract snakes.’
‘Not snakes,’ (me).
‘Right,’ said Donald. ‘The feed shed.’
And went striding over to the place where the horse food is kept. A primeval instinct to hunt rose within me as I started moving tools and Donald heaved sacks around, urging Tigger on. It was all dust and mayhem. After a completely hectic fifteen minutes we managed to find one small mouse. It was dispatched very quickly.
I don’t know why everyone is so besotted by Rebecca’s pet. She stayed behind to nurture it while we packed sleeping bags and food onto the horses and rode off to camp down by the Palala River with the clients. We had to; Johann was still finishing the loos.
It is such varied, stunning country. The vegetation changes dramatically as you ride towards the river and the view changes at every turn. We started coming across hippo tracks when we were still high in the hills. Donald told me that they’ll easily wander two kilometres from the river at night in search of grazing, but I was amazed that they had tackled such steep, stony tracks. They’re deemed dangerous, being responsible for more deaths than any other animal in Africa.
‘Apart from the mosquito,’ Sarah-Jane put in.
As there was no sign of hippo in the river we tied up the horses on a picket line and climbed along a ledge under a high cliff face to find more Bushmen paintings; little stick-like people and exquisite pictures of animals.
There were enough tents for the guests, but Donald, Sarah-Jane, Wendy and I slept out by the horses. This sounds romantic, but it wasn’t. It was smelly. The horses exude so much methane you can’t breathe. They don’t sleep much, they only need about three hours and spend the rest of the time chomping away or bickering. You’d think you could lie on your saddle blanket, but you can’t. After riding all day they’re drenched with sweat.
We slept on a groundsheet but the moon was so bright that I kept waking, thinking someone had left the light on. The next moment it was like trying to sleep in a disco. Sheets of lightning were flashing around us and rain started to come down. Donald wrapped the groundsheet round himself, but us girls barged in on the clients without any warning or any shame; Sarah-Jane and her revolver with one man, Wendy with another and me with two rather terrified girls. Luckily they all made it back.
Must go and make twelve beds and a vat of beef stroganoff.

Lots of love,


Thursday, 5 April 2012

An extract ~ Chapter One

I am off to South Africa. For my health.

I was grumbling about having to wait a few hours to change planes. It’s strange though; it’ll take a day to get from London to Johannesburg - but if you drove it could take five months. Birds fly to Africa all the time; well, once a year. I wonder if they know how long they’re going for, or when they’re expected back?

Dear Perry,

I never came to say goodbye. I’m sorry, I would have loved to have seen your new house; you’ll have to tell me all about it. I hope everyone is well. I thought I would die on the aeroplane but the endless fatigue that was oppressing me seems to have evaporated in the sunshine. My doctor said the arid climate would help me get better and I think it has. I go to bed at night feeling tired instead of ill. It’s such a relief. I look a bit pallid and have a spot right in the middle of my chin but Rebecca says that spots are good; a sign of youth and virility. She, of course, is beautifully tanned with a radiant complexion.
It may amuse you to know that I spent this morning removing ticks from sixteen horses before dredging green slime from a water reservoir supplying the house. Since the slime was particularly evasive I didn’t do a thorough job. I did manage to move the washing line although it required the help of ten men. I know this sounds ridiculous but the whirly-gig sort of thing had been planted in a great block of concrete. Whilst doing this I had to supervise an idiotic plumber and do various office jobs for Sarah-Jane before spending forty minutes trying to light her gas fridge. (Failed; just got covered in soot). Before sunset I planted a row of lettuce seedlings, another of spring onions and collected enough thorns to bullterrier-proof the vegetable garden, which was most satisfying. The workload is quite something but somehow I find the strength, and the patience.
I’m living with Sarah-Jane, Rebecca and a tall blonde South African ranger in the middle of a newly established game ranch, three and a half hours’ drive north of Johannesburg. It’s quite a big property, about 42,000 acres with an enormous diversity of game. As I write I can see a small herd of waterbuck grazing in the evening light on the plain in front of the house. The Waterberg is an amazing area, an old red sandstone plateau about 3,000 feet above sea level. On Sunday we were invited to a reserve on the edge of the escarpment where there’s a frieze of ancient San Bushmen paintings. I lay on the rocks watching black eagles circling around the flat-topped mountains and felt glad to be here. And very privileged.

One of the game scouts found a python last week. It had obviously just eaten a small antelope and was lying in the grass looking bulgy, not moving at all. Rebecca, who is fearless, went quite close. A few days later we were riding along with a client, an old boy who had a bad stutter. He started to say, ‘B-b-b-b,’ but couldn’t get the words out.
Birds? er… branch?’ I saw his horse pick up its feet and step over what I thought must be a log.
B-b-bloody great snake.’
And it was too; another massive python. Andrew, who is the ranger, went over to see if he could pick it up. I dismounted too, as I thought it would make a good photograph. Well, don’t ever try to catch a python. Andrew is 6’3”. The snake reared up and lunged at his face, teeth bared. I was scrambling back onto my pony, but I think the snake thought twice about attacking us with so many horses about. It slid off under a thorn bush.
Andrew stood in the grass calmly saying, ‘If a python does bite it don’t let go; you have to cut the head off.’
Can you imagine? Getting out your Swiss Army penknife and trying to cut the head off a fifteen-foot snake with its teeth stuck into Andrew’s nose? And although not poisonous, the fangs are so filthy you can get terribly infected.
We’ve only four clients coming this weekend. It’s just as well. Although Sarah-Jane brought her horses up here about four weeks ago, accommodation for the tourists is not exactly in a state of readiness. She has been using the main lodge on the reserve but we need to move into our new bush camp about two kilometres from the house. There’s still a great deal to do. I must get up and go and do it. You won’t believe this, but I have to write menus. I, of all the people on this Earth, am to be the cook. Rebecca is teaching me as fast as she can before she leaves to work on hot-air balloon safaris.
My love to Robert,

Dear Tamzin,
You would love the riding here. There are miles of sandy tracks taking you through unspoilt bush with no fences; no gates to open. Well, there’s a huge electrified game fence along the perimeter of the reserve to keep the elephants from wandering off, but we live in the middle so you can ride in any direction for hours without seeing a soul. Wherever you go there are birds; yellow-billed hornbills hopping about in the trees, brightly coloured weaver birds quarrelling incessantly over their funny-shaped nests and crowned plovers who shriek abuse at us if we cross the grasslands where they breed. We get followed by drongos all the time, rather smart black birds with forked tails, looking for insects disturbed by the horses’ hooves. You see some of the same species we have in England, like barn owls, and the skies are full of swallows. The Warden is having to do something about their telephone lines today. They’re rather low and the giraffe keep walking into them.
Sarah-Jane has quite an assortment of horses; one of every variety including a beautiful black Friesian who looks as if he should be carrying a knight, off to the crusades. Most of them are South African breeds I’d never heard of, such as Nooitgedacht and Boerperd, bred for working with cattle. Some of them know how to triple, a strange gait between a trot and a canter, which made me laugh quite uncontrollably at first but it’s very comfortable, especially since I sometimes find myself spending six hours a day in the saddle. Sarah-Jane’s business partner, Wendy, has a little skewbald foal that comes into the house. And there are three bullterriers -Tigger and two naughty ones belonging to the Warden who lives next door.


I love being outside all the time. I wake up in the morning, pull on a pair of shorts and step into the bright sunlight. The acacias are in bloom and fill the air with their scent. Everything here smells different; I feel physically relieved to be away from the dankness of England, the traffic and the rush. We live in an old, white-washed farmhouse made up of an office, a rather stark kitchen with a humming strip-light and three thatched rondavels where we sleep. There’s a biggish central area, once a sitting room, where Sarah-Jane has us organizing camping equipment and mending piles of tack. The horses have a 200-acre field with a couple of holding paddocks, and are herded into a yard every morning when we tie them up around a large Sourplum tree. Tiny blue waxbills hop about pecking at the horse food while a one-eared pony called Guido scoots around hoovering up the fallen fruit.
There are two grooms. One is a bolshie boy called France who is good at finding the horses but doesn’t seem at all keen on working with them. I asked him if he was interested in learning about stable management.
No.’ He said scornfully, ‘I want to be a panel-beater.’
I didn’t know what a panel-beater was. The other chap is called Somewhere, but we can never find him. The tack shed is quite far from the big tree, so I spend most of my time lugging heavy saddles across the yard, wishing Somewhere could do it.
Andrew says, ‘It’ll make you fit and strong,’ and then, ‘Please let me take that,’ and carries them for me as if they weighed nothing at all.
I can’t get over how polite the South African men are; they don’t just open the car door for you, they wind down the window too. It’s very flattering. Mum would love it. But we are well and truly behind the boerewors curtain here. Boerewors are big fat farmer’s sausages but the phrase has something to do with the white supremacy. Though not wanting to endorse this, Sarah-Jane feels she must offer work to the local Sotho people, and needs their help. We are separate. Their accommodation is the other side of the tack-shed but their hours are shorter than ours. They do seven hours a day and get paid, we work all the time for nothing.
Andrew is taking a diploma in Nature Conservation and is on attachment to Equus Trails for his practical year. He hasn’t begun to think about the projects he needs to complete, he just rides all the time.
Rebecca has adopted a baby rat and was suggesting he should study its development but he said that, ‘Seeing it has a scaly tail, it would be classified as an exotic species and since it will inevitably become a threat to the environment, it should be despatched forthwith. Rather a short project.’ She was most offended. But Andrew is very concerned about this sort of thing.
What’s that?’
It’s an alien.’
It looks rather beautiful to me.’
It must be eradicated.’
It’s an invader species, encroaching on the indigenous ecosystem.’
Was this a film we were watching; dialogue from Gate Masters of the Universe? No, we were looking at a tree. Apparently a South American one introduced by colonialists.
Andrew grimaces at the sight of a stray prickly pear or any other plant that wouldn’t naturally occur here. He said that black wattle, originally introduced for tanning leather, is choking watercourses and getting totally out of hand in the Cape where it displaces the native fynbos. Australian gum trees are grown here extensively, for their timber which is good and straight, but drink so much they actively lower the water table.
The rat is called Isit. Isit because whenever you make a statement South Africans say, ‘Is it?’
For example: ‘I used to work in London.’
Reply: ‘Is it?’
I have a sister called Perry.’
Is it?’
This flummoxed me until Sarah-Jane explained that the phrase is short for ‘Is that so?’ and is a symptom of politeness. If you say ‘Hello’ to someone, it’s essential to ask how they are. If you forget they sometimes say, ‘Well, and yourself?’ as if you had anyway.
Oh, yes.’ Sarah-Jane said, ‘The phrase will be used by complete strangers making business calls or even by people finding they’ve dialled the wrong number.’
What is currently worrying me is the health of our vegetables; a selection of alarming looking gourds and pumpkins which Sarah-Jane expects me to do wonderful things with.
What is it?’ I found myself asking as I peered at something that looked like a green flying saucer.
Don’t you know what a patti-pan is?’ Gemsquash and butternut, sweet potatoes and great sacks of maize meal confront me before every meal; cooking here is a humbling experience. Somewhere and France (Somewhere in France?) have been most encouraging about what I manage to produce. All Sarah-Jane could say was, ‘It had better be a steep learning curve.’
Thank you for taking me to the airport and for the lovely lunch before I left. You must think of coming out here; you’d love it.
Oh, Tamzin, I had to tell you. Rebecca and I found a street in Johannesburg called Swartkoppie. It means blackhead. Imagine having to tell everyone you lived in Blackhead Street.
Lots of love,