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,

1 comment:

  1. This is gorgeous work Sophie, you have a real gift for drawing people into your wonderful adventure in a real and intimate way. I feel almost as if I had been there with you. :) Great work!