So this last week I’ve been back down in Durban, Kwazulu Natal, home to mum’s eldest sister, my gran and an assortment of cousins and their offspring. It was very nice to be able to see the ‘old lady’, erstwhile known as Mutty (moo-tee), born in 1921, and still plodding along.
Allegedly once a rather formidable lady she has been tamed by the passage of time and the limitations of an aging body. She is entirely dependent on her daughter now, her aging bones unable to lift her from her bed without assistance, her sight marred by advanced macular degeneration (MD) but, as I quipped to my cousin, at least it wasn’t a case of moral degradation… Quite the opposite in fact. The woman still insists on weekly communion, delivered courtesy of a parish minister who visits the various invalids on a Thursday.
I am ambivalent about the influence of Catholicism on my family, particularly with regards to my mother, but I have a choice as to how I want to live my life and I certainly don’t have to embrace the more puritanical aspects of the religion if I don’t want to. I felt that my mum lived a fairly good life – she was certainly quite selfless when it came to ministry and active service – but one lived with certain insecurities that her religion could not address.
It’s complicated and there’ve been times I’ve become quite worked up about it but on this occasion I chose to avoid these negative emotions and spent an hour two of the day chatting to Mutty on various topics: my unrealised ambitions; who in the family was doing what and where; and old memories. She was remarkably conversational, more so than the last time I saw her a year back. My aunt Liz put it down to the blood transfusion she’d recently received.
An iron cross I bought in Antakya, southern Turkey, (formerly Antioch) which I bought her the previous year. We took it out of her draw and hung it on the wall by a thread.
A selfie with gran in her living room, where she spends most of each morning unless the weather is good and she is wheeled out onto the verandah.
My granny awaits the weekly visit of a communion-dispensing representative of the local parish
The rest of the family was busy as always. I arrived late on the Monday after Easter, ostensibly a holiday, to find my aunt working on some quotations. My uncle Derek’s asphalting business was always prone to fluctuations in cash flow so I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn how it been borderline viable over the Christmas period only recovering recently by dint of an influx of insurance jobs. Some late storms ensured that properties across the city experienced largely superficial damage to driveways, paving and exterior walls – bread and butter for my uncle’s business. I’d worked for him back in 2007 so I knew the deal.
The garden was looking great. My cousin Ellysa lived on the property with her husband Steve, a commercial diver who was currently working offshore somewhere in the Persian Gulf. They are hoping to put down a deposit on an old house somewhere in the vicinity, perhaps in the hope of starting a family of their own. I’d always admired Steve, an Englishman by upbringing, for his energetic lifestyle. He’d made a number of improvements to the property between jobs which included installing several large, green, plastic JoJo tanks for rainwater storage. They had quite obviously made all the difference over the dry summer. The photos below speak for themselves:
A Japanese cycad with a crown of new leaves
A fllowering orchid, one of my late grandpa’s collection.
The pretty Strelitzia or crane flower, indigenous to South Africa.
Shadow and Chloe rest on the top steps, probably waiting for me to take a dip in the pool.
Steve and Ellysa also do a great job of participating in a non-profit wildlife organisation called Monkey Helpline (you’ll find them on this page). I haven’t seen them in action but I’ve heard enough to know that they’re doing an invaluable job in the field of conservation, with particular emphasis on assisting injured and orphaned vervet monkeys. Whilst there the local troop of vervets visited the house on two occasions. My cousin and her mum feed the animals bread, oats and fruit to supplement their diets.
With the colonisation of that part of the coast by city-dwellers the natural vegetation has been cleared, altered and replaced by gardens, roads, houses, shopping malls, schools, fields and factories. Feeding them is just a means of being considerate for these free-ranging primates who are really quite entertaining. They are not aggressive although they can bite if cornered and I am surprised to read on the MH website that there has never recorded case of a rapid monkey in the city. See for example my video below and another taken by a Durban resident which shows several taking a dip in a swimming pool.
Here is a gallery of the furry creatures dining out on my aunt’s roof:
Quite remarkably I never made it down to the beach. During the week everyone was busy with their respective jobs – the family mostly works from home: my aunt on commission for a cupboard and cabinet outfit; my uncle for himself, Ellysa doing the office work – so I didn’t have the use of a car or anyone to take me down.
To be honest it didn’t bother me too much. On two occasions I walked across to the local shopping centre for odds and ends and for exercise I jogged up and down the hills a few times, an exhausting task I assure you. The rest of the time I was chatting with Mutty, Liz or Ellysa, watering the garden, swimming with the dogs in the late afternoon, discussing composting toilets and permaculture with my uncle and the like.
I should point out that I did not come directly to Durban but rather indirectly via Vryheid and Richard’s Bay. In the former resides a cousin of mine, Amy, who works as an occupational therapist at a local government hospital. She’d recently been on a workshop in Pretoria so we’d got to catch up over a drink and she’s extended the invitation for me to visit over the long Easter weekend. I went down on the Wednesday and she picked me up after work, gave me a tour of the little hospital before we headed back to her house in the suburbs.
She appeared to live a happy, independent life with 3 rescue dogs and a rescued kitten in a two bedroom cottage on a subdivided property. The owner lived in a house on the other side of a partition. In-between was a simple, two-roomed outbuilding in which the son resided. It was quickly apparent that the young man, Eugene, was besotted with my cousin. Amy possesses an air of self-assurance and a ready smile that seems to put people at ease. All of 26 she has a full head of blonde hair dyed with purple streaks in it. On her fridge was a hand-drawn picture of Queen Elsa from the Disney animation Frozen. It was a gift from Eugene who thought Amy looked just like the aloof snow-queen.
We had gone out on two successive evenings to a local bar called Ella The Greek. No surprise to learn that the proprietor was a Greek himself. In summary I can say that every male between 20-50 in the town seemed acquainted with my cousin, notwithstanding most of the women too and those who weren’t probably wanted to be. To be fair it was a typical small-town situation which put me in mind of Harare which, although substantially bigger than Vryheid, in a social context was not much different.
The local barman Shaun served us all evening and threw in a few extra shots for the sake of it. Amy told me he was one of the good ones who looked out for her. There was another young guy, JP, a bit of a hard luck story, who gravitated towards Amy partly out of affection but also as a ready source of ciggies. Now I have been informed that her parents are under no circumstances to learn about her habit, so if you do so happen to Mike and Jan your discretion in this matter is appreciated! Heck I am no-one to judge, puffing on a fair few myself. All the same I was a bit taken aback by the sheer number of smokers I encountered. There was barely anyone who didn’t smoke in the establishment.
On the Friday we dove down to Richard’s Bay to Amy’s folks. Her granny lived with them in the main house and I was able to move into the granny flat. Her dad Mike had built the place himself, being something of a jack of all trades. Like Steve he’s installed half-a-dozen plastic storage tanks for rainwater runoff as well as grey water from the washing machine. He claimed that his coverage was so effective (via the roofs and driveway) that it only required 5 mm of rainfall to refill all the JoJo tanks. In addition he had a swimming pool which was, he pointed out, a further 20 000 l emergency storage.
Richard’s Bay, or just R-Bay, had featured periodically in my upbringing. This was the first time I had visited in almost 14 years and the first time I’d visited without my cousins or one or other of my brothers. I’d gone down there with Ivan and my mum the year before she died and we’d gone back the following Christmas just before Ivan was to start university and I was to complete a final year at UP. The social and family dynamics had been different on that occasion.
I hadn’t really felt present if you know what I mean? It was no fault of Mike and Jan’s but it was still very reassuring to feel so welcome at the house all these years later. The addition of the granny flat aside nothing much had changed. Mike still drank cider, appeared slightly eccentric (well he is) and held forth on various issues with a strong opinion. I like him. Jan had recently retired after several decades of teaching English but was nonetheless cheerful and obliging.
I won’t write too much more except to say that I did get down to the beach. Hooray! After all those years away I was quite shocked to see how much the main bathing beach, Alkanstrand, had been eroded. The sea had cut into the previously broad expanse of sand and was in danger of undercutting the lifeguard’s hut. On the Easter Sunday I’d walked for some way along the beachfront heading north. I was impressed by the beach cliffs and the streaky black sands that are so characteristic of the area. This is not in fact oil or other pollution as one might expect at first glance but rather a concentration of heavy minerals like ilmenite and rutile, both titaniferous and commercially exploitable. I’d had a tour of the dune-mining operation of Richard’s Bay Minerals when I was an undergraduate at UP.
There’s no denying mankind’s rapacious appetite for natural commodities whether they be heavy minerals sands or the ocean’s bounty. There was an Easter fishing competition at the nearby Ski-boat club and the fishermen had hauled out quantities of rock-cod and various game-fish. Amy told me how she deplored the sight of the dead fish and I have to say that I agree after seeing the poor creatures laid out on concrete slabs by the boat ramp, their engorged swim bladders protruding from their mouths, macabre, like the tongues of drought-stricken cattle who have succumbed to thirst.
On an adjacent dredging platform some young teenagers leapt into the shallows with squeals of delight. I watched two guys snorkeling along the periphery. I’d done the same thing with Dale, a friend of Amy’s, the day before. On that occasion he’d pointed out an octopus hiding amongst the cracks in the concrete foundations. We’d let him be. Dale told me that he only took live specimens of tropical fish for his aquarium. He evidently had a big set of lungs.
Today one of the two snorkelers came out of the water gripping an octopus, whether the same one I’d seen the day before I can’t be sure. Laughing and moving the frantic creature from hand to hand he gave it to a fisherman friend on the shore. His two kids looked on in fascination as he proceeded to bash the poor creature senseless on a rock. He was doing nothing more than using it for bait. I turned away disgusted.
I love the ocean and the myriad creatures that live within but sometimes I wonder if most of us don’t just see her as another resource ripe for exploitation so that we can feed another hungry mouth or satisfy the whims of a middle-class ever keen to gorge on tasty, low-fat seafood. Such is the world we have made. It is not without hope though. I can see that there are many, like Dale, who care and understand the finite nature of the sea and her coastal resources.
An information board entitled Our Coast for Life near the car park elaborated on their importance for recreation, rural livelihoods and biodiversity. For me the photo I took of the Indian mother and daughter standing ankle-deep in the surf, a younger member of the family frolicking at right, with a large cargo-ship entering the harbour in the background, is somewhat symbolic of the choice we have to make between exploitation and utilisation on the one hand and recreation and conservation on the other. Only time will tell where the balance lies.