Whales and Sharks

Although in my mind I kept on believing we would actually be staying in South Africa, I was keen to jump on to Vaughn’s bandwagon and take advantage of some of the wonderful activities and sights the country had to offer. Every year we made an annual pilgrimage to De Kelders to watch the magnificent Southern Right whales. Our last year in South Africa was no exception. We sat on the rocks staring at the sea until our eyes ached. White horses on the periphery of our vision teased us as we waited. And always they came, the mothers and babies, sometimes so close in to shore we could have waded in and touched them. Sometimes out in deeper water, breaching and playing and performing just for our own private show.

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Another activity offered off the Cape coast was a cage dive with great white sharks. We decided that although it was expensive, we would do it. It may be our last chance (although I knew it wouldn’t because we wouldn’t actually be going to Australia).

Our booking included a breakfast of boiled eggs, the wisdom of which I did ponder. But duly fed, we climbed on board the rather smelly boat. We all geared up in the obligatory yellow oilskins as the weather forecast was stormy. I felt pretty strong as we bounced out through the harbour. Once on the open sea, the waves became choppier and I had to take deep breaths and concentrate on the receding coastline. People were in and out of the cupboard that housed the pump toilet and that reminded me that I’d had two cups of coffee with my egg, so I decided to brave the plumbing. What a disaster! The person who had used the toilet before me had vomited leaving the smell lingering for all to enjoy. As I tried to stand up to get the oilskins off, the boat lurched as a wave threw us into the air and dropped us.

I bounced off the narrow walls of the closet and somehow managed to hover over the bowl, but the smell of vomit was making me gag and I would have turned around to part with my egg if there had been space. I pumped, sluiced and staggered back out to the deck and the fresh air.   Several people were already leaning over the side while those with strong stomachs made comments about it not being necessary to ‘chum’ for the sharks.

All of a sudden one young lad vomited across the deck, narrowly missing me. That finished me! I grabbed the rail and retched. As I leaned over the side of the boat I felt my tongue swelling and the acid rising. I thought I would feel better after I’d been sick, but I actually felt worse. Each time I tried to stand up, I had to grab the rail and vomit again. In the end I lay there with my head over the side, wanting to die. A great white shark swam beside the boat and I was tempted to roll off and let him eat me.

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I looked up to see if anyone was going into the cage, but the skipper said it was too rough. So we waited and ‘chummed’, and that fishy smell seemed to go straight from my nose into my stomach. Strangely, I was still keen to get into the cage. Every so often I raised my miserable head to see if there was any action, but the sharks had been and gone. Nobody dived with them that day, to my bitter disappointment.

It took me two days before the feeling of nausea really wore off.

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Australia Getting closer

While we carried on with our lives, the wheels of the immigration process were quietly turning. When the day of our medicals arrived, I told the doctor I hoped he would find something wrong with me. He thought that was tremendously funny, but I wasn’t joking. I didn’t mean anything like lung cancer that would carry me off in the immediate future, but something like a small TIA that I hadn’t even noticed, but would have been sufficient to get the rejection stamp.

The day the letter of acceptance arrived, Vaughn was ecstatic. I felt as if I’d been punched in the solar plexus. We had a year to get out to Australia to validate the residency visa, and thereafter five years to come and go before finally settling.

So to sweeten the Australian pill and get the relevant stamp on our passports, Vaughn suggested we fly first to the UK to visit my father, then on to Australia via New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Fiji, and New Zealand. This was going to be our ‘Trip of a Lifetime’, a round the world holiday. I still didn’t believe we would be going to live in Australia, so went off on holiday with a semi festive attitude.

My father’s house seemed sad and empty without my mother there, but it was good spending time with Dad. We took a trip to Exmoor, a place I remembered with great fondness from my childhood.

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We walked across Tarr steps  –  Dad must have been about eighty-six at the time, but he was game for anything. Halfway across he lost his balance, and although we managed to save him from falling, his walking stick fell into the water and was soon racing through the rapids. Luckily he had a spare one at home.

England draws me back again and again as if I were physically attached by a long piece of elastic, but I knew it would be a long time before I was able to return, so I drunk in all the greenness, the history, the lifestyle and every precious moment spent with family members.

The rest of our world trip was a wonderful experience but totally exhausting. Too much in too short a time.

When we arrived in Melbourne we spent most of the holiday looking at houses, always a pleasant activity in any country.

Somehow, by the time we got back, what had started off as a ‘maybe’, had subtly turned into a ‘definite’. There was never any more discussion about ‘if’. It was always ‘when’. I looked in the sky for a sign telling me it was okay to go. When the first agent absconded with our money, I was certain that was a sign, and we wouldn’t be going. When three new grandchildren were born, I felt as if this whole Australia thing was just a bit of an adventure, but we’d actually be staying in South Africa. When I was offered a really good promotion at work, it was another addition to my growing list of Reasons to Stay.

A New Experience

In addition to a holiday in Thailand, we were also fortunate enough to be part of a sales incentive trip to the Commores. Once there, I put my name down for the resort course in scuba diving, and found I was the only one. So I had personal lessons with a twenty one year old tanned male with sun-bleached hair, which was all rather lovely.

The theory was easy because Vaughn had talked me through most of it beforehand. However, when I got the gear on and had my first pool session, I thought I wouldn’t be able to do this. It felt so claustrophobic, I started to breathe too quickly and was gripped with irrational panic.

I surfaced, took the regulator out of my mouth, looked at the sky and took a deep breath. Then I put the regulator back in my mouth and gently sank below the water, focusing on slow rhythmic breathing. It worked. I was doing it. I swam along the bottom of the pool and started to enjoy the sound of my breath.

We were ready for my first dive. The reef was fairly close and the sea was calm. There were no unexpected strong currents and visibility was good. No reason to be anxious, but of course I was. As soon as I was in the water I felt that panic rising again. My instructor must have sensed it, because he signalled to me to level off, breathe in, breathe out. In… out…OK. I gave him the thumbs up, and we were diving.

Under the sea there was silence at first. All I could hear was the slow heavy hissing of my breath, sounding like the troubled gasps of a dying man.

We dived deeper where the coral came to life. It crackled as it expanded and contracted. Green and yellow parrot fish scratched at the coral with their beaky mouths, causing a crunchy sound.

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We saw a red and white striped devil firefish, with strange feather-like dorsal fins and white-tipped wings. We swam through shoals of wrasse and butterfly fish, their iridescence enticing us to play with them. A shy moray poked his head out from under a rock and opened his mouth in a sly smile.

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It seemed no time at all before my instructor signalled that it was time to make our slow ascent. I had been down for almost an hour and had been so captivated by the sights that I hadn’t had to think about my breathing at all.

 

 

Tough Decisions

During the peak of the ‘blended family’ difficulties, we had planned a holiday to Australia to visit Vaughn’s parents. I was very reluctant to go, as arrangements at home changed by the day, but Vaughn was determined, so with some trepidation, off we set.

I awoke my first morning in Melbourne to hear the strangest noise. I thought it was birds, but they sounded almost like toys whose batteries were running low. It was the magpies. I felt very far from home.

We had a tour along the beautiful Great Ocean Road, with Vaughn and his father discussing the economy and South African politics, giving me a gut fear where their conversations were leading.  It came as really no surprise when Vaughn asked me if I thought I could live in Australia.

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My daughter, Abigail and her husband, Irwin had just bought a piece of land in New Zealand, and I was told there were cheap flights from Melbourne to New Zealand all the time. I was promised I could indulge my passion for cetaceans and watch whales at Warnambool and would not need to work unless I wanted to. They assured me there would be no immigration problems if any of our children wanted to come out, as we would be able to sponsor them.

So I said yes, I thought I could probably live there.

The following day we were whizzed off to an immigration agent, who took our money and our details. I felt a terrible panic, as it was all happening too quickly. Vaughn reassured me that we were not making any commitment at this stage. It was important to apply before he turned forty-five. If we were accepted, we could make the decision then.

We met several people who had been declined residency, so I contented myself with the thought that we probably wouldn’t be accepted. In fact I prayed that we wouldn’t. Even though our personal life in Johannesburg was highly stressful, it was familiar and infinitely preferable to moving to a far continent.

The South African life-style was rapidly changing. After the optimism and excitement of Nelson Mandela’s release and presidency, the gap between the rich and the poor seemed to widen. Except that it was now cross-cultural. At every set of traffic lights one would see black and white people begging, often with children beside them. I bought a bag of apples each day to give out, but they were often rejected.

Small businesses were closing down because they couldn’t comply with the employment equity laws. Young white people were unable to find jobs because of affirmative action. Top grade white students were denied tertiary education because the universities had filled their ‘white’ quotas, but were accepting students of colour with far lower qualifications.

We had been burgled several times, although our alarm was linked to an armed response company. Security was big business. Every window was barred. Our property was surrounded by eight foot fencing with electric wiring. We installed movement-sensor lights. The doors between the living area and the bedrooms were locked behind us every night. It became a way of life.

I was car-jacked one morning while visiting clients. My window was smashed at a red traffic light and a gun was thrust into my face. Without thinking, I put my foot hard on the accelerator and shot forward. Fortunately nothing was coming the other way, and I escaped with only a fright and a broken window.

The topic of conversation at every social function was always crime. Some people had been devastated, and Vaughn felt it was only a matter of time before our turn came. We were playing Russian roulette.

But in spite of all this, it was my comfort zone. I couldn’t consider leaving and going to a safer place without my children. How could I be safe if they were not? They all told us we should go before we got too old, and they would follow as soon as they were ready, but to be so far away from them all when it was my decision, seemed unthinkable. Children grow up and leave their parents, but parents do not leave their children.

More Holidays

In addition to our personal weekends away, Vaughn and I tried to arrange a camping holiday for the whole family a couple of times a year. It was a good opportunity for the blended family to relax together. As time went on, the numbers swelled as partners and eventually babies came along. One memorable holiday we did an 11 km hike in the Drakensberg mountains with six year old Megan who was wearing a little dress and ‘rave’ shoes. We awarded her a certificate, following on in the tradition of her Great Grandfather who made certificates for us when we did something noteworthy.

We spent many camping holidays at Scottborough on the south coast, spending the evenings lying out on rugs playing ‘The Ship Came into the Harbour…’.

Usually it rained. One time the wind was so strong it blew Edward’s tent away. We managed to rescue it and anchor it securely, but by then the rain was bucketing down. There was no way we were going to be able to light a barbeque to cook our meat, but Edward managed to improvise a makeshift oven inside the trailer, so we didn’t go to bed hungry.

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Another weekend was a dive trip to an inland lake  which was actually two lakes joined by an underwater cave. One lake was on one farm where the owners allowed campers. The other was on an adjacent farm where the farmer did not. The divers took great delight in diving through the cave to surface in the lake where they were not welcome.

I took my fins and mask, as I was happy to snorkel in the clear water, but Vaughn took me deeper with him and shared his air, which I found quite exhilarating.

At work, my sales figures were high enough to qualify for an incentive holiday every year. The first year was a mini cruise on the ‘Symphony’. We sailed from Durban harbour with balloons and streamers, to the accompaniment of Rod Stewart’s ‘We are sailing’.

Once out of the harbour into choppier waters, many of us felt the need to lie down. I tried to stand on the deck taking deep breaths and looking at the horizon, but I didn’t feel good. And as my sea legs came, my dancing legs departed.

We were told there was ballroom dancing every night on board ship, so we had taken a few lessons in order to fully participate. However, that particular cruise had a jazz band instead, so our carefully footed one two three waltz steps were never used, although we did manage an occasional  quiet rumba in the cocktail bar.

When we reached Portuguese Island we disembarked on to rubber ducks and were taken ashore. We were met by a smell of rotting kelp, and crowds of small children trying to sell us second hand watches which we cynically wondered if they had stolen from the previous tourists. They also had beautiful cowrie shells, which made us very sad to think people had dived for them, discarding the live creature within. Vaughn and I were on the first available launch back to the ship.

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Our second incentive trip took us to Mauritius. On one of the island tours our guide told us the locals loved the monsoon season because families were forced to stay indoors together and talk and play games; the things nobody makes time for anymore, with the fast pace of life we all led.

A small group of us took a tour around the island on a catamaran. Every drink we were offered contained green island rum. It was in the coffee. It was in the sprite. There was no escape, and the drinks just kept on coming. By lunchtime we rolled into the sea in attempt to sober up, but it didn’t really help. I don’t think any of us made it into dinner that night.

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Joys of the Bush

After my mother’s death, I returned to South Africa to the same situation at home. But in spite of being unsure until the last minute whether or not his girls would be with us for the weekend, Vaughn and I managed to enjoy some spontaneity and still have fairly frequent breaks. We packed up the tent at a moment’s notice and took off, sometimes driving six or seven hours to the coast, a swim in the sea, then home the next day.

One weekend we stayed in a cabin on a game farm. There were several log cabins surrounding a central clearing with a large fire pit. None of the other cabins were occupied, but we built a large log fire anyway, which we sat and admired until our wine was finished.

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After a peek inside the bed to check there weren’t any resident spiders, we snuggled down for the night. The light was out, but there seemed to be a draught coming from somewhere. We lay there quietly wondering if the window was open, each of us silently speculating. Suddenly I felt a whoosh of air across my face. I sat up and switched the light back on. The sight that met our eyes caused us both to run straight outside, me in my nightie and Vaughn in his birthday suit.

A bat whizzed from wall to wall in our room, looking for escape, alarmingly close to our heads. We opened the door and windows and stood shivering outside until the bat flew out. It was fortunate we had the campsite to ourselves.

A Difficult Time

The arrangement with Vaughn’s ex-wife was that we would have his two girls to stay every second weekend and half the school holidays. He made a roster for the year ahead, so the girls would know in advance where they would be. However, that roster became a weapon of emotional destruction for me. Almost every weekend the arrangement would be reversed and any sort of planning became impossible.

Our home was also coping with a new kind of sibling rivalry and the changes in pecking order. At that stage there was very little help available on creating a happy ‘blended’ family, but fortunately I went to a small select monthly book club at which books were generally at the bottom of the list of Things to be Discussed. We supported each other through many crises and celebrations and once again I experienced the compassionate validation that girlfriends give to each other. Girls sympathise, empathise and affirm. A man always wants to fix the problem, but sometimes problems are so delicate there is no painless quick fix. And sometimes problems aren’t really problems as much as ‘issues’ that need to be chewed over with friends.

There was a bright period during this difficult time, when my parents came out to visit us. My mother was not terribly well, but she coped without complaining although I think the chemist was alarmed at the number of paracetamol we were buying.

We took them away for a few days to the Eastern Transvaal, now called Mpumalanga. The scenery and rock formations there are spectacularly dramatic, and Vaughn pushed Mum in a wheelchair up many mountains so she could enjoy the view.

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However, the period of fun and cheerfulness soon reverted to a deep gloom. When my parents returned to England, Mum became much worse, but for some weeks the doctors were unable to diagnose the problem. The poor lady thought she was going mad. Doctors were shaking their heads as if she had a serious case of hypochondria. While the pain was clearly genuine, the cause of it eluded the medical profession. When they finally discovered her kidneys were riddled with cancer, it was too late for treatment.

I went over to spend a few weeks with her while she was still well enough to enjoy some quality of life. I arrived to find her sitting up in bed with a hymn book. She was planning her funeral. She apologised, saying it seemed a bit morbid, but she wanted to choose hymns and readings that would be uplifting to us.  It was a very special time and a great privilege to have the opportunity to talk intimately about things we might take for granted, or subjects we avoid.

Abi had given me some special massage oil to use on her Nanna, and I sat for many hours gently massaging my mother’s feet and reminiscing over happy times.

I came home to spend Christmas with Vaughn and our children, with the promise that I would return to England in the New Year. I thought probably towards the end of February I would get the call. However, just a couple of days after Christmas, my father phoned to say I should get on a plane as quickly as possible, as mother was not doing well.

It was the turn of the millennium, and everyone in the world seemed to be going abroad to celebrate. Every plane was full and it seemed as if I might have to travel around the world and back in order to get to England. But after several hours of pacing the Flight Centre floor, my journey was booked.

I arrived home to find my mother propped up on several pillows, looking very thin and frail. Her eyes looked huge in her small face, but they still held a smile. Her one wish was not to die alone, and for the next ten days, we took turns to sit with her. She hung on until she had said goodbye to everybody, and when she closed her eyes for the last time, it was with dignity and such peace.

For me, it was a time of awakening. I had always had a horror of death. But as I sat holding my mother’s hand, part of her peace entered me. I felt strong. Sad for the things I hadn’t told her, but strong in the knowledge that we shouldn’t fear death.

The church was packed to capacity for the thanksgiving that she had so carefully planned and it was indeed uplifting and inspiring to see how many people’s lives my mother had touched.

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