What I Have Learnt From Emigrating

If you think  emigrating will be hard, multiply that by 10. Every time I packed a box, a small piece of regret slipped in. Every time I had to part with something that I kept only for sentimental reasons, I parted with a piece of myself.

Although I have lived in English-speaking countries, I’ve made some embarrassing mistakes. Our language is different everywhere you go. In Australia I was quickly told that I couldn’t say I’d been rooting around in shops as ‘rooting’ had a very different connotation there. My flip-flops became thongs, which caused some confusion on returning to South Africa where thongs are skimpy undies. In New Zealand flip-flops are called jandalls. Gym shoes were once plimsolls, then they became trainers. In South Africa they were takkies and in Australia they were runners. Swimsuits changed from bathing costumes to cozzies to bathers, and now my New Zealand children refer to them as their togs. Felt tips turned into kokies and then to texters. Blue tack became presstick before returning to blue tack. Bed linen became Manchester.

Before leaving South Africa I bought some pretty bed linen for our queen-size bed. This was packed in the container with the rest of our belongings. When Vaughn arrived in Australia he bought a new bed for our immediate use, and we borrowed sheets and a duvet cover from his mum. But when our container arrived, with our old bed and all our linen (Manchester!), I found nothing fitted. There does not seem to be an international standard for ‘Queen-size’. The Australian bed is longer but narrower than the South African counterpart.

I also bought matching curtains in South Africa which mostly ended up being given to the op-shop because we later discovered Australian houses were sold or rented with curtains or blinds. Also the curtain fabric is different. There is a rubberised backing that acts as insulation, so my natural cotton curtains were just not suitable.

We could have saved ourselves some much-needed money if we had brought a stash of multi plugs and some adapters. Changing all the plugs on all the appliances worked out at several hundred dollars, and had we thought in advance, we could have used the multi-plugs plugged into an international adapter and changed one or two each month, as we could afford it.

Some of our appliances did not travel well. We elected not to bring our aging TV, but we did bring a washing machine that gave up the ghost shortly after being re-installed in our Australian home. It wasn’t cost effective to repair it as the make was not available in Australia. I should have checked the internet for available brands and costs of new appliances before filling up the container with things that could not be repaired.

Most people can expect their standard of living to drop when they emigrate, and we were no exception. I was almost looking forward to it, but in my naivety I thought it would be good for us  –  a refreshing challenge. What I didn’t expect was the feeling of deprivation when I couldn’t afford a good cup of coffee, never mind a jar of half-decent face cream. All the simple luxuries of life suddenly disappeared. When you’re feeling homesick and heartsore those things seem to take on greater importance.

I mentally beat myself up when forced to admit to myself that small luxuries really do cheer a girl up. I remember when I made one of my penniless forays back to England with the children many years earlier, my aunt gave me some money with the instruction to buy something special for myself. I bought a packet of earl grey tea, a jar of Helleman’s mayonnaise and a pair of frilly knickers. I felt unbelievably decadent and uplifted, which pleased my aunt greatly.

When we left South Africa, I regretted not buying more local craft, particularly objets being sold illegally beside the road, which doesn’t have a middle-man mark-up. The proceeds go to the artists themselves. One hopes. The country offers a wealth of beautiful original art work that is so distinctly African. Since leaving the country I’ve felt the need to have an ‘African’ room with brightly painted walls and lots of orange cushions and African prints, the only drawback being that the beaded dolls, the wooden figurines and the clay pots do require the occasional good dust to look their gaudiest best.

But at the end of the day, it’s not ‘things’ that matter. It’s people, especially family. And although I’ve been blessed with many lovely things and had many wonderful adventures, the only thing that would have been on my bucket list, if I’d made one, would have been spending time with my family.





Broken Arm

I sat on the cold tiles trying to support the broken wrist, calling out to Vaughn, who was watching TV at the other end of the house. The tone of my voice clearly did not convey the degree of the problem, as it was a while before he wandered through to check on the damage.

He wanted to bundle me into the car and go to the hospital, but I feared the trip might not be as smooth as I would have liked, so we phoned for an ambulance. Meanwhile I could feel myself going into shock.

It wasn’t too long before two lovely paramedics arrived and strapped me up.


Certainly, arriving at A & E by ambulance cuts through the waiting around. I went straight to X-ray, where the staff told me I’d done a really good job and shattered both the radius and ulna.

So I wasn’t going home that night. I was sent to a ward, where I was not allowed to eat, in case there was chance I might have surgery the next day. I waited and fasted, all day. Vaughn came through with some clothes and a book. I have several dressing downs, and he chose to bring the old pink one that was my mother’s. The one I use when I colour my hair. The one with brown stains. The one I sent straight back home again.

No surgery the next day either, just another day of waiting and fasting. By evening, it was clear that I wasn’t going into theatre that night, so a kind nurse brought me a sandwich.

By evening of the fourth day of fasting, I was about to take a walk to see if there was a cafeteria open somewhere, when a nurse came to tell me they were taking me to theatre now.

The anaesthetist gave me a spinal block injection somewhere in my neck, which rendered the broken arm useless. He told me that as soon as I started to feel some sensations in my fingers again, I should call a nurse at once, or I would have the worst pain ever.

A 15cm metal plate was inserted into my arm, and I woke up back in the ward. It was night time, and I could hear a commotion somewhere in the distance, but wasn’t too worried about it. As slight feelings returned to my fingers, I duly rung my bell, as instructed.

I waited for a while, but nobody came, so I rung it again. After about 40 minutes, the pain in my arm was excruciating, so I got out of bed and went to the nurses’ station. Nobody there. I walked up and down the corridor, but couldn’t find anyone.

Eventually a nurse appeared and told me I should have rung…

I went home with a bright pink cast, and a house full of belongings to be packed up.

Outback Trip (part 1)

On my mental list of ‘Things I want to do in Australia’ was a trip to the Outback. Vaughn had already made the drive from Melbourne to Alice Springs, and on through the Tanami track to the Granites, taking in a 900km detour to see Uluru. His photos were spectacular and whetted my appetite to do something similar.

My opportunity came when he was once again working at Granites. We arranged to meet up in Alice, hire a vehicle and see what people meant by ‘the red earth’.

The road was straight. No twists, no turns. The only thing that varied was the colour of the earth either side, which changed from orangey sand to deep vibrant terra-cotta-rust, almost the colour of red-hot coals. No sign of life except random clumps of spinifex and small salt bushes which looked like bonsai trees, perfect but small.

The only fauna we saw was a small monitor lizard in the road, which we accidentally squashed. 

In the distance small whirlwinds whisked spirals of red dust punctuating the cloudless sky. After hours of driving we thought we saw Uluru in the distance and stopped to take a photo, only to realise it was the wrong shape. Too angular. It was Mount Connor.

We stopped at a little picnic shelter and hauled out the coolbox. Hundred of bush flies swarmed around us, and when we attempted to get the food out their numbers seemed to quadruple. Eating was impossible unless you were prepared for cheese and fly on biscuit with a mouthful of flies on the side. So we leapt back into the car for a hurried snack. 

At Curtin Springs we were greeted by an emu who turned out to be a resident. The heat was intense and we were glad to sit under the bough shed with a cold beer. The thatch consisted of dried grass thrown on top of wire netting, which seemed to work as the flies didn’t seem to be so bad there.  However, when I looked up, I saw the thatch was decorated with hundreds of funnel webs.


We didn’t hang around there, but hurried off to make the 100km trip to Uluru, to get there before sunset. We found ourselves a good position and watched the awesome sight of the rock turning from sandy orange through luminescent rust to dark purple. Many photos later we made the long trip back to Curtin Springs only to find the kitchen had closed, so there was nothing for dinner. Fortunately I never travel far without an emergency snack pack, so we managed to fill ourselves up on cheese and biscuits with an apple for desert. 

It was a short night because we were up and out in time to catch the sun rising over Uluru. As we drove along, the sky started to lighten behind us and we felt as if we were racing the sun. The lighter it grew, the more we panicked. However, we drove around the massive rock in the nick of time to see it light up. From a distance Uluru looked smooth and featureless, but as the sun rose we could see its weather-beaten face with all its holes and gashes that are so meaningful to the Anangu, the Aboriginal owners of Uluru. We read some of the dreamtime stories and saw the mark of Kuniya the woman python.


We had heard that one can climb the rock, but this is frowned upon by the Anangu , who regard Uluru as sacred; so out of respect, we chose to walk around, rather than up.

Geologically, Uluru is naturally grey, made of arkose sandstone. Over millions of years of earth movement, lifting, folding and erosion, Uluru remains the only visible tip of a massive underground rock slab, like a sandstone iceberg.

Once the sun was well and truly up and reflecting the red-gold iron-oxide content of the rusted sandstone rock, we headed off to Kata-Tjuta, previously called ‘The Olgas’. 

Whereas Uluru is sandstone, Kata-tjuta is a conglomerate of gravel and boulders cemented together by mud and sand. It did not appear to have the same luminescence, but that could have been due to the time of day we visited. We parked and walked the first section of ‘Valley of the winds’, but unfortunately it did not live up to its name and was scorchingly hot. I wore a net veil covering my whole head to keep the flies off my skin.

Driving on, Vaughn stopped to photograph two lizards before shooing them off the road to atone for the previous day’s killing. 

We saw trees shaped like Christmas trees but instead of pine needles their wispy leaves reminded me of an old person’s fine long hair. In several places feral camels roamed, apparently damaging the fencing at cattle stations. Ahead the sky was pink with dust, as if it was reflecting the earth…



Back in Johannesburg everything started to speed up Vaughn’s spreadsheet of things to be done was getting shorter. I tried bargaining with God. I promised all sorts of good behaviour and charitable works, if only He would send some miracle to keep us in South Africa with our family.

The predetermined date approached, and still no insurmountable obstacles blocked The Plan. In fact, everything dovetailed into place so smoothly, it would have been perverse not to see those things as signs. Vaughn was offered the first job he applied for. Our house sold the first day it went on to the market, for more than we had budgeted.  And still I clung to the dream that we wouldn’t really go.

The week of Vaughn’s departure arrived. The arrangement was that he would go three months ahead of me in order to sort out his job and accommodation. I would stay in Johannesburg and finalise the packing, the cancellations and the money.

Everything started to take on an awful air of reality as I watched Vaughn saying goodbye to all the family. I felt his daughters’ pain as they hugged their father for the last time until heaven knew when. I felt his sorrow as he hugged our grandchildren, knowing Matthew and Caitlin would not remember him when they next met up.

I left him at the airport, in the drop-off zone. I didn’t even go in with him. We’d had too many family goodbyes to face another one. That hollow feeling as you sit at a grubby airport table forcing down an overpriced lukewarm coffee and struggle to find something cheery to say.

So different from the excitement you feel when you come to pick someone up, especially family you haven’t seen for a while. I always get to the airport far too soon, just in case the plane is early, which it never is. Sometimes we’ll have a drink to pass the time, but I usually drink mine too quickly, and then need to go to the bathroom but am too scared to go in case we miss them coming through. Which is silly, because our relatives always seem to be the last people through customs, and by the time they do emerge my eyes are red. I’ve shed many tears at the sight of everyone else’s emotional home-comings or granny-visits.

So Vaughn dragged his many suitcases into the airport terminal, and I drove home, thinking about anything but the situation I was in. The house still looked normal, as completion on the sale was six weeks away.

I thought I should probably start cleaning out the cupboards, and doing the second round of treasures to be thrown out. But first I went to the computer to play a quick game of Scrabble, my habitual form of procrastination. I hadn’t cooked, so I decided to have a slab of chocolate and a bottle of wine…

The rest of the time, I cooked healthy meals, but no matter how good the food was, there was something missing. Having never had to eat alone, I missed the social aspect of the meal. Even after the biggest meal, I kept wandering in and out of the kitchen all evening, looking for something, but never finding anything that satisfied.

I finished the second round of sorting, crying over old birthday cards that had to go out, but I couldn’t part with the children’s first pictures and schoolbooks. They went in round three. By that time I had grown a steel armour. I was still in denial and had switched off all emotions except the pleasure of spending time with the children and grandchildren.

Abi and Irwin had their second child, a beautiful boy, and I felt sad that Vaughn wasn’t around to welcome little Luke into the world. Not that deep sorrow that I would expect to feel. In fact, when I thought about it, I really felt angry with Vaughn. He could have been here. It was his choice.

I packed my suitcases with everything I would need for the next two months, and moved in with Abi and Irwin. The packers arrived at our house and worked through it all with great efficiency. Abi and I watched, she with more heartache than I.

Everything was packed, even things I had said must remain. Abi left her shoes by the front door, and they were packed. Naturally we weren’t about to let the baby out of our sight.

Eventually everything Vaughn and I owned was cardboard-bound and standing in the driveway. I didn’t think the packers could possibly get it all into the twenty foot container, but somehow they did. When they finished, there wasn’t even room to squeeze in a matchbox.

I felt nothing. It was just stuff. I could live without it all. Let it go to Australia. Abi saw it for the reality it was, but kept her tears bottled up inside herself.

I said good-bye to the house. It was just a shell. Part of the past. Must look forward.

But actually I lived entirely in the present for the next few weeks, in a state of anachronic myopia, unable to focus on the past or the future. I had a lovely time with my children and grandchildren, making the most of every second, and completely ignoring the fact that I would soon be on my way. It was a special time of closeness, during which I insulated myself by blocking out thoughts of the pain to come.

The children felt it though, and Nikki developed terrible headaches and had to be hospitalised two days before I left.  No diagnosis was found, and I felt responsible. I thought it was the sign I had been looking for, that I shouldn’t leave. But somehow, I seemed to be on automatic pilot, heading for Australia. I managed to say good-bye to her, in her hospital bed. We both cried, but she was strong, so I was strong, and my body kept going on its way to the airport, but my heart stayed behind.

Many tears were shed the afternoon I left, but by the time I reached the airport I was back in my layer of insulation, focussing on the matter of getting through passport control and on to the right plane, almost as if it were happening to someone else. But as the plane took off and I watched the African land disappear behind clouds, sadness engulfed me and I cried until I finally fell exhausted into a restless   and uncomfortable sleep.


A Miracle

Within two weeks, Edward’s speech had started to improve, but his co-ordination had deteriorated. We did not know if this was a further manifestation of the brain damage, or if perhaps it were mimicry. He was in a school where ‘normal’  behaviours were the exception. The more dysfunctional he became, the more attention he received.  I believed he was bored and putting on an act, but with clinical evidence of brain damage, there was little to support my theory. Michael refused to discuss the situation and I felt very far from home.

Edward was on prayer lists in England and South Africa, but the only thing that did improve was his speech.

Meanwhile the emotional gap between Michael and I grew wider and I look back on that year with shame. Divorce was imminent, but instead of facing up to the confrontations and hurt, I ran away. As always, my refuge lay in England. One afternoon I picked the children up from school and drove straight to the airport, leaving a trail of devastation behind me. In my haste to leave, I omitted to pack common sense and loyalty, instead taking a suitcase full of irresponsibility. This time my parents weren’t so thrilled to see me.

However, Nigel’s first wife, Sarah squashed everyone up together and made room for us all in their tiny cottage. She listened to me long into the night and encouraged me wisely. Nigel was away most of the time, perhaps it coincided with the time he was flying aid into Africa for the Save the Children Fund.

I enrolled the children at the village school, but because Edward had been at a special school, he was not immediately accepted. He was subjected to another run of the same tests, which I felt were quite unnecessary as we knew what the results would be.

But we were wrong. This brain scan showed absolutely no evidence of damage. The doctor we saw told me that there was nothing wrong with Edward, except low self-esteem. There were children in conventional schools who had worse speech problems than him, and he could be seen by the peripatetic speech therapist. Our prayers had been answered after all. The two brain scans could have been from two different children. But they weren’t. Our little boy had been healed and we had witnessed a miracle.


More about Edward

Around this time we started getting worried about Edward’s speech. Having three older sisters to translate for him, we thought he was just being a lazy boy. He understood everything we said to him but when he answered, he substituted a ‘d’ sound for almost every consonant, but we all managed to get the gist of what he was trying to say.

After having three little girls who were relatively easy babies, the arrival of a boy came as a bit of a shock, although I guessed that maybe all boys were more difficult. Or maybe just ‘more’. More affectionate, more clumsy, more noisy, and more hungry.  Edward didn’t sleep for longer than two hours at a time at night until he was two and a half, and seldom at all during the day. He was out of his cot at the age of ten months, and very accident-prone.

To reassure myself about his speech, I made an appointment for him with our GP for a check-up. As usual we sat in the waiting room for an hour because the doctor was running late. By the time we got into the surgery Edward was bored with the various toys and stories I had taken along to entertain him and he lay on the floor and kicked the wall. The doctor took one look at him and said ‘I can see why you have problems with this child’.

I saw red. He wouldn’t have been so bored if the doctor hadn’t kept us waiting. She referred Edward for a battery of psychological tests and requested that both Michael and I attend. While Edward was undergoing a basic IQ test, Michael and I were placed in a children’s playroom with a one-way mirror. There was a doll’s house and various toys, but no magazines. We could see shapes of people behind the glass, obviously watching to see which toys we played with. I was so tempted to go up to the mirror and make faces, but maybe that was what they hoped would happen. I disappointed them and took a book out of my bag while Michael sat looking at his watch and growing irritable.

The outcome of it was that Edward was hyperactive, and I did not know how to handle a hyperactive child. I was then referred to a Miss Smidt for counselling, who being an unmarried lady, no doubt knew all about raising children. After two sessions she had completely negated everything I believed in without offering me a practical alternative. I was indecisive and pathetic and it was impacting on my children. So I did the only sensible thing and stopped going.

After a while I took Edward to a private speech therapist twice a week. We kept this up for eighteen months, but little improved. She then referred the little boy for full assessment, which included an EEG and a brain scan.

We were told that the EEG showed epilepsy, although at that stage I was certain he had never had a seizure of any sort. He didn’t go to crèche or nursery school. He was with me all the time, so I would have known. The professional opinion was that the epilepsy was latent and would probably appear around puberty.  The brain scan showed damage to the cerebral cortex which might have been caused before or during birth or from any one of his little tumbles. The best prognosis they could offer was that Edward would make sheltered employment and we were advised to send him to the school for cerebral palsied children.

We were devastated. Michael refused to accept the diagnosis and retreated into himself. When I took Edward to the school and saw children with every form of disability, I could not believe this was the right place for him. He was a bright little boy who just happened to speak a language all of his own. I went home and cried until it was time to fetch him.



I would imagine that anyone who saw a woman travelling alone with four children aged between two and seven prayed they wouldn’t be sitting anywhere close to me. In those days it was permissible to let the children sleep on the floor, which we did, so had a very easy flight, with a little help from Phenergan.

Michael met us at the airport and took us to see the brand new house he had bought, which was almost finished. Choosing new furniture and fittings felt like a celebration of a fresh start. Days were busy sorting out schools and shops and systems. I found I soon made friends, partly through the children, and partly through church. But again I longed for those blue airmail envelopes.

Michael played cricket and bought a boat, so weekends were always busy. But although I made some special friends, they couldn’t just replace the old ones. I ached for my family and my good friends in Bath.  I didn’t really communicate my feelings to my husband, and although our geography had changed, we were still the same people. Any issues we had had were ignored in the business of settling into a new life. So we carried on growing in our own individual directions.

The lifestyle we led sheltered us from the reality of apartheid, and I was unprepared when, during a weekend away with the cricket team we found ourselves confronted with a political situation.

We had booked to stay at one of the mine villages, where one of the cricketers had some business connections. We checked in and I stretched out on the bed, luxuriating in idleness. A little later we sauntered down to the pool area and met up with the other members of the team. Conversations flowed along with the beers and the wine. More people arrived, amongst them, the one coloured team member and his family. He greeted everybody, then went to speak quietly to the captain, whereupon they both disappeared.

We were all very puzzled, because before any cricket function was arranged, the first thing they checked was that all facilities were multi-racial.

The captain re-appeared, looking grim. Apparently the mine club was under new management, as of the previous day, and the new managers had refused to honour their predecessor’s verbal agreement that all facilities would be available to everyone in our party, regardless of colour or creed. Our coloured family had received just one more stab in the constantly raw wound of prejudice.

They wanted to drive straight back to Johannesburg, but were somehow persuaded to stay for the night, believing that everything would be cleared up in the morning. The fire crackled and the steaks sizzled. Political opinions grew louder and more emphatic, proportionally to the number of beers consumed.

It was the season of Halley, and people kept disappearing into the darkness armed with binoculars, reappearing either totally disillusioned or mildly excited, depending on their level of alcohol and the strength of their binoculars.

A tennis tournament had been arranged for the following day, and only those with severe hangovers were excused. The coloured family were there, joining in, so everybody assumed that somebody had straightened out the problem with the management. But nobody had. At lunchtime, our people drove home, and some of the others followed suit. The rest of us had soul searching family discussions, and, to my shame, we stayed for another night. We questioned ourselves: would our mass departure have changed the policy of the mine club management, or would they merely have shrugged their shoulders and said ‘voorspoed, hoor’?

For weeks I was tormented by what had happened. How could we make compensation to a family who had grown up being told they were second-class? How could those children be expected to feel anything other than hatred for the white people who turned them away, again and again? By what logic were our dirty sticky children, who had not hit soap and shower all weekend, allowed to contaminate the pool, while those beautifully turned out, immaculately clean coloured children had to stand outside the fence, watching, smiles on their lips, pain in their eyes?

But sympathy is an empty and meaningless emotion if it does not precipitate some practical action.

And I have no excuse. In our white South African suburb we were insulated against the harshness of apartheid. The news told us what we wanted to hear. The papers gave away nothing about the hardships people of colour were facing. We were told of riots between opposing Black tribes, but that had been happening since before the days of Shaka, the most famous or infamous Zulu chief.

So in guilty semi-ignorance we continued life in our little bubble.