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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Zanzibar

We delayed our honeymoon until we had been married for a few months. It gave us time to save up and plan. We decided on exotic Zanzibar, which had not yet become the popular holiday destination it is today.

Our trip started at the Mbweni Ruins, where we sipped Tamarind juice and swam through the mangroves. We dined on King prawn, followed by King fish, watching the sun set over the ocean. Two figures, silhouetted against the pink wash, poled their dhow across our horizon. Bats darted from trees into the blackness.

In Stone Town we sauntered through the narrow lanes looking at antique bazaars and mini shops. There were no sweets or crisps for sale, and no litter. The local people bore their poverty proudly, and we saw no beggars. In the fish market we watched as octopus were pounded on the muddy floor for traditional tenderising. The air was thick with flies. We saw strange exotic fruit and were offered tastes of Jack fruit and tiny pink bananas.

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We were glad we had pre-booked a guide for the week, as Iddy took us down narrow alleyways we wouldn’t have ventured into on our own. He showed us the local antique bazaars and mini shops displaying baskets of aromatic spices.

We walked around the Anglican cathedral, which was built on the old slave-trading ground, and we scrunched down to enter the dingy dungeon where the slaves were crammed together awaiting their fate. We learnt about the influence of the mixed cultures of Zanzibar, particularly the Arab style buildings, with their ornately carved wooden doors.

Iddy drove us to the Dhow shipyard, where huge wooden boats were being repaired, past the old Portuguese Port, and on to the ruins of the Sultan’s Palace, where vast mango trees once gave shelter to the ladies of the harem. A system of aqueducts was all that remained to show the sophistication of their architecture and engineering. At the highest point of the island were the remains of a steam bath built by the Sultan for his lady.

One cannot visit Zanzibar without doing a Spice tour, and ours took us through fields and farms in our unsuitable footwear. But we soon forgot our discomfort as we were shown the fascinating plant life on which these enterprising people have made their living for centuries. We tasted and touched cloves, cinnamon bark, turmeric and ginger until we smelt like Christmas puddings.

The villages we drove through consisted of little cottages with characteristic roofs in ‘makuti’ or interwoven palm leaves.

The second leg of our holiday was spent at Mapenzi. On our first evening there, while we were enjoying a wonderful candle-lit dinner, mysterious people had been into our bedroom and laid a heart of bougainvillea petals on the bed with a gift and a card wishing us a happy honeymoon. How could it be anything else in such a romantic setting?

Over the next few days we walked many miles along the shore. We snorkelled, we collected shells, we canoed. The whiteness of the palm-fringed beaches was dazzling as we rode bikes far along the hard compacted sand. We returned saddle-sore to paddle through the warm silent ocean, carefully avoiding the minefield of spiny sea urchins. The tide line was a necklace of beautiful shells.

Ras Nungwi is a fishing village located at the extreme northern point of the island. The beach is powdery white sand and the water is clear turquoise. We went there on a bright green bus. We passed baobabs that looked as if they had been planted upside-down, and villages with no plumbing or electricity. There were no dogs, nor any visible wild life. We took fins and snorkels and swam for many hours, just awed by the wonderful marine world. Dolphins performed for us in the distance.

Our five days on the island paradise went far too quickly, and before we knew it, our guide arrived to greet us ‘Habari za asubuhi’, and it was time to leave.

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Holiday Weekends

Vaughn and I were married on a sunny day in November, a small ceremony with close family and a few friends. Edward’s double duties as ‘father of the bride’ and ‘best man’ were interrupted when he had to run off in search of the minister who had been watching rugby and was nowhere to be seen. My little bridesmaid, eighteen-month-old Megan, spied her mother at the far end of the church and tripped on her long dress as she ran down the aisle.

Soon after our wedding, we moved into our own house to begin our new life together. Edward lived with us, and Vaughn’s two daughters spent every second weekend and half the school holidays with us.

Every winter Vaughn and I allowed ourselves one luxury hiking weekend, which meant that instead of tents or communal huts, we stayed in a decent chalet with decent beds and decent hot water showers.

The first time we stayed at Tendele in the Drakensberg Mountains, we planned to spend  a full day walking, then return for a civilised meal of fillet steak and salad with a bottle of red wine.

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We set off in our dry-macs and hiking boots, carrying water and snacks, binoculars and camera. The route we had chosen should have been thirteen kilometres, which was manageable in the day. We started off well, following the yellow hoof prints. The sun came out and the dry-macs went into the backpack.

As I huffed and puffed to what appeared to be the peak, I found a brief levelling off before the next peak. The mountains went on and on and up and up, never seeming to reach the ultimate peak. Somehow our eyes must have become blurred, with sweat in Vaughn’s case and possibly tears in mine, because we found we had inadvertently lost the yellow hoof-prints and were now following the blue ones.

Twenty one kilometres later, just as dusk was falling, we saw Tendele in the distance. Too tired to even make a cup of tea, we fell into bed for a brief snooze before dinner. We never did wake up for that steak.

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A less luxurious spot was Mount Everest, which was only three hours’ drive from Johannesburg. The wind whistled around our tent at night and we were generally in bed by seven o’ clock. The walks were good, and one time we were accompanied the whole day by a friendly brown dog. Fortunately that was not the day that I had my first experience with a chain ladder.

The chain ladder was the only means of access round a sharp corner where the rocks fell away to a deep crevice. I looked at it in horror. And panic. There were animal droppings around, which I pointed out to Vaughn. Even the rabbits shat themselves when they looked down.

But I either had to go on, or walk the ten kilometres or so back the way we had come. So I took a deep breath and tried not to whimper or look down. I was on it. I edged along, my knuckles white and my palms sweating into the rust created by sweat from earlier nervous hikers. Then it was over. My feet were on firm rock. But never again, I thought!

However, we did come across another one, and it was very high, but that was where the dice had landed, so the choice was either up the ladder or down the long snake back.

Before I met Vaughn, he had spent a lot of time under water. He was a keen scuba diver and belonged to a club that organised a dive trip somewhere almost every weekend. Vaughn joined them less often after we were married, but when he did go, he included Edward and myself in the trip.

One time it was arranged for the whole group to stop overnight in a tree house. I had rather grandiose ideas of an elegant little fully equipped cabin placed neatly in the fork of a huge tree. This was not a bit like that. It was big and on several levels. And it involved ladders. There were no furnishings or equipment, just bare boards. Fortunately we had brought plenty of food and water and enough beer to put us all to sleep.

We elected to sleep on the top level, so we put our sleeping bags up there before it got dark. The roof was barely a metre above the level of the floor, so we had to wriggle in and claim our positions. I was between Vaughn and Edward. At bedtime we negotiated the ladder, Vaughn first, shining the torch down, then me, followed by Edward.  I snuggled into my sleeping bag and gasped. There on the ceiling an arm’s reach above my face was a spider the size of my hand. As we shone the torch around, we saw there were about twenty spiders. And we were stuck there because the level below us was wall to wall sleeping bodies.

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I did realise the spiders were probably harmless rain spiders, but the thought of one landing on my face was too horrific. So I tunnelled down into my sleeping bag, pulling it right over my head and sealing the top as best I could. I must have fallen asleep like that because I woke up with a throbbing head. In the morning the spiders had all gone and the campers on the floor below us didn’t believe our story.

Hiking

Apart from enjoying wine, other interests Vaughn and I shared were hiking and classical music. We were able to attend monthly concerts by the Johannesburg Symphony orchestra, and we also joined a hiking club.

Our first hike took us through a hidden paradise. The land was privately owned, and was unknown to the general public. We climbed up a rocky koppie to find a crystal clear pool deep enough for swimming and a cool off. A waterfall cascaded from rocks above and each level we climbed provided another rock pool. There were small fish in the water that nibbled my toes. From the highest point where the water gurgled out of the rocks we could look down and see six or seven blue pools stepped down the mountain. From that moment I was hooked on hiking.

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We went to the next meeting of the Hiking club, which involved slides and refreshments. However, on the table with the tea or coffee were several cakes and a sign saying ‘Only one piece of cake per person please’. We thought perhaps we would look for a different hiking group that drank wine and didn’t watch how much you ate.

So we found another group but we didn’t get that quite right the first time either. We booked a weekend hike, and very conscious of the weight we would be carrying, we packed two-minute noodles, some biltong and tea bags. Fortunately we did take some port, which we had decanted into a plastic bottle. When all the hikers completed the first day of the walk, out came wine and beers from their backpacks, followed by steak, chops, salads and all the makings of a pretty good meal. We felt very miserable breathing in the appetising aroma of their meat grilling as we slurped our little noodle stew. But it was a lesson learnt!

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A New Relationship

Working in Sales seemed to involve a fair amount of friendly banter. However, once I was divorced, I found it much harder to joke in in case anything I said was  taken as a come-on.  Divorcee was not a hat I wore comfortably. If I dressed in anything short or tight I felt as if people, women actually, would think I was a slut and deserved to be divorced. If I tried to look ‘sensible’, I ended up looking frumpy, and I felt as if people, men actually, thought I was a dowdy freak and it was no wonder my husband left me.

One day one of my customers invited me to get a team together for a game of beach volleyball.  I put a notice on the board, and the first person to sign up was a project manager named Vaughn. He worked in a different department so we seldom bumped into each other in the office. He was really enthusiastic about sport, and encouraged many employees to join the volleyball team. As the sport became more popular, we decided to approach the General Manager for some sponsorship. He agreed, but only if we created a Sports and Social Club with a constitution and committee. We co-opted someone from the accounts department and wrote a lengthy constitution.

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At the first official general meeting, Vaughn was elected chairman and I was secretary. Thus we found ourselves thrown together several times a week as we planned a variety of functions and produced a simple newsletter.

Vaughn had been divorced slightly longer than me and helped me feel less of a failure in the relationship business. The first time he asked me out for lunch we were both nervous. We were so inhibited all we could manage to eat were the olives from the Greek salad. Strange how a different slant on a relationship changed our behaviour. Suddenly on our own, we regressed to adolescent self-consciousness.

But we went out again, and it all became easier. We discovered common interests. We both liked wine. Volleyball had been a ‘beer out of the can’ affair. Winter came, and it was good to sit and relax over a fine bottle of red. As we peeled away the outer layers of each other’s personalities we discovered new depths within ourselves.

Around this time Edward and I experienced a role reversal. One night I came home around ten thirty, to find him sitting up, hair standing on end from running his fingers through it.

‘Where on earth have you been?’ he asked. ‘Do you realise it’s half past ten?’

I found the whole situation quite hilarious, bearing in mind the number of nights I’d lain awake worrying about him. But in the sober light of day, I did realise I needed to set a better example and keep our lines of communication open.

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