Monthly Archives: June 2015

The hyena’s breath

Most of my friends’ eyes begin to glaze over as soon as I mention the Kruger National Park. This is because it’s such a wonderful place that I enthuse about it far more than I should.

I first went to the Kruger, as it is affectionately called in South Africa, when I was a primary school child. The first day there we spent peering into the bush to spot animals through the window of my dad’s 1949 Pontiac Silver Streak. I became so over-excited that I vomited ceaselessly the entire next day and I had to stay behind in the campsite with my mum.

I remember little of my next visit to the Kruger, because on that occasion I floated about the place in a romantic haze. We were only there for two or three days, when I took my fiancée Gill to South Africa to introduce her to my family en route to England, where we were due to get married. My parents, my brother Charel and his wife Marlien took us there to showcase the beauty and variety of their country to the English bride-to-be.

I can only remember a single animal-spotting incident during that visit. We came across a white lion, the rarest of rare beasts in the Kruger. Although a small group of white lions had lived in the Timbavati area for decades, there are so few of them in the Kruger that they are seldom seen. The others were breathless with surprise and excitement. Then Gill, unaware of the momentous significance of the occasion, asked my brother, “Do you think we’ll get to see any normal lions too?”

Many years later, when our children were small, I ran into our orthodontist friend Paul at a social occasion.

“I’ve visited your old country earlier this year,” he told me. “We went to this place called the Kruger National Park.”

“How did you like it?” I enquired.

“You know, Tim, I’ve done a lot of travelling in my time, but I haven’t been that excited over any place since I was a child.” I recalled my own excitement in the Kruger as a child. There and then I decided to visit the Kruger Park with my family.

A few months afterwards we flew to South Africa for a visit to the relatives and to visit the Kruger. I left the traveling arrangements in South Africa to Charel, who picked us up at the Johannesburg airport and took us to his house in Pretoria. He told us to have a quick shower before we set off for the Kruger.

“Today?” I asked in disbelief, having just spent twenty plus hours in an aeroplane.

“Yes,” he said, “and get a move on. The camp gates close at 6 pm”.

We arrived at the camp in time. Charel pitched two tents right next to the perimeter fence, one for him and Marlien and one for our family. Darkness descended in the blink of an eye. He set about barbecuing meat and boerewors (the traditional South African farmer’s sausages) on a grill over the glowing coals.

After we had eaten, looking somewhat furtive, he told us quietly: “We’re not allowed to feed any wild animals here, but I brought along an old T-bone so that we can attract a hyena for your Aussie kids to see.” He took out a huge bone and threw it over the fence.

Hardly a minuted had passed when our son Neil whispered to me, “I think the hyena is here, Dad.”

“Rubbish.” I said dismissively. “He won’t just appear that quickly.”

But Charel passed his torch to Neil and told him to have a look. Neil pointed the torch at the fence, switched it on, and there, not two metres away from us on the other side of the fence, stood a large hyena who proceeded to crush the bone in its mouth as if it were a mere rice cracker. I could see why the hyena is so renowned for its strong bite, proportional to its size.

I rather like hyenas, despite their loping gate and ill-proportioned bodies. They have lovely dog-like eyes, in stark contrast to the icy cold and merciless yellow eyes of lions, which send a shiver down your spine when you see them close to your car.

But my brother is less fond of them. When he told me that a hyena’s breath is one of the foulest-smelling in the animal kingdom he spoke from personal experience. Hyenas are consummate scavengers that will feast on putrid meat with as little effect on its constitution as if you and I were to eat a piece of toast with marmalade.

154 Kruger - Hyena with carcass

When I went back to South Africa last year, Marlien told me about their recent visit to the Kruger. Accompanied by Marlien’s friend Willana, they erected their two tents next to the perimeter fence as usual. After dark they had a braai (barbecue) and drank a fair quantity of wine. When Marlien and Willana decided to call it a day and go bed, Charel, who was quite merry by this stage, decided to stay behind at the fire and have another glass or two of wine.

Close to midnight Marlien and Willana were woken by a series of unearthly howls. As they emerged from their tents in bewilderment they saw Charel lurching about, wildly wiping his shoulder-long hair with his hands, and screaming incoherently. It transpired that he had kept on drinking until he had passed out right next to the fence. He had been brought back to consciousness by the awful smell of rotten flesh and by something tugging at the hair at the back of his head. It was a hyena that had tried to bite his head through the fence.

Marlien ended her account by asking Charel, hands on her hips, as is often her stance when she has a point of importance to make to him: “Now tell us, Charel, what lesson have you learnt from that episode?”

Without missing a beat he responded, “Well, in the Kruger you should never pass out right beside the fence.”

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BAREFOOT LIBRARIAN

I first met Karina Parina when I started my new job with Papua New Guinea’s National Library Service in Port Moresby in 1980. She was a shy, softly spoken 21-year old girl from the village of Tubusereia, about an hour’s drive eastwards along the coast from Port Moresby.

My job at the National Library was to arrange training programs for the Papua New Guinean library staff, to enable them to fill the positions that were occupied at the time by sixteen expatriate librarians. As my job involved working with staff across the organisation on an ongoing basis, my first challenge was to learn everyone’s names. I clearly remember my first introduction to Karina because her lovely rhyming name was impossible to forget.

Like most of the other Papua New Guinean staff members she went about the library barefoot. A few of the others wore rubber thongs. In the tropical heat, we Westerners also abandoned our shoes and socks before long and converted to wearing rubber thongs. For appointments with important people such as the Minister for Education or senior public servants I kept a pair of more respectable leather thongs in my office.

It was far too hot and humid to wear a tie. The only ties we ever saw were worn by overseas businessmen and consultants disembarking from the planes at the airport. Such ties were quickly taken off as the sweat stains expanded on their shirts. with their jackets hanging despondently over their arms.

The names of my Papua New Guinean colleagues are forever engraved in my brain – Paul Dubai, Wiko Bona, Watorea Ivara, Ben Gar, Uru Hoahu, Otto Kakaw, Anita Bagiau, Cathy Bomboman, Geoffrey Bundu, Liz Kwarara and all the others. I loved their unusual names, and admired their colourful shirts and blouses, lap laps and hand-woven string bags called bilums that were used as de facto handbags by the women as well as the men.

During my time in Port Moresby I became so attached to my own bilum, given to me as a present by one of the staff, that I once carried it with me into a medical specialist’s waiting room in Harley Street in London during a visit to my in-laws. The only other person waiting in the room was wearing a dark pin-stripe suit and was reading The Times. He looked up as I entered, glanced briefly at my bilum, and showed his disapproval in that typical, barely perceptible British manner, by the minutest arching of an eyebrow before he returned to his newspaper.

Karina invited three of us Westerners to visit her home village one Saturday. There was only one small ‘shop’ in the village. It looked like someone’s village house with a little counter built on to the front. The shop stocked a few sparse items like canned food, matches and soft drinks. Many of the houses in the village, including Karina’s family home, were built on stilts over the sea. For these houses there was no sewage system in place.

Karina and a few of the other villagers took us out to sea on an engine-powered outrigger canoe, so that we could have a look at the village from a different perspective. The wind blew through our hair and took the edge off the tropical heat. We felt privileged that we had been given this opportunity to see a traditional Papua New Guinean stilt village and Karina clearly enjoyed showing us around her people’s place.

It quickly became apparent that she was a highly intelligent person who had the potential, with a bit of additional training and experience, to take over from one of the expatriates at the National Library. With funding obtained from the Australian Development and Assistance Bureau, I arranged to send her to Adelaide for three months on a training attachment to a modern Australian public library.

But first, we had to get Karina used to wearing shoes. We bought her a pair of shoes and got her to practise walking in them along one of the aisles in the National Library’s staff area. The grapevine must have been active because the other Papua New Guinean library staff quickly congregated to observe this free performance. They were consumed by mirth when Karina wobbled uncertainly down the aisle in the shoes.

I eagerly awaited her return from Adelaide, anticipating Karina sharing with me her impressions of that city’s impressive buildings, clean footpaths, roads that are free from potholes, impressive array of modern shops, safe and reliable public transport, excellent medical services, and uninterrupted water and power supply.

On her return to Port Moresby I picked her up at the airport.

“So, how did you like Adelaide, Karina?” I asked.

She frowned and, in her soft voice, declared, “It’s a terrible place, Tim.”

I was taken aback. “What do you mean? Were some of the people there nasty to you?”

“No, it’s not that,” she said. “But you should see how they treat the old people there. All the buses are full of old people with grey hair who have to travel to the shops and do their own shopping! Where are their children? Where are their nieces and nephews? Why are they not doing the shopping for their old people?” Karina was outraged.

It was then that I suddenly realised how, despite our wonderful buildings, shops brimming with consumer goods and material welfare, we Westerners have lost something of enormous value – the daily care of, and concern for, our older people and the close, comforting and strong supportive bonds with one’s direct and extended family. I was ashamed of my own Western arrogance, having unthinkingly assumed that everything we had in Australia was more desirable and impressive than that of the Papua New Guineans.

The fact that other cultures, including those in developing countries, are superior to our own in some critically important ways, was a lesson that I had to learn from a 21-year old village girl from a stilt village in Papua New Guinea.

*

Postscript

Karina Parina, now Mrs Karina Bundu, went on to become the National Librarian of Papua New Guinea.

Stilt village 12

Karina Parina (carrying a fuel can) at her home village in 1981.

 

ANOTHER POINT OF VIEW, by Robert Jaentsch

Robert Jaentsch and I belong to the same creative writing group in Eltham (in Melbourne, Australia). Over time we have become good friends. Robert has kindly given me permission to publish this piece of his on my blog.

I am certain, that like me, all of you have enjoyed Tim Bruwer’s accounts of his native South Africa, always well constructed, informative and entertaining. But the thing you have to remember is that Tim was a renegade, run out of town by a hostile political regime.

At the time of Tim’s departure, our family had taken up residence in Johannesburg and I would like to present you with an entirely different point of view – a glimpse of a South Africa you may never have known existed.

Did you know that this year South Africa was declared the most beautiful country on Earth? For over a decade now, Cape Town has been the most favoured tourist destination of the most affluent countries of Europe. One of its first public relations benefactors was Francis Drake, who described it as “the fairest cape in all the world.”

When Tim departed that land, South Africa was one of the world’s most stable economies, with a high level of foreign investment and a robust exchange rate. In those days, one Rand (the local unit of currency) would buy US one dollar and 20 cents. Today one Rand will buy you US eight cents!

By any measure of prosperity, white South Africans had the highest standard of living in the world, by a fairly large margin. And let it not be forgotten that though black South Africans had nowhere near the same standard of living, they were vastly better off than in any other African nation that had gained independence from their European colonisers, and they did not rely on international aid for their existence.

A benefit of living in South Africa we greatly appreciated was its education system – quite possibly the finest in the world. Mrs J and I are eternally grateful that our daughter received all her education there and our son most of his. We were able to place our 15 year old son in a well regarded private school in Melbourne. On his first day he stood up when the teacher entered the classroom, as he would have done in South Africa. When the classroom full of boys booed and jeered at him he thought we had brought him to a land of barbarians. Attitudes were different in South Africa.

Back then the only universities in the southern hemisphere that were ranked in the top one hundred were UCT (University of Cape Town) and Wits (University of the Witwatersrand).

Medical systems and facilities were also on par with the world’s best. At the age of 13 our son had open heart surgery in South Africa. When we came to Australia and he had to go for a check up the cardiologist said to him, “That’s a fine piece of surgery. Who did it?” Karl replied, “It was done by Mr Kingsley and his team in South Africa,” to which the cardiologist said, “You were extremely fortunate. Mr Kingsley’s team is one of the best in the world.”

Everyone knows that Dr Christiaan Barnard performed the first human heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. As a point of interest, an uncle of Tim’s was the immunologist on that occasion. But did you know that the uranium enrichment process was developed by the Atomic Energy Board at Pelindaba in the Transvaal? Or that South Africa still leads the world in oil from coal technology and also deep level mining? Back then they were extracting gold bearing ore one mile below the earth’s surface and were confident they could extract from a depth of two miles, though it would require a leap in the gold price to make it workable.

Back then, too, South Africa was the only African nation that was a net exporter of food. Also it became a major manufacturer and exporter of armaments, driven to this by trade embargoes because of its apartheid policy. It manufactured or assembled more different makes of motor car than any other country. In fact, today, if you buy a Mercedes Benz or BMW automobile in Australia, chances are it will have been made in South Africa.

At the end of last week’s class Tim, Bruce and I stood chatting on the pathway to our U3A classroom, blocking the thoroughfare, as blokes will. I happened to mention Franschhoek, as pretty a small town as anywhere on the planet. Tim told us his Huguenot ancestors settled there in the seventeenth century. He said, “Don’t say any more, you’re making me feel homesick.” As he turned to say goodbye, I fancy I saw the glint of a tear in his eye.

A dangerous fanatic

I used to think of my great-grandfather, the Boer General Paul Roux, as the old General. It was only recently that I found out that he was only 48 years old when he died. I never knew him personally, as he had died long before my birth, but my grandmother—his eldest daughter—talked about him sometimes and this gave me a sense of the kind of person that he was.

He originally wanted to become a journalist, but after being exposed to the sermons of Dr Andrew Murray, a Dutch Reformed missionary whom had been sent from Scotland to South Africa, he decided on becoming a church minister in the Dutch Reformed Church.

On hindsight I can’t really blame my great-grandfather for hating the British. At the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 he joined the Boer forces and fought as a guerrilla fighter. He was considered to be exceptionally brave and clever and was soon promoted to the position of Fighting General (Veg-Generaal). During the war he was caught by the British forces and banished to Ceylon where he remained for two years until the end of the war. He was held there in captivity for eight months before anyone in his family found out what had happened to him.

General Roux’s wife, Hettie, was sent to a British concentration camp in Winburg in the Orange Free State along with her two young children and their fox terrier, Vix. General Lord Kitchener, the British military commander, became so frustrated with the Boers’ guerrilla warfare tactics that he embarked on a strategy of flushing out the Boer guerrillas by clearing the countryside of everything that could possibly sustain them—farmhouses and farm buildings, horses, cattle, sheep, and even the women and children. This caused enormous bitterness amongst the Boer folk, which in some quarters has not entirely dissipated to this day.

Hettie was told at 6 pm that they would be leaving shortly after midnight for the concentration camp. Her one young daughter, Marie, was very ill from typhus, so she immediately appealed to the British officers to be allowed to stay at home until her daughter had recovered. Her pleas fell on deaf ears and the child was taken along in an oxwagon in her sick condition. Because the disease was so contagious, Hettie and her two daughters had to live for more than a month in a small tent well away from the women’s concentration camp.

When news of his family’s fate reached General Roux in Ceylon, he appealed to Lord Kitchener to let his family leave the concentration camp and be permitted to go and live with his wife’s family in Paarl, near Cape Town in the Cape Province. Lord Kitchener personally intervened and their move to Paarl was allowed.

After the war a small town in the Orange Free State was renamed Paul Roux in the General’s honour. Today it has a population of 5,722. Initially there was a divergence of opinion as to what the town should be named. To decide on the final name, the contending names were painted on a boulder, which was rolled down from the hill above the town. The boulder came to a standstill with the name “Paul Roux” face up.

According to my grandmother, the General was a “bitter-ender” who detested the British with a vengeance for going to war against the Boer Republics and for their brutal tactics during the war. He was a crack shot and he told his children with pride how he used to shoot the British soldiers neatly between the eyes. Despite this, my grandmother had a great fondness for the English. When I asked her about it once, she told me how the Boer guerrilla fighters would come to their house in the middle of the night to stock up on provisions. They stank and wore rags and their manners were uncouth. The English soldiers who came by, on the other hand, had lovely manners and always looked smart in their khaki uniforms. A glint appeared in her eyes when she spoke of the English.

Roux eventually became the minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in Beaufort West, a large country town in the Cape Province. He loved the outdoors life and regularly went fishing and hunting, two of his favourite pastimes. In 1910 he travelled to Central Africa with a friend on a hunting trip. This is where disaster struck. He was stung by the feared tsetse fly and contracted sleeping sickness. As my grandmother put it, this was quite ironic because he had suffered from severe insomnia ever since he had contracted typhus fever while he was a university student.

His wife Hettie travelled to Nyasaland to join her ill husband. The Governor of Nyasaland provided a warship to transport the couple across Lake Nyassa, from where they travelled by boat down the river to Chinde on the coast of central Mozambique. The Portuguese government arranged and funded the couple’s travel back to Beaufort West, where he died on 8 June 1911.

A few years ago when I travelled in South Africa with my English wife, Gill, we stayed overnight in a hotel in Beaufort West. The next morning, having cleared a thick layer of frost from our rental car’s windscreen, we drove to the Dutch Reformed Church to look at the plinth that was erected in General Roux’s memory in the church grounds where he is buried. I whispered to Gill: “Do you hear that rumbling? That is the old General turning in his grave because his great-grandson had married an Englishwoman.”

I was actively involved in the anti-Apartheid movement and anyone with my views was generally considered by the Afrikaners as a traitor to the nation and called a kafferboetie (an offensive term which equates to ‘brother of the kaffirs’). My mum and dad knew about my views and I had many arguments with them about South African politics during that period. Whilst acknowledging my opinions to be valid in some respects, they considered my anger about the injustices and institutionalised racism in South Africa to be somewhat extreme.

In 1984, while I was a persona non grata in South Africa, my parents visited me in Melbourne so that I could say farewell to my mum who had terminal cancer. I had just finished reading Thomas Pakenham’s book The Boer War, in which General Roux is mentioned.

“Just listen to what they say in this book about your grandfather,” I said to my mum, and read the following passage to her:

(Captain Bromley-Davenport wrote) “I had a long talk with Roux, the fighting parson of Senekal, a very dangerous fanatic … I am glad we have got him.”

My mum gave me a knowing smile and remarked drily: “It must run in the family.”

THE CREATOR OF FLOODS

When I visited South Africa in 1992 after a prolonged absence I found that my brother Charel had changed into a different person during the intervening years. His job as a scientist with the Department of Water Affairs required him to spend about three months of every year in remote rural areas. We had both grown up as city boys, but he had morphed into a real bushie.

He invited me to go with him on a work trip to Zululand. On the way there he told me that the government had built a dam on the Phongolo River nineteen years earlier that had affected the ecology and the black villagers living along the flood plains downstream from the dam. During the wet season the river used to flood and the entire subsistence economy of the local Zulu villages had revolved around these floods. They had their cattle, but their main source of food was the maize, pumpkins and other vegetables that they would plant in the rich soil on the riverbank as the floods subsided.

The dam was constructed to provide irrigation for white farmers and recreational activities such as water skiing and fishing for white holiday-makers. In those days the needs of black people counted for nothing in the minds of the white government. The consequences of damming the river on the Zulu villagers downstream along the Phongolo River were completely ignored.

When the Phongolo River first attracted Charel’s attention as a limnologist he found that there were no roads that would allow him to get to the river and to the flood plains, so he asked a university in Durban to undertake a flight over the area and to take aerial photographs for him. He used the photos to locate cattle tracks along which he could drive his 4WD to get to the water. I was amazed at how easily this different version of my brother could find his way around in the remote bush.

“I’m going to show you the flood that I’ve just organised,” he told me. He said that he had discussed the absence of floods with the local Zulu chieftains, with Clive, an anthropologist friend who spoke Zulu fluently, acting as his interpreter. Clive had told him how outraged the chieftains were because the floods had stopped, with devastating effects on their crops.

Charel set up a water committee comprising himself and the local chieftains. At the first meeting of the committee he asked the chieftains when they would prefer a flood to occur. They negotiated a date that was acceptable to all of them. He told them that he would see what he could do about the floods.

Later, back in Pretoria at the Department of Water Affairs, Charel managed to convince his boss to allow him to arrange a flood by opening the sluice gates and letting water out of the dam for a limited period of time. The problems experienced by the Zulu villagers would not have swayed any white bureaucrat at the time, but he based his argument on the negative ecological effects downstream due to the lack of normal seasonal floods.

On the agreed date the sluice gates were opened and the first man-made flood on the Phongolo River occurred, to the amazement and delight of the Zulu chieftains downstream.

                                                                       *

Charel and I arrived at a Zulu village along the river. There were no mod cons such as electricity or water taps. The women would peer around carefully for crocodiles before quickly filling their buckets from the river. Afterwards they would boil the water on their open fires to kill off any water-borne parasites before using it for drinking water and for washing.

We slept on old mattresses on the ground under a stretched canvas that Charel had rigged up. The nearest pit toilet had no door. I asked him what to do if someone approached while I was sitting on the toilet. “When you hear anyone coming, just clear your throat to let them know you are using the toilet and they’ll keep their distance until you’ve finished.”

He opened a large metal trunk in the boot of his vehicle. It contained a great variety of foodstuffs, including delicacies such as tins of smoked mussels. “Good grief,” I exclaimed, “this is amazing!”

Charel grinned and said, “Just because we are in the middle of the Zululand bush it doesn’t mean we have to eat like the bloody blacks.”

That night I could hear the beating of drums somewhere in the distance and smell the smoke from the villagers’ fires. I could hear the click sounds of the Zulu language as the villagers conversed with each other. The stars were incredibly bright in the night sky. My heart soared.

The following day we drove to the dam wall and watched as the sluice gates opened at the pre-arranged time. A deafening torrent of water escaped from the dam and thundered down the riverbed.

Charel had asked one of the villagers to take me out on the river in a canoe the following day. Early that morning we were dropped off downstream with the canoe and spent the whole day paddling back up to the village. Only the tops of some large trees protruded above the water, which had risen by at least seven metres because of the flood. At one stage I suggested that we should row towards the top of a tree that was protruding out of the swirling water to have a look, but the villager said, “Au, that’s not a good idea. Every snake in this whole area will be up in that bit of tree.” We eventually arrived at the village just on dusk.

My brother is an old-fashioned Afrikaner who still clings tightly to his people’s original racist views in a country that has been governed by the black majority for more than twenty years since the end of Apartheid. During a recent visit I was appalled to find that he still used the old offensive Afrikaans racist terms when referring to black or coloured people.

But then, one morning, I asked him if he had been back to Zululand in recent times. He said that he had recently visited the same village where I had stayed with him. “I’ve told my family that they must send some of my ashes up there after I’ve died,” he told me. “The chieftain insists that a part of me must be buried in their village, because I was the one who had brought the annual floods back.”