Family Places

See this patch of earth?

It's not very big, but in our family, that's known as "The Farm".  Situated just to the east of Pretoria, it's a plot of land that has belonged to my mother's dad for decades.  He has bred birds there, a variety of animals, and done a bit of subsistance farming - nothing large-scale, just a home-life to his work-life as a Datsun mechanic in the city.  He has always had a plot of land out of town - this one has been in the family for the longest of them all.

That's the place we would trek to every December holidays from Zimbabwe when I was growing up.  It's the place where some of my fondest holiday memories reside.  This old tractor is (generally) still going strong - and that's me age 2 on it.

 When we were all much younger, gramps had an assortment of horses.  One of them, Rango, was a gentle old soul that we'd all ride at the first opportunity.

Unfortunately the beast occasionally got it into its head that it did not want to be ridden, and would scrape us off under the nearest thorn tree.  Inevitably holidays had their fair share of bumps and bruises, but that was all part of the fun for my brothers and I.

When Rango eventually kicked the bucket, he was buried under a tree on the farm, near where he loved to ditch us.  Later years saw the miniature horse tribe arrive, which gramps bred for a good few years and sold on.  This is my son on one of them.

There have always been cows, my grandpa's aviaries, and a few open fields to play in.

Or plough...  This pic below tells a bit of a story.  My brothers, who had never driven a tractor before, were stuck on this machine, and taken into the big field below the house to plough it under reasonably remote supervision.  Gramps put the thing in gear, showed them where the accelerator and steering wheel was, and let them at it.  Shortly after this pic was taken, the plough hit a large stone and got stuck.  Not knowing how to stop the tractor, the boys clung on desperately as the nose started heading skywards - until the nearest adult rushed over and killed it just before it tipped over and killed them!

That field saw traditional baseball games on New Year's Day for friends and family, year upon year.  As kids we spent many happy hours at the "big river" (Pienaars) that borders the lower bit of the farm, or the "little river" (a mere stream) that borders one side of it.  There are small waterfalls over slate beds, pools with catchable fish in, crabs to shoot with the pellet gun before they destroy the river banks completely, the occasional legevaan if you're lucky, birds of all varieties, and now and then a snake to spot.  Where the two rivers meet, there grew a gigantic tree that we often camped under at night.  There's a small earth dam near the house with the perfect clay for kleilat - an extremely dangerous family sport reserved for the day after Xmas.. :-)  My uncle Kelly knows how to wield a bendy stick and a ball of clay with perfect aim.

But now we're all grown up and scattered.  There are no more annual family holiday trips to the farm over December.  Us kids have our own lives and family groups, all involved in the day to day work of keeping going.  My parents moved to another continent in the 90s - my mom passed on, severing a direct connection.  My gran followed a few years ago, leaving only my gramps and an aunt on the farm.  Gramps is getting on in years, no longer able to keep up with energetic management of the property, which is rapidly falling to ruin.  He recently had stroke number 2, and has to use my gran's walking frame to get around.  My aunt, who has been keeping the place going for years financially, is at a point where she's not keen to do it for too much longer.  There's talk of them getting the place ready to either sell or rent out.  Pretoria's suburbs are rapidly marching across the fields and will one day swallow this property up with some security village or other tightly-packed housing development.  Every time we go to visit, the city lights are closer...  The jackals no longer howl in the hills at night.  The wildlife is harder to spot.  An era is rapidly drawing a close...

And so, in three weeks from now, I am doing something I have never done before.  I'm flying up to see the farm and the family, hiring a car at the airport, and making my solo way through the wilds of Gauteng to spend 3 days on our family patch of earth while it's still there, while my gramps is still there.

It's going to be a bittersweet trip for me.  My heart has roots in the 50 year old rose bushes, the white mulberry trees, the river-stone walls and the bushveld.  It knows where to find the SodaStream in the kitchen cupboards, it knows where the mongoose hangs out.  It remembers the flash of an emerald kingfisher on the washing line, the call of the loeries, the pack of farm dogs around your legs when you walk the familiar paths.  It twinges in the milkshed at memory of being stood on by a cow during milking, it knows the earthy smell of the feed bins, and crunch of metal filings under your feet around gramp's workbench, and the soft cooing of the doves from a hammock in the aviaries on a summer afternoon.

I plan to immerse myself in all of it, take photos and videos of everything I know and love, before it's too late.  To build what may be one last memory of a family home, to spend time with the people I love in a place as familiar as a fingerprint.  To sit down for a few more meals around the kitchen table, to take my gramps to church and hear him sing hymns, to bask in the sound of cicadas and the smell of dusty roads.

I'm both looking forward to it, and dreading driving away from it for what could be the very last time...