The next morning is cold, the rooms aren’t built for this weather, they are drafty and without central heating. South African winters are warm in the day but temperatures drop to sub figures during the night, and despite centuries, the buildings are still not designed or equipped for the cold.
I warm up in the shower, it’s so hot it’s almost scolding. We pack laundry bags for housekeeping and fill out the little paper cards to accompany them. The plans for the day ahead are hazy so I pack my backpack with water and granola bars and dried mango. I also holster a bulky 130k ZAR in cash in my trousers. Clothes choice is noir, noir high waist jeans, noir organic cottontshirt under a skiing baselayer and a noir quilted baseball cap. Oh and the leopard print Toms trainers.
We meet for breakfast, I hug Grandpa. Mum and Dad explore the haunted house enroute.
Breakfast for me is a selection of vegetables fried with toast and two coffees. Cici and Grandpa leave and I finish coffee with my parents. Last year while diving down waterfalls and plunge pools in the Lake District I chipped a bone in my hip which required a significant chunk of private healthcare and rehabilitation. Now that investment had been shot out of the water with yesterday’s blow and I ached. I needed to run through my exercises and try to ease the pain - which I do later with whatever’s in my bag with me on the road, migraine tablets. I tell my father that I don’t want to join them if they’re out all day, although I really want to see my late Granny’s sister and my Bobbas daughter. I’m torn and play it over in my head. I also say I don’t want to spend too long driving because the day before was long.
My fathers choice of words are horribly undiplomatic and I explode in tears at the restaurant breakfast table. My mother consoles me in the toilets and we wander back to the room. I figure that because I can’t physically retaliate against the aggression my body is releasing the stress in whatever way it can. Goddam. The thing is though that if I see red I know what kind of person I become and featuring on banged up abroad isn’t on the holiday schedule. So I cry.
We’re now quite limited for time. So quickly grab bags and jackets and lock up the room and leave. It’s Misty. We see their car pull up and follow down the mountain to the nearby town where my great aunt lives.
I’m sure many reputations proceed me, and often many have preconceived ideas. In truth I don’t care too much about proving myself. Often I find myself enjoying silence and observing, finding out about others and their lives.
We follow our family into the city where we park the car outside a crematorium. My grandmothers sister lives in the crematorium compound, it’s damn safe if anything. She calls out to my father who runs up to see her, I fiddle with the car to ensure that it is safely locked up.
For the first time since I was five weeks old I meet my Bobbas daughter. I’m so happy, she’s beautiful and looks so akin to my Grandmother and my Bobba. Eight of us invade her house, hugging her, I feel a light with us, perhaps it’s euphoria, but I wonder if it could be Bobba in some way. I don’t look out the window, I know there’s an eagle in the big trees outside.
She has a trunk full of old family photographs and big frames of old collaged photographs. She points to one and I see it, it’s a picture of my Bobba and I, I must be about three years old and her and I are looking stubbornly into each other’s eyes. It’s like a mirror image with eighty years separating us. My heart melts, I shout to Cici “this is my Bobba.”
We gently work through a stack of photographs, chatting away with my great aunt. The men are outside, I’m sat at her side, I want to find out everything and chat to her, she’s fascinating. A load of other peripheral bullshit happens which I just have to ignore. I want to be in this moment and not lament on the past, I want to find out everything about my Bobbas daughter.
She gifts us little hearts that she’s crocheted and I hug her, we both cry a little. This is something that I’ll hold dear.
Then my aunt instigates us to leave, we need to go shopping, this time I’m not infuriated, I’m disappointed. I am the last to leave Bobbas Daughters house. I chat to her for a further five minutes. Everyone is at the car waiting, we’re not going anywhere special or have a time frame.
So we pull up in a shopping centre where dad and I wait in the car for half an hour. It would be distasteful to share the past actions of someone on these pages.
My father decides he wants to go to Barberton, a town on the South African side of the Swaziland border where he went to boarding school.
We drive to Barberton and I’m grateful for the silence in the car with Cici, Gramps and Dad. The journey takes an hour. As we approach Barberton he sees a shop and starts shouting “That’s Patel’s!!!!” It’s a bakery where they would visit as kids. Instead of Patel’s Bakery it’s now Patel’s Hardware. As we drive through the town he sees his old boarding school and parks in the road and leaps out with Cici to take a photograph. He does this a lot. I leap into the drivers seat, adjust it and put my hazards on. The school security guard approaches them, Cici diplomatically says that he went to school here as a boy. We’ve lost our family in the car in front. I offer to stay longer as Dad leaps into the car. He says “no no no” and I continue driving along the road.
We meet up further down the road and say that we’ll ascend the pass towards the border.
I motion to my little cousin to join us. She jumps in and we start the switchback ascent up into the Swazi mountains. A few hundred meters of climbing later, my father spots of viewpoint coming up on the bend. I indicate to the mini convoy behind me to pull off. The car is parked ready for a quick escape if need be.
We all jump around rocks, pose for Insta and take some family shots together. My father tells of his boyhood stories making this journey back to his family. His father, my grandfather was a fantastic creative, he was so incredibly privileged and chose to work only when he wanted. He left the rural english coastline for Swaziland with the British government in the fifties with his beautiful wife and two boys. As most men of their time he had to many other things to do - socialise at Embassy events, spend days on the golf course, hunker down with his old typewriter and finish his many books. What he didn’t have a lot of time for was the two hour drive across into South Africa to pick his children up from boarding school. So, they became hardy self sufficient men with a whole lot of stories to share of their experiences.
So, while we leap back into the van Dad tells of times when they walked the fifteen hour journey into the dead of night and made shelter in the forest. I continue winding up above the clouds.
There’s another view point. We stop again, look at some interesting rocks. Dad is in his element visiting his childhood home. He runs lengths with his Canon 5DS and 24-70mm L series lens. He takes HDR images and an assortment of JPEGs and RAWs. I wander with my little cousin. Understandably she is still reserved, I want to share all the great experiences and memories of her father with her. He lived with us for years and was one of the best people, so much fun to grow up with. In the car I talk incessantly trying to find a topic which raises mutual interest. Rocks seem good, and yoga poses.
We stop a further three times. The one time is just after over taking a prison van on the move. The mist is getting thicker and we’re pretty much on our own on the road. Luckily while in conversation with Bobbas Daughter earlier, my aunt interrupted with a photograph of her new glock hand gun. Nevertheless I remain in the car in gear and engine running. Perhaps I’m being overly dramatic, but I refuse to be complacent. We collect an assortment of interesting rocks. I pick up a chunk of red tigers eye and put it in the door compartment beside me. Worse case if the hand gun fails I have a backup in the event of an ambush. I touch the cash concealed in my leg, it’s an annual salary for many in this rural part.
Again, we forget lunch and it’s early evening. My uncle calls ahead to a restaurant for pizzas, he explains my diet and they promise to accommodate. We leave the Swazi border and stop in at a Dam and reservoir en route. It’s passcode access for employees of the paper mill. We run around stretching the legs. My cousin has relaxed a little and we chat happily. While only a young teenager she’s lovely to chat to. We pose for a few photographs around the reservoir.
Then we return back to my aunts house, drop the family and head to the clubhouse to pick up pizza. They’re running late with it, but like spending most of the day alone in the car, we enjoy taking the time to catchup around the bar together with my cousin and uncle. My cousin is so cute, just like her father. While the men run into the restaurant to check the order, with a smile she ventriloquists to me that the man at the bar won’t stop staring at her. I look at him and with a slack jaw frown of disgusts nod to him to fuck off. The longer I’m in this country the more I despise the Boers. I tell her that in no way is his behaviour appropriate and that you have to be clear that you are both uninterested and uncomfortable. I think back to an interview on SABC radio which played in the car the week before, it was about rape and how to protect yourself as a woman. There’s another dimension to the argument, and that’s to equip our brothers, fathers, uncles, business partners, all the men in our lives, to simply not rape.
We take our pizzas and leave.
My aunt and mother have prepared salad leaves and avocado slices to accompany our pizzas. Sure enough mine is entirely vegan. I hug my uncle with gratitude, incredibly appreciative that he explained it perfectly. I chow down on almost all of the 20” pizza. Cici does exactly the same but feels incredibly unwell and evacuates her system in the toilet. She looks grey and unwell.
I don’t drink, apart from my beer at the clubhouse a few hours earlier. So I drive us back up the mountain in the dark to the ailing mountain top hotel. The road is thick with mist. Thick. Visibility drops to about a meter in front of me. Like skiing in a whiteout, I hug the white line on the road. My lights are on, fog lights, but I worry about trucks so put my hazards on. We drive at a snails pace and about forty minutes later arrive at the hotel.
We unpack the trunkload of photographs and occupy the Deluxe Queen Suite which Grandpa occupies. It has a sofa and chaise lounge which we sit at and thumb through the photographs and letters. Cici utilises our parents bath as our twin room is less ostentatious. I drink a few mugs of valerian tea and pass out with utter contentment.