Tuesday, 19 August 2014

A Surprising Visit and Layers of Fynbos History

Gathering a picture of the farm’s history has thus far not been terribly successful though we do pick up snippets here and there. Recently one such snippet arrived in an unexpected way (as things at Fynbos are wont to do).

The last owners before us, Basie and Ada Loubser, told us that all records and photographs had been lost to fire long ago, but that there had been a quick series of owners before them leading back to an unknown member of the De Waal family.   Before the de Waals, there were yet more owners leading in turn back to the early 1700’s with the original owner being a member of the Joubert family – an early settler family (hence Joubertskloof where the farm is located).

With very little of this tracked down, out of the blue we had a phone call from a Mrs Helen Marais (née de Waal). Her father, she said, was turning 80 and as a surprise the family wanted to have some kind of event here on the farm, as this was where he lived as a child.  We were of course delighted and said we had lots of questions for him. “Don’t worry “she replied “you probably won’t get him to stop talking”.
The de Waal family returning to Fynbos Estate for a visit
The lunch day duly arrived and we cooked all his favourite food – slow roasted lamb with rice, sweet potatoes, and green beans followed by Malva pudding.  After lunch a sprightly, quietly spoken Mr de Waal showed us around his farmhouse - talking with a faraway look in his eyes and transporting us back within seconds to a bygone time.

This here is the bedroom where I was born” he said, showing us what is now the green room. “It didn’t look like this. There was a big kassie here and the bed was placed there. My daughter has the kassie now in her lounge.

“My grandparents slept here” he continued, pointing to the now TV room, “and my parents were in this room (the cream room). He paused and after a moment his voice softened to a whisper: “You know I can see my father so clearly shaving at a basin in that corner. My head only came up to the rim of the basin as I watched him, and the whole room was covered in wall paper with images from the Anglo-boer war.”   The Angle Boer war! That gave pause for thought.

The old man continued his tour telling us that the lounge was only used for special guests so it stood closed most of the time filled with family heirlooms and large dark looming furniture.  It was out of bounds to children and the family used what is now the library as their living room. He told us how he and his sister would rush and slide up and down the passage to the sound of his mother skelling out (berating) his father  for encouraging  them. Thinking of the same anxiety of mothers visiting now, it was really striking how everything and nothing changes! How much has happened here! How much the walls could tell!
And then, as if picking up my thoughts we walked out on to the veranda and he looked at the oaks and said “Ah these oaks have seen a thing or two. We used to climb them when we were small and sit under them and drink tea with our family when we were older. And during the Second World War all the teak shutters were laid out under them and sanded and painted by Italian prisoners of war.”

Listening to Mr de Waals account it became apparent just how much the world has changed in the last 100 years. Eighty years ago the now pantry held a big vat in which the fat of slaughtered animals was turned into soap. No nicely packed meat and soap in a supermarket.  And cars were so few that it was too far to commute daily the 15kms by horse and cart to school in Malmesbury, so from 6 years old he had to board with a family in the town.  There was in fact no electricity on the farm until the 1950s. During the 1940s when electricity first became available, it was too expensive even if all the farmers in the valley clubbed together, and so farms used a petrol driven generator which was turned on for a few hours a day.  

After various further snippets about the child that drowned at the big rocks during torrential winter rains, the bread cooked for both family and workers in the old oven and the log and thatch house that once burned down in the werf (yard), Mr de Waal told us the farm was sold in 1947 when his father became ill and that none of the family had ever returned.  He promised to send us photographs from Pretoria where he lives and after the adults had drunk wine and wandered about; and the children had swum a few times, the lovely family departed.

But for us everything had changed. Now in a way that is real to us the farm is embedded in multiple layers of history so that everything we do echoes way back into the past.  Not just to old man de Waal’s life, but to all the lives before it – and inevitably of course to an awareness of lives that follow us.  The visit left me personally with a powerful experience of how the present is just a moment along the line of history. How centred in our own lives we are, how short those lives are, and how easily we losing sight of the bigger picture.
The farmhouse bought from a catalogue in the 1890's from England. Shipped out and assembled

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