The farmhouse was located on the one slope of the valley through which the Inyosini river. It had wooden floors, red brick walls, and a green tin roof. Outside my window grew a glorious old wild fig tree that included thousands of weaver nests and a huge one inhabited by a family of Hamerkops. It was more on the side of being a hovel than a mansion, but it was a magnificent home.
The Inyosini river had two dams on it that my dad used for irrigation. A network of pumps and pipes fed the fields and I was there with my dad maintaining this infrastructure and along the way learnt a bit about plumping.
We had plants on our farm known as Gibisila. The botanical name is Bowiea volubilis but commonly known as a Climbing Onion or Sea Onion. The plants are now endangered and I still have a few that were harvested and moved from the farm. Its my link to that time of my life and are a fascinating plant. They are large green bulbs with green climbing stems which lack leaves. It is one of the top medicinal plants known but has been exploited excessively. It has been associated with curing a large number of ailments, often based on superstition.
We did not have television until the late seventies and then it was only a couple of hours a day with strictly curated content by the government of the day. My recollection of the Apollo moon landings were the interesting books and stickers that the Total fuel service station in town gave us. We never watched those landings live on TV like the rest of the world! The Total was at the beginning of the main road of the town. Halfway down was the New Hanover Tearoom, directly opposite the butcher. My dad would buy the Natal Witness religiously each day from the tearoom. A tearoom is what we in Natal called a Cafe or kiosk in the rest of the country. One of my first shocks when travelling to the rest of the country was that they did not have tearooms! The whole family would read the newspaper that my father bought as it was the primary source of information of the greater world.
I clearly remembered the day the television arrived. My dad had strung up an antenna that was located one and a half kilometres away from the farmhouse with several amplifiers along the way. After a minor disagreement with my mom about the cabinet (which had to be replaced) we all sat down to watch the test pattern. The neighbours and their kids also came to stare in awe at the new device! The first program we watched was Kraaines. I can recall lying on the wooden floor watching the Rugby test matches of the Springboks versus the All Black in New Zealand. I was in a plaster cast due to having broken my leg in a Rugby game. I grew up with New Zealand being the place the All Blacks came from, not realizing the historical link between Grey and that country.
On our farm lived a Zulu Nkosi named Gumede. He had livestock, a car, and a house with electricity. On weekends the grandsons of the Nkosi and I would play with Tonka toys, wire cars and tractors made from clay. We would then engage in the occasional game of football, but they refused to swim in the pool muttering under their breath about the madness of it all. There were no forms of entertainment with which the current generation is familiar. Instead of electronic games we had guava fights. The farm had a large orchard of guava trees and the fruits would serve as suitable weapons between the rival armies we established.
We had a Philips radio and turntable, and several LPs. They belonged mostly to my sister and one of them was a bootleg copy of Cold Fact by Rodriquez. I remember it well as it was one of our favourites. He was a bigger rockstar to us than the Beatles. In our isolation we did not realize that he was forgotten. It is an incredible story and one that spans my generation. That was the soundtrack embedded in our heads. The LP had the lyrics written on the back cover, which we learnt. No other LP had lyrics and so it was one that left the biggest impression on us.
We have often holidayed on the Kwazulu Natal coast and we would just skirt the area where I grew up, by about 30 km, travelling through Pietermaritzburg. One day I decided to stop by the farm. My dad, who had by then passed on, had sold the farm, and retired in the mid-eighties. I arrived at the farm and a crowd gathered to see and talk to Mastelek's child. I enquired about my playmates and one man stepped forward. Bengu, was the only one still alive. The rest he informed me had died because of HIV/AIDS epidemic. We cried and he asked me when I was coming back. The days when Mastelek was on the farm were always the best for him as then there was always food to eat and now the pickings were sparse. I apologized; I was not able to return. I took all the money out of my wallet, gave it to him and left. The soundtrack of Rodriquez was in my head...
The main form of communications was an old black Bakerlite telephone, that operated on a party line which meant the whole neighbourhood could hear your conversation. The telephone lines used to hum, and flocks of birds used to use them to perch. The exchange in town was manual and was operated by Miss Bentfinger, so named as she always dialled the last digit incorrectly.
Our life was different. We would play. No Lego, no Steam for games, paintball, zilch! We would build go-carts to race downhill using the wheels from old farm implements. Our go-carts would take three kids and we would all climb on board to race down the steepest hill in the area. On one occasion, my brother persuaded me to climb into a tractor tyre which he then proceeded to roll down the hill. It was as awesome as bungi jumping. It went down the hill just as my dad was driving up the hill. He was not impressed, and we were subjected to a discussion and beating. My brother was like that, a maniac. And there were no rules yet about your parents not being allowed to dish out the odd snotklap! In those days we would be disciplined by a whip fashioned out of melted down plastic fertilizer bags. It hurt as bad as it sounds.
One year, we had a flood in the river. My brother’s idea of fun was that we climb into a tractor tube and ride the flood waters down the river.
The farm had a large guava orchard and we arranged armies to have fruit fights. A whole day could be taken on one battle.
My dad allowed me to use weapons. Trusting me with a shotgun and later with a 7mm Remington Magnum Sako, a highly powerful and accurate rifle manufactured in Finland. All before I was 10 years old. No ways would I allow my own boys near a weapon of any similar abilities due to their total lack of training.
When I was five years old, I received my first tractor driving
lesson on a Massey Ferguson. Soon I was ploughing fields. This was
followed by riding motorcycles and other vehicles. Even though I was
unlicensed, my dad would allow me to drive to school. I am always thunderstruck by a good Massey.
The first digital device that I saw was a calculator, a TI-2500 Datamath. While Mark Shuttleworth was still in nappies, I would sit and help my dad work out the wages each week, and then we would sit on the stoep at a table and pay the labourers who worked on our vegetable farm. The process without the calculator would take hours but when the calculator came along it took minutes. That is when the seeds were planted in my mind to make a career around digital devices. The price tag on that calculator was R78.90. It was not a computer, but I was hooked.
My brother and sister both had me at the doctor for stitches while I was growing up. My brother jumped on the lid of a bricked storage compartment that we used for toys at my grandmother's house. The result was a split eyebrow and a visit to the doctor for stitches. My sister then bliksemed me using a spade. We were playing on the sand that was being used by my dad to build a new pool. Again, a trip to the doctor, who happened to be the neighbouring farmer who lived in a mock castle and drove a Pontiac.
There were two other experiences that were more dramatic than what my siblings did to me.
The first was on a hike up Blinkwater. Blinkwater is the highest mountain closest to my dad's old farm Oakvilla. A large group of us climbed to the top of the mountain. Near the top are several cliffs. I slipped close to the edge of one of these and went over the edge. I fell into a small tree growing just below the edge and held on tightly. If it were not for that tree I would have fallen to my death at a very early age! A teacher from Wartburg Kirchdorf school came and rescued me. He had to persuade me for quite a while to let go of the tree and for him to pull and carry me back to safety.
The next was when one Sunday we went to a braai with my mom's cousins at Hazelmere dam. My dad and I also went there to collect Black Bass for our dams on the farm. I was swimming in the dam when a powerboat came by at high speed. The wake hit me, I swallowed water and was pulled down beneath the surface by the swirl. I remember trying hard to work out where the surface was but was not able to do that. One of my mom's cousins had seen what had happened. No-one else did. He jumped in and pulled me out of the dam. My mom's three cousins were all were named Whisky. I do not recall which Whisky it was, but Sláinte.
I am a Whisky fan, most probably because of those three cousins. I also long to be able to ride on a Massey-Ferguson again. As Jeremy Clarkson has discovered late in life. A tractor is the best vehicle of them all. My dad when he sold his farm told us we were not farmers and that it would be better for us to go to university and become engineers or accountants. It was the mid-eighties, and the infamous Rubicon speech was around the corner. I am not a farmer but my heart longs for the farm.
This article was originally published over at LinkedIn: Jeremy Clarkson and I agree that the best vehicle is a Massey-Ferguson