Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swallow the Anchor

- Gunda Hardegen-Brunner -

It all started in the middle 1990s. Michael came home from the Isidingo film-set to our smallholding. No Eskom. Solar panels and a windmill. Free range everything: the fowls, sheep, muscovies returning to the kraal when the sun went down. Horse and geese stayed outside. They could fend for themselves. Jackals howling, porcupines scratching, bats and owls doing their thing.

The flames crackled in our home-made, lift-or-lower-the-canopy fireplace.

“Would you like to sail the Seven Seas?” I asked Michael.

“Yes,” there was a pause. “If I get a sign from the universe.”

The sign revealed itself a few weeks later in Saint Lucia. An almighty thunderstorm had built up on the horizon, pitch black against the turquoise surf. I walked on the beach towards the water. Michael locked up the car. A double rainbow appeared, draping its colours around me.

“That’s the sign,” Michael said. And we started to build Timshel, a 40 foot gaff rigged cutter, traditional, wood, cotton sails, easy on the environment, solar panels. It took us seven years. Isidingo put it in their story line. Filmed the launch in Durban. And that’s where we lived for three years, on the boat. We met the most extraordinary people. Adventurers, treasure hunters, dreamers, loafers and madmen.

Michael developed an arthritic hip. You have to be fit to sail the oceans. We decided to move back to the land. A friend of a friend suggested a shareholder farm near Gansbaai, a lovely, beautiful place; it would only take a few months to sort out the bureaucratic stuff and then we could start building our house.

We sold the yacht, bought a caravan, trundled westwards and parked under the milkwood trees. We met more extraordinary people, designed our dream house, had a fabulous time. One and a half years later the bureaucratic stuff still hadn’t been sorted out.

“All right, let’s move on. Let’s go and have a look at Swaziland.” Michael had delicious memories of times spent on his uncle’s cattle ranch there, half a century ago.

We went, we had a good look, we found a place on top of the Lebombo Mountains. To the west you could see Big Bend and the green vastness of the sugarcane fields, to the south the Great Usuthu River cut its way through the mountains, to the east, on a clear night, you could see the lights of Maputo.

“You can have ten hectares for a cow,” a local, who knew the chief and customs, told us.

What more does one want in life? A Permanent Residents Permit! No go.

“All right, let’s go back to South Africa. We’ll find a place there.”

We hitched up the caravan, had a look at the Drakensberg, the foothills of the Maluti Mountains, parts of the Karoo.

“Check out Prince Albert,” Anna Breytenbach, a friend, suggested.

“Where’s that?” We found it on the map. Things began to happen. One caravan tyre burst, then the other. Approaching Prince Albert we had to change tyres seven times.

“You think it’s a sign from the universe?”

“Mebbe we should stop travelling.”

We pulled in at the caravan park and Prince Albert embraced us.

Life is full of surprises – as everybody knows. The last thing we’d have expected while building the boat was that we would swallow the anchor in an oasis on the edge of the Karoo, in a small town with a big soul, where things are on a human scale and people smile at each other.

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