He’d been threatening me for some time, and then it came to a head.
“Why don’t you guys spend a few days at our cottage in the Berg?” he asked. I couldn’t think of a good reason. “That would be great,” I replied, lost for options. I’d been to plenty of cottages before and found that most of them were run-down family retreats furnished and equipped with all the cast-offs that could be found or gleaned at local craft markets, the buildings patched and begging for attention. For the owners the cottage was a cheap holiday, but for unsuspecting guests it was usually a place that wouldn’t be preferred to home. All too often it became a case of deciding which bed not to sleep in, refraining from using the toilet for as long as possible and guessing at the bugs and lurgies nestling in the dark cracks of the coffee mugs and chipped enamel pots. “What’s it going to cost me?” I tried to wriggle out of the trap. If I were going to spend money on time away I’d prefer it to be somewhere I knew I’d enjoy.
“It’ll have to be out of season,” he answered, “and there’s no charge. Take the family for a break and see a part of the countryside you don’t know.” Bugger, he had me. “All I’d like you to do,” he continued, “is to take some pictures of the cottage for me. I need some new material for my cottage website and advertising. Here are the dates I can give you.” That sealed it.
After a weekend of frantically trying to provide clients with enough material to keep them quiet for a few days, Monday morning saw us packing the Pathfinder to the gills and bidding our faithful hounds adieu and hoped they’d get on well with the new house sitter who himself had been burgled the previous night. Looking at the cargo in the car we’d not run short of provisions of any sort, and all and any photo tasks would be a piece of cake. The weather had been drizzly and overcast for a few days and we soon found ourselves in thick mist on the way to Boston and beyond. Apart from that the trip went well, and before long we wound our cautious way along the ribbon of road past Castleburn and Lake Navarone, looking for the 28km marker and the turn-off to Esigodini. We found it with little trouble and arrived in hot sunshine.
Clement was mowing a large lawn with a small mower, but was used to it and dedicated to the job, while Happiness, her face a mask of cracked red clay, greeted us uncertainly. We established a working system of communication once we realised that Happiness was quite proficient in English, and that Clement had a more than useful smattering of the tongue too. They carried on with their duties while Terri and I emptied the Pathfinder that we’d crammed full of luggage, provisions and photo equipment in Maritzburg just a few hours earlier. We selected a bedroom, stocked the fridge, Terri made coffee while I found satisfaction with a chilly beer. The sun was hot overhead, the countryside blindingly green and the sky beautifully blue with far-fetched patterns of white and grey clouds. The cottage had turned out to be a delight, and all my misgivings were set aside, but of course I’d never admit that I’d been wrongly concerned.
We’d intended having a braai for supper on the first evening, but thinking that the weather would close in later, decided to braai immediately and so provide several meals. Kindling was gathered, the Strikers found and lit, some logs chopped for more substance, and a cloud of smoke rose as if announcing a sacrifice to the Dragon of the Peaks. Then the rain started. In earnest. The fire was about to capitulate until Clement brought along a deeply rusted scrap sheet of corrugated iron that I placed over the fire, reduced almost to nursing the flames in secret as my clothes and hat changed colour with the addition of heavy rain. Wood smoke oozed from all available openings while the rain that fell on the now hot sheet was summarily converted to steam to join the drifting smoke.
Then the rain stopped. The clouds parted and the sun bore down on us again. Before too long the rescued fire was ready and the culinary part of the proceedings commenced. Because of some past fireside misdemeanours I was not trusted to do the pork sausages correctly and my position of authority was usurped, the entire grid being devoted to the precious sausages. Eventually I was permitted to add the wors and pork fillet, and harmony was the upshot of the perfectly braaied porks. Aaaah, Africa. What a tough life, I thought as I indulged in my first glass of red.
And we were settled, secure, and ready to face the next three difficult days with courage and fortitude, with a bit of help from the grog shop....
I patrolled the premises with my camera, fulfilling my part of the bargain. This area, near Drakensberg Gardens, is lovely, but bears more than its fair share of the things landscape photographers loathe - power lines, bright green Jo-Jo tanks, and the inevitable brilliant white TV aerial dishes. Birds came to pay their respects as the slanting sunlight played on the trees, grasses, buildings and the surrounding majesty that is the Drakensberg, neighbouring goats visited to feed on the creepers on the cottage walls and other garden plants, and Terri and I became temporary residents of this lovely place.
Then the rain came back. Heavily, with some wind and plenty of lightning and thunder. No-one who’s not experienced a thunder storm in the Drakensberg will know the drama of the peals and rolls of thunder as they echo and bounce off the basalt walls of this great escarpment. The rain teemed down beginning the breaking of the drought that’s been crippling the country. Streams began to race as driveways and tracks became new streams. The afternoon was drenched by the lashing of the storm that dwindled to a drizzling murmur as the dark of the evening arrived.
Bedtime brought us a rude discovery. The roof hadn’t coped with the downpour, and several places were wet. We ransacked the kitchen cupboards for pots to catch the dribbles but some minor damage had been done. Ironically the strongest leak was into the toilet where water is the order of the day and night, the placing of the collection pot looking like the receptacle for those men who lacked accuracy in their ablutions and brought to mind the Afrikaans saying “Jy sit die pot mis.”
The cottage itself is snug, compact and comfortable, furnished for easy living for a bunch of people. There's a large fireplace in the lounge for the cold evenings, a square dining room table that seats eight, three bedrooms and a well kitted-out kitchen with two large fridges and gas hob with electric oven. If I'd stolen half the cutlery I don't think anyone would have noticed.
Behind the cottage is a second building with a wonderful open-sided veranda, a spacious double bedroom and a shower I could have spent all day in. Of course I have to mention the braai which also sports a fire pit, but must have one of the best views from any braai area anywhere....
And there's also a tiny thatched bedroom to provide complete privacy. The thatch is due for replacement soon, and the grass is behind the building, waiting.
Our first morning dawned spectacular. Golden sunlight flooded the valley while some clouds seemed to contemplate the mountain peaks from on high. There was dew on the grass and flowers, and with the warming of the air a ribbon of steam rose from a nearby stream to play on the zephyrs that prodded the nodding flowers. There can be few spectacles to rival the early sun on the face of the mountains, and that morning did the sight full justice. The views from the lawns around the cottage were stunning. Birds warmed themselves in the early sunlight as local residents took to the lanes to exercise their dogs. Later in the day the three goats that live next door came for their lunch that consisted of any of our cottage’s garden plants with a great ripping off of the creeper on the walls for dessert. It fell to me to shoo them back across the stream to where they could do their damage where it was deserved.
Part of the morning was spent strolling around the grounds of the Drakensberg Gardens Hotel. We’d not been there before and found it highly organised and perfectly maintained, but knew that this wasn’t for us, ever. There were busloads of international tourists, with some locals who can afford those tariffs, all seeming to enjoy what I found to be a profoundly sterile environment where little or nothing has been preserved of the original character of that lovely spot. Enough of that. We then took ourselves off to see Castleburn, finding another lovely development, this one a bit closer to its roots. Then to Lake Navarone that we’d seen some years ago, agreeing again that it is one of the better resorts of its kind. None of them, though, will enjoy our custom. Too organised, too many people. And too expensive.
A power cut in the evening was given a “lighter” moment when the power was restored, but at such a low voltage that fluorescent lights refused to work and incandescent bulbs glowed a deep orange. It seemed that Eskom was supplying the entire valley from one tired torch battery. After about four hours we were up and running again, the kettle now able to boil water to give the evening its own brand of coffee power.
Our visit to those resorts has got me thinking about going into business in the area. I’ll be a signwriter. I saw not one bridge, canoe, parking area, staircase, ramp, gateway, pool, trail, sports facility, kids’ fun apparatus, shop or restaurant that wasn’t festooned with indemnity signs and disclaimers. Management of these resorts and all others like them seems to revolve about not being to blame for absolutely anything. This is a business waiting to flourish. I’ll flood the places with my own brand of signs that warn all paying visitors, the lifeblood of the institutions themselves, that anything and everything they do is their own fault. I found it very depressing.
There’ll be some more photos tomorrow, and the day after we cram the Pathfinder again for the trip back to the city. We’ll have had a few wonderful days in lovely surroundings, but the frontiers of our lives are constantly being pushed back, allowing us into nature only subject to a growing plethora of restrictions and regulations. We all need to be aware that opportunities to experience the natural environment on our own terms will become ever more difficult to find.
Get out there and do it before it’s too late. Our grateful thanks go to Chris and Sue Burczak for this opportunity to enjoy their lovely cottage and its surroundings.