Free State,  South Africa

Farms and Friends

In early 2002, a South African farm kid by the name of Hendri decided to go to sea. He came from the province of Free State, right in the heart of South Africa, where water is a rare and valuable commodity. He knew land, sheep and Africa. He had a solid education and a wealth of experience with farm machinery. He’d sailed occasionally on a man-made reservoir about 100km from his home, but it was no ocean. He didn’t know the sea. He only knew that he wanted to know the sea. So one day he set off from home and made the 900km trip to Cape Town, where he’d heard there was a sailing ship undergoing repairs. He turned up, and asked if he could join them. He was denied. So he tried a different approach. He sat on the dock for three weeks and slowly but surely won over the crew. He talked to them, asked questions and helped out wherever he could. Before long he was ingratiated with them, and when the time came for the ship to leave the Captain had been won over too, and offered him a place on board. Within a few short months Hendri had distinguished himself and demonstrated not only an incredible work ethic but a mind-blowing aptitude for figuring out how things work.

That ship was, of course, the Picton Castle. By the time I signed on with them in 2003, Hendri was a well-respected and highly-regarded professional seaman whom I looked up to. When the ship again pulled in to Cape Town Harbour in 2004, Hendri’s younger brother Danie also joined the crew. Because of his relationship to Hendri, Danie didn’t have to sit on the dock for three weeks but he nevertheless proved himself to be an equally-valuable crew member, as well as a truly wonderful person to be around.

Danie as Chief Engineer on the Picton Castle
The ship herself, where I have spent about 10 months of my life fuelling my love of the sea and where I had the incredible fortune to meet Kathleen, Danie and Hendri.

One of the things I’ve always loved about this seafaring lifestyle is the opportunities that it affords you to intermingle with people from utterly different backgrounds. Over the months that I sailed with Danie and Hendri I heard bits and pieces about their upbringing and their life back on the farm and I was eager to see it for myself. 15 years later, Hendri now runs the farm in Freestate. Danie, meanwhile, is married to another of my favourite people – Kathleen – also an old shipmate from the Picton Castle. The two of them have three children together and a farm-machinery business in PEI, Canada. So when I heard that they would visiting the family in South Africa at the same time that Sarah and I would be here we leapt at the opportunity. We rented a car and drove up to the farm, not really knowing what to expect.

Bermudians have a reputation for hospitality. Polynesians have a reputation for hospitality. Well, I’m sorry to say guys that the Boers from Free State have us all beat. It doesn’t matter how well you know someone or how good friends you are, if you’re not in your own home there’s always a bit of you that isn’t comfortable. You’re always aware that you have to be on your best behaviour. You don’t want to use up all the hand soap, or help yourself to a towel, or make yourself a cup of tea, or grab a banana from the fruit bowl. Well, there was none of that. Within 5 minutes we were made to feel so comfortable that I didn’t think twice about heading to the fridge for a beer, or peeing on a tree in the garden. We definitely picked the right time to visit. We arrived on the same day that Danie, Kathleen and their kids flew in from Canada so the whole environment was festive. Everyone was tired. Danie and Kathleen had travelled with three young kids for over a day to get there. Hendri had just finishing vaccinating thousands of sheep against the latest livestock disease. By comparison, our 10-hour drive from Cape Town was nothing. But a hearty dinner (mutton, mutton and more mutton!) and a few beers had us all laughing away merrily and reminiscing together. It had been a long time since I’d seen my old friends but it felt like yesterday.

We’d planned to stay for just two days and then head back. We’re behind schedule, as usual, and need to set sail and get some miles under the keel. But two days became three, and it was only by sheer force of will that we were able to drag ourselves away then.

Machines haven’t quite taken over yet in the modern farming world. The workers prefer horses as their primary mode of transport because they seldom break down and allow access to places that vehicles simply couldn’t manage.

I learned more about South Africa, and Africa in general, in those four days than I had in the two months since we arrived here. About the conflict in Angola that Sarah and I had a little experience of from our trip there in 2006, but from the perspective of those who were fighting on the side that lost the war and are therefore denied that part of their history, or their heroism. About the history of South Africa, the legacy of apartheid that continues to this day, but also of the paradigm shift that is occurring within sects of the South African community with regard to race relations, or perhaps more accurately, socio-economic tensions. A shift decidedly for the better.

We packed so much into those three days! Barbecues, feasts, parties, a nighttime game-spotting drive, waterskiing on a reservoir, even a musical concert at the local coffee shop. Perhaps my favourite thing we did, though, other than talk to old friends and make new ones, was to simply drive around the farm with Danie and hear all his stories and absorb some of his knowledge. He knows every inch of that farm intimately, from the 30,000 year-old stone artefacts lying in the dirt and the dam that his grandfather built to the family of otters living there. He could tell us all about every kind of tree, bush or shrub you could see, what it’s used for and, most importantly, what impact it has on the sheep. He could tell you how the aardvarks dig the holes in the middle of the road, how they always dig into termite mounds on the South side, and spot an animal in the bushes and tell you all about it before I’d even figured out that there was anything there in the first place. If I really try hard I can remember that the garden where I grew up was just large enough for a swing-ball set and contained grass, some slugs, a small tree and a pond. Danie could tell you the history of everything as far as the horizon, and probably further. It was fascinating.

This is Africa. A herd of Blesbok share a field with the sheep.

It was so hard to leave that place. I think it doesn’t matter where in the world you consider yourself to be from, there’s always a part of you that feels at home in the African interior, where our species began some 200,000 years ago. Danie and Hendri’s parents, Herman and Charlette, were the most incredibly generous hosts, both with their belongings and space, but also with their time and energy. They live in an incredible place. They’ve found a lifestyle that is very hard to come by in the modern world. The things that are important to them are ‘pure’. They value water, land, food, shelter and the company of others. Real time spent together, not just moments snatched from between obligations, where time is rationed to the last minute. We spent an evening after dinner singing together. Rina (Danie and Hendri’s grandmother) played the piano and I sang a bit. The kids got up on chairs and gave their own renditions of nursery rhymes and everyone joined in in one way or another. It was such a treat to be involved in such a meaningful form of entertainment, superior in every way to sitting around a television or doing some other passive ‘activity’. They’ve found a wonderful balance between values that are soul-enriching while at the same time living in a station that affords them access to those modern conveniences and vices (some would consider them necessities) that so often define the lives of those in developed countries.

But alas, leave we must. I’m supposed to be the best man at a wedding in the Caribbean near the end of May. We’ve got just 10 weeks to get there. The blink of an eye. Last year the Atlantic seemed like such a tiny ocean. Now that it’s the only one left for us to cross, it seems considerably larger.

We drove back to Hout Baai last week and sailed up to Cape Town. We’re now at the Royal Cape Yacht Club, which the South African immigration department have dictated every yacht must visit in order to seek international clearance. It’s a pain really. The weather and the complexity of the clearance procedures mean that we had to be here a few days ago. It’s costing us a fortune for berthing and meanwhile we’re prisoners in a fancy club that is a long walk from anywhere (the members all have cars, and probably chauffeurs too) and where I’m forced to wear clothing that is considerably less scraggly than my usual attire. I took some small pleasure from the looks I got on Friday night when I wandered through the bar wearing a towel on my head because it was the only route to get back to the boat from the showers. I think it probably wasn’t part of the dress code. Even the waiter, dressed like a penguin and holding a tray of delicate-looking puffy things, turned his head and gave a bemused smile.

Sarah managed to get most of the family together for this shot. From left to right, adults are Hendri, Danie, me, Kathleen, Herman and Charlette. Herman and Charlette are Danie and Hendri’s parents. Far right is, of course, Sarah. Kids are Herman Jr. (Hendri and his wife Drien’s eldest), Henry the baby (Kathleen and Danie’s youngest) and Antoinette, Hendri and Drien’s second child.
What it’s all about. I forget how many of these things they have on the farm, but it’s a LOT!
One of the many extraordinary creatures we stumbled across in the dark. This is a ‘Muskeljaatkat’, or Genet in English. Danie has only seen two in his life, and Herman, Danie’s father, has never seen any, so we were incredibly lucky to see this one!

And to finish, I thought I’d entertain you with a justaposition of waterskiing styles. Here we have Danie:

And here we have Sarah 🙂

We hope you’re all doing wonderfully! We’re about to set sail today bound for St. Helena. It’s getting cold here. I saw my breath when I woke up this morning. That’s a pretty clear indication in my book that it’s time to go!

3 Comments

  • Geoffrey

    A great story, I think you need to become a writer when you start living back on dry land – if you ever do. Love the new blog design.

  • Vicky Hamshere

    Brilliant blog! What a lovely family. It was great to see Sarah wearing her Bermuda T-shirt!! And the water skiing photos are hilarious! We will be anxiously waiting for news during your Atlantic crossing. My friend Eva has just visited St. Helena on The World cruise ship and loved it. Wishing you both a happy and enjoyable Atlantic journey.
    Tons of love, Vicky xx
    P.S. Apologies if this is a duplicate but I don’t think my first “comment” was sent!

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