The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man
My father had moved the family from Kimberley in the Northern Cape to the small town of Newcastle in Northern Natal, and we moved into a large newly-built house in Amiel Park, a brand new ‘suburb’ with a sprinkling of houses across a flat grassy plain. We were a family of 7 children, a large number even in the 1960’s and 70’s. My mother’s last child, Rochelle had been born shortly before we arrived, and so my dear Mother had her hands full raising 4 boys and 3 girls. Douglas, Aileen, Gordon, Graham, Clive, Charlene and Rochelle, in that order. My Mother was away from her extended and affectionate family and must have felt the isolation from family acutely. I just remember being terribly excited, especially about the adjacent countryside, wide and vast. Rolling green hills in the summer, sandstone outcrops, farm roads, meandering mountain streams, towering mountains, and an old military fort, all beckoning to be explored.
Before the Iron Works – Iscor were established, Newcastle had always been a rural farming town, and any commercial establishments in the small town were in service of the farming community. Enterprises were few, one being an earlier factory that manufactured woolen blankets from the fleeces of the local flocks, and two hotels for travelers to and from the interior, namely the Commercial and King’s. One particular establishment that stood out for me as a child was the farm co-operative in Allen Street called Newcastle Mills and Produce Store. Beyond its large wooden doors was a fascinating world of sacks of oats, milled mealie meal, molasses, and farming equipment. Of especial interest to me were the large wooden doors to the store, for over the previous hundred or so years, farmers had used the doors to test out their new branding irons, leaving their monograms burnt deeply into the wood. I have often wondered what became of these doors that held so much history. Like much of old Newcastle, nothing remains but a few memories. In the wake of the crass and common development of the 60’s and 70’s, the axe was put to all the lovely oak trees and the Victorian and Edwardian buildings were razed one by one to make way for new but ugly constructions.
At the threshold of the rural to the commercial, I watched the old world change. Although everyone prospered with the wealth generated, even as a child, I could sense the pain as the genteel old gave way to the brutal new, and I knew instinctively what side I found myself. This alienation from the current has been my constant companion, walking with me these 50 years. I still pain at every tree that falls, every meadow that is bulldozed, every architectural gem torn down.
Near our house lay the quiet rural road to Memel in the Orange Free State, and along this road farmers would drive their cattle and sheep to alternative grazing or to the cattle auction that was located near our home. Large herds of cattle, sheep and goats would be driven along this road, and us boys would run to the garden fence and watch the drovers on shaggy ponies guide their charges along the road.
(above) Sketch of the Seepwaterspruit valley that lies to the north of Newcastle and adjacent to the road to Botha’s Pass and the small village of Memel. This river has its source in the Drakensberg and is a tributary to the larger Ingogo River, 1987.
I was born into a family that placed an emphasis on all creative pursuits, to the obvious detriment of others. My father, with a talent for draughting, and a mother devoted to crafts and hobbies, encouraged us pointedly in this direction. Out of sinc’ with the prevailing doctrine whose primary precept was that mathematics and science inherited the world – in contrast ours was a world of paper, pencils and paint. I thrived in this creative and familial environment. And so it was that the natural world on my doorstep became the subject matter for my drawings and paintings.
To the west and north of our home was fertile farmland, and below the hill, a wide grassy floodplain that stretched gloriously to the Drakensberg Mountains and the farms Craig, Waterfall and Glencalder. My three brothers and myself spent much of our free time in this natural environment, prowling around the hills, building ‘forts’, chasing chickens and cattle, swimming in the Ingeduma Spruit that flowed peacefully below our home and cycling along the sandy farm roads. In these times it was safe for children to wander around unattended by adults and it would be very difficult for the present generation to understand the liberating freedoms we enjoyed.
(below) A quickly-executed pencil sketch of the vast flood plain and valley with the small Drakensberg mountains beyond. I drew this from the western border of Fort Amiel while perched atop a remnant of the stone wall .
(below) A fuzzy photograph of the same scene as drawn above, taken with my first dinky camera.
(below) A contemporary photograph I took of the same mountain and the farm ‘Glencalder’, clothed in the wheaten-colours of winter. 2014.
(below) A pencil drawing of a line of conifer trees with the mountain in the background.
(below) Photograph of the mealie fields, looking south west. The first ears of corn to emerge would be hungrily eaten, cob and all.
(below) A mixed-media drawing of our home.
After a short interlude in Durban for a year – the family moved back to Newcastle and moved into a house directly opposite Fort Amiel. Us boys were back to our old haunts and very happy for it. We took-off where we left-off.
(below) A drawing in pen and ballpoint pen of the view to the fort from the front garden.
Adjacent to our home, isolated on a spur of the hill on which the suburb Amiel Park was built, lay Fort Amiel. At this time in the early 1970’s – the fort was a semi-ruin, with no official recognition and certainly no protection. For a local authority to neglect such an important heritage site was unconscionable. The reason for this was that the once primarily English town had fallen under the pall of Afrikaner Nationalism. As Afrikaners streamed into the town to work for the newly founded iron smelting works (Iscor), the town council came to be dominated by National Party councilors. Under the sway of nationalistic triumphalism, anything British was objectionable, and a British fort, way down on the list of importance.
Any local historic attention was focused on the Battle of Majuba, where the local Afrikaners would organise events to celebrate the destruction of General Colley’s Natal Field Force by the Transvaal Boers in 1881. Clearly and purposely forgotten was the fact that many of the Natal Dutch of the Newcastle district, had remained loyal to the Crown during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War, even when the region was ‘annexed’ to the Transvaal Republic. Many suffered awfully at the hands of republicans and rebels.
Fort Amiel held me in thrall, and I owe my love of history to this military installation. Fort Amiel became our playground. This is where we escaped into another world. Its tumbled-down buildings, dry-stone walls and its isolated position atop a hill all gave the place an aura of mystery. It could be quite spooky too, especially at dusk when a setting sun cast deep shadows.
(above) A fascinating drawing of the Battle of Majuba, executed by a War Artist from an adjacent hill.
(above) A watercolour painting of the canteen at Fort Amiel.
Deserted atop its grassy bluff, overlooking the expanding town of Newcastle, farmland and the small Drakensberg Mountains off to the west – the extent installation in 1972 consisted of the central ‘Commissariat Office’. This building was roofed, with all its doors, windows, wooden floors and fireplaces still intact. It consisted of four square rooms as well as a kitchen and lavatory. A family had lived at the fort during the 1950′ s and 1960’s and had left the fort not many years before. They had converted the remnant of the canteen to a stable and its forecourt to a cattle kraal. In addition there were two thatched rondawels on the southern side where the servants had resided.
Behind the ‘house’ stood another lofty building, then in good condition which in historic terms was the old Guard House. This roofed structure consisted of two rooms with a central fireplace, bricked floor, two windows and if I remember correctly two doors, the one with a protective stone wall acting as a shield to the strong winds that buffeted the area. The gun-slits had been bricked up. Attached to this building was a stone structure with a lean-to roof and cement floor that had been a stable at some stage.
(below) A pencil drawing of the Guard House at Fort Amiel and the stone wall. Initially the team who did the restoration, erected the walls where they found them, post 2nd Anglo-Boer War positions. When the earlier plans were located at Kew in England, excavations revealed their primary positions and they were moved. In this case the wall was moved to intersect with the middle of the Guard House.
At the northern side of the fort was a building that we children called the ‘Garage’ for it looked very much like one. It was partially filled with old cement bags. This structure is now the restored Cook House. There were also a few animal pens, a dilapidated tennis court and a water well. The previous occupants had built the tennis court and the french-drain that still lies some 40 metres from the south western corner of the fort.
A pen and ink drawing of the Officers Canteen before the stone walls were rebuilt.
Surrounding the buildings and skirting the edge of the hill was a partially broken-down dry-stone wall, most of it not in the positions subsequent to the restoration. The reason for this is that after the Anglo-Zulu War of 1880-1881, the installation fell into disuse, then rebuilt for the 1st Anglo-Boer War. After this conflict the fort again was deserted until the 2nd Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902. At the onset of this conflict the walls were in disrepair and were therefore rebuilt and re-positioned. After the conflict, the fort reverted to a farmstead, with further deterioration or destruction of the walls and some of the buildings over the years. It is evident from records, that by 1914, none of the barrack huts, magazine or stores remained standing. They had been sold-off at auction.
(above) A small amateurish watercolour painting I did as a child of the northern corner of the fort, silhouetted against a setting sun. And below photographed again at twilight. This building was the fort’s Cook House.
Evident in the two images above – a huge hollowed-out-with-age Himalayan Lilac tree stood just outside the wall alongside a dead Eucalyptus tree. This hollow-tree tree was a favourite hideaway and lookout for my brothers and me. Trees were few and far between in Newcastle, and the few that grew were ignorantly chopped down. The new political dispensation and the labouring classes that flooded the district, many just a hop and a skip from peasantry, certainly did not value a tree. As an adult I hold more bitter grudges against those who fell trees than I do of any other. Thus was born my tree-hugging ways.
There were additional trees on the western boundary, but these were sadly axed before restoration began. Today the fort is devoid of all trees, bar one, a very different vista to that of the 1970’s.
The tall gum tree that had died many years before after a lightning strike was a similar point of favour for hundreds of Red-footed Kestrels who roosted here in their hundreds each summer before they migrated to Northern climes in our winter. One evening my brother’s friend on a sudden whim took a pot-shot with his pellet gun at one of these Kestrels flying way up above. One of the many kestrels circling dropped suddenly, fluttering out of the sky and fell heavily alongside the fort’s wall. Shocked, we ran up to the poor bird and found the beautiful raptor dead. I felt terrible about what had been done. This awful deed had one positive outcome for it cemented into my mind the value of life and a distaste for hunting.
My brother Clive and myself would unrepentantly pick prickly pears from the Opuntias that grew vigorously on the south western corner of the fort. For no sooner had we indulged on these sweet and delicious fruit and we were regretting our actions – for no matter how careful we were at avoiding the thorns, we invariably got several in our tongues or on our fingers. Spring was ‘mulberry season’ – and we would visit the many mulberry trees that grew along the Incandu River and Ingeduma Spruit. These could range from the black variety, the red, to the white (my favourite). We would return home quite stained but satiated.
On this southern edge of the fort stood a few shady Pepper trees, one of surprisingly still exists when I visited the fort in 2014. Mom, who came from Kimberley where many Pepper trees lined the streets would tell us that if we placed the leaves in our hats that they would relieve a headache. This we did on hot days when our heads felt like they had been cooked by the sun. I cannot recall if it ever worked, but to this day, the resinous fragrance of the leaves and berries is evocative of pleasant times. I would often sit under these trees in my early teens, on the crest of the steep hill, overlooking Newies (as we called Newcastle) enjoying the wonderful cooling breezes that fanned this spot. This was a good location to think, escape a busy home, have a cry – fret about my future and sketch, as the valley lay in front, with the Incandu River winding loops below and the old town beyond. In the far distance, on the horizon, lay Hilldrop where the historic farm Mooifontein and its farmstead was located. This farm was the short term home of Sir Rider Haggard. Little did I know that many years later I was to live at Hilldrop for a couple of years. I know that many things in reflection appear rosy, but in all truth, these were halcyon days!
(above) A contemporary photograph of the remaining Pepper tree at Fort Amiel.
(above and below) Drawings of Newcastle, executed from the southern boundary of Fort Amiel. The area below was formerly the farm ‘Paradise’ belonging to Newcastle pioneer Johnstone. Here the Incandu river flowed over a substrata of rock called Johnstone’s Drift. Hilldrop is visible in the lower image.
(above) A pen and ink sketch of the stables at Hilldrop.
Even though as a child I used the fort as an exciting playground – I was however fully aware of its historic connection to Natal and South Africa. Living close to this historic spot fired my imagination. Forts and soldiering, the Zulu Impi and British and Boer Forces, all filled my dreams at night with adventure. This was the seminal beginnings of my love of all things historic, as well as a keen respect for our country’s historical inheritance.
From the western side of the fort one could look over the wide flood plain to the picturesque Drakensberg and to the farm ‘Glencalder’ where my three brothers and myself spent many happy and vigorous days exploring, chasing piglets, sleeping-out atop a silo and camping-out at a small hut near the top of the mountain. The farm belonged to a family friend, Willem Moolman. My oldest brother Douglas kept a horse here called George. Curiously – the name George was my father’s too.
(above and below) Pen and ink drawings of the Glencalder Hut.
(above) A naive drawing I did when I was thirteen of the hut and surrounds, all clearly labeled.
(Above). A drawing of the roots of a Yellowwood Tree, and fern fronds, near the hut on the upper slopes of the Drakensberg.
(Below). A pen and ink drawing of the little stream that ran past the hut, supplying us with crystal-clear and icy-cool drinking water. Like David who longed for a drink of water from the well at the gate to Bethlehem, I too have over the years longed for a draught of this mountain water. This stream is a tributary of the Ingeduma Spruit that runs past Fort Amiel.
Standing nearby Fort Amiel to the north, was an old British military graveyard, surrounded by a well-made and kept stone wall. Set in the wall to the one side of the graveyard was a square commemorative stone with an inscription recording the fact that the site had been consecrated by the Bishop of Pietermaritzburg in April 1881. My brothers and me would often visit the graveyard and slowly and thoughtfully, meander around the graves. We would read off the names and the ages of the soldiers. Many were merely boys, with ages like 17 and 18 and we would do a lot of wondering about these early times in Natal. I remember thinking of these soldier’s families back in Britain. Did they ever hear what had become of their loved-ones, and did they ever find out that their loved-one’s bodies lay buried on a wind blasted Natal hill? Even then, I was aware of the unfairness of military life – for the ordinary ‘Tommy’ got a small and simple metal cross erected over his grave, while the officers had inscribed stone monuments erected over theirs. I experienced this very same culture as a conscript in the South African Defense Force when I was 18 years old and doing my two year army stint.
(above) A pen and ink drawing of the wind-swept grassy hills of Fort Amiel.
One day while visiting the graveyard, a group of Afrikaans boys arrived at the graveyard and when they heard I was English-speaking began to intimidate me. As they trudged over the graves they gloated “Ons Boere het julle Engelse ‘n pak sla gegee op Majuba.” In translation – “We Boers gave you English a hiding at Majuba.” I remember smarting with anger. To me this was a sacred place. When I heard later that some Afrikaans boys had desecrated some of the graves, my indignation burned within me. They were consequently arrested after a community uproar and caned by the police for the offence.
As a child, I was very aware of this horrid division between the English and Afrikaner communities of Newcastle, and this imbibed enmity was lived-out among us children and at school. It was as if the Anglo-Boer War had never ended. Forced into mixed schooling, we English children felt dominated by strident Afrikanerism. Even as children we were fully aware that the education department had ensured headmasters were selected from among the members of the Broederbond to further the prestige of Afrikaans children and culture. There is no doubt that we held these measures in complete derision and opposed them vigorously.
Now an adult, and living in a different time and age, I see how destructive, ignorant and pointless all this was. As communities – the consequences of our father’s failure to find accord and peace, were visited upon us third and fourth generation Great Great Grandchildren. An interesting and illuminating read is that of the blog posting of Ewald Schmidt, an Afrikaans boy growing up in the vicinity of Fort Amiel too – http://ewaldthepilgrim.blogspot.co.za/search/label/history
I attended a dual-language school where the Headmaster was a cretinous and malicious man. He despised the English-speaking pupils. He would walk into our English-speaking class and bellow an address to us in Afrikaans, usually starting with “Julle Engelse..” (You English…). We despised him wholeheartedly in return. He hated me especially and took great relish in targeting me. This, after I refused to be caned by him for leaving my PT clothes at home. He grabbed me, a 9 year old child, by my collar in his one fist and lifted me off the floor. Dangling in his grasp he used the same fist to thump me painfully in my chest. It was because I was English, and we English had no discipline and respect it was pointed out to me. This was probably the first time any child had ever stood up to him and he was apoplectic with rage and quite perplexed at how to proceed. Thus was born in me my life-long hatred of undeserving authority. As a member of the English-speaking community … our life-philosophy was to honour and value the individual’s identity above that of the group’s. The Afrikaans community’s philosophy was the reverse – with Volk (People) and Nasie (Nation) coming first. The National Party’s Prime Minister, J. G. Strijdom even coined a clever word for this political philosophy, namely “eendersdenkendheid” (similarthinkingship). The English-speaking community was labeled “andersdenkendheid” (differentthinkingship). This was a recipe for conflict.
(above) A pencil drawing from my memory of the graveyard. I have not been back in over 25 years.
Such was my resistance to Afrikaner Nationalism. I grew up being called a ‘Rooinek’ and ‘Soutpiel’ – and we calling the Afrikaners in return ‘Rocks’ and ‘Clutchplates’. A slur well-used and reserved for utter disdain was to call an Afrikaner a ‘Dutchman’. This was rather ironic, as the true Dutch (Nederlands) immigrants who were brought to Newcastle to work at Iscor and Dorbyl, were well-liked friends of my Father. Completing the irony was the fact that the Dutch preferred to place their children into English classes. I was an unfortunate 1 of the 287 pupils at a school when it was established in 1973. The English pupils, outnumbered 3 to 1 were made to feel thoroughly unwelcome. In no uncertain terms we were let know that we attended the school at the largesse of the Afrikaners. Unable to discriminate against us on the colour of our skin, other subtle and not so subtle measures were employed to make us unwelcome.
Several months ago when visiting Newcastle for research purposes I had occasion to park my vehicle outside my school. 37 years had passed by and still I was overcome with awful dread. The very sight of its classes and halls and orange and brown uniformed pupils trawled-up long suppressed emotions leaving me breathless and amazed at the strength of my feelings. I trust it is a very different education than the one I received. I loved art, yet our art lesson was the class of one dreadful and sadistic Afrikaans woman. She would thrash our hands with a plank for any of our imagined misdemeanors until the flesh lay raised on our little hands. This was sanctioned behaviour from the Headmaster. And like all child abuse, we never whispered a word to our parents.
Another keen sadist was a teacher whose proclivity was to cane us boys for getting maths tables incorrect. His speciality was to deliver agonizing bacon slices, executed with his wooden ruler with its metal strip. One day he split the seat of my school pants. When my Mother questioned him why I was punished for the misdemeanours of other pupils at a parent-teachers meeting – he said that “Graham needs to take joint punishment willingly when the class misbehaves, just as he would the good times the class enjoys”. As an adult I know that a sadist seeks to maximise his tendency to inflict pain on others.
And this is the reason why Jesus’ sternest injunction was to those who abuse children. It is worth remembering that he said to those who harm children, that they should rather take themselves off to the seashore, tie a millstone around their necks and cast themselves into the sea. Such was the brutality and discrimination I experienced at this school, that writing of it all these years later is unsettling. Together they ruined much of my childhood at school.
Near the military graveyard were several African huts, where black farm labourers and their families lived and had lived for many generations. They too had buried their dead next to the military graveyard, memorializing their dead by piling-up a cairn of stones. When these families left, some of the graves fell into disrepair and the stone cairns were sometimes dispersed by careless ploughing and the clumsy hooves of cows. I would often gather up the stones and reset them. I have often wondered if these cairns still exist. Such are the vagaries of time, that one can easily be forgotten and even one’s final resting place can become unknown. Psalm 103 always comes to mind when I think of these wind-swept grassy hills and plains. David wrote that our lives were as the field grass. And this is the fear of any historian – that something valuable, or memorable, or worthy, or perhaps inspiring, might be lost for ever. Of interest – the indigenous Bluebush (Diospyros lycioedes) often grows on these stone cairns, naturally marking these graves for perpetuity.
Many of the graves record the names of young, badly wounded soldiers who had been brought back to Fort Amiel and who had consequently died. Recorded also, were the names of several soldiers who had drowned in the Ingogo River during the 1st Anglo-Boer War (Transvaal War) (Transvaal Rebellion) (Eerste Vryheids Oorlog). These unfortunate soldiers had perished trying to cross the storm-flooded river after the Battle of Ingogo that occurred on the farm ‘Schuinshoogte’. This was the very same river outside of Newcastle that we often visited for family picnics. We would bum-down the slippery rapids and fish for kurpe (tilapia) in the quieter pools.
Just below the hill where the graveyard stands, flows a small stream called the Inguduma Spruit which was a favourite swimming spot for us boys. The coupling of a Zulu word and the Dutch word for stream is unusual. From my best understanding the Zulu word means place of thunder storms, and if so is well-named as the area is swept by frightening summer storms. This stream flowed around the base of the bluff on which Fort Amiel was built, adding to the fort’s strategic positioning. This stream joining up with the Incandu River, the fork of which lay just below the south side of the fort. Further to the south east, the drift across the Incandu River was located. Remnants of the old road can still be seen on Google Satellite images.
(above) Pen and ink drawing of the bridge across the lower reach of the Ingeduma Spruit just before it joins with the larger Incandu River. This crossing lies just below the southern side of Fort Amiel. This is approximately the position of one of the old drifts across the Ingeduma that led up to Fort Amiel and further on to the farms of ‘Waterfall’ and ‘Glencalder’. Just beyond this bridge and just above the fork of these two rivers lay the second of the drifts into the town of Newcastle. The slope down to the drift is still visible on Google Satelite images. Near this fork in the river, a suspended foot bridge was positioned in years past. This led from the fort to the northern most end of Sutherland Street.
Four sketches of the small Ingeduma Spruit. After heavy rain in the catchment of Glencalder, this stream could come down in flood and posed a danger to anyone attempting a crossing. This stream was host to water leguaan, crabs and other interesting creatures. I spent many happy days here, as did my older brother Gordon and his friends who would bunk from school. it was my job on the way back from school to alert them to the fact they should wash the mud off their bodies and get dressed again in their school uniforms and return home for lunch.
The sketch above records the spot below the western side of Fort Amiel where the Ingeduma could be easily forded. This large expanse of sandstone rock bordering the stream was my favourite haunt and I spent many hours here – drawing, damming the stream or making fires and such-boy-like-things. My younger brother Clive and myself would dig ‘forts’ into the shale banks of the river.
British Mounted Scouts from Fort Amiel would cross the Ingeduma Spruit at this point and head out to the west to keep and eye on the passes that led up to the Orange Free State during the Anglo-Boer War.
If one kept to this route for a distance of about a kilometre in a westerly direction, one would come to the ruins of an old stone farm house, long abandoned, but the original stead of the farm ‘Sukses’. This structure lay atop another bluff similar to that of Fort Amiel, and with a similar beautiful aspect. From this position one could look back to Fort Amiel perched atop the distant hill. I sketched this ruin several times as a young teenager.
Pencil drawing of the stone house. In the far distance, to the right of the house, one can see Fort Amiel.
Many interesting plants and flowers grew on the hills and plains around the fort, especially in early spring. On the slopes of Fort Amiel, after a veldt fire, many fire lilies would push their blooms through the black stubble and clothe the hillside in red. All these plants intrigued me and I would often take my paints and pens into the fields to go and sketch and paint them. This was my seminal interest in plants and a love of the natural environment.
Two drawings of flowering plants from the vicinity of the fort. The image above is of the False Gerbera (Haplocarpha scaposa) and the image below is that of the well known weed Oxalis latifolia.
The weather on the exposed bluff where Fort Amiel was built was always extreme. Foremost was the wind off the Drakensberg that would blast the fort during the autumn months. Rain storms were frightening too and lightning positively dangerous. In this brush and ink drawing of the fort, I sought to capture something of these buffeting winds. In the drawing below, a rain storm is gathering over the mountains and sweeping in.
Clem Goodwin, family friend and long-time resident of Newcastle and local farmer of the property where Amcor Dam is located today, would relate to us boys an event at Fort Amiel well known to old Newcastle residents. Evidently, the ‘Purser’ at Fort Amiel (during the 1st Anglo-Boer War) had absconded from the fort with a box holding a considerable sum in gold sovereigns destined as pay to the soldiers quartered at the fort and garrisoned in the Transvaal. As Clem related – the man had stashed the box in the vicinity of the fort or perhaps, as was speculated, at the drift; before returning secretly to the fort. His brief absence had been noted and when the money was found to be missing, he was arrested. It was determined that he could not have secreted the money too far from the fort, so a vigorous but fruitless search was conducted. The Purser was court-martialed, found guilty, and sentenced. This fired my child-imagination and encouraged me to search the surrounding hills. I never found the box of sovereigns, but I did find many artifacts – like buttons, and bullets and buckles and badges. I have them still.