SMOKE: The Brown River
Originally published: 2 February 2004
I spent 1979-1985 living in Pretoria.
Not by choice, you understand - we moved there from Uitenhage when I was seven and since the only other option to moving was staying behind and becoming a homeless boy, scavenging the dusty concrete streets and avoiding the ravening hordes of vicious curs that roamed the sunset streets in the town where I was born - I followed my parents to the administrative capital of South Africa.
My life in Pretoria was not a happy one, particularly considering the traumas of the schools I went to, yet I also spent some of the best moments of my childhood there.
We lived in a 70s-retro house in a suburb called Fernwood Manor, and although at the time it was quite normal to have large gardens, the garden of that house today could house an entire community of people, let alone be sub-divided. Hell - you could probably fit a small village in there.
The back garden itself took so long to mow that by the time you'd finished you'd have to start all over again. At the bottom of the garden was a fence which ran the width of the property.
There was a rusty iron gate square in the middle of the fence and if you went through it there was a hill which sloped alarmingly down to the Moreleta Spruit, a river which had its roots in the Roodeplaat Dam to the north of the city and which flowed for miles in either direction from our house.
Our property extended to exactly midway through the river, which meant that our property increased and decreased in size with startling regularity.
When the river flooded in the winter it became 100 feet wide and sometimes flooded right up the hill, through the fence and up into our garden. It was rumoured that it had once flooded our house before we lived there, which would have put it at roughly half a kilometre wide at the time.
When the flooding happened it was particularly exciting, since all sorts of debris would be carried in the maelstrom of white water and much of it would be deposited on our property when the rains and river subsided.
A car once lodged itself in our neighbour's garden. When the Moreleta really got going she was an extremely dangerous beast.
It was along this river that I spent hundreds of hours playing with my younger brother and sister. I was obsessed with military themes as a boy - most boys are, but in my case it was extreme.
My younger siblings were always my subordinates in our field operations and I was a tyrant of a general or lieutenant-colonel (I'd read some story where a lieutenant-colonel had outranked someone else and rather fancied the idea of being in charge, but not the man at the top who was responsible if the shit hit the fan).
Occasionally I'd be a field marshal, because then nobody could possibly outrank me. Sometimes absolute power is most necessary.
I invented a game called Stalking (never let it be said that kids aren't literal), which involved one person sitting on a rock in the dense undergrowth of an island in the middle of the river, while the others attempted to reach that rock unseen.
As soon as the watcher on the rock spotted someone they would call out and that person would have to reveal themselves and come and join the watcher.
It was difficult to make your way to the rock unseen, but entirely possible - there was a thick undergrowth of roots and saplings while above was a canopy of tightly woven bushes and reeds, through which only dappled sunlight could penetrate.
The noise you made as you inched along on your stomach was covered by the gurgling of the river, as it inspected and played with the rocks which served as stepping stones.
There was nothing better on a lazy Sunday afternoon in the heat of a Transvaal summer than sitting on that rock in a completely enclosed, isolated world, with the chattering of the brook and the threnody of birds and insects orchestrated into a pleasantly consistent din, while keeping watch for the dangerous six-year old would-be assassin snaking her way through the bush.
A few houses down there was a house which had a raft moored outside, because where they lived the river widened into a lake of sorts, before narrowing again and heading out to the industrial suburb of Silverton.
The raft was huge, constructed using large barrels lashed together with a wooden platform on top, and was piloted using a very long punt.
The raft, of course, was Streng Verboten, which meant that we didn't use it unless the owners were clearly not at home. We'd punt out into the middle of the brown lake, which was all set about with fever trees and - as rumour had it - bilharzia.
Beneath the slow-moving surface was a colony of crabs, trout further down the road and any number of smaller breeds of fish. We would sail out into the middle, put up the punt and eat our pre-packed sandwiches as we let the current move us slowly down the river.
At one birthday party of mine a whole gang of boys got the raft going (I was the general but nobody gave a shit, and my premonition of disaster proved accurate).
A number of boys crowded onto the raft from the shore and as it started drifting someone was caught with one leg on the raft and one still on the shore and into the rank depths plunged he, dragging an unfortunate with him.
Everyone started screaming "Bilharzia!" and the kids were rushed off for a bath in a less-than-glorious end to their efforts for the day. The erstwhile general instantly demoted himself to private, just so nobody would look to him for answers.
Someone got the raft back to the owners, someone else took the brunt of their rage and somehow I got out of the whole thing alive.
Sometimes we would pack up provisions and follow the Nature Trail for miles - a rough footpath skirted the entire length of the river for immense distances either way and no matter how far we went we never reached the end of it.
It became a less pleasant walk when you entered the industrial suburbs, as the river snaked its way over concrete weirs, and far down the trail it wound past gardens on a hill and you always had to be especially quiet there as the inevitable hounds at the top of the hill would hear you as you stepped on a dry twig and come haring down the hill, spit streaming out the sides of their snarling maws, forming condensation trails behind them, and there was very little time to reach the footbridge which carried you across the river to safety.
Occasionally we would try our hand at fishing, but we never caught anything other than a record 19 crabs in one morning, which we stuffed into Checkers packets and lugged all the way home.
They were dumped in our sandpit in the courtyard at the back of the house and there they stayed - crawling obscenely over one another as they fought to get out - until they died.
One or two survivors were thrown back, but even at that age I was displaying my unreasoning, savage hatred for anything with more than four legs.
So in amongst all the angst of a stern school career I at least had the opportunity to live something of a fantasy life. While it's not exactly Peter Pan at least I found refuge in a world which I could control, in a Tom Sawyer-ish kind of way.
I can put that down on my list of things I'll never do again.
All Smoked Out,