A South African Summer Childhood

July 1, 2016

As a child, every summer holiday we would travel by car, about 5 hours from Johannesburg, to reach the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and sub tropical city of Durban. The road trip was always excruciatingly boring with mile and miles of flat yellow veld (flat grassland) our only scenery through the drab Orange Free State province.

 

There was always padkos (travel food) that would accompany the journey, made by my mom at the crack of dawn and packed in Tupperware containers. Crustless, small triangles of Marmite sandwiches, frikkies (meat balls), Tennis Biscuits and Romany Cream cookies and sweet, milky Rooibos tea in a flask, were the usual supplies.

 

We would stop enroute, pulling over to picnic at one of the thickset concrete tables under a Bluegum tree, on the side of the highway, in the middle of nowhere. The soundtrack that accompanied the journey was an eclectic mix of Shirley Bassey, Engelbert Humperdinck and Elvis that dad would play from cassette tape. My brother, sister and I squashed into the backseat of the maroon Rover, would whine about the music, but secretly I enjoyed the familiar comfort.  My dad would always offer up one Rand (South African currency) to the first person to see the sea – naturally from 50 miles away we would already start to see it. It is one of my strongest childhood memories of the five of us together. We were only really together for school holidays, my brother separated by boarding school and later conscripted to the army. When we did eventually arrive in Durban, the thick humid, salty air would hit you first and summer had officially started.

 

 

I loved everything about Durban. The bustling Marine Parade lined with colored lights and beachfront hotels, the tacky amusement park I would beg my parents to take me to and the sticky, shocking pink rock candy you could only buy in “Durb’s”. The ocean was a lukewarm pea green, the waves were enormous and the sun always scorching. My sister and I would slather coconut-smelling sunscreen on our bodies and compete to see who could go browner and get the better tan – she would always win. We would listen with terror and fascination about sharks escaping through nets and the exaggerated tales of attacks.  Every year the Bluebottles would invade the warm Indian Ocean water on windy days, stinging at least one of us. A lifeguard would rush across the beach ammonia in hand, to get rid of the painful sting. We drank lime milkshakes and ate fish and slap chips (soft French Fries) drenched in vinegar and watched the buzz of summer on the esplanade. On rainy days or days of too much sun, my mom would take me to the exotic and enchanting Indian market - the smell of spices, samosas, and incense infused the air and made me feel as though I was in a foreign land.

 

It was a few brief weeks each year that would always end too soon and I vowed at age ten, that when I was grown, I would move to Durban so that summer could last forever.

 

Johannesburg is said to have the best climate in the world – no humidity, dry in the summer, with average daytime temperatures around 90°F and balmy, warm evenings, with only about six weeks of chilly winter temperatures. Summer starts in November and ends in April, a good six months of uninterrupted sunshine that habitually spills into fall and spring. In the late afternoon the summer air crackles with dry, white lightning followed by a violent thunderstorm, with large pellets of hail, that pelt down for ten minutes and then it’s back to sunshine. Often it would be pouring with rain, the sun actually still shining – affectionately referred to as a Monkey's Wedding .

 

The sun sets most nights as a clear ball of orange and when the skies are clear you need only glance up to see the distinctive shape of the Southern Cross – still the only constellation I can identify without guidance. It is the season of gardenia’s, frangipanis and jasmine and they perfume the warm air with their sensual, heady fragrances. Large ungainly, hadeda birds served as early morning alarm clocks, piercing the Johannesburg skyline with their familiar screeching. Hoopoes, bulbuls and cardinal’s would fight over slices of watermelon and cooked pap ( African corn porridge) left in the bird feeder.

 

Summertime is Christmastime in South Africa and there would be family gatherings around the table in the sweltering heat, with Turkey and stuffing and mom’s trifle in grannies cut glass bowl. There would be swimming until my fingers turned pruney and my eyes were bloodshot from chlorine and my body exhausted. The house would be filled with white, waxy Tuber Roses that always remind me of my mother and Christmas. My birthday is in summer in the southern hemisphere and the days would be sweltering and the evenings sublime. 

 

 

 

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Colleen Thompson

Writer Photographer Raconteur Wanderer

© 2017