We all know that times have changed, but we often forget what life entailed just a few decades ago.
My grandson is thirteen years old, so I have some idea of what life is like as a teenager in Australia today. This story is about a holiday when I was only one year older than he is now.
It was my second year at boarding school. Life was tough, and survival was a constant battle surrounded by a herd of other boys. That sounds somewhat melodramatic, but what I mean is that, as an individual, you had to survive the stresses and strains of life without parental guidance or the security of home. So, friendships were precious. I didn’t think this at the time, but on reflection I know this to be true. Among the few good friends I made at school, Achim was one.
We went to a three-term school, which put us out of sync with most other schools in South Africa. This had its drawbacks because, when I was home for holidays, all the other kids I lived near to were at school. The big advantage, on the other hand, was that we had long terms and long holidays.
I was invited by Achim to spend one of these travelling to his Godparents’ farm in what is now called Namibia. They were farmers near a town called Otjiwarongo.
It all sounded like a great adventure because we would be travelling for two and a half days by train each way, and living on a six thousand hectare property in the middle of Africa. What could be better?
Many details of the trip and the holiday are lost to my memory, but some aspects of this trip should make interesting reading.
For a start, we were two 14 year olds, placed on a train with no direct adult supervision. The conductor saw it as his duty to keep an eye on us. We shared a compartment with two other young males, but they were considerably older.
It’s interesting to think now about what encouraged our respective parents to allow us to travel so far alone. But in those days many school kids travelled long distances by train with only the conductor as a guardian. Another interesting fact is that both Achim and I took rifles and ammunition with us. These weren’t in the compartment, but stored in the baggage compartment of the train.
A three-day journey confined to a train may sound like a daunting, dreary time, but nothing could be further from the truth. We explored every inch of the train, except for the beautiful coal-fired steam engine that belched smoke and soot into the atmosphere, leaving us with a daily dose of grime. We loved every speck of it. We also had lectures and lurid stories on life from the older boys, which left us wide-eyed. We also had an ever-changing landscape looking out of the window. It went from the relative lushness of the Eastern Province around Grahamstown into the bleakness of the Karoo and eventually into the savanna plains of north-western South Africa and beyond.
Along the way we stopped regularly for the train to take on water and for occasional passengers to disembark or embark. Achim and I always took this as an opportunity to stretch our legs by tearing around the station and exploring. We were never afraid to miss the train because at school we had developed a discipline regarding being at the right place at the right time.
One of these places was a town called Dee Aar, which I remember thinking must have been the biggest railway junction in the world. We spent four hours there. It was evening and Achim and I decided to climb the hill just outside the town to watch the trains pulling in, pulling out, and shunting their carriages around. I can still see the pictures in my mind today.
Arriving at our final destination, we were escorted off the train by the dutiful conductor, who had done his job of looking after us quite admirably. The train station comprised a short platform, the obligatory water tower and a small hut. It was anything but imposing. We were in the back of beyond.
We stood there with our luggage for a few minutes. I did not know who to look out for but Achim waved as an old pickup truck, with a plume of dust behind it, pulled up. Out stepped a man who had spent much of his life in the African sun. It was Herr Wolff. There was much hugging and, presumably, words of affection spoken in German by the two. I waited quietly for my friend to introduce me, but it was Herr Wolff who turned and stuck out his right hand. With a smile on his face he uttered a word that took me a few seconds to interpret.
“Grrrr – Ah-Hum! Guten tag.” I smiled back and said “Herr Wolff”. It was the best I could do. My German was nonexistent.
We piled into his old pick-up truck and headed for the farm. I realised within minutes that this man, who would be my host for the next three weeks. spoke no English at all. So Achim was the designated translator.
We travelled through the tiny town with its Acacia trees and rock gardens in the front of the few houses. Around what was obviously the local store stood people dressed in a fashion I’d never seen before. They were Hereros. The women, in particular, caught my eye, because they were tall, elegant and dressed in full-length, brightly coloured dresses with matching cloth hats on their heads.The style apparently had been influenced by European missionaries who had arrived a century earlier than Achim and me..
At the end of a long dirt track was our destination – the farmhouse and all its accompanying outbuildings. By now Herr Wolff had become Onkel Hans. At the front door stood Frau Wolff, arms wide open and ready to embrace her Godson. When she had delivered this I received a strenuous handshake.
That evening, sitting at the dining table, I realised the disadvantage I faced not being able to speak German. For me, this was a foreign world. While Achim told me some of the things being said, he didn’t manage to translate everything into English.
Of particular importance was the matter of meals, especially second helpings. I just didn’t know what I was being asked, which meant that there were occasions when I didn’t receive that extra piece of meat or serve of vegetables that are so essential for a growing fourteen year old.
This meal time situation was the strongest motivation for me to come out of my somewhat shy self and learn German as fast as I could. I discovered that speaking, even in a muddled mixture of German and Afrikaans, was the fastest way to learn this new language.
Most days Achim and spent walking around this incredible farm, which was recognized throughout the region for its wildlife. Onkel Hans had fastidiously protected his animals, which meant that he only ever hunted for the pot. I now understand that the world ‘potshot’ comes from shooting for the pot.
He never killed for sport. This placed him in a different category to most of the other farmers in that region. Consequently, he had a reputation which stretched all the way to Germany. In fact, in our last week there, Achim and I were put in charge of escorting a German tourist around the farm. We took him to waterholes and ridges looking for wildlife for him to shoot – with his camera. Onkel Hans did not accept money from hunters.
My recollection is that this German tourist was amazed and delighted by what he saw. Quietly and without saying anything about this at the time, I was amazed and delighted by how my German had progressed. I recall that I was never out of the conversation. Achim, of course, might remember this quite differently.
Thinking back, I imagine there were several dangerous species of animal sharing the space with us as we walked around the Wolff farm every day. I know there were leopards, there might even have been lions, and there were certainly poisonous snakes. But we were undaunted. Although we each had a rifle, I don’t recall us shooting anything. We did shoot AT many things, but they seemed to be immune to our actions. We concluded that guinea fowl, which were prolific, were the toughest birds known to man. As often as we took pot shots at them, they always managed to survive. I can’t recall even knocking feathers off one of them.
At the end of the first week, in which we had venison for every lunch and dinner, it came to Sunday. I recall Frau Wolff being particularly excited about the midday meal. What she served up was roast lamb. This might sound like a treat, but even at boarding school we regularly had roast lamb on a Sunday. On the other hand, we never had venison. That was a treat way beyond the realms of possibility at a boarding school. Even at home, venison was only a once-a-year treat. So, in the remoteness of a Namibian farm, this was a reversal of life as I knew it.
It was a life-changing holiday in that the wide outdoors was our playground every day. And when I say ‘wide outdoors’, I mean that six thousand hectares is a lot of space to explore.
When the time came, we piled into the old pick-up truck and Onkel Hans dropped us at that dusty out-of-the-way station. The train arrived, we boarded, waved goodbye, and the conductor chaperoned us to our compartment and all the way home. I can remember absolutely nothing about that journey.
Achim and I remained good friends all the way through high school and beyond. Not because I could speak a modicum of German, but perhaps because we had shared an experience that required an element of trust in each other.
Trust meant a lot in relationships fifty years ago. It means just as much today.