Despite swearing that I would have a digital free holiday, today has dawned blustery and overcast. The children have their noses glued to their new Nintendo DS games that they got from Father Christmas and my husband is reading some epic novel about the Battle of Rourke's Drift. So I thought I'd have a short interlude with the interweb.
We are in South Africa, having rather miraculously managed to flee frozen Britain. We were one of the 7 flights that left Heathrow last Sunday, although the delayed departure time meant we missed our onward connection in SA, which meant sitting on standby for a full 24 hours in Johannesburg before finally getting to Redhouse, Port Elizabeth, the place I spent the first 12 years of my life.
It is the first time in five years that I've been home. Home. Having lived in 17 houses, 7 towns/villages/cities and 4 countries, it's weird that I still think of Redhouse as home. It's been a long time since I last lived here, yet the memories created in this small place have made the most long lasting impact.
The village of Redhouse lies on the banks of the Swartkops River. Driving from Port Elizabeth to Redhouse, you'll be struck by something. Ugliness. The buildings are not quite crumbling but certainly shabby, their 60s and 70s architecture looking even less attractive with decay and age than they originally did, and they were never beautiful. Litter lines the fences and everything looks wind blown. You trundle past the old Carbon Black factory, belching out its noxious fumes beaten into submission only by the stench of the sewage works sitting opposite it.
Looking to your left as you make your way past the village of Swartkops, you see litter strewn scrubby bushes, hard dry earth, a defunct power station, thirsty looking salt pans and dirt poor townships as far as the eye can see, with tumble down houses packed together under towering electric power pylons. Ugly.
At last you turn off the road, which supposedly takes two lanes of traffic, but which somehow accommodates four straggly lines of banged up cars, souped up bakkies, taxis that look barely roadworthy and the odd donkey cart. Entering Redhouse is like going back several decades. The houses are smaller and flatter than I remember them being as a child. Unlike the rest of South Africa, most of the front walls are free of electric fencing, although many have sharp spikes as a deterrent to unwanted visitors.
The narrow road winds through the village, past the old library, the train station, the park (which now looks dry and brown, with far fewer trees than I remember), over the level crossing with the familiar tummy sinking feeling as you zoom down the far side, past the tiny play school that I attended as a child before turning into my father's drive. To anyone new to Redhouse, they will up to this point wonder what on earth the fascination with the place is. They will have travelled a journey from extreme ugliness to dry, windblown ordinariness. They could be forgiven for wishing they hadn't made the trip.
But then, you walk through the house and out onto the Towpath and the reason for the journey is revealed. In front of you lies the Swartkops river, just wide enough to make it a fairly tiring swim across. On the opposite bank lies Sandy Beach, where I spent many, many happy hours as a child building dens, looking for treasure, covering ourselves in thick mud (the name Sandy Beach is a loose term). Beyond the river's edge lies a bird sanctuary swarming with flamingoes and herons. Beyond that lies a row of aloe dotted hills that march away into the distance.
Back on the Towpath, a grassy green stretch of lawn runs in front of a row of houses, all of which are designed to invite people in. Shady green trees provide respite from the heat of the sun, with lucky beans and syringa berries scattering the ground beneath them. Children and dogs run in gay abandon up and down the Towpath playing games of rugby, cricket, football or more imaginatively forming gangs of goodies (boys) and baddies (girls). They hide and pounce on each other, with the boys regularly trying to tie up the long suffering girls with bits of rope.
Days are spent paddling in canoes, sailing, swimming, reading books, lazing and staring at the vista wondering how this little sliver of an idyll continues to weave its magic when all around it the world collapses.
I know that my home is no longer in South Africa. I no longer feel the the tug on my heart strings when I return here. I feel more foreign than local. Yet, when I am in Redhouse, I return to my childhood, where my most beautiful, magical, innocent memories were created. And I know that I am truly home.