The power of books

As I am writing this blog, I find myself on an Emirates flight, high above the great African plains – more than 10 kilometres high to be precise. It appears to be about midday, although my body clock is definitely not in agreement – I’m about three hours out. I’ve snoozed for hours, but haven’t really slept. It’s not easy, the combined sound of the engines and the air conditioning are enough to keep anyone awake. Although, now that I think of it – it is at the same time strangely quiet. No chatting, no laughter, no children crying. A quick glance around me provides the answer: in-flight entertainment. It’s been 20 years since I flew on an intercontinental flight, and boy how things have changed. Personal TV screens provide a multitude of choices, hundreds of TV-series, films, music, and in-flight exercise regimes are on offer, as well as a flight tracker, internet access and email/sms. No wonder then that everybody is engrossed in their own personal little entertainment world! I feel for the staff, who must find it all very boring to talk to people whose ears are covered up with headphones – as indeed are mine!

How different the journey would have been in the early 1960’s, when my mother travelled from Durban to Amsterdam with two small children in tow, lugging 10 suitcases which contained all our personal belongings. We had lived in South Africa for two years and were on our way home to the Netherlands, where school beckoned for my older sister and me. The total length of my journey today is not that different from the one we took back then, but how it is experienced is worlds apart. I find myself wondering how on earth parents used to undertake such long journeys with a brood of children in tow! It’s impressive.

Childhood memories

I am so excited to return to Africa, after all this time. Not that I can remember much, I was after all only four years old when we left. Digging around in my memory banks, I will occasionally stumble across little pieces of a jigsaw – the Mickey Mouse boats, the trampoline park and the mosaic boulevard along the beach front of Durban. I remember the little brown suitcase that I took to nursery, the Clare Ellis Brown Pre-School each morning, which contained a face flannel, my tooth brush and tooth paste. It also held my pyjamas for the compulsory and collective afternoon snooze, for which little stretcher beds were put in neat rows. I kept that suitcase for years! Small as it was, it eventually ended up being a travel case for my dolls and teddies.

Safari Trips

Apart from those little snippets, most of my memories actually belong to my parents. My mother’s safari trips with her friend An are very well documented. They never did heed the advice not to leave the huts at night; neither did they take notice of the rule never to get out of the car in the reserves. Maybe they were just lucky to tell the tale! We certainly were fortunate, because as a result of their risk taking, we have amazing photographic evidence of two glamorous ladies standing by their Volkswagen Beetle next to tall giraffes and crossing paths with angry looking rhinos. Their stories of wild animals and noises in the dark as they made their ‘illegal’ way to the outside toilet fascinated us as children and made me dream of returning to Africa – one day.

Stories of Africa

Subconsciously I have been preparing to go back for a very long time. As a teenager I devoured every single book Wilbur Smith ever wrote – trilogies about settlers in what is now Zimbabwe, but what in those days wasn’t even Rhodesia yet. Place names are etched on my brain and conjure up images of wonderful places, cultures and people. Later on I got myself hooked on ‘the Africa House’, a story of Stewart Gore-Browne, an eccentric young Brit who left his homeland to make himself a new home near Lilongwe, in present day Zambia. His care and respect for the indigenous people and his work for the early days of the African National Congress made him so popular that to this day he remains the only white person ever to have been given a state funeral, attended by President Kaunda of Zambia himself, who also gave the eulogy.

In preparation of this trip I had intended to revisit many of these books, but only managed to find time to read Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. Although it doesn’t cover South Africa, it has a wonderfully descriptive narrative. Karen weaves images right before your eyes, taking you places and times by now long gone. Her stories are of cross-roads: of old and new, of Africans and European settlers, of man and nature. They often paint disturbing pictures of life at the beginnings of the end of Colonial Africa. I absorbed it all – soaking up the atmosphere and learning as I was reading. Books, books, books: how they influence you! They fuelled my interest in Africa and kept my dreams of a visit alive for all these years.

Going back…..

Well, it seems my day has finally arrived! A good friend and a stroke of good fortune have landed me a job which is bringing me back to Durban for a 2-day meeting – the perfect excuse to stay and play and revisit some of my scattered roots. And here I am, on a plane bound south. The in-flight entertainment provides a map of the Middle East and Africa, as we chart our way from Dubai, passing Zanzibar, Lilongwe, Lake Malawi, Mashonaland, Matabeleland, Bulawayo and the Kalahari desert, each of them bringing back more memories of great stories and wonderful books, each of them opening a window onto a world so utterly unknown to me and yet to familiar.

Our trip will take us to Durban and the Kruger National Park, and finish in Cape Town and the Western Cape. It even includes a visit to my old nursery, which is still in the same place in Durban, and is very welcoming indeed. It will be an amazing experience I’m sure: an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I have taken vows not to get out of the car on the reserve. I had no choice: my children don’t fancy my chances against hungry lions, but boy, am I excited!! Maybe that’s why I can’t sleep, why I’m instead writing this blog. I hope you don’t mind… If you do, you can blame it on family history, or even better, blame it on books – their power is not to be underestimated!

Annemieke Waite is a freelance travel writer who specialises in writing for families and young people about EU travel destinations.

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  1. Aleida Brinkman
    Posted August 31, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Can we look forwards to an extension of this story ?? Nursery school , Durban itself and Kruger Park?
    I promised my mother not to get out of the car but it was all to tempting !!!

  2. Alison Paton
    Posted September 1, 2011 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    Have fun at the National Park, I love the words “memory banks”! How fabulous that you went back.
    Enjoy all of your journeys xx

  3. Brian Staines
    Posted September 1, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Hope its brilliant and brings back loads of memories some good some maybe sad but all not forgotton

  4. An
    Posted September 1, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Well, I was a witness to the trip back into history, and boy… How young did she look , that Annemieke, even younger than she usually does!

  5. William Paterson
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    I am a journalist (South African now settled in Ireland) and gained much pleasure in discovering that the Clare Ellis Brown Nursery School is still going strong. In gathering my clippings and refs for a novella I am writing about times in Zululand and Durban between 1930 and 1946, I came across a clipping picture of my mother and grandmother (committee members and main drivers to get things started and brought to fruition) gathered at the tree-planting ceremony marking the start of construction (I think). You just might like a copy; if so, do email me
    All the best. William Paterson. Member of the Intl Fed of Journalists

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