Adventures on the River







Ezra Azra


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Copyright 2022 by Ezra Azra


 
Image by dae jeung kim from Pixabay
Image by dae jeung kim from Pixabay

The word Umtwalume, or, Mtwalume, is the name of a tall tree that grows on the banks of a river in Zululand. The Zulus named the river after the tree. The Umtwalume river is one of many rivers flowing eastwards across the Province of KwaZulu-Natal, into the Indian ocean.

Inland, in the region of Ifafa, the Umtwalume flows through part of my family's hundreds of acres of farm. This story is about when I lived there in the 1950s.

Subtropical warm weather all year round was the main reason I spent a lot of time in the river. The only sections of the river banks that were not impassable because of dense vegetation, were the sections cleared by us.

Although the soil on the banks and on sections continuous with the banks, was most fertile, the farmers avoided planting there because of the frequent flooding of the river.

The floods were most destructive. Only the sturdiest trees survived. Most undergrowth vegetation were uprooted and washed away; all of it grew back within weeks, as dense as ever. This was subtropical Africa; all river vegetation grew aggressively, and defiantly.

For short stretches here and there, the river was ankle-deep and only a few steps wide.

Best of all, the river bed was made of sand found on shores of ocean beaches; ranging in color from light beige to white, so brilliantly reflective in full sunlight that for full personal comfort a person needed to wear shaded spectacles.

We spent a lot of time walking barefoot in the river in two of such sections that were on our farm.

The only curse of the river was that poisonous snakes swam around in the deeper sections. There were no snakes in the shallow sections. We continually cleared the banks of undergrowth vegetation attractive to snakes. We knew of the existence of snake-eating snakes, but never encountered any.

Birds and small wild animals drank at those shallow sections. Most of the time those creatures showed no fear of us walking about in the shallow water. We did everything we could to protect the tall trees growing on the banks of the river. Unfortunately, we had to cut down the trees at the shallow sections because that is where we had to cross with heavy machinery and our bicycles.

One of the adults had an ancient but in perfect condition, Norton motorbike.

We avoided, as much as we could, walking about in or near the river at night because occasionally we found the footprints of more than one of the same very large animal.

One midday, on a sunny day, I was walking casually along the shallow river, when, suddenly a huge wild cat dashed across my path, chasing a small animal. I do not believe that small animal deliberately sort my help, but when it scurried into the water, it changed directions and ran straight for me.

I froze. The small animal ran passed me, and kept course in the river. It did not try to get to the other bank. The wild cat confronted me.

It stopped, and hissed. Perhaps it was hissing at me to get out of the way. I instantly complied. Strangely, it kept looking at me, even after I was out of the river and turned to watch the chase.

Then, right there, it gave up the chase and, instead, sat on its haunches in the water, and began grooming itself.

It was a wild cat, even if it began looking cute. I wasn't about to gamble. I went home.
 
I left our farm when I was eighteen. I never returned. I lived in the City of Durban. On an occasion, I happened to mention that a sweet lemon was my favourite fruit; nature's lemonade. I was scoffed at.

While everybody had heard the term, sweet lemon, everybody understood a sweet lemon to be a deliberately cultivated cross between two other fruit; and that there was no such tree possible in a wilderness. I was both amazed and puzzled. On the bank of the Umtwalume river on our farm, in a wilderness, there was a sweet-lemon tree. It was a favourite tree of the family.

Every July we would walk along the river to the tree and pluck all the ripe sweet lemons; usually a large basket-full. Within two days, all the lemons would be eaten. A group of us would make the trip so that we could make a lot of noise to chase away any wild animals, especially poisonous snakes.

Believe me, a sweet lemon is a fully fledged natural fruit that exists in its own right. Nature's first and truest complete lemonade!

After thunderstorm weather, we went hunting for edible mushrooms, up and down the river banks.

As yet, there is no adequate explanation in science why mushrooms spring up full-grown during a thunderstorm. On the other hand, just about everybody knows there are more kinds of poisonous mushrooms than the edible kind.

On our farm at Ifafa there was knowledge of only one kind of edible mushroom. Nobody knew where or when the knowledge was first applied. There was, probably, more than one kind of edible mushroom on our farm, but we ate one kind only. Perhaps, because this one kind was in such plentiful supply, we did not care to learn if there are other edible species.

We washed them before frying them in oil. A mushroom snack included only bread; no other food.

Mysteriously, among the many, many photographs of kinds of mushrooms, I have yet to see a photo of the edible kind on the Umtwalume river on our farm.

It looked like an alien flying saucer space ship.

If the mushrooms were not cooked and eaten within short hours after being plucked, there were disastrous consequences of smell and sight. That is what people said. In our family, we loved our mushrooms too much to bother to find out.
 
Horned animals fighting in mating competitions was a regular site all over our farm. So regular, in fact, that our pet dogs ignored them. There were no hunters among our family. All herbivores were safe. Throughout the Ifafa region beyond our farm, there were no animal predators large enough to be a threat to deer and other herbivores. Although I do not know enough of those animals who occasionally left huge footprints in the shallow sections of the river bed, I am guessing they were not meat eaters because we never found pieces of bloody remains anywhere.

All meat-eating wild animals are messy eaters, always leaving more than enough evidence of their having eaten.

Of course, there is a possibility that those mysterious huge-footed creatures swallowed their prey whole, leaving absolutely no evidence of their having eaten.

We were taken aback when we saw two unhorned herbivores fighting in the river in one of the shallow areas. At first, we wondered if they were, in fact, two males who, somehow, had no horns.

We hastily moved out of the river to be far away enough to not distract either of the combatants. That's when we accidentally stumbled on the cause of the fight.

We discovered a baby deer tucked away in some high bush vegetation. The baby let out a barely audible squeal. The combatants sensed we had made the discovery. They broke off fighting each other, and came for us. We scurried away like Olympic sprinters.

Even unhorned females have hard hooves that can deliver painful kicks.
 
In our farm family, there were no hunters. We cooked and ate meat, but only of animals killed in fights with other animals. Animals that died of illness or from injury, we buried. Only one animal in my years was struck dead by lightning. We cooked the remains and ate them.

We kept chickens for eggs. When a chicken died, we buried it.

Many kinds of nameless small predators attempted from time to time to kill our chickens and pet dogs. Happily, they never succeeded, and we chased them off.

Sometimes we found ourselves in circumstances that obliged us to kill wild animals. At those times, we delayed for as long as we dared. One of those rare times was when a huge snake arrived on our farm, and did not take the opportunities we provided for it to leave, alive.

One of us discovered the snake when we were crossing at a shallow place in the river, barefoot. By sheer chance, a section of the snake was spotted high up between two trees. At first sight, the snake's green skin blended in so well with the surrounding foliage, it was not recognized. It was seen only because it slowly slithered along from one tree to another.

We had read about the existence of snake-eating snakes, but since we had never encountered any such good snakes, we always opted for the choice of regarding all snakes encountered, as poisonous.

The alarm was raised. Within the hour there was a crowd of persons from other farms who came to help. Four of them had long guns. That snake could have easily escaped in that time.

Frighteningly large snakes were not uncommon. They came out during windy weather, and were seen moving speedily. This snake was all that more frightening for not moving speedily in sunny, windless, weather.

The armed persons could have easily shot that snake dead, but, instead, two of them fired into the trees immediately under the section of snake's body that was visible.

Those loud shots did not scare the snake.  Nobody would have objected had those two persons shot the snake dead.

For the first time, the snake showed its head. It swung out of the trees and landed in the shallow water of the river. It was longer than seven feet. Its head was its thinnest part. The tail was thicker than my bicep.

While all the unarmed persons scattered, screaming in fear, four guns roared their missiles into the beast. Even after it was dead, its head shot into a bloody pulp, its body, throughout its whole length, slowly writhed and twitched as in slow-motion, to a dead stop.

We buried it far away from the river.

River flooding was unpredictable. Even animals were caught unawares. It could happen day or night. The only safety was in its happening gradually.

Heavy rain up river was the cause. The level of water rising gradually in our farm, gave us about an hour before it reached about six feet high, and roaring along angrily and mercilessly.

We would see, being tumbled along, dead bodies of animals that were caught unawares. Frequently, there were small animals still alive, struggling to stay afloat as they were recklessly forced along. Sometimes the dead animals would be adult monkeys.

Those corpses were our only evidence that somewhere up river, there were monkeys. No living monkeys came down the river as far as our farm. We guessed it was because the number of tall trees everywhere on our farm never amounted to a forest.

After a flood, we found fish entangled in the vegetation that was not uprooted by the turbulently rushing waters. Those fish, we cooked and ate. Those fish were evidence that somewhere up river people could fish. There was no fish and so no fishing in the Umtwalume river on our farm.

From our farm, children walked to school at the town of Umtwalume. It took us at least an hour. I remember two teachers who everybody knew to be criminals. Mister Daniel Lubbe, and mister Gilbert Goldstone. For a few years, both were teachers and close friends at Umtwalume at the same time.

Daniel Lubbe was not married. The rumour was that he had to leave other schools as far away as Durban, more than fifty miles away, north, because of his shameless affairs with women.

He stood out always because of the hair on his head. His hair was basically Negroid-Zulu. But because to his primary Zulu ethnicity was added one or more of Xhosa, Griqua, Khoi-Khoi, his hair, when treated with the oil from the berry of the Syringa tree, had the capacity to be grown high, resembling a top hat. From there, it could be shaped variously in minor ways.

Entirely Zulu-ethnicity hair did not respond to Syringa berry oil.

Most children at school who qualified, did not wear their hair Syringa high because it hampered activity in field sports. Because of his hair, Daniel Lubbe was the only teacher who never coached field sports; his friend, Gilbert Goldstone, always substituted for him.

Daniel Lubbe shaped his hair differently in subtle ways every few weeks. We would request to get close enough to detect his tinkerings. He always happily granted permission. He was, easily, our most favourite teacher.

Daniel Lubbe, definitely was a most effective teacher. He taught us Mathematics: Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry.

Mathematics, definitely, is not in my genetic deoxyribonucleic acid. And yet, after the first of the two years in Daniel Lubbe's class, achieving 100% in tests was usual for me, and for many others. His method was to teach a rule on Monday, and to spend the rest of the week giving us exercises requiring the application of that rule. We had Mathematics every day of the week. I was not the only one who looked forward to our Mathematics classes.

There was another aspect of his teaching that endeared him to us. He was the only teacher who never required us to do homework. He said homework was an unfair extension of a teacher's job.

Daniel Lubbe's hobby was fishing. On school vacations he would travel as far as Port Shepstone to fish in the Umzimkhulu (Mzimkhulu) river, the largest river in South Africa that flows eastward into the Indian ocean.

The Police arrived at the school at Umtwalume one day, and served Daniel Lubbe with Law Court documents. I never found out what those documents required of mister Lubbe.

The next Saturday, mister Lubbe showed up at our farm early in the day. He was river-dressed; knee-length trousers, and firmly strapped open sandals. He wore a backpack stuffed with stuff. He had a short factory-made fishing rod.

He spent a few cheerful minutes with us, and asked for permission to explore the river upstream, and do some fishing. As with everybody on the farm, his speech alternated haphazardly between English and Zulu. There was kibitzing about Zulu nicknames.

Most persons on the farm had a Zulu nickname, some given by others, others adopted. Daniel Lubbe's was Ndlelalani. It meant, loosely, in one or a combination of African languages, "a good road ahead." It was not an uncommon name.

Mine was "Zdeleli", loosely meaning, exceedingly loosely meaning, "lazy good-for-nothing." I do not remember who saddled me with that name. I have never known anyone else to have that nickname.

Permission was gladly given Daniel Lubbe, whole heartedly, to venture upriver.

Family members volunteered to accompany him if he gave them few minutes to dress appropriately and to pack backpacks. He gracefully declined the offers, saying he did not intend more than an hour-or-so exploring, and taking photos. And fishing.

He showed us his box camera, and packages of extra film. He looked at his fishing rod winsomely, with a tentative smile, and said quietly, mostly to himself, "I named her Emilia, for luck."

There was light-hearted ribbing about his high-hair. Someone suggested he use the reflection of his hair in the water to frighten fish to death. He graciously said he would try it, if all else failed.

He left, cheerfully and alone.

He was never seen, or heard from, or heard about, again. That was the first time, and the last, he visited our farm.

When we children began speaking about mister Lubbe's absence from school after a few days, our family agreed to not speak about his visit to us for permission to walk upriver. There was no official investigation into mister Lubbe's disappearance that involved us although Police did come to our farm and asked questions.

The Police had been to the Umtwalume school. In their investigation into Lubbe's disappearance, they found out he intended to go fishing up the river. They asked the teachers about this and other matters related to Lubbe. Gilbert Goldstone was Daniel Lubbe's closest associate at school and in life, in general. He was surprised, but did not show it, that Lubbe had not apprised him of the intention to go fishing in the Umtwalume river. Neither of them had ever done that.

Gilbert guessed accurately that our section of the river would be where Lubbe would go fishing. He came to us and asked. He warned us of the Police. He was told everything about Lubbe's visit to us.

After some days passed, two uniformed Police Officers on horseback came to our farm. They asked about fishing spots on our section of the river.

They were told there was no place suitable because there were no fish in our section of the Umtwalume River. The only fish we ate from the river were the fish that came with the floods to be trapped in vegetation on the river banks.

Everybody in our family studiously avoided mentioning Lubbe had ever visited us with his Emilia companion. The Police did not ask a direct question.

They showed us three photos. One was of Lubbe's head and shoulders, displaying his spectacularly attractive high hair. We identified him, instantly.

Another was a group picture of him and his fisher friends in Port Shepstone. All of them had high hair. None of us had seen that photo before the Police showed it to us.

The third was a photo, barely hand-palm size. It was an old photo, with many chaotic creases. The Police found it tucked away among fishing gear in a small metal container in Lubbe's home. It was of a young woman with high hair. None of us had seen that photo before the Police showed us. None of us recognized the young woman.

We were careful to not mention that Gilbert Godstone had visited us and asked about Lubbe's visit.

Years later, in my first year at the University of Natal in Durban, there was a student in some of my classes, Hugh Paul Ndlelalani Africa.

In outward appearance, mannerisms of speech, he could have been Daniel Lubbe's identical twin. After a few weeks we struck up a close friendship when we discovered both of us had Zulu ancestry.

We had fun comparing our Zulu names. I casually noted to him that he reminded me of one my teachers at Umtwalume school. Daniel Lubbe.

He told me his Dad's name was Daniel Lubbe. His Dad and Mom were born in the inland City of Pietermaritzburg in the Province of Natal, about seventy-four miles from Umtwalume. They attended the same schools. They had intended to be married to each other.

That intention was interrupted by his Mom being pregnant with Hugh. His Mom died in childbirth. His Dad left the City and enrolled in a Teacher's College. Hugh said, he never knew his Dad.

Hugh was brought up by his grandparents, both Zulu. His grandfather's name was Ndlelalani Africa.

Hugh attended the same school in Pietermaritzburg as his parents had. He remembered reading, in the school's student newspaper, a program of a play the school had staged. "Romeo and Juliet", written by William Shakespeare. His Mom and Dad had played the two protagonist roles. The play's program listed his Mother's name as Emilia Ndlelalani.

He had not seen any photos of his Dad and Mom.

Hence, other than his outward appearance, there was no evidence Hugh Paul Ndlelalani Africa was Daniel Lubbe's child.

I told Hugh a little about Daniel Lubbe. Other than telling me the name Lubbe was around in Pietermaritzburg, Hugh showed no interest in learning more about Daniel Lubbe than the little I provided.

Perhaps, in the City of Pietermaritzburg there is evidence?

I asked him if high-hair was around in his school days. He said he remembered a few. When I asked if his school library had year-book records, his interest was piqued. He had not thought of checking the school library for photos.

I thought it best to not tell Hugh about the last time I saw Daniel Lubbe.

Hugh Paul Ndlelalani Africa went on to have an illustrious career as university teacher, scholar, administrator. He and I graduated with our first two University degrees in the same years, at the same University. He gained his third at the University of Leeds in England, and his fourth, a doctorate, from the University of Toronto in Canada.

Among his prestigious achievements: at different times, Vice-Chancellor of three Universities in South Africa; a Dean at the University of Namibia; a consultant with the United Nations. After he retired, he was offered and he accepted to serve on an advisory Council at the University of Natal, the University where his University education had begun in 1956.

A most heartening fact is that after Hugh died peacefully of natural causes in his seventies, in Natal, he was awarded, posthumously, an honorary doctorate degree in Education by the University of Natal, the University where the University education of Hugh Paul Ndlelalani Africa, had begun in 1956.

There were rampant rumours about mister Gilbert Goldstone's crimes.

Unlike mister Daniel Lubbe, mister Gilbert Goldstone lived a long life on his farm in inland Umtwalume. He was married happily and had children, some of whom we knew at school. He continued a teacher at the school in the town of Umtwalume until he reached the retirement age of sixty years. He retired and lived a long life, and eventually died peacefully in bed of natural causes.

The first rumour was that Gilbert Goldstone inherited his hundred-acre farm dishonestly.

When he was young, he lived with his parents in the district of Ifafa which was contiguous with the district of Umtwalume to the north. When he graduated from the Umtwalume school, he left the Province to attend a Teacher College in another Province, the Transvaal, where he qualified as a school teacher.

At some time he deceived his old and blind father, William Goldstone, into signing all his hundred-acre farm to Gilbert, disinheriting William's other five children from his first wife, Maria Goldstone. Gilbert's mother, William's second wife, was never legally married to William. This made Gilbert, legally, a bastard child. In other words, he had no natural legal right to Goldstone inheritance at Ifafa and Umtwalume.

Another of Gilbert's crimes was not merely a rumour. It was a fact in which I unwittingly as a teenager, aided and abetted him.

Gilbert Goldstone was very, very generous freely providing us with produce from his farm: pumpkins, watermelons, yams, sweet potatoes, maize, beans, tomatoes.

Gilbert Goldstone's farm was contiguous with ours at our northern boundary. The Umtwalume river flowed from our farm through a part of his. Only in our section of the river, mysteriously, was the river sand of ocean-shore texture and color.

With the permission of our family, Gilbert dug our river sand and added it to bags of beans he sewed closed, and sold by weight to merchants in towns on the south coast of the Province of Natal, from Durban in the north to Port Shepstone in the south, a distance of about seventy-seven miles, as the crow flies.

I was one of the family members who helped Gilbert dig up river sand and put it in drums he transported to his farm by his half-truck motorized vehicle. That modern engine was not the only one by which Gilbert Goldstone, teacher, conducted his dishonest commercial farming enterprises. All the people I knew at that time, held Gilbert Goldstone in awe; in our eyes, he was this close from being a god.

Beans was his only farm produce that Gilbert never sold in Umtwalume, which is situated on the Natal coast about halfway between Durban and Port Shepstone.

Was he afraid Umtwalume natives would instantly recognize the taste of the river's sand? Or, was there, really, deep down in his evil being, an atom of moral conscience?

In other words, up to about one-quarter of the weight of a bag of Gilbert's beans was made by our farm's river sand.
As a teen, I unwittingly helped Gilbert Goldstone dig up and load that river sand.

Sometime in future years, one family member, old, retired, and dying in a town far away from our farm, told me of Gilbert Goldstone's treachery. By then, Gilbert had been long dead.

If there were other family members who knew, their silence must have been bought by Gilbert's excessive generosity to farmers hundreds of miles around in matters of construction, fixing machinery, ploughing, sowing, harvesting, the free lending out of his farm workers.

Another farmer was refused our river sand. He wanted too much. The sand, the farmer said, was the right composition to be mixed with cement to build walls and patios, and other structures.

On one occasion in the month of July, the flooding occurred at night. And, unusually, in wildly-churning winds. We heard shouts from the other side of the river. We could not discern whether the shouts were for help.

We felt obliged to brave the bad weather. We went outside. We had powerful flashlights. All farmers did. We did not switch them on.

One of the compulsory precautions on our farm was, never switch on lights in the dark outside before being sure of safety.

In that moment, we were not sure of safety. Why would anyone be out in a dark raining night? They were on our farm at a place miles away from other farms. Persons who arrived at night on our farm, and were met, were expected. Others were avoided in silence, if it was dark.

In my years on the farm, all traffic, pedestrian and motorized, on the road through our farm to Gilbert's, was to Gilbert's farm.

We stood still in the dark and the rain and the blustering wind. We heard shouts from more than one person. We did not respond. We could not break down the shouts into intelligible words. It could have been the stormy winds that made the shouts seem to erupt into screams. Then, no more human sounds.

We waited a few minutes more before going back indoors.

By daylight, the river was well on the way to returning to its lowest levels. By late afternoon we were able to walk about on the other side of the river.

We found no signs of people having been there the last night. To this day, we do not know who those shouters and screamers in the dark, were. If they were headed for Gilbert's farm, he never mentioned it.

No happening on our farm was as soulfully spectacular as the coming of the Tegwane bird. It happened only once a year, and in the month of July. July is the coldest month in the Province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. The sub-tropical weather can be as low as sixty Fahrenheit! The cold air along the Umtwalume river brought about a dense white fog that lingered from dawn to late afternoon each day. This happened for consecutive days.

On a day, while the fog was at its thickest and the day its coldest, the Tegwane bird would appear high up in the sky. It would fly slowly in circles, lower and lower until it slowly entered the fog, and disappeared onto the river bed, always at the same shallow end. It would remain there, hidden in the fog for hours.

It was not known if it remained on the same spot, or walked up the river. When it rose, it would be in the same pattern. It would not return until the next year.

We never knew what the Tegwane did in the fog on the river, for hours. Some guessed the bird came to lay and bury its eggs. Against this guess was the fact nobody on the Ifafa-Umtwalume farms had ever recorded seeing Tegwane hatchlings at any time of the year. Indeed, nobody had ever recorded seeing young Tegwanes flying; more than one adult Tegwane flying about.

A more credible guess was that it came to feed on food that was available only at that time of year.

A Tegwane is huge. Rust-colored. I do not remember anyone mentioning differences between females and males. I saw one in flight, only once in my years on the farm.

It is a Zulu and a Xhosa belief it is bad luck to kill or hurt a Tegwane because it has mythical capabilities: it can call down thunder and lightning; it can make itself invisible; it can change its form into any animal, including human; it is kind in nature and a loner, but can be viciously lethal in defending itself.

I have not been able to find a record of the Tegwane's wingspan. The Tegwane is not on the official list of the world's top-ten birds with the widest wingspan, the widest being about twelve feet.

Factoring in Xhosa-Zulu ancient folk lore holy awe, the Tegwane's wingspan easily approaches infinity.

When fog was seen hovering over the river, people would journey in reverential silence from far away to the place on our section of the river. We had originally chosen that spot as a crossing because of the Tegwane visits.

Crowds would wait patiently in holy silence. When the bird appeared high in the sky, there would be whispered gasps in chorus, and fingers pointing. Nobody moved unnecessarily. They would remain like that, more or less, for the whole time the Tegwane was hidden in the fog on the river.

When it eventually rose up out of the fog and slowly flew straight up, and away, the people cheered and sang and clapped.



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