cartography dwindle actual

159 lowveldIn the small piece of the 1961 edition of the Oxford Atlas above, Luitingh’s Guest Farm is situated near the left foot of the ‘h’ in White River. The darkest lines represent railway lines and the line from Nelspruit went beyond White River and ended at Plaston. Plaston had a railway station, two stores run by Indian traders, a post-office, a garage and a library which was a small room that opened its book-lined shelves to white people on Saturday mornings. Beyond the two words Nelspruit and White River, I cannot find any detail that has resonance for me, or that matches in any way the experience of the years that I was to spend crouched under the Oxford Atlas’ letter ‘h’. The koppie behind the house, being the highest point for miles, had on it a survey beacon – a white-painted concrete cylinder with an iron pole with four black painted metal vanes poking up from it. This beacon marked a precise cartographic point that could be identified on the detailed survey maps of the district, which Anton kept in his office, allowing us to close the analogical gap by standing there with the map in our hands. From the top of the koppie we could see other beacons across the valley through haze and heat distortion. Now, of course, the cartography is different. The bottom of the letters AL visible at the top of the map fragment, the last in TRANSVAAL, would no longer appear, the area now being called Mpumalanga (sunrise). Population densities have more than doubled, making the small towns into big ones. Roads and airports have been created where there were farms or locations. Entire cities of shanties have appeared where there was open land, although the physical details that the survey maps record, to whatever degree of accuracy, have hardly altered.

What had altered was Clifton, even by the time I first returned to it, perhaps two years after our departure for Luitingh’s Guest Farm. I do not know where, precisely, I went during those two years – possibly I enjoyed holidays with my father at Rudolf’s Hoek – but Clifton was a different place when we came back. During the time that we had been away, the entire scene of our early childhood had been demolished and replaced with blocks of flats, which now loomed over the beach like some vast flattened Roman Coliseum.

I make a trip to Clifton forty-nine years after the events re-corded in Lesley’s diary, hoping, if not to catch some glimpse of the earlier configuration, to capture an image of the actual place as it now exists, which I can compare with the old photographs. It is mid-morning on a perfect day, the 29th of February, the late summer sun bright in a blue and windless sky. We park on the road above Second Beach, opposite the block of flats called Heron Water. There is a curious tension for me in the buildings along Victoria Road, for they have each been gutted and remade many times since the 1950s, and each remake, while retaining some vague sense of the original shape, has moved successively in the direction which we call rich. It is as though I have arrived among a collection of ageing wives of wealthy men, all of whom I somehow know or ought to know, but who have had so many face-lifts, hair-transplants, lipo-suctions and the like, each dictated by ever-shifting tastes, that I can no longer claim with confidence to recognise them. The Clifton Hotel is no longer there, but a building consisting of several apartments still retains some semblance of its original shape. There is no public access and the periphery of the site is surrounded by formidable quantities of blade-wire. The pathway from Victoria Road to the top of the stairs leading down to the sand is still there, and it still looks as I remember it. But, like the former hotel, it is edged by a frill of blade-wire and the stakes, mesh and fencing to support it. The pathway is the same one which connected the stairs to the road before we left Clifton, but the stairs are not. These stairs, now much ground down by sandy feet, are the very ones that replaced the original wooden stairs during our absence in the Eastern Transvaal, and which appeared like a genie’s palace on our return. The pathways remain the responsibility of the city and not of the extremely wealthy people who have come to own the land and houses that they connect, and that is no doubt why they have changed so little.

162 lentonsThe pathway above, part of the route to where Trinity Hall, our wood and iron bungalow once stood, is almost exactly as it had always been. The bungalow in the picture was inhabited by the Lentons, a London family. The only major difference in this view is the pale fence in the centre, topped with a neat row of variegated ivy. The ivy, which is made of plastic, conceals a layer of dangerous spikes.

162 poison ivy

At the bottom of the stairs I try to position myself in the place where the photographer stood on that 1950s day to take this picture of Trinity Hall.

163 trinity hall 163 first beach 1

This is a tricky operation as the actual place is no longer there. Rocks have been moved to build a public lavatory where the sewage pump station stood. By climbing onto the deck of the new lavatory and leaning outward, I am able to take the picture above. The vantage point must be within a few metres of the original. The flats, several face-lifts later, are the same structures that were there when I first came back to Clifton from Luitingh’s Guest Farm in 1960.

164 duiker rockThe beach is almost deserted. One or two young people with unusually well-maintained bodies lie in the sun. Apart from our twins, there are no children at all. I climb over the rocks past Baby’s Beach to Moses Beach. Among the rocks are pools with sandy anemones, seaweed and tiny fishes. The mussels are packed densely on the rocks, but all are younger than those that Jack and Lesley would pluck to cook.

163 moses beachAt Moses Beach, all of the structures above the left side of the beach have been broken down, and recently, for the workers are still busy, their vast cranes hovering over the cement-lined pit that has been excavated in the place where I had expected to see the residences of the Foxes, the Gillises, the Rabkins and many other families. Only the shoreline and ocean seem unchanged, the hard granite of the boulders having worn so little as to make no discernable difference.

I seek out one particular spot on the rock that we called ‘red box rock’ because of the life-saving box with its float and spool of rope. When I say ‘spot’, I mean it quite literally, but when I say that I ‘seek’, I am speaking figuratively: one of the older boys – someone of Raymond’s generation, perhaps – had in 1959 found a small pot of sky-blue eye-shadow left behind by a sunbather, and with it had marked a thick greasy blue spot on the rock.

164 red box rockThe mark made there before we left Clifton outlasted the bungalows. Its secret placement on the side of the red box rock (one had to climb onto a ledge to be able to see it) may have helped to preserve it, for it lasted many years, and I can remember climbing out onto the ledge to find it or its diminishing vestiges shortly after every arrival at Clifton. The spot of make-up has, of course, been gone for many years now, and the rock itself gives no clue as to its original situation. Does a memory that is accurate to within a metre or two count as accurate in any sense?

As I leave First Beach, I notice that at the bottom of the stairs are two steps and the ghost of a third leading into a blank wall. They were the first of about eight or nine steps which once led to our home.

165 steps


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