The Tightrope Walker

Birdsong and late summer cicadas greeted washday morning. February heat was intense. Thin clouds were swirling along the ridge of mountains to the north.

The sheets would be dry in no time. Maybe the rain would come and maybe it wouldn’t.

Certainly the maize growing region north of the mountains was facing a torrid time. Not enough rain during the growing season and relentless heat had decimated the maize crop. A hike in food price was imminent if no rain fell soon.

I imagined a similar February which had occurred more than 150 years earlier.


To experience the temperate climate which blesses the Garden Route of the Western Cape of South Africa is a delight.

Extreme weather conditions, such as drought, floods, fantastic lightning storms and wild fires, do occur, but these are extraordinary rather than the norm.

The great fire of 1869 recorded by Patricia Storrar in her book: “Portrait of Plett”, must have been terrifying. (1978, ISBN-0 908379 12 9)

January 1869 had seen a heat-wave in Plettenberg Bay and by 9 February a super hot northerly “Berg wind” fanned a bush fire along the coastal plateau towards the bay. The fire storm devastated the countryside, burning houses, livestock, indigenous forest and wildlife. It raged through The Crags and the howling gale blew the ash onto sailing ships 3km out to sea.

A great swath of land belonging to William Newdigate of Forest Hall in The Crags was razed to the ground. This was renamed Ashlands. The area directly north of Brackenburn is still called Ashlands.

Today The Crags has two Fire Protection associations which monitor weather conditions so that bush fires might be attended to before they become uncontrollable. The faintest whiff of bush smoke gets the lines of communication going.


As I held up the corner of the last sheet to peg it to the clothes line I watched the cloud along the mountain ridge, keeping an eye out for smoke and contemplated the fine line between comfort and disaster. Before I could peg the sheet down a tiny chameleon (Bradypodion ventrale) on the clothes line beneath the descending peg stretched out its arms and latched onto my finger.


I was shocked that I had not seen it attached to the clothes line. It hauled its little body onty the unknown entity of my hand. Thin tail twirled around my finger, it watched as I focused my phone for a quick snap shot.

Hastily the chameleon was transferred to a flowering shrub where it might find flies.

As it loosened its surprisingly tight grip to continue its journey I marvelled how we all walk life’s tightrope. How often we put our faith into hands we trust will lead us into safety rather than destruction.

In so many ways tiny messages are re-enforcing the decision to create a place of rehabilitation for wildlife, and thus write the next chapter in the existence of Brackenburn Private Nature Reserve.


Two days later the heat is overcome by soft drenching mountain rain. The cats sit stiffly on the porch, resenting the puddles; unimpressed by the sound of rain on the old zinc roof and the gurgle of water in the gutters.

I am reminded that even the finest line has two sides to it.


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A November storm had left the lawn grass spangled with a great field of rain drops which sparkled in the beam of torch light. It was so beautiful I stood mesmerised by the simplicity of this natural gift. Abundance and wealth expressed in millions of droplet diamonds which covered the night time lawn as surely as Midas would have, had he so desired to express his immense wealth. Given a few hours and the rising sun, I knew this moment of plenty would fade. The grass would just be green; the morning heat would chase the splendour to memory. So the nightly ritual of “piddling the dogs” was extended. Torchlight floated over the green blanket of priceless gems. Diamonds, Sapphire, Citrines, rubies, emeralds, all mine, always. Even the dogs enjoyed rolling and stretching in the delicious wet lawn and then shaking their coats free of an immense treasure before loping back inside and upstairs to bed

Down to the river

The river, oh the river! How that dark burbling stream worked its magic on our decision to buy this perfection.
It took a steep hike down a well cut track to reach the stretch of Buffels River that hosted the water pump. Down a winding path beneath the forest canopy. Stopping to marvel at new finds of fungi, miniature orchid, a squirming, multi- legged invertebrate that would be remembered and identified later, lichens, butterflies, baby trees. The ever present sighing forest, old and growing older, indifferent to our trespass. Everything still and seemingly asleep, till focus brought a watching bush buck into view. The forest protected us all, hid all, offered us all time to see and learn the things which were to mean the most in our lives.
The track opened onto a thickly ferned bank which sloped down to a fast flowing, tea coloured stream. The rock pools were filled with Red-finned Minnows. Fully grown, these tiny fish measure in at barely 10cm in length, so they are really small.Red Fin MinnowThe rock pools! Dark and inviting. Always busy, always overflowing one into the next. The river gushed on below the canopy and disappeared round the steep walls of quartzite and dripping ferns.
How many dogs over the years have withstood the temptation to bound into those pools and snap happily at the rushing water? Too many to recall. It surely was one of the most joyous places on earth. Also one of the most sustaining and honouring places if peace was sought or direction begged.
Tree fern stood sentinel amongst Cape Chestnut that stretched over the river from one bank to the other. Epiphytic ferns clung to the bark and tiny white orchid flowers hung in minute clusters from their mother plant growing high above the river.
Dappled light played with bold sunbeams and dragon and damsel flies wafted up stream. In the eddies shiny little River Boatmen swirled to and fro. Forest leaves floated by.
The river in any season has never been less than magical.

Sheep and owls

The commitment to upkeep, to keeping the flock of Dohne-Merino sheep going, clearing fields and maintaining fences and water reticulation took the biggest chunk of savings and physical well being. Keeping the roofs clear of debris as well as gutters remains Priority One as we rely on rain water collection for all our needs.
Predation of the flock by Caracal and then leopard was the catalyst to change. H_orig_caracalsTom Dicey, who had sold me much of the flock and who had offered so much appreciated advice to one who, though fond of sheep, knew very little as to their dosing and shearing and general maintenance; Bought them all back from me when I threw in the towel. Admitting defeat was a sore lesson I had to learn. Not having sheep to keep them short, the fields became fallow.
Slowly the re-forestation started. Bush buck came ever closer and then made the garden their permanent home as did bush pig, badgers, skunks and so many other creatures who had kept a very low profile waiting in the woods while the sheep had taken centre stage.
The birds have always been a delight to anyone sitting quietly under the spreading Camphor tree in the front garden. Robert’s Birds was at hand to identify and educate. Soon we were adept at identifying from bird call which of a myriad birds, was perched unseen and serenading.
Summer nights sparkled with pulsing fire flies. An evening walk with the dogs was lit by glow worms and hordes of skimming fire flies. Night jars would huddle on fence posts or warm patches of drive way and startle upwards as the dog entourage passed. It took a while to understand this symbiotic relationship of night jar and dogs until I realised that the dogs in passing were flushing insects into the path of happily waiting bird.
Our evening walks were also observed by Wood Owls, who would carry on involved conversations with each other as we passed beneath them. Grass Owls swooped and hissed up on the open fields hunting Vlei Rats. The stillness of pre-dawn would offer the soft sad hooting of a Barn Owl that nested near the entrance gate.

First impressions

Brackenburn was at the very end of a gravel track that ended at a firmly closed farm gate.
I hopped out of the yellow Isuzu bakkie and swung the gate open, drove through and closed the gate. A Boubou Shrike called in the bush next to the gate and a pair of fish eagles circled high overhead. The pungent smell of forest hung close as we drove down the long entrance way. There were tall trees and in the air the scent of newly mown lawn grass.
Pulling up behind the rambling zinc roofed homestead, Mom and I climbed out of the bakkie and took in an amazing scene. To the south, the forested foreground fell away dramatically to deep gorges and hills, beyond these the expanse of open bay filled out. On the right, stretching into the bay lay the peninsula of Robberg. Surrounding the back yard, where we had parked, stood various outbuildings and a dog announced our arrival. Loeries (Knysna turaco) bustled about in the surrounding trees.

We were ushered into the homestead, greeted with the smell of floor polish and wood smoke. The rooms were huge with dark wooden ceilings. It was cool and quiet; Quirky and welcoming; Old and enchanting. The lady of the house was flustered but charming.
Standing in the shaded front lawn to the north of the homestead one looked out over more dense forest and deep gorges towards the unbroken range of Tsitsikamma Mountains, with Mount Formosa taking centre stage. The expanse of lawn stretched down to another rickety farm gate and on to sheep fields and more endless beautiful views across the forest. The Buffels River wound its way through the gorges. One could hear the river from the lawn, as one could hear the waves breaking on the rocks on the shoreline.

Genteel Poverty

Ingrained in us as humans is the maxim: “Carry on Regardless”. We’ve muddled on though the odds are so stacked against us it seems unimaginable to continue; that which has to be done, gets done. There is no alternative. No possibility of deciding: “Bugger this; Way too difficult and I’ve had enough.”

Formosa1Having had enough is not an option. There is only one direction to go and that has always been forwards. So onwards we stumble, regardless of the cost, regardless of consequence.
Sometimes it pays off. Being the last one to blink often helps in a situation where one is surrounded by those more fearful, more cautious. The ones who think they know the answers before the questions are asked.
I’m not sure how many times I’ve asked myself whether any of this dedication is worth the level of anguish and exhaustion I face every day. Whether all this indescribable beauty that is my daily pleasure would remain as fabulous and inspiring, if I just walked away from it. Deep down I know the answer could probably be “Yes”; And so I accept that it is my bloody ego that keeps me tied to this situation so aptly defined by Andre Reitz, our beloved vet, as one of “Genteel Poverty”.
Comforting though, is knowing I do not face this dilemma alone. Andre had so perfectly described the situation because I was not the only person he knew faced with similar circumstance. So many of my dearest friends also live as best they can, balancing on the edge. The walking away being impossible, due partly to ego, mostly to responsibility; one simply does not blink, if you do, you are done. Really though, there is an addiction to the beauty of this place which is The Crags. An addiction to the smell of early morning forest; to the suddenness of sunlight bouncing out from behind Mt Formosa; to the mournful song of the Fiery Necked Nightjar through summer evenings.