Place of Peace

Welcome to my home and my garden, my place of peace. In fact, when it comes down to it, my office that I’m writing this from is also my place of peace. I love being surrounded, all day, by my music, my cats, and some of the things most precious to me. Of course there are times of the month when I’m drowning in a sea of paperwork that my office is the least peaceful place in the house, but for the moment we’re getting along fine. Quite often during the day, I wander outdoors, usually for a smoke break, to my other place of peace, the garden. I am so thankful that we live in a country and a place where gardens and swimming pools and space are possible.

Earlier today I was looking through some pics on my computer to print out for my brand new 2012 vision board (that’s a whole post in itself – I promise to share when it’s done) and found some pics of the garden when we moved into this house in April 2011, and some that were taken more recently. Now I don’t pretend to do anything in the garden, other than let nature and our amazing gardener take their course, but I do love watching the progress of the seasons and the new things that flower.  So I thought I’d share some pics.

Dry and dusty, before the grass and before the rain

When we moved in, we were lucky enough to have some well-established trees in the garden, a rarity in this desert country. But the lawn left more than a little to be desired, and there just didn’t seem to be enough. I have always dreamed of having a green and lush garden (as far as water restrictions allow) and this garden was almost a blank canvas.

So bit by bit, we are adding to it. We have a vegetable garden, which so far is producing only a surfeit of chillis, but will soon be yielding onions, peppers, tomatoes and butternut.  Our mango tree is heavy with fruit and they are juicy and delicious. That’s a great incentive to eat more healthily, actually, that the fruit and vegetables come from your own garden. That tree will provide me with breakfast for the next few weeks.  The grapefruit trees don’t produce particularly nice fruit, but they keep amazing birds in our garden.  The plants that we moved from our old garden have settled incredibly and thrived in this new house.  My purple wreath and jasmine are taking over areas of the verandah, and my bauhinia has taken on a life of it’s own.  It had never flowered before we moved, and now it is full of bud, and bright red splashes of colour, and makes itself useful by providing shade for our heat-sensitive and half-witted Boerboel. Not to mention the kitten.

After some rain and some TLC!

It’s amazing the difference a few months and some rain have made to our garden. We sit out there in the morning, watching the birds and noting all the new growth and changes in it, usually while trying to stop the Boerboel licking the other animals and ourselves into oblivion. She does sometimes make our garden less than peaceful but at least she looks the part, like she belongs.  I am grateful every day for our garden. The children and the animals have plenty of space to play, we have a place to picnic on the lawn when it’s not too hot, and we have incredible birds to watch. The garden is one of the things that I love most about where we live.

What is your place of peace like? Where do you live? Is there a place that you can escape to that is all your own?

Here’s hoping that in 2012 you discover your place of peace, both inner and outer, and that you remember to retreat to it whenever you need to.


On Visiting Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey, Wales

Image by DanieVDM via Flickr

Cows have always been an intensely important part of my life.  Growing up in one of the world’s greatest beef producing nations, cattle have come to have a greater significance than merely as a source of food.  Just how different my attitude is to other people’s with regard to cows, however, was brought home to me on a visit to Tintern Abbey in Wales, made famous in a poem by William Wordsworth. 

In Botswana, cows have a very different status to cows in other parts of the world, specifically, for the purposes of this essay, cows in England.  In the southern African desert republic, cows are a symbol of wealth and life, bringing riches to families and governing the institution of marriage.  They are not sacred beings, as cows are in India, but the theft of a cow still carries a higher penalty than does a conviction of rape.  In England, however, cows enjoy a much more romanticised status, as beautiful, domesticated, doe-eyed and gentle creatures, who provide milk and meat and spend their days cropping the greenest of English grass in picturesque meadows enclosed by white-washed paddock fences.  The Botswana variety, on the other hand, are a much hardier and tougher breed, wandering through the bush as they please, with no restrictions on their movement other than the availability of food and the heavy stick of the herd boy.

Tourists to Botswana, mostly English ones, are often disconcerted by the presence of cattle on the main roads in the centre of the capital city.  A visit to the British High Commission or the Main Mall will most probably involve negotiating one’s way around a herd of cows and calves, the bell on the lead cow jangling languidly as she wanders across a busy main road.  This is a phenomenon that leads most ‘civilized’ people to dismiss Botswana as backward and provincial, with the necessarily corrupt government that inevitably partners such an obvious lack of development.  Expatriates are often disgusted by the need to shoo cattle off the grass verges outside their garden walls before they can reverse their fancy vehicles out of the gate to take the children to school.  Yet these same people will drive for hours in a bid to remove themselves from this peculiar brand of civilization, and to see animals, albeit more dangerous ones, wandering around in the bush.  This romanticisation of ‘nature’ and the wild is akin to what many see as the romanticisation of nature by the Romantic poets, most especially William Wordsworth.

In the poem, Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth refers to picturesque ‘pastoral farms’, but makes no mention of cows or other traditional farm animals.  Yet when I actually visited Tintern Abbey, the field behind the Abbey was home to a herd of heifers.  I overheard a foreign, possibly German, tourist, deprecating the presence of these animals and claiming that it detracted from the beauty of the scene, even though cows can be considered part and parcel of pastoralism.  And I also felt that the presence of cows somehow spoilt the majesty of the ruined Abbey.  But why should it be so?  In a moment of self-realisation, I pinpointed my tendency to over-romanticise things, and dismiss those creatures or objects which don’t quite fit into my picture of how I think things should be.  Thinking back now, with a couple of years’ hindsight, it strikes me that the modern building housing the gift shop and tourist information office should have been what detracted from the romanticism of the scene, and the cows should instead have added to it.  Perhaps they didn’t fit into my picture because Wordsworth made no mention of them in his poem, and neither did cows appear in Sergeant’s painting of the Abbey.  Yet in a modern postcard souvenir, the cows and hay barn are an intrinsic part of the scene.

During my recent holiday back in Botswana, I was again struck by the presence of cows in the middle of the city and outside my garden gate.  At the end of the dry season there are more cows in the city, looking for tended lawns and easily accessible water supplies, as well as more donkeys, goats on top of cars trying to reach the tastiest acacia leaves, and sheep, wandering fairly aimlessly across the only highway.  Incidentally, for the sake of providing a useless piece of information, the harming of the cattle that wander in the middle of town carries a greater penalty than the harming of other cattle, since those that are allowed in the city centre are all part of the President’s herd.  I’ve been thinking again about the fact that when I’m away, the discussion of this characteristic of Botswana is both what makes me impatient with the backwardness of the country, but yet also makes me feel like I belong there.  What to one person may make a place alien, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar is precisely what another may find the most familiar and endearing thing about a place.  I know that home wouldn’t be the same without the cows.

By the same token, I now know that I wouldn’t find Tintern Abbey nearly as charming without the cows.  Even when I visited two years ago, despite the fact that I didn’t really appreciate the presence of the cows, I would have felt very differently about the Abbey.  Time and others’ descriptions and impressions of it have clouded any personal response to its atmosphere, and have made it an intimidating and majestic place.  On the other hand, by accepting the heifers as an intrinsic part, as probably the only part that were also there when the Abbey was still inhabited by monks, walking then cloisters in silence, Wordsworth’s delight in the pastoral scene is reinforced.  Although the Abbey is no less impressive for having cows and farmland surrounding it, it does become less intimidating, and seems as though there is nothing that separates it from the beauty of nature around it.  And for those people that live near the Abbey, those cows have probably also become a part of what makes it home, and comforting and familiar, just like the Botswana cows have done for me.



Matsieng’s Footprints

A few days ago, I went to see the Matsieng Footprints, about half an hour’s drive north from Gaborone.  Matsieng is an important historical site for the Batswana who live in this area, and in previous years was used as a pilgrimage site.

Parking on the dusty side of the road under a shady morula tree, I walked for about ten minutes through the dry and overgrown bush to the small site office of the National Museum where I met  my guide for the walk to the Footprints.  At this time of year, this area at the edge of the Kalahari is slowly coming to life, and the knob thorns were in full flower along the path.  As we walked, the guide told me the story of Matsieng.

The Batswana have a rich oral tradition, which says that Matsieng is the place where the giant, one-legged ancestor of the Batswana, Matsieng, emerged from below the earth, followed by his people and by animals, both domestic and wild.  Consequently, for the last few centuries, the site of his footprints has been used as a rain-making site for the Batswana.

The site itself is a flat expanse of sandstone, with two deep and narrow holes which hold a significant amount of water, long into the dry winter months.  The 8000 square metre slab of sandstone is now crisscrossed by wooden walkways designed to protect the footprints.  The prints are faint and mostly hard to see, but are clearly representations of an oversize human foot surrounded by the smaller prints of a variety of animals.  Archaeologists now believe that these are in fact engravings in the rock, made less than 2000 years ago by the ancestors of the modern day Basarwa (Bushmen).  Some have clearly been enlarged or gone over to deepen the engraving, but erosion has significantly damaged many of the remaining prints.

Standing at the lip of one of the waterholes looking out over the flat expanse of rock, it was easier to believe the Tswana story of creation than the archaeologists’ views. There is a sense of the ancient about Matsieng, and so far from the road and the signs of civilization as we know it, a sense of truly having entered a prehistoric world.

Dinaka Safari Lodge

I have always had a sense, even as a child, that I am privileged to live in one of the most beautiful countries on earth.  How I came to this impression I’m not sure, as my knowledge of Botswana was almost exclusively based in Gaborone, with a few early memories of Palapye and Serowe thrown in.  And my knowledge of the rest of the world was even more limited – a few trips to Johannesburg to see Granny, and one to the other grandparents in England.  What an adventurous life…  Slowly but surely, however, I am starting to explore the beautiful land in which I live, and recently came across a gem that should be shared.

My, what big teeth you have!

Let me introduce you to Dinaka Safari Lodge, a tranquil and secluded retreat in the heart of the Kalahari.  At Dinaka the rest of the world ceases to exist – and not just because there’s no cellphone reception either.  When you’re sitting in a chair, beer in hand, looking out over the main waterhole and listening to the wind rustle through the purple pods, it’s hard to remember that the rest of the world ever existed.  Days flow by with effortless ease and one begins to wonder how one ever coped with the noise and constant clatter of city life.

Of course there is another world that exists at Dinaka, the one that tourists come to see, and the one that Batswana should prize above diamonds.  This is a world that does not belong to us.  We are distinctly out of place in it and yet are privileged to be able to share it.  There is nowhere quite like the Central Kalahari for wide open blue skies stretching across an unending expanse of savannah.  On our first game drive we stopped at the top of a rise and looked for miles across the acacia-tops to a very distant horizon, bringing a sense of peace and solitude.

At this time of year, the Central Kalahari is cold and dry, with intensely bright light.  Sunset comes early, bringing grazing herds down to the waterhole.  Kudu, wildebeest, impala and gemsbok gather at the waterhole in front of Leopard Hide, where you can sit and enjoy your sundowners while enjoying the view.  At the opposite end of Dinaka, the lion come to drink at their waterhole in the early mornings.  Lion Hide is built overlooking the top pan, and is a beautiful place to have breakfast, always with the possibility of a lion encounter in the back of your mind.

My three nights at Dinaka were the most tranquil I have ever experienced.  Sitting by the fire, sharing stories with other guests, and gazing at the vastness of the night sky, I was consumed by a sense of peace and awe with the country I had seen.  Welcome to beautiful Botswana – but see it through the hidden gems of the Kalahari.