‘Mchulu’ – The African magic far away tree

This morning Mathew and I decided to hike out to our favorite Mpati mountain tree – Cussonia Spicata, or ‘mountain cabbage tree’.

The shortest way to get there is to park at the top of the mountain and make your way down a rocky and partly forested piece of the mountain. There is a path here thankfully although quite overgrown. It used to be part of the Mpati hiking trail many many years ago, now it is only really used once a year during the ‘death by mountain’ Mpati trail running race which happens every September. It is also used by a few people still enjoying nature and the beauty of the trails.

The path is clear enough to find but it is quite slippery in places. Once out of the forested bit one clambers down a thick grassy steep hill to get to the plateau below where this particular mountain cabbage tree is growing.

The path through the grass is quite overgrown and slippery. This Eastern slope is sheltered and the soil stays damp and rich. The number of shrubs and plants growing here is staggering, a real treat. Each season bringing something new to delight in.

Today the Buddleja salviifolia shrubs are flowering – taking over from their cousins the Buddleja auriculata. Every now and again their sweet honeyed fragrance is wafted over on the breeze. I notice for the first time that there are lavender flowering ones here in this section amongst the more common cream flowering ones.

Buddleja Salviifolia

Poking through the grass are a few patches of Helichrysum cooperi plants. Their bright yellow papery faces like miniature sunflowers popping up through the tangled vegetation.

Helichrysum cooperi

I am also pleased to see the first Polygala virgata starting to flower. These have dainty bonneted fluffy lilac tufts at the end of their graceful stems.

Polygala virgata

After a bit of a slip and slide we are at the bottom and there, finally, is our ‘magic African far away tree’ – Cussonia spicata. Commonly known as the giant mountain cabbage tree.

According to SANBI PlantZAfrica, there are eleven different Cussonia species in South Africa. They are variable, some being more frost tolerant than others. Our Cussonia is growing up and out from the side of a huge slab of rock, which possibly provided shelter in the beginning years.

To say that it is huge is a gross understatement and sadly our photographs do not do it justice. I have taken one with Matthew in the foreground to give a sense of scale.

Matthew in front of the huge mountain cabbage tree

The trunk has divided into two huge stems quite low down. Matthew and I measure the base with my tape measure – which has been bought along for this purpose. It is just under 4 metres wide! The two stems have spread to each side and have created an enormous canopy. The bark is pitted and rough, corky almost. I love feeling the deep gnarled grooves under my fingertips.

Spot the gnarled face in the bark

Matthew and I clamber up onto the huge slab of rock that is conveniently growing under our tree, to explore and investigate all we can. We decide that our tree needs a name.

‘Mchulu’ is a Zulu reverential term , meaning ‘majestic’ and ‘great’. This particular Cussonia is both ‘majestic’ and undeniably ‘great’- ‘Mchulu’ it is.

After our exploring session is over and many photographs have been taken, we bid Mchulu a cheery goodbye, and begin our climb back up the slippery slope.

A few younger Cussonias – the typical shape reminds one of Dr. Seuss trees!

A serial thief and ‘desperate times’ – a true story.

A few short years ago I found myself the victim of a spate of robberies at the guest house. These ranged from television sets being stolen out of the rooms, to my bag – twice, and one night even my car was stolen out of the parking lot! After each incident we would fortify as best we could, hoping to solve the problem, but the thief or thieves surprised us by brazenly trying new ways to get inside. On one occasion breaking my office window and on another forcing the front door open with presumably a crow bar! This all whilst my children and I were sleeping upstairs.

There is nothing more terrifying than being woken up by the sound of shattering glass. I can still remember the feeling of utter panic and the overwhelming sensation of my heart racing and pounding in my chest, while I crept from room to room upstairs, my hands shaking so much I could barely dial for help.

Over the next few weeks I did what I could to keep the intruders out. The palisade boundary fence was raised and fitted with rolled barbed razor wire, making the whole property look like a mini Fort – knox. The windows were all burglar – guarded. Eventually an alarm system complete with panic buttons was installed at great expense.

The agony and inconvenience of having to apply for new Identity card, bank cards, and drivers license not once but twice in six months, I am convinced has shortened my life span by a few years!

The procedure of finger prints being searched for and statements being given each time felt a bit like a lost cause to be honest. Somehow however, the wheels of justice kept slowly grinding away and eventually a Mr. Ngwenya was arrested for a number of house robberies in the area, including those at Penryn.

Myself and a neighbor received a summons to appear in court to testify against the notorious Mr. Ngwenya. The first time the accused, unsurprisingly, did not bother to show up. The second time, some of the evidence had been mislaid or left behind and once again we spent a morning wasted in court. We were informed however that the accused had pleaded guilty anyway, without our needing to be there eventually. Much to our relief!

Things settled back into there normal routine thankfully and as the months past Mr. Ngwenya was forgotten about for a while. That was, until I received a phone call one morning from our local prison.

Mr. Dube the prison warden, politely inquired as to my health. I replied that – yes thank you all was well, and how could I help Mr. Dube. Did he perhaps require accommodation? No he did not require accommodation, but would it be possible to see him the next day at the prison? When I hesitatingly asked  in connection with what. He very jovially replied that there was nothing to worry about, he would explain all when I got there the next day. This had exactly the opposite effect and I worried all afternoon and had a sleepless night to boot!

My head was spinning by the time I arrived at the prison and I had managed to work myself up into a bit of a state! I was informed that my cell phone and bag would have to be stored in a locker whilst I was inside. I was then led down a series of long corridors and through a courtyard, finally to be shown into an office. I was told to wait, Mr. Dube would be there shortly.

After about a twenty minute wait, In strolled a large, spectacled friendly looking man. Mr. Dube. Close behind followed another uniformed man, presumably an officer or guard, and with him, a prisoner wearing  bright orange overalls and handcuffed. Mr. Ngwenya!

Introductions were made, all the while Mr. Dube keeping up a sort of forced over friendly banter, perhaps to make me feel more at ease. It was all very unreal and disturbing. If he had sported a grey beard and chuckled “ho ho ho” at this point it would not have seemed out of the ordinary. The whole experience was beginning to feel like a Mad hatters tea party and I was Alice trying to make sense of it all. I listened in a daze to what was being said, and tried to piece together why I was there in the first place. This was difficult as the explanation was long winded and dramatized for effect.

First Mr. Dube took great pains to explain how full – in fact, over full, the prisons were, and prisoners were being given the opportunity to come forth, and did I know, he went on, that these were desperate times! This last bit was said with great emphasis and a raising of his voice. I still did not know what the prisoners were coming forth about, but I nodded my head nervously in agreement.

He then proceeded to go on at great lengths, extolling the many many virtues of forgiveness. This solemn sermon would be interrupted every now and again by a “Thank you Jesus, thank you!” from Mr. Ngwenya – Mr Ngwenya who had now been reformed it seemed by his short spate in the ‘over full’ prison, in these ‘desperate times’.

After this long winded sermon like speech, they all turned to stare at me, and I realised that I was now expected to say something. Still feeling a bit dazed I stammered something to the effect that – yes it was a good thing to forgive another human being, especially if that person had changed his ways and was remorseful. To be honest I could not wait to get out of there. I was uncomfortable with the whole thing and I had very unfairly been put on the spot.

There was obvious relief at my reply because the whole atmosphere relaxed and changed again. The other officer in the room even went on to give Mr. Ngwenya some practical and sound advice. Mr. Ngwenya was to tell his friends that the next time they wanted to steal, they should at least leave the identity cards and drivers license cards behind. Did he not know what a great inconvenience this was for the poor people they were robbing! Very inconvenient he repeated while shaking his head sternly.

This should have sufficed as the cherry on the top, but no, there was more.

Mr. Dube then turned to me and in total sincerity, asked – if  “mamma Carol” did not perhaps have a job for the poor Mr. Ngwenya.  After all, he sighed sadly, these were very very desperate times indeed.

Friday morning musings

Misty mountain path

Misty mornings on the mountain are beautiful. They are so beautiful that they are distracting. This morning I found myself stopping ever so often to photograph spiderwebs that had been highlighted in silver, or the seed heads of  grass stalks shimmering with dew droplets, transformed into miniature chandeliers.

Grass seed head transformed by the glittering dew

Finally I stopped clicking away with my phone camera and settled into my run. The sun had broken through the misty cloud and it was beautiful and clear higher up. I decided to follow a path that I had not used in a while and headed off. it was a little overgrown but still familiar and all went well until I decided to turn for home along another loop of the  same path – that I thought I knew so well.

For some reason or other the path had decided to reproduce during the Winter and now sprouted baby paths – which all looked exactly the same. I ended up in a zig – zaggy confusion. Although I was lost as to the path, I was not lost as to my whereabouts. I could clearly see the plateau below and other various landmarks. If I wanted to I could make my way down the hill through the long grass and over the rocky terrain to another more familiar part of the trail, but I would have preferred the comfort of staying on a path.

Eventually however I decided to be sensible and scrambled down the hill and out onto the next plateau which I knew quite well. I was back on track again and enjoyed meandering down the rest of the way and finally to my vehicle.

Aloe arborescens

Once home I went through the various photographs and material I had taken on the trail as I usually do. On  this run I had stopped to take a short thirty second video of a particularly breath taking vista. I had remained as quiet as I could during the filming of it, hoping to also capture the trill of the bird call that was so lovely in the back round. My intention was to send it to someone and in so doing share my lovely experience. When I played the video through first to check that it was as I hoped it would be, there was no bird call or song of any kind. This had been completely drowned out by the sound of my rather heavy breathing, from the exertion of the climb. Way too creepy to send to anyone and it would have certainly not have had the intended effect!

This however got me thinking about breath and the automatic and invisible process of breathing during a run. In meditation one is taught that ones breathing can be used as an anchor point. The breath can be focused on as a practice of calming and centering oneself.

During a run, unless one is gasping up a hill or pushing far beyond ones comfort zone by ‘speeding’ (which I never do!),  breathing is taken for granted. It is the simple act of one breath leading to another and one step leading to another. In doing this I am moved forward – for a little while at least. I am taken out of the 24 hour auto wash, rinse and spin cycle of my life. Creativity also has this power. The power to lift upwards and forwards, even if just for a little while, from the wear and tear and the hum drum of everyday life.

spider web spun in silver
Continue reading “Friday morning musings”

Of friendships and butterflies

A friendship built and formed over running is a special one indeed. It has been layered over time, run by run and conversation by conversation. Until one day on reflection, you suddenly realise how deep that friendship goes.

It is a gradual building of trust, a trust earned over many kilometers shared and endured together. Conversations that vary in depth and mood just as the terrain may vary in the actual  run. From light hearted chit chat to intense discussions. From giggles and shrieks of laughter to tender and vulnerable confidences. Even when one of you is not in the mood to talk, the company is comforting and understood, never awkward.

There have been many shared vistas and views, interesting and beautiful finds whilst sharing trail runs with my running friends over the years. Above all of these there is one particular early morning, late Autumn trail run, that stands out for me.

My friend Jenny and I had run to the top of Mpati mountain and we were making our way down through the valley. The path for quite a way is merely a cattle path, quite rocky and technical. It is scenic and interesting however, criss- crossing a stream in places. About halfway down the valley the path leads to a rickety small bridge. This has been made from a few planks nailed together. Once crossed it leads onto a man made mountain biking path for a little while.

It was as we stepped onto the bridge, Jenny leading the way, that a cloud of what seemed like a hundred or more royal blue and black butterflies fluttered up serenely from underneath it. Needless to say we stopped dead in our tracks to stare – gob smacked, at this unusual and beautiful phenomenon.

Not knowing too much about our local butterflies, I scoured the net hoping to ID our fluttery friends from that mornings run. They seem to fit the description of ‘Pecis Octavia’, or otherwise – ‘gaudy commodores’. They are in no way ‘gaudy’ – they are beautiful!

I was fascinated to learn that these butterflies have two distinctive seasonal forms. In Summer they are predominately orange, whilst in Winter they are blue and black, sometimes displaying a little orange. Steve Woodal writes in ‘What butterflies can be found where when and how’ – “The blue Winter Sesamus is found skulking low down along stream banks, caves and hollows.”

Well, ‘skulking’ or not, the site of these beauties floating up from under the bridge was dreamy and ethereal. A surreal and special treat to be shared with a special friend.

stamp gaudy commodore

These butterflies are fairly common throughout Sub – Saharan Africa. I quite enjoyed this depiction of both the Winter and Summer form displayed on this Ugandan stamp.

Below is the link to another blog article I rather enjoyed, it gives quite a bit of information about the gaudy commodores and the photographs are stunning. It is by ‘Nature back in’

Take me to your Commodore: Garden butterflies from the African savannahs


Picnic’s, Panini’s and Pride Rock

A short while ago my son Matthew and I had taken a road trip and were visiting my daughter Paige in Grahamstown. The three of us decided to go on a short hike one morning. There was great excitement as we planned our walk. A picnic was packed and possible trails and routes discussed. The fact that we had chosen what seemed like the windiest day in Winter in the Eastern Cape did nothing to dampen our enthusiasm.

The route we settled on was close to town and I parked my vehicle at the top of the hill near the start. The wind was so strong that as I opened my door it was snatched and flung from my hand with a surprising force! Never the less, we gathered ourselves together and undeterred by the gale set off. I think we were all questioning our sanity at that point, but no one said anything and anyhow we were already on our way.

This was a different wind, one that we are not accustomed to in Northern Natal. It was icy cold and relentless. I kept a watchful eye on Matthew, for I feared that a slightly built eleven year old could easily be blown off the side of the mountain in a gale such as this! Conversation was impossible against the constant roar and we each kept our thoughts to ourselves and trudged on.

We settled into it. The momentum and rhythm of walking is a wonderful thing, such a simple act, one foot in front of the other. Soon we were warmed up by the exertion of it and even the dreaded wind became tolerable. The hills around Grahamstown are a pure delight to an avid, all be it amateur, naturalist. The fynbos is so different to the Northern Natal grasslands. My jaw dropped at the variety of bushes and plants, many of them flowering. The highlight botanically were the many bushes of Protea cynaroides or ‘King Protea’ bushes as they are referred to, dotting the hillsides, a few were even flowering.

Our destination point was ‘Pride rock’. A name like that is self explanatory and we kept our eyes open for any rock that might fit such a grandiose title. ‘Pride rock’ however turned out to be a little less proud than we envisioned. Never the less photographs were taken and we all took turns to pose on the said ‘Pride rock’. If you cut off the foreground and aimed the camera at the top half of the rock, one could create an illusion of an impressive overhanging ‘proud’ rock. In any case we had arrived, the view was pretty and the walk had been invigorating albeit ‘fresh’!

By now we were starving and looked around for a sheltered spot to enjoy our picnic. Pride rock may not have had the visual iconic effect we had expected, but it certainly made up for this by being an excellent picnic spot. The three of us huddled close together underneath the overhang with our backs leaning against the natural rocky wall behind us. We dug into our picnic ravenously!

And what a picnic it was! Paige had earlier that morning lovingly put together a simple picnic meal, but one to be remembered. As we tucked into our cheese and tomato panini’s laced generously with caramelized onions – these made from scratch in her student kitchen, I was glad that I had not been assigned to provide the food. I am ashamed to confess that I would probably have chucked some Nik naks and Winegums into the bag with a few oranges tossed in as an after thought.

Every bite was delicious. Huddled together like that to keep warm and savoring the delicious food while the wind whipped icily around us turned out to be the highlight of the whole excursion. I memory made to treasure.


A daisy in the dust

A late start to the day made me decide against a run this morning and I walked the trail instead. The path is incredibly dry. Even the vegetation along the edges has been rubbed , chaffed and trampled underfoot, mixing with the powdery red dust.

Only the toughest of grassland flowers would attempt to flower at this time of the year. You can imagine my delight and surprise to find this little golden veld Gazania bravely and brazenly showing it’s face, despite the tough conditions.

The fact that two or three of it’s petals are missing does not detract from it’s beauty, but seems to add to it instead, making it’s bold yet fragile appearance in the barren dry landscape even more meaningful.

Mr Goncalves

I recently found this post written a while back, in my notebook. This incident happened about a year ago. This is one of the many bazaar and crazy guest house experiences I have had through the years and although it was quite stressful at the time it was also entertaining.

There is never a dull moment  in the hospitality industry and last night did not fail to disappoint, delivering a generous dose of entertainment and excitement for ourselves and the guests.

Two days ago, a Mr. Goncalves found his way into my reception.  I soon realised however that all was not well with the so called Mr Goncalves. He was swaying rather dubiously and unfortunately the fumes from his breath hit me a tad too late. Before I could think of a way to get rid of him he was already counting out his cash to pay for a nights stay. Hoping for the best but sighing inwardly and mentally ‘kicking myself’, I showed him to his room. I was relieved the next morning to find him gone, nothing broken or taken, and his key in the key box at the gate.

The following night however  I mistook the ring at the gate for a guest I had been waiting for.  It was dark outside and drizzling. I waited for my ‘expected’ guest to make his way to my reception, but nothing happened. The engine of his vehicle stayed running but no one emerged.

Feeling annoyed and somewhat apprehensive, I armed myself with my pepper spray and went to see what was going on. As I approached the familiar vehicle, a beaten up old red Toyota Corolla, I realised my mistake. I had once again let in the dreaded Mr. Goncalves. I proceeded to very firmly but politely tell him that the guesthouse was unfortunately fully booked and he would have to leave as he was blocking up my drive way. He however mumbled  incoherently and proceeded to firmly and politely remain put.

I went back inside and phoned up our Security company. They promptly dispatched two of their guards who arrived within minutes to help with our predicament. Even they could not convince Mr. Goncalves to leave. The police were called, we rolled our eyes, knowing it could be hours before they showed up. The guards explained that they were not allowed to physically remove the unwanted Mr. Goncalves, their job was to keep us from harm and try and convince him to leave. Which they did, but to no avail. And so, we waited.

Realising by now that this was going to take some time, chairs were pulled up and mugs of coffee dispensed. Every now and again Mr. G would start his engine and then switch it off. Sometimes opening his door and attempting to get out but then seemingly forgetting why he had done so, and slumping back into his seat with a vacant confused look on his drunken face. Each time he did this, the guards Phillip and Siphiwe, (we were all on first name basis by then,) would jump up and rush forward just in case he attempted anything. At one point he managed to get out and make it to the boot of his vehicle. This he surprisingly managed to open, and then proceeded to relieve himself into it.

By now a small crowd had gathered on the verandah. Some of the guests had heard the commotion and wondered over to watch the show.  Mr. G had once again gotten out of his vehicle. He stood there swaying precariously and peering at all of us gathered on the verandah, as if he had only just seen us there for the first time. He stared for a good while, we stared back. Then, quite suddenly, one could see the penny drop. Within seconds he switched gears from drunken stupor to drunken madman on the run!

All hell broke loose as he tried to make his escape. Between shouts of “Haaibo!” and “Oh Jesus!” from the guards and the guests, pandemonium erupted. Poor Phillip and Siphiwe had their hands full as they tried desperately to keep him from reversing into the wall, whilst I was trying to time the opening of the gate to hopefully coincide with him finding it!

At last the now notorious Mr. G was out, and we watched with relief as he swerved chaotically and dangerously into the road, paused one last time, and roared away as if his life depended on it. His engine sputtering and misfiring into the distance.

Thankfully he has never found his way back to Penryn again!




A conversation

“Iv’e missed you” said the mountain.

“I’m sorry, Iv’e missed you too” I said.

“Where have you been?” asked the mountain.

“Looking for something” I replied.

“Was it important?” asked the mountain.

“Not really” I lied.

But the mountain knew and gently whispered

in the way that mountains do,

“Never mind”.

My Running my Sanctuary

Running runs like a ribbon, threaded through the fabric of my life

Each step a stitch, each run a knot

Helping to hold the frayed bits and pieces together

Running is my truest friend and has seen me like no other

Down to my deepest darkest places where even I am too afraid to go

Running is my silent companion, no words are needed between us

It makes no promises, and hears no pretenses –

But listens quietly to the thoughts I cannot begin to express

Running is mine alone to diligently pursue or forget for a while if I choose to

It makes no demands and holds no agendas

it is a patient and generous gift

And so over time, each run and each step has slowly carved a space into my being

A transcendent tranquil space

My Running

My Sanctuary



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