Els

5 04 2010

Now in her 74th year, Els is still a strikingly good looking woman. By her own admission she likes to talk but I suspected that she was also lonely and she’d certainly had an interesting life so I just sat back and listened. I’d taken a small present of a digital camera and a wind-up torch that Sybille had left over to her riding school on Saturday and I’d nothing else to do.

In the early 1970s she came out from Holland to what was then Rhodesia to stay with a friend in the Nyanga area and at a function met her future husband. Two months later they were married and moved onto his remote farm in Nyanga North, some 35km north of the village of the same name. A thoroughly resourceful woman she set about fixing up the run down homestead and raising a family in what she described as the happiest time of her life – her children had free range of the farm and she felt very comfortable out in the bush (“…the silence, oh the silence was marvellous!”).

My father and mother met in the same area also having come out from Europe (though some 20 years previously) so we enjoyed chatting about some of the characters in the area though they were a generation earlier than me. There was Major Mac (McIllwaine) who could always be found by the fire in the reception area of Troutbeck Hotel. Legend has it that the fire has never gone out and Els remembered that he could never remember her name either. There were also the Wyrley-Birches, one of the white pioneer families of the area in whose first house running water meant the stream through the middle of the house. My father (who’d known them well) once told me that when a favourite dog died Colonel Wyrley (as he was known) would have the dog skinned and the skin put on the back of  a chair in the lounge. I didn’t believe him, my father loved to tease, but I remember a particular visit as a teenager to their house below Mt Inyangani and sure enough, there was a retriever type skin on the back of a sofa!

As the war in Rhodesia escalated Els and her family had to move off their farm and her husband got a job at the Clairmont Estate near Juliasdale, south of Nyanga village. It all went tragically wrong one afternoon and he was murdered whilst checking up on a potato spraying operation in 1979. Ignoring family pleas to move back to Holland, Els moved to Harare where she established her riding school (she’d worked  and qualified at a riding school in Holland where she’d taught the current Queen Beatrix and has a photo of the young queen on a horse) and where she still is today. She mentioned to me that her eldest son, married with children and working in Holland, was coming back to Zimbabwe as Holland was in his opinion no place to raise children – he missed the space in Zimbabwe. Els grew up in a house which had no garden and she was not allowed to keep pets. We sat on her verandah and admired the tortoise lumbering across the lawn and the 80 m or so of garden to the gate that was out of site.

Yes, despite all it’s problems Zimbabwe can still be a great place to live – if you have a reliable income! Harare probably has one of the best climates of a capital city anywhere – it is seldom more than 35 degrees C and rarely goes below 10 and then only at night. Crime by South African standards is very low, most people are very friendly and there are still fascinating people like Els to talk to!

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