A brief walk into the past

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The Company’s Gardens, Cape Town. Photo credit: Jorge Lascar, Wikimedia Commons

I walk up Adderley Street (1850 -), originally named Heerengracht, after the canal (gracht in Dutch), which ran down its centre, in mid-December from the flower market near Strand Street.

I’m off to the Company’s Gardens. Free at last … to explore and take it all in. I wonder what the gardens look like after several decades when I came here with my mother and two brothers.

As I enter the gardens I see a large wooden structure in front of the entrance. Three workers are doing the electrics for the lighting. The wooden structure looks like the rib cage of a Southern Right Whale.

The sun is shining and it is a warm, bright day as I walk up the pathway towards the gardens, savouring the stillness, the oak trees barely moving, the murmur of insects and the calling of birds. I notice no squirrels scurrying about.

When I came here as a boy in the 1960s both sides of the pathway were packed with traders selling foodstuffs and peanuts in their shells. My mom would buy us packets of nuts in small brown paper bags and me and my two brothers would throw them to the squirrels. The squirrels would take them in their tiny paws and nibble at them until the shells broke open and they could eat the raw peanuts inside.

My mother would take us around the gardens on Sundays while my father worked at a Cape morning newspaper for the Monday edition. Later we would meet up with him and drive back to Clovelly in his black Studebaker Daytona.

Inside the gardens I enjoy looking at the old trees some of which must have stood there for several centuries. As I walk and look, I am amazed that these pioneers created such a lovely space that anyone can still enjoy today. The pioneer settlers planted the gardens, the oldest in South Africa, originally established in the 1650s, with fruit and vegetables for ships rounding the Cape to India and beyond.

The trees are green and the flowers in summer sunlight bring a calm over me after my busy morning visit to the Adderley Street flower market. Birds fly about in the trees. The scent of the trees and flowers smell sweet in the light South-Easter breeze. A young woman sits on one of the wooden benches looking at her cell phone. A young couple take photographs of each other against a backdrop of orange and white flowers. I touch one of the leaves of an old tree.

Then I come into the moment. The gardens draw me in. I can smell the trees and flowers. The warmth of the mid-morning surrounds me and suddenly it’s as though the gardens have reached out and embraced me. I am walking, connected, as if in a dream. The sun plays on the tree leaves sparkling against the greens, yellows and browns. The soil in the flower beds is a burned umber colour against the mauves, reds and oranges colours of the flowers. In the shade, the dark parts of the undergrowth below the trees contrast with the leaves out in the sunlight.

The Dutch and British brought the first development. If you go back and look at the historical accounts, the colony was the worst performing of all the British colonies. It was only partially developed and it took decades to connect the Cape to the emerging inland towns and farming districts.

The pioneer road builders worked under great difficulty to build the mountain passes and struggled with financing because the early Cape was so poor. The British were reluctant to advance money to their worst performing colony.

At the entrance to the Gardens is a large statue of Jan Smuts (1897-1950). Inside the gardens is a statue of Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902) with his hand raised towards the East and an inscription reads, “Your hinterland is there”. Another statue, of Sir George Grey (1854-1861), stands at the South corner near the old cathedral.

With the eyes of an adult I take in the sight of the houses of parliament with their beautiful gardens and the statue of Queen Victoria (1819-1901). These buildings from a previous era are a reminder of things that once were and are long gone. A striving of people to begin, to build to grow and leave their mark.

This long line of history of the advance of people, of how they lived and what they did arouses my curiosity and wonder. To view it backwards is a privilege of being alive in this moment. In time our times will close and add to that evolving mass of humanity that is largely lost in the past.

I walk down Adderley Street and turn right into Spin Street. There I find a cafe, eat a toasted cheese sandwich and drink a coffee on the pavement steadying a rickety table with my foot. A young couple at a table near me bring me back to the present hearing snatches of their conversation about finances, the death of a family member and Friday night partying with friends.

I amble back to where I parked my car and see a statue of a man. I go look and read the inscription. Jan Hofmeyr (1845 – 1909).

Even the buildings with dates of their establishment are reminders of the past.

Now, the present, intertwined with the past, becoming, receding, a human destiny we are all part of and cannot escape.

As our times are swept behind by the river of life will those who inherit out past find inspiration in what we did and what we left behind?

Does it really matter?

They will still find inspiration from nature – the smell of a fresh new morning at dawn, the rising sun shining gold on the sea, the rock formations on a high mountain, the cool of the Kalahari desert at night with a black sky splashed with stars, the rushing of a swollen river and the tranquility and colour of an ancient garden.

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