About Fred Hatman
Fred Hatman (AKA Howard Donaldson) knew he wanted to be newspaper journalist at age 13. He has worked as a reporter and sub-editor for the Daily News and Cape Times, both based in South Africa and Wimbledon News, Today, London Daily News, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mirror, all based in London .
Latest Posts by Fred Hatman
Lucille and I thumped over dirt roads at sparrows’ first intestinal grumblings to capture the rising sun… and were cling-wrapped in a mist so dense I half-expected Prince Charles to emerge chirpily from it with smoking gun.
It was mist and mirrors. Mirrors in dams reflection-specked with waking ducks. Burly farmers bouncing their bakkies over bumps the size of Bulls’ props on their way to the fields. Guinea fowl. Mist. Not much else.
Just an eerie landscape. Almost soundless. Then shattered by the hysterical bleating of sheep that burst out of the mist when I disturbed them while climbing over a rickety fence to grab a better shot. Or perhaps it was M Ward crooning Post-War out from the belly of Lucille?
It was all a swirling-white fogscape of mountains and valleys and water and still-life.
Then Tesselaarsdal. Hidden in the folds of the Kleinriviersberge. Klein River Mountains. Klein. Small. About 30 buildings. And a bottle store, of course. And a church. And a school.
And a person groping through the gloaming to work. And two cars. And Henry, who walked up from his house to watch me eating a banana on the steps of the church. With strange bumps on his face.
Henry delivered to me the history of this tiny hamlet. Fascinating. Google it. I goggled at the sun finally burning through our all-enveloping shroud. And I giggled at Tesselaarsdal’s very own “Little Boutique Hotel”. And goggled and giggled. And roared. Rural humour. Priceless.
After four hours of this white-blanketed tranquility, I decided to drive back to Stanford by way of the Hemel en Aarde Valley and stopped at a H&A Village spot for French toast and bacon. And much-gagged-for coffee. And found elderly tourists with deep frowns on their faces descending into a Sauvignon Blanc mist at 10.30am. Crikey.
Uilenkraalsmond’s alienscape is near Franskraal in South Africa. It is a place where the houses were patently built by thick-set architects with Seventies sideburns and unironic moustaches. While wearing safari suits and smoking pipes. Which, judging by the plainly weird houses which carbuncle the seafront, must have been filled with Mandrax.
It is a place where men drive bakkies with a hairy forearm hanging out of the window to catch the cooling sea breezes. Or to lovingly grasp a cold Castle Lager.
And where, in the pub, not altogether lissome locals squint at strangers in the way portrayed in that scene in the Yorkshire pub in American Werewolf in London. Like you might have crawled out of the cheese, kept in the galley of the alien spaceship that just docked at Uilenkraalsmond.
Which, if you have ever succumbed to the splendour around the psychedelic waters which flow into the ocean there, where the Black Oystercatchers pluck up gems and hold them to the magical light… is entirely feasible.
In Uilenkraalsmond, it seems entirely feasible that you may, indeed, have fallen on to a new planet. A far-away galaxy place where very little of your previous life is to be found. Except for the warmest glow of the very best day you ever experienced as a child.
Allow the light to dance a sexy cha-cha across your eyes. Walk east to the bridge which locks in the early-morning mist and gather in the sunrise seeping saucily over the dunes. Walk west at golden hour and marvel at the free-style painting of the pre-dusk fire sky. Plunge into the bracing estuarine waters and allow the tide to drift you any which way, gulls swooping and shrieking their approval of your letting go.
Let it go. Let go of you. And just press-play. Child’s play.
I love birthdays. There is nothing untoward about making a right royal fuss of somebody on their birthday, I say. Especially when it’s mine.
So, when I was asked by Lovely One (LO) what I would like to do on my birthday, there was little hesitation in demanding an around-the-world cruise.
When her eyes had unglazed themselves, LO pointed out that, even in these modern times, very few maritime circumnavigations of the globe are achieved in one day.
Yes, I’m that old. So we went to the Two Oceans Aquarium and the Cape Town City Ballet production of Les Sylphides and The Firebird instead.
This was huge for me. I don’t know about other Stanfordians but I tend to avoid the Big Mummy City like the plague. All that concrete. And those cars. Trendy people. With over-groomed beards. In a hurry. Yikes.
So I had nearly managed a full year of Cape Townlessness, a record of which I was becoming increasingly proud. It was deep-breath time.
And I certainly had to draw breath very deeply while entranced by the multitude of strange and absurdly colourful marine creatures which swam dutifully around the tanks for me on my birthday. The seahorses, jellyfish and those giant crabs with the facial markings of Samurai Warriors on their undersides particularly had me gasping like a kid who was turning seven on the day.
A crab with a sense of humour
Then, unfortunately, it was time to act my age. On to Maynardville for the ballet. In the open-air theatre in the middle of a park. It was astoundingly magnificent. Spoiled only by the oversized numptie in a black suit who found it worth all the trouble to trundle down the aisle to tell me I was not allowed to take photographs of the ballet. “It’s my birthday,” I said nicely, “and I’ve come all the way from Stanford.”
“I don’t care if you’ve come all the way from Buckingham Palace,” he retorted with irritating wit, his face menacingly contorted in the light of the moon. How rude.
LO emitted a just audible sigh. I behaved. And relaxed into The Firebird, an explosion of athleticism, grace, colour and mesmerising movement under the stars. And the inevitable mating ritual.
Call me a country bumpkin but is it not the case that all ballet, as with movies, theatre and most other performance art, is really about getting it on? Art imitating life and all that. And nature.
Because the sumptuously sexy dance theme of my birthday was yet to end. Homesick after eight hours in the urban sprawl, we decided against staying over and drove determinedly towards the mountain. And through the night, our path home to Stanford guided by the glorious illumination of the moon.
Upon waking the next morning at Hatman Mansions on Blue Moon, the first sound I heard was the mystical “grottling” of our resident pair of Blue Crane, swooping down for their daily posing aside the rainwater lake that remains steadfastly pooled on the fields.
I drank coffee and summoned again into my mind’s eye the beauty of The Firebird. Just then, the male Blue Crane extended his wings, dropped his head and minced over towards his beautiful “bokkie”, preening and prancing suggestively before her. She gave him the beady eye, swirled away in mock horror and looked skywards, eyelashes fluttering while she ascertained whether she felt a migraine coming on or not. They then stood stock-still and checked each other out for what seemed an interminable time before the mating dance began again.
It was just like the ballet of the night before. Blue Crane in tights. And it was just as beautiful.
After attending a two-hour service and being enriched among the green spires at my Forest Church at Platbos Forest Reserve in South Africa, eating lunch with Niel and Gabi at Baardskeerdersbos — and buying a Niel Jonker painting of Central Park — it was almost an afterthought to motor towards the ocean for a sniff of precious ozone.
I fell upon Uilenkraalsmond, an estuary, river mouth and beach and dunes and light and magic, of which I had hitherto had no experience. Unfathomably.
I would be well advised to simply let the pictures roll before your eyes at this point but I want to add a little bit more. When I parked Lucille on the bridge and scrambled down to the dunes to start a pioneering perambulation of the estuary’s edge, it came to me that perhaps I had stumbled across Mars or Jupiter. Or some as yet unnamed planet.
I have visited many breathtakingly beautiful places in South Africa… but, here, in this wild and and slightly edgy, even harsh place, there was magic in the air. There was salty seaspray, a skin-goldening gentle light, yellow dunes, black oystercatchers, red-rust and canola-yellow ripples and no humanoids in sight.
I mused that it was I who had been delivered by the Starship Lucille to a strange beachscape of rainbow hues and slowly shifting sands as an ebullient rain-swollen river burst forth into the sea, collapsing sand on either side of it.
I was entranced. And all I could do was to wander there, wonder at it all and capture what I could on camera for the humanoids back home.
Please come to roll with me in a glorious embrace of nature’s magic…
Time to fly home.
After four years, I returned to Bodhi Khaya Retreat, a place that gave me the time and space to recover from a broken marriage, a broken business, a broken connection with my dead mother… and, yes, a broken heart. Bodhi Khaya saved me. It challenged me. And it rebuilt me. A very nice lady allowed me to live there for three months. In return, I was expected to feed the chickens and tend to the plants in the circular organic vegetable garden and among the labyrinth. And pull out weeds. So I did.
But I spent most of the time drinking humungous mugs of tea, smoking and staring at the mountains. And pulling out the dead and blackened and alien invaders that had occupied my heart. Clearing. I learned to meditate. And realised I had been doing it all my life. While sipping cold tea. Cleansing…
I also learned to take off all my clothes and roll naked in the mud at the magnificent little waterfall that was hidden off one of the many paths leading up the mountain. Liberating. I stood outside the kitchen at night, after being the last to leave and switching off the lights. I stood in the blackness of the Overberg night, under the ancient tree…and didn’t flinch when the bat flew so close to my face that I felt its wings brush my face.
I sneaked my little CD player into the retreat and lay awake, listening to the frogs croak a million different notes…and the baboons argue over the best place in which to sleep in the blue gums, while Neil Young comforted me.
Not very Buddhist. But still replenishing.
And then I would creep up through the dark grass, hoping I would not step on a snake, up to the reservoir and swim silently in the cool water on a hot summer’s night.
While the water rocked against the walls and lapped over my floating body as I watched the stars.
With sufficient moonlight to see the dead frog fraying and decaying on the bottom…
And wishing I was “skinny dipping” with the Woodstock artist with the perfect body and fragile eyes.
But we were dead too. So I touched her perfect body with my mind. And got cold.
And warm. When I met a wise man. From Hawaii. Who filled my head with Rumi. And helped me find room in my heart…
to start again.
Bodhi Khaya is situated on Baviaans Fonteyn Farm, the oldest in the area. In 1791 the farm was granted to Dirk Cloete, son of Hendrick Cloete, owner of Groot Constantia and one of the Cape’s largest landowners at the time. The land has been divided, changed and re-shaped since then, but the present owner, Georgina Hamilton, has carefully created a sanctuary for those who wish to explore the thoroughfares of the heart and mind. Today Bodhi Khaya is an open and welcoming spiritual home for all.
Bodhi Khaya blends Buddhism with South African culture. ‘Bodhi’ means ‘awareness’ in Sanskrit and refers to the Buddha’s knowledge when he attained enlightenment 2500 years ago, while ‘khaya’ goes beyond its better-known meaning of ‘home’ to express a sense of belonging and a spiritual base. Building on the traditions of our physical and spiritual ancestors, Bodhi Khaya is a spiritual haven for those on their journey to awakening.
There are a plethora of reasons why we Stanfordians have been drawn to live in this little, old village in South Africa. I have a plethora all of my own.
One, one that I have grown to hugely appreciate and cherish over the past three and a bit years, is simplicity.
This is never more beautifully apparent than when I sit at my kitchen window in the mornings and look out over what I call “my back garden sanctuary”… and beyond that to the fields, where rainwater lakes have formed, and where Howard’s horses graze along with a group of fallow deer and guinea fowl and geese and ducks. And whatever else blew in overnight.
Beyond all of this are the magnificent trees that line the river. And the river, flowing purposefully towards the lagoon, now an estuary blissfully married to the ocean.
Beyond the river is Sillery Estate, the first ranks of houses one sees of Stanford. And, beyond the village, the rolling hills and their eventual horizon, which blends harmoniously with the great Overberg sky, proud purveyor of glorious sunrises and the most ridiculously ornate cloud formations, beguiling in swiftly changing moods.
But I summon you back to my home. And the little sanctuary outside my back door. It belongs to the birds. and the family of Four-striped Field Mice. And anything else that wants to afford me the privilege of visiting or taking up residence here.
Each morning I go out briefly, whistling my signal that the seed and breadcrumbs and, occasionally, leftover bits of cheese have been deposited on the old table and under the milkwood.
Then I sit back with coffee to enjoy the unscripted theatre of creatures small and even smaller. And I wonder. And I think. And I lose myself in the wonder of it all.
And the birds and the mice fly and scuttle. And they eat together. And both are terrorised by the dive-bombing evil that is the supremely irritating Pintail Whydah male. Which I am tempted to trap and post off to a research station on the icy edges of the Arctic.
Him aside, the birds and mice get along beautifully. And, out on the fields, the horses and the geese and the fallow deer and the guinea fowl and the newly-returned blue crane have all found their place — and their food sources — in perfect harmony.
So, I sit and drink this all in and marvel at it — and think and ponder and let my imagination run wild — and I wonder why it is that many Syrians cannot sit and eat at the same table with many other Syrians. And I wonder why Christians cannot stand as one with Muslims. And white with black.
And men who wear luxuriant moustaches and are prone to wearing yellow shirts and purple stovepipes and keep parakeets with those who are bald and completely dig throwing out a red paisley pattern vibe while filtering fish-tanks.
And those who own humungous and shiny SUVs with people who drive battered bakkies with home-made racing stripes. And those who cut fat deals in the corridors of power with those who have little more to cut than a slice of bread.
And I am left to ruminate over this. And to wonder why. And to look at the birds and mice. And to live in the civil harmony of it all.
The church was empty. No people, no people’s paraphernalia. No Sunday hats to show off their religion.
Only my hat. To cover the hairless patch. So the birds, flitting around high up in the roof of my lush cathedral, would not be tempted to take aim with fertiliser bombs.
In the church of my understanding, Platbos Forest, the service is ongoing. No words. Just the wind and the trees, talking in tongue (thank you, Leonard).
And lots of hymn. And him. And the Great Spirit. And her.. The birds, of course. The full panoply of song. And the canopy, alive with the buzzing of a million bees, their high voice as one, harmonised with the budding spring.
I walked into my church, mindful of warning the resident congregation that I came so there was no cause for alarm. The forest floor was damp and scented and musky and rich, the leaves, the bark, the twigs, the moss, the mould, the mulch, the Grandfather’s Beard all creaking and cracking in tune with my footfall. The anthem of the fallen.
The Fallen. This is why I had come back. To talk. To ask them, my family lost, for guidance. To find reassurance. And my truth.
A broken heart is blind (thank you, Dan, Patrick and Brian). And my heart, given to the woman with the hair that fades to grey, is now pulled to pieces. Lying on the greasy, oil-patchy floor of the Heartbreak Garage, waiting to be cleaned, mended and reassembled.
So I walk to my tree, my Family Tree, stopping only to pay respect to the thousand-year-old milkwood, wizened and wise, where my last camera gave up the ghost when a very lost man swooped down to protect his beautiful fruit.
My family are (and this is when I start to struggle to breathe and my feet get cold while writing this and I must stretch to find air for my lungs and go to find socks for my feet) bound up in the branches and stowed in the decaying trunk of a huge fallen milkwood. Lying, magnificent still, and still, on the forest floor off the path to the labyrinth.
Next to this down-to-earth land-art monument grows a much younger milkwood, its trunk straight, it’s many branches draped with grey-green beard and reaching for the light. Me. And, I imagine while sitting on the edge of the split pew in the family tree and looking up to the light, my sister and niece and cousins and their children. And their children’s children. It is painful. Because I am alone. Not lonely. Alone. Alone in this multi-sceptred church, all flying wooden buttresses and gargoyles of sculpted green, gleaming in God-rays.
The Living and the (not quite) Dead.
I talk to them. I thank them. For picking me up. Feeding me. Teaching me. What was right and what was wrong. I feel some Neil Young coming in…
“Let the angels ring the bells
In the holy halls
May they hear the voice that calls to them
For the love of man, who will understand
I know it’s alright
Down the dusty road
In the forest church. Let me wander there
Let me wonder why…”
For The Love of Man, Psychedelic Pill, Neil Young, Reprise Records, 2012.
Thanks again, Neil. You have always talked to me, for 40 years now.
The Gentle Men’s Movement (that’s Tim O’Hagan and I for this day) went to plant more trees for Anene Booysen on Women’s Day. I am overwhelmed. By what I see as miracles. Little miracles, perhaps, but still they overwhelm me.
I go to Platbos Forest early on Women’s Day to buy two trees to plant in what I’m calling “Anene Row” at the Kleinbegin RDP area near Bredasdorp. Yes, the place where she was brutalised, raped and murdered on February 2 this year.
I take R100, donated to The Gentle Men’s Movement by Beatrice Pook of Stanford, and Platbos owners Melissa and Francois suggest two Karoo acacias, which will be hardy enough to withstand the harshness of the conditions and life at Kleinbegin. To stand near to the White Pear we planted on Mandela Day.
I pay with the R100, Melissa doesn’t have the R20 change and I tell her not to worry, that the R100 was meant to go into the trees which will bring healing to Anene’s community. Francois says: “Well, take another tree.” And produces a beautiful Cape Ash sapling…
When I meet Tim outside Mozart’s coffee shop in Bredasdorp, he has brought a tree too. And some pincushion flowers to place at the foot of the tree. This is beautiful. But the best is still to come…
My heart is in my mouth as we drive out to Kleinbegin. To continue our “small beginning”. Because I’m wondering if the White Pear has survived the three weeks or so since I was last here. I’m wondering if little Rocco, the boy who had his eye pecked out by “a mad rooster” when he was much younger, has been watering the tree. And telling the other children not to break its branches, not to pull it out of the ground, not to dishonour the memory of Anene.
It has. It is. It is there. Flourishing. Leafy. Growing. Rocco has been watering The Anene Tree. And here he is, beside me. Left home alone by his mother and the other children. Rocco doesn’t talk. Traumatised, I think. And he doesn’t smile much. Or show any emotion. But there is a glimmer of a smile when I thank him profusely for taking good care of the White Pear.
I tell him we have come to plant more trees. He nods. I ask him to fill the big bucket with water and he disappears. Tim and I start digging holes for the four trees we will place in the gaps between the five houses in Anene Row. But Tim has to get back to Franskraal by a certain time so, once we have planted his tree, which produces purple flowers all year round, and one of the acacias and the Cape Ash, he sets off home.
Tim O’Hagan gets his chakra colours flowing.
Rocco, all the while, has been standing nearby and watching solemnly, silently, unsmilingly, unemotionally. Only moving when asked to fetch more water.
With Tim gone, I plant the last Karoo acacia in the gap between Rocco’s mother’s house and another owned by an old man called Henry, who grew tired of dogs and children killing his lambs as they grazed alongside the nearby culvert and now keeps his new lamb inside an enclosure behind his matchbox house, where he feeds it by hand.
With each of the four trees already planted, I’ve been talking to Rocco, telling him how deep and wide to make the hole, how much compost to put in, how to mix it with the soil, how to place the sapling in the hole, how to build a little dam wall around the trunk. He has watched silently, solemnly… and has never shown any interest in helping. He seems to understand that his job is to water the trees after I have gone.
Rocco Phaff. A beautiful boy who has humbled me.
I’m chattering away to him as I begin to build the “klein dammetjie” around the last acacia. “This is how you do it, Rocco,” I say to him. “This is what you need to…”
He drops to his knees beside me, silently. And begins to make a mound around the tree. With me. With the soil clasped firmly in his small hands, he is building. Helping. Giving.
And when I look up to thank him, he is smiling back at me, the eye that is not “n’ alabaster” (a marble eye or a glass eye) twinkling a little.
I am not sorry to say this to you. I wanted to cry floods of tears right there and then. Enough tears to water Anene’s trees for an eternity.
So I allowed myself one big tear, one big, fat, really swollen guy that wobbled drunkenly down my cheek and fell into the strangely yellow earth. Where Anene’s 17-year-old body, raped and mutilated, lay bleeding to death six-and-a-bit months ago.
The Kleinbegin Crew. We plant trees. And we rock.