Cape Town Winter

It is often said that Cape Town winters are similar to Northern European summers. Indeed, there are many days in June through August, when the temperature is higher in Cape Town.

Of course there are periods when cold fronts move across Cape Town, bringing fog, storms and rain, but they do not last for more than a few days, before the temperate climate returns, with its clear blue skies and sunshine.

Yesterday was a warm sunshine day, and after a walk around Green Park and along the coast, we stopped at the Radisson Blu hotel, one of our favourite ‘watering holes’. As we walked through the lobby to the outdoor bar, we were greeted by four of the staff that we had not seen for several weeks. When we finally emerged from their embraces and warmth, the world felt so very good. Despite the tough lives that most lead, and regardless of colour or religion, Cape South Africans are the most wonderfully friendly and genuine people.

We took one of our usual tables near the pool and watched the antics of the seagulls that have taken possession of the pool for as long as we have been going there. The gulls drink the relatively salt-free water and wash in it. The management have tried different ways of encouraging them to stay away, but to no avail. The first attempt was to float a couple of blown-up pool toys that moved with the wind, but the birds ignored them.†

Then they planted two battery-powered artificial hawks at each end of the pool, with heads that rotated. They had no effect. Yesterday, we watched as one seagull sat on the wobbly head of one of the ‘hawks’, while it tried to eat whatever it had picked up . Unable to balance comfortably, it flopped down to the edge of the pool and continued to gorge on its finding.

The latest scare attempt is a hawk-like kite that floats high above the pool, similarly ignored by the seagulls.

For three years now, we have witnessed the antics of a pair of red-winged starlings at the Radisson Blu. They are birds that mate for life and if you see one, the other will be very close by, one constantly calling to the other. We also have a pair at our apartment, that sit on our two balconies and who loosen their bowels whenever the urge hits them. They also regurgitate the stones of fruit after they have digested the flesh.

One afternoon at the Radisson Blu, we heard a strange sound, nearly overhead. It was a red-winged starling perched beside a speaker, head cocked to one side, and singing to the music. It was almost human in its behavior.

A red-wing starling enjoying the winter sunshine, undeterred by the ‘hawk’ in the background

One of our favourite birds is a tiny Cape Wagtail, with only one foot. Without fear, it wanders under the tables and in and out of the bar, feeding on miniscule crumbs. After three years it has become like a familiar friend.

There is always something going on in the ocean, with massive cargo ships, passenger liners, yachts, motorboats, and in season, pods of dolphins and the occasional whales.

And beside the Radisson is the peaceful Granger Bay harbour, with the magnificent Table Mountain in the background.

To paraphrase the great Samuel Johnson, if I ever grow tired of Cape Town, I will be tired of life.

The Dreamer

The boy dreamed of having two polish cans and racing them down the burn, but he had only one, until one day his father surprised him with a second empty can.

Holding one in each hand, he ran down the hill from the house, skirting the pig sties, and sprinting the length of the pig run, dodging from side to side to avoid imaginary enemy fire, leaping over pig wallows that resembled bomb craters, until, like a commando, vaulting over a barbed wire fence to the relative safety of the flax dams.

He loved that corner of the farm. Nobody ever went there. It was secluded and out of view of the house. There he had only the constant croaking of the frogs and the chirping of unseen birds for company. The dams had not been used for very many years and were silted and choked with reeds. Willow trees dangled the tips of their branches over the stagnant water. But on that day, he was on a mission.

He clambered over the bank and jumped into Taylor’s field. He was not allowed to leave their farm, but nobody could have seen him. There had been a lot of summer rain in the previous week and the burn was still quite full. He carefully placed the two cans in the water, side by side, holding them back with a long stick, before releasing them into the strong current. The race was on.

He ran across the field to where the burn entered the tunnel under the school. If he missed them there, they would be on their way to the sea. He waited patiently, but the cans did not come. He walked up the banks of the burn and found one can trapped in reeds and a little further, the other stuck in still water, sheltered behind a rock. He retrieved them and started the race again. He repeated the race several times. Sometimes one of them reached the tunnel, usually they both got stuck and he had to retrieve them.

It was a warm day and he grew tired of his game. He returned to the flax dams and sat on the bank in the afternoon sun, looking out across the fields, past the church to the slopes of Islandmore. He wondered where the source of the stream was. When he grew a little older, he would set off on an expedition to find it. At school he had learned of Livingstone and later, Stanley, searching for the source of the River Nile in Africa. He knew that there were two big rivers near his home – the rivers Bann and Bush. He would find their sources too. He wanted to be an explorer when he grew up.

He also wanted to be a mountaineer, like Edmund Hillary, and climb Islandmore and find out what was on the other side. And his teacher had recently told them of how the Vikings had struggled to herd their stolen cattle through the marshy land above Portrush, past where their schoolhouse now stood, and how they had been defeated at the nearby battle of The War Hollow. He wanted to search for swords and coins and other Viking evidence in the area around their farm. There was so much to think about.

But he was not always an all-action boy. His grandmother had showed him how to find, press and exhibit flowers and leaves. He was constantly on the look-out for a new addition to his collection.

Even though the boy had no friends to play with – his younger brother was still a baby, and there was no television, he had his imagination for company. And it accompanied him day and night.

He was a most contented child.

Of course the boy grew older, eventually went away, and when he returned, he realized that the burn beside the farm was just a shallow drain beside a field, that Islandmore was only a slight undulation on the North Antrim coast, and that the story of the Vikings and the War Hollow was likely just a legend. But his childhood dreams had been replaced by those of an adult and his imagination continued to be his constant companion.

He had become a most contented man.

First Taste of Freedom

I never much enjoyed my grammar school days, and when the opportunity came to escape the drudgery, I grabbed it with both hands; I was like a thirsty man being offered a cold pint of Guinness on a hot summer day. My new-found freedom was delicious.

Before long, I started to study towards an initial Quantity Surveyor qualification, via a correspondence course with the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). I was enthusiastic about the subjects and I was free to proceed at my own pace. If I was not ready to take the exam the next year, then the year after or whenever. And in the meantime, I was supporting myself and contributing something to my parent’s household. I was quite content.

And my evenings and weekends were filled with sports, music and girls.

At work, my colleagues rented the gymnasium at the Intermediate School in Coleraine for one night a week, to play indoor football. And in the summer months, we participated in a team in the local works league. Through the winter months, I played rugby with the Coleraine II team, and in my last summer, with the Coleraine Cricket Club.

Soon after finishing school, I joined Bill McKeown’s group, playing drums. We were five – piano, saxophone, guitar, drums and singer. We played at hotels around the north Antrim coast and even had a six week summer season at the Lismara hotel in Portrush, playing six nights a week. I earned much more drumming than at Quantity Surveying, but unless one has real talent, music was not steady work.

When I could, I used to go to one of the local dance halls on a Saturday night: to the Arcadia in Portrush, the Strand in Portstewart, the Boat House in Coleraine and sometimes further afield. If a girl let me walk her back to her house, I almost always managed to miss the last bus, and had a long walk home, often in diabolic weather. It once happened to me in Ballymena, some thirty miles away. I walked several miles before I managed to thumb a lift home.

The last time I saw my mother, not long before she died, she told me that she had never fallen asleep until she knew that I was safely home. I was never aware of my having caused her sleepless nights.

It was Raymond de Zeeuw who had given me the idea of a career in Quantity Surveying. Knowing that he was the leader of the Ballywillan Lifeboys, I offered to help him in any way that I could. They met every Saturday morning. The Lifeboys were the junior branch of the Boy’s Brigade, as the Cub Scouts were the junior branch of the Boy Scouts.

So I taught the boys much of the military discipline that I had learned at Army Cadets. And at the end of the year, they demonstrated their coordinated marching capability in front of their parents and friends at the annual ‘demonstration’. They were brilliant.

I organized football games outside the Church Hall, before and after the formal Lifeboy agenda. We even had a ‘match’ with Portrush Primary School. We lost, but it was great fun.

Raymond once organized an early-summer cruise on Lough Neagh and many of the boys came along.

The Lifeboys, later to be known as the Junior Boys Brigade, on the outing to Lough Neagh in the summer of 1963. In the back row – Yours truly, Rev. Jim Frazer, Brigadier W. W. Boggs, Mrs. T. Stewart (pianist) and Josephine Dallas
And the boys. In the back row – Ian King, Stephen Wilson, Colin Stewart, Nigel Stewart, Victor Sinclair, Alan Cunningham, Ivan Adams. Trevor Martin, Milton Stewart. And in the front row- Archie McNeill, Raymond McNeill, Brian Caldwell, John McNeill, Norman Adams, Peter Stewart and Norman Brewster

The photographs were taken by Raymond de Zeeuw, the leader, and it was Josephine Dallas who recently sent them to me, along with the names of the boys.

By now, most, if not all of the boys will be collecting their pensions, some with families and some perhaps with grandchildren. Sadly, two of them have passed on: Alan Cunningham some years ago, and Archie McNeill, within the past two weeks. They have passed much too soon.

In a field beside Ballywillan Church, one beautiful mid-summer evening, I organized an extra-curricular football game. As usual, Raymond led one side and I led the other. Somehow, I managed to slice my knee open on a sharp stone or a piece of glass and ended up needing several stitches. I still have the scar.

That proved to be my last involvement with the Lifeboys, for soon after, I left for Canada on what has turned out to be the first stage of a journey without end.

I have never lost my taste of freedom.

Dalzell & Campbell

In my fifth year of grammar school, 1962-3, I felt quite lost. Having abandoned my ambition of a military career, I had no plan ‘B’. The school assumed that I would go on to a university, but I knew that there was no way my father could have contributed to my support, even if I were to obtain some form of scholarship.

In that era, there was no career advice available at my grammar school. Perhaps some of the teachers took their successful pupils under their wing and coached them. More likely, the parents were the guides. In my ‘A’ class, most, if not all, of the parents fitted into three categories – professional, businessmen or farmers. My parents were not able to advise me and I had no uncles or aunts to lean on.

After the ‘O’ level exams in June 1963, a good friend, Raymond de Zeeuw, suggested that I might want to consider his career of Quantity Surveying, for which GCE ‘O’ levels would suffice. It was a form of professional apprenticeship, with part-time study and culminating in a qualification – R.I.C.S. (Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors). As he always seemed enthusiastic about his work, I decided to get an interview with Crofton Dalzell, the principal of Dalzell & Campbell, Raymond’s employer.

I confess to having been taken aback with Crofton’s first question – ‘What religion are you?’. Perhaps it was just a standard statistic required for governmental reporting, but I suspect that if my answer had been ‘Catholic’, the interview would have been soon terminated. Is the situation different today? I would like to hope so.

In any case, I appeared to have impressed him sufficiently, and soon after, I received a job offer of £8 per month, subject to my passing the GCE exams. I started work the following Monday. And my mother informed me that I would have to contribute £2 a month for my board!

Dalzell & Campbell was a partnership between Crofton Dalzell and his son-in-law, the architect, Noel Campbell. Crofton was a dapper little man, he looked very fit, and reputedly walked along the beach from Portrush to the White Rocks, some four miles in total, every morning before work. I know little about Noel Campbell, except that he drove a Jaguar, at one time was a drummer, was married to Crofton’s daughter, and designed my parent’s house at Carnalridge.

If you know little about a Quantity Surveyor’s work, I will attempt to give you a very brief description.

A Quantity Surveyor stands between an architect and the client. The Quantity Surveyor’s ‘bible’ is the Bill of Quantities (BOQ), which contains the specification, the quantity and the unit cost of all the items involved in the contract. It is the basis for any variations or dispute regarding the original contract.

My first year as a Junior Quantity Surveyor was spent extending and summing the measurements of other more senior staff and producing physical Bills of Quantities (BOQ). We had no calculators in that era, so all calculations had to be made by hand. And don’t forget that it was before monetary decimalization and metric measurement. Try calculating by hand an area of 9 feet 7 inches by 21 feet 4 inches or 1279 cubic yards at £2-17-11 per yard!

For Bills of Quantities, we had no copy machines or printers as we know them today; they were not yet available. We had stencils that were thin sheets of paper, coated with wax. The Bills of Quantities were typed on the stencils. I wrapped the stencil around a Gestetner roller and produced as many copies as were required. I then had to collate the pages, drill holes and bind the final product with ribbons.

It was not so long before I progressed to measuring earthworks, landscaping, asphalt, kerbs etc. And most weeks, there were visits to sites to measure actual versus the BOQ, and calculating progress payments. I was quite happy in my work.

And there was a great camaraderie in the office. In particular I remember John Dalzell, George Darragh, Stuart Barnes, Jim Morrison, Tom Clarke, Raymond De Zeeuw and our Chief Quantity Surveyor- Brian Watson, a little Scot. I wish that I could recall all the other names.

Sooner, rather than later, I moved on, in my case to Canada. But I learned an important lesson at Dalzell & Campbell, that I have never forgotten, and that is, no matter how lowly the job, do it well.

As in this recording of Charley Pride…

I wanted to be a soldier

It was September 1961 when I returned for my fourth year at C. A. I. I had already decided that I aspired to an army career, as an officer graduate from Sandhurst, in Surrey. The physical outdoor life, the sports, and the opportunities to travel very much appealed to me. I had already received a package of information from the recruitment office and in it was suggested that I join the local Army Cadet Force. One Friday evening in early September, I set off for the Territorial Army Barracks in Coleraine.

The Army Reserve Centre in Coleraine, formally known as the Territorial Army

It was there that I met Captain Kitson, who was responsible for the local Army Cadet Force. I remember him as a slim and very well spoken man and I was immediately quite inspired by him. He noted all the necessary particulars and we agreed that I would return same time the following week to collect my uniform and join the Force.

My father was not greatly enthused by my career aspirations. He had survived seven years of war, had seen many of his friends die, and did not wish that life on his eldest son. He would have very much preferred my going to agricultural college and then joining him in his farming business. But as much as I loved the soil, the lure of travel and seeing the world prevailed. Dad reluctantly kept his peace.

The uniform consisted of everything except underwear, plus a beret, boots and a heavy greatcoat. that reached almost to my ankles. In cold wintry nights, the greatcoat was most appreciated. The shirt and trousers were made from a heavy khaki material that initially I found most itchy, but in time I became almost accustomed to it.


On my first full night at the barracks, we were lectured at length on the uniform, how to dress, what never to do, how to polish our boots and clean our brasses. we were warned that first thing, every night, we would be inspected and reprimanded if fault was found. Our Sergeant Major was a tough little Irishman, a long-serving soldier whom I shall call Jerry, for I cannot recall his full name. When not on duty, he was a chain-smoker and always stank of nicotine. He has an extremely loud and raucous voice and when he called ‘Atten shun’, windows in nearby houses rattled.

After inspection, we spent a lot of time on drill, eventually including a rifle. If you have ever observed a squad of soldiers on parade, performing complex manouvers, you perhaps can understand how much practice is required to train a group of individuals to act as one. And most evenings we moved to the rifle range to practice our shooting skills, using .22 rifles.

In the summer of 1962, we went to the Ballykinler Army Barracks, in County Down, about 12 kilometers SW of Downpatrick. We were met at the station in Belfast and taken in Army lorries to the camp. For a week we were treated as any other soldier, with all the disciplines and obligations. It was the first time that I had been away from home. I recall two memorable days.

Ballykinler Army Barracks, as it is today

The first was when we were taken in a truck and dropped off in the countryside, with maps, bivouacs, and enough food and water for a day. Our objective was to decide where we were and in 24 hours to find our way to a second pick-up point quite far away, on the other side of a lake. To complicate the mission, we were to leave no trace of our passing. Our officer, Captain Kitson accompanied us, but he made zero effort to influence our decision making. It was a character enhancing experience and we all learned a lot from having to disguise our overnight camp.

The second memorable day was when we were split into two platoons, one to defend a hill and the other to attack it. I was with the latter. We were armed with .22 rifles and a few blanks. We decided to have a frontal attack, with two of us, another guy and myself, crawling a long way through scrub to attack from the rear. Unfortunately, the defending force spotted the frontal attackers, some blanks were shot and the ‘attack’ was foiled.

On our last night at the camp, we went to Newcastle, the nearby beach resort. We had a few hours to ourselves. Most of us went up the mountain – Slieve Donnard; a few joined me in unsuccessfully looking for girls.

During the long summer break, something changed in me. I spent much of the holidays working on the farm, feeding and watering the livestock, clearing, cleaning, painting: I was already quite strong and could do most of a man’s work. In return, my father gave me gave me generous pocket money. Most evenings I went down to Portrush to meet and mingle with friends. The summer season was in full swing and there were lots of girls on holiday also wandering around. I relished my new-found freedom, to come and go as I pleased.

Eventually that summer I realized that I would have very little freedom to come and go if I were to join the army. Whether one agrees or not, orders have to be obeyed, without question. That would not be a problem if I agreed with the direction. But what if I didn’t? And I was reminded of the quote – ‘Lions led by donkeys’.

When September came around, I returned the uniform and resigned from the Army Cadets.

In 1985, some 23 years later, for one year I found myself living at Harvard Road in Sandhurst, and passing the military college every day.

What goes around, sometimes comes around…

Definitely not three of my best years…

Most of us have come across them, often rather uninspiring people who confess as to how much they loved their secondary school years – their supportive teachers, the absorbing subjects, their wonderful friends etc. ad nauseam. Of course they probably never failed to present their completed homework, they were always in time for class, they never had to be reprimanded, they were perfect students. I suspect that their parents had a great part in supervising and aiding them in their homework. In my secondary school years, I was very far from being an exemplary student.

I had been quite happy and successful during my primary school days at Carnalridge. I had a caring and inspirational headmaster and teacher – James Bankhead. In those days – 1952-58, Carnalridge was a small country primary school, less that 100 m from my from door.

In my last year there, there were only four of us attempting the 11-plus exams – David Hunter, Michael Moore, Joan Gurney and me. The 11-plus examinations were a test of mathematics, English and IQ and they were held in Coleraine. Depending on the results, one went to a grammar, a technical or a secondary school. For most of us, the 11-plus result dictated our future careers.

Known locally as C.A.I. or The Inst, Coleraine Academical Institution was founded in 1860 and had a large boarding facility until 1999, with extensive playing fields. In 1958, it was to this institution, as a day pupil, that I was sentenced. As a result of my having attained a decent mark in the 11-plus examinations. I was allocated to the ‘A’ class. There were four classes – ‘A’ through ‘D’, each with 30 pupils.

But the move to C.A.I was rather a shock to my system. Firstly, there was my having to catch a bus to Coleraine – to miss it was to be late and subject to punishment. I was never late. Then there was what felt like a long walk in all weathers, from The Diamond in Coleraine, up the Castlerock Road to the school. In my first two years I attended the Model School, across the Castlerock Road from the main C.A.I. buildings. The Model School had been recently taken over by C.A.I. To me, the Model School seemed like an reluctant survivor from the very early days of Charles Dickens. It no longer exists, having been demolished and replaced by yet another housing estate.

Early days at CAI

I was in no way prepared for the curriculum. My poor parents had only very basic education to age 15 and subjects like Latin, French, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics etc. were foreign to them. I had no educated uncles or aunts to lean on and frankly, I struggled. Much of the subject matter made absolutely no sense to me.

And I did not respond well to the discipline that they tried to instill in us. Nothing will ever convince me that, having been detained after school for a minor misdemeanor and having to write 500 times, ‘I must not talk in class’ or ‘I must remember my school book’, has made me a better citizen. Nor has having been caned across the hand or the buttocks. There were several teachers that, were they to be alive today, I would happily punch. In those days, corporal punishment ruled.

As a day pupil, I was free to go home at the end of the day. It was not so for the young boarding school pupils. I never envied their lives, separated from their families for months on end. I feel certain that there was an element of bullying of the younger students by older pupils and prefects. If the various churches have had to face up to a multitude of scandals, I suspect that CAI has had some of its own ‘skeletons in the cupboard’.

But there was one really positive side to my secondary schooling – the sports; C.A.I. was a leading rugby school. I had never before seen rugby – we had no television in those days, but once I was involved, rugby very much appealed to me. Sports at C.A.I. were compulsory and only excused if subject to a doctor’s note. And in the summer months, there was cricket; in the morning break, lunch and after school, I could usually be found bowling in the cricket nets.

C. A. I. with its extensive playing fields

I will never forget my first exposure to rugby. It was in my first days at my new school and there was a schools cup match. We were excused classes to support our senior team and it was then that I first heard the school’s war cry:

HEE-YAH, HEE-YAH, HEE BILLYWANGA, HEE-YAH HEE-YAH HA

HUNKA, HUNKA, HUNK BILLYWANGA, KRA KRU KRA

RICK, RICK, RICKETY RICK

ISKY ISKY AYE

HEE BILLY WANGA, TING TONG TANGA

C.A.I.

C-O-L-E-R-A-I-N-E

The war cry was written after some CAI boys watched the All Blacks perform their famous Haka, prior to playing Ulster in the winter of 1924-25.  The CAI war cry was first heard in public on 17 March 1925, at Ravenhill, now the Kingspan Stadium, when CAI won the Schools Cup.

So, for my first three years at CAI, I struggled through the junior school, sometimes with ‘an excellent mark’ when I was interested in the subject, at other times ‘must try harder’ prevailed. At the same time, I was very much involved in the sports.

But I was definitely never an exemplary student.

An update on the Cape Town Drought

It was on May 7 last year that the combined Cape Town dams held only 20.9% of their maximum capacity. The city was restricted to a daily allowance of 55 liters per person, the supermarket shelves more often than not were devoid of drinking water, and we were only days from the mains supply being switched off and an emergency situation declared.

And emergency supplies meant 20 liters per person to be collected in your own containers from stand-pipes somewhere in the neighborhood. But nobody seemed to know where the stand-pipes would be located and how we would identify ourselves. It threatened to be chaotic. In a modern society, such as is that of much of Cape Town, can you imagine trying to cope with cooking, washing, flushing toilets etc. with so little water?

But nature relented and the rains started to fall, and month by month the dam levels rose, until they peaked on October 8, at 76.2% capacity. The immediate emergency was over, but not quite; the rainfall was most welcome, but it was still below average. Personal consumption was increased to 105 liters per person.

In our apartment building, we have recently had installed individual water meters. Once a week, first thing Saturday morning, I note our consumption, and it is constantly 110-130 liters per day, well within the guidelines. Since the emergency, we have been very conscious of not using more water than is absolutely necessary. I suspect that we will now always treat access to potable water as a valuable privilege, wherever we are.

Cape Town is very much a tourist destination and it was very much hurt by the negative international publicity regarding the drought. I find it encouraging to know that one of the local hotels, Radisson Water Front, has eliminated its dependency on local water supply, and has constructed a desalination plant to supply its own needs. Perhaps others will follow their example.

As part of the water augmentation plans, the Western Cape government has commissioned three desalination plants along the coast, but with little success. They take water directly from the ocean, but have been hit by the natural occurrence of algal bloom in False Bay and recent contractual disputes. It seems that we will continue to depend on natural rainfall.

Today is May 18 and the dam water levels stand at 45.6% of capacity. And light showers are forecast for tomorrow.

As an Irishman, I never thought that I would ever say ‘May it rain… ‘.