Bloemhof Farm Farewell

There is a gnarled sy-bas tree perched high upon a rugged and remote outcrop overlooking the highest reaches of the Baviaans River valley. This ‘maytenus acuminata’ has been there for generations, and most likely braced its branches against the gusting mountain breezes by the time my great-grandfather, Thomas Johannes Lodewikus Marais, was born on Bloemhof Farm in 1847.

Generally known as the silky-bark or umnama tree, it would have beared witness to local skirmishes during two Anglo-Boer Wars, seen the ravages of the Rinderpest Epidemic, casually observed the great ‘Merino Wool Boom’ of the 1950s, and stood in time-honoured testimony to the travails of the Marais clan as they worked the land here upon the edge of the Winterberg ranges. Oupa TJL followed (he, together with Tannie Cilli√©, were the only siblings out of nine to survive a deadly diphtheria outbreak), and he spent eight solid decades on Bloemhof, with but a brief sojourn to study at Maties.

My father, Rinaldo Retief (respectively named for a flamboyant Italian opera singer and an incisive Boer general) – together with brother Thomas and sister Delveen – heralded in the fourth Marais generation here amidst mystical ysterklip dolmen, wiry koperdraad grasslands and the leaf-whisper of poplar woods. And while the generations came and went, the landscape remained stoically in stasis, with the roots of that silky-bark high up on One Tree Hill clawing ever deeper into the loamy top-soil blanketing the fractured cliff edge.
I was four, or possibly five, the first time I remember climbing One Tree Hill. This post -lunch constitutional had become a family tradition whenever we visited Oupa and Ouma, and we would traipse haphazardly upwards, scattered amidst budding sweet-thorn trees according to our ages, fitness levels and abilities. It was around a decade later that we began speculating as to what type of tree it was, lugging up reference books, or taking cuttings to arborists to help us eventually identify it as an impressive maytenus acuminata specimen.
Inexorably, the tree became part of our family lore: partly as an immersion in nature, partly as a pilgrimage and often as a gathering point, all while rooting us to this authentic corner of an untamed frontier land. When my dad passed away in January this year, it was his last wish that we scatter his ashes within the shade of the silky-bark, and it felt so very right. We were not surprised when my mum followed her lifelong companion a couple of months later, and we as a family certainly could not have wished for a sweeter synchronicity.
And so it came to be that my brother Mike, my sister Lize-Marie, my dad’s sister (and my godmother), Delveen, and our spouses and children, huffed and puffed up One Tree Hill this past Saturday. We lugged a marble plaque, some cement and the urns with their ashes to the summit, and allowed the Groot Maroekoe and old Van Helsdingen to fly free on the gentle autumn breeze.
They did have one final trick up their collective sleeve, though. As we released their ashes over the cliff edge, the wind billowed and swirled, blunder-bussing back at us in a cloud of calcium, potassium and sodium grit. I could just imagine my dad – on his back amidst the koperdraad tuffets – guffawing at the sky, with my mum giggling gleefully.
Afterwards, I walked slowly, bringing up the rear as my tribe descended, keeping an eye on Delveen. She navigated the uneven and steep terrain with a confidence belying her 81 years on this Earth. Behind us, on that high precipe, I could sense Rinaldo and Grietjie holding hands, gazing out from beneath the spreading canopy of that sy-bas, together anticipating their next step into the Brave New World awaiting them …

I caught up with Karyn and took her hand in mine. The melancholy gray of missing them faded into the morning sky, and I felt utterly at peace with our place in the universe.

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