Three powerful memories collide with coincidence

The site of the Illovo sugar mill (centre right), since moved to Eston, with the Illovo River curling around the mill site towards the Indian Ocean to the west.

Genteel memories

Those of us who’ve lived on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast will have memories of a more genteel sort of soot than those of us who grew up relatively close to the now-defunct Illovo Sugar Mill.

You’re probably wondering about my use of ‘genteel’ in the context of soot so let me put your mind at rest – the sort of feathery soot, more like a filigree remnant of burnt leaf, is what impinges on my mind when I talk of ‘genteel’ soot. 

And that category of soot is a signature of a sugarcane fire, the little bits of carbon borne away on the wind to end up kilometres away from the crackling and roaring flames that feed at high speed on the dry ‘trash’ that comprises dead sugarcane leaves.

The real hardcore soot is heavier, more condensed and was coughed up in quantities by the sugar mill during milling season. That soot ended up in black and crumbly eddies on verandas and in flower beds at estate houses near the sugar mill but often drifted further afield depending on the strength and direction of the prevailing wind.

Memories of ash

Now if you’re wondering why I’m writing about soot, I was simply mentioning it in passing as one of those by-products of the milling process.

Another by-product is ash, which emerged from the mill in quantities and which was used to improve traction on muddy dirt road surfaces, including driveways, on various parts of the sugar estate.

I lived with my family on the far side of the Illovo River in a little enclave of two houses backing onto Nkwali Hill, the crest of which was the location of the sugar estate’s radio transmitter used to broadcast messages to estate staff, including my father.

Our next-door neighbours were the Poss family. Mr Poss was a grey-haired gentleman with an English accent who worked in the sugar or syrup house at the mill. Mrs Poss was the quintessential mother figure with a comfortable build, spectacles and her hair pulled back into a bun at the back of her head.

Elizabeth was the older of their two school-going daughters while Francis was the sporty girl who gave the impression of being unafraid of boys. I, for one, knew she could arm wrestle me into submission with barely a look.

Both driveways from the district road to our respective houses were steep and when the rains came a certain amount of daring was needed to navigate through the mud to get up to the garage at the top of each of the drives. Mr Poss decided that a trailer-load of ash spread on his driveway would provide the necessary traction to eliminate the need for a course in rally driving. It seemed to do the trick.

Fast forward many years later.

Coincidence collides with memory

I was running a nationwide marketing and events business, an activity described by some of my more unflattering friends as a semi-retirement occupation. I was inspecting a vehicle display stand at a shopping mall in Emalahleni (formerly Witbank), an industrial town about 150km east of Johannesburg, when a grey-haired woman accompanied by an older man walking with a limp, approached me on the stand.

After a short discussion during which he told me with a slight but unmistakable German accent that he was from Swaziland where he owned a photographic business, I turned to his companion.

‘You have a bluish mark on your left knee that you’ve had since you were a child. It’s ash under your skin, the remnants of a graze that you got when you fell on your driveway while running to catch the school bus.’

The couple, both of whom were wearing jeans, glanced at each other, the sort of glance that sometimes makes you think of taking a step backwards. After all, the gentleman was armed with a stick.

‘Yes, but how do you know that?’ the grey-haired woman asked.

‘I was sitting in the school bus when you fell while running down your driveway to catch the bus. I was your next-door neighbour at Illovo. As a child, you were always so proud of the blue mark on your knee.’

We reminisced about our morning transport routine as school kids, being picked up every morning by the yellow bus driven for years by a moustachioed Indian driver by the name of Acha. He drove the bus all over the estate to pick up school children, delivered them to schools in Warner Beach and Amanzimtoti, and deposited them back outside their homes in the afternoon.

When Francis walked onto the vehicle display stand all those years later, I recognised her as a result of several pointers that red-flagged themselves during our introductory discussion.

I knew from my sisters and her sister Elizabeth that Francis had qualified as a nursing sister and was living in Swaziland where she worked in a photographic business owned by a man of German descent.

She and Chris had travelled up to Emalahleni (place of coal)  from Mbabane to do some shopping. They were leaving Africa for Germany within weeks.

Shark attack memories

Now here’s where true life becomes stranger than fiction: many years before, Chris and Francis – both of whom were fanatical divers – were in Mozambique indulging in their passion. During one of their dives, Chris lost his leg to a shark. Although this fact was not mentioned during our discussion, it seems logical to me to assume that Francis’ medical training could well have been the difference between Chris losing his leg or his life.

They found out later that the campsite they had thought themselves lucky to secure on arrival at the camp had been vacated shortly before by the family of someone who had been killed by a shark off the beach where Chris had been attacked. No one breathed a word to them about the earlier attack.

So you see, sugar mill by-products – be they ash, soot or even bagasse – can act as memory joggers for those of us who need such aids. Soot, of course, is probably a thing of the past if one considers the relatively rigorous pollution standards now on the statute books. But then again, bits of the old Illovo sugar mill were transported to Eston for use in another mill.

Ummmmm, does anyone know someone who lives near that mill……..?

For more on the early years of the sugar industry in KZN, click here .

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


4 Responses

  1. An enjoyable, nicely told story, Blake. What serendipity to bump into a neighbour from way back when. What stories scars can tell, and what memories they contain!

    1. Hi Andrea,
      Thanks so much for your kind comment. It seems to me that real-life experiences are sometimes scarier than fiction.

  2. Wow, this was so awesome to read, I am sure you will remember my late Dad Ron Lane. I was also one of the ‘Mill Children” as we were known then.
    Carol Lane

  3. I am always interested in your writings, Blake, since, as you know, my father and mother spent so much of their lives in pre-WW1 Africa. There is little left of those days, Africa has changed and the change is irreversible and more is the pity. My own opinion is that it will take Africa 1,000 years to catch up, they first have to learn to live with their history-both before the white man’ and after his arrival and eventual departure.

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