4th November... one week later

It’s been a week now and no change in the underlying need and desire for the camaraderie and sense of purpose that gave us so much strength and resilience over the two week project.  We are still in touch by email, and grateful for a couple of BM events to meet up with some of the team again.  Blog editing committees, re-unions, birthday ideas for those we left behind and even talk of cycling to India for another build.  Maybe the two weeks has restored our work life balance to where it should always be.  Work to live, not live to work.  We all learnt to work hard and savour the time for relaxation, conversation and friendship.  Those memories should shape our lives to come, taking nothing for granted and making every minute count at work and outside.  Grand ideals.  Ask us how we got on after a few months of the gloom of winter.

We were isolated from the harsh realities of the local economy.  The shopping centres, the builders’ merchant, the roads and the bottle stores were not there for us.  They were well stocked with essentials and some “luxury” goods.  No rows of TVs toys or specialist foods.  Just the essentials, priced at what seemed like very reasonable prices.  The car park was a bustling interchange of combis (the ubiquitous Toyota minibus taxis that set a route and share the fares with any that climb aboard or leave on the journey) bakkies and modern tinted air con cars;  occasionally a European 4x4.  But it’s the wage rates of those at work that give a shock taste of the real Kwazulu Natal economy.  A single fill of petrol for our hire car clocked up 4 weeks wages for a hard working young labourer, 2 weeks for an experienced builder who served his time with a creditable construction company.  A bottle of local brandy – a week’s wages.  We perhaps didn’t appreciate the differences in the early days.  We saw what we wanted to; the simple lifestyle, the vast skies and a work life balance we struggle to make in commuter land.  The reality is that ours was an exceptional time for our Zulu hosts.  They eat well, had guaranteed work for two weeks and towards the end they enjoyed our hospitality.  And they gave us so much back.  Singing, dancing, insight into their world and, finally, a friendship that felt true and full.  Certainly for all of us it was enough to reduce us to quivering wrecks for days after we left them alone at God’s Golden Acre.

 28th October, the day after

Carpet underfoot

Brighter inside than out


Washing machine and tumble drier

Something obscene about shopping emails/spam

Emailing to new friends instead of talking

Trying to distance myself so I don’t blub

No blog to look at

No photos to look at

Feeling remote from my life at home and showing it to my family

Feeling brutally shut off from my life of the last two weeks and wanting it back.

Saturday 27th October - goin' back home

Like a David Carradine monk we gripped the red hot coals of the barbecue kettles and carried them across the field, in and out of thatched picnic shelters and around hillocks and trenches.  Tipped onto the pyre of crackling timber it sparked into a raging beacon of warmth and light.  We gathered round.  The children gathered round to stretch out the final day and strummed and sang.

The Germans called time and the children withdrew.  We lingered and warmed ourselves in the cool last night air.  But it was early.  We settled down with our friends once again, restocked and ready to prolong the evening and put off the parting.  Again we built friendships even further, the Dutch volunteers, David the incomparable, the builders, the footballers and the concert party.  We were sung to, danced at and partied with. We arranged and exchanged, we distributed our surpluses and bargained for yet more contact in the morning.  We could not bear them leaving us and we could not bear to leave them. The great sadness of our departure dawned as the sun rose.

Morning.  The young zulu warriors came back to watch over us.  We packed and sorted and tidied and divvied up the spoils of a fortnight of excess.  In one final spontaneous moment they said goodbye with their talent and their faith.  A beautiful, haunting, moving and unforgettable scene.  And yes, maybe there is no-one like Jesus.  Cue Colin’s video IMG_1098.

We packed up and drove over to the GGA compound to drop off the keys and say goodbye to anyone that was there.  No discrete slipping away.  Everyone was there, except Heather.  The children had been gathered in the dining hall and slowly and sadly sauntered up the slight slope to our cars.  We hugged and cried.  They sang.  We left defeated and emotionally devastated.

In one final act of defiance of the divide between us we delivered Auntie Coco to the Spar and Gugulethu Mshengu to the Durban Mall.  No one else was going to.

The silver car and the blue car had a race.  The blue car got lost.  The silver car took a turn round a street market.  King Shaka airport marked the first milestone on the journey home.  Brave faces but sad hearts.  At the start of that 24 hours of travel I don’t think any of us realised how bad it would get as we all reluctantly drifted away to our own worlds after so intensely living in each others.

Next stop Oliver Tambo airport.  Shakes, beers and shared meals distracted us from the real issue; it was over.  We browsed, shopped and moved through the bustling surrounds of a departure lounge and onto the flight.  Carefully planned seating kept us close but the emotional and physical exhaustion of the journey left us only with false smiles.  Heathrow, all cleared, and a split one by one to our many separate lives.  Thank you every one for a lifetime of experience, intense and intoxicating, unforgettable and unrepeatable.  Good time?  The best.

Friday 26th October

This was the final day of the build.  A few hours earlier we had all learnt a little more about GGA, the children, the volunteers and the builders and it made us feel a little uneasy.  But we had a deadline, and PR event and too much yet to do.  The frustrations came as a lack of tools and time crushed our final day into what seemed like a few hours.  Our bodies almost defeated by the night before, our souls scarred and our time together nearing the end.

It seems trivial to describe the challenges of the day.   More muck to mix, gaps to fill, doors to trim, locks to fit, lino to roll out and curtains to hang.  The beds arrived before anything was ready.  We plodded on with blunt tools and jostled for space in the new home to complete one task after another.

Heather brought a family of helpers and settled into the house, one room at a time dressed with the personal flourishes of a woman who rejoices in the detail while chaos lurks threateningly.  Then we had done enough.  It was time for the GGA PR machine to tip toe into the personal life of our beneficiary.  Speech, welcome, thank you, prayer, song, photo, group photo, tour, tears, goodbyes, tears and tears.  Who could not be moved by the change our constant host at the build site was to experience.  A weatherproof shell, beds on blocks, clean dry floors, doors to keep out unwanted visitors night or day.  The mother of three was instantly confident, proud and credible in the community.  Her children were timid and tense but soon those fears would fade as the reality of their new security settled into their lives.

We returned drained and drawn.  Barbecue beef and Boerewors, bonfire and bonhomie.  We scrubbed and dressed up.  Brendan, Heather’s son, directed the GGA bumbling into a slick organised and sparkling party.  Music, food, fantastic hosts.  Each one of us was scooped up and waited upon, entertained and paraded in the final social gathering of children, visitors, volunteers, staff and builders.  All friends together; and us, the visitors, the outsiders, the guests realising this had been a very special time that would be a part of us evermore.

25th October

Frustrated by our anarchic teamwork Baba Mbata allocated tasks to each of us.  The split of labour today, the only day he had expressed any differentiation between us, was simple.  Girls on the bottom, men on top.  More sexual stereotyping dominated the tasks.  The women were to putty and polish the windows while the men hammered and sawed the roof.  Today was a long day.  36 panes of wafer thin glass and 4 different colours of putty all merged with skill and dedication into a fully glazed apartment.  No doors yet, but they ain’t getting through the windows!

Meanwhile upstairs banana shaped battens were nailed to the spliced rafters.  Getting the 5 inch nails through one piece of wood was easy enough but through two was both rare and lucky.  Then the tin sheets, 31 of them.  As any experienced Zulu builder knows we want to overlap the sheets across and down, like roof tiles.  Why then did we start at the top and delicately thread each subsequent sheet under the last.  Working late into the afternoon the last sheet was nailed down and the site cleared.  Tomorrow was handover day but there was clearing, more blocks to fill the gaps we had just created by laying the roof 50mm above the walls and doors, locks and lino.

When all was done we returned to our home where drink was taken and the girls puttied and polished while the boys hammered and sawed.

Tonight was party night.  Our thank you to the local hands, football teams and young Zulu warriors.  Not as large a party as it sounds; all three groups are the same people.  KFC, beer, and cider kept us all partying.  We learned about our hosts, their lives, hopes and dreams.  And we learned of the conflicts and battles still felt and fought in their jobs and homes every day.  None of us felt the same again.  They danced and sang for us and with us and we for them.  Our money and western world technology pitched against their natural talent, enthusiasm and love of life.

24th October

Today it looks almost finished.  No roof yet but walls higher than any of us can stand and a growing frustration at the wobbly heights we have to build the concrete block steps to reach the top.  Windows frames all in, door frames solid and yet the trickiest part is here.  As we level off the top walls every block needs cutting to size.  We all tried all ways to get those honeycomb of diamond hard rocks bonded by a crumbling and sparse cement to split clean and straight.  The claw hammer, the chisel and club hammer, the trowel and the disc cutter.  Most terrifying was the disc cutter.  A 9” grinder with discs so worn they would fit a 4”.  And reading the label we see “metal cutting”.  Our experience overcame our enthusiasm and we played it safe.  Never needing much of an excuse to go to the Spar we went shopping for masonry discs of the right size.  We also got some insulating tape to replace the sweet wrappers that were covering the bare wires and “protecting” the users from 240v.  The mechanical team set to; fit the disc, secure the guard and insulate the conductors.  Then we handed the tool to Baba Mbata who showed us how it should be done.  Guard off as he couldn’t see the cut, eyes screwed almost shut to save his eyes and away went the tin sheet protection we had installed around the designated block cutting area.  Always keen to maintain a safe working environment the BM boys and girls moved into the house, first aid kit ready and waiting.  He survived, we survived and a patchwork of blocks slowly filled the gaps to give the walls an even fall to set the roof to.

Sunday 21st October

Just getting up for a second try at the escorted safari tour in the dark and damp forested gardens of the backpackers hostel.  My bright as I could manage “good morning” was parried with a dull grunt of a “good night” from some.  So, no change of heart there.  The group was split; those brave enough to risk the wind tunnel to the wild animal nirvana and those who needed to chill.  The first split, a moment I had feared, but as the day passed realised it was for the best...the best came at 16:00hrs.

With spaces in the jeep we took our Netherlands travelling companions for the tour.  Volunteers, who pay to travel to GGA, pay to stay and eat, work to strict routines and schedules with only one trip a fortnight to “the mall” were delighted by the unfortunate turn of events on the previous day, giving them the luxury of the guide, the jeep and a full day of game.  And the chance to bond with those brit builders.

So crashing through the gears up and down, slowing for some speed humps, ignoring others the jeep hacked its way along the highway to Hluhluwe/Imfolozi game park; the second oldest in the world.  Arriving at the Nyalazi gate the canvas covers were lifted to reveal a dry bright morning and the prospect of a good tour around areas that had only hours before been isolated by the overflowing Black Imfolozi and Hluhluwe rivers.  We cruised in and immediately appreciated the expert guide, revealing the history of the area, the park, the animal habits and rituals.  He had a knack for spotting, stopping and then edging to an ever better viewpoint.  Photos were taken as were deep breaths at the wonder of the natural and animal scenes laid out before us.  The weather was kind and we saw four of the “big five” on which game parks pride themselves.  The cheetah alluded us because it had been chased away by a family of lions.  Are there so many of these herds, prides, journeys and dazzles that they are inevitably close to the roads, or do they want us to see how majestic and powerful they can be.  Words are a poor substitute for the hundreds of snaps and movies.  We absorbed everything.  We rested for al fresco breakfast and later for barbecue lunch.

The benefits of local knowledge and a network of guides ensured that when the river level rose, just as the braai was lit, risking cutting us off from the route back to the gate, we were hustled into the jeep and roller coastered down the hill to make the crossing before the bridge flooded.  White knuckles from the white hunter.

Back on the exit side of the beige torrent we stopped at a panoramic picnic area and pistol in waist the guide fired up the charcoal and grilled boerewors and steak.  Yes steak.  Not chicken.

Then a gentle cruise to the exit, stopping politely for more scenes of the animal kingdom to fill our hearts and confirm our strategy of making the journey a second time.

We were delivered directly to the pier for the river trip about 15:45.  Then i feared the worst when there was no sign of the others.  Had they been crushed by crocs, hounded by hippos or gobbbed on by iguanas.  Or perhaps worse they had succumbed to the toxic kiss of a spider.  Phone text and email were tried on every available device to no avail.  They were lost to the team.  The group was no more.  Failed in the simple task of having a weekend off.  Oh what a loss to the corporate machine that had sent us here.  A cruel irony to develop independent strong free thinking souls and then abandon them in a hopeless humid hell of bars, restaurants and holiday heaven.

Then from the distance they jostled onto the jetty at precisely 16:00 and we were one again.

All aboard the river boat to taunt the local talent.

Rita teased the crocodiles with her delicate decorated flesh by sitting just feet from the bow.  Crowds gathered, snapped and withdrew but fortunately the crocs did not.  Hippos played for us in family groups and fishermen cast lines from the shallow water.  They knew how the crocodile can leap metres and show no warning or reason but they risked all for access to the huge bounty of plenteous fish.

We returned to the quay after an hour and made our way past the unrythmic Zulu troupe, their buckets laid out like the buskers’ caps, back to the minibus for a final pack of all our quarts into the pint sized trailer.  Cases and cases of food prepared and accompanied by the ever cheerful Mbula carried hundreds of miles for the unappreciative travellers, all returned to sender.

On the road, dark tired and yet content that we had made the most of the weather, the place and the time.  And that we were one.

Still to come on the journey home was Patricks sprint to the toll booth for a principled correction to the fee charged and Heather’s declaration that Rita would be installed as a fairy in the dingley dell of a west facing lawn of the homestead back at GGA

Back at 11:30.  An early night?  ...I have no idea.

19th October

Twilight saga eat your heart out, Steven Spielberg eat your heart.  This is Team GGA 2012!

Following our previous blog we ended our 1st week in Afrika-ka-ka-ka-ka on a high, Colin and Lula being the ultimate duo in block enforcement.

We left our site 6 blocks high and our efforts are now starting to resemble a mansion.  We found out on Thursday that our 2 room house was actually going to be a 4 bedroomed house, consisting of a kitchen/diner, 2 bedrooms,  a spare room for the shepherd, chickens, puppies, cats and not to forget and a *F* veranda (NO JOKE) a *F* veranda!

After a week of hard graft we very much deserved a weekend away ... in Heather & Patrick’s ‘Ark’...The animals went in two by two...Kittens, Germans and the Brookfield crew...The weekend was finally here...

Battling through wind and rain we settled in for the road trip of our lives. Our departure from GGA was the first insight to what ‘excitement’ laid ahead of us... escorted by Heathers pack of barking dogs, and a slightly flustered Patrick we said a final prayer and off we went.

  ......................Twelve hours and 5 verses of songs later we arrived in St.Lucia. Craig, Heather’s conversationally challenged co-pilot will never be the same again, neither will be Angela’s face...

A few highlights:
·         Rita croc fighting
·         Lula spitting on an Iguana
·         Colin’s Masterchef class (Where’s my sausage??)
·         Dutch Bush
·         Sofa snoozing
·         Craig’s near death experience
·         St. Lucia drive by
·         Tyres & prayers
·         Jabba sleeping in
·         Squished kittens
·         2hours in a wind tunnel
·         Aleks screaming
·         ‘Doing a Lula’
·         Rolo face/Elephant woman
·         Market Shopping
·         John Dory last orders
·         Collin getting pick pocketed... ‘Disgrace to Scotland’
·         I’m not a rapist but come and see my campervan
·         Sucky de arssesssss
·         Drunken walk home...’No more men’
·         Pool hopping...the leap of faith
·         Shots of rum
·         Woaaaahhh your dog is on fire
·         The booze bus
·         Failed Safari in the middle of the night
·         Geraint midnight shower
·         Worlds quickest Safari – that’s what she said
·         Game keepers girlfriend – gobble gobble gobble
·         Who let the dogs out
·         Road works & pineapple
·         Candlelit dinner
·         Banned from a cattery
·         Zulu/topless dancers
·         Synchronised snoring
·         ‘You see one hippo you’ve seen them all’
·         Zulu Rita on the pull..... seven cows & a good tribe
·         Hippo booze cruise
·         Hard hard hard eggs  - ‘I like it hard’
·         Amazing brekkie
·         ‘I just felt my fanny’

not all of these highlights mean a whole lot to everyone, or anyone for that matter. So for added value just blackmail one of us for intimate details.

17th October

Today’s blog is presented by our plant correspondent.

Using the pre-wacker plate concrete block system of compacting the fine sandy soil under the floor slab your valiant 9 ably assisted by 5 GGA volunteers started the day by thumping the soil to form a level base.

A sheet of damp proof membrane and the thinnest wire mesh available were layed out and the concreting began.

The 1976 Briggs and Stratton 4hp powered Benford 5/ 3 ½ mixer was fired up and fed with stone, sand cement and water.

Ear defenders were handed round when Sophie started snorting and Rita danced like a Zulu.  A train of wheelbarrows thundered up the ramp and into the mixer.  After much exhaustion the concrete was sloshed into the same train of wheelbarrows on the other side and down the perilous ramp onto the slab.  And on and on it went.  One tea break and lots of leaning on shovels later the slab was done.

We had the option of going to the beach or staying to watch the concrete dry.  The sun shone and we had a picnic on the sand.  Then a bit of floating that involved balancing on timber beam and scratching the barely cured surface to leave a slightly rough but flat and level concrete slab.

After returning to the rondawel for refreshing showers and tea time refreshments (no not tea) we hung the washing on the line and went to tea with our host Heather Reynolds.  One omen like thunder storm later we sprinted to the dining hall to eat with the 40 resident children, their volunteer helpers and staff.  Thankfully the sound or a torrential downpour, the thunder and chatter of polite well behaved, cheerful children suppressed all the usual gossip about the folks back at work.  But we caught up on that later in the evening after a sprint through the dying embers of the storm.

Walls tomorrow.