On the outskirts of Vereeniging
When I was in high school, I would spend some of my school holidays working at a dog kennels and cattery in Vereeniging. Only 60kms from my home in Johannesburg, the dog kennels were in the rural outskirts of the city. Nothing much grew in that part of Vereeniging. This was not the agricultural centre of the city. Any greenery or plant life was the sole reserve of the residence or business itself, fed mostly from boreholes. No rivers ran close enough for irrigation purposes.
The dog kennels were owned and run by Aunty Jean Aucamp, an old family friend. She had taken her retirement savings and invested in this business. Sometimes, I used to think, she bought it as a place to keep her cats and whatever money came along as a result was a bonus. She was one of very few people I have met that I can truly call a saint.
The house itself was very old. Creaky wooden floors, huge rooms, ornate cornicing and carved ceilings. Wrought iron light fixtures festooned most rooms, and the kitchen was gargantuan, large food preparation surfaces, a central island and wrapped by windows on two sides, letting the morning light come streaming in. Dust motes would play and frolic in the air, a questing finger disturbing their play and causing momentary confusion as they found their way back onto their own paths.
My room, empty save for a mattress on the floor, also had windows on both sides and - being on the other side of the house - attracted the afternoon sunlight. One set of windows looked out at the entrance to the kennels itself. The reception area, and indeed the entire kennels complex, was much newer than the house itself. What this house used to be I do not know and, if I was once told, I no longer remember.
The only other piece of “furniture” in my room was my new double-tape deck radio (sometimes called a boombox) and my suitcase. Much older brothers and a sister had meant a very eclectic musical upbringing (they were so much older that, by the time I was in primary school, they had all left home already. You could argue that I had grown up as an only child). The strains of Simon and Garfunkel, The Alan Parsons Project and the Bachman Turner Overdrive still bring back memories of my formative years and the blue carpet of the room I shared with one of my brothers but - by high school and by the time that I was traveling to Vereeniging during school holidays - I was starting to discover what music worked for me. It was for that reason that only two bands came with me one three-week holiday, multiple albums on cassette tape from bands I was just starting to explore, bands which would form the foundation for how I viewed and judged music past that point: The Doors and Pink Floyd.
The work at the kennels was not hard. I would be up early in the morning and out into the complex, pushing my trolley with stainless steel shelves along as I placed bowls of dog food, one by one, into the cages. There were perhaps five or six rows of cages and - as I ran out of food - I would head back to the reception building were Aunty Jean would be ready with the next batch for me. Once done, I would don waders and Wellington boots, trailing a hose and broom where I would hose down and sweep out each cage, just behind Aunty Jean as she scooped up and stacked the empty bowls on the trolley.
The morning’s work was usually done by eight o’clock, the sun now starting to make a slight chink in the tremendous cold of early-morning winter in rural Vereeniging. My morning ended with a walk through the chicken coop, spreading chicken feed over the floor to entice them away from their nests, from which I would snag up a few eggs and take them back to the house. By the time I arrived the kitchen was already toasty with the oven firing, the thick windows keeping out some of the cold and the dust motes just as grateful to warm themselves in the glory that was Aunty Jean’s cheerful cooking.
The rest of the day, with the exception of the odd customer dropping off or picking up an animal, was my own. I would repeat the morning’s process in the evening and, once done and the evening’s obligatory TV watched (an old, small, black-and-white set, on which Sunday morning was spent with whichever televangelist was on at the time), I would retire to my room and escape into new musical exploration, lights off and headphones on.
Was there much to do in rural Vereeniging during the hours I had to myself during the day? No, there was not. With the exception of our house and its gardens, the surrounding area was sand and lots. The closest shop to get smokes was close to a kilometre away. I would trudge the sand-swept tarmac and dusty pavements every second or third day. This was the “boy” part of town, truck workshops and old, broken down, rusty hulks behind chain-link fencing, junk-yard dogs patrolling the fencing and gazing at you out of the corner of their lazy eyes. The other side of the road was bleak, nothing but more sand and rolling hills, the haze of the city of Vereeniging seen on the horizon. On a clear day, you could make out of the tops of the buildings.
In the other direction from the house was what could be called the “town centre”, if by town centre you meant one swept road in the middle of this dust bowl, with only five or six shops and a car dealership to its name. The walk there was, again, approximately a kilometre, this time passing by a workshop and dumping ground for large plant equipment: forklifts, cherry pickers, graders and other assorted large machinery. I would do this trip more often than the other, as this little town centre was the only place in the area to get fresh milk. And that milk was bought from a colourful little place called Oosies Vetkoek Den.
Oosies had large vats of milk in the back room. You would take your containers and fill them up, paying at the front counter when done. That counter was similar to a large bar counter, and you would often find dusty workers nursing a cold beer or two, despite the constant, bone-numbing chill. I would, from time to time, join them for a beer and a chat, my only social interaction besides Aunty Jean. These are hard people, forged in the dust of a hard place, moulded by the extremes of the winter cold and the summer heat. They are practical people, quick with a “joke and a light of your smoke” and - if you think underage drinking would concern these people - then you sure haven’t seen ‘em around here.
This is where I would spend my school holidays, over perhaps a two-year period. Some holidays were ten days, some (like the Pink Floyd holiday) was three weeks. With nothing to do but sweep cages and trudge through the dust in either direction, there was a lot of time to spend in your own head. I recommend it.
I don’t know why I never went back, after what was to become my last holiday there. Perhaps it was friends or circumstances, getting out into the world more and not wanting to “waste” my time out in the sand. The narcissism of youth can be ugly.
I don’t know what happened to Aunty Jean. I heard she died, sometime along my path. I should have cared more to visit more and make an effort but I did not.
I really should have. I would change that, if I could.