In 1939 as the Peach trees on Doornplaat farm flushed pink with blossoms , my father Chris Van Wyk, was born into a world in chaos , at the beginning of the 2nd World War. This is not an easy time in Ouma Joey’s life having recently lost her youngest son Gabriel , she now had to face the reality that her her oldest son Dawid would soon be swept up in a conflict which would prove to be the deadliest in human history, where 85 million people would loose their lives.
The Van Wyk family lived in a newly renovated farmhouse sheltered by a green tin roof and white washed walls, the oregan pine floor boards creaked as you walked down the central passage through the house . From the shady front veranda , the house looked north across across rolling grasslands, where Oupa Neels prized Afrikaaner Cattle , Thoroughbred and Boerperd Horses grazed . Water for the farm came from a nearby spruit which meandered through silver barked gum trees down to a small dam , at the waters edge leafy Willow trees seemed to bow their outstretched branches , with soft strings of green leaves, like fingers touching the water below. For Dad this was a refuge where he spent many happy hours fishing , above him a colony of bickering Weavers birds industriously built nests under the piercing gaze of their demanding mates.
The day started with the crow of the rooster at sunrise , the Dairy cows had to be milked and fed and buckets of fresh farm milk were delivered to Oumas kitchen door each day. Minaar and Kowie and later little Joan would process the milk through a separator collecting thick farm cream to be served with thick mealie pap porridge at breakfast, followed by a cook up of eggs with boerwors or fresh liver and onions each day. Nothing went to waste ,including the rendered fat that was poured into a stock pot to be used to cook for the next meal. Each day Fresh Bread was baked in the Aga oven that required an endless supply of firewood which kept my dad busy most of his childhood! The Van Wyk boys Corneels, Dawid, Andries with Dad helping them, all took it in turns to feed the horses , chickens, and pigs. Each season areas of land were ploughed with a team of fourteen of oxen, led by Andries who coaxed them with whistles and gentle commands of hot…. hot… ( left) and har…….. (right) as they shuttled backwards and forwards carving deep furrows in the fertile soil .
The sea of sorghum they grew each year attracted giant shoal’s of Quelea birds that surged and rolled in dark pulsing waves across the pastel highveld sky. Ouma had an extensive vegetable garden and orchard , which kept her busy pickling and bottling preserves throughout the year, once a week the whole family pitched in and helped process a sheep that had been slaughtered to feed the family. Dad loved Sunday….. finally a day of rest where he got to spend quality time with his older brother Corneels who worked as a smelter on the near by Goldmine – deemed an essential work he did not fight in the war. Or he got his turn to go to NG Kerk with his parents in their shiny Green Chevrolet Coupe, followed by as late Sunday lunch of Pot Roasted Duck or a roast Chicken usually shared with visiting cousins and family. It was a good life they enjoyed considering the hardship that the rest of the world was experiencing at that time.
Oupa and Ouma had taken a young orphan Jan Stein under their wing after he lost both his parents in a car accident, he lived alone in a small cottage on Boedeel farm. At the age of 17 both Dawid and Jan received their call up papers and went off to fight in North Africa. On furlough Jan brought Dad an army uniform that he had made for him by a tailor in Tobruk together with a chocolate which something Dad had never tasted before. Sadly on his return he was killed in action and was never to return to South Africa. The Family gathered around the radio at night for the latest news and the conversation was all about the war and whether it would come to South Africa. No one thought to explain to a little four year old boy Chris what this thing called “war” was, so he lived with nightmares of some sort of terrifying creature that would arrive in South Africa like smoke and descend on them at the farm at any moment and destroy his young life.
Three Italian Prisoners of War who had been captured in Libya fighting for Axis powers arrived from Zondrwater Camp to live with the Van Wyk family at Doornplaat and in true hospitable Afrikaans fashion they were made to feel like part of the family . Loud, emotional and always happy , they loved to sing at the top of their voices and to my father they did not seem to be the slightest bit frightened of this big thing called War. Although they worked hard on the farm , they seemed to have all the time in the world to share with a little four year old boy and in their broken Afrikaans they managed to explain what the war was and why they were there. Mario, a mechanic , maintained and drove the Ellis Charmers tractor with steel spike wheels , which was used for bigger tasks at their nearby farm Boedeel. He would remove the spikes and trundle down a dusty farm road across the Vaal River into the nearby Orange Free State, helping Oupa with the cultivation of teff as stock-feed as well as maize and oats to feed the cattle and horses and sorghum for chicken feed. Luiji would load Dad up in a wheel barrow and off they would go to go and feed the chickens, ducks and turkeys every day. Salvidor was a farmer back home and helped with the vegetable gardens and was also a cook – serving up delicious meals each day for the trio of men.At the end of the 2nd World War , Dawid who had fought as a gunner returned home with an injury to his leg from a bomb splinter, the Italians left Doornplaat as firm friends presenting the family with handmade pewter serviette rings as a parting gift with POW intricately carved into the design.
Dad was given his first horse Polly the year before he started school , a gentle 13 hand Basuto Mare – who he named after the Afrikaans song “Polly ons Paarl too..” After his chores were finished he would run out into the horse paddock calling her name, she would answer with a whinney and trot up him, checking his pockets for a juicy carrots , allowing him to put his belt around her neck, he would climb onto her back using a near by anthill and canter back to the stable to saddle her up. From the age of six he would catch school bus to Renosterspruit school close to Dominion Reef Gold mine, half way between Klerksdorp and Wolmarandstadt. Week ends were spent with his older cousins Jan and Piet Van Niekerk, who it seemed, were always up to some sort of mischief. On one occasion they decided it would be a good idea to climb up a young gum tree next to the spruit together so it would bend over near to the ground and they they could then all hop off at the same time- what could possibly go wrong??? Jan went first, then Piet and lastly Dad but once the tree was bent like a bow the two older boys hopped off, and the branch rebounded catapulting Dad clear across the Spruit where he landed on his head in a pile of dust . Unbeknownst to them Old man Van Niekerk was watching the whole thing through a pair of binoculars from his stoep, so when they arrived back at the farmhouse having cooked up a story about how Dad had tripped and fallen, they were in serious hot water. Old man Van Niekerk listened to their tale of woe, puffing on his pipe with a twinkle in his eye before sending each of them to go and pick a stick that would be use for a hiding they would never forget and he was careful to point out that this punishment was not because of what had happened, but for lying about it!
Once the Van Wyk family moved North to the Kalahari, Chris and Joan were given a cart to get to the nearby school on Moffat Farm. The cart was drawn by the two stubborn mules named Jacob and Essau who had by now settled down to life in the Kalahari. At School Dad tethered the mules in the shade of a camel thorn tree and at break time he would feed and water them. After school, the Mules were well rested, full of energy from their midday snack and eager to get home. Since there was no break on the cart the Mules would take off at a gallop down the hill, with Dad standing on the seat like Ben Hur and Joan clinging onto the bounding cart for dear life usually arriving home in record time for lunch at Chelmsford Farm! Oupa Neels was a staunch supporter of Jan Smuts who championed the idea of integration between English and Afrikaner citizens who were still deeply divided as a result of the Boer War. Smuts encouraged Afrikaner supporters to send their children to English medium schools and vice versa . It was decided that Dad would be sent away to boarding school at Kimberly Boys High School , where he quickly learned to speak and write in English , He rose above all the challenges he faced and went on to become a valued member of the first team rugby and Deputy Head Boy in his Matric year.