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A Haunting Piece of South African Heritage

By Brad Zembic

Jane Eliza Hasted © Brad Zembic

Jane Eliza Hasted © Brad Zembic

South of Miller's Point, above the 28th milestone that measures distance from Cape Town, Mr. P.E. Hugo was deeded a parcel of the Cape wilderness. He planted a grove of blue gums trees that was presumably used to tether and shelter horses during hunts. That was in the early 1800s. Nearly two centuries later, Hugo's gums, as well as some planted by the land's next owner, Rev. Leonard Green – a navy chaplain known by many simply as the Padre – still adorn the narrow kloof that slices through the property.

It was, perhaps, those very trees that first drew me up the earthen and forested steps of “Blue Gums” nearly thirty years ago when, as a young adult, I left my native Canada on a bicycle to explore the world. “Blue Gums chooses its own, ” writer and radio broadcaster Jane-Eliza Hasted told me, referring to why I had been so attracted to her lonely cottage, whose turret window jutted over the road like a bowsprit. I stayed at Blue Gums almost four months that first visit, chopping wood for hearth and braai, tarring roofs and ripping out the alien vegetation that, since the fire of 1961, came to dominate the veld. Blue Gums was a welcome respite from months of travel, and I felt as close as anywhere to Heaven on earth.

During my stay, Jane told me stories of the mountainside and of the Padre who, a full century after Hugo had been granted title, shared his piece of Paradise with the seafaring men in his care. She also introduced me to many of the area's residents, some of whom seemed, as did Jane, old enough from a twenty-year old's perspective, to have known Hugo personally. Cyril and Beryl owned property at Castle Rocks next to hot-headed John Cossentine and his charming wife Dorothy; artist John the Bomb lived down the road at “Little Cott,” earning money by carving abalone shells into magnificent butterflies; and wild André made his home anywhere he could, sometimes camping on the slopes of the Swartkopberg, other times along False Bay's boulder-ridden shore.

In development terms, the region near Miller's Point was still in its infancy, though the number of weekend cottages that speckled the landscape was increasing. Some of the more permanent inhabitants forged their lives like pioneers. The Cossentines raised bees for honey and produced their own electricity by using the wind. Jane, who preferred the gentle glow of a paraffin lamp to a light bulb, obtained her water from a stream that marked the beginning of her property. When Jane's close friend Brian Moolman moved into the cabin behind the main house sometime in the late 1980s, he brought with him some of the outside world's electronic conveniences – a computer, a television and a sound system – all powered by generator. Jane refused affiliation with any of them, and was thankful when the groaning of the gum trees in the wind and the roaring croaks of night time frogs concealed the noisy evidence of their use.

Blue Gums was a magical place that Jane felt must be shared with anyone who was drawn to ascend its twisting pathway – past the palms and canopy of bamboo, and through the garden with its geraniums and Damascus rose to the green sliding door that was nearly always left unlocked. Sometimes it seemed as if Blue Gums had created a social life of its own, of which its owner was just a part. It was not uncommon for Jane to find strangers strolling about her property affected, as I had been, by some inexplicable urge to investigate the enchanting place they'd seen from the road. One night, soon after she'd purchased the title, Jane awoke to discover her living room carpeted with snoring navy men who, having sailed into Simon's Town after weeks at sea, had made for their favourite haven.

Jane Eliza Loves Her New Home © Brad Zembic

Jane Eliza Loves Her New Home © Brad Zembic

Some say that Blue Gums is haunted, that the music and the snuffling of the horses of those first visitors of Hugo's days can, at times, be heard mingled with the thunder of the sea below. In her short essay simply called “Blue Gums, ” Jane wrote of once encountering in her garden a company of “unseen men…deedily busy at their party,”and wondered whether her guests were some of the sailors who had frequented Blue Gums during wartime and had “found a bleak grave”somewhere at the bottom of the ocean. My first evening with Jane, I heard fiddle playing in the trees and naively asked ifthe neighbours were musicians.

If the main house, which was designed to resemble a West African slave fort, appeared enchanting to anyone who happened to glance upward on their way to Cape Point, its interior was nothing less than captivating. Jane's hodgepodge of furniture – mostly antique – and the art and brick-a-brack she'd collected from her years in India, Britain and her adopted home of South Africa kept anyone's eyes wide and wandering with curiosity. A faded beveled mirror hung above wooden bookcases laden with regiments of out-of-print books – including novels written by Jane, herself; a 19th century portrait of her favourite aunt, Daisy, watched from above the well-cushioned and tattered sofa; and a wood stove – for years Jane's only source of heat – sat in an alcove in a far corner of the living room. At one time, an old Swiss cuckoo clock, mentioned often on Jane's “Women's World” radio program, filled the house with its rhythmic toc-toc. Time, though, is the grand consumer, and for months the clock clung silently to the wall above the liquor cabinet until it disappeared from the house forever, presumably unmendable.

Old Blue Gums Cottage © Brad Zembic

Old Blue Gums Cottage © Brad Zembic

After enjoying Blue Gums for almost fifty years, Jane has now joined Hugo, the Padre and a short parade of others, in a place that is likely even closer to Paradise. Some of the mountainside's older inhabitants still endure, though, rooted like fynbos to the Cape Peninsula's eastern slopes. But they are few, and the area is slowly being developed by city folk searching for solace from urban madness. Even Blue Gums, it seems, has seen change. The new owners, Joel and Roz Bolnick, have installed solar electricity and converted Brian's small cabin into a stone and reed country cottage for the comfort of Blue Gummers, present and past.

It's reassuring to realize that whatever the changes, the spirit of Blue Gums remains. The house still teems with visitors who enjoy – as people have done for almost two centuries – its cathedral-like serenity and the sweeping view of False Bay and the distant, jagged peaks of the Kogelberg and Hottentots Holland. A few, no doubt, were urged to climb Blue Gums's shaded path by some whispered voice in the trees, as I had been.

Perhaps now it will be the Bolnicks who will be stirred in the night by unexplained noises: Jane fixing herself an early morning cup of tea, the snuffling of Hugo's horses, or the rumbling snores of lost sailors resting peacefully in friendly quarters. Shortly after my own passing, I hope that I will be among the unseen men and women who wander the lavender-scented garden, braai plates in hand – a Canadian addition to the gathering of ghosts partying merrily on Blue Gums soil.

Brad Zembic is a Vancouver-based writer of travel stories, book and film reviews, and fiction. His work has been published in the Edmonton Journal, the Vancouver Sun, the Cape Argus and the Cape Times.

All images © Brad Zembic