Of Cream Teas and Thunderstorms

                                                           Cream tea


It recently came to pass that I found myself sitting in front of this delicious scone, enjoying my cream tea, and wishing I could stay here for a lot more than the single hour I had to spare.  It  might surprise you to know that I had been seated here before – half a century ago in fact – in this very room, watching the grown-ups enjoy scones that looked exactly the same as this. It is interesting how many times I would re-visit over the years following my original experience of this particular place, but I shall leave those stories for another day.  Today I will start right here, in the present, with my most recent visit to Durban’s Mitchell Park.

Google it and you shall find the following:  Established as an ostrich farm in 1910, Mitchell Park began introducing other animals into the fold, the most famed of these being an Indian Elephant named Nellie.  Nellie was given to this little zoo by the Maharajah of Mysore in 1928.  Rumour has it that she could produce notes from a mouth organ, and crush coconuts with her feet.  As well as housing a variety of exotic birds, this small zoo also hosted monkeys, small black raccoons, crocodiles, antelope and wonderful Aldabra Giant tortoises, the latter of which I remember very well.

As a small girl, I was brought to Mitchell Park as a treat to wander along the paths around the walk-through aviery, to admire the extraordinary birds one would see there, to gasp at the crocodiles basking on their rocks, and to wander through the little zoo itself in search of giant tortoises.  Peacocks were commonplace here, but it was always nice when they spread their magnificent feathers to impress.  The ostriches looked a little bored and tired to me, but their feathers were great fun, bouncing and flouncing as they moved.

However, it was the eldest giant tortoise there that I most loved to visit.  One of the oldest residents in this park, this remarkable giant tortoise had been brought to Mitchell Park Zoo in 1915.  For me, there appeared to be something truly magical about this creature.  On top of which I was sure I detected kindness in those eyes, not to mention wisdom, and a certain very stately majesty in the way in which this tortoise moved.

“You wont live as long as this tortoise has already been alive.”  Peering through the fence beside me, my dad was keen to tell me the facts.  This caused much pause for thought for this little girl as she gazed at Admiral calmly chewing on a lettuce leaf in what appeared to be slow motion.  Yes, indeed, a prize such as this for the colonials must certainly be given a colonial name.  Admiral, he was.  I wont live as long as this tortoise, I thought.  What does he have that I don’t have, I wondered.  What has he seen?  What does he know that I wont live long enough to know…

This park, with it’s history dating back to the 1900’s, nestles in the suburb of Morningside in Durban, South Africa.  This is not a very big park.  It hosts a playground for children as well as being a little zoo.  Mitchell Park also has a very pretty little watering hole, affectionately named the Tea Garden Restaurant.  This restaurant is where I first sat, and sat most recently, enjoying a very delicious cream tea.  In this restaurant there is a rickety, old, brown, upright piano.  Totally out of tune I noticed, as I sat down in a vain attempt to produce a light nocturne on the heavy, solid, sticky, old, yellowed keys.  It is all part of the charm of the place. 

On the walls are framed, faded photographs of days gone by, including pictures of Nellie the elephant, and the Maharajah.  In browns, greys and white, figures in hats and long dresses are depicted floating around this park, or stopping to admire a bird, or an animal of some kind.   Various men in uniform, wearing pith helmets and often pictured smoking a cigar or a pipe, stand in groups seemingly paying attention to none other than themselves. Here remain some of the strongest reminders of the British Empire one will find left in Durban.

To be honest, I am quite surprised that evidence of this particular colonisation has survived in Durban, South Africa.  Not just in the photos on the wall, but in the clientele who frequent this place.  Here we  may find the Ladies who Lunch.  Not in London-Style, not in New York-Style, in no way European-Style, but very distinctively in Colonial-Durbanite-style, these ladies nibble on small sandwiches and sip their tea, chatting away to each other about…about the other Ladies who Lunch. 

It’s very amusing actually – because these ladies do really seem to believe that nothing has changed in Durban at all.  Most especially, that if it has, they are entirely impervious to those changes themselves.  Neatly dressed in prim, print dresses, or neat slacks and very well ironed shirts accesorised with scarves or brooches or both, these well powdered ladies are often extremely slender, fairly mature in years and adorned with coiffered hair, perfectly rinsed in blue.  They are truly there – you can see them for yourself, should you ever visit Mitchell Park and stop at the Tea Garden Restaurant for those delicious scones.  I recommend you do.

What really fascinated me when I was a little girl was a pretty fountain which changed colour at night.  Starting off as clear, the water changed from pink to purple to green and blue, and back to clear again.  I didn’t approve of the colours – being more of a “pastel” girl myself, these colours were far too bright.  However, there was something very comforting about the famliarity of that fountain.  It is still there, although I am not sure it still changes colour.

We visited Mitchell Park on one of our last days in Durban on a recent trip back to the city in which I was born.  While it was not a highlight of our holiday, I have to say I felt a deep fondness for this place, a nostalgia for all I remember so well of it as a child, and I am very pleased I bothered to take us there. 

I have far more adult memories of Mitchell Park too – but, as I said, I shall save those stories for another day.

After two glorious weeks, our final destination before leaving South Africa to return to London, was to stop for a night in the mountains.  Majestically shaped in parts in the form of a dragons back, the beautiful Drakensberg mountain range separates the province of Natal from what was formerly known as the province of Transvaal, now known as Gauteng. 

Here, having arrived, rested and then retired to the pool area, we lay in the sunshine absorbing the peace, the calm and the heavenly stillness these beautiful mountains offer. 

In the distance directly ahead us stood a tall, noble mountain sculpted in the shape of a Bell.  For all the changes life has brought, for all the oceans I have crossed, the skies I have flown across, and, not least of all, for the whole other country I have lived in for most of my adult life, the Bell Tower remains exactly where she was when first I laid eyes on her.  So it seems true: everything changes, and everything stays just exactly the same.  How small we are, I pondered.  Most especially, how utterly insignificant am I, here, in the context of this incredible display of beauty and majesty, that is our earth. 

Whilst rays from the afternoon sun were strong enough to absorb, as someone who grew up in the province of Natal, I am well accustomed to changes in the weather, and I could tell it was about to storm.  

Somewhere far, far away in the distance the dragon grumbled.  Echoing across the sky this vast, booming, voluminous sound bounced across the mountains and exploded upon itself at a distance. Lightening flashed and, sitting up on our sunbeds now, we counted…one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, CRASH!!  The thunder, at first so faint across the mountains rebounded across the distance to explode just a little bit closer.  More lightening struck, and I suggested we move inside as the rain would definately follow!  It is also in my blood to observe the advice of adults to move far away from trees in a storm.

Sheltered by the walled patio of our lovely room, we sat outside for a while breathing in the ozone and quietly sipping our tea as we counted the storm in.  By the time we had showered and entered the dining room of our hotel for dinner, we could reach only two as we counted between lightening bolts.  The storm was above us, and I requested a window table in order to observe the lightening as it flashed across those mountains, so bright against the night sky. 

The following morning everything was fresh.  Newly washed by the rain, the leaves, the grass and the flowers sparkled in the sunshine.  As I gazed at the shrubs ahead of me I became aware that something was gazing back at me.  There, directly opposite me stood the prettiest buck, her ears standing up tall and tipped ever so slightly forward, her huge doe-eyes observing me as she stood as still as anything can stand.

Sadly, I lost someone very close to me recently.  I choose to believe she sent this elegant little deer to wish me well, and bid me the fondest farewell.

Relflecting on the wonderful two weeks I had so profoundly enjoyed in my home country, I gazed up at the mountains and resolved that it would not be too long before I tasted such delicious cream tea, or listened to thunder rolling across those mountains again.