Diamond Hill aka Donkerhoek

Boer General Louis Botha probably wrote in his diary…11th of June 1900…it’s a week after the fall of Pretoria…bitterly cold Monday morning…we are hidden in the hills at Donkerhoek…ready for battle…

Britain’s Lord Roberts  probably wrote in his diary…11th of June 1900… it’s a week after we advanced into Pretoria…bitterly cold Monday  morning…we are approaching the plateau of Diamond Hill…ready for battle…

Me, writing in my diary…11th of June 2011… 30 kilometers from my house…bitterly cold morning…sitting in the Diamond Hill/Donkerhoek garden of Remembrance…the brutality of war…

Two different names, same battle.

Over the 2 days, heavy fighting occupied both commanding officer’s minds, at the largest military engagement in the history of Pretoria, this during the Anglo-Boer War.

This was the last attempt by the Boers to defeat the British by conventional means. On the Tuesday night, Louis Botha decided to end the battle, to evacuate his 7 thousand men and retreat undefeated, thus robbing Roberts and his 14 thousand men of any claim to a victory.

The few Boer casualties might have been buried at the site or on nearby farms, all I am left with are some of the 128 British dead, as well as the remains from other nearby battlefields, brought here in 1961/2.

The loss of life saddens me…alone on a desolate hill, I pause at the grave of the Earl of Airlie. Lieutenant Colonel 12th Royal Lancers. “ Who was, as he had always desired, killed in action at the head of his regiment. “ 11 June 1900. He was 44 years old.

As I am driving home, I am reminded of the profound words of General William Sherman :  “I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine… War is hell. “

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Welcome to Zwartkoppies

The owner of this estate can best  be described as a total workaholic, business visionary, incurable optimist, master lobbyist, shrewd operator and survivor extraodinaire. Are you thinking Donald Trump ? Or Warren Buffet? Or Sir Alan Sugar?

No. His name was Sammy Marks. And long before those business buzz words of the 20th centuary, he had built a thriving business empire in the fledgling towns and cities, well before it was called South Africa. Sammy Marks was born in 1843 in Neustadt-Sugind, Lithuania and came to South Africa in 1869 via Sheffield, England.

From Cape Town he was drawn to the diamond fields of Kimberley, where he and his cousin Isaac Lewis started a business partnership, that would endure many ups and downs over more than 4 decades.

Moving to Pretoria in 1881, this is where he built his dream house, Zwartkoppies. I am standing in the rose garden, knowing that this is a  view, that Sammy also enjoyed.

Come join me on my journey into this Victorian time capsule and what I was allowed to photograph.

The spacious house takes my breath away. In the downstairs main bedroom I marvel at the fortitude of his wife Bertha, whom he married in 1883, to forge a country life, far away from her roots in Sheffield.

In some of the bedrooms, I loved the fabulous mural painting that has been restored to its former glory, to be enjoyed by all.

The cavernous, mable floored kitchen hints at the scale of entertaining that must have been done at Zwartkoppies.  The 5 doored oven would have impressed even Nigella Lawson !!

Various glass bottles on a table catch my eye. Products of his own glass factory, known as Eerste Fabrieken (officially opened by President Paul Kruger) , again a testament to his diverse business portfolio.

Up the staircase, and it is impossible not to be reminded of the various business interests he had to deal with. I think it is quite fitting that a portrait of Alois Hugo Nellmapius hangs at the top of the stairs, seeing that the 2 of them had to constantly deal with the consession driven government of the day.

In what some critics see as sitting on the fence,  Lord Roberts peers down from one wall, whilst General De La Rey from another.  I say lobbyist par excellance !!

And then the supreme status symbol of many a Victorian mansion, the billiards room. In which I can imagine lots of deals having been done.

Even though Sammy Marks had an office on Church Square, the study is crammed with books and I can well imagine him burning the midnight oil to get as much work done as possible.

The passage leading to the balcony is lined with travel trunks, both for the boys on their way to school in England as well as the master of the house.

In a downstairs cupboard, I catch a glimpse of long forgotten labels, hinting at the heyday of croquet and skittles.

After the tour of the house, I am reluctant to leave.

I take a look at the wine cellar, and wander past the remnants of the fruit orchards that were his pride and joy.

At the stables I am reminded that his daily office commute was about 20 kilometers, a rough horse drawn journey that sometimes took all of 2 hours.

My own journey ends in the Rebecca street cemetery, Sammy and Bertha Marks’ final resting place. Two people I would have loved to have known.

Need to know more:  www.nfi.museum  & 012 755 9541 to check the tour times

My thanx to all at the Museum for their gracious sharing of information. I loved tracing the footsteps of my hero, Sammy Marks.

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Baldinelli Fever

I am walking through the Van Erkom Arcade, taking a short cut from Schoeman Street via Pretorius Street, on my way to Church Square. The mosaic on the Eastern wall, halts me in my tracks. The sheer size of it takes my breath away. Could be 30 m x 2m, I am thinking.  Abstract animals conspire and mesmerize, forcing me to postpone my intended appointment.

I instantly fall in love with the handiwork of Armando Baldinelli. He was born on the 13th of September 1908 in Ancona, Italy. Maybe the death of his wife Gianna in the early 1950’s as well as a turbulent post war Italy, led to his decision to visit South Africa in 1953. He decided to stay and I am happy he did.

My eyes feast on the colour as well as the texture of the work he called “Mosaic Mural”…done in 1971 and enjoyed by me in 2011, I think he would have loved that.

Suddenly I need to find more of the magnificent artwork of Armando Baldinelli that adorn my beloved city.  Next stop: the State Theatre. Going up the stairs to the Baldinelli foyer, I had no idea what to expect. To say that the 97m₂ overwhelms me, is putting it mildly. He named it “The Wings and The Waves of Music “ and it soars and crashes into my senses.

Finished 31 years ago, I am awestruck and I think he would have loved that.

And the dedicatition brings it all back to a more human scale.

My homage to Armando Baldinelli ends at the Seminary of St John Vianney in Waterkloof. In 1960 he was commissioned to do “The Stations of the Cross” for their chapel and as I open the heavy wooden door, I stand transfixed. The 14 small panels, are achingly beautiful. Such simple lines to illustrate the suffering of Christ.

In the side altars, 8 Saints keep a watchful eye, my favourite being St Patrick.

The Madonna and the Angels were added in 1967 by the mosaic master.

All is quiet and I am sitting in the back pew, enriched and dazzled and I know he would have loved that !!

Grazie Armando, RIP.

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The Big House

As I enter the house in Doornkloof, it is hard to imagine that a pre-eminent Statesman had lived here. All of 40 odd years. Nothing fancy. A house made of wood and steel, strikingly unpretentious. And must have been pretty hot in Summer and pretty cold in Winter.

Only the big black Cadilac and the famous faces in faded photos on the walls, hint at the occupants.

The Smuts family lived in the Big House, as they affectionately called it,  from 1909 until Ouma Isie died here in 1954.

My visit did not focus on the famous guests, like the British Royal family or the exiled Greek Crown Prince Paul and his wife Princess Federica. I did marvel however at the library, restored to its original appearance, and the 4 000 books placed on the shelves in their original order.

Decades before the advent of our instant means of communication,  the telephone in the bathroom, allowed  General  J.C. Smuts to be in touch with affairs of State,  whilst brushing his teeth. More by default than design actually, as building alterations left it like that.

Hidden in a gloomy corner of the lounge, hangs a framed hand written note from Queen Mary dated 25 February 1952. In it she thanks the wife of Jan Smuts, Ouma Isie ,  as she was affectionately known, for her kind thoughts at having suffered  …”a great loss and losing such a devoted son.”  This after the death of King George VI,   on February the 6th 1952.

In one of the back rooms amongst Boer War and rebellion memorabilia, a small horse shoe pin catches my eye. It attests to the lifelong friendship between General Smuts and Emily Hobhouse , who gave him the pin.

In the same room, I stand transfixed,staring at the  2 red ribbons mounted next to a copy of the Red Oath,  as they bear witness to very turbulent times in South African history.  The “Rooi Lussies” were worn by servicemen on their uniforms during the Second World War.

And Ouma Isie leaves the last impression, as hers is the room, from which I leave the house…a small radio hanging from the wall next to her pillow, and a ginger cat vigilant on her bed.

I leave in pensive mood…the somewhat dim lighting in the Smuts House Museum contributing to my melancholy,… glimpses of a bygone era…

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Hidden Gem

In the Post Office building on historic Church Square in Pretoria, resides a very mysterious frieze. Rather unobtrusively placed in the portico of the building’s Eastern entrance, the golden couple has been the subject of much speculation. As they are anything but unobtrusive !!

The creator of the naked couple is renowned sculptor Anton Van Wouw and it is called “Morning and Night”.

A subtle clue is the man’s face, that resembles  of one of the figures at the foot of Anton Van Wouw’s statue of Paul Kruger in the centre of Church Square,

But who is the mysterious woman, forever cast in gold ?

The General Post Office was designed by Willaim Hawke, who was one of Sir Herbert Baker’s promising students.

The cornerstone was laid in 1910, and the building is still used as a Post Office today.

So, be sure to check it out the next time you are in Pretoria !!

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2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,700 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 28 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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The Wall of Love, 30 June 2013

In a quiet residential street in Sunnyside, Pretoria, cameramen and video editors are reading the morning papers, waiting…


I, on the other hand, have come here, to appreciate my fellow South Africans love for a man born in 1918, while the Great War was still being waged.


Struggle icon, lawyer, father, husband, grand dad, Nobel laureate, President, my hero Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, gravely ill in the Pretoria Heart hospital and constantly in our thoughts.

On the surrounding wall, I look at the outpouring of love and support for Madiba.


From professionally made banners, to hand written post it notes from school kids.


And the question on everybody’s mind, is this where the long walk to freedom will end ?


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