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COLUMN: The reluctant traveller’s Christmas gift

A journey to South Africa for Christmas and other Yuletide reflections
After journeying to South Africa for Christmas, 1954, Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is seen with her parents before she heads off to boarding school. (Photo submitted: Ursula Maxwell-Lewis)

Christmas comes but once a year, but it’s the patchwork of memories left in its wake I often recall.

Take Cape Town, South Africa, Christmas 1954, for example.

Shaw Savill Line’s QSMV Dominion Monarch sailed into Table Bay, Cape Town, South Africa, on a balmy picture-perfect Christmas Eve day. A tiny ‘tablecloth’ cloud hovered over Table Mountain.

I was 12 years old and probably the only unimpressed passenger onboard the all First Class vessel.

My Christmas present that year was my immigration to South Africa.

At the age of six, I’d been given a cold country (Canada) as a Christmas present. I hadn’t been happy about that either. But, it had worked out well enough to have me now grumping to mother that this new country had no baseball, no skating … and no TV! Couldn’t we at least go back to our family in England, or Scotland (land of my birth)?

Not a chance. The ship’s crew hurled ropes to stevedores on the wharf. The massive anchor thundered into the clear blue water. Tiny figures in shorts and summer dresses waved from the wharf. Father, a marine engineer, waiting to greet us, had a far less classy sail to the Cape from our classy trip via Las Palmas, capital of Gran Canaria (Spanish Canary Islands). He’d worked his way to Africa via Dakar on the coast of Senegal on a fishing trawler. That’s a tale of hardship and survival for another day, but at least he wasn’t on the previous trawler which (unbeknown to him) had sunk two days out of Cape Town with no survivors.

After an overnight with friends in Constantia, Hout Bay (Afrikaans for Wood Bay) on the South West Cape Atlantic coast, 12 kilometres from Cape Town, was our Christmas Day/weekend camping destination.

With Table Mountain, Chapman’s Peak and the Twelve Apostles standing guard around us I should have been impressed. Instead, itchy sand flea bites on my feet and ankles liberally dabbed with Calamine Lotion fuelled my frustration.

The foreign Afrikaans accents of my new playmates were difficult to follow and there was the food. What were guavas? And, who had squeezed one into my very creamy milk?! I discovered that swimming in clear, warm Hout Bay water was the best way to wash off the strange, delicious (I had to capitulate here) fresh mango juice.

Eventually, mother and I climbed aboard South African Railways (no luxury Blue Train, then) heading north through The Karoo enroute to Johannesburg. Watching with interest, mom was aware of my reluctant, but growing curiosity. At dusty, remote De Aar, the train changed engines. I can still hear the haunting pennywhistle music (my introduction to Kwela, a jazzy sort of street music) as Black children sang and danced along the railway track as passengers tossed them coins.

Then it was on to Kimberley, the capital of the Northern Cape, as we rumbled past the Big Hole, home to the famous diamond mines.

Our final destination, after two nights on the train, was Benoni, a gold reef town where boarding school beckoned, endless happy memories were crafted, and eventually my journalism start as a Benoni City Times staff reporter.

As I write this I’m looking at a memento laden silver charm bracelet, a 17th birthday present from Brian Kelsey, my first boyfriend. Charms on it - Kariba, Salisbury (Harare), Durban, London, Montreal, San Francisco, Paris, Scotland, Nairobi, the list goes on - trigger images of other Christmases. The charms were often gifts, but so were the memories, as were the Christmases and friends and family who spring to mind.

Two charms are particularly poignant. Years ago newspapers generally only gave bylines to lead articles, or senior columnists or editors. When my first City Times byline appeared, mother (a writer) presented me with the two charms and some sage advice I’ve never forgotten: “The scissors are to keep your articles short. The oil can is to keep the wheels of industry well oiled.”

This reluctant young South African immigrant is now a mother of three and grandmother of four who, despite that itchy previously described start, is now passionate about the entire African continent. I’ve been privileged, blessed, to have worked and travelled through much of it.

“We Served Africa With Wings”, a Facebook page I’m on frequently reminds me of my chance move from journalism to aviation. Flying for Central African Aiways (Air Zimbabwe, Zambia Airways, Air Malawi) was a chance career change which opened up more travel and writing opportunities during times of major political change in South, Central and East African histories. The timing, again, was perfect.

So, my parents’ African Christmas gift (and that of travel, writing and reading) has simply kept on giving. Writing on this rainy British Columbia day I recall Christmas gifts purchased on trips around the world: irresistible Christmas tree ornaments from an artisan in Borneo, an painted egg from Prague, a Nova Scotia lobster, a tiny Eiffel Tower, Buckingham Palace, the Aussie kangaroo, a New Zealand Silver Fern, a L’Chaim! (To Life!) necklace charm from Israel, pearl earrings from a Malaysian market, the list goes on. We’ve all done it. Easily packed, inexpensive holiday mementoes to give (or cherish) throughout the year.

I’ve bought ‘wearable’ mementoes, too. The beloved Cape caftan bought a few years ago is almost threadbare. My excuse to return for another one. The silk wraparound Malaysian skirt/pants got an airing at a holiday event recently. The 100 per cent cotton Moroccan caftan a Tangier guide talked me into buying in a souk decades ago has never been worn, but I chuckle when I see it languishing in my closet.

Deadline looms, so let me bring us back to Africa. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is on a glittering British State Visit which is expected to garner 5.4 billion pounds in British industry-backed infrastructure projects. It is to be hoped that he will channel some of that into energy to literally get the lights back on on a reliable, regular basis for South African households. That would be a welcome Christmas present in my former homeland. But, don’t get me started on African (in general) politics!

You’ll have gathered that the reluctant South African immigrant fell in love with her long ago Christmas travel gift of a new home. It’s a land, a continent, I’m passionate about - and for which I weep. Most of it, particularly South Africa, should be among the wealthiest, most prosperous nations in the world. So, I wish it - and you - Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza blessings, practical and impractical, which include tiny souvenirs generating endless priceless joyful year-round memories at home and abroad.

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is the former owner/ managing editor of the Cloverdale Reporter. Contact her at

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