John Conyngham (1954 - ) was born in Durban, and grew up on a sugar farm on the North Coast of KwaZulu-Natal. He was educated in South Africa, England and Ireland. Ater his national service, he taught briefly before joining The Natal Witness where he was editor before his retirement. For his novel The Arrowing of the Cane, John Conyngham won the 1988 Olive Schreiner award for prose, the Sanlam Award and was a joint winner of the AA Mutual/AD Donker Vita Award.
from The Arrowing of the Cane (1986)
The road from Nonoti into the hills rises slowly out of the mugginess of the town, switchbacking its way past deep old houses seething with wispish Indian children, mango trees with their glossy leaves, car and bus carcasses, and fluttering flags on tall bamboo poles. Slowly, reluctantly, the sprawling suburb succumbs to the ubiquitous cane. Labouring under its load, the Land Rover edges into the sighing greenness, rising and falling with its ebb and flow.
Clusters of palms indicate farmhouses hugged to their outbuildings by high hedges. Signs on the verge announce the company's sections - Carrickfergus, Quantock, Umsundu and Kerry Dale - each with its own manager, overseers, sirdars, indunas and army of labourers. Next the polo club, its team once provincial champions, holders of the Waterford Cup, but now fighting relegation to the third division. Then the company hospital with its two white doctors and shuttered wards, and the little St John's Church with its cemetery. Planter families lie neatly in rows while the Indians' crosses wander from the bottom fence into a grove of gums.
Gradually the air becomes more rarified. Coolness jets through the vents. Far below to the left the Umvoti River coils through another finger of KwaZulu which was a hotspot during the Bambata Rebellion. Now overpopulated, overgrazed and rutted, the valley looks idyllic to strangers crossing this neck miles above it. There is a lay-by from which tourists can take photographs of the picturesque hutted kraals. As with anything gross, distance placates the onlooker.
After another steep ascent I reach Manning's Post, the local trading store and bus terminus where each morning one of the gardeners collects the newspaper, and returns in the afternoon for the post. The familiar sign - Rangoon Estate - is on the right, swaying gently from twin chains above the T-junction. Beyond it spreads a neighbour's plantation of bananas, the ripening bunches swathed in hessian.
The wide district road with its harsh all-weather surface bisects the farm and descends to the mill in the valley. Around it capillaries a network of private roads and cane-breaks. Continuing past the mouth of the avenue, I weave along a series of overgrown tracks to the cutting where I consult with the induna. Several men are absent; otherwise all seems to be well. A tractor and loaded trailer move slowly across the row corrugations and I dart ahead of them, doubling back to the avenue.
As I enter the vaulted shadow, a puff adder is crossing the pink gravel, writhing its chain pattern across the open ground. Hideously distended like a length of diseased bowel, it hurries as the Land Rover approaches, entering the path of the right front wheel. To continue would mean popping it, but I decide against it, bearing fractionally to the left as it disappears into the undergrowth bordering the Indians' houses. Why the sudden magnanimity? I ask myself, but the answer isn't forthcoming.
1986. The Arrowing of the Cane. Craighall : Ad Donker.
1990. The Desecration of the Graves. Parklands: Ad. Donker.
1998. The Lostness of Alice. Johannesburg: Ad Donker.
2016. Hazara: Elegy for an African Farm. Pietermaritzburg: The Natal Society Foundation.