Braving flash floods in the suburbs

2010-07-12 00:00

MANY of the highways and byways of Pietermaritzburg have become overgrown in recent years. Here in the Republic of Scottsville, the weeds in the gutters have grown to about the size of mealies, so I have taken matters into my own hands. Every two or three months, I go out and sit in the gutter and gradually work my way down, weeding as I go. This does not surprise the family as they predicted I would land up there anyway. It is, in fact, a very social activity as pedestrians stop for a chat and my neighbour, who has only been in her house since 1951, took pity on me and lent me a Dutch hoe with a long wooden handle. So I can now attack in the upright position. She also informed me (she is a retired botanist) that the weeds pretending to be mealies are called erigeron and galinsoga, which sound more like the names of the leading roles in The Lord of the Rings.

I think we can call our gutters a microclimate compared to the steppes of Russia, but the accumulation of silt, along with plastic bags, soft-drink cans and the remains of unwanted food, gives an elegant collage to the neighbourhood. The more exotic bottles on the wine list (Chateau Carling and Savanna Dry) are usually left in the hedge. We have also, on two occasions, found discarded underwear in our hedge. This, my dear Watson, raises the spectre of wild alfresco activities that are taking place in the roads of our leafy suburb, presumably in off-peak traffic periods.

The bottom of the gutter itself consists of three lines of Maritzburg redbrick, which is impervious to water. This means that the side next to the road gets washed away and there are patches where weeds can grow between the tar and the gutter. I know this because I have been gazing at it for some time.

My favourite time for sitting in the gutter is in the warm mid-afternoon. I then tend to lose myself in reveries of days gone by. My main worry is of a flash flood, whereby I will be washed downstream and get stuck in the driveway culvert, so I do keep an ear out for the rumble of thunder.

In the old days, our road had a different sociological system. Domestic workers would sit out on the grass banks in the afternoon, have a natter and catch up on some knitting, and there would be a gardener in every garden clipping away and keeping an eye on the knitting. The pastoral atmosphere would only be disturbed when the municipality swept in and cleaned the gutters and cut the verges and banks.

• Chris Ellis is a family physician in Pietermaritzburg.

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