Finding a cool oasis in the sweltering city

2008-03-24 00:00

It’s been more than 30 years since I lived in Pietermaritzburg, but one thing hasn’t changed — the heat. Like a mad dog, not to say an Englishman, I’d foolishly decided to take a sentimental walk through the CBD one morning recently.

By noon I was on the verge of heatstroke and sought refuge in the Tatham Art Gallery. The art on display was a treat for the eye (look out for the exhibition of four Edendale artists held in conjunction with the Greater Edendale Development Initiative) and the air-conditioning a treat for the body temperature. But extended art appreciation was not top of my list at that point and I was delighted to find a little oasis on the second floor in the form of a cool and friendly restaurant. Even better was its breeze-filled veranda overlooking the city hall.

As I sat downing an icy fruit drink I heard the city hall clock ring out with chimes. It rang out the full peal of 12 midday chimes. I was vaguely startled because I realised it was the first time in a long time I had heard a town clock chiming, or even showing the right time. I’ve been travelling through scores of South African towns and cities over the past year and I cannot recall a single town clock that was actually working. Most were stopped; others had the hour hand or the minute hand missing, or no hands at all; the chimes didn’t work or there was just a gaping hole in the clocktower. So it was another treat to find a town hall clock that really worked — not such a Sleepy Hollow after all!

Refreshed, I walked over to the area between the city hall and the library. I was curious because back in 1975 there had been a right brouhaha in the city over the new fountain the council had commissioned to decorate the area. The good people of Pietermaritzburg were horrified when a “far out” (as they said in those days) abstract sculpture — courtesy of the students of the fine arts department at the then University of Natal — consisting of criss-crossed chrome pipes and tubes about three metres high that squirted out water in various directions and angles, was erected to grace the space.

Many of the older residents declared that this was the beginning of the end for the capital and toddled off in a huff to sulk in the Victoria Club (where the Union Jack still flew proudly over Longmarket — now Langalibalele — Street).

That sculpture is no longer there, but I was happily surprised to see the water feature that has taken its place: a pleasant and classically designed configuration of small pools and a waterfall surrounded by rocks, plants, flowers and grasses that gives a welcome green touch amid the surrounding concrete. Another oasis!

Just beyond was the newly refurbished library, with the impressive new children’s wing. Equally impressive was how well the library, and the Internet section, was being patronised, especially by teens and young people earnestly in search of knowledge.

Next to me at a table sat a sprightly elder woman who told me she had been a member for 50 years and that at last she was able to take her time in comfort. “I’ve found books and magazines that I didn’t even know existed,” she said, and added with a twinkle: “It’s real cool.” I had to agree.

• Memory Lane wants your memories and photographs of old Pietermaritzburg. Please send them to

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