No time for retirement

2008-05-15 00:00

YVONNE du Preez lives on a farm in the beautiful Rietvlei district where she breeds Ridgebacks. She is very active in both showing and judging the breed — she has even judged in Russia — and thinks nothing of setting off for Port Elizabeth in her car to take a dog to a show. Not too unusual you might think, except that Du Preez is 90 years old.

She was due to head off to Australia shortly to judge Ridgebacks on a punishing schedule that would have seen her having to judge 150 to 200 dogs a day, with only two minutes per dog. “That’s ridiculous, of course,” she says. “You can’t see them properly in that time.” But the trip is off — once the Australians realised her age, they began to get cold feet.

“The person who invited me said that if she had known I was 90, they would never have invited me,” she says. And although her medical aid said it would be happy to insure her for the trip — she hasn’t made a claim in the past two years — the Australians insisted that she go to Durban to be checked over by a doctor of their choosing.

“I suppose they don’t want to have to bury you,” says Du Preez. So she obediently went to the chosen doctor, who was horrified by her blood pressure, and said she had a heart murmur and would need to go and see a cardiac specialist. Du Preez decided that the whole thing was taking too long and becoming too much of a hassle, so she has decided to stay at home with her dogs.

“I would have liked to have seen their dogs over there,” she says. “But the only thing I’m really disappointed about is that when I thought I was going, I didn’t mate my own bitches. So now I won’t have any puppies to keep me busy.”

Du Preez grew up in the Lowlands district, between Mooi River and Estcourt. Her parents were dog breeders too, concentrating on Scotties. “We used to sell the puppies for £5,” she says. “And they would be sent off, by train, in a box, all over South Africa. They all arrived safely.”

Her love of animals began then, and she says she really wanted to train as a vet, but the Onderstepoort veterinary college would not take women students. This was during the Depression years, and there was no money for her, as one of five children, to go to England to train.

“I think my mother despaired of domesticating me, so I was sent off to Pretoria to do a degree in home economics. In those days, the only place you heard Afrikaans around here was at the railway station, so I had to go to the foreman’s wife for lessons.”

Home economics was not a great career path for Du Preez. She says she has never liked cooking, and although sewing was a useful skill when she had five children of her own, she still thinks she would have been a better vet than home economist. Her first job was lecturing to Women’s Institutes. “They were far better at cooking and sewing than I was,” she says. “At least I had a good loud voice, so they could hear me.”

When she married, Du Preez moved to Port Elizabeth where her husband was in the wool business. Glad to see the end of what she says was a “totally unsuitable job”, she set up home and starting breeding Pembroke Corgis. “I thought they were great and imported quite a few,” she says.

But later, she became intrigued by Ridgebacks and they became her dog of choice. “It started when Phyllis McCarthy in Pietermaritzburg asked me to show hers.” They are now a popular breed, chosen for their guarding instinct and very well suited to this climate. But, says, Du Preez, who has bred several prizewinners, they are not easy to train.

When her husband retired, they bought a farm in the Estcourt district and, as well as the dogs, Du Preez began to breed Nguni cattle, something her father had pioneered many years before. “He called them ‘the cattle of the future’ — that’s the breed’s slogan now. I think my family were glad that I started with the Ngunis because it kept me busy and out of the way,” she says. Du Preez went on to become one of the inspectors of Ngunis, selecting them for the government breeding scheme in Zululand.

While we are talking, I have noticed an Nguni skin on the floor. They have recently become high-fashion décor items, but this one is simply part of a comfortable farmhouse interior. I ask about it, and Du Preez tells me the story.

“Peter Kraupner in Underberg had an Nguni heifer that broke her leg and had to be destroyed. But she had a calf, and I said to him he should bring it down to me and I would rear it for him. He had a plane, so he flew the calf down. And he had the mother’s skin tanned, and gave it to me as a thank you. It’s lovely.” Her son John, who farms nearby, now looks after the Ngunis, but Du Preez still takes a keen interest.

It seems ridiculous to ask someone so lively and energetic about being 90, and Du Preez is rightly dismissive. “Some people are very old at 60,” she says. “Some go off to retirement homes and wait to talk about their ailments and operations when other people stop talking about theirs.”

Du Preez simply has no time for all of that.

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