It was the TokTokkies that initially drew us to the koppie. Thumb-sized black beetles scattered on rocks like guardians of the mound, tapping – “tok-tok, tok-tok, tok-tok” – a sort of Morse Code to comrades on the citadel, reverberating through the valley and into the keen ears of three children begging for incident. Science says that the males tap their abdomens on the ground in order to attract mates, which respond with their own tapping. Palpitating conversation. The pulse of life. The sound of home.
Our new house (built in 1906 and one of the area’s oldest) backed onto “the koppie” (although Caledonia Hill was its textbook name), which became an extension of our two-tier garden. There was a gate that opened onto the back side of the hill and my brothers and I spent many glorious hours roaming the rocky outcrop. We’d escape through the gate on secret missions and adventures; shouting to mom that we’d see her later (usually when we were hungry) and set off. Sometimes there were elaborate games of hide and seek but mostly we’d look for treasure, which would normally come in the form of “tramp camp” remains: the remnants of a fire that had been lit on the hill, an old shoe or a piece of clothing, a rusted tin…signs of life—of other tribes (occasional occupants of the local habitat). This was more exciting than gold or an old 2c piece (a more likely find on the hill); the might of the wildebeest rubbed into oblivion against the innards of a careless pocket—discarded, now carrion for curious children. We were explorers, castaways, archaeologists, pirates, soldiers, detectives—barefoot children running up a rocky outcrop.
At the pinnacle of the koppie stood a cross – the “Kensington Cross”, to locals – made out of granite in the shape of an Iona Cross, with a superimposed sixteenth century two-handed claymore sword bearing the Scottish shield of lion rampant and royal treasure. The official route to this talisman on the hill was via a stone staircase carved into the koppie, with an entrance on Highland Road where the general public had right of way. Sometimes we’d dash around the block and race up the stairs only to scramble back down the hill to see who could get home first but mostly we used the route of privileged access—the garden gate. As a child, I felt, in some way, that the cross belonged to me—it stood proudly above my house; I could get to it whenever I wanted and I liked it because it reminded me of Arthurian knights and their quest for a better world.
The memorial was erected in 1904 in memory of the officers and men of the Scottish Horse Regiment during the South African Anglo-Boer War in 1901-1902. Nemo me impune lacessit 1900—read the inscription (before graffiti and vandalism obliterated the façade of the icon). I’d look at the words, making up my own meanings (“Here lies Guinevere, queen of hearts” or “He who searches, finds” or “The sword lieth beneath”)—the truth, inconsequential. That was then. Here’s how it translates in real life: ‘No one provokes me with impunity’—the national motto of Scotland. Loosely phrased: ‘No one can harm me unpunished.’ I am glad I never knew it; its catastrophic irony would have ruined my imaginings. Or perhaps not, oblivion is the jewel of childhood.
The cross, also known as The Boer War Cross of Iona, has an identical twin that stands on the esplanade at Edinburgh Castle. I’ve been to Edinburgh Castle and didn’t notice it. No koppie.
Author & Storyteller: Andrea Zanin
Andrea is a writer, wife, mother and dreamer; also the author of this website. She moved to London in 2006 to earn £s, travel, see bands and buy 24-up Dr Martens—which she did, and then ended up staying. Andrea lives in North London with her husband (also a Saffa) and five children. She loves this grand old city but misses her home and wishes her children could say “lekker” (like a South African) and knew what a “khoki” is.
SIDENOTE: My brother recently took a trip to Edinburgh and when I told him that the Kensington Cross has a twin at Edinburgh Castle he found it within minutes (even without the koppie, haha). Chris said that he felt pretty emotional, looking at the cross from our childhood; so many memories wrapped up in one little monument. But it’s more than the tok-tokkies, the 2c pieces and rusted cans. More than nostalgia and the sweet ache that comes with remembering. It’s the blatant lack—snowflakes in place of scorching sun, sparse winter trees instead of rocks and dry scrub, and the peripheral murmur of medieval architecture rather than crickets, barking dogs and hum of traffic along Roberts Avenue. It’s like looking at a strange copy of home through the lens of another life. The schismatic heart of the expat.