‘Hotter than hell’ and with hippos on your doorstep

The family discovered hippos were amongst their closest neighbours.
The family discovered hippos were amongst their closest neighbours.

AS a young couple with small children, Agnes and Dick Marrs were hoping for a better future for their family when they saw a newspaper ad for assisted passage to South Africa.

Little did they know it was to be a life-changing adventure that nearly four decades later would find them living where temperatures regularly hit 50 degrees centigrade, within walking distance of a world-famous national park with wildlife, sometimes literally, on their doorstep.

Back in 1975, Agnes, originally from Denbeath, and Dick, brought up in Methil, were living in Buckhaven with their two children, Richard and Deborah Anne.

Dick was a bricklayer, having served his time at Durie & Sons in Methil, while Agnes, as was the norm then, had given up work as a technician with Leven architects Haxton & Watson when she had her first baby.

“There were various reasons for leaving – family and housing problems but also for the chance of a better life,” Agnes said.

But the move to South Africa happened more by luck than good planning.

“We saw an advert for ‘Assisted Passage to South Africa for Artisans’ and thought ‘why not?’ and that is how we ended up here,” Agnes said.

“It was funny but when we went to Glasgow for the interview and said we would like to go to Phalaborwa, the man laughed and asked us if we knew what we were letting ourselves in for as, in his words, ‘it is hotter than hell there’ – well, he was right about that!”

Phalaborwa is in the Limpopo Province of South Africa.

“It’s called the town of two summers – in summer it can be anything between 36 and 50 degrees centigrade while in winter it’s still between 24 and 36 degrees centigrade,” said Agnes.

“It is very different from the cities and is surrounded by bush and kopies, which are small mountains.

“We’re only 2km from one of the Kruger National Park gates so we can walk there and back and wild animals can be seen roaming around the town at various times of the day and night.”

Warthogs are not an unusual sight at the foot of the garden while a few years ago they even had hippos right outside their gate.

Settling in all those years ago took a bit of time.

“In a new country you have to make the best of things,” Agnes said. “You have to make new friends, which was quite difficult in the beginning as Phalaborwa was a very Afrikaans town with not many English-speaking people so language was a problem on both sides.”

There were also everyday things that had been taken for granted back in Scotland, such as no bus service.

“You do get buses in the cities but not in the dorps (little towns),” Agnes said. “If you live in Phalaborwa and don’t have your own transport, then you walk to the shops, not good when it’s over 30 degrees.”

By the time another baby, Christopher, arrived four years later, the family had put down roots and have stayed ever since.

For 20 years Dick worked as a bricklayer with the Palabora Mining Company – a copper mine – but later started his own successful building services business.

Agnes also worked as a secretary for the mining company until she retired in 2006.

The family are now grown up. Richard has been back in the UK since 2000; Deborah Anne lives with her husband and eight-year-old son Keegan in Roodekrans, a suburb of Johannesburg, and Christopher, after stints in the UK and Germany, now lives in China where he is director of golf at the Palm Island Golf Resort and he and his wife Lin Lin have just had a daughter, Lin Xi.

The Marrs love their adopted homeland of South Africa, although gradually losing contact with people over the years has been one regret in one case.

However, even that has had a happy ending.

“Fiona Wardrope, who lives in Leven, and I had been friends since primary school but communication dwindled away as the years flew by,” Agnes said. “But all that changed when, on a visit back in 2006, I went and knocked on her door and it was just like we’d last seen each other the day before.

“It made me realise that time and distance can’t destroy real friendship.”

*WHEN the Marrs set out from Southampton for South Africa on August 22, 1975, aboard the SS Edinburgh Castle they were to find the journey was far from plain sailing and almost ended in tragedy.

While Dick and baby daughter Deborah Anne arrived in South Africa 13 days later, Agnes and son Richard had to be flown back to London when the four-year-old youngster had a freak accident.

“The weather was not good crossing the Bay of Biscay and as he went to cut open a bread roll, the boat lurched and the knife hit his eye,” Agnes said.

When the boat docked at Las Palmas they flew back to London for emergency surgery and it was to be another three months before they set foot on South African soil.

“It was a terrible start to a new future but we survived,” Agnes said.