More ways to save water

For the second year in a row, I’m living in a disaster area. The difference, this time around, is that our small section of the country – the West Coast and Swartland – is now part of a larger disaster area: the entire Western Cape.

This time last year was different for another reason too: following an absolutely unbelievable summer (not in a good way), with rolling heat waves for months that sucked the moisture out of the landscape so that you could practically hear it sizzling, our reservoir, Voelvlei Dam (the only source of water for our town and many other settlements in these parts), had been depleted to the point where, at 20% capacity, it was at its lowest since it was built in the 1960s. As is the case with many dams, the last 15-18% is very difficult to utilise, due to heavy silt buildup – meaning we were down to our last 2-5% of usable water.

Things seemed dire then, but this year, as I write, Voelvlei is at 16% and there’s no imminent prospect of heavy rains. Dams around the Western Cape are similarly down to their last usable puddles of water.

Last summer taught us in the Swartland lots of things about living in a water-scarce region. People stopped washing their cars; garden-irrigation systems became a thing of the past (as did lawns), and grey-water buckets were put into all showers and basins for use to water specific plants; swimming-pools water levels dropped, and they turned green and sludgy under their covers. And, seriously, if anyone anywhere in South Africa was still leaving the tap running while they brushed their teeth, someone was needing to give them a big fat slap.

But here’s the thing: it wasn’t enough. And if we’re not going to face the same problem – and probably worse, and earlier – next year, we’ve got to get ahead of our water shortage.

Level 4 restrictions ask us to use just 100 litres of water per person per day. This is doable but it requires more than just being aware of the water we’re using: we actually have to make some genuine and lasting changes. Consider this: flushing the loo just twice a day (up to 30 litres), showering once a day for just 2 minutes (about 30 litres), and handwashing just one basinful of dishes (up to 30 litres), uses up almost your entire daily allowance, without taking into account water for drinking, cooking and laundry – which combined will definitely come to more than the 10 litres remaining in your personal daily quota.


So even if you think you’ve really been doing your bit to save water, you’ve got to do more – much more. And you’ve got to keep up your water-saving initiatives all the way through the coming winter, regardless of how much rain falls.

Here are a few things that I’ve been doing to save more water. I’d love to hear your suggestions too.


Direct your downpipe/s into the pool…

Swimming pools used for actual swimming are nothing but an indulgence at the moment, and will probably continue to be so through at least next summer (and maybe the next one), while we hope and wait for enough rains to fully replenish our dams. Working swimming pools require chemicals that usually render the water unfriendly for other uses, such as in the garden; and, more to the point, they need regular backwashing and topping-up, which uses water that’s desperately needed for much more important things.

For the foreseeable future, regard your swimming pool not as a recreational nice-to-have but as a vital reservoir of usable (if not potable) water. In order to maximise this, buy soft flexible plastic hose, cut it to the right length, and attach it to your house downpipes. This hose can be rolled up and stored out of the way when not in use, and unrolled when it rains.


The flexible plastic hose that feeds my pool when it rains runs out of sight at the base of a hedge up to the house, where it’s attached to the blue downpipe (next to my temporary outdoor shower, which feeds the plants on this side of the house).

plastic downpipe

… and use your pool water to flush the toilet

I predict that in time to come, in the same way as our kids now find it unthinkable that we had to be taught not to just throw our litter out the car window as we sped through the landscape, future generations are going to be amazed that we used actual drinking water to flush away our crap. Park a big watering can in your bathroom, and keep it topped up with water from your swimming pool for use for flushing. Untreated swimming-pool water can also be used to water a few chosen plants in your garden.



Use ‘grey water’ more carefully and not only for the garden…

Clean grey water (not containing detergents or other contaminants) can be re-used for other things than just watering plants, such as for rinsing salads and vegetables. Try to get as much use out of your grey water as possible before taking it out into the garden.

… and get used to dry-handwashing

If you’re a habitual hand-washer like I am, this is a tough one to get your head around But a running tap dispenses up to 30 litres a minutes, so it’s an inefficient way to keep your hands clean. Keep a waterless hand sanitizer next to your kitchen sink and get used to using it.



Wash bedding and towels less often…

If you’re a clean-freak like me, this is also a tough one. There’s nothing I’ve loved more than putting fresh, clean laundry on my bed every Friday but washing my bedding requires a washing-machine load on its own, and that uses up to 90 litres of water, even on an ‘eco’ cycle. To stretch your bedding another week, change only the bottom sheet, and turn the duvet over. For your pillows, put different-coloured covers on them, so that you make sure one is on top the first week, and the other is on top the second.

That goes for towels, too. If you used to wash them weekly, now stretch that to fortnightly.

… and that goes for other laundry…

My mother used to complain that my brother wore his jeans until ‘they could walk into the wash on their own’. Time to return to those teen years! Although obviously it’s not required that you wear clothes until you’re no longer fit for human company, everything (other than underwear, and outer items that get heavily soiled) can be worn at least twice before being chucked in the wash.

… and your body too.

Especially if you don’t work in a job that makes you sweat heavily or otherwise get really dirty, consider showering only every second day. On alternate days, do a thorough ‘top and tail’ (cloth-wash of your face and undercarriage).


Drinking water

Don’t make the mistake I did last summer and buy bottled drinking water, thinking you’re helping the situation – it takes double the water to make the plastic bottle than the water contained in the bottle. Rather, invest in a few 25-litre containers with taps, and hunt down a source of clean drinking water, such as a friend or family member with a borehole that pumps potable water (thanks, Tana!). Refill your containers regularly and use only this as drinking water.

drinking water


Install at least one rain tank

Every single South African should be harvesting rainwater, however and in whatever quantity they can afford.

water tanks

I’m using the bottles from the bottled water I bought last summer as additional storage  – I fill them when it rains.


Spread the word and share resources

People often waste water without realising it, so share your water-saving hints and tips with your friends, family, colleagues and community. A little knowledge goes a long way.


If you have more water-saving tips, I’d love to hear about them!



Comparative luxury


My Dad and I on another seafaring adventure – this time on the Silver Cloud, cruising the South African coastline

Having a very large elderly man collapse onto you, causing you to fold like a card table and trapping you under his immovable and possibly dying bulk, would be a traumatising experience in almost any conditions. That it happened to me on one of the world’s most vaunted luxury cruise liners spoke volumes.

The intractable unhelpfulness of the Queen Mary 2′s pursers’ station –  basically, their helpdesk – would have been funny had it not been so monumentally awful. On a ship that accommodates thousands of passengers, there are naturally going to be a literal boatload of queries and complaints. The QM designers anticipated this, and made allowance for it: there’s a bank of about 10 helpdesks at the pursers’ station. But only two or three of them are ever actually manned. That means that there’s almost always a long queue of people lined up waiting to find out what restaurant they’re billeted to eat in, what time the 10 o’clock show starts and why they’ve incurred an inexplicable and hair-raising charge on their credit card (about which more in a moment). Additionally, on a ship that caters mainly for over-60s, there isn’t the option of seated queueing – everyone, regardless of advancedness of age or stutteriness of heart, must stand in the line.

Which is why, when the very fat old guy who’d been leaning heavily on his cane in the queue ahead of me for at least 20 minutes, turned and said to me, “Oh, my dear, I feel dizzy,” I had no option but to try to catch him.

It’s one of the many differences between cruising on the Cunard Line-operated Queen Mary 2, and travelling on the very much smaller Silversea Cruises’ Silver Cloud.


Mirror-selfie of my Dad and me, all gussied up.

To be fair, the passenger-to-crew ratio is roughly double on the bigger ship: about 2 600 passengers to 1 250 crew on the QM; about 290 passengers to 220 crew on the SC. The much smaller passenger/crew component on the SC certainly has its pros, and its helpdesk staffed at all times by people who simply can’t do enough to help you, and right now, is only one of them. You develop close acquaintainceships with fellow passengers quite quickly because you see them all the time; and the staff start intuiting your wishes and bringing you a cappuccino, for instance, just when you were about to order one. But there are also cons: a woman with a particularly vexing line in vapid chatter befriended me then began lightly stalking me, and I seemed to run into her around every corner. By comparison, on the QM, because you’re one of almost 3 000 people, it’s really easy to get lost in the crowd.


Relaxing in a hot whirlpool while moored in PE harbour on a Tuesday morning. As one does.

Let me get the one other odious comparison out of the way immediately: on the SC, which sells an “all-in” cruising package at a sum in American dollars that would make most South Africans curl into the foetal position and cry like a little baby, everything really is included, even alcohol – they generously restock your cabin refrigerator every day and you can ask for just about any booze you like at any time of the day and night. You also get uncapped good-quality wifi.

On the QM, on which it’s possible for even an ordinary person who’s saved assiduously to get a berth (which will be in the bowels of the ship where you don’t get a porthole so you’ll never know what time of day or night it is – but hey, you’ll be on board), your fare doesn’t include a whole range of things, which will start driving you a little nuts: you’ve got to pay for alcohol (which is understandable but also through the nose), but then they also extract from you extra charges that seem unnecessarily niggardly: for bottled water, for any coffee other than a cappuccino, for wifi and memento photographs (both breathtakingly expensive), and – the most annoying additional charge of all – a very substantial “mandatory gratuity”; in other words, the QM forces you to cough up a very large tip for its staff, regardless of what you thought of the service. (Helpdesk aside, the service on the QM, like on the SC, is tremendously good. And on the SC you get a personal butler whose very existence genuinely seems predicated on fulfilling your every desire.)


Great local wine from Groote Post in The Restaurant, the main fine-dining area.

Both boats are very goodlooking – what uber-luxurious cruise-ship isn’t? But the sheer scale and grandiosity of the QM takes some beating. It’s really the most exquisite ship, with enormous public rooms, plush carpets, chandeliers the size of small planets, acres of immaculate decking, astonishing artworks casually hung in gigantic sweeping stairways, and a vast choice of beautiful places to sit and beautiful things to sit on. It’s also got two external glass lifts, two extensive glass-lined galleyways at sea-level, a very grand Grand Lobbey, a theatre that seats over a thousand people, several swimming pools, many restaurants, including a vast buffet that offers seemingly every kind of food known to man, a huge library fantastically situated right at the front of the ship, with deep sofas to sit in and views over the open sea, and a planetarium. Yes, a planetarium.


Reading on a deck at the back of the ship.

The SC simply can’t compete. It’s got a lovely pool and a pretty theatre and a perfectly acceptable small library, and two lovely restaurants, one of which offers a nice little breakfast buffet. It’s also got a serviceable gym which is situated right at the front of the ship, with a bank of treadmills facing the open sea – but, disappointingly, with TVs at face height so you can’t see the view. In the SC‘s plus column, it does have a dedicated outdoor running/walking track, something the QM doesn’t have.

In the same vein, there’s just no way you can get bored on the QM – if there isn’t anything going on that interests you (although there always is), you can just explore the ship itself – by the time I got off after two weeks, I still hadn’t exhausted every nook and cranny. On the SC, the laid-on entertainment is limited but they do have a fairly good DVD library.

Another substantial difference between the two ship experiences was the emergency drill. On the QM, when the emergency whistle blew, we were required to amble to a muster station, where we were shown how to put on our lifejackets (“Put it over your head”), before ambling back to our staterooms. If we’d hit an iceberg, we all would’ve died.

On the SC, the drill is thorough to the point of weirdness – down to being frogmarched out into the corridor, hand on the shoulder of the passenger in front of you, prisoner-of-war style, and lined up in front of the life-raft that would be carrying you to safety. The crew also did a full lifeboat drill during a day in port, and it was organised and impressive enough for me to have complete confidence in their ability to keep me alive should we meet trouble on the high seas.


Cape Town from the sea, about 6am. Pretty, ne? And a lovely sight after 10 days away.


My road angels: going beyond the call of duty

I have very hardworking guardian angels who’ve come to the rescue several times on our wild-west roads (here and here are some of them). But what happened on the moonless night of 1 August is probably the hardest-working they’ve ever been.

I’d had my granddaughter Jessie, who’s just 3, for the weekend, and when I took her back to her mom in Cape Town on the Sunday, I mentioned that I felt that something wasn’t right. Jessie wasn’t her usual jump-around self, and she had very dark rings under her eyes that concerned me. Other than that, though, all seemed fine: she was eating, sleeping and pooping right on schedule. She had a little cough, but it’s something that’s plagued her and most of her playgroup through the winter, so that wasn’t new.

When the phone rang at 10.30pm on that Monday night, I knew it was about Jessie, and that whatever the news was, it wouldn’t be good. But I didn’t expect to hear that she’d had a seizure.

Adrenaline kicked in, and within five minutes, I’d taken my house keys next door and left them with the neighbour, with rapid-fire instructions to keep an eye on my animals, and I was on the road. The car trip from Riebeek Kasteel to False Bay Hospital, a journey of about 120km, should, according to Googlemap, take about 1 hour and 45 minutes without traffic. Because of the lateness of the hour there was, fortunately, almost no traffic on the road, and the trip took me a little over an hour. I remember absolutely nothing about it, except having the vague feeling, once it was over, that I’d put my foot flat as I left home, and had never once taken it off the accelerator until I reached the hospital.

But here’s the thing: I’m utterly and completely night-blind, and have been since I had lasik surgery 16 years ago, and willingly traded in any night vision whatsoever for 20-20 day vision. Other than for short distances on well-lit and familiar roads, I can’t drive at night.

And this isn’t theoretical night-blindness. I know I can’t see at all at night beyond the limit of the car’s headlights because, one or twice, I’ve driven at night because I haven’t had any choice. They’ve been horrible, horrible experiences, slow, tense and frightening.

On that pitch-black new-moon night, though, my road angels flew as fast as I drove. It felt as if I had superhuman vision as I shot down the N7, onto the N1 , the N2 and then the M3, and from there, unerringly, drove directly to the hospital – despite never having been there before, having no prior knowledge of where it was (or even that it existed), not knowing how to use my phone’s GPS system (and therefore not using it), and having got very scanty and understandably distracted directions from Isabella. My road angels were with me all the way, showing me where to go.

I drew this picture for Jessie afterwards, to illustrate the miracle, but it disturbed rather than comforted her, and she asked if we could rather hang it up in my room than in hers. (Hmph.)



Isabella and Jessie were still waiting to be seen at False Bay government hospital when I arrived there, by then some hours after the seizure had happened. I took them straight to Constantiaberg private clinic, thanking my lucky stars that I’m not a dirt-poor South African with a child with a life-threatening condition and forced to rely on state services. I handed over my credit card at Constantiaberg and allowed them to lighten my bank account by a very significant amount in order to tell us that they really had no idea what had caused the seizure, aside from a high temperature; and that they had no idea what had caused the high temperature.

Jessie recovered slowly but completely and is now absolutely fine.


Wedding dress deja vu

I got married in May 1988, 28 years ago. This year, in May 2016, I dug out my wedding dress and did a bit of dress-deja-vu.

The dress was made by my friend Ruth. She was living in Cape Town at the time, and I was living in Joburg. She offered to make the dress as a wedding present, which I was thrilled about (she’s a very talented seamstress), and my Dad forked out for the beautiful heavy satin fabric and the chiffon. So about a month before the wedding, I flew down to Cape Town on what was supposed to be a fitting-and-sewing weekend, but Ruth and I were beeeeg jollers, so instead we spent the whole time drinking tequila, going out to eat and dance, sleeping late, and talking our heads off. On the Sunday, with about 10 minutes to go before we had to race off to the airport so I could catch my flight back to Joburg (when you’re young, you do everything, including catching planes, by the skin of your teeth), we suddenly clocked that we hadn’t done a single thing about the wedding dress. Scratching around, Ruth unearthed a long piece of tatty Christmas tinsel. This she used to measure me – height, bust, waist, hips, etc – tying knots in the tinsel to denote each measurement.

About three weeks later, with days to go before the wedding, my mother-in-law-to-be almost had heart failure when she discovered that not only did I not have the vaguest clue what my wedding dress would look like, I wouldn’t get to even try it on until the night before the wedding, when Ruth and a bunch of other Cape Town friends were due to arrive for the nuptial celebrations. My mother-in-law-to-be dragged me off to Sandton City, where she insisted we must buy a wedding dress for me. She was a difficult woman to resist (that’s putting it mildly), so I trailed after her from boutique to boutique, trying on a series of enormous and enormously expensive wedding dresses. My repeated refrains that I didn’t need a wedding dress – that I already had one, even if I didn’t actually have it with me physically at that very moment – fell on deaf and increasingly irritated ears. “But she’s only bringing it the day before – what if it doesn’t fit?” she said. “It will fit, don’t worry,” I told her. “But what if you don’t like it?” she asked. “I’ll like it, don’t worry,” I said.

I really wasn’t worried at all – I knew I’d love it because I was 100 percent confident that Ruth knew me well enough to make something I’d love; and I had not the slightest concern that it wouldn’t fit me – Ruth may have measured me with a piece of Christmas tinsel, but I knew she’d get it right.

And she did!

dress sideflashback 2016 a

Above: left in May 1988; right in May 2016 (it strikes me that perhaps I should have ironed the dress before doing the deja-vu!). Even though the marriage only lasted 7 years, I knew I’d never get married again, and I still wear my original wedding ring (albeit on my right hand) – it’s visible in both pictures.

dress back 88dress back

Above: Left in 1988 (cigarette in hand!); right in 2016.

dress belladress Jessie

Above: Left in May 1988 (with my darling dog Bella); right in May 2016 (with my darling granddaughter Jessie). That round bracelet is a silver spoon that my father hammered into a piece of jewellery for me.

Jessie’s swing

Having a littlie in the family was a great excuse for me to buy a tyre swing to hang from a sturdy garden tree. Our family had one in our first house in Parkview, Johannesburg – it’s now etched in family lore how my then 7-year-old brother, playing Tarzan, tried to leap from a branch onto the swing and missed, breaking his arm in three places.

This swing – Jessie’s first – was oriented differently from the one I grew up with, horizontally rather than vertically, but it did just as fine a job. When the adults weren’t having a go, Jessie got full use of it almost from day 1. Here she is, at three months old, in a makeshift cradle made out of Balu’s basket, the net we usually use to keep flies off food, and a kikoi – the gentle rocking in the warm spring air was a perfect soporific.


And here she is almost three years later, on the same swing.


Various parts of the swing gave way over time, and I patched it once or twice, but finally it had to be retired. As Jessie was getting older, I bought her a hanging rope ladder to replace the swing, and my friend Troy helped me put it up. If you look closely at this photo, you will see what a fantastic fuckup a poorly planned DIY collaboration between two apparently intelligent people can produce.


Troy swing 2 April 2016

(We untangled the rope ladder from the ladder eventually.)


And Jessie loves it.



The charm of the chant

I don’t have the best memory at the best of times, and I long ago realised that if my life were not to spiral into chaos and disarray, I would have to always have a way other than organic of remembering things. For this reason, I’ve always kept both a real-life (by which I mean not electronic) diary that goes everywhere with me, and lists, particularly grocery lists and to-do lists.

When I’m under stress, as I’ve been for the last few weeks, my memory gets much worse, and my brain’s word centre also struggles – for some years after my mom died, for instance, during which I was under near-unbearable emotional strain, I completely forgot certain words when I was trying to write (a problem for someone who makes her living this way), and my brain automatically filled in “missing” words for me in speech, although not always the right words, which caused confusion often and sometimes hilarity (although I never found it hilarious myself, because having your brain do things that you don’t instruct it to is actually quite frightening).

Anyway – the other day I took myself, my dog and my faltering brain off for my customary 5km route-march around the village. I needed to get a couple of things from the local Pick n Pay on the way home, and also empty my postbox (we don’t have street deliveries in our little town, necessitating regular visits to the bank of postboxes sited outside the Pick n Pay). So, instead of writing a short list (which seemed like overkill, even for me), I made up a little chant, “Milk, bread and clear-the-box”, which had a good meter for walking.

On my way out of my property, I came across my little band of fowl milling about in the driveway – Cornelius the rooster, and the three hens, Goldie (so-named because of her colouring), Double (because she lays double-yolk eggs) and… hmm: no Cocopops (a little black hen).

So, in passing, and because I talk to my animals all the time, I said, ‘Hi, you guys. Where’s Cocopops?’

Then, without waiting for an answer (obvs), I walked on, repeating my little walking mantra: “Milk, bread and Cocopops.”

Which is why I ended up back home with cereal I don’t want or need but without my mail.

The Road through the Grove: a unique project


I received a manuscript in the middle of last year, for assessment. I’d been told it was a history book (my very favourite kind of book to work on), and also that it centred on Orange Grove, a suburb in Joburg very close to where I grew up – so I was keen as a bean.

When it arrived in my inbox, the challenges became obvious. First, it had been researched and compiled by various people over two years, and had no unifying voice and little usable structure. It wasn’t just a history book – it was much, much more: a vast compendium of historical and personal anecdote, contributed by a huge variety of people, in a huge variety of styles and tones. And it was way too long: for what was intended to become a highly illustrated coffee-table book that could be shipped around the world to part of its target market of expats, 186 000 words was about three times the optimum length.

Most books that start with challenges of this magnitude don’t have a rosy future. The money, energy and time required to turn them into workable manuscripts would, for most people, seem like insurmountable obstacles. But John Burgess, the man behind this project, isn’t most people. And, as it turned out, The Road through the Grove wasn’t most books.

John is a man who doesn’t take “no” for an answer. This in itself isn’t necessarily a commendable personality trait (it can make for obstinacy on an alienating scale), but John combines this with a rare ability to listen carefully and actually hear what people are saying, and trust those he employs to do what he employs them to do.

He also doesn’t scare easily. So when he got my initial email back, asking him to cut the text by at least 60 000 but preferably 80 000 words (to give this some context, that’s about the length of a standard novel), he wasn’t fazed. On the contrary, he was excited to have direction: what’s important now, he said, was that “we deliver something of great quality and that we’ll all be immensely proud of”. And after our first meeting shortly afterwards, his feedback was upbeat and optimistic: “We’ll cut/cull and deliver around 100 000 to maximum 120 000 for you to edit before the end of Sept. Enjoyed our dialogue and know we are in very capable hands.”

John was, characteristically, true to his word, and before the end of that month I’d received the amended manuscript: 117 000 words for me to get stuck into.

The months that followed were intense, as I completely restructured the book (so radically, in fact, that John admitted to me later that on receiving the first edit, in mid-November, he’d had to “sit with” the new arrangement for some days to come to terms with it), fact-checked, researched and wrote a huge quantity of material, line-edited, trimmed and cleaned up the manuscript. I completed the final edit, at a final wordcount of 75 000 words, at 5pm on Christmas Eve 2015.

In the meantime, John and his team, in consultation with Kevin Shenton, the designer, had also been sourcing, sorting and labelling photographs. That the book ended up containing over a thousand carefully selected (and, in some cases, heroically hunted-down) pictures says volumes about the amount of work this required.

I flew to Joburg to write the captions. Caption-writing (or sometimes caption-editing) is usually one of the final stages in the making of a book, and the supposition before the writing or editing starts is that the book’s design is, at this stage, finished and fixed. Not in this case, however. For four days, John, his brother Chris, Kevin, his assistant Danel, and I holed up for long hours in Kevin’s studio, identifying (and sometimes mis-identifying) people in photographs, writing captions, rewriting captions, deleting captions, moving captions…

“No more changes!” Kevin and I kept saying, as John – the man who doesn’t take “no” for an answer – found better pictures, removed pictures, replaced pictures, changed pictures…

One day four, I put my foot down. “No,” I said to John, when he asked for yet another picture to be moved. “No. I’m not moving any more pictures. We’re running out of time.” I continued working but watched John out of the corner of my eye as he quietly – almost unnoticeably – stood up, padded softly across the studio to Kevin’s corner, and bent down and had a word in his ear. “Okay,” I heard Kevin say.

“Oh my god!” I protested, outraged. “I said no, so you just went over my head and asked Kevin, and he said yes!” John smiled serenely. Kevin grinned and said, “Okay, but really now, no more changes from now on!” (For the record, they were still making changes to photos days later, when I was back at my office in Kasteel, and I was still writing, re-writing and editing captions via email.)

But finally, a few days later, “no more changes” really meant no more changes, because the book went to print.

Paging through the beautiful finished product, I believe that we met John’s challenge, to “deliver something of great quality and that we’ll all be immensely proud of”.

3 stages

Above, from left to right The original manuscript, the first-edited manuscript, and the final product, all showing the entry on the Doll House.

For more info about the book and/or to place an order, go here.


The real history of the Doll House roadhouse

In fact-checking and researching for the manuscript, I unearthed countless interesting bits and pieces, many of which couldn’t be included in the book because there just wasn’t space. But one particularly fascinating story deserves a spot here.

In the original manuscript, many theories were offered by various people as to the origins of the Doll House. “It was owned by a guy from Greece whose last name was Panos,” said one person. “The owners were the Laxens in Joburg and the St Georges in Cape Town,” said another.

I didn’t get much help online: “Tracing the history of Joburg’s oldest roadhouse, the Doll House, on Louis Botha Avenue, proved difficult, but it was built sometime during the Thirties,” opined one article.

Then, on Flickr, I found the following, posted some years ago by Helen St George in response to a 1972 photo of the Doll House in Cape Town: “My grandfather Daniel Wanberg was one of the 3 Americans who opened up the Doll House chain in 1932 – he brought the very first hamburger to South Africa… When he died my grandmother took it over. In 1954 my father, Kelvin St George, worked for the DH and took over the Cape Town branch in 1960 [until] 1982 when it was sold and then demolished. My mother [was the] daughter of Daniel and Teddie Wanberg… My mum’s sister, Billie Laxen, and her husband Peter ran the Doll House in Johannesburg.”

Using the name Daniel Wanberg as a starting point, I dug deeper, and eventually I unearthed a doctoral thesis called Transatlantic Latter-day Saints: Mormon Circulations between America and South Africa by one Booker T Alston, published by the University of Cape Town in February 2014. This little gem provided the most wonderful background to the Doll House story.

Three baseball-playing American missionaries had such a positive experience during their tenure in the country that they devised a strategy that would allow them to return to South Africa, continue to play baseball, and build a successful business. In 1936 Layton Alldredge, Clarence Randall and Evan Wright, all former Mormon missionaries and talented baseball players, journeyed across the Atlantic with a plan to make ice cream, but not just any ice cream, American ice cream that would be served at an American-styled drive-in parlour.

With no serious attachments in America, the three hurriedly made preparations to cross the Atlantic again, with Randall hastening his education of the commercial manufacturing of American ice cream at Paramount [an ice-cream company in Salt Lake City, where he was working at the time]. At the time of their departure the three businessmen, relying on Randall’s newly acquired knowledge, set out to “seek their fortunes” armed only with desire, a small amount of start-up capital – $6 000, $2000 each, according to Alldredge, [and] an undisclosed amount of which they received from a silent partner from Utah named Dan Wanberg – and a handful of Utah’s most famous ice-cream recipes…

By 1 May 1936 the partners were in Johannesburg; Alldredge got a job selling American Chevrolet cars at Dennis Motors “to put groceries on the table” while Randall and Wright went to work constructing the first Doll House. Neither knew very much about construction, but a local Mormon, Dave Banfield, gave them several pointers… That first Doll House, located in the Johannesburg … at today’s address of 377 Louis Botha Avenue, Highlands North, opened soon after the trio arrived back in the country and was operational before the end of May 1936.

The success of the drive-in ice-cream parlour was immediate and by 26 June another Doll House was ready for business in Durban. Within a year the standardised red buildings with their steep roofs and three prominent dormers, which resulted in the shop actually looking like a dollhouse, could be found in Cape Town and Pretoria as well.

In all, the three opened seven Doll Houses in South Africa during the 1930s, three in Johannesburg, two in Cape Town, and one in both Durban and Pretoria. By 1940, Alldredge reported that the business was making a net profit of approximately $60 000 per year, could produce up to 2 500 gallons of ice cream a day, including ice cream on sticks and popsicles, had opened up bakeries at several of the locations, and employed 133 individuals between their new mechanically operated factory and all the shops.

Randall was in charge of the production of the ice cream itself, Wright the sales … and Alldredge the finances. However, a crack eventually formed in the partnership due in part to the stresses caused by the Second World War as well as to a disagreement between Alldredge and Wright over the speed of expansion. The outbreak of war in Europe made it difficult for the three Americans to remain in business in South Africa because … they “were considered aliens” as well as the fact that food rations were restrictive and “it was hard to get the sugar for our ice cream”.

Dan Wanberg, the Doll Houses’ original silent partner, moved his family permanently to South Africa in 1946, when Randall and Wright sold the entire business, including the factory, the machinery, and all seven locations to him. The chain remained a fixture on the South African landscape until well into the 1970s.