Writers And Their Chosen Settings – Philip van Wulven

“So much of who we are is where we have been.” – William Langewiesche

On Tuesdays, I post a guest blog by a writer about a special setting, real or imaginary, they chose for their work.

Today’s guest blog is by Phil van Wulven, author of Heavy and Light Tales.


The author sits on the left - Fishhoek 1956

A note about the photo: The couch is covered with a kaross, which is the traditional animal skin blanket used by the Khoisan people of the Cape in the olden days. That one included a piece of skin from a quagga which is (and was then) extinct. Probably dated from the 1850s or so, and made by my great-grandma (I think, could’ve been great-great grandmother).


Sunbird, a short story from Heavy and Light Tales

They went up the mountain in the morning, when bright sun sparkled on the dewy twigs, the leaf tips and spider webs, and mist rose from the grass and rested in the hollows. They were three together, barefoot boys. They slipped through the seaside bungalows and white fenced gardens to the wild slopes beyond. There was a rough dirt track that led up halfway, and then a footpath through the rocks and  heath, the scent of wild geraniums strong as they brushed by. They had sticks in case of snakes and a bottle of tap water and three oranges, some marbles and a catapult, slingshot to you, made with carefully cut rubber from an old car inner tube. They took turns to carry the provisions, which they were all going to eat later,  but only the two older ones carried the catapult in turn, because  Rich couldn’t shoot properly with it, and what good would it do if he was carrying it and they met a leopard, say, in the middle of the path? Of course nobody had actually seen a leopard around here for a couple of hundred years, but you never knew.

Eland, a short story from Heavy and Light Tales

and also Eland Dances (unpublished)

Right at that moment the wind changed again, blew down the slope at them, carried choking black smoke and a rain of burning debris into the surrounding bush. Several minor fires started up where flaming leaves landed in dry grass, and in a few seconds their feelings of security and eagerness to see more action changed to unease and some apprehension.

“That mother eland won’t come back if it starts to burn here,” said John. “Let’s carry the baby down the hill a bit, where the fire won’t get it.”

They quickly went and picked the little animal up. John crouched down and they draped it over his shoulder with its legs dangling front and back. He said that was a “Fireman’s Lift.” His younger brothers were impressed, as they hadn’t known there was a special way to carry animals when you rescued them from a fire. They would have done it all wrong without their eldest brother.

The mantis came along too, seated comfortably on Peter’s shoulder, with quick side trips over to the baby eland every few minutes. On one of these check-up visits Rich noticed something that looked like a little wasp’s nest stuck to the hair under the buck’s neck, almost invisible in the hollow where the neck and chest merged, “Here’s the mantis’s babies too,” he cried. “Look here, that’s why it was so worried!”

They stopped for a bit and examined this for a few moments while John rested, then Pete picked up the load and they set off again. Soon they reached a smoke free area just uphill from the first houses and stopped again a few yards off the path, out of sight in case that man came back. Here they noticed a single bump in the middle of the baby’s forehead.

“That must be its horn,” said Rich.

“There should be two horns,” said John. “All animals have two horns, if they have horns.”

“Unicorns don’t, they have one horn,” said Pete. “That’s what their name means. Uni means one and I suppose corn means horn.”


We moved to Fishhoek when I was around 4 or maybe 5. I don’t remember. I do know it was the place where I became independently mobile, able to decide to some extent where to go and what to do. The closest to freedom we can experience, with our only responsibility to live and learn.

A place of glory. Curiosity, discovery, trepidation, fear, and growing confidence in myself and in the world and people.

There was the unwavering certainty of home and mother to return to, the seashore and mountain for adventure.

I always had siblings for company, rivalry, role models and to care for. School and the world of grownups and classmates were on the next circle of importance.This was a suburb of Capetown, connected by rail and road with the City as one of the long string of urbanisation around the foot of the mountains and out along the Cape Peninsula. The mountains were wild, a nature reserve then and now, with incredibly diverse and unique vegetation, insects and animals.

There are frogs, flowers, and insects that live nowhere else in the world but their tiny patch of mountain. Along a single stream or during an hour’s walk you can pass through several complete habitats, each unique on our planet.

In the Fifties (yeah, I am that old) no-one had heard of ecology. The Great White sharks in the bay were a danger to humans and to the seals, penguins and calving whales. Like the poisonous snakes, no-one hesitated to kill them.

You learn to be aware of everything around when learning to swim in the surf while sharks hunt seals a few hundred yards offshore.

Some had consideration for the impact we had on nature, so there was a serious effort to save the eggs and nesting habitat of the Ridley turtles on the main beach. The town council debated heatedly, but built a low cement wall to stop sand blowing off the beach onto the main shopping street, and that did what people and dogs digging up the eggs had not quite managed.

My love of the natural world came from this time and place. I also gained some understanding of the conflicts involved in interactions between species, including our own, and between individuals. Trust and compromise were as important for survival as threats and fangs.

There was a degree of freedom and security in the community that seems lost to later generations. Aged seven I was old enough to be sent to the store a mile away alone, but with a note for the store lady of what was needed in case I forgot. Once I lost the money en route. She gave me the stuff and told me to come back with the money next day.

We all have hazy memories of a golden place, a timeless time. That was and remains mine.


A big thank you to Phil van Wulven for sharing this guest blog about Fishhoek. To read more of the stories placed in this setting, be sure to click the links above or go to www.swazz7.blogspot.com!

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