The Helicopter Tree

When I was nine, we moved from Northcliff to Bryanston, Sandton. The three-acre garden was not manicured like those of our neighbours, but it was a wonderful wild space for me and my brothers. Playing Tarzan and his ape-friends, we explored every tree that could be climbed or hidden under. Pretty jacarandas lined the boundary with the busy main road. Their canopy of light fern-like leaves provided welcome relief from the sun after the walk home from school. In spring and early summer, before the green came out, they created a lilac world with clouds of crisp blooms that fragrantly carpeted the ground after each rainfall.

Avenue of Jacarandas by Graham Bould
Avenue of Jacarandas by Graham Bould

On either side of the driveway entrance was a huge acacia elata, with dark brown bark and deep green leaves. They were easy to climb, with broad branches all the way to the top. I loved to sit there, twenty metres above the ground, alternately playing my recorder and singing my heart out, or reading in the dappled light while the breeze rustled the thin dark leaves gently about me.

Acacia Elata © Black Diamond Images
Acacia Elata © Black Diamond Images

We had no fence along that road, but my parents had created inside the line of trees a row of grassy hills from building rubble and soil to act as a sound barrier. In the quieter main garden, there were a syringa, a willow and a yellowwood, and many other trees. My favourites were the small Spanish oak that turned brilliant shades of red and orange in autumn and the huge tree down the slope from the patio that my brother called the “helicopter tree” because of its winged seeds. From its strong branches hung our car-tyre swing and a birdhouse for the twenty or so white doves that my mother had installed on a determined whim. The un-caged population, inevitably, did not remain pure white, but we loved to see and hear them coming and going about their bird business.

The height of the helicopter tree, which even I could not scale, kept the birds safe from a succession of other beloved pets: Juno, the boxer who had been with us ever since I could remember, Buster, the black pointer who ran away, a bulldog called Belinda who bit my father, and two gorgeous Bouviers, Casper and Gigi, and their litters. These powerful dogs were assisted in watchdog duties by some much more scary geese. Although I yearned for the tree skills of my cats, Mischief, Peculiar, and Malkat (mad cat), who were my jungle panther totems, even they seldom ventured up that forbidding trunk. Afterthought, a pure white, blue-eyed, deaf, albino cat, who always came late for everything, never even bothered to try.

For my eleventh Christmas, the best Christmas ever, my parents gave me a cremello-coloured, sweet-tempered horse called Butterscotch. My younger brother received a cheeky cross-Welsh pony, Prince, who was black with a white blaze. We would ride them bareback in the garden, playing Lone Ranger and Tonto and ducking low under sweeping branches, or, saddled, galloping through the surrounding countryside.

Butterscotch and Prince in the treed garden

They lived in the stables and paddock that my father and uncle had built and fenced in the scrubby acre behind the house that held thorn trees and khaki bos. Every so often, we would wash them with apple-scented shampoo and set them free under the helicopter tree to graze on the greener grass in front of the house as a reward for their good behaviour under the hose.

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Tia Azulay 27Apr09 Copyright © 2009 Tia Azulay

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