While driving home a few days ago, I saw a newspaper poster quoting President Thabo Mbeki saying that "It's been a sad year". In many respects, I have to agree. There have been quite a few really terrible personal tragedies that have happened to people close to us. In the past few months alone, there have been two sudden deaths of young mothers leaving behind young infants and distraught families - one, the wife of a long-standing friend from our schooldays, and the other the daughter of a pastor of our church who we love dearly. The pain caused by this must be quite unimaginable. Our thoughts and prayers remain with the families of Basil, and Bruce and Patsy. We also finally lost our good friend Marie earlier this year, when her body simply couldn't take any more than the extra year or so of life that she had after the failure of her lungs had kept her on life support in intensive care for a few months in 2003. I also lost two good friends from work - Arno who had recently retired due to leukemia, and Basi who I had worked with so closely who died from stomach cancer. Then Errol Hancock (the brother of Deb's father who she grew up with as an elder brother when she was adopted by her grandparents as a young child) died at 61, after a sudden and unexpected stroke while on the golf course. We were also really sad to have to say goodbye to Liz Wurts when she came to the end of her struggle with cancer.
My sister, Lynne, has also had quite an ordeal this year. After getting married last December, her husband had times when he became abusive towards her, and she had to make the difficult decision of getting divorced in about the middle of the year. Rather that than become a perpetual victim to someone with a serious personality disorder. Anyway, she has come to the end of the year looking strong and positive.
In the midst of all this upheaval and sadness, there has also been a great deal for us to be very thankful for. The year has been a very full one, but we have savoured the numerous small times when we have been able to simply relax and enjoy outings with friends and each other. We have had wonderful visits to places like the Sammy Marks Museum (north of Pretoria), the Tree Haven Waterfowl Trust (near Vereeniging), the Market Theatre to see the musical production of 'Sophiatown', the Johannesburg Art Gallery to see an exhibition by Guy Tillim (and even had an unexpected guided tour of the exhibition by this photographer himself), the Standard Bank Art Gallery to see the Walter Battiss exhibition, and to the Observatory for a few wonderful physics and chemistry lecture demonstrations. I even managed to become an official member of the Cloud Appreciation Society (yes, such a thing does exist, and I think I am the first South African member) - I'm sure that there are those of you who are, at this point, shaking their heads knowingly, but that there are a few who will smile at this and see if they can find this website and join too.
During the mid-term break at the end of February, Debbie was away visiting her mother, Renet, in hospital in Cape Town, and David was away with friends, so Sarah and I went camping at Mountain Sanctuary Park in the Magaliesberg. We had a great time together, swimming in rock pools, and scrambling over boulders, following the river to just past the point where the bush became impenetrable.
Another fun family outing involved canoeing at Homestead Dam in Benoni with the Wurts and Bezemer families.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the year for us was the wonderful trip we had to Europe in August. We realised that with David approaching the end of high school, there might not be too many more opportunities for a major family excursion of this nature, so when the opportunity presented itself, we grasped it gladly. I was invited to present a paper (on platinum smelting) at a conference in Canada, and there were a few metallurgical plants that I had been wanting to visit for a while. Fortunately, I had accumulated sufficient frequent flyer miles to cover the airfares of Debbie, David, and Sarah to and from Europe (not quite enough to get to Canada though). A period of intensive planning ensued, culminating in a month-long trip that involved many visits to plants all over Europe, separated by long drives (where it was really enjoyable to admire the wonderful scenery in the company of my family). A few weekends and some days of leave provided ample time for sightseeing.
We started off by flying to Paris where I was based for the first couple of visits. Both David and Sarah have studied French at school and had learned and read so much about the city that it was a real treat to be able to visit so many of the well-known places. We took the lift to the top of the Eiffel Tower (and I enjoyed the exercise of taking the stairs on the way down) and enjoyed a spectacular view of the city.
The Arc de Triomphe, situated as it is in the hub of a series of roads radiating out like the spokes of a wheel, provided a closer view of downtown Paris.
Debbie enjoyed the quintessentially Parisian experience of sitting down and having a cup of coffee at a pavement cafe on the Champs Elysees, while I enjoyed taking pictures of the surroundings.
We took a boat ride on the River Seine, timed just right to enjoy the sunset. It's a very peaceful experience sitting back looking at the numerous bridges each with their own distinctive style, as well as hearing about the various buildings and places passing by, including lovely views of Notre Dame cathedral (which we visited later) and the old palace buildings of the Louvre.
If you time it right (as we did), entrance to most of the major art museums is free on the first Sunday of each month. Of course, there are still crowds of people like there are every other day, and the queue for entry snaked all around the vast courtyard, with people having to wait in the sweltering hot sun for over an hour in order to get their turn at going through the main entrance. However, I had read enough to know that there is an alternative entrance through the adjacent cool underground shopping area, where the queue was only about quarter of an hour. The Louvre is a magnificent museum that needs a very long time to do it full justice, but we were able to spend long enough to see the have-to-see works like Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, as well as many of the other exhibits that weren't quite as ridiculously crowded. From there, we changed pace, and walked to the much quieter outdoor Rodin Museum, where the sculptures are exhibited outdoors in the tranquil grounds of a large chateau, where we had a very enjoyable (and affordable) lunch at the open-air restaurant.
I really enjoy exploring cities on foot, and managed to do a lot of this, even when the rest of the family were too weary to do so. One of my longer walks took me to the Montparnasse Tower which boasts an even better of Paris than that from the Eiffel Tower (because you can't see the Eiffel Tower from the Eiffel Tower!). I also had two separate walks (one with David and one with Sarah) to explore the quaint area of Montmartre and the beautiful Sacre Couer that we could see in the distance from our hotel window.
The first DC arc furnace used for smelting steel-plant dust was installed in a town called Trith St Leger that I had some difficulty finding on a map. It's located in the north-east of France, very close to the Belgian border. (The steel plant is really the only reason for the town's existence, and I was fascinated to see how close the houses were built to the plant - literally right across a very narrow road.) Anyway, when I found the town on the map, I was intrigued to see that not at all far away was the Somme battlefield area from the First World War, including Delville Wood where my Grandad, at the age of 21, was deployed and wounded by shrapnel in his leg (which led to a period of convalescence in England where he met my Grandmother, but that is another separate story). Delville Wood has been preserved as a memorial of that terrible battle, and it was a deeply stirring thing to walk around the verdant pathways through the forest where thousands of lives were lost in July 1916. It left a huge impression to see the rows upon rows upon rows of identical well-tended white gravestones laid out in military precision, quite a few identified only as 'an unknown soldier'. There is a large South African memorial at the site where so many South African lives were sacrificed. The surrounding area is tranquil farmland and countryside, and it was touching to see a few red poppies growing amongst the crops in the fields. All the poems that I have read about the futility of war made so much sense.
From France, we drove through Belgium to Aachen (in Germany), where I had lined up visits to three university institutes at the Rheinisch-Westfalische Technische Hochschule Aachen, as well as a visit to the (relatively) nearby Duisburg to see the Waelz kiln belonging to B.U.S. Aachen is only about 10km from the point where three countries' borders meet - Germany, Netherlands, and Belgium. This is also right next to the highest point in the Netherlands (Vaalserberg, 322.5m). Now that there are no longer any border posts between these countries, it was an easy matter to drive there one evening and take some pictures of us standing in three countries at once, as well as one of Sarah being, for a brief moment, the highest person in the Netherlands. Among the interesting things we were shown in Aachen were the two-ton cast bronze doors of the cathedral. According to one of the older professors, they must have used a number of furnaces together to melt this quantity of metal, as a single furnace at that time would not have had this capacity. Charlemagne (the son of Pippin the Short) was crowned as king in the Aachen Cathedral (built about the year 786, more than 1200 years ago). I hadn't realised that Aachen was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire for about 600 years. No less than 32 Holy Roman emperors were crowned here. One of Charlemagne's many claims to fame (apart from being the first to unite western Europe) is that he initiated the first system of free and general education.
From Aachen we travelled south to Austria, stopping very briefly en route to have a quick look at the Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria that inspired the makers of Cinderella's castle in Disneyland. Driving over the Alps to our next destination was really a scenic treat. About seven years ago, I read about a copper smelter that originally treated their ores by a combination of roasting and smelting, a process similar to one I am doing a lot of work on at the moment, and hoped to get to visit it one day. Montanwerke Brixlegg has been going since 1463 and was active at the time of writing of the ancient metallurgical book by Georgious Agricola called 'De re metallica' ('of things metallic') which was published in 1556 (and translated into English by Herbert Hoover, who later became president of the USA). (By the way, Agricola also embarked on extensive travels in the course of documenting and illustrating metallurgical processes.) The buildings of the Brixlegg smelter are shown in a medieval religious painting that is on display in the mining museum at Brixlegg. As well as being one of the oldest smelters still functioning, I am convinced that this plant is also the one with the most beautiful setting in the world. It came as a wonderful surprise to me to find out that Brixlegg is situated in the midst of the prime tourism area in the Tyrolean skiing region of the Austrian Alps. We stayed in a family guesthouse in the neighbouring village of Alpbach, and would have loved to stay longer there. Even though there was no snow, the area was very popular in the summer season for alpine walks. After my visit to the plant and to the mining museum, we all took a cablecar ride up the mountain where David and I climbed further to the top of the Wiedersberger Horn (2128m) and then joined Debbie and Sarah to share an apple strudel.
About three houses down the road from where we stayed was a lovely old village church with a neat graveyard, where none other than the famous physicist Schrodinger (of wave equation fame) is buried.
After the visit to Austria, we spent a long weekend in Italy, stopping first in Venice. Interestingly enough, the first textbook on pyrometallurgy (which I have to confess that I have never read) called De La Pirotechnia, written by Vannoccio Biringuccio, was published in Venice in 1540. Of course, this was not the reason for visiting Venice. We drove across the long bridge onto the outskirts of the island where we parked our car at the huge Tronchetto parking garage, as cars can't get into the city. With a combination of walking and taking a water taxi, we reached our hotel soon enough, and spent a wonderful evening and morning exploring this amazing city on foot and by boat. Close to where we stayed was a walled-in area inhabited by Jewish people (predominantly by forced segregation) in the 1500s. Many of these people were merchants (remember Shylock in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice), and were settled in an area where metal foundries were operated. The Italian word for foundry or casting is believed to have given the area the name Ghetto, and that is where this general term originated. Walking in the area, it was interesting to see street names with a metallurgical connection such as 'Calle del Forno'. Oh yes, Venice was a really lovely place with some amazing sights, from the well-known Rialto bridge (the ponte di Rialto - ponte meaning bridge - was built in 1588-92 by the suitably named Antonio Da Ponte) and Piazza San Marco to the nameless alleyways and bridges that abound. And, even Venice has a McDonalds!
Our next base was Florence, which allowed us to visit the nearby town of Pisa to see the magnificent leaning tower (58m). There was growing concern a few years ago about the increasing tendency to lean, and the risk of collapse. Consequently, the tower was closed to visitors for 11 years, and only re-opened in 2001, when a simple (in hindsight, and after exhaustive calculations) engineering solution was employed to stop the tower leaning further. The reason for the lean in the first place was the subsiding sand on the one side, so they simply dug a little on the other side and let that subside a little too. It was a real highlight for me to climb the tilting tower and imagine Galileo being there back in 1589. (Isn't it ironic that Galileo was the one who got into trouble with the organized church of his day, for spreading the ideas of Copernicus whose book was dedicated to the pope?)
I had hoped to see the DC arc furnace operated by MultiServ at Thyssen Krupp's Acciai Speciali works at Terni in Umbria, but only got to see the plant from outside the gates, as I was informed while travelling that nobody was available to show me around as the plant was closed for maintenance over the summer holiday period. I did, however, get to see the reason for the location of this plant - the hydroelectric power station located about 6km out of town at Marmore Falls, the highest waterfall in Europe (165m). I was intrigued to find out that the waterfall was artificially created, back in 271BC by the Roman consul Curius Dentatus, who needed to drain a swamp. Since hydroelectric power was introduced there in 1930, the main flow of the waterfall is diverted much of the time, although there are some hours every day where the waterfall is allowed to show its full glory. The much-admired beauty of the waterfall has inspired poets and artists including Virgil, Cicero, and Byron. Lord Byron described the fall of the water as "an unequalled sight, horrifyingly beautifull". In the 19th century, Marmore Falls became a regular feature of the Grand Tour followed by noblemen and intellectuals through Europe to complete their education.
We drove back to Paris via the Italian and French Riviera, stopping to have a swim in the Mediterranean at Nice. En route, we spent the night at Dijon, before catching the Eurostar TGV train to take us from Paris, through the channel tunnel, to Waterloo Station in London.
I had scheduled only one visit in England - to Atomising Systems in Sheffield, although another visit to Inco's Acton Refinery was later arranged at short notice by their request. Primarily, I needed to depart from Heathrow Airport in London in order to get a direct flight to Calgary in Alberta, Canada. While I was away, Debbie, David, and Sarah went by train to Scotland (to stay with Sue Christie and family near Dundee). They had a wonderful time exploring castles, admiring the highland cows, and visiting the birthplace of James Barrie, author of Peter Pan. (Did you know that the character Peter Pan appeared in an adult novel called 'The little white bird' by James Barrie two years before the children's story 'Peter Pan' was produced for the stage in 1904?) James Barrie had the most amazing set of literary friends, and founded a cricket club together with Jerome K. Jerome, Arthur Conan Doyle, P.G. Wodehouse, and others, although only Doyle could really play cricket. James Barrie also knew George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells. Once he said to Wells: "It is all very well to be able to write books, but can you waggle your ears?"
While the rest of the family was in Scotland (which I was very sorry to miss), I spent a few days in Calgary, where I was invited to present a paper at a nickel-cobalt conference. The conference was one of the best I have ever attended, and I established some very worthwhile contacts. I also had a chance to get together with a number of good metallurgical friends now scattered quite far and wide across the world.
During the conference, the weather was rather rainy and miserable. However, on the day I left, the sun came out and the weather was perfect. As my plane was leaving fairly late in the afternoon, I made the most of the opportunity to drive out (starting very early) to see Banff National Park and Lake Louise in the Rocky Mountains. The Trans Canada highway runs right through this area, and I am sure that the scenery must be the most spectacular to be seen from any highway anywhere in the world. I also got to see the very beautiful Moraine Lake that was featured on the back of the old Canadian $20 bill. This was another brief sampling of a place I would love to return to.
Finally, almost at the end of our trip, I took some leave for us to stay with my Dad's sister and her husband, Barbara and Chris Barnard. We stayed in a cottage at Caydale Mill, just down the road from them in Old Byland in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park. To South Africans, it seems strange to have a national park that has people living in it, but it is a wonderful area and way of life that really does need to be preserved. We loved our time there, especially visiting friends. At Mount Pleasant farm, when we visited Edmund, Mabel, and Ian Ellis, David's eyes really lit up when he was given a chance to ride Ian's new quadbike as fast as he liked across the fields. We also visited the James Herriot museum at Thirsk, and the village of Helmsley, walked among the purple heather and ate bilberries on the moors, watched the gliders and enjoyed the view from Sutton Bank, and visited the Yorvik Viking Museum at York. More than anything, we enjoyed spending family time with Auntie Barbara and Uncle Chris, and we left very reluctantly.
Our last night in England was spent with the Porrill family, so that Sarah could spend some time with Nicola, her friend from primary school. They made us feel very welcome and it was lovely to see them again.
After leaving their house in the morning, we spent a day sightseeing in London before flying home from Heathrow Airport that night. We saw the sights via an open-top bus tour and boat ride on the River Thames with a wonderful Cockney tour guide.
Not many weeks after returning home, I was travelling again, this time a much shorter trip to the European Metallurgical Congress in Dresden. Situated in the former East Germany, the area had a different feel from the western part of Germany. The city is a very beautiful one, with some magnificent ancient buildings that needed to be rebuilt after the dreadful bombing of the area just over half a century ago. My hotel was situated about half an hour's walk from the conference centre on the other side of the historical centre, so every day I had two enjoyable (photographic) walks around the old town.
After the conference, there was an organised bus tour of numerous copper, zinc and lead smelters of southern Poland, in the company of some very interesting metallurgists. We spent one night in Krakow (and didn't get to see nearly enough of that city), and two nights in Wroclaw where one evening we had a fascinating guided walking tour of the town. It was interesting to see how the social life of the city's people revolved around the town square (instead of the shopping malls for the young people of Johannesburg), and there was a real buzz of activity there throughout the day and night. Poland is a fascinating country, swallowed up by Germany and Russia at different times of its history, with resilient people. There was an amazing contrast between the wonderful ancient architecture and the very ugly communist-era concrete apartment buildings. There was a sense of immense love and pride in the previous pope (John Paul II) having been Polish. Given my love for collecting surprising things, as I walked out of the gates of one of the plants we visited, I was astonished to see a man dressed in black and wearing a top hat, riding a bicycle just in front of me. By the time I realised that here was a real live chimney sweep, he was already some way down the road.
I flew home via Frankfurt, where I had half a day between flights to explore yet another wonderful city. Home of both Goethe and the European Bank, the city is a delightful mix of old and new.
In all of our travels around Europe this year, I realised again the fascination that history holds for me, and have thoroughly enjoyed reading widely about so many aspects of this subject. Instead of being one of the school subjects I was happiest to drop as soon as I possibly could, I see it now more in terms of the definition of history as 'all the data we have so far'.
I also learned that the state of wireless computer networking isn't all its cracked up to be in Europe. Connecting to the Internet in London or Calgary was a breeze, but there was parts of Europe where I really struggled and often failed to connect. Language difficulties are a huge drawback, and although I can usually fathom most circumstances and make myself understood to most people, there were a few times when I finally got a technically good wireless connection but couldn't read enough of the instructions to complete the connection and presumably make some sort of payment. Interestingly, the second trip presented no serious computer networking difficulties, so either I had become more experienced, or it was a regional thing.
On the work side of things, the year was another busy one, but this letter is already far too long, so I won't say too much about work this time, other than to say that I became part of the council of the SAIMM (South African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy) and take part in the technical programme committee, and am part of the editorial board of the journal.
Apart from our wonderful time away, Debbie has had quite a tough year this year. In February and March, she spent a few weeks visiting her mother, Renet, who was desperately ill in hospital in Cape Town. We are relieved that Renet is home now, but she still faces some challenges. Deb also had to go into hospital herself in May to have an abdominal hernia repaired for the second time. She also put a great deal of work into the 7th Kairos weekend (this time as leader of the weekend) held at Johannesburg Women's Prison in May, and finished up with a supporting role in the 8th course in October. Kairos has been a wonderful way of reaching out to prisoners, but Deb's own HeartWork personal growth course in the women's prison is where she is wanting to focus her efforts now. Two thirteen-week courses were run this year, as well as two courses to prepare the families of participants for reconciliation. This year has seen the release of some of some of the women that have been through the HeartWork programme, and part of the further development of HeartWork will undoubtedly involve some measure of support for ex-prisoners in their immense struggle to fit back into a world that is not ready to offer them jobs, which makes things extremely tough when there is a family to support. Debbie was also invited by Khulisa to run some workshops on forgiveness, in male prisons near Ladysmith and Pretoria.
Partly as recreation, but primarily to provide some means for providing some income for ex-prisoners, Deb has taken to doing a lot of beadwork - some herself, and some training of others. Our lounge looks like a bead factory quite a lot of the time!
David finished Grade 11 this year, and has really excelled especially in Computer Studies and Additional Maths. At the school's prizegiving, he was awarded the trophy for the best computer work in his grade. The trophy and accompanying award is in memory of a previous student, Justin Wootton, from Redhill who died in a car accident a few years after leaving school. The award commemorates the friendship (and shared love of computer games) between Justin Wootton and George Wu from Taiwan who also was at Redhill. Another noteworthy rite of passage for David was getting his learners licence, and so he is now driving us around at every possible opportunity. David is still really enjoying his school rugby, and we get to work out at gym together on more than the odd occasion. He has twisted my arm to play squash with him, but he plays much better than I do (although that doesn't say too much on its own), and my score sometimes gets to double digits (if you count in binary).
This year has been a momentous year for Sarah. She started high school, cut her hair short, and got braces on her teeth. More seriously, she had some tough friendship issues to deal with at school, and struggled deeply with depression which was really at its worst around the middle of the year. With treatment, lots of loving support, and the support of some friends, things have started looking up, and by the time end-of-year exams came up, she was able to really excel again and managed to get As for nine of the numerous subjects they take in Grade 8. She received merit awards for three of her subjects at the school prizegiving. She is a very determined (stubborn?) person with a wonderfully caring and compassionate heart, and it is wonderful to watch her growing into a very lovely young lady. On Christmas Eve, she and a friend (Samantha) went to the poor area of Westbury with some people from our church to hand out gifts and food to the children.
In all my years at school, no-one has ever thought of framing any of my exams, but that's what became of Sarah's art exam - a particularly lovely picture of a water lily. She framed it for me, and it now hangs on my study wall.
Kayla, our border collie, is now four years old, and continues to bring us a great deal of joy. She is a wonderfully responsive and affectionate animal (and a great running partner).
As you can see, it has been quite a year for us! We would have liked to have seen more of our friends, but really enjoyed the time we were able to spend with those we did get to see.
Rodney, Debbie, David, and Sarah