Jan 30

‘Being in SA again was like meeting an old friend’

Lauren Bradley, her husband and their two small children returned to South Africa from the UK after 20 years. In her inspirational homecomer story she speaks about how chance events led to her and her husband buying a farm in the Western Cape, and thus transforming their lives in the process.

There’s a great quote by EM Forster that resonates quite well with me these days:

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

When I started this blog last year, the questions a lot of people asked were “how did you do it, why did you do it and do you have any regrets” – Not quite sure, for our kids, and no (not yet anyway).

When it comes to why we are back in South Africa after 20 years abroad, I can sum it up in one word: Serendipity – the wonder of finding good things without ever looking for them.

Before I detail all those why, how, and when questions, I need to talk first about Serendipity.

For a cynic (like myself, at least, like I used to be) serendipitous moments are usually associated with fairy tales and make believe. It’s hard to accept that a chance happening can completely change your life – it does sound a bit far-fetched. Perhaps chance moments don’t even exist, perhaps we make them up to give us hope when we feel hopeless. I have learned that chance moments can develop into something wonderful, if you will step back and let them.

I think a lot of us, myself included, have forgotten how to let go, to step back and watch events unfold. We struggle to let nature run its course and see what happens. It feels unnatural in today’s world where we find comfort in predictability – I suppose it’s a coping mechanism during times of uncertainty.

Maybe it’s because we don’t trust time to do its thing, so we ignore opportunities that can transform us for the better.

My husband and I never intended to buy a farm in South Africa, looking back, it’s really all to my husband’s credit. 6 years ago, on a chilly winter’s night in our little terraced house in South London, my husband was up late working at his computer. He took a short break and started to browse the web, and there it was, our beautiful farm for sale.

My husband called me over and said, “look at this, isn’t it amazing?” and I agreed, it was amazing – wild, remote, desolate, beautiful, but it wasn’t anything we took too seriously.

We are not farmers. We weren’t ever going to buy a farm and certainly not a farm in South Africa in the middle of nowhere. Rather, that night, the conversation was more one of those day dreamy chats you have when you just want to imagine what life would be like away from the world as you know it.

And that was just it, a dreamy chat which was over just as soon as it had started.  The farm vanished from our lives and it didn’t cross our minds again for another 4 years.

And in those 4 years we got on with our lives, went on summer holidays, grew as a family, left London, moved to a small village in Surrey, became part of our community, and life was good.

4 years later, the same thing happened again, the farm popped back into our lives.

It was another late night, my husband was working at home, I had just settled our newest baby boy, and somewhere between being the exhausted parents of small children and supporting each other through bloodshot tired eyes.

I sat next to my husband at his desk with two fresh coffees and we ended up looking at houses for sale in England, France, South Africa, Australia, anywhere – for no reason at all other than to daydream. Before we knew, the farm was in front of us again.

The same conversation we had from 4 years ago picked up exactly where it left off as if no time had passed at all.  We talked about our lives, who we were, where we were going, what we wanted for ourselves and our children. We imagine a life in the wild, we thought about what we would do, we pored over pictures, we googled, we daydreamed.

By morning, we agreed that we should ask our closest friend in Cape Town to make enquiries and that my husband should go to South Africa to the farm to have a look around.

I remember it all so clearly, when we booked my husband’s flights, I kept saying to myself, “this is crazy, this is insane, who does this…?” I chuckle when I look back.

It wasn’t as simple as we thought.

Two days before my husband was about to leave for South Africa, things changed again. I randomly checked his passport and saw it had expired, no idea how we missed this, I let the team down, 6 months prior I offered to sort the renewal out and forgot all about it.

It was then when the serious doubts crept in and I thought “there you go, a sign that this is not meant to happen. it was a lovely idea, but it will never work.” We had wasted our time and money. He couldn’t fly, the tickets were non-refundable.

Or so I believed…..After the chaos of the ticket/passport stress settled. My husband rather calmly turned to me and said “you’re just going to have to go instead, we can’t get a refund, can’t change the dates, but we can change the traveller” – I’m sorry WHAT?

I’d never spent a night away from my children. I’d only ever set foot in Cape Town twice before. If anyone should go, it should be my husband, he is the one who found the farm, he’s the one who started it all, the one with all the South African knowledge, not me. I’ve only ever lived in South Africa’s Natal province and travelled along the east coast as a teenager. I know nothing of the west.

2 days later, I hugged and kissed my family goodbye and boarded a flight to South Africa.

I’ll never forget the moment I knew we were going to buy our farm. I hadn’t set foot on it yet – I was on the road to the farm with about an hour or two left to travel when I reached another winding mountain pass.

There was a long upward stretch of road leading to the start of the pass and when I reached the top, the sky opened up and I looked down across the spectacular vastness of the Western Cape landscape. It took my breath away.

The mountains lined the horizon. The red rocks were glowing the afternoon light. It was May, the start of winter, and the sky was this wonderful hazy blue, and that’s when I knew. I knew we were going to buy this farm. I hadn’t seen it yet, but I knew that somehow, with all my reservations and worries about my children, their educations, and the lifestyle changes we would have to make, I knew.

I had fallen in love with South Africa all over again. All those homesick emotions and memories that I had buried inside and forgot about for so long came flooding back to me. I still get goosebumps when I think of it.

I remembered the earthy smell of hot stones after a rainstorm, the red dust that covers your shoes, the lazy nap time feeling on a hot Sunday afternoon when the birds stop chirping and time stands still, and the cool quiet of an early morning before the searing heat burns it away – the deep blue African sky, the wildlife, the fynbos, the stars, the incredible sweeping and varied landscape and people that make up South Africa.

Being in South Africa again was like meeting an old friend I hadn’t seen in a while, and it was wonderful, emotional, fantastic. If England was the country that built me, South Africa was the foundation that helped me to grow.

As I arrived at the gate to the farm in a cloud of dust the car had kicked up, it felt like the farm had been waiting for my family to be here this whole time.

I met the owner, we shared stories, cried a bit, laughed a bit, and before I left, I remember saying, “ok, we will buy your farm” I wasn’t sure how, or when, but we would do it. I knew my husband would feel the same way too, he was the one who felt that initial gut punch first. He knew all along we would buy this farm, and 18 months later, we did.

I often think what would have happened if my husband travelled to the farm first instead of me? That’s the wonder of chance events sometimes you have to see them through.

This experience has been all about that process: Chance events and giving up a life you have for a life that is waiting for you. A life of unimaginable adventure in the wild together.