Mr. Knoops was a favourite in our town Messina (now Musina). He taught us all to ride horses. We took part in gymkhanas at the annual agricultural show and explored the local countryside bordering the Limpopo River.

I learned to ride on an ancient mare named Ros. Ros walked, then trotted, then cantered in circles, being controlled by Mr. Knoops by means of a length of rope tied to her bit. Only when one could comfortably remain on the saddle in a gentle canter and trot with a very upright back, did one pass the test. Up, down – back straight, reigns down, would Mr. Knoops gently mutter in his strong Dutch – English accent. We loved Mr. Knoops.

The day of the first ride was ever so exciting. The older boys (no girls in those days!) were assigned the biggest, fastest horses. As the smallest and youngest boy, I invariable was assigned the smallest, slowest mare – Poppit, and, on occasion, Sister a dappled white mare, with the right eye missing. We were told that she lost this eye when she bolted from a snake and ran into a thorn bush.

 Wearing of proper riding clothes was imperative. Jodhpurs, a riding jacket and riding crop were compulsory. Mr. Knoops would lead. He would be followed by the older riders – the last position would be taken up by me, on Poppit or Sister.

On a Wednesday afternoon, or some Saturdays, we would leave the stables, head out of Messina, past the mine and then towards ‘the Sands’. The Sands, as we used to call it, was a huge expanse of mine tailings, from the Copper mining operations of the Messina Transvaal Development Company.

As we headed down a track through the Mopani bushes and the Baobab trees and into ‘the Sands’, Mr. Knoops would shout, ‘trot’, or ‘canter’. As we trotted on, he would turn his head to see if we were trotting correctly – straight back, hands down, reins gently taut. Very seldom would we head off in a gallop. This only occurred after much pleading with him. Suddenly we would all charge off, following his command – ‘galop’ (gallop in Dutch). Then we would all head into the veld – a veritable ‘charge of the Light Brigade’.

On Poppit I would be miles behind – arms flailing, shouting – ‘wait for me – wait for me!’.

Sister was a different story. She was only marginally faster than Poppit, but she had this bad eye – or, rather, vacant eye socket with the eye missing! For some reason, she would shy from anything on her right-hand side that appeared remotely frightening. So, if in full gallop, she would suddenly shy, with me carrying on forward, out of the saddle, at some speed. Falling, and falling hard was always inevitable. I had many bruises and cuts to show and brag about.

If we spotted an Impala or Kudu, we would gallop after the exasperated animal, which ducked and weaved to shake off the mob of ‘yeehawing’ riders – including Mr. Knoops, who lost all sense of decorum on such occasions.  

Baobabs and Mopani

We would ride to the Limpopo River – choosing a ‘safe’ section of the river to cross, supposedly free of crocodiles. We believed that they preferred to lie on the banks of the river, waiting sleepily, watching through a single eye usually, for something edible to come their way.

The leading unsaddled horses would gingerly enter the water with the riders on their backs and swim strongly across, stretching their legs out as they scrambled out of the water.

I would be the last. I would hold on fiercely as Poppit entered the water. She was a strong little swimmer – her legs working like the blades of a windmill under her. I imagined crocodiles everywhere. A stick or piece of bark floating by could be a snout of a ‘croc’! The ‘Our Father, which art in Heaven’ was recited many times. None of us, particularly me, relished the idea of being ‘taken’ by ‘croc’.  I wondered how my parents would react to the news that I had been ‘taken’ by a ‘croc’ – also, how would it be reported in the Copper Mining Company Newspaper; the MTD Times?

In telling this story, I feel sad and somewhat hopeless. A dark shadow has fallen over that once pristine bushveld.

It was with dismay that I learned that ‘the Sands’ is one of the most polluted abandoned mine sites in South Africa – with toxic tailings spreading for kilometers into the surrounding countryside.

The Sands – Toxic Tailings

The company that mined the Copper, only saw the front end of what they were doing – and existed only for the profits they were making. They never gave a thought to what they were going to do to the land. They did not construct a proper means for containing the mine waste, or tailings. They just let it flow into the veld – after all, that was not their home or backyard!

As with most mining operations in South Africa, and, indeed, across the world, mining has left a terrible legacy. It is only in recent years that remediation and rehabilitation of mine tailings and dams is occurring – with very limited success; the damage done is so deep and extensive that the damage in most cases is irreversible.  

We would unthinkingly head off on those Wednesdays and Saturdays, to ‘the Sands’. There would be Impala, Kudu, Warthogs, and many smaller animals foraging for food, among the Baobabs, Maroela and Mopani trees; courageously standing in the Copper mine tailings that flowed inexorably from the mine processing units. The tailings spread as far as the eye could see. Some areas were thick and caked, whereas other areas were dry and dusty. When the wind blew, there would be tailings dust everywhere. As we galloped across ‘the Sands’ on a windy day, the tailings dust would get into our eyes and mouths.   

Now we know that these tailings contained highly toxic heavy metals – toxic to plants, living creatures and to ourselves.

Scientists and engineers have discovered that ‘the Sands’ contains high levels of toxic Lead, Zinc, Copper, Nickel, Manganese and Arsenic. These metals are going to stay for a very, very long time – so those Mopani trees, Baobabs, Impala and Kudu, and all the creatures still left, that call that home, are going to be continually exposed. The food they eat, water they drink, will all contain toxic nasties and at unacceptably high concentrations.

A recent photograph of ‘the Sands’ show that the tailings have spread very far into the bushveld; having destroyed the pristine beauty of that bushveld that I remember, from long ago.  

Surely all lives matter – those plants, animals, birds, insects and humans!

Environmentalists, engineers, and politicians have woken up to the situation and the plight of the land, and those that live on it – now only, long after the mines have been abandoned. When it is probably too late, steps are being taken to combat this most intractable of problems. I believe that things may never be the same again. There are too many irreversible things that have occurred.

In the world of chemistry, once you have gone down a path, it is not easy to get back. When you burn something, Oxygen is involved. This gets converted to Carbon Dioxide. It is not easy to go the other way! Once heavy metals, such as Copper are put into the earth or water, it is much more difficult to remove it.

Or, am I being too pessimistic?