The last post needs to be stamped out – tales of past postal experiences

I HAVE always thought it nothing short of miraculous that by simply licking a small gummed piece of paper (called a stamp in case you had forgotten) and attaching it to an addressed envelope, that missive can  (or perhaps more accurately, could) be sent anywhere on the planet as if by magic.

South African Post has a proud history going back 500 years to a time when sailors travelling to and from India and the Far East around the southern coast of the African continent placed letters under postal stones hoping they would be found and carried to their destinations by other ships, but with the passing of each year, SA Post’s chances of survival get slimmer and slimmer.

And instead of doing everything possible to provide an efficient service not to mention honouring its own slogan…’We deliver whatever it takes’…SA Post is spiralling towards ‘the last post’.

There have been numerous articles about the sad state of this once efficient parastatal in the Herald.

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Eight days takes eight weeks

To add to the list of poor service recorded by Herald readers, a friend posted a small padded package (about the size of a greeting card envelope) to me pre- Christmas from the American state of Massachusetts. Costing US$25 (well over R300) her post office advised it would take roughly eight days to arrive.  Of course it didn’t – in fact it took pretty well eight weeks to find its way into my Southbroom post box.

Now, I may be wrong, but during the run up to Christmas and well into January, there are more airline flights than at any other time of the year.  Even from here, planes, loaded to capacity with passengers, baggage and freight fill the airspace, travelling to the four corners of the globe.   So what happens to mail leaving here for overseas destinations and the incoming mail?

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All can say is thank goodness that cheery, white-bearded chap who heads off  annually from his grotto in the North Pole in his sleigh in time to deliver gifts to all the little children, never has never has to call on SA Post to help with deliveries.

Not everyone communicates electronically, so for many, despite the mediocre standard of service, it is business as usual at the post office.

Looking back

Here are some interesting facts –

  • The country’s first ‘postal office’ opened in 1793 and operated from a room next to the pantry at the Castle in Cape Town.
  • The Penny Black, the first adhesive postage stamp used in a postal system was issued in May 1840 but lasted less than a year when Treasury switched to the Penny Red and began using black ink for cancellation instead of the former red.
  • South Africa’s first postage stamp was the Cape Triangular, issued in 1853.
  • And, if you can believe it, in 1905, the largest diamond in the world, the Cullinan was sent to London as a normal recorded postal article.

And while I wouldn’t take the risk today, in times of yore some pretty unusual things were sent through the post AND WERE RECEIVED.

A friend recalls that during the open shooting season for birds (pheasant, partridge etc) in England which runs from October to January 31, her parents often received a brace from friends through the post.   

While many readers will have delightful, unusual ‘postie’ stories to share, here are a few of mine.

A soldier’s gift  

When my father returned to Australia from the Middle East after serving in Syria during WWII, he was posted to Jacky Jacky (now Bamaga)  far up near the tip of Cape York peninsula.  At the time there were many troops concentrated in the region, brought together to either defend Australia against the advancing Japanese or to step off for deployment into SW Pacific, under Macarthur’s command.

For reasons unknown father’s regiment stayed put.  So there he was, sweating it out under swaying coconut palms in tropical Jacky Jacky and starts thinking of his young schoolgoing sister, way down south in Newcastle where there were definitely no swaying coconut palms.

What’s more, no one in the entire family had ever seen anything as exotic as a coconut, so father sets to change that by sending her one in the post!

Using a pocket knife, he carved his sister’s address into the coconut shell and as there had to be a sender, on the adjacent side, father added his name and service number. Would have been fantastic to learn what the postage cost, but sadly, the stamps, originally glued on the shell, peeled off years ago.

But the good news is that the coconut from Jacky Jacky, now over 70 years old remains one of my brother’s most treasured items.

Bantam eggs take a journey

Growing up in the country, I don’t believe a ‘bought egg’ ever crossed our threshold. Everyone kept chooks and for a time I had a lively flock of bantams.

My cousin lived in a block of flats in a Sydney beachside suburb and for years, every May, it became the custom to send her a special birthday present straight from the country – a dozen, freshly laid, tiny bantam eggs.

And using an old cardboard shoe box, the eggs were carefully placed into a protective bedding of torn newspaper. The parcel was then wrapped in brown paper, addressed, securely tired with string and taken to the post office.

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Two or three days after being posted from this small NSW country town in the northern tablelands, the fragile cargo was delivered to her front door by a friendly Coogee postie.

And over the many years my bantam eggs made the journey south not a single egg ever arrived cracked or, heaven forbid, ‘scrambled’.

A loaf of beer

One of the most unusual postie stories from my past occurred when I was living in England and received a 750ml long neck bottle of Hunter Old Ale in the post from Australia.

While this regional draft ale had been around since 1869, it was bottled only in 1970.  My dear papa could have sent many things but decided this fine ale was worthy of being shared with his only daughter.

Solving the matter of suitable packaging, he consulted the town’s local baker giving him the necessary statistics.  The baker obliged and agreed to bake an exceptionally large, oversized sandwich loaf, which father halved, lengthwise, and then ‘buried’ the bottle in the soft white spongy interior.

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Satisfied, the loaf was secured with string, it was first wrapped in several layers of newspaper, then brown paper and tied up with more string and posted to where I lived in Nettlebed, Oxfordshire.

Six weeks later, it arrived – no breakages, no leaks, just a heap of very smelly, mouldy, bacteria ‘enriched’ packing material.

Modern day ‘telegram’

A few years ago, unable to attend my favourite nephew’s Canberra wedding in Australia, I decided to share something of yesteryear with the newlyweds – a telegram!

This authentic look-alike ‘gram’ was created by a clever colleague in the Herald’s production department, by first copying an original sent when I was married.  The original message was deleted and replaced with a new one, taking care to include the word ‘stop’ to break sentences.

It was brilliant.

In fact it was SO brilliant, before reading my message of congratulations to the newlyweds, my brother as the father of the groom, needed to explain, in detail, to the younger guests attending the reception, what a telegram was!

Come on SA Post!

Helen Zille comments about colonialism recently got her into a tad of trouble but it is a fact that last century (and indeed before) the post office functioned like a well-oiled machine.

The mail delivery system is actually one of the last great examples of international co-operation. From the days of the Penny Black, it grew into a distribution system without equal so, please SA Post, do everything possible to ensure the ‘last post’ is not stamped out!


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Libby Cochrane

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