A Tribute to Penny Palmer

16 Janaury 1936 – 23 October 2017

500th Hack, 01/08/2004, Penny & Merrilee
500th Hack, 01/08/2004, Penny & Merrilee

Penny P, first female wielder of chain-saws at the Betty’s Bay Hack, birder, frog finder, music-lover, writer, mimic, comic, past chairman of the Kogelberg Branch of BotSoc SA.

Penny lived in Kleinmond when she first came to the Kogelberg in her early fifties. There she was a co-founder of the Hiking Club, keen member of the Nature Conservation Society, even sang in a choir. She discovered the Betty’s Bay Hack – Joy Ruger tells of how she and Penny cycled all the way to hack at Betty’s Bay, hacked then had to battle against the wind all the way home. Penny stopped, “a whale” she said before admitting no whale just the need to rest. Perhaps that led her to move home nearer to Betty’s Bay.

Penny was still in Kleinmond when she became chairman of the Kogelberg Branch. Jill Attwell wrote in her History of the Betty’s Bay Wild Flower Society in 1994 – the branch paid for its publication – “Without the support of Penny Palmer, Chairperson of the Branch, this History would not have seen the light of day. Thank you Penny” *

Penny had an excellent brain which she applied to so many aspects of the natural world. She was a prolific writer for local publications as well as BotSoc’s ‘Veld and Flora ‘. As she prepared to move to her final home, Clareinch Nurses War Memorial Home in Pinelands, we heard that she had shared that BotSoc award for best article by an amateur botanist in Veld and Flora the previous year. It was about the dune flora of Betty’s Bay, her prize a year’s subscription to BotSoc. Some years earlier, she had featured in Veld and Flora as a “Kogelberg Branch Person of Note”.  When Kogelberg Branch started awarding BotSoc SA’s Certificates of Appreciation, Penny was amongst the first group of three to receive one.

Today we take the UNESCO Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve as a long-established fact.  Penny was one of two people who initiated and drove the process leading to its formation. The first requirement of the UN was to have a local public participatory body; Dr Schalk Walters and Penny formed KOBIO, wrote its constitution and had it accepted as an organisation representing all the people of the wide area involved. When Dr Walters retired as chairman of KOBIO, Penny remained as secretary under the next two chairmen. One of them, Louis van Heerden says she was the driving force, willing to twist arms while being very meticulous in her secretarial duties.

Before authorities took over management of the Stoney Point penguin colony, it was run by a dedicated organisation of which Penny was the secretary. She had the gate key, visited often, knew where the chicks were, how many eggs there were and of course wrote articles for the little newsletter. Penny’s keen ear made her a special birder; she could not only recognise calls but mimic them. Every year she would take part in the official water bird count at Bot River Lagoon.

That keen ear helped Penny recognise frog calls; she was a very reliable official frog atlasser. At the same time she contributed to bird and protea atlases. Tony Rebelo, author of the Proteas A field Guide to the Proteas of Southern Africa wrote in his acknowledgements, “a special thanks goes to….”  a list including Penny Palmer “ who provided valuable data and range extensions and who honed my skills” Great friend, Caroline Joubert and Penny wrote a book on the sedges of Betty’s Bay which hopefully will be published one day.

A good ear is a marvellous for a music lover; Penny would identify the soloist in a concerto recording. When living in Cape Town there was not a concert or opera which she missed. Her CD collection was a great source of joy once she moved to the wilds of the Kogelberg. Cape Dutch architecture was another interest also the history of the Eastern Cape for that is where she grew up; she had many books on both subjects.

Penny’s family was rooted in the Grahamstown area; her second name reflects that – John Ayliff who was the first to translate chapters of the Bible into Xhosa was a forefather. Her school was DSG in Grahamstown and as a girl she sang in the Cathedral. There were Palmer farms and it was grandmothers and great aunts on farms who first sparked her interest in the natural world. On leaving school, Penny worked as a laboratory assistant in a research institute in Grahamstown and then briefly for the Fishing Institute Research Institute in Cape Town in 1957. It was there where I met Penny, the beginning of a sixty-year friendship. She realised that nursing was what she really wanted to do, returning to Grahamstown to train, doing ‘Midder’ in Pietermaritzburg before returning to Cape Town where she worked at Victoria Hospital, qualifying as a theatre sister and matron at Groote Schuur Hospital.

Penny was restless, she bought and ran a fish shop in Tambours Kloof and when that didn’t work, she went into the private sector working at Constantiaberg Hospital. She wanted a very different life, exchanged her Rosebank house for one in Kleinmond and that’s when this great force for conservation arrived in the Kogelberg.

We have to be very glad that Penny’s nursing career qualified her for residence in Clareinch, which was started “to provide a home for aged nurses”. There she was cared for with love and respect; there was even a sister who shared Penny’s brand of humour and this often brightened her day. Her Betty’s Bay friends supported her in different ways. On her wall hung a print, a picture of an otter at Betty’s Bay given her by the artist and a framed certificate with an original painting of a Nerina from KOBIO. Her bed was chosen so that she could look out at greenery; the garden had a prize winning Gnidia in it; altogether a fitting place for one of nature’s great champions.

A tribute limmerick, by Christopher New, who wrote it in memory of Penny’s special brand of humor, often enhanced by excellent mimicry:

“Goodbye to our dear Penny Palmer
Who’s now gone to somewhere much calmer
In her will she has stated
She should be cremated
So no need to have them embalm’er.
(Or –  So no need to have an embalmer)”

– Mary Rose Berrisford aka Merrilee

*note this booklet will shortly be available as an e-book