It was a sad fact. The Umgeni was going to be dammed. Again. The fourth big dam on its course from the Dargle to the sea. Many people love dams. I hate them. They ruin the valleys and change nature for ever. Dams wipe out species – many before we even discover them; they flood huge areas of wetlands, riverine forest and grasslands; they displace people and affect everything living downstream. Large dams hold back not just water, but silt and nutrients that replenish farmlands and build protective wetlands and beaches. If you love rivers, dams are the enemy – the disease that kills. Dams don’t just change the river valleys in our waterways, they obliterate them. Yet people love them.
So the Umgeni was going to be dammed and damned; and I wanted a last paddle on that part of the river which was destined to be for ever gone.
So I rounded up some boats and some non-paddling friends in August 1988. Come and paddle a part of the famous Duzi Canoe Marathon course, I said. And the suckers fell for it! Geoff Kay, Mike and Yvonne Lello, Pete Stoute, sister Sheila; and wife Trish joined me in the valley. Some brought some kids, and some valley kids joined us.
We launched the boats with fanfare, breaking a bottle of champagne on each one’s hull (OK, not really) – AND:
They didn’t float! The river was so shallow they hit the bottom, even thought their draft was like two inches!
Oh well, it turned out to be not a paddle but a trudge. And – literally – a drag. But fun nonetheless!
I stared at the banks and the valley walls as I trudged. Soon yahoos would be racing outboard motors here. Soon this life and interesting variety all around us would be drowned forever.
First we went to Swinburne, to Jenny (Mapp) and Steve Cleverley’s Hound and Hare on the far bank of the Wilge River, across the old 1884 sandstone toll bridge where we had launched a canoe journey many years before; There we watched a bunch of large blokes with odd-shaped balls shove each other around, playing ‘If someone gives you the ball, give it to the other blokes.’ Lovely to see Jenny’s smile again – I hadn’t seen her for ages.
We were almost outnumbered by the Welsh contingent there (that being Steve himself, being noisy), but we managed to see him off and send his team to play for bronze against that tongue-pulling outfit that play a bit of rugby in black outfits.
More importantly – and fittingly for our Hysterically-Minded gang – the result sets up a 2019 re-enactment of the Anglo-Boer War. Let’s hope the Poms play fair this time.
After a lovely lunch of roasted hound or hare we fell in line under Field Marshall Lello RSVP’s orders and listened to our knowledgeable local guide Leon Strachan in the hall kindly made available to us by Steve the Welsh rarebit. Leon told us the true story of the pioneer de Heer family, led by patriarch Pieter de Heer.
Then we drove to the farm Keerom on the edge of the Lost Valley on the Drakensberg escarpment; the border of the Free State and KwaZulu Natal. The story Leon told was of a family that lived a good, self-supported, independent life, sent their kids to school, used local services such as post office, shops and lawyers; sold their goods in the towns of Swinburne and Harrismith; married locally (and NOT incestuously!).
Just like many normal families, some of their children and grandchildren spread all over (one great-grandson becoming a neurosurgeon) and some remained – the farm is still owned by their descendants. People who didn’t understand them, nor know them, nor bother to get to know them, wrote inaccurate stories about them which must have caused the family a lot of heartache over many decades.
What a spectacular valley. It had burnt recently, but already flowers were popping up in the grassland.
Heather and Elize spotted a Solifuge scurrying about. They must have disturbed him, as Sun Spiders often hide by day and hunt by night.
Next we drove off to Nesshurst, Leon’s farm where he grows cattle and msobo, to look at his etchings. Well, his fossils. He has 150 million year old Lystrosaurus fossils on his farm and some in his museum, along with a Cape Cart he bought when he was in matric back in 1971! He has restored it beautifully. A catalogue of his ‘stuff’ would take pages, but I saw farm implements, military paraphenalia, miniature trains, hand-made red combines made by his childhood Zulu playmate; riems and the stones that brei and stretch them; yob-yob-ting cream separators; a Harrismith Mountain Race badge; photos of old British and Boer generals and leaders; a spectacular photo of Platberg and the concentration camp where women and children were sent to die by the invading British forces; a lovely collage made by Biebie de Vos of Harrismith Town Square, old prominent buildings and older prominent citizens, including my great-granpa, ‘Oupa’ Stewart Bain, owner of the Royal Hotel and mayor of the town; Also a Spilsbury and a Putterill. And Harrismith se Hoer School rugby jerseys.
We then repaired to The Green Lantern roadside inn in the village of Van Reenen for drinks and a lovely dinner. I had a delicious mutton curry which actually had some heat; I didn’t have to call for extra chillies – maybe as Van Reenen is in KZN, not in the Vrystaat.
Tomorrow we would head off west to climb Platberg the easy way: 4X4 vehicles driving up Flat Rock Pass (or Donkey Pass).
Leon grows cattle and msobo – and he also writes books! Nine so far. Four on the mense of Harrismith; One on the Harrismith Commando; One on the Anglo-Boer War concentrating on the area around Harrismith; one on his Grandad who was a Son of England; and more.
Why Swinburne? After Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837 – 1909), the English poet? He was alcoholic and wrote about many taboo topics, such as lesbianism, cannibalism, sado-masochism and anti-theism. He liked to be flogged and hated travel. So probably not him.
Some other Swinburne? I must ask Leon Strachan . .
Ah! I knew he’d know . .
Gold was ‘discovered’ in Matabeleland! Bullshitters bullshitted and people got excited! Such was the excitement around the discovery and hope in the new goldfield’s prospects that new companies were floated in London to take advantage of the rush. The most prominent of these companies was the London & Limpopo Mining Company, formed in late 1868. Such was the serious intent of the company that it sent its principal manager, Sir John Swinburne, with a team of experts and miners and a fleet of mining machinery, to Tati to establish the first large-scale gold mining operation in Southern Africa. The party arrived at Tati in April 1869, erected Southern Africa’s first mechanically operated appliance to crush gold-bearing ores and started work at once.
Ah! But BEFORE Swinburne arrived in Matabeleland, he had an adventure on the way. Leon describes it in his book BLAFBOOM:
Sir John Swinburne landed at Port Natal in 1868 and hurried ashore. He bought five wagons and six teams of trained oxen, unloaded his mining equipment off the ship, loaded it onto his wagons and set off post-haste, heading of course, for Harrismith, where everything happens.
Unfortunately for him and his hurry, it was a wet year, making the going difficult. His destination was Tati, on the present Botswana / Zimbabwe border, and as everyone knows, the route is Harrismith – Potchefstroom – Tati. He had concessions from King Lobengula of Matabeleland which would prove worthless, but he didn’t know that as he encouraged his oxen to move their arses. It went fairly well through Natal to the Drakensberg and even up van Reenens Pass, past Moorddraai mountain, but the marshy ground at Bosch Hoek farm trapped him. All his wagons sank to the axles.
After a week of trying – and, I imagine, some foul language – he was still stuck and his oxen were buggered. Disheartened, he swapped the wagons and oxen for a farm! The farm Albertina on a drift across the Wilge River became his property. He then hired a transport rider to take all his goods to Potch for him. He himself couldn’t wait. He hopped onto the post cart and off he went, ahead, things to do! He would never return to Albertina.
Years later the farm was sold by a local agent. In 1892 the Natal railroad reached the drift. A station and a bridge across the river were built. The station was named Albertina. About a decade later a station on the Riversdale to Mossel Bay line down in the Cape Colony was also named Albertina and chaos ensued. Parcels and letters for one Albertina were sent to the other and hearts were broken (I’m guessing here).
Something had to be done. The Railway high-ups rose to the occasion, re-naming the Free State station after a prominent previous owner of the farm it was situated on: Sir John Swinburne (1831-1914), the 7th Baronet of Capheaton; quite an adventurer, he was also Sheriff of Northumberland. He served in the Burmese War of 1852, in China and in the Baltic in 1854. In 1885 he was elected Labour MP for Lichfield, Staffordshire.
At the turn of the century the farm was bought by Abraham Sparks, father of the Texan tie Abe we knew. This started a long association with Swinburne village by the Sparks family which lasts to this day. Watching rugby in the Hound and Hare with us was Christopher Sparks, great-great-great grandson of Abraham.
Looking at the 2016 Dusi results I see the first finisher who, if I bumped into him, would say ‘Howzit Swanie’ or ‘Howzit Pete’ came in 93rd !!
Getting old! Gone are the days when I knew most of the top ten!
Another observation – 13 of the top 20 had African surnames. Wonder how the anti-Affirmative-Action boys would explain that away? I would bet good money if they (we!) were asked beforehand ‘What sports are Africans likely to do well in if given a chance?’ few would have suggested Dusi paddling!
Also: The first lady finisher came in 30th! Shades of Frith vd Merwe in the Comrades! And in both those events we used to ban them from even participating – ‘to protect them’ – to protect ourselves from getting our arses whipped, it turns out!
Yesterday a past Dusi and Umko winner phoned me about his eyes. I asked him if he was planning to do anything stupid in March.
He is. He is about to do his 51st consecutive Umko canoe marathon, the most exciting of all the river marathons! The reason? He has done 50 but he has only finished 49. He broke his boat back in 1970 and didn’t finish that one.
Fukkit!! So he wants to do his 50th finish.
He said to me ‘You should do it too, you know’. I said no ways, I’m too slow. He said ‘We paddle quite slowly these days you know’ (he won the very first Umko back in 1966).
I said you don’t understand. My slow includes frequent stops, and a lot of resting on my paddle and checking the scenery. He understood that was slower even than him and other 70yr-olds.
He’s going off to have his intra-ocular lens implants laser-‘polished’. All the better to read the rapids. Those Umko Cataracts need clear Ocular Cataracts.
James Chapman (1831-1872) – our first South African-born explorer, hunter, trader and photographer. Enough Swedes, Scots and Frogs, here’s a homeboy! Again, if you want really accurate history, you’ve stumbled on the wrong place – but check the sources!
A son of James Chapman and Elizabeth Greeff of Malmesbury, he was educated in Cape Town and left for Durban when 14 years old. He was appointed as chief clerk in the Native Affairs Department in 1848. Liewe blksem, Native Affairs even then! 124 years later when I matriculated you could still work for the Native Affairs Dept! We’re lucky the ANC didn’t institute a Dept of Umlungu Affairs in 1994.
A year later he settled in Potchefstroom, where he became one of the first storekeepers. Shortly after, in 1852, he ventured across the mighty Limpopo River and into Bamangwato country, where one of the sons of the Bamangwato chief guided him to the (truly mighty) Chobe River. Early the following year they took him to the Zambezi River to within 70 miles of the Big Falls – the one with the Smoke that Thunders. He would have beaten David Livingstone to their discovery. But closies don’t count. He turned back.
By 1854 he had teamed up with Samuel H. Edwards and launched an expedition to Lake Ngami (we once paddled into Ngami), after which he trekked through the territory between Northern Bechuanaland and the Zambesi. An easygoing man, he was able to get on with the Bushman / San hunters of the semi-desert interior and spent long periods in their company, obtaining valuable help from them. Like I always say, our ‘intrepid explorers’ were actually just tourists being shown around by local guides! Returning to Ngami, he traveled north to the Okavango River, crossing Damaraland and reaching Walvis Bay. Here he busied himself with cattle-trading in Damaraland, before setting out on a long expedition with his brother Henry and Thomas Baines. He traveled from December 1860 to September 1864. Now THAT’S an expedition-length trip!
Their aim was to explore the Zambesi from the Victoria Falls down to its delta, with a view to testing its navigability. However, these plans were bedeviled by sickness and misfortune. They did reach the Zambesi, but did not get to explore the mouth. On 23 July 1862 they reached the Falls – Mosi oa Tunya. Yes, Mosi-oa-Tunya, not another English queen’s name! Hell, even Harrismith OFS had a ‘Lake Victoria’ – gimme a break!
Chapman’s attempt at exploring the Zambesi ruined his health and exhausted his finances. He returned to Cape Town in 1864, dispirited and fever-stricken. The expedition was notable since it was the first time that a stereoscopic camera had been used to record its progress. Chapman’s photos did not come out well though, even according to Chapman himself. The negatives were of a rather poor quality, and when they reached the famous waterfall he failed to get any photos at all. This reminded me of one Jonathan Taylor, a more recent ‘photographic explorer’ and his failure to capture a key moment on an expedition.
Chapman describes the Falls: ‘. . . immediately before you, a large body of water, stealing at first with rapid and snake-like undulations over the hard and slippery rock, at length leaping at an angle of thirty degrees, then forty-five degrees, for more than one hundred yards, and then, with the impetus its rapid descent has given it, bounding bodily fifteen or twenty feet clear of the rock, and falling with thundering report into the dark and boiling chasm beneath, seeming, by it’s velocity, so to entrance the nervous spectator that he fancies himself being involuntarily drawn into the stream, and by some invisible spell tempted to fling himself headlong into it and join in its gambols;‘ Wow! and Bliksem! ‘ . . but anon he recovers himself with a nervous start and draws back a pace or two, gazing in awe and wonder upon the stream as it goes leaping wildly and with delirious bound over huge rocks. It is a scene of wild sublimity.’
As they clambered about the Falls on the wet cliff edges, Chapman wrote: ‘It was necessary to proceed farther to obtain a more extended view. One look for me is enough, but my nerves are sorely tired by Baines, who finding everywhere new beauties for his pencil, must needs drags me along to the very edge, he gazing with delight, I with terror, down into the lowest depths of the chasm.’
Baines painted, his brush and easel working where Chapman’s camera didn’t:
Sir George Grey had commissioned Chapman to capture live animals and to compile glossaries of the Bantu languages. He kept diaries throughout his journeys, but his Travels in the Interior of South Africa appeared only in 1868, shortly before his death. Chapman also traveled at times with Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton and Swede CJ Andersson.
He tried farming on the banks of the Swakop river around 1864, but he says the Nama-Ovaherero War interfered with that venture – a timeline says a treaty was signed in 1870 between the Nama and the Herero after a prolonged period of war between the two communities. He then lived at various places in South Africa, later returned as a trader and hunter to old South West Africa after that treaty, then died at Du Toit’s Pan near Kimberley in 1872, aged 40 years.
(John) Thomas Baines (1820–1875) – was an English artist and explorer of British colonial southern Africa and Australia. He was most famous for his beautiful paintings – especially of ‘Baines Baobabs’ and the mighty Falls, Mosi oa Tunya.
Apprenticed to a coach painter at an early age, he left England aged 22 for South Africa aboard the ‘Olivia,’ captained by a family friend. He worked for a while in Cape Town as a scenic and portrait artist, then as an official war artist for the British Army during the so-called Eighth Frontier War against the Xhosas.
In 1858 Baines accompanied the maniac David Livingstone on a disastrous trip along the Zambezi River, from which he was dismissed by the irrational Livingstone after a disagreement with Livingstone’s brother.
From 1861 to 1862 Baines and ivory trader James Chapman undertook an epic expedition to South West Africa. Starting in ‘Walvisch Bay,’ they crossed the Namib Desert, then the Kalahari to Lake Ngami, over the Boteti and Tamalakhane rivers, and then on eastwards to the Zambezi river, on which they were paddled downstream by local boatman to where they could view the falls. If you tried that with even the best 4X4 today without using any roads you would have an epic journey and it would be an amazing achievement. As always – and as still – they were guided by locals:
This was the first expedition during which extensive use was made of both photography and painting, and in addition both men kept journals in which, amongst other things, they commented on their own and each other’s practice. This makes their accounts, Chapman’s Travels in the Interior of South Africa(1868) and Baines’ Explorations in South-West Africa. Being an account of a journey in the years 1861 and 1862 from Walvisch bay, on the western coast, to lake Ngami and the Victoria falls (1864), especially interesting. They provide a rare account of different perspectives on the same trip.
On the way they camped under the now famous ‘Baines Baobabs’ on Nxai Pan in Botswana:
Baines gives a delightful description of the tribulations of the artist at his easel in Africa: ‘Another hindrance is the annoyance caused to the painter by the incessant persecutions of the tsetse (fly). At the moment perhaps when one requires the utmost steadiness and delicacy of hand, a dozen of these little pests take advantage of his stillness, and simultaneously plunge their predatory lancets into the neck, wrists and the tenderest parts of the body.’
In 1869 Baines led one of the first gold prospecting expeditions to Mashonaland between the Gweru and Hunyani rivers. He was given permission by King Lobengula, leader of the Matabele nation in what became Rhodesia, then Zimbabwe. He later traveled in Natal and witnessed the coronation of Cetshwayo.
Thomas Baines never achieved financial security. He died in poverty in Durban in 1875 of dysentery, at the age of 55 while writing up his latest expeditions. He is buried in West Street Cemetery. A generous eulogy was read in London at a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society by its President, Sir Henry Rawlinson.
Baines wrote another book in 1871: Shifts and Expedients of Camp Life, Travel & Exploration by Baines and Lord. My kind of book! I’ll blog about it separately, as I’m pleased to see he acknowledges a prior book which I could not resist buying: Galton’s book – 1st edition 1855