The 258km from Harrismith to Parys via Weiveld takes six hours to negotiate if you haven’t yet seen a korhaan and you need to see one.
This includes a stop for steak egg and strips at the Royal Hotel in Reitz. Instead of strips I got potato wedges crisply fried in batter. Yum!
Here’s the route for slow pokes not in a hurry:
The roads are really quite good mostly. There’s a section between Petrus Steyn and Heilbron where the ANC oke who got the pothole tender must have pocketed the money and not delivered them. It’s smooth and kinda first world! He’s gonna be in trouble. The dirt roads are also mainly fine, but can get rough, and in the dips they get more interesting, as they’ve had some rain. Mud and some deep pools.
I saw my korhaan at last. Not the Blue, which I’ve been searching for, but the Northern Black Korhaan. Also a few Namaqua Doves, a favourite. Pics from my Newman’s Birds app.
Heavy storms are predicted but I had only a few showers on the way.
The feature pic is the view from my B&B on the left bank of the Vaal (not the Seine, silly!) in Parys, Free State. Paddling mate Chris Greeff had told me about this lovely rapid in his home town. Read a bit about him here. There’s A LOT more – Greeff should write a book.
Very warm in bed in Mistique Waters guest house on the banks of the Vaal after a hot bath. Tomorrow the streets of Paris!
What a beautiful setting and what beautiful people. Everywhere I go there are friendly greetings – Dumela ntate!More oom! Morning! and howzit? Service in the shops is friendly and quick. The food at Erika’s home outstanding and plentiful, washed down with lots of red vino and black coffee. Two years ago the Ford agency fixed my Ranger bakkie so well that I brought it back for its 300 000km service and a road trip check in which they have also decided to fix my tie rod ends and my propshaft, whatever those are.
Erika and Pierre patiently hosted me as I waited two weeks for an appointment at Ford. I was surprised. They’re certainly busy and the town seems full of Ford Rangers – I saw far more than Toyotas!
A lovely town, but the dark cloud of corruption and maladministration of the “Ace” days still hangs over the town. The roads are abysmal and we have had power interruptions and lack of water in the two weeks I have been here. Erika and Pierre are ace organisers of the non-“Ace” variety and had already equipped their house for electric outages and their guest house next door for electricity and water. But when an explosion hit the main power station and we were told we could be without power for quite a few days, Erika decided to step up her off-the-grid equipment and bought a new generator so the guest house could have its own. Batteries have been schlepped for testing and charging, LED lightbulbs with batteries that burn after a power outage fitted, the DB board has been rewired, the new generator installed, lots of activity with plenty of help from their workers at home and at their businesses, Aletta who runs the guest house, Paul who does the two gardens, June the handyman, and Thys the electrician. Next she’ll tackle catching her roof water like happens in the guest house, and more solar charging of the batteries.
Everywhere the attitude is help each other, make it work and keep smiling. Up yours, Ace.
Next: On to la métropole parisienne
Good friend Steve added this pearl in a comment; I’m copying it here for easier access: ‘In Bethlehem (just to the west of the route you took) we had a Dutch baker called Kraai. Back in the 60’s, a wag called him Kraai the Beloved Baker, to the amusement of some of the locals.’
Dumela ntate – greetings father
More oom – morning uncle
howzit? – howzit; how is it? On cold Harrismith winter mornings in 1969, Larry the Yank used to answer, ‘two inches shorter than usual’
M.agical A.vian and H.ysterical E.xpedition to M.emel
I decided to look for elusive gentlemen farmers Des and Ian by launching a stealth visit to the Memel district, choosing the Memel hotel as my base.
I settled on the stoep with a cold beer and asked if anyone knew Des Glutz? Well, they all did and had lots to tell me. Just wait right there, said Rudi the friendly hotelier, He’s sure to pop in, it’s Friday.
Various bakkies arrived and men in khaki wearing boots or velskoens trooped into the bar. Then a Nissan parked right in front of me and under the chassis a pair of bony feet in blue slip-slops appeared, followed by a pair of bony legs in faded navy blue rugby shorts with plenty of ballroom. His face and neck were covered by beard but I could see this was my man. He’s kinda unmistakable.
I accosted him from my prime spot on the stoep: ‘Excuse me, what you think you doing? You can’t come in here dressed like that!’ Well, then he knew I was from far, cos he most certainly can and does go into the Memel pub dressed like that. He stopped in his tracks and stared at me with his chin tilted up and his eyes half closed, you know how Des does that. Then he kicked for touch: Wait, I’m just going to tell these fuckin old fossils I’ll be late. He ‘stuck his head in the door and cussed his three slightly older drinking pals, telling them he’d be outside; then he came back to stare at me. Took a while to see through my new beard, then he said Coppers, is that you? He always called me Coppers after a Clifton primary schoolmate oke called Copchinsky. He also called policemen copchinskys.
As people arrived everyone greeted Oom Des and he had a cussing and a slur for each of them. Except the ladies. Hello my sweetheart, I still love you but I’m worried about your heart, he says to one, Come here and let me listen to your heartbeat. She leans over him and he nestles his ear in her boobs and rubs back and forth going Mmmmmm. Hai Oom Des, she says and rubs his head affectionately. Incorrigible. No change. And no improvement. We had a wonderful evening before he left for home, late, but with a pizza for Mercia as a peace offering. I discovered a few things that Memel evening: One was that the mense of Memel love the oke.
The next day I drove around the well-known Seekoeivlei nature reserve; Des was off to pretend to buy bulls at a vendusie with one of the fuckin old fossils.
Des and Mercia have a lovely spacious home in town and Oom Des decreed that a braai would be held there. Unfortunately I hopped into his bakkie to go there, mid-conversation, so I had no beers, no car. Soon after, another apparition arrived with a snow-white beard. The Bothas Pass hermit had emerged from his cave, bearing enough beers for an army, plus a bottle of brandewyn. Ian Stervis Steele, who I had not seen for many decades. What a night. About ten people, about a thousand beers and a gallon of brandewyn; lots of mutton chops, pork ribs and boerewors, a huge pot of pap and a very lekker sous. Very good oldtime music and Des at the head of the table till WAY late. Generous hospitality and much laughter.
Stervis, myself and a local couple stayed the night with Des and Mercia and their four dogs, the most notable one being a pekingese / sausage dog cross. Pitch black and chubby, about ankle-high, with that Pekingese-style smashed flat beak. Name: RAMBO. If you weren’t careful it would lick you. I got the comfy couch in the lounge.
The next day I was off-peak and had a snooze back at the hotel and booked another night. In the afternoon I drove out to Normandien and Mullers passes and then visited Des. For tea this time. Then back to the hotel where Rudi cooked me a huge T-bone and I had an early night, dank die hemel, Memel.
I saw stonechats, mountain wheatears and amur falcons; and the beautiful Klipspruit valley.
Before I left on this drive I called in at the butcher for some fatty biltong. The owner enquired what I was doing in town and I said I had been sent on a special mission to find and fix a man called Des Glutz. He and two customers in the shop roared with laughter and told me in no uncertain terms that there was no way I could ever live long enough to achieve that.
mahem – grey crowned crane
bakkie – pickup; ute; status symbol
slip-slops – Glutz fashion footwear
fuckin old fossils – people slightly older than Des
Oom Des – old codger
mense – people; folk
braai, boerewors, etc – ritual burnt offerings; various animals sacrificed
brandewyn – sacramental drink served in braai ritual in tall glasses; distilled from grapes or peaches, they say
dank die hemel – Memel ‘sanks heavens’ ritual chant
Memel is maybe named after a Memel in East Prussia where they fought a battle in 1257, even before Des was born I’m told. The name means silence, but that has been broken since Des moved to town and since Memel joined with Zamani to become Memel-Zamani.
It takes five days to go the 250km* to Harrismith from Westville. This is because you visit friends along the way. First, there were leaving formalities with amazing friends and supporters Petrea and Louis Lodder:
First stop Jenny & Tabs Fyvie in the Tala valley; My luck it was Justin’s 40th and Caitlin had baked a cake! Hayley also arrived and there was a flock of very deja-vu Fyvie-Mandy looking kids running around. What a busy happy extended family household! Tabs and Jen are hugely experienced travellers and campers, so I got a bit of Kruger Park advice and info, Kruger being one of my intended destinations. We did an inspection of their alucab camper with rooftop tent on a double-cab Landcruiser. I’ll pick their brains again when it comes to solar power, batteries and fridges.
On to the Rosetta Hotel as it was getting late. They were having a St Patricks night – lucky me again. I washed down a huge eisbein with sherry, a large Windhoek draft, a pint of guinness for Oirish luck, and a glass of house red – *burp* – then to bed in a huge warm room. In the morning I swallowed their substantial all-in breakfast.
To Mandy & Carl Reitz on their farm The Bend on a big bend of the Tugela river and a view of the high Drakensberg from the Sentinel to Cathkin Peak. What a fantastic three days I spent there. We laughed a lot thinking of how clever and beautiful and irresistible we were in those far-off alcohol-fueled days when The Bend was our mecca for sex drugs n rock n roll and variations on those themes.
I did lotsa farming with Kai in my normal fashion: Sitting in the passenger seat and nodding. Kai knows better than to take farming advice from me – he has had experience of me as a temporary deputy farm manager! He drove me all over his farms and the district and we took walks in the mud – they’ve had good rains. A special sighting was a large grey mongoose – the ichneumon or Egyptian Mongoose – running into cover; too quick for my camera.
Durban friends Greg & Roly Bennett had been to their old farm Oppermanskloof on the Geluksburg road to scatter their Mom’s ashes. I met them near Bergville where Roly and I had a great laugh remembering our young n clever daze; – His seconding us on the Dusi canoe marathon, doing a fine job on the first overnight stop, handing us cold beers, deckchairs and a hot meal; sheer luxury! On the second night we couldn’t find him: He had disappeared into the pub leaving us to fend for ourselves; – Water-skiing on Hazelmere dam where I dropped the tow rope as I rose out of the water behind Greg’s 220hp Yamaha outboard; The boat made a tight u-turn and came back to me. When I told them I’d pulled a muscle Roly roared with laughter and said, Swanie you couldn’t have pulled a muscle, you must have pulled a fat! Skinny bastid – he still doesn’t have calf muscles.
Next through Geluksburg and up Middledale Pass into the Vrystaat.
A lovely welcome from Leon & Elsa Strachan on their farm Nesshurst where again I was shown all over and fed and entertained royally. I forgot to get a pic of their beautiful big guest çottage on the banks of their dam.
I must ID that interesting plant. Then I got to Harrismith to Pierre and Erika du Plessis to stay in their lovely home. I have been so spoiled by Erika, and Aletta and Paul, her two helpers. Yesterday I heard a scream from Aletta in the garden. I rushed out to find she’d been stung by a wasp jealously guarding his spider prey on the lawn!
Next post: A fascinating trip to Memel.
* 250km as the vrou cries – or crow flies – a bit further if you insist on going ‘on the ground’
The big old album is hitting the recycling bin. I have recorded all the pictures.
Home after our lo-ong honeymoon and some surprise welcomes:
Also in 1988 we had a big optometry conference in Durban. As part of the hosting committee I produced a daily newsletter. Then I became president of the optometric association at the end of the conference.
Friends at the conference – and an induction (Brauer says they induced me):
I dragged some non-canoeing friends out to the Umgeni Valley. I wanted to see the valley for a last time before Inanda Dam drowned it forever. The river was rather shallow – um, VERY shallow! We dragged for miles!
We visited the folks in Harrismith, clambered the slopes of Platberg and sang around the piano:
Bernie & Karen Garcin got married in Empangeni – George Stainton and I were his best men.
In between all the scurrying we lived in our lovely Whittington Court one-bedroom apartment in Marriott Road, and I think I occasionally did a bit of work. Sheila reminded me that she lived there for two years after we bought our house in Westville.
Another of our frequest visits to Hella Hella. And a visit to the Hills on Melrose farm, Mid Illovo.
‘They gave us supper early. We were saying, Soon They’ll Feed Us At Three.’ I said, In this cold weather if it was me I’d say to you all at lunch: Eat Up! Your Supper’s Ready! so I could get home early. She had a good laugh at that.
‘I played the piano at supper.’ Oh, good. What did you play? ‘The piano’ she says mischievously and laughs. The she sings, ‘Lady of Spain I adore you – right from the night I first saw you … ‘
‘We would dance to this in the Masonic Hall. Folk dancing. Also to When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. And a Welsh dance and a Scottish reel.’
‘For Girl Guides I had to play a March for my piano badge. Mrs Steytler said I was playing too fast, the girls marching couldn’t keep up. Then I had to play God Save The King, we were still under the monarchy then, in the Commonwealth. And Elizabeth has gone to hospital for the first time.’
Well, she’s 93, I said, same age as you. ‘Oh, I thought she was Pat’s age, older than me, and Margaret was my age.’ I think she’s 1928, same as you, I said. While we were talking I checked. True’s Bob, Mary was right, Mrs Queen is two and half years older than her. Pat’s age. I was foolish to contradict her. What do I know about poms?
‘I saw her in Boksburg, you know. She was keen to get back home to the only boyfriend she ever had. Philip.’
Hey Eddie! Thanks a lot. I had a lovely quiet day at home with lots and lots of messages – way more than I deserve, as I remember only a few birthdays, so I say to them – as I say to you here – hope you have a wonderful day and year too! So many people remember my ruddy birthday. Can’t think why?
Spoke to Mother Mary on the day. She’s well. Also to the old goat, who pretended to hear what I was saying. Sisters Barbara and Sheila both phoned, and a host of others; a call from Janet in Botswana; a long call from Glen and Ali in Aussie; an even longer call from Larry in Ohio; people are amazing. Messages from all over. And all because I was lucky enough to be born on a highly suspicious day on the Gregorian calendar that people tell me is somehow appropriate to me!? Bastids.
And guess what I found out yesterday for the first time in sixty six years? Mary said, “Yes, you made a fool of me that day. You arrived two days late. You were due on the 30th March.” First time I ever heard that! Who the hell would want to be born on a nothing day like the 30th March!?
I’m guessing as Mom’s recent grey cells die off, and she loses what happened yesterday or this morning, some of the ancient ones – up to ninety two years old – are getting a fresh look at daylight, being dusted off and telling their story? Maybe?
Thank goodness I waited those two days, incubating quietly and delaying getting out into the noise. My whole life would have been different if I hadn’t been born on the 1st April. Different; Less fun, I think.
“Yes, you made a fool of me that day. You arrived two days late. You were due on the 30th March.” Then, “Did I tell you that already?”
Poor dear Mom Mary repeated that surprise news in the same phonecall, not three minutes after telling me the first time.
(old post from my early daze blog vrystaatconfessions.com)
Harrismith had a very successful sportscar designer! Sheila reminded me on her facebook. He was a big mate of Polly du Plessis. They called each other Sissel Pud (du Plessis backwards) and Tweedie (de Witt backwards). Verster was captain of the rugby team and Mary Bland’s boyfriend. He dopped a few years and was in JC when she wrote matric. A real gentleman, says Mary. When she left to go nursing he said, ‘My fear is that we don’t meet again – worse, that we’re living in the same city and we don’t even know it.’ Sensitive soul.
Here’s the story of Verster de Witt – or the parts I could fish out:
Two Stellenbosch university pals wanted to make a great sportscar. They were Bob van Niekerk and Willie Meissner. In 1958 Meissner went to England and saw a new technology called fibreglass. He wrote a letter to Bob van Niekerk asking him to come to England to study fibreglass crafting. Bob hopped onto a Union Castle ship and joined his mate. In those days that was called ‘instant response’: The letter took a week; the response took a week; the ship took a month; Bang! Two months later there his mate was, ready to help.
Bob recalls: ‘We had full confidence in our ability to produce the mechanicals and a good chassis, but needed someone to put a ‘face’ on it – a good looking design. As luck would have it, Willie knew a lady Joan, nee Peters, who was married to a stylist working at Rootes who would hopefully stop us from producing a mediocre, unattractive body.’
His name was Verster de Wit, an ex-Harrismith boykie and good friend of our Polly du Plessis and Mary Bland (later Swanepoel). He very soon had them building quarter-scale models with plasticene during the week in their one-roomed flat in Earls Court while he was off working in Coventry on the Sunbeam Alpine. Fridays, Verster would come down to London to inspect the work they had done. When they got to scale model number 13, it suddenly all came together, and ‘a unanimous decision was made to progress to full-scale.’
‘We rented a garage in Gleneldin Mews in Streatham and built the mock-up using wooden formers and plaster of paris. The first body came out of the mold in April 1957 and was sold for 75 pounds, which helped to pay for my trip back to Cape Town where Willie had started the Glassport Motor Company (GSM).’
They considered what to name their cars: Cheetah, Mamba, Simba, Zebra, Kudu, Lynx or Tyger? Eventually they called the open top the GSM Dart and the hardtop the GSM Flamingo. On returning to South Africa, they built four prototypes in 1957, and the first production car rolled off the line in early 1958. In total, 116 GSM Darts and 128 GSM Flamingos were produced from 1958 to 1964. Actually, the GSM club tracked down many of them and reckoned there were a few more than that.
The GSM cars were astonishingly quick and agile and won a lot of races. In their first nine hour in JHB, a Dart beat Sarel vd Merwe in his Porsche into second place; they were followed by an MG, another Porsche, a Volvo and an Alfa Romeo!
But perhaps the best story was after they had sold 41 cars by 1959, for racing and road use in Cape Town, they decided they could also be sold in England and Bob set sail with a complete body and chassis kit on the Union Castle liner. In England Bob was introduced to Mr John P Scott at Windsor Garage, West Malling in Kent. Scott agreed to give him a place to build a car and fund all the parts on condition that Bob built the car in 10 days! AND that he entered it in a race at Brands Hatch! AND that he won the race! What a tall – almost impossible – order!
Bob accepted the challenge and worked day and night to complete the Dart by the Friday before the race. On the Saturday, April 18, 1960 Bob found himself in the middle of the grid on an unfamiliar circuit in a brand new and untested car. He steadily worked his way up into first place and won the race! He actually did it! Setting a Brands Hatch lap record that stood for seven years! A delighted Mr Scott then established a GSM production facility in a 5000 square foot factory behind the Windsor Garage to produce the first batch of cars. They couldn’t call them Dart in England, so they used ‘Delta’. Records are vague – it seems somewhere between 35 and 76 GSM Deltas were made in Kent.
The little cars developed a legendary winning reputation in the UK, Europe and SA. To show that they weren’t only about racing, the Flamingo was marketed as the road-going version:
In 1964 they ran out of money.
Aftermath with Verster de Wit: 1976
A GSM club was formed in JHB and they tracked down Verster at his home in Kosmos on the Hartebeespoort Dam. He and his new wife Eva hauled out a suitcase full of his photos and sketches of his design days in England and in SA. They regaled the club members with tales of the hours of dedication and hard work Verster had put into his automotive design career. Another well-known design he had also been involved with – in addition to the Sunbeam Alpine – was the Humber Super Snipe.
In the 1980s the design got another lease of life when Jeff Levy got Verster to help him make a series of accurate replicas known as Levy Darts.
We have a new book out! ( – get it on takealot.com – )
OK, the author has a new book out, his first. School friend Harry ‘Pikkie’ Loots is Harrismith’s latest published author, following in the footsteps of FA Steytler, EB Hawkins, Petronella van Heerden and Leon Strachan. There must be more? Indeed – Pikkie reminded me of Johann Lodewyk Marais and Anita van Wyk Henning.
He has published it as an eBook – and I have now received my hard copy too.
I had the privilege and fun of reading it as he wrote and re-wrote it, as one of his proof-readers. It was a blast! I climbed his mountains without getting breathless – except occasionally from laughing, as we relived the olden daze..
Now you gotta realise, Pikkie is a mountaineer and trekker. These are phlegmatic buggers; unflappable; understated. So when he says ‘we walked and then crossed some ice and then we got here: ‘
. . with lovely pictures and fascinating stories along the way . . you must know what he doesn’t show you:
And this is the third highest peak he climbs in Africa! There’s more to come!
Those of us who climb Mt aux Sources should also remember how we drive to within an hour or two’s leisurely walk from the chain ladder. To get to these higher mountains there’s days of trekking before you reach the point in the picture. And there’s way less oxygen available up there! After reading some chapters I had to go’n lie down for a while.
Here’s the back cover blurb: ( – get the book on takealot.com – )
Riposte and Touché:
Pikkie appointed a fellow-mountaineering Pom John as another of his proofreaders. This John asked ‘What’s it with you Saffers and exclamation marks?’ I puffed myself up and replied the problem was not that we use too many; the problem was that Poms use too few!
John’s rejoinder was, “Not true. We use our national quota. It’s just that we allocate almost all of them to teenage girls.”
This is a re-post transferred from my Olden Daze blogvrystatconfessions.com– about growing up handsome and clever back in the old Vrystaat. If not that handsome or particularly clever, then young.
The story is by Harrismith author and historian Leon Strachan. For more pictures see it in Afrikaanshere.
Four Spies brothers lived in the Harrismith and Kestell district. These broers had very different personalities; it was said Andries fought for the Spies clan, Hans cursed for them, Frikkie drank for them and Martiens prayed for them.
Leon Strachan has kept this lovely tale of an amazing Eastern Free State character alive.
Andries was known locally as Thor, as his strength was legendary. People soon knew not to mess with him. Somewhere around 1920 a young Andries Spies went hunting jackals on Freek de Jager’s farm. The jackal escaped down an aardvark hole and the dogs could not get it out. Andries shucked off all his clothes and went into the hole butt-naked, head-first, taking a riem and a pocket knife. After fifteen minutes of noise and dust down the hole he came into view again, reversing out feet first. Covered in dust and blood he handed the riem over and said “pull’ – and out came the jackal. One of many instances told of where he did unusual things and performed unusual feats of strength and bravery – and foolhardiness? This story was to have an uncanny follow-up a century later.
He was a boxer, wrestler and strongman, and he was also a very wily showman and self-promoter. Legend has it he would hop on his bicycle, pedal to Bloemfontein – that was over 200 rough miles back in the 1920’s – enter a boxing tournament at Ramblers Club, win it and cycle home with the prize money!
One day in 1929 his neighbour came to him with devastating news: his fiancee had upped and offed with another man. Hugely upset, Andries packed a suitcase and left the farm without a backward glance. It would be ten years before he returned. In those years he was mainly a boxer. He fought in Joburg and Durban. One fight at the Seaman’s Institute in Point Road in Durban so stunned an English preacherman – Andries’ style consisted of a non-stop flurry of furious blows from the opening bell with no thought of any defensive tactics – that he christened him ‘Caveman.’ And the name stuck.
His next port of call was England. He left on a below-decks ticket with just £10 in his pocket and one extra set of khaki clothes. In London in his first fight he KO’d his opponent with his first blow. He could still get opponents after that as his build was not impressive – he looked average and he used that to his advantage, as he was often underestimated. Soon his reputation started preceding him and it grew harder to find men who would fight him, so he crossed the Channel.
A typical story was a fight in Stockholm where the ref tried to stop him as his opponent Anders Anderson was ‘out on his feet.’ But Caveman wanted him out off his feet! So he KO’d the ref! Spectators stormed the ring in fury – so he KO’d a few of them too!
The same pattern happened in Holland, Belgium and Germany: He would knock out a number of opponents, then run out of people to fight and move on. When this happened in Germany, he issued a challenge to Max Schmeling, heavyweight champion of the world: Fight me for 500 marks! Apparently this was all Andries had in his money belt. Eventually Schmeling gave in to his persistence and agreed to fight this Caveman character from South Africa.
Well, this was a horse of an entirely different kettle of tea! In his own words he approached Max in his usual crouched stance and received a mighty short right hook to the head and after that ‘I don’t remember much at all! Except a minute or two of gloves raining on me and then merciful oblivion! The biggest hiding I ever received, but well worth it, as I met the great Max Schmeling. He was a good sport – and after the fight he sent me back to my hotel full of beer and Rhine wine, plus an amazing 1000 marks! Schmeling gave me his 500 marks too!’
In Spain he knocked out ‘The Basque Wrestler’ Antoine Germatte in the first round – drying up any chance of further fights, so he thought he’d try bullfighting. One look at the bull, though and he decided ‘this is out of my league!’
His French opponent Leon Cartout was disqualified for biting the Caveman. After eighteen fights on the Continent, he returned to England, where a raft of better fighters were keen to challenge him as his fame was now such that they wanted to be seen in the ring with him. Things were looking up.
Then he caught a bad bout of flu and ended up becoming asthmatic. He got so bad in the English winter he decided it was home time. Back in South Africa he won a few good fights then ran up against the experienced Tommy Holdstock. He lost so badly that he decided to switch to all-in wrestling which had become very popular and was paying well. The showmanship also suited his extrovert and mischievous personality and his remarkable strength.
In a typical rabble-rousing traveling series he fought a Russian named Boganski, who became a great friend. They toured the land. The legend of Caveman cycling to Bloemfontein was well-known, so at each scheduled fight venue he would stop their car outside the town and get onto his bicycle; timing his arrival at the ring just in time for the fight, covered in sweat having ‘just got there all the way from Harrismith!’ This put all the locals on his side like – our poor man now has to fight this blerrie Russian when he’s so tired, having cycled so far!
The showman promoter in him loved public wagers. On the wrestling tour in Grahamstown he bet the local auctioneer, a Mr King, that he could carry a 200lb bag of mealie meal across the town square in front of the cathedral in his teeth without stopping. He did it, donated the bag to child welfare and publicity from the stunt filled the hall for the fight that night!
In Chodos furniture store in Harrismith’s main street the guys were ragging him as they often did about his strength: You can’t really punch a hole through a meal bag! ‘Bring it,’ he said, and walked away with £10, leaving Woolf Chodos and his staff to clean up the flour all over the counter and the floor. He couldn’t resist a challenge or a dare. In 1936 someone said he’d never walk from Harrismith to Cape town in less than ninety days. He did it in seventy three, averaging twenty eight miles a day. This one earned him £75.
Whenever the circus came to town Caveman would be there, ready to shine. Owner and strongman William Pagel‘s feats of strength and his control of the big cats soon made him a household name in South Africa, particularly in the countryside. Small towns loved the circus!
Pagel had a wild mule and offered £50 to anyone who could ride it. Many tried, including Moolman the policeman. Very soon there was Moolman, soaring through the air back into the stalls in an ungraceful arc. Caveman stepped up, jumped on and the mule went wild, bucking, backing up, scraping his legs against the railing, but Cavemans’ legs were firmly hooked under its ‘armpits’ and he rode every move. In the end the mule lay down, exhausted, Caveman still astride it. Get off, said Old Pagel, ‘No, first give me my £50,’ said Caveman. Get off first, said Pagel. He then refused to pay on the grounds that Caveman ‘wasn’t allowed’ to hook his legs under the mule! Caveman threatened ‘Pay me or I shut down the show. Honour your bet!’ Two Alpha males at bay, both famous! Caveman got his due.
Stanley Boswell also had challenges meant to draw the crowds which drew Caveman like a magnet. He had a strongman lifting weights on a wooden platform. ‘Any non-professional weightlifter who can match (exotic strongman name – maaybe Otto Acron?) will win a prize!’ he boasted. The Harrismith crown bayed for their hero, ‘Show him Caveman! Wys hom! Show him!’
Caveman stepped up, nonchalantly lifted the main man’s maximum weight and looked at Boswell. Boswell, knowing Spies’ reputation, said, ‘No, you’re professional,’ ducking out of his responsibility. Caveman looked at him, looked at the crowd and slammed the weights down, wrecking the stage as the crowd roared their approval.
Stories grow. Seldom will a re-teller tell a milder story than the original! And so Caveman’s legend grew. Not only did he ride a bicycle to Cape Town; when he got there he boarded a ship to America; the ship sank and he had to swim more than halfway across the Atlantic; arriving in America just in time (covered in sweat?) for a fight against Joe Louis! Of course, he bliksem’d Joe, caught a ship back to Cape Town, where he got on his bicycle and pedal’d back to Harrismith to calmly tend to his flock of sheep! Of course . .
In our time in Harrismith – fifties to seventies – Hansie and Pieter Spies were legends in their own right. Nephews of Caveman, they would apparently tell stories of this special and unusual extrovert uncle. In his old age his right hand started shaking – probably the beginnings of Parkinson’s disease. Challenged, he would blurt, ‘Ag, it’s my hand! Leave it alone if it wants to shake! Or I’ll donner you!’
A Century Later
Truth is stranger than fiction! In 2020, just about one hundred years after Andries went down an aardvark hole to drag out a jackal this video appeared on youtube:
It went viral and I saw it on two of my whatsapp groups. Soon after, Leon Strachan messaged me: Hi Pete, Do you remember how Caveman crawled down a hole to drag out a jackal? Pure madness! Well, believe it or not, the people in this video are my neighbours and the man down the hole is a great grandson of Hans Spies – Caveman Spies’ brother!
The strain of eccentricity lives on! Mind you, it is getting diluted. Notice how he kept his clothes on?
A childhood friend is writing a lovely book on his mountaineering exploits and the journey he has made from climbing the mountain outside our town to climbing bigger and more famous mountains all over the world!!
Flatteringly, he asked me and a Pommy work and climber friend to proofread his latest draft. Being a techno-boff, he soon hooked us up on dropbox where we could read and comment and suggest.
I immediately launched in to making sensible and well-thought out recommendations which were instantly rejected, side-stepped or ignored, I dunno WHY!!
Like the title I thought could be spiced up. Three African Peaks is boring compared to Free A-frickin’ Picks!!! to lend drama and a Seffrican accent to it, right?! I know, you can’t understand some people. !
John, very much under the weight of a monarchy – meaning one has to behave – was more formal:
‘What is it with south africans and the “!”? (which is my major comment on your writing style!)
Well!!! Once we had puffed down and soothed our egos by rubbing some Mrs Balls Chutney on it, the back-n-forth started. I mean started!!
My defensive gambit was: ‘We’re drama queens!!’
My attack was an accusation: ‘Poms hugely under-use the ! In fact, they neglect it terribly! John was quickly back though, wielding his quill like a rapier:
‘Not true. We use our national quota. We just give almost all of them to teenage girls.’
I was on the back foot. When it came to the cover, the Boer War re-enactment resumed. I mean resumed!! I chose a lovely cover with an African mountain and a lot of greenery on the slopes. The Pom chose an ice wall, no doubt thinking of the London market. Stalemate.
Next thing he’ll be suggesting a stiff upper cover.
A strange thing has happened since John’s critique! I am using less exclamation marks! I have even written sentences without any!! It actually feels quite good. The new, restrained me.
Larry visited from Ohio back in 1996. Pierre was in Harrismith; I was in Durban; Steph and Tuffy were living in Cape Town, so they won – we arranged to meet up as the Old Fab Five musketeers down in Kaapstad.
Larry Wingert had been Harrismith’s Rotary exchange student back in 1969 and had returned to South Africa twice before – once in 1976, down through Africa from Greece, mostly overland, all the way to Cape Town; and once in 1985, when he and I had done an overland trip from Maun in Botswana to Vic Falls in Zimbabwe.
Trish and I took him to Mkhuze game reserve:
and down to Cape Town:
Steph took us to his Kommetjie beach house
This year 2020 Steph’s brother JP sent me pics of the magic pub in the beach house
and Tuffy entertained us royally at his and Lulu’s lovely home in Langebaan:
Asked what the Fab Five was, I had to think about it. We were a gentlemanly triple-AA gang Educational Club who would meet clandestinely after dark and do creative things to broaden our minds.
The one AA was for automobiles, which we would borrow under an intricate arrangement where the actual owners were not part of the bargaining process; we would then use these automobiles to go places;
The other AA was for alcohol, which we would procure under an intricate arrangement of dispatching a third party who could legally buy the stuff, to a bottle store other than my parents’ bottle store; this we would then imbibe for the purpose of stiffening our resolve. And for laughter and the third AA:
Action! Adventure! Anything but boredom.
One of the founding reasons for launching the august club was we suddenly had a Yank in our midst and we were really afraid he’d go back to the metropolis of Cobleskill, upstate New York and say there was nothing to do in Harrismith. The thought mortified us. We had to DO something!
We were reminded how offended we were late one night on one of our adventures – this one not motorised – we were prowling the empty streets at night te voet – on foot.
And we spotted a policeman driving around drunk! Can you believe it!? That was OUR forte! What was HE doing driving around drunk like us!? So we indignantly phoned the copshop from a tickey box, reported him to the dame on laatnag diens and walked away feeling smug. Next thing we heard a squealing of tyres and the roaring of a Ford F150 straight six. It was him! She had obviously radio’d him and told him! Maybe they were an item!?
We started running as the cop van roared closer. It was the only thing making a noise in the whole dorp at three in the morning so we could easily hear where he was. We sprinted past the Kleinspanskool and as he came careening around the corner we dived under the raised foundations of Laboria – Alet de Witt’s big block of flats. We crawled through and out the other side, at Steph’s house. Steph & Larry went home as did Tuff, a block or two away. Pierre and I had a way to go yet, so we set off along Stuart Street – we could hear the fuzz in the grey Ford F150 with the straight six and the tralies over the windows roaring around in Warden Street. He never stood a chance of catching us. We were fleet of foot and we could u-turn within one metre!
te voet – on foot; saving fuel for the environment
In high school we had an older mate who was in the Free State koor. He was famous in Harrismith for that. His nickname was Spreeu but we called him Sparrow. Everyone knew Sparrow, Chris Bester, was one of ‘Die Kanaries – Vrystaatse Jeugkoor.’ Fame! Bright lights! Girls threw their broekies at the kanaries! OK, maybe not.
One day a buzz went round school that Septimus – apparently he was the seventh child – Smuts, Free State Inspector of Music was there – here! in Harrismith, city of song and laughter – to do auditions for new members for this famous koor.
We were there! Me and Gabba. Neither known for having the faintest interest in warbling before (my membership of the laerskool koor a distant memory). Nor any other form of culture come to think of it, other than rugby. Gabba was a famous – beroemde, kranige – rugby player, having been chosen for Oos Vrystaat Craven Week in Std 8, Std 9, Std 9 & Std 10. Strong as an ox.
People were amazed: “What are YOU ous doing here?” they asked as we waited in the queue. We just smiled. We’d already missed maths, biology and PT.
Septimus was a dapper little rockspider full of confidence. He gave Gabba exactly three seconds and sent him packing. Gave me ten times longer and said ‘Nice enough, but no range.’ So back to class we went, crestfallen look on our dials, mournfully telling our mates and the teacher that we COULD NOT understand how we’d been rejected and there must have been some kind of mistake. Tender-rigging, maybe?
The teacher raised his eyebrows but we stuck to our story: It had been a longtime deep desire of ours to sing for our province and the rejection cut us deep.
It became mine & Gabba‘s standing joke over the decades that followed.
Decades later research has uncovered what Septimus was looking for. If only we had known! Here’s the criteria they were looking for in aspiring choristers in the late 60’s:
We may have scored E’s and F’s on most, but on 18.104.22.168 Intelligence and Dedication we surely got an A? Also, if we’d known the choirmaster had ‘n besondere liefde vir die gedrae polifonie van Palestrina se koorkompetisies,’ we’d have practiced that shit.
She’s reading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. ‘I can’t follow the plot but I’m enjoying the descriptions of the Thames, the muddy banks, the river traffic . . ‘
Apparently there’s a Miss Haversham in the book – she was let down by her to-be on the day of her wedding – she stayed in her room – kept her wedding dress on – ate the wedding food. Mom says Annie called someone in Harrismith ‘Miss Haversham’ but can’t remember who. She had wild hair. I suggested Mrs Fitzgerald, but she couldn’t remember her.
She had a fall on her walk with her friend Barbara yesterday, but ‘went down gracefully and haven’t got a single bruise. I just lay down gently on the tarmac and waited till two ladies on the staff came out to help me to my feet.’ She hadn’t thought of the obvious, so I had to point it out: ‘Mom, they’ll all think you’d been drinking!’ That amused her.
After the fall the 91yr-old dear skipped her piano session, but today she got back to her usual schedule, and played before all three meals. She has found a few new songs to play, she says.
She told her friends the joke I had told her about the Las Vegas strip club that had a sign out for the lockdown period: ‘Clothed till 30 April.’ Says they enjoyed the joke. Asked if I had been to that strip club when I went to Vegas! I said ‘Ma-a! I went to see Petula Clark sing.’ She couldn’t remember who Petula Clark was! Wow! Those cells must have been blitzed in one of her TIA’s. It’ll come back to her. I’ll sing ‘Don’t Sleep In The Subway Darling’ and she’ll be wow’d. She’ll also remember Petula always kept her clothes on.
As she does every time, she asked, ‘How are Jessie and Tommy? Send them my love’ (two of her grandchildren, 22 and 18 – my kids).