Sheila worked at Fugitives Drift Lodge with David and Nicky Rattray for a while and met many interesting people and characters from all over the world. She should write about the weird folk she met – the judges and military men and colonial types and rich folk and historians and chief constables and all the other titles the Breetish Empire invented.
While there, she organised for the five of us – her old Swanie family from Harrismith – to have a family weekend there with her as our guide. One afternoon she took us out to the Isandlwana battlefield in a Landrover and got lost. Her sense of direction was imperfect, but she was unfazed and soldiered on like a lost Pom fleeing a battlefield. She had the Buffalo River on her left (or was it right?) and was headed in a direction she thought might get us somewhere sometime. Don’t panic.
So we’re bouncing over the veld, Sheila driving the ponderous old Defender, and our 85yr-old ‘ole man’ sitting in the back getting fidgety.
After a while the bouncing got to his ancient bones and he groaned and – forsaking the old stiff upper lip – moaned about the bumpiness – sort of a geriatric ‘Are we there yet?’
Sheila whipped round and said, “Keep quiet and sit still. Don’t make me come back there and sort you out!” then grinned triumphantly and crowed, “I’ve waited fifty years to say that!”
A guest post! A more factual and detailed report on this day by Nigel Hemming.
This year’s Mystery Tour took us to Harrismith in the Free State where, amongst other things, we were to visit the Platberg Nature Reserve (PNR) and take a drive up to the top of the mountain before descending partway for a picnic lunch at Akkerbos picnic site.
The cast of 24: Mike & Yvonne Lello; Gavin & Judy Bolton; Gary & Meryl Wylie; Pete & Gill Hockey; George & Jeannette Smith; Jon & Elize Taylor; Graeme & Audrey Fuller; Tim & Gail De Wet; Nigel & Barbara Hemming; Garth & Di Gower-Jackson; Bruce & Heather Soutar; Pete Swanepoel (long-standing member and Harrismith native); Leon Strachan (historian, guide and story-teller)
day started well enough and after an early breakfast we all set off
in convoy to PNR where we left some of the vehicles and climbed into
the five that were to tackle Donkey Pass to the top.
The reduced convoy was as follows: Gower-Jacksons, Hockeys and Leon (Toyota Hilux); Hemmings and De Wets (Subaru Forester); Fullers, Smiths and Meryl (Ford Everest); Soutars, Taylors and Gary (Toyota Prado); Lellos, Boltons and Pete (Toyota Fortuner).
forest ‘road’ up to Donkey Pass was pretty rough and eroded and
had two very hairy rocky sections, which we all managed without
incident. The road up the pass itself was very steep but had a good
concrete surface, so was not difficult. Once on top at the
south-eastern end of the mountain, we followed a rough and at times
rocky track to the north-western end where we stopped near One Man
Pass to take in the spectacular views across the town and to
Sterkfontein Dam and the Malutis in the distance.
This very narrow and steep pass is part of the route of the annual Platberg Challenge run (Harrismith Mountain Race) and so a few people conceived the idea of walking down it if possible.
Pete, who had run the Challenge in the past, assured them it was possible, so it was soon decided that Barbara, Di, Tim (who had suffered a bit of whiplash over the rocky sections, compounding the injury he had suffered the week before when he tried to do a swan-dive off his bike) and Gail would walk down with Pete as their guide. They would meet up with the rest of us at Akkerbos – which Pete believed was quite near the bottom of the pass!
rest of us then drove all the way back along the track to the top of
Donkey Pass where, instead of heading straight down, we took a detour
along an even rougher and rockier track, to have a look at the dam
which the British had built when they occupied Harrismith during the
this point the Soutars decided that they were not going to join us
for the picnic as they were anxious to get back to Durban and set off
down the pass (taking the Taylors with them). The Fullers, Smiths
and Meryl followed them down, followed a little while later, by
Nigel, Lellos and Boltons and Garth, Hockeys and Leon.
this 3-car convoy got to the bottom of the concrete road and reached
the turnoff to the picnic site we made several discoveries.
The sign had
fallen and was not visible
There were no
tyre-tracks leading to the picnic-site, therefore the Fuller party
had missed the turnoff.
assurance that they should have already arrived as it was ‘only a
short distance’ there was also no sign of the walkers.
phoned Graeme to alert him to the fact that he needed to turn back,
only to be told that the Everest had suffered a puncture over one of
the bad rocky sections and was very low on fuel and that he had
decided not to return but to head for Harrismith to refuel and buy a
Mike left his passengers behind and drove down to the Fuller party to fetch Meryl (but not the Smiths as we would not have enough space for them) and brought her back to the turnoff. He then collected Judy who had remained at the turnoff with Nigel and took them both to the picnic site to join Gary who had walked there with Gavin. Having managed to contact Pete, we learned that the descent of One Man Pass had been very difficult and that far from beating us to the picnic site (which he now realised wasn’t where he thought it was!) they had only just reached the contour road and started walking in our direction. In the meantime Garth had delivered the Hockeys and Yvonne to the picnic site and then returned with Leon to the turnoff.
Garth & Leon and Nigel then set off north-west along the virtually disused and very bad contour road to go to the ‘rescue’ of the walkers. We drove through an apocalyptic, fire-ravaged landscape and after stopping several times to remove branches and even a few small trees we eventually came to an immovable obstruction in the form of a fallen mature gum-tree. We then continued on foot and eventually met up with the walkers about a kilometre further along. They were in good spirits but had no idea of how far they were from Akkerbos. Di and Tim got into Garth’s car and Barbara, Gail and Pete came back with Nigel. Half-an-hour later we were back at Akkerbos, a distance that we agreed would have taken them at least another two hours to walk.
– a movable feast!
so the planned picnic lunch had become a movable feast in time and
place and was eventually eaten as follows:
Soutars – on their way home
Taylors – by the dam near the PNR car park
Fullers and Smiths – at the Harrismith Mugg and Bean!
Lellos, Hockeys, Wylies and Boltons – Akkerbos (1st sitting)
De Wets, Gower-Jacksons, Hemmings, Leon and Pete – Akkerbos (2nd sitting)
Francis Galton, (1822–1911) was an English polymath, geographer, meteorologist and much else. We are mainly interested here in his 1850 expedition to Namibia. For the rest – and there is a lot of it! – refer to the sources at the bottom. Grandson of Erasmus Darwin and cousin and contemporary of Charles Darwin, Galton is best known as the founder of eugenics, but his interests and subsequent contributions as Victorian traveler and scientist were myriad. The most important and lasting part of Galton’s work was his realisation that science (biology as much as physics) needs mathematics rather than words. Like Darwin, he set out to become a doctor but his curiosity led him further afield—in Galton’s case, to Africa. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1853, a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1860, and was knighted in 1909.
He attended King’s College in London to study medicine, but became frustrated and discontented with his studies when he was confronted with his first cadaver, much like cousin Charles Darwin, and in 1840, went to study the Mathematical Tripos at Trinity College, Cambridge. After suffering through three years of studying, he obtained a BA and was awarded an MA, but a nervous breakdown terminated his further studies. In February 1844 his father died and left him and his siblings a large inheritance. Now independently wealthy, he became a charming social snob who never had to work a day in his long life to earn a living. He stopped studying and became a gentleman of leisure, though he might have disputed my terminology! He became an athlete, a sportsman (hunter) and then decided to travel.
Galton’s first trip was as a student from Germany through Eastern Europe to Constantinople. He rafted down the Danube and swam naked across the harbour in Trieste in order to avoid the hassle of quarantine procedures. In 1845 he went to Egypt and traveled up the Nile to Khartoum in the Sudan, and from there to Beirut, Damascus and down the Jordan.
In 1850 he joined the Royal Geographical Society, and decided to not just travel, but now to do some serious ‘exploring.’ Over the next two years he planned and mounted an expedition into then little-known South West Africa, now Namibia.
Between April 1850 and January 1852 Galton explored and charted ‘Damaraland’ and ‘Ovampoland’ in South West Africa, financing the expedition himself. In Cape Town he was warned by Sir Harry Smith about the “fierce Boers” that he might encounter in the interior, so he sailed to Walvis Bay and started his explorations from there instead. He was accompanied by Charles Andersson, who would stay on in the region to seek his fortune. The original intention had been to penetrate from Damaraland to Lake Ngami, which had recently been described by Livingstone and promised an abundance of well-watered territory in the interior. Galton’s party was ultimately unable to reach the lake, and contented itself with charting the previously unknown interior regions of Ovampoland in northern South-West Africa, where they came close to the Cunene river but were ultimately forced to withdraw short of it.
Once again at leisure back in England, he wrote a book entitled Narrative of an explorer in tropical South Africa (1853). This book was very well written and illustrated with numerous colour plates produced from the sketches made by the artist that accompanied Galton. The book proved to be a huge success. He then went on to pursue his many theories, some genius, some rather nutty. He himself proposed a connection between genius and insanity based on his own experience:
Men who leave their mark on the world are very often those who, being gifted and full of nervous power, are at the same time haunted and driven by a dominant idea, and are therefore within a measurable distance of insanity. – Karl Pearson, ‘The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton,’
This from the introduction to his book on his South West African journeys by anthropologist & historian GT Bettany: Mr. Francis Galton, the third son of Samuel Tertius Galton, a banker in Birmingham, in whose family the love of statistical accuracy was very remarkable; and of Violetta, eldest daughter of the celebrated Dr. Erasmus Darwin, author of ‘Zoonomia’, ‘The Botanic Garden’, etc, was born on February 16th 1822, and educated at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, where he gained no great admiration for ‘the unhappy system of education that has hitherto prevailed, by which boys acquire a very imperfect knowledge of the structure of two dead languages, and none at all of the structure of the living world.’
In 1855 he also wrote a wonderful book on The Art of Travel in which he advised future travelers on things he had learnt from experience and the experience of others.
What luck! friends couldn’t make their timeshare for happy reasons (grandchild due) so we took over! With pleasure. Nibela is in prime Broadbill sand forest territory and I have dipped out on seeing a Broadbill, coming close a number of times, but no sighting. I was keen, so was Jess. Tom considered the fishing options and the food a la carte, but decided in the end that it was just too remote for a city slicker! ‘Enjoy your sticks and trees, Dad!’ he bid us farewell.
Jess liked the place immediately. It had cellphone reception and DSTV. Also there was wifi at the main building. What was not to like?
The food at the lodge was great. The one pork belly dish was the best I’ve had, and all their soups and veges were superbly done. We ate there three nights and I made supper one night.
We searched for the African Broadbill, but no sign was seen or heard, so it remains on the wishlist. This is what its sand forest haunts look like, where it performs its little bird-of-paradise dance to get laid so an egg can get laid:
Lovely local specials we did see were Woodward’s Batis – a pair displaying and calling two metres away in a tree; Rudd’s Apalis; Purple-banded Sunbird; all good sightings and obligingly chirping as we watched. Narina Trogon, calling each day, but not seen; Heard but didn’t see a possible Neergard’s Sunbird. Two lovely bird parties popped up right in front of our chalet: One evening Dark-backed Weaver, Puffback, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Terrestrial Brownbul, Yellow White-Eye and Southern Black Tit; The next morning Dark-backed Weaver, Puffback, Pink-throated Twinspot, duetting Southern Boubous, Square-tailed Drongo, Yellow-breasted Apalis and Collared Sunbird.
Jessie’s Best Sighting:
In the grounds of the lodge Jess spotted something beautiful in a tree! Look! Dad! wifi! You didn’t even have go indoors to have wifi!
A drive out to where the Mkhuze river flows into the lake brought back memories of my last trip there – by boat on a bird count with the game warden nearly forty years ago. Greater Flamingos, one Lesser Flamingo, White Pelicans, a Rosy-throated Longclaw, Common Ringed Plovers, Kittlitz’s Plovers, Stilts, Yellow-billed Ducks, Hottentot Teals and many more.
Pelicans fishing in a ‘laager’ – surrounding the fish then dipping in: Heads up – Bums up.
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.
Charles Darwin wrote The Descent of Man. I’m going to write far more briefly and light-heartedly about The Descent of One Mans Pass. His is 900 pages long and has sex in it. Mine is one page and only has suffering.
It was Barbara’s fault, of course. She was the instigator and in a fair and just world she would have been given a heavy backpack and her kierie would have been confiscated. As it is, she hared down like a springhaas, leaving the other four of us who deserted the platoon for our ‘shortcut,’ gasping in her wake.
‘It’s steep but it’s not far,’ I said confidently, clearly remembering the last time I had descended this pass on Platberg, or Ntabazwe – only about fifty years ago when I was a fit, lightweight klipspringer. Well! The first, rocky, section turned out to be twice as long as I’d remembered; and someone had loosened the rocks:
This part ended at the sandstone cave, which meant we had ‘conquered’ the dolerite cliff section, if we remembered Leon’s geology lesson correctly.
The second section is the grassy-rocky section which I also remembered well – except it was also much longer now. Perhaps there’s been a tectonic upwelling since I last did it?
. . then a section I had completely forgotten about. A bonus section, you could say.
. . a last little bit:
. . and we were on terra firma horizontalis, on the Bloekombos site of many a happy Methodist Sunday School picnic in the ‘sixties. As Tim correctly pointed out: As Methylated Spirits, we were only allowed tea and ginger beer at our picnics.
Now all we had to do was walk on the level to the Akkerbos – or Oak Forest – which I clearly remembered as being at point A:
. . but which is actually, and disconcertingly, at point B.
So we trudged. A reconnaissance patrol was dispatched to find us, but their vehicles turned out to be less capable than we’d have wished for, unable to negotiate a few fallen twigs across their path. Field Marshall Lello RSVP also seemed to have less pull with HQ than we hoped, so no helicopters were dispatched either.
So we trudged. On the way we passed some ladies packing a lovely smelling herb into bundles. We greeted them and trudged on. Luckily Gail had passed them before us and been more engaged. She told us how they had been delighted she could speak isiZulu and knew their herb was Imphepho (Helichrysum, or liquorice plant – that was the smell!). They were bundling it up for sale in eGoli, eThekwini and eKapa (Joburg, Durban and Cape Town). Imphepho is used for ritual purposes by sangomas for summoning the ancestors. According to Pooley ‘to invoke the goodwill of ancestors, to induce trances – and to keep red mites away.’
Soon we arrived at the Akkerbos to tremendous applause and a lavish spread. Well, one of those. A lesson learned: The old ‘Don’t Split The Party’ is a good principle!
kierie – unfair walking aid which well-balanced people don’t need. At first
springhaas – jumping hare; bouncing rabbit
klipspringer – petite antelope which lithely and blithely bounces from rock to rock without causing them to start mini avalanches
bloekombos – gumtree plantation
akkerbos – oak plantation
Weather: Light westerly breeze; gale, actually!
A bit of stopping to smell the flowers en route:
I’m afraid the conservation status of Platberg, this precious mountain, is precarious. Do read about it.
Read about how we were not the only, nor the first, holy folk to descend this mountain: ‘It was the arrival of the Prophet Isaiah Shembe at KwaZulu Natal (Durban) from Ntabazwe (Harrismith) as he was instructed by the Word of God to do so.’
This stroll was Monday. It’s Thursday and I’m still walking like Charlie Chaplin in slow motion. Tom seriously said ‘Dad, maybe you should see a doctor.’
Monday, exactly one week later and I’m tripping the light fantastic as usual – Normal gait restored.
Us Blands have published a book. One of us was the author and one was the photographer.
OK, it was tenth-cousin Hugh that actually did both!
Mind you, I do play my small part in keeping this particular trappist monastery afloat by testing eyes there mahala every second month! Who’da thunk I’d ever help the Catholics? Holy me! Thank Allan Marais for that. If it wasn’t for us Hugh might not have had Marianhill to photograph.
Well DONE, cousin Hugh! That is quite an achievement; your book is stunning.
Here’s another beautiful book by Hugh:
. . this one includes sister Barbara and husband Jeff’s Umvoti Villa homestead, now inhabited by niece Linda and husband Dawie, MissMadam Mary-Kate and Meneer Dawie jr:
Hugh has driven thousands of miles around KwaZulu Natal photographing things that interest him. If you like old buildings, graves, churches, farms, railway stations, shops, government and church buildings, houses in towns and cities, hospitals, monuments n kak, seek no more! Go here. 70 000 images!
mahala – free
You can get your own copy of Hugh’s books here or here.