(I’m reading Tramp Royal again! So here’s a re-post from 2016):
I lapped up the famous Trader Horn books ‘The Ivory Coast in the Earlies’ and ‘Harold the Webbed.’ I’m still looking for their third book ‘The Waters of Africa.’ ‘Their’ being his and the special and talented lady whose sudden insight made it happen when she befriended a tramp at her door in Parktown Johannesburg back in the mid-1920’s – Ethelreda Lewis.
If ever the philosophy of ‘Be Kind Always’ paid off, it was in this tale of a friendship that developed after the reflexive dismissal of a tramp at the door of a middle-class Parktown home was changed to a sudden, instinctive ‘Wait. Maybe I will buy something from you . . ‘ and – even better – ‘Would you like some tea . . ‘
After reading Trader Horn I was then even more enamoured of Tim Couzens’ book ‘Tramp Royal – The true story of Trader Horn’, as it validated the Trader Horn legend – Alfred Aloysius ‘Wish’ Smith was real and he had got around!!
Couzens died in October this year, tragically – he fell in his own home. I thought OH NO!! when I read it. He was a gem, almost a Trader Horn himself – what a waste! Too soon! He did the MOST amazing sleuth job of tracking down all Trader Horn’s jaunts n joints across the world and revealing that – despite the skepticism that had followed the incredible fame and Hollywood movie that had followed the success of Aloysius ‘Wish’ Smith – now famous as Trader Horn – ‘s first book in 1930. MOST of what the old tramp, scamp, rogue and adventurer had claimed to do he had, in fact, done! Tramp Royal is a wonderful vindication, and a moving, fascinating and captivating read.
One (small) reason I LOVED the trader Horn books, besides the original title:
Trader Horn; Being the Life and Works of Aloysius Horn, an “Old Visiter” … the works written by himself at the age of seventy-three and the life, with such of his philosophy as is the gift of age and experience, taken down and here edited by Ethelreda Lewis; With a foreword by John Galsworthy
(phew!) . . . . . was the number of places A. Aloysius Smith – ‘Trader Horn’ (or Zambesi Jack or Limpopo Jack or Uncle Pat – he had aliases!) had been to that I have also been to:
Joburg, his least favourite city in the world. He was in a doss house in Main Street in 1925, I was in Eloff Street in 1974. Parktown, where Ethelreda Lewis ‘discovered’ him. He would have died there, unknown and in penury, had it not been for her sudden decision to listen to him tell a story. ‘Wish’ came to love Joburg, as did I. In Parktown he was in Loch Street in 1926, I was in Hillside Road in 1977;
Hwange in Zimbabwe, or Wankie in Rhodesia as it was then; – BTW, pronounce Hwange ‘Wankie’;
Harrismith, where he went with Kitchener’s Cattle Thieves to steal Boer cattle and horses in the scorched earth tactics of the wicked looting Brits; He showed his humanity by describing the Boer women’s sadness, and states – I hope its true – that they always left ‘one milk cow behind for the kids; and we called it Pansy.’ And Harrismith is where I was born and raised;
The west coast of Madagascar where our yachting trip to the island of Nose Iranja took us quite close to his ‘Chesterfield Islands’;
The east coast of Africa, although he spoke of Zanzibar and we visited Mombasa – which he probably visited too, as he sailed up and down the coast;
Oklahoma, where like me he befriended and was befriended by, the local Native Americans – his mostly Pawnees and Osages, mine mostly Apaches, Kiowas and Cherokees;
Georgia, where he behaved abominably and which I used as a base to go kayaking in Tennessee. He drank in a doctor’s house and I drank in a dentist’s house;
The Devonshire Hotel in Braamfontein, where both of us got raucously pickled;
The Seaman’s Institute in Durban where he holiday’d happily for two pounds a month while waiting for his book to be published; His editor needed a break from him and sent him off by train on the 2nd April 1926 to avoid the Jo’burg winter. My only connection here is drinking in the nearby Smuggler’s Inn. If it was around back then, Wish Smith would have gone there!
Kent, where he died in 1931; I visited Paddock Wood on honeymoon in 1988.
Wish himself would be saying, ‘What, you haven’t been to Lancashire!?’
I would love to see his river – the Ogowe or Ogooue River in Gabon. Everything I’ve seen on youtube verifies Aloysius’ lyrical descriptions. Here’s an example (but turn the sound off);
I also loved the unexpected success of the first book. Written by an unknown tramp living in a doss house in Main Street Joburg, the publishers Jonathan Cape advanced fifty pounds which Mrs Lewis gratefully accepted. Other publishers had turned it down, after all. Then the Literary Guild in America – a kind of book club – offered five thousand dollars! They expected to print a few thousand, and also offered the rights to a new publisher called Simon & Schuster, who hesitated then went ahead, receiving advance orders for 637 copies.
Then it started selling! 1523 copies one week, then 759, then 1330 and then 4070 in the first week of July 1927. Then 1600 copies one morning! Then 6000 in a week. They now expected to sell 20 000 copies!
Up to November that year sales averaged 10 000 a month, thus doubling their best guess. They had already run ten reprints, the last reprint alone being 25 000 copies. 30 000 were sold in December alone up to Christmas day. The story grows from there – more sales, trips by the author to the UK and the USA, bookstore appearances, talk of a movie. The trip continued until he had gone right around the world, drinking, smoking and entertaining the crowds with his tales and his exaggerations and his willingness to go along with any hype and fanfare. At his first big public appearance at 3.30 pm on Wednesday 28th March he spoke to a packed house in the 1,500 seater New York City Town Hall off Times Square:
‘William McFee was to have made an introductory address but the old man walked on the stage (probably well fortified with strong liquor), acknowledged tremendous applause with a wave of his wide hat and a bow and commenced talking in a rambling informal style before McFee could say a word. He started by quoting advice given to new traders: “The Lord take care of you, an’ the Divil takes care of the last man.” He spoke of the skills of medicine men, rolled up his trouser leg above his knee to show the audience his scar, and threatened to take of his shirt in front of the whole Town Hall to show where a lion had carried him off and was shot only just in time. When the aged adventurer paused to take a rest in the middle of his lecture, McFee delivered his introduction.’
His fame grew and he reveled in it.
Then suddenly, people started thinking old ‘Wish’ Smith’s whole story was a yarn, nothing but the inventions of a feeble mind, and wrote him off as yet another con artist – there were so many of those! It was the age of ballyhoo and fooling the public with bearded ladies, confidence tricksters and hype. Some critics grew nasty, depicting Ethelreda – without whom none of this would even have happened, and without whose kindness and perseverance Aloysius would have died in obscurity, never seeing his family in England again – as abusing ‘Wish’ for her own gain. The truth really was that she – in effect – saved his life; she certainly returned him to his family; and she enabled the kind of rollicking final few years his dreams were made of! He had people to listen to him; he had money to throw around! What a better way to go than dying anonymously in a doss house in Main Street Joburg!
The hype died, cynicism (the bad kind, not healthy cynicism) set in and old ‘Wish’ Smith – Trader Horn – died in relative obscurity with his family in Kent. It may all have been a hoax . . .
So was he real, or was it all a hoax? To know more, read Tim Couzens’ book – it’s a gem!
Here’s a silent movie of the old rascal on a Joburg street corner soon after he’d been kitted out in new clothes when the first cheque for his book came in.
Here’s the back page from the movie program. The movie, of course, was Hollywood – WAY different to the true story! An interesting facet was for once they didn’t film it all in a Hollywood studio; they actually packed tons of equipment and vehicles and sailed to Kenya and then on to Uganda to film it ‘in loco’ – although on the wrong side of Africa to where it had happened!
It was a landmark film of sorts that chalked up several firsts. It was the first fictional feature-length adventure shot on location in Africa (but the wrong location! East Africa while Aloysius’ adventures were in West Africa!). It was the first sound-era ‘White Jungle Girl’ adventure – many more would follow. It’s an old movie, sure, it is of its time; to me as a Trader Horn fan, the worst thing about it is: it isn’t the true story! Nevertheless, some rate it as ‘surprisingly engaging and worth checking out’ now that it’s been reissued on DVD. (NB: See the badly-made 1931 movie, not the worse-ly-made 1973 remake, nor the porno rip-off Trader Hornee!).
The movie was rather horrible and did zero justice to the life and philosophy of ‘Wish Smith,’ the old rogue and skelm who was saved in the nick of time from a lonely anonymous death in downtown Johannesburg, and whisked into quite astonishing fame for a few years in his late 60’s early 70s.
Trader Horn wrote glowingly of a real lady he met on his river: an American missionary, Mrs Hasking. She died on the river, and Trader Horn took her body down river to be buried. I found out more about her here.
Here‘s a much better, two-post review of the Trader Horn phenomenon – and Tim Couzens’ book – by fellow ‘tramp philosopher’ Ian Cutler. Do read it!
On 27 October 2016 I wrote to Ian Cutler:
Sad sad news today: Tim Couzens the master tramp sleuth has moved off to join his Tramp Royal in the afterlife.
At 72 he was about the same age as the old rogue at his death.
Regards, Peter Swanepoel
Sad news indeed Peter. Thanks for letting me know.Ian
Other people are as fascinated by this tale as I am. I see a movie about the making of THAT movie was made in 2009! Trader Horn, The Journey Back was filmed in some of the same locations as the 1931 film.
Optometric colleagues and classmates from way back in 1977, Di Fotherby, Ray Schoeman, Terry Saks, Pete Brauer and I met at Zena Jacobson’s lovely home in Sandton a while back – 16 Feb – and how very fortuitous that turned out to be, as we have been a great support group for each other during lockdown!
One day talk on our whatsapp group turned to books, and the Schoemans showed their fascinating collection, plus one item of huge envy-producing – and real – value:
Here’s a close-up of the pièce de résistance! –
Signed by All Three Goons!
They also have two of Milligan’s many books:
And another prize collection:
. . and another:
There’s more – it’s an amazing library; Wilbur Smith and Bryce Courtenay novels; medical books, cookbooks, etc
Here are the librarians:
Myself I only have Spike’s scurrilous re-interpretation (improvement) of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, from which I quote: “
I was thinking about the seasons and how we look out for our first Yellow-billed Kite every year around Spring. We also love hearing the first Piet-My-Vrou and other cuckoo calls.
Richard Lydekker (1849 – 1915) was an English naturalist, geologist and writer of numerous books on natural history. In fact, about thirty books in thirty years, some of them multi-volume tomes – up to six volumes!
Lydekker attracted amused public attention with a pair of letters to The Times in 1913. He wrote on 6 February that he had heard a cuckoo, contrary to Yarrell’sHistory of British Birds which doubted the bird arrived before April. Six days later on 12 February, he wrote again, confessing that “the note was uttered by a bricklayer’s labourer”.
We have all been caught out by a tape recording, a cellphone audio clip – and a mimic like our Natal Robin, so we feel for poor Lydekker over a century later!
After the mirth subsided, letters about the first cuckoo became a tradition every Spring in The Times.
Charles Darwin was born 210 years ago today. He died aged 73 in 1882. One of the single most profound ideas ever to enter a human brain seeped into his around 1836 or 1837 and stewed and bubbled there until in 1858 he was jolted into action and finally published his stunning insight.
No, NOT ‘the theory of evolution!’ Evolution is not a theory, it’s an established scientific fact that happens around us all the time. Don’t listen to claptrap. Evolution is accepted and observed, and is the reason – just for one example – that we have a major problem with drug resistance. Germs evolve to be resistant to drugs. Daily.
No, the theory that evolution happens by natural selection; THAT’s the amazing thought that Darwin had. One hundred and sixty years later, despite the devious efforts of naysayers – and the earnest efforts of real scientists – all the evidence still points to Darwin’s idea being right. Discovery after discovery in the fields of biology, paleontology, geology, molecular biology, genetics, anthropology, and more – each one of which could potentially sabotage his theory – have instead reinforced it. The age of the earth, plate tectonics, fossils, common structures, the distribution of species, embryonic development, germ theory, DNA, etc etc – each new discovery has been found to align with Darwin’s powerful theory – biological evolution by natural selection or ‘descent with modification,’ the differential survival of organisms following their naturally occurring variation. His amazing insight, his ‘dangerous idea’, remains a good brief definition of the process to this day.
What Darwin discovered was that ‘all life is one!’ An amazing thought. Who could ever have thought that one day when we became able to test the genes of plants and animals we’d discover that we shared some genes with chimps, yes – one of the reasons the bishop of London fought so hard against the idea when first announced in 1859 – but that we also share some of our genes with grass! NO-ONE would have predicted that. All life is one. Stunning.
As a student Darwin was a proper, normal person! He neglected his medical studies in Edinburgh, preferring to study natural history on interesting field trips, then when his wealthy medical doctor father sent him to Cambridge to study to become an Anglican parson, he preferred riding, shooting and beetle collecting! Only beer drinking seems to be missing from a well-balanced start in life.
Then he took a gap year – five years, actually – and traveled:
On his return from sailing around the world he threw himself into scientific work, experimentation, meticulous research and lots of thinking. But he couldn’t bring himself to publish his big insight. His wife Emma was very religious and they both were very aware of the stir his amazing insight would cause. After twenty years of this he was suddenly nudged into action when a younger man sent him a paper to publish which he felt was almost identical to his theory. He scrambled to action, and so it happened that his friends Lyell and Hooker arranged to have his and Alfred Russel Wallace’s papers read jointly to the Linnean Society on 1 July 1958. On the evening of 28 June, Darwin’s baby son died of scarlet fever after a week of severe illness, and he was too distraught to attend the presentation. Their joint paper On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection was read. What followed was . . nothing. Little attention was given to this announcement of their theory; the president of the Linnean Society made the now-notorious remark in May 1859 that the year 1858 ‘had not been marked by any revolutionary discoveries.’
In 1859 he finally published his amazing book On The Origin Of Species, ‘one long argument’ for the idea, hatching in his head since 1837, of the ‘common descent’ of all life.
His theory is simply stated in the introduction: As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.
At the end of the book he concluded that: There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
A toast to an amazing man and his insight!
Evolution was already old in 1859: Contrary to popular opinion, neither the term nor the idea of biological evolution began with Charles Darwin and his 1859 paper, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Many scholars from the ancient Greek philosophers on had inferred that similar species were descended from a common ancestor. The word “evolution” was widely used in English for all sorts of progressions from simpler beginnings from 1647 on. The term Darwin most often used to refer to biological evolution was “descent with modification,” which remains a good brief definition of the process today.
Darwin proposed that evolution could be explained by the differential survival of organisms following their naturally occurring variation—a process he termed “natural selection.” Offspring of organisms differ from one another and from their parents in ways that are heritable – that is, they can pass on the differences genetically to their own offspring.
Yes, evolution is also a scientific theory, but not when used in a negative sense. If anyone says ‘it’s only a theory nya nya’, ignore them. If anyone says its a scientific theory matter-of-factly they’re right, but then those people will also immediately tell you it’s also a scientific fact. Read about that here.
Jerry Coyne wrote a lovely affirming letter to Charles Darwin on his 200th birthday, back in 2009. How Darwin would have loved reading it, and how it would have brought relief and peace of mind to a wonderful man who worried a lot!
Sy Montgomery sounds like a wonderful person. You think she has to be interesting, anyway, when you learn she wrote a book called The Soul Of An Octopus. Then you learn she kept a pet pig and you think, Hmm, maybe dodgy like some other people you know who will remain nameless, right Bruce and Heather Soutar? She wrote a book on the pig called The Good Good Pig, so you think, OK, maybe unlike Bruce and Heather she turned it into tasty bacon, but no, she loved the pig live. Then you see her petting a tiger and again you think Hmmm . .
But then you find out she wrote “birdology”:
People know that birds are descendants of dinosaurs, but actually the truth is that Birds Are Dinosaurs. That may be difficult to see when you’re watching a flycatcher, but it is more apparent when you are watching an ostrich or a cassowary, as tall as a man, crowned with a helmet of bone on its head and a killer claw on each foot.
Most of the dinosaurs that became today’s birds took up flying. And in doing so, they utterly reshaped their bodies inside and out. Their bones are hollow and their bodies are full of air sacs; their feathers weigh more than the skeleton and are hollow shafted and shaped to capture and move air. Birds are essentially feather-fringed air bubbles.
Birds can see polarized and ultraviolet light, experience colors we can never know, sense the earth’s magnetic field, and navigate using subtle changes in odor and barometric pressure.
In Birdology Sy Montgomerycommunicates a heartfelt fascination and awe for birds and hopefully kindles in more of us humans a connection to these complex, mysterious fellow creatures that I personally find so fascinating.
Birds are the only wild animals most people see every day. No matter where we live, birds live with us. Yet many of us don’t appreciate how very strange they are, how different to us. Their hearts look like those of crocodiles. They have no hands. They give birth to eggs. And they’re covered with modified scales called feathers. We shared a common ancestor with even the most distant of our fellow placental mammals as recently as 100 million years ago; The last ancestor we shared with the birds, however, traces back 325 to 350 million years ago.
Sy says her life with animals has taught her “how to be a good creature. How to be compassionate. How to get yourself inside the mind and heart of someone else. Seeing someone’s soul, looking for their truth. Animals teach you all of that and that’s how you get compassion and heart.”
Project Gutenberg is a volunteer effort to digitise and archive books and other cultural works and make them freely available on the internet.
It was started in 1971 by Michael Hart, a student at the University of Illinois.
The university had a Xerox Sigma 5 mainframe computer in their Materials Research Lab. By befriending the operators, Hart was given an account with a virtually unlimited amount of computer time; Hey! It was there and they didn’t really have a whole lot they could do with it. Everything was so new!
Seen above is a later Xerox Sigma 9 with a pic of Michael Hart pasted on.
Now, what would the average 24yr-old male do with this novel ‘thing’ called “access to a computer”? We know what most of us would do NOW: Search for titty pictures.
But there was no internet then, no World Wide Web. This would only come later, starting with something like this:
1973: Global networking becomes a reality as the University College of London and the Royal Radar Establishment of Norway connect to the American ‘ARPANET’. The term ‘internet’ is born.
1974: The first Internet Service Provider is born with the introduction of a commercial version of ARPANET, known as Telenet.
What Michael Hart did was amazing: He decided to just ‘make things available’ to anyone who could access them. As he added free content, his idea grew to wanting to encourage the creation and distribution of ‘ebooks’ – as many as possible in as many formats as possible for the entire world to read in as many languages as possible. The aim became ‘to break down the bars of ignorance and illiteracy’. His initial goal was to make the 10,000 most-consulted books available to the public at little or no charge, and to do so by the end of the 20th century.
He named the project after Johannes Gutenberg, the fifteenth century German printer who propelled the movable type printing press revolution which made knowledge more widely available.
There are now over 56 000 books available free on gutenberg.org. (March 2019: 58 000). (January 2020: over 60 000).
I think people should write down their stories. In particular I thought Charles Mason should write his as he has paddled one particular crazy-ass canoe marathon every summer for fifty years in a row! Insanity like that should be noted and recorded for posterity. Psychologists should be looking into it.
I mean he won the Dusi twice, paddled one Berg – and coined the now well-known law “Anyone Doing The Berg More Than Once Is Certifiable”; Started, then won the very first Umko; Paddled all the other races and multi-day marathons, sailed to Seychelles and wrecked the yacht on the beach, got a 1st-class degree, married a lovely lady and raised two sons. And some other stuff. But notably, amazingly and astonishingly, he made the Umkomaas River Canoe Marathon – the most feared of all South Africa’s river races – his own.
Here he is doing what some paddlers call ‘Taming the Umko.’ He’s in front wearing the yellow helmet:
Ah! There it is, a pale yellow helmet:
So I said ‘Listen, you should write your story. Your kids may not read it but your grandkids will.’ So Charles said/asked ‘Ja?’ in that quizzical, half-serious half-amused way of his and suggested we meet for tea at Rosie’s Tearoom. Which made me think it was actually now quite urgent that his story get written. Charles Mason thinking ‘meet for a drink’ meant ‘meet at Rosie’s Tearoom’ got me worried. He was obviously getting old. The project had taken on some real urgency.
At Rosie’s doiley-covered tea table his very first sentence was ‘You Know Peter, this is Quite Opportune. Next Year is the Fiftieth Umko,’ and promptly turned the focus away from himself and on to the iconic race which he had been instrumental in reconnoitering, starting, winning, keeping going and participating in. Did I mention every single one of them for fifty one years IN-A-ROW? He broke his boat and walked out in one of them, so fifty finishes in fifty one starts.
So the book title changed from Charlie Mason Fuckin WildWater Endurance SuperHero to ‘UMKO 50 years‘ and he became the font of Umko knowledge and wisdom and proofreader extraordinaire. So although I am responsible for all mistakes, I didn’t really know what I was doing, so we should actually blame him. Except we can’t – he didn’t get to proofread everything. Damn.
So we wrote a book, me and Charlie. Charles in longhand! On paper made from gumtrees by both Sappi and Mondi. He made a copy typist out of me. No wonder I made some mistakes. I took typing as a matric subject in Apache Oklahoma in 1973 and peaked at a blistering nineteen words a minute with ten mistakes. Also, while Charles has done fifty, and ten other okes have done over thirty, with 42 and 39 finishes being the next craziest after Charles, this half of the author-duo had done one. ONE. One Umko. So I did need some help in knowing what I was on about.
In my defence, I wrote the bloody thing cos it NEEDED DOING. Somebody had to do this! Anyway, between Charles and I we’ve done 51 Umkos and experience like that is not to be sneezed at.
The way we did it was to ask all paddlers who have ever paddled the Umko to send in their stories. Then we asked them again. And again. The emptiness of my inbox was deafening. An American paddling scribe – and paddling scribes are, in Charlie’s own description of rarity, As Rare As Rocking Horse Shit – wrote ‘paddlers are notoriously lax at recording their adventures.’ Correct. Bill Barron used to say ‘ka-rreck.’
So I had to go out like a roving reporter and fetch the stories that were not being sent in.
With Paul Chalupsky it was coffee in Durban North. After a wary start and quite a few questions, the floodgates opened. Five hours later I left with notes scribbled in my notebook, on the till slip, and on my phone. When I wrote him seeking clarity I got the usual ‘I’m not-so-email’ response. Thank goodness his new wife jumped in and sent clarifications and some lovely new tales.
With Herve de Rauville it was two quarts of beer and two bottles of quota red wine from his estate in the winelands. He’s not anti-quotas, our Herve. Seven hours later we had done the Umko plenty times with much steering back away from the inevitable topic if you’re talking to SA paddlers: The Dusi!
I nailed down Pete Peacock by going to PMB and meeting him at Owen Hemingway’s Pope’s Canoe Centre. Owen himself was a fountain of info and scandal! At that stage I was relieved to meet a paddler with verbal diarrhoea, instead of the communicative constipation I had been experiencing! While I pumped him for Umko info he sold me a boat. A beautiful orange plastic Fluid Detox. I must paddle it one day.
Like many, Kenny Reynolds agreed absolutely that he would write. Every time I saw him at KCC he would FOR SURE be sending me some stories. Soon. But it was only when I was with him scribbling in longhand that I got any scandal. Same with Ballie Roets and Tony Botes. I had to go to Crusaders – the drinking club with a canoeing problem – clubhouse for their tales. It looked like a bowling club. No?
I began to think this was a multi-year project for a patient, persistent saint, of which I am none of the above. Then a breakthrough! Some ancient pre-rinderpest okes had been forced to learn email from being in Australia. So Robbie Stewart and Rory Lynsky sent stirring tales. Their endeavours were re-doubled when a Viking character entered the fray and goaded them into having to defend their honour. Now we were cooking thanks to Rowan Rasmussen! Ally Maynard had to set the record straight, Porky Paul got his secretary to write, Rob Bourne-Lange had Leslye fire off his missives. Geoff Caruth was slow, but he has written a lot about the Umko over many years, so I could plunder his early writings, scanning the old Umko programs, then editing the OCR errors, then copy and paste.
Now the accusations started flying thick and fast. Especially thick. Everyone was the hero of their story and the furious howls of ‘That’s MY story you’re telling!‘ got the creative juices flowing. The introduction now needed the caution ‘Please take all the stories with a hefty pinch of iodised cerebos.’ The reason for the hyperbole, of course, is the river itself. The palpable fear before a race causes great excitement and nervousness – and garrulous relief afterwards. Charles summed it up pithily many years ago with another famous truth: ‘There’s No Better Laxative Than A Full Umkomaas!‘
Kingfisher heavies contributed aplenty. From the outset the project had the backing of the club. Travis Wilkinson, Terry Drummond and Ross Poacher helped out. Rob Davey actually saw that the idea became a reality. We all spoke and wrote; Rob brought the money in. Ernie Alder didn’t say no, but fokol forthcame until I met him at Circus Circus for a lengthy meal when his floodgates opened. He was no typist, our Ernie.
Rumblings from behind the boerewors curtain erupted and colourful lava spewed forth once Bruce Clarke, Brian Longley, Meyer Steyn and Colin Wilson started lying singing. These interlopers regard the Umko as their own and some Umkos there have actually been more Vaalies than modest, well-behaved paddlers! We may in fact need to look at the Donald Trump solution to keeping them out with a wall at van Reenen. Spoiling a good story with the truth is not their style. Swims which had been Natal-long became epic swims lasting ‘months underwater,’ and even this was topped by ‘eons holding my breath.’ Nicknames are a big thing in the hinterland, so I liked that and tried to get nicknames for as many paddlers as I could. Hopefully a few guys were annoyed at seeing their worst, most forgettable name in print. I decided from the outset not to censor any submissions. Customary Paddling Language was used as spoken, but even I chose not to put some unsavoury nicknames in the book!
I wanted recognition for the ladies who have quietly and without fuss done what us okes did. Much serious shaking of male heads kept the ladies out for years, in the sure knowledge that no woman could – and then, OK, should – ever do a race as challenging as ‘our Umko’ and anyway, out of the kindness of our hearts we shouldn’t let them into our remote valley. For their own good. Also, how would they possibly handle having to sleep in the big marquee with all the guys? By telling better fart jokes than the guys, it turned out. As far as I could tell, Colleen Whitton was the first lady to paddle in an Umko and Marlene Boshoff and sis Jenny were the first to finish one without a male in the boat. They were followed in random order by Antje Manfroni, Patricia Stannard, Lorna Oliver, Debbie Whitton-Germiquet, Diana Rietz. What’s more they wrote good stories and sent them in on time and electronically. Thanks ladies!
The breakthrough with the ladies came via Hugh Raw. His terrific MCP stories (he wrote of paddling with TWO ladies and making them carry the boat) needed responding to and challenging. And the ladies did just that.
Back and forth, checking and re-checking. Re-writing causes layout headaches, all well handled by Rob Davey and Jon Ivins, paddler, photographer and book putter-together-er. All the while badgering okes to send in their stories, with mixed success. To their credit every one of the paddlers I phoned cheerfully agreed to send their tale. Then they didn’t. Amazingly, some okes can win the race multiple times but writing a story defeats them. If I had a story about them, especially if controversial, I would send that to them and that often elicited a response, but not always. At least Robbie Herreveld was a great help with the results. He kept records and helped us complete the list of winners.
The proofs arrived! We checked through half-size black-and-white proofs then the full-size, full-colour proofs:
Then the books themselves arrived, happy day! Just in time for the race, where Rob Davey handed them out to paddlers in 2016’s goodie bags! They were pretty well received, I thought, warts and all!
The UMKO 50 years – The Story Of A River Race And The People Who Made It Happen can be read here. Don’t tell me of any errors, thank you! Actually, do. We’ll build your bulldust into UMKO 60 years.
The internet is full of ‘hacks’: Simple and – sometimes – effective solutions to everyday problems (or ‘problems’). Often quirky or inelegant. Sometimes satirised. Here’s a typical geek hack:
I found some camping hacks – these are a bit more real: a handy tent floor; a shoe-holder kitchen; eggs in a bottle; a toilet paper jar; pre-made sangria; etc.
But here’s what really got me going: An 1872 book on ‘hacks’ for going on a long expedition into Darkest Africa called The Art of Travel, or Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries byFrancis Galton, grandson of the famous Erasmus Darwin and cousin of the even more famous Charles Darwin.
The first edition was written in 1855. It provides detailed instructions on ‘wagons and boats, horses and oxen, tents and firearms, hunting and fishing, observing and collecting, carpentry and metal-working, camping requisites, bush cuisine, medical improvisation, the best ways to cross rivers, how to move heavy objects and how to build huts.’
Now, let me tell ya: If you have traveled before reading this book you didn’t know what you were doing. You took a big chance! Read this sound advice and find out what you SHOULD have done:
Travelers must be healthy, adventurous, and have ‘at least a moderate fortune.’ If your fortune isn’t quite large enough, shoot elephants for their ivory or collect insects, birds and plants and sell them to fund your travels. – Galton fortunately inherited enough so he no longer needed to practice medicine and could travel as he wished without collecting beetles!
Here’s how to wash your clothes after you have worn them night and day for six weeks: Kill an animal – any animal – take its gall bladder and add it to boiling water full of ash from the fire. Peel off your greasy clothes and soak them in this mess overnight. Next morning, take them to water and wash and beat them with a flat piece of wood. To get rid of the vermin with which you are infested by now, take half an ounce of mercury, mix it with old tea leaves reduced to pulp by mastication and add saliva (not water) to make a paste. Infuse this into a string which you hang around your neck. The lice will be sure to bite at the bait, swell, become red and die. See. Easy.
Save up the fat from the cooking till you have half a bucket-full. Collect as much wood as you can and wood ashes from plants whose ashes taste acrid. Correct, taste the ashes. Get a man to make two very large clay pots, ‘which is a very easy thing to do when proper clay can be obtained.’ In one pot place the ashes. In the other, under which a fire has been lit, place the fat. Now employ a Damara of sedentary disposition to supervise the process to the end, he or she simply having to keep the fire going under the grease-pot night and day, and from time to time ladle into it a spoonful of the ash-water or lye. This ash-water is sucked up by the grease and in only ten days of constant attendance the stuff is transformed into good white soap. See. Easy.
Make a Boat
If you need to cross a river with your belongings, a make-shift boat is useful: Kill two bulls – or in Africa, maybe buffaloes; skin them and sew the skins together. Cut down ten small willow trees, fourteen feet long. Lash the willow poles as shown, wrap the skins around them. Two men can make this craft in a mere two days.
Easy. Assuming, of course, that the buffaloes cooperate.
Theory of Loads and Distances – and Women
You need to take a lot of stuff along, so Galton works out how much you can get animals and men to carry. He does this ‘partly by theory and partly by experiment’!
“Let d be the distance the beast or man could travel daily if unburdened; Let b be the burden which would just suffice to prevent an animal from moving a step; Let b’ be some burden less than b and let d’ be the distance he could travel daily when carrying b’.”
He comes to a magic formula b’d² = b(d – d’)² which ‘proves’ the pack animal can carry 4/9 of his maximum staggering load! From this he works out that a man can carry 119lbs a distance of 11 miles a day. By this of course, he means ‘some other man,’ not him. It’s a bit like the definition of minor surgery: Minor surgery is surgery on someone else.
He also confidently states that – unlike many travelers – he believes taking women along is an asset, ‘for they work hard and can carry double the load men can.’ Mind you, this is the man who once used his expertise in trigonometry to discreetly measure the posterior development (her bum) of a South African woman at a distance. Ahem, English gentlemen . . .
Taking along the wives of the hired hands ‘gives great life to a party,’ and they can endure a long journey ‘nearly as well as a man, and certainly better than a horse or a bullock.’ Women were also ‘invaluable in picking up and retailing information and hearsay gossip’ which the traveler might otherwise miss. Plus, they are cheap to run, as Samuel Hearne of the Hudson’s Bay Company had pointed out: ‘Women were made for labor, and though they do everything, they are maintained at a trifling expense, for, as they always cook, the very licking of their fingers, in scarce times, is sufficient for their subsistence.’
Just tie a heavy stone around the ass’s tail. ‘When an ass wants to bray, he elevates his tail, and, if his tail be weighted down, he has not the heart to bray.’
‘Neither sleepy nor deaf men should think of traveling alone.’What’s that!?
On Being Held Up by Brigands
When the robber orders you to lie down, draw your own gun and yell, ‘If this were loaded, you should not treat me thus!’ Then lie on the ground as ordered. As the robber approaches to relieve you of your belongings, ‘aim quickly and shoot him dead – the pistol being really loaded all the time. It’s a trick that has been practiced in most countries, from England to Peru.‘ Right. Although one supposes that if this happened in South West Africa it might be best to utter that dramatic speech in fluent Damara?
After giving long lists of necessities per day and per person and per six months, he comes to a final rough formula for ‘Stores for Individual Use’: You need 7lbs a month for every white man and 3lbs a month for every black man. Cos, you know . . .
You need to take aperient, cordial, quinine, camphor, carbolic acid, Warburg’s fever drops, glycerine, mustard paper, and emetic. Or, for an emetic you could use a charge of gunpowder in a tumblerful of warm water, then tickle your throat with a feather. A bustard feather works best.
‘A raw egg broken into the boot before putting it on, greatly softens the leather.’ Probly also stops your companions from crowding around you?
Your bedding must be warm and windproof, but not airtight, as ‘sleeping clothes that are absolutely impervious to the passage of the wind necessarily retain the cutaneous excretions. These poison the sleeper, acting upon his blood through his skin, and materially weaken his power of emitting vital heat: the fire of his life burns more languidly.’ He also advises you to sleep outside: ‘a tent is too much like home.’
Always Keep a Diary
Keep a daily travelogue: ‘It appears impossible to a traveler, at the close of his journey, to believe he will ever forget its events, however trivial. They seem branded into his memory. But this is not the case – the crowds of new impressions during a few months of civilised life will efface the sharpness of the old ones. I have conversed with . . many men . . the greater part of whose experiences in savagedom had passed out of their memories like the events of a dream. So: Every day, write up your diary.
To Raise and Move a Heavy Body
When a violent hurricane had driven his eighty ton schooner several hundred yards inland, Mr Williams, a missionary in the South Sea Islands, said, ‘The method by which we raised and moved the vessel was exceedingly simple and we accomplished the task with great ease.’ They raised her out of the 4ft hole she had worked herself into by levering her out with long levers and stone weights. Then they filled the bog that lay between her and the sea with stones and logs as rollers. Then they used a chain cable and ‘compelled her to take a short voyage upon the land before she floated in her pride on the sea once more.’ It was easy.
Oh, and then he did deign to mention, the ‘great ease with which they accomplished this task’ took ‘the united strength of about 2000 people.’ ‘Twas nothing, the missionary reverend murmured modestly . .
What a delightful book of days gone by! I love it! Days of adventure, of knowing everything, including what other men and women thought, needed and wanted – without ever having to go through the tedious process of asking them! 366 pages of the Good Old Daze indeed.
Another Book Of Advice
Sixteen years later, in 1871 Thomas Baines decided he too, had advice for travelers:
Thomas Baines 1871 book: Shifts and Expedients of Camp Life, Travel & Exploration, written with William Barry Lord, a soldier with the Royal Artillery, built on Galton – and offered even more detail.
Your clothes – have them made. Firstly, shirts:
Have them made to measure from flannel which has been previously well shrunk, of thoroughly good quality, of medium substance, and unobtrusive pattern or colour. It will be well to order them of extra length, both of sleeve and body, so as to allow for the shrinkage which is certain to take place after a few washings, in spite of all precautions. Two breast pockets should be made in each. These are very convenient for holding a variety of small matters when no waistcoat is worn. For outer clothing nothing can surpass good heather-coloured tweed, or Waterford frieze, for ordinary wear; jackets of shooting-coat pattern, made with plenty of pockets, formed from much stronger materials than are usually made use of by tailors for that purpose, will be found most useful for knocking about in.
Take a blue cloth pilot coat, cut long enough to reach just below the knees; have it lined throughout with woollen material; let the pockets be made extra strong, and order the buttons to be large, of black horn, and sewn on with double-waxed thread. The left hand breast pocket should be deep and lined with leather, as it not unfrequently becomes a resting-place for the revolver when you do not wish to make an ostentatious display of it.
Boots and shoes:
For real work these are in no part of the world equal to those made at home, and a thoroughly good stock should be laid in before quitting England; ‘Butcher boots,’ so made as to fit the leg compactly just below the bend of the knee, with low heels, and broad heel seats; several pairs of shooting boots of the regular ankle-jack gamekeeper’s pattern, tipped at toe and heel; A pair or two of high shoes made from soft undressed russet leather will be found very useful to wear instead of slippers, or for camp use when the ground is dry; A pair of Cording’s wading boots will be found invaluable. They occupy little space, are comparatively light, and keep the legs and feet dry and warm when nothing else will; It will be well also to provide two or three pairs of brown leather shooting boots without heels and with single soles, free from nails, and flexible enough to admit of the wearer walking softly and with perfect freedom.
Making your own shoes:
Most countries have some form of shoe easily made from materials obtainable upon the spot, and in Africa the ‘velschoen’ of untanned leather is the general wear. Sometimes these are very clumsily made, the naked foot is planted on the piece of leather intended for the sole, and the outline is marked out with the point of a knife, the blade being held so far clear as to obviate all danger of cutting the foot, a plan which certainly has the merit of making the shoe sufficiently roomy.
The hides of the giraffe, the eland, or the buffalo are used for soles,
and a piece large enough for a pair may generally be purchased for
eighteenpence. These are simply dried, and a native must be hired to
beat and soften them, working grease into them as he does so till they
become so soft and supple that, though they are not waterproof in the
sense of absolutely repelling the liquid, they may be wetted through
and dried again without becoming hard. Sometimes a native will do this
for a knife (value ninepence or a shilling) and the grease; but a sharp
look-out must be kept upon the latter, or he will rub it into his own
skin instead of that which he is employed to soften. An African can no
more be trusted with fat than many of our own countrymen with ardent
What? Only one gun?
To the traveler whose means of transport confine him to the possession of only one gun, we say without hesitation, purchase a plain, strong, muzzle-loading, double-barrelled smooth bore of 11 or 12 gauge. Length of barrel, 2ft. 6in., weight 8½lb. without the ramrod, a front action bar, side locks, and ramrod pipes large enough to carry a rod of extra large size and power. Two pairs of spare nipples, and one pair of fitted main springs, in addition to those in the locks. Bullets. A bell-metal or iron spherical bullet mould must be selected with the greatest care, as it by no means follows that because the figure 12 or 11 is stamped on it, that, like a wadding punch, it is calculated for a gun of the same gauge. And so on and on – I have given here 130 words of Baines’ 4628 words on guns!
For persons wishing to employ their leisure in
pleasing mementoes of the scenes they visit, perhaps the following
brief list—amplified, should they desire it—will afford
sufficient guidance; and they will also do well to choose one or more
of the shilling handbooks published by Rowney and Co., or Winsor and
A sketching portfolio, with folding tin frame to
confine the paper while in use, and pocket for spare paper—quarto
A good strong havresac of canvas, with leather
slings for each folio. Stout canvas is almost waterproof. This should
have pockets for colour box, water bottle, pencils, and penknife.
Half quire Whatman’s drawing paper (white). Some
of it should be cut to the size of the folio.
Half quire sketching cartridge for less finished
Half quire tinted drawing paper (pearl, light
drab, cool and warm greys).
A proportion of all these papers should be cut to
the size of the sketch book when purchased; but a few sheets should
be kept whole, as a larger drawing may be required.
Two dozen drawing pencils—8 HH., 12 H., and 4
HB. In practice, it will be found HB. is black enough, and it should
be used sparingly, as, unless a drawing is fixed immediately, the
deep shades are very apt to smear when the backs of other sketches
are packed against them.
Two single bladed penknives.
Very compact sketching boxes with assorted colours
in cakes, in porcelain pans, or in collapsible tubes, are provided;
and the amateur can hardly do better than select one of these with
any number of colours.
One tube of sepia and a cake
of Chinese white. With these we should advise three brown sable
pencils in flat German silver ferrules—Nos. 1, 3, and 6. With the
addition to these of the three primitive colours—red, blue, and
yellow—a considerable range of subjects may be painted; indeed
could we obtain these in perfect purity, we should require no other.
But, as this is impossible, we subjoin a list of colours, placing
first in order those that we have found most useful:—
(perhaps in cake),
Raw sienna (cake),
Purple madder (cake).
With these, the whole set from 1 to 6 of the sables in flat albata will be needed, and we advise two each of 1, 2, and 3, as well as one or two large swans’ quills for washing in the sky or flat tints. A tripod sketching stool folding to the size of a special’s staff would be useful, but the rivet should be strong and well clinched. Let the watercolour box have divisions on the edge of the palette for every colour it contains. If you take an easel, let the joint be brass. (Note: I give you 516 words of 1677. Baines being an artist, this subject would have been close to his heart).
The Traveler’s Library:
I usually take about ten books and sometimes think I’m overdoing it! Baines says I should take these 32:
Outlines of Astronomy. Sir J. Herschel, Bart (Longman and Co. 1858) 11s.
Astronomy and General Physics. W. Whewell (W. Pickering. 1857) 4s.
Illustrated London Astronomy. J. R. Hind (Ingram and Co. 1853) 1s. 6d.
Handbook—Descriptive and Practical Astronomy. G. F. Chambers (J. Murray. 1861) 10s.
Elements of Plane Astronomy. J. Brinkley, D.D (Hodges and Smith. 1845) 6s.
Orbs of Heaven; Planetary and Stellar Worlds. O. M. Mitchell (N. Cooke. 1856) 2s. 3d.
Navigation and Nautical Astronomy. Rev. J. Inman (Rivingtons. 1862) 6s. 3d.
Complete Epitome of Practical Navigation (J. W. Norie. 1864) 14s. [N.B. The latest edition should be asked for.]
Lunar Time Tables. J. Gordon (Imray. 1853) 7s.
Handbook for the Stars. H. W. Jeans (Levey, Robson, and Co. 1848) 3s. 6d.
Mathematics, Trigonometry, and Spherics.
Manual of Mathematical Tables. Galbraith and Houghton (Longman and Co. 1860) 2s.
Mathematical Tracts. G. B. Airy (J. W. Parker. 1842) 9s. 6d.
Treatise on Practical Mensuration. A. Nesbit (Longman and Co. 1864) 5s. 4d.
Practical Introduction to Spherics and Nautical Astronomy. P. Kelly, LL.D (Baldwin and Co. 1822) 7s.
Treatise on Trigonometry. G. B. Airy (Griffin and Co. 1855) 2s. 3d.
What to Observe; or, Travelling Remembrancer. Col. Jackson. Revised by Dr. Norton Shaw (Houlston and Wright. 1861) 9s. 6d.
Geodesy and Surveying, Military, Nautical, and Land Surveying.
Treatise on Military Surveying. Lieut. Col. Jackson (Allen and Co. 1860) 12s.
Outline of Method of conducting a Trigonometrical Survey. Col. Frome (Weale. 1862) 10s. 6d.
Practical Geodesy. J. W. Williams (Parker and Son. 1835) 7s. 6d.
Trigonometrical Surveying, Levelling, and Engineering. W. Galbraith (Blackwood and Son. 1842) 6s. 9d.
Engineering Field Notes on Parish and Railway Surveying and Levelling. H. J. Castle (Simpkin and Co. 1847) 8s.
Practice of Engineering Field Work. W. D. Haskoll (Atchley and Co. 1858) 17s. 6d.
Treatise on Nautical Surveyings. Com. Belcher (Richardson. 1835) 12s.
Weights and Measures.
Weights and Measures of All Nations. W. Woolhouse (Virtue Bros. 1863) 1s. 6d.
Foreign Measures and their English Values. R. C. Carrington (Potter. 1864)
Construction of Maps.
Manual of Map-making. A. Jamieson (Fullarton. 1846) 2s.
Manual of Topographical Drawing. Lieut. R. Smith (J. Wiley. 1854) 5s.
Projection of the Sphere.
Projection and Calculation of the Sphere. S. M. Saxby (Longman and Co. 1861) 4s. 3d.
Use of Instruments.
Treatise on Principal Mathematical and Drawing Instruments. F. Williams (Weale. 1857) 3s. 2d.
The Sextant and its Applications. Simms (Troughton and Simms. 1858) 4s. 6d.
Treatise on Mathematical Instruments. J. Heather (Virtue Bros. 1863) 1s.
Geography Generalised. R. Sullivan (Longman and Co. 1863) 2s.
In addition to these, every one ought to possess the Admiralty Manual of Scientific Enquiry, which is a series of papers written for the direction of explorers by men of the highest standing in various sciences; and no better general work can be recommended.
Off we go then:
Should twenty one of us decide on an eighteen month expedition, we would need – among other stuff – the following:
The Commander (that would be me!), an Assistant (you), a Geologist, an Artist and Storekeeper, a Surgeon and Naturalist (me too), a Botanist, a Collector, Natural History, &c., an Overseer, a Farrier and Smith; a Harness-maker; Stockmen and Shepherds (you could be one of these too).
Arms and Ammunition.—16 double guns, 4 rifles, 10 revolvers, 10
pistols, 200lb. gunpowder, 1000lb. shot and lead, 30,000 percussion
caps, 20 belts and pouches, 15 gun buckets, straps, locks, spare
nipples, moulds, punches, 4 ladles, powder flasks, shot pouches, &c.,
for each gun.
Camp Furniture.—5 tents 8ft. square calico, 150 yds. calico, 12 camp kettles (½ to 3 galls.), 6 doz. pannikins, 4 doz. tin dishes (small), 1 doz. large, 4 doz. knives and forks, 4 doz. iron spoons, 6 frying pans, 6 leather buckets, 6 water kegs (6, 4, and 2 galls.), 6 spades, 4 socket shovels, 4 pickaxes, 2 spring balances (25 and 50lb.), 1 steelyard (150lb.), 1 sheep net (150 yds.). And I’d need a deckchair – one of those that tilt back, with a footrest.
Instruments.—2 sextants (5in. and 6in.), 2 box do., 2 artificial
horizons, 10lb. mercury in 2 iron bottles, 4 prismatic compasses, 11
pocket compasses, spare cards and glasses for compasses, 3 aneroid
barometers, 4 thermometers to 180°, 2 telescopes, 1 duplex watch,
1 lever watch, 1 case drawing instruments; 2 pocket cases, pillar
compass, and protractor; surveying chain and arrows, 2 measuring tapes,
1 drawing board (30 × 40 inches), 2 pocket lenses.
Stationery and Nautical Tables.
Tools.—1 portable forge, 1 anvil (½ cwt.), 2 hammers and set of
tongs, 10lb. cast steel, 11lb. blister steel, 100lb. bar and rod iron,
3 smiths’ files, 3 large axes (American), 6 small do.; 1 large tool
I have given here about ten pages of information. The book is 831 pages! Just on Boats, Rafts and Make-Shift Floats, Baines and Lord write 36 786 words! And I’ve not even got to communication in the days before satellite phones. Suffice to say: You build a stone cairn; you dig a deep hole ten feet north of it; in the hole you leave instructions written on a lead sheet made from three melted bullets . . .
You can read it online at gutenberg.org – after the 831 pages there are useful advertisements for shops that can supply your needs, including gun shops where you can buy your muzzle loader; and you’ll find ladies waterproofs and portable boats are in the same department . . . What a WONDERFUL book!
I may be in line for a world record soon. We’ll know in about 190 years time.
I read it here-
Seems the Slowest Selling Book Ever was a 1716 translation of the New Testament from Coptic into Latin by David Wilkins. He sold 191 copies.
Well, as far as underachievement goes that’s piffling stuff! I sold exactly zero of my 2016 Umko 50 years book, so I should be able to whip this Wilkins’ ass handily. We printed 300 and gave them all away, so unless people start re-selling them I’m safe, and should become an honorary member of the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain.
Only danger is his 191st copy sold in 1907, so he still has those 190 years in which he can claim “Yes, but . . “.
The Book of Heroic Failures was written by Stephen Pile in 1979 in celebration of human inadequacy in all its forms. Entries include William McGonagall, a notoriously bad poet, and Teruo Nakamura a soldier of the Imperial Japanese Army who fought World War II until 1974.
The original edition included an application to become a member of the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain; However, this was taken out in later editions because the club received over 30,000 applications and closed on the grounds that it was “a failure as a failure” (but not before Pile himself had been deposed as president for showing alarming competence by preventing a disaster involving a soup toureen, then being expelled from the club for publishing a bestseller). The American version of the book was misprinted by the publishers, who left out half the introduction. As a consequence, later versions of the book came out with an erratum slip longer than the entire introduction. (wikipedia)
Pile says “People keep talking about the things man does well, when these few blades of grass are surrounded by vast prairies of inadequacy which are much more interesting”.
They found it by boring but they wouldn’t have found it boring – we all love reading about ourselves. If they’d navigated to the right page they’d have found their ancestors – or cousins – in here.
2020: Clearing out old books during the April 2020 lockdown, I found the author’s autobiography. A fascinating man. An English schoolteacher, he took a teaching job in Rondebosch on the spur of the moment and stayed in SA all his life.
Sydney Harold Skaife (‘Stacey’) D.Sc FRSSAf. (12 December 1889 – 6 November 1976) was an eminent South African naturalist. His career and educational publications covered a wide field. He was also a teacher, school inspector, broadcaster, and conservationist. Of his many achievements his greatest was probably his leading role in the creation of the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. He lived for most of his life on his smallholding ‘Tierbos” in Hout Bay. He was a prolific author of scientific and popular books (mainly detective novels written for Huisgenoot under the pseudonym Hendrik Brand). More here and here.
My garden is a wonderful tangle of KwaZulu indigenous growth gone wild. Interfered with only by my best man Tobias Gumede’s earnestly-felt desire to do something. Recently he trimmed the undergrowth near the birdbath and the spot where beautiful turquoise Araneus apricus spins her web each night and takes it down every morning.
I had to sit him down and remind him: Tobias, remember when we listened to the yellow-bellied greenbul’s complaints and you told me how it was saying “Don’t shoot the birds, it’s Spring and they’re nesting”, and how you would teach the kids in Jozini not to shoot birds in that season – and how they did anyway!?
Well, its Summer, and remember: We don’t trim or cut anything till the season fades and we’re sure no birds or other creatures are nesting. And even then we do it with great circumspection? Oh Yes, He Does Remember and Sorry, He Forgot.
But he forgot again and as I was leaving he asked Can You Buy Me A Rake? Um, what for, Tobias? Oh, Yes, He Forgot, We Don’t Rake. Right.
Well, I mention this because I have recently found out that unbeknown to me, I garden according to the ancient principle of wu wei. I mean, I always suspected my method was brilliant, but wu wei! That is brill. Its the Zen (or Tao? – or something . . ) art of “masterful inactivity”.
I love it: “The Art Of Masterful Inactivity”! Wu wei! I can do this!
I’m reading a book by Esther Woolfson who lives in Aberdeen in Scotland called Field Notes from a Hidden City. The review of her book made me want to write about all the wonderful hidden creatures in my garden and generally in Westville, so I bought it with the express intention of plagiarising it. I’ve got to the part where she writes about wu wei and I’m right behind her.
“Less is more”. German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe popularized this slogan among designers around the world in the 1950’s. And the wisdom of this aphorism goes way, way back to the time of the great Lao Tzu, ‘venerable master.’ The concept of Wu Wei became mainstream in China, where great leaders came to see the power of “non-doing.”
I read a lot about books and then occasionally I buy one and actually read the whole thing. Often the book review is better than the book. I bought Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck by Eric G Wilson. Well, it was a very good review.
Back to plagiarism: I will write to Esther and tell her what I’m doing if I get the book done. My wu wei credentials are not confined to gardening, however, so she may be safe.
Here’s the manicured bit for soccer, rugby and biking, with refuges for creatures in front and behind. When the kids stop swimming the pool will be made more frog-friendly. Made? Well, Allowed To Go frog-friendly . . . .
So how did I know the beautiful little turquoise orb spider I found in my garden was Araneus apricus? I went to my saucers. This one is seldom in her cups: My favourite entomologist Tanza said:
Hi Pete – I think she is Araneus apricus, a little orb spider. Most are nocturnal, spinning their webs in the early evening and then removing them in the morning. Maybe she got out of bed late . . . ; It is probably a “she” as the males are often (but not always) smaller.- Tanz
I first met Tanza when she was working with social spiders on the Hella Hella bridge over the Umkomaas river. Hundreds of them obligingly spun webs between the aluminium railings, allowing Tanza to mark and measure at leisure. Usually they’d be in tangled bushes!