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’
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.