I attended the plaaslike schools in Harrismith till 1972. A year in the USA in 1973 as a Rotary exchange student in Apache Oklahoma. Studied optometry in Joburg 1974 – 1977. Worked in Hillbrow and Welkom in 1978. Army (Potch and Roberts Heights, now Thaba Tshwane, in between Voortrekkerhoogte) in 1979 and in Durban (Hotel Command and Addington Hospital) in 1980. Stayed in Durban, paddled a few rivers, and then got married in 1988. About then this blog’s era ends and my Life With Aitch started. Post-marriage tales and child-rearing catastrophes are told in Bewilderbeast Droppings.
‘Strue!! These random – un-chronological – personal memories are true of course. But if you know anything about human memory you’ll know that with one man’s memory comes: Pinch of Salt. Names have been left unchanged to embarrass the friends who led me (happily!) astray. If I haven’t offended anyone – yet – it’s not for lack of trying . .
Add your memories in the comments if you were there!
I just read a lovely post from an Irish woman who grew up in the sixties who wrote:“In 1960, we had no fridge, no TV, no car, no central heating – only open fires, water heated by an old ‘pot-bellied’ stove, no electric immersion heater, no automatic washing machine. Chilblains were a fact of life every winter. Stuffed material sausage dogs were at the bottom of many doors to keep the draughts out (and there were many draughts!)”
. . . and those stuffed sausage doorstops got me thinking. So I wrote a bit about what I can remember about “Harrismith’s mild winters” and asked friends to add their sixpence worth! How cold was Harrismith? ——————
Ceilings had no insulation and the windows were wooden sash or steel frame, single-glazed; Windows would mist over, but you could still see if Platberg had its table-cloth on. That table cloth meant an east wind and lower temperatures.
Black coal stoves in the kitchens; Not painted red like this one.
On the beds lots of blankets, no duvets; If you were lucky your Mom would cut the tassles off the Standard Woollen Mills blankets and sew on a strip of smooth silk-like tape that didn’t tickle your nose! I remember some of our old pillows weighing ‘a ton’. Probably a quarter ton of feathers, a quarter ton of live mites, a quarter ton of dead mites and a quarter ton of sweat and snot! Luxury was having ‘winter sheets’ rather than those smooth, thin, cold ordinary sheets.
We were lucky to have hot baths from an electric geyser warming us up. You would wallow in the big old iron bath with ball-and-claw feet, trying to get your scrawny carcass under the shallow water, then start dreading having to get out; Soon, though, the decision would be an easy one, as the water cooled rapidly.
Getting into those long flannel winter jarmies was such a treat. Cosy.
Leaving for school in the mornings was jersey on, socks pulled up high, gloves on, and off you’d go on yer bike; Riding along Stuart Street your eyes would water and your nose would run, so gloves and sleeves had to do snot duty; When you got there you’d slide your hands off the handle-bar grips as they didn’t want to ‘uncurl’! Your bare knees would be frozen yet somehow you didn’t feel them as much as you felt your toes in your socks and shoes! Funny that. As uncool as it was, sometimes you’d even wear the grey balaclava Mom had knitted for you.
We had a horse trough in the backyard about 2m long, 40cm wide and 40cm deep. It was concrete grey but later on it got painted Caltex green. A lot of our stuff got painted Caltex green. Thanks, Annie! The water in the trough would freeze solid. The ice would thaw a bit by day and freeze again every night. That was OK, though, we didn’t have horses.
Harry ‘Pikkie’ Loots added his memories:
How about: Frost in the fields, with little wind blown ice crystals making it look like a sprokiesland instead of the grey-yellow vrystaatse vlakte that it was once the frost melted . . .
The little black tube-shaped coal stoves in the classroom where we thawed our hands – remember how it hurt as they ‘defrosted’? . . Newspaper under your mattress to stop the cold coming from below . . Taping up the air vents in the bedroom to stop the cold air from coming in . . Doing homework (occasionally) by the coal stove in the kitchen . . Hot water bottles . .
—— And here are a couple I remember from my gran, who lived in Clocolan, and never had – nor apparently wanted – an indoor bathroom or toilet, despite her children offering to have it built for her; The potty under the bed so that you didn’t have to walk to the outhouse in the middle of the night . . And bathing in a tin bath in the middle of the kitchen, filled with water boiled on the coal stove . .
Platberg, overlooking the town of Harrismith in the Free State, is an inselberg that presents a refuge for indigenous plants and animals. And its status is precarious.
‘Little is known about the different taxa of Platberg and hence a detailed floristic and ecological survey was undertaken in 2009 by UNISA’s Robert F. Brand, Leslie R. Brown and Pieter J. du Preez to quantify threats to the native flora and to establish whether links exist with higher-altitude Afro-alpine flora occurring on the Drakensberg. Vegetation surveys provide information on the different plant communities and plant species present and form the basis of any management plan for a specific area. No extensive vegetation surveys had been undertaken on Platberg prior to this study;
Only limited opportunistic floristic collections were done:
Firstly in the mid-1960s by Mrs. Jacobs. These vouchers were mounted and authenticated in 2006 and are now housed at the Geo Potts Herbarium, Botany Department, University of the Free State;
50 relevés were sampled between 1975 and 1976 by Professor H.J.T.
Venter, Department of Genetics and Plant Sciences, University of the
Mucina & Rutherford 2006 say: ‘Platberg is the single largest and best preserved high-altitude grassland in the Free State. ‘ I say 2019: Look how tiny it is! You can hardly see Platberg on this map of all nearby high altitude places. Yet this is our single largest tiny piece of this grassland left! The authors plead: ‘As an important high-altitude grassland, it is imperative that Platberg be provided with protection legislated on at least a provincial level.’ At present, Platberg is still municipal, with very little protection!
The UNISA study found 669 plant species in Platberg’s 30km2 area. To compare, Golden Gate Highlands park has 556 species in 48km2.
Platberg’s altitude ranges from 1 900m to 2 394m ASL. The surface area covers approximately 3 000ha. The slopes are steep with numerous vegetated gullies and boulder scree slopes below vertical cliffs that are 20m to 45m high. Waterfalls cascade down the southern cliffs after rain. A permanent stream arising from the Gibson Dam on the undulating plateau flows off the escarpment and cascades as a waterfall.From a distance, Platberg appears to have a distinct flat top. However, once on the summit the plateau is found to be undulating, with rolling grass-covered slopes. The vegetation of the plateau is dominated by grassland, with a few rocky ridges, sheet rock and rubble patches, as well as numerous seasonal wetlands and a permanent open playa (pan) on its far western side. Woody patches of the genera Leucosidea, Buddleja, Kiggelaria, Polygala, Heteromorpha and Rhus shrubs, as well as the indigenous Mountain bamboo Thamnocalamus tessellatus, grow along the base of the cliffs. The shrubland vegetation is concentrated on the cool (town) side of Platberg, on sandstone of the Clarens Formation, in gullies, on scree slopes, mobile boulder beds, and on rocky ridges. Shrubs and trees also occur in a riparian habitat in the south-facing cleft, in which the only road ascends steeply to the summit up Flat Rock Pass. Platberg falls within the Grassland Biome, generally containing short to tall sour grasses. Platberg is a prominent isolated vegetation ‘island’ with affinities to the Drakensberg Grassland Bioregion, embedded in a lower lying matrix of Eastern Free State Sandy Grassland. Platberg also has elements of Fynbos, False Karoo and Succulent Karoo, as well as elements of Temperate and Transitional Forest, specifically Highland Sourveld veld types.
inselberg – from the German words Insel, meaning ‘island,’ and Berg, meaning ‘mountain,’ the word first appeared in English in 1913, apparently because German explorers thought isolated mountains rising from the plains of southern Africa looked like islands in the midst of the ocean. Geologically speaking, an inselberg is a hill of hard volcanic rock that has resisted wind and weather and remained strong and tall as the land around it eroded away. Wikipedia says in South Africa it could also be called a koppie but I think we’d klap anyone who called our mountain or inselberg Platberg a ‘koppie’
koppie – a smaller thing than Platberg; Just west of Platberg is Loskop; you can call that a koppie, maybe
relevé – in population ecology, a plot that encloses the minimal area under a species-area curve
Aside: Talking of special places, and in this case special high altitude grasslands, who knew of the Korannaberg near the mighty metropolis of Excelsior of dominees-wat-meidenaai fame? It has 767 plant species in its 130km2! It sure looks like a must-visit place! 227 bird species too.
dominees-wat-meidenaai – practicing what you preach against
The new preacherman at the Christian Church of Apache Oklahoma, looked me up after he’d been in town a while and invited me over to his place. Turns out he was interested in becoming a mission-nary to Africa and wanted to meet one of the real-deal Africans he’d heard and read so much about. Maybe suss out just how much we needed saving?
A HUGE man, six feet and nine inches tall, Ron Elrick wore a string tie, a 10 gallon stetson and cowboy boots, making him damn near eight feet tall fully dressed as he stooped through doors and bent down to shake people’s hands. I met his tiny little wife who was seemingly half his height, and two lil daughters. He was an ex-Canadian Mountie and a picture on his mantelpiece showed him towering over John Wayne, when Wayne was in Canada to film a movie.
Soon he invited me to join him on a men’s retreat to “God’s Forty Acres” in NE Oklahoma (the yanks are way ahead of Angus Buchan in this “get away from the wife, go camping on a farm, and when you get back tell her you’re the boss, the head of the house, the patriarch – the ‘prophet'” shit. I mean, this was 1973!). I had made it known from my arrival in Apache that I would join anybody and go anywhere to see the state and get out of school – I mean hey! I’d already DONE matric!
So we hopped into his muddy pink wagon with ‘wood’ panelling down the sides – it looked a bit like these in the pictures. We roared off from Caddo county heading north-east, bypassing Oklahoma City and Tulsa to somewhere near Broken Arrow or Cherokee county – towards the Arkansas border, anyway. Me n Ron driving like Thelma and Louise.
Non-stop monologue on the way. He didn’t need any answers, I just had to nod him yes and he could talk non-stop for hours on end. At the retreat there were hundreds of men & boys just like him, no women. Unless you count them who made and served the food. The men were all fired up for the Lawd, bellowing the Retreat Song at the drop of a hat:
♫“In Gahd’s Fordy Yacres . . !!”♫
We musta sang it 400 times in that weekend. If I was God I’d have done some smiting.
We left at last and headed back, wafting along like on a mattress in that long slap wagon, when Ron suddenly needed an answer: Had I ever seen a porno movie? WHAT? I hadn’t? Amazing! Well, jeez, I mean goodness, he felt it as sort of like a DUTY to enlighten me and reveal to me just how evil and degraded these movies could be. So we detoured into Tulsa. Maybe he regarded it as practice for the mission-nary work he was wanting to do among us Africans?
We sat through a skin flick in a seedy movie house. It was the most skin ‘n pubic hair ‘n pelvis ‘n organs this 18yr old boykie from the Vrystaat had seen to date so it was, after all, educational. Thin plot, though.
I suppose you could say I got saved and damned all on one weekend.
Ron did get to Africa as a mission-nary. He was posted to Jo-hannesburg. Lotsa ‘sinners’ in Jo-hannesburg, I suppose. I’m just not sure they need ‘saving’ by a Canadian Mountie.
Steve Reed sent a picture of old American cars in Aussie .. I wrote:
These lovely old motorised wrecks remind me of Swinburne character Abe Sparks’ Rolls Royce bakkie. And that reminds me of Nell van Heerden.
Apparently Dr Anna Petronella van Heerden, Harrismith’s first lady doctor around 1916 and later South Africa’s first lady specialist gynaecologist, who studied in Holland and London, bought the Roller in England, toured the continent in it, then shipped it back to Kaapstad where she ran her specialist practice. The part about the car is according to 96yr-old Dad.
She gave up practicing medicine and came to Harrismith to farm and was legendary among the boere here. Always dressed in khaki trousers, khaki shirt, sturdy shoes and hoed, she would answer my gran Annie’s How are you, Nell? query with ‘Fair to bloody’ as she filled up with Caltex at Annie’s Central Service Station. She had a live-in girlfriend who sometimes had to move out to the cottage when Nell had city girlfriends over for wild parties on the farm.
A cattle farmer, she would be seen at the vendusies where some of the boere would make the mistake of saying something and she’d be ready along the lines of “Ja, (Jan, Piet, Koos) ek is n fokken vrou al lyk ek nie so nie!” A true character. Imagine how strong you’d have to be, being ‘anders’ in a milieu where being a Male White Afrikaans Christian made you a baas, made you automatically right and should have made all women appreciative and in their plek – and NOT at vendusies! And if they must be at vendusies they should serve the tea and koeksisters!
She wrote two books – I must try and get hold of them.
This from wikipedia:
Anna Petronella van Heerden (1887–1975), was the first Afrikaner woman to qualify as a medical doctor. Her thesis, which she obtained a doctorate on in 1923, was the first medical thesis written in Afrikaans. She practiced as a gynaecologist, retiring in 1942. She also served in the South African medical corps during World War II.
She campaigned for women’s suffrage in the 1920s, and worked as a farmer after retiring from her medical work. She also published two autobiographical texts, Kerssnuitsels (Candle Snuffings) and Die Sestiende Koppie (the Sixteenth Cup).
This from Women Marching Into the 21st Century: Wathint’ Abafazi, Wathint’ Imbokodo:
This from “Nationalism, Gender and Sexuality in the Autobiographical Writing of Two Afrikaner Women,” Viljoen L. (2008):
Viljoen investigates questions of nationalism, gender and sexuality in the autobiographical texts of Petronella van Heerden and Elsa Joubert, and makes the point that autobiography, a genre often considered marginal to the literary canon, can be regarded as a site for examining the impact of nationalism on the construction of gendered and sexual identity. Petronella van Heerden (1887-1975) became the first Afrikaner woman to qualify as a medical doctor and published two short autobiographical texts, Kerssnuitsels (‘Candle Snuffings’) and Die Sestiende Koppie (‘the Sixteenth Cup’), in the early 1960s. The article argues that van Heerden’s omission of overt references to her lesbianism can be attributed to the strong, though embattled, position of Afrikaner nationalism at the time her texts were published.
My guess is there would also have been a fair dose of Nell saying ‘its none of your bloody business’ in there as well.
She died in 1975, aged 88.
Oh, back to the Rolls Royce! I imagine – but I don’t know this – that it was converted into a bakkie, a pickup, a ute, after Abe had bought it from Nell. We always heard stories of how Aussie sheep farmers ‘drove Rolls Royces around their farms, as the running boards were wide enough to carry dead sheep.’ Abe would have liked that and thought ‘I can do that too.’
Kaapstad – Cape Town
boere – farmers
hoed – hat
vendusies – livestock sales / auctions
“Ja, (Jan, Piet, Koos) ek is n fokken vrou al lyk ek nie so nie!” – Yes, Koos, I am a woman even if I don’t look like one!
anders – different
plek – place; as in ‘know your place’
koeksisters– ‘South African doughnut’; deep-fried, very sweet
Sometime back in the fifties uncle and family lawyer Bunty Bland needed to go up to Rhodesia – ‘up north’ – to sort out the sale of his sister’s property. His Rhodesian brother-in-law drove down to Harrismith to fetch him. As ever, the finer details of my story should be checked out . . . pinch of salt. The car is probably right, the country – now Zimbabwe – is almost certainly right, and two of the people – Dad and Bunty – are right, that’s all I know. At first Dad said they drove up in Bunty’s Rover, but I couldn’t find a Rover station wagon. Seems they left ‘that sort of thing’ to Land Rover. I found this Vauxhall Victor station wagon and then Dad remembered it was the bro-in-law’s car and yes, it was a Vauxhall! Memories! Dodgy things.
The reason they took young Pieter Swanepoel, husband of favourite niece Mary, along was to share the driving. He says he ended up driving all the way there and back.
With him he had his new Eumig 8mm cine camera! He took footage of the ruins of the magnificent Great Zimbabwe. Bunty features in his trademark ‘fairisle’ sleeveless jersey . .
Other footage featured the Vauxhall, Bunty again and some fountains . .
Miss Underwood taught Mom Mary to play the piano and taught her very well; she then also taught big sister Barbara to play and taught her quite well, too; in my imagination this set off the following family discussion:
Let’s send little Kosie to her as well! He’s such a delicate little chap. If he also does well Sheila will want to follow and then we’ll have four musicians and we can start a band, maybe name it after some insects and become RICH!
Don’t laugh. This was ca.1959 and John, Paul and George were still The Quarrymen. Ringo hadn’t even joined them. There was a gap in the market.
I was dispatched to her house in Stuart street and suffered some torture of the ‘put this finger here and that one there’ kind; and then worse: ‘Take this home and practice it.’ One lesson, in my rugby kit, then I escaped and ran home, never to return.
When the next lesson time came around Barbara called me to the black bakelite phone in the long passage at 95 Stuart street. “It’s Miss Underwood!”
Yes Miss Underwood; Yes Miss Underwood; Yes Miss Underwood
Miz Zobbs was scathing: Why can’t any of you whistle? Listen to Claudio! HE can whistle. Show them Claudio. It takes a boy from Italy to show you lot how to whistle!
Poor old Claudio Bellato dutifully pursed his lips and tootled some Italian to show us how it was done while probably thinking . . You Don’t Pronounce My Name Clawed-ee-oh. See?! You see! shrieked the old duck, sniffing loudly.
Dora Hobbs, snuff-sniffing tour de force of Harrismith Volkskool could rampage. She would march up and down like a galleon in full sail, never happier than when commanding a choir.
She stopped us in mid-song once to berate us: How many of you can say that!? Huh? How many of you can say you’ve fought and won!? she demanded.
Us ten year-olds stared at her blankly. What was she on about?
We’d been singing:
There was a soldier, A Scottish soldier
Who wandered far away, And soldiered far away
There was none bolder, With good broad shoulder
He’d fought in many a fray, And fought and won
How many of you can say you’ve fought in many a fray? she brayed.
Dripping disdain, snot and snuff stuck in her moustache, on her glasses and on her ample bosom, she’d close her eyes, toss her head and mince around on her toes like a bulk ballerina. I think she was living in another world. When she opened her eyes and saw not dashing broad-shouldered soldiers in kilts wanting to woo the wee svelte lassie in her, but instead snivelling pint-sized Vrystaters wanting to be anywhere else but in “singing”, her mood probably grew dark.
She could be vicious, too, I’m afraid. She beat Dries Dreyer and Alvaro Acavedes mercilessly when they irritated her. Across the shoulders, on the top of their heads and on their fingers with a heavy 40cm wooden ruler. She was rooted in Olde English educational methods: A. Find out what a child cannot do, and then B. Repeatedly demonstrate that he cannot do it; Followed sometimes by a public beating. A bad show, really, even granting that having Std 1, Std 2 and Std 3 in one class was probably not easy. Still: Not right. She picked on the vulnerable. I suspect she knew none of their parents – nor even the headmaster – would challenge her on their behalf.