I arrived back in town for the weekend from JHB – 1976 or 1977 – in my shiny new grey and grey 1965 Opel Rekord I’d got from Mom and Dad for my 21st.
Saturday morning I phoned Tabbo. What’s happening in the City of Sin and Laughter? The usual. Nothing. Come on out to the farm. Gailian.
I roared out of Piet Uys street into Stuart street, up Bester street into Warden street on a sunny Saturday morning, heading west with the sun behind me. I pass Annie’s Caltex garage, I pass Stewart Bain’s Town Hall, I pass the beautiful Badenhorst gebou on my left (it’s on the right in the picture). One of our metropolis’ three traffic lights is green so I proceed. I notice a fellow on my left who seems a bit under the weather. He walks forward as if to cross against the red. I move out wide but he then stumbles into a run and I hit the brakes but I also hit him! Shit! I’ve hit a pedestrian! Right in front of the Methodist Church nogal!
I’ve screeched to a halt, horrified, and I hop out. He’s lying about 5m in front of me in the middle of the oncoming lane. His hat is on my bonnet, his carton of sorgum beer is 2m in front of the bonnet, his shoes are 5m past where he’s lying!
Before I can even think where to phone from, Joseph Bronn is there. He saw the whole thing and has already phoned the cops and an ambulance, thank goodness. They’re there in no time and the fellow is taken off to hospital. The cops take names and statements and let us go.
From Gailian I phoned the hospital. Already they know who he is and where he works – on a farm, he’s in town shopping but it seems he decided to do a bit of celebrating too. He seems fine but he’s very drunk so they’re keeping him overnight for observation. The next morning I phone again – he has left already. Don’t worry, he was OK.
Phew! That slow-motion tableau will never be erased. I can see him looking up at me at the last second and hear the thump even today. The car: A small smooth dent in the bonnet, which I never repaired. It would get other dents in time.
Scottish doctors. A delightful lot. The female of the species that is; I prefer them female. The guys with their kilts, beards and medical sporrans full of scalpels and aspirins, not so much. I mean, how do they scrub up with all those areas to disinfect? No thank you, give me the ladies. A few years before I had fallen deeply in love with a Scottish doctor and now I was told as I got onto the Pilatus ‘flying doctor’ aircraft something like the one above to fly to Charles Johnson Hospital in rural Nquthu that a Scottish doctor – actually medical student, same as the topless surfing ‘doctor’ in Durbs – would be shadowing me to learn about eyes. I was the volunteer optometrist on this ‘flying doctor’ type trip.
Before we landed we flew low over a small ragged-looking airstrip with an old Dakota parked near a big double-story homestead. Our pilot told of a famous inyanga or sangoma who got so well known and in such demand that he had to travel all over. Like house calls. Eventually road travel was no longer feasible, so he got a Dakota and a pilot to extend his reach. I’ve searched for him now, but can’t find anything about him on the ‘net! I’ll keep searching, his sounds like a fascinating story.
As I was settling in and unpacking my equipment in the Charles Johnson hospital outpatients department . . .
. . a whirlwind blew in! My Scottish doctor student! She was six foot tall, her smile was six foot wide and she demanded in a broad Scottish accent: “Teach me about eyes!” She was like this:
What a lovely day. We tested plenty eyes, talked non-stop, had lunch together and once again I fell in love with a Scottish doctor! Sadly she decreed dreadlocks would not suit me. To this day I think she was mistaken. They could have provided much-needed cover-up.
The pic is not my second Scottish doc, just as the numbis in the last post weren’t that Scottish doc’s. It’s of a Scottish student who reminds me of my doc who, like her, was born in Edinburgh of Nigerian parents.
sangoma – a practitioner of ngoma, a philosophy based on a belief in the amadlozi – the ancestral spirits;
inyanga – concerned mainly with medicines made from plants and animals;
numbis – breasts
While I search for ‘my’ sangoma, read about this one that Hugh Raw reminded me about; from the fascinating village of Lusikisiki, home of the Shy Stallion:
So pleased to confirm again that I ain’t imagining this shit! My mind is strong. My mate Hugh Bland, photographic historian and fifth cousin tells me thus: Your info on the Nyanga at Nqutu is correct, but I can’t add any more info than you have. His house or mansion is on the right about two kms outside Nqutu coming from Dundee.
Charles Johnson was a transport rider who became a teacher who became a priest who became a bush dentist. Opportunist, perhaps? After the the Anglo-Zulu wars he decided to stay on in Zululand, having apparently been asked by one of the chieftains, Hlubi, to be a teacher. He became a priest, then archdeacon of the area. With the nearest medical facility being at Dundee, a difficult 52 km journey away, he also involved his mission station at Masotsheni in helping the local people with their medical problems. He was, by Anthony & Margaret Barker’s account – they ran the hospital for years – a formidable holy tooth puller.
Two delightful Scottish medical students arrived at Addington hospital. They were here to “do their elective” they said. We didn’t mind what they were doing, we were just happy they were in Darkest Africa and drank beer. Always a better chance if a lady will drink alcohol.
One of them asked me if I surf, which is a terribly unfair question to ask a Free Stater by the sea. It puts great pressure on us and reveals our secret fear of that-big-dam-that-you-cannot-see-the-other-side-of. Ask us when there’s no sea within miles and we can tell a good story, but the sea is right on Addington’s doorstep. “Even better” I said casually, leaning against the bar in The Cock and Bottle on the first floor of Addington doctors’ quarters, “I paddle-ski.”
Ooh, will you show me? she asked, which put great pressure on me. “Come to my flat in Wakefield Court after work” I ordered and she meekly nodded. Wakefield was part of doctors’ quarters, over the road from the hospital. After work I hared off to Stephen Charles Reed and borrowed his Fat Boy paddle ski, threw it in my green 1974 Peugeot 404 station wagon OHS 5678 and hared back to Prince Street in time to casually say “Hop in” as she arrived. Addington beach was right there and I proceeded to give lessons in the surf. Little did she know it was like the drowning leading the drowned. I’d help her on, hold her steady, time the waves and say “Now! Paddle!” and she’d tumble over like a Scottish person in the warm Indian Ocean, time and again. One wave was better than the rest, nicely obliging and masculine, and it did something like this:
Marvelously, she didn’t notice for a while until I blurted out “God you’re gorgeous!”. Following my grinning gaze, she giggled and hoicked her boob tube top up over her boobs from where it was sitting around her waist. *Sigh* I cherish wonderful mammaries of that day . .
Greg Seibert arrived in Harrismith from Ohio in 1972 as a Rotary exchange student.
In 2014 he was sending sister Sheila some of his pictures from those wayback days. He wrote: Here is one I’m sure you will like. It is one of the very first pics that I took in Harrismith, probably the day after I got there. You or Koos took me down to the field hockey field. I remember people saying it was by the subway. Boy was I impressed! The only subways that I knew were the underground trains in London and New York! Imagine little Harrismith being so advanced as to having one of those!
Well…I was a bit disappointed…lol!
The feature pic and this pic are not the Harrismth subway, but do give an idea of what it looks like. I’m looking for some actual pics of our illustrious subway.
Norwegians in Witsieshoek were homesick and probably horny. They
longed to go home to Norway, so they rode their horses to Port Natal,
bought a ticket on a sailing ship and off they went, right? Actually
They decided they would build their own ship in the veld on their farm Bluegumsbosch in the shadow of Qwa Qwa mountain, load it onto an ossewa, trundle it to the coast and then sail themselves to England, seeking – and finding – huge publicity all the way. The huge publicity was because everyone knew it couldn’t be done. They were going to drown in a watery grave and everybody TOLD them so.
As always: pinch-of-salt alert. This is me talking about history I have read a bit about. A little bit of knowledge . . . you know. For actual facts and a lot more fascinating detail, including how their boat amused the Laughing Queen (Victoria herself, who actually ended up buying it), rather read Harrismithian Leon Strachan’s highly entertaining book Bergburgers which illustrates clearly that Harrismithans are amazing and wonderful people. Amazingly, some people apparently are unaware of that fact.
For starters, hello! what do you build a ship of when you’re living on the vlaktes un-surrounded by trees, just grass? Grass is no good, mielies are no good and ferro-cement has not been invented yet. The few trees you have are the bluegums the farm is named after and some small poplars you planted yourself on the bottom end of your werf ; and poplar wood is no good for keeping water out for long enough to do the Atlantic. And these okes want to do the Atlantic. Now I’ve no doubt they were drunk. I mean, join the dots: Three males, tick; Norwegians, tick; in the Vrystaat, tick; lonely, tick. They were drinking alright. They were a bit like ignoring the perfectly good bus that runs from Pietermaritzburg to Durban and running there instead; Wait! Some fools did do that some thirty years later and called it the Comrades Marathon.
Turns out there are trees in the Vrystaat if you know where to look: In the shady, damp south-facing kloofs there were some big old yellowwoods, excellent wood for ship-building if you’re inclined to build ships. So they didn’t use those. They ordered wood from America. I know! Mail order! But apparently this is true. Somewhere in America a pile of pitch pine beams and planks got addressed to c/o Ingvald Nilsen, farm Bluegumsbosch, foot of Qwa Qwa, Witsieshoek, near Harrismith, Oranje Vrijstaat and put on a wooden ship. Which crossed the Atlantic, got loaded onto an oxwagon in Port Natal and schlepped across Natal, up the Drakensberg, turned left at the bustling regional centre, transport hub and rooinek metropolis of Harrismith and were delivered: ‘There you go, sir. Please sign here that you received in good order.’
So how big do you build a boat you want to sail 10 000km in, knowing the sea can get lumpy at times? Are you asking me? 362m long, 23 stories high, 228 000 tons, sixteen cocktail bars, a massage parlour and better airtight compartments than the Titanic had, please. No, but seriously, this is twenty seven years before the Titanic set sail, and you’re building it in your farmyard in the Free State. Like this:
Now hey! Don’t laugh. Read on to see how the Harrismith-built boat fared, and read up how the Belfast-built Titanic fared! Both were trying to cross the Atlantic – just wait and see who did it better!
The Nilsen-Olsen craft was 6,7m long and weighed about two tons. They called it Homeward Bound, though they were actually aiming for England. Seems Nilsen had become very British. He had signed up with Baker’s Horse and fought for Britain in the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. He knew all the hoopla would be in English language newspapers in Harrismith where the Chronicle was already chronicling, Pietermaritzburg where the Witness was witnessing, Port Natal / Durban and in England, so shrewdly, he capitalised on that publicity.
All along the route people would look in amazement and offer advice (‘You’re never gonna make it’) but whenever he could – in Harrismith, Estcourt, PMB and in Durban – Nilsen isolated the boat and charged people a fee to view it and offer their opinion (‘You’re never gonna make it’). He raised so much money this way that in PMB he wrote: ‘. . had not the weather been unfavourable, we should very nearly have cleared our expenses, so general was the interest in the boat.’
In Port Natal the coastal people really REALLY knew these inland bumpkins were never going to make it and made it so plain that it gave Nilsen great pleasure some months later to enter in his log: ‘ . . sighted Ascension; this we found, in spite of what people said in Durban, without the least trouble and without a chronometer.’
Long story short – we won’t bother about details like navigating, surviving, hunger, etc now that the Harrismith part is over – they made it to Dover in March 1887 after eleven months, a journey that took passenger ships of the day around two to three months*. Nilsen sold the boat to the queen, who displayed it in the new Crystal Palace exhibition hall; he wrote a book with the natty title, ‘Leaves from the Log of the Homeward Bound – or Eleven Months at Sea in an Open Boat’, went on speaking tours where he was greeted with great enthusiasm, married a Pom, became a Pom citizen and lived happily ever after. I think.
Greeted with great enthusiasm, yes, but this was after all, England, so not all were totally enamoured. One commentator harumphed: ‘ . . Their achievement is a magnificent testament to their pluck and endurance, and one can only regret that such qualities have not found some more useful outlet than the making of a totally unnecessary voyage.’
What’s 362m long, 23 stories high and weighs 228 000 tons? – That’s the Symphony of the Seas, biggest passenger ship afloat as at Feb 2019
veld – savanna; no place for a sea-going shiplet
bergburgers – citizens of the mountain; Harrismithians
ossewa – ox wagon.
vlaktes – plains; not where you’d sail a 2-ton wooden boat
mielies – maize; corn
werf – farmyard
Oranje Vrijstaat – Orange Free State, independent sovereign state; President at the time was Sir Johannes Henricus Brand, Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, abbreviated GCMG ***
Bergburgers by Leon Strachan; Tartan Boeke 2017 – ISBN 978-0-620-75393-7
3. A Spanish blog with pages from the book dealing with their tribulations in Spain – a month on land which was arguably the toughest part of their journey!
4. Nilsen’s book ‘Leaves from the Log of the Homeward Bound, or Eleven Months at Sea in an Open Boat’. Here’s a reprint with a snappier title:
Two pages from the book: Arriving in Spain and walking in Spain looking for food or money or any help!
*** Enlightenment from the satirical British television program ‘Yes Minister’ season 2, episode 2, ‘Doing the Honours’:
Woolley: In the civil service, CMG stands for “Call Me God”. And KCMG for “Kindly Call Me God”. Hacker: What does GCMG stand for? Woolley (deadpan): “God Calls Me God”.
* The Lady Bruce, one of the twenty ships that brought Byrne settlers from the UK to Natal, arrived on 8 May 1850. The record says ‘their passage was a speedy one of 70 days.’ – Natal Settler-Agent by Dr John Clarke, A. A. Balkema, 1972. By 1887 the average time may have been shorter?
One day I went for a drive with Dad out to a farm in the Swinburne district, Rensburgs Kop in the background. We stopped outside a big tin shed and walked inside. To my amazement there was a huge skeleton iron structure in there. I knew immediately what it was: It was an aviary. I grew up with aviaries, I knew aviaries. It would be just like Dad to visit a farmer with an aviary.
Except this one was in the graceful shape of an ocean-going yacht! It was a yacht. An ocean-going yacht. Or so Ronnie Mostert told us. He and his wife Mel were building it with the help of their farmworkers! But it would sink, I said. Made of steel and full of holes, it would definitely sink. No, said Ronnie. He told us he was going to fill all the holes with cement. Then he would take it to Durban and then sail around the world.
Now I knew he was mad. It would sink. Cement also sinks. The mafia use this fact to their advantage when they give a guy cement boots. Cement full of hidden steel will sink even faster. Everybody knows that. Also, Ronnie was a character, maybe he was pulling our legs? Maybe it actually was an aviary and he was going to put an aasvoël in it? I listened carefully, but it seemed he was serious and it seemed Dad believed him. Bliksem!
And that was the last I saw of it. I heard tell later that he actually had schlepped it to Durban and plonked it in the salty water of that big dam that you-cannot-see-the-other-side-of. And it floated! This seemed a real case where one could say, Wonderlik wat die blerrie Engelse kan doen!
Now it’s years later – I mean 47 years later if that was 1972 – and I’m reading all about Ronnie Mostert’s yacht in Leon Strachan’s wonderful book ‘Bergburgers’. Ronnie and Mel welded miles of vertical and horizontal steel bars in a shape according to a New Zealand plan they got in a magazine. Talk about faith that could move concrete! Imagine trusting your life to an unseen person sending his plans to you in a book!
Then they plastered it with cement, with Harrismith builders Koos van Graan and Ben Crawley, both of whom I think I have personally seen drinking beer, just like Ronnie, gooi’ing plaster on it and wiping it with the trowels they usually built solid houses with – and they expected it to float. And blow me down, it did.
How amazing to see pictures of that remembered glimpse from all those years ago and to reinforce my conviction that I’m not imagining all these things running round in my head. I tell my friends: Hey! I’m the sane one around here, but will they listen? Hmph.
They christened it Mossie, trucked it down to Durbs in 1983, launched it and sailed and lived on it with their son Gary for eleven years.
Cape Town, St Helena, Brasil, the Caribbean, the USA, the Azores and back down south. They didn’t truck it back up to the Free State, though, they settled in Cape Town-on-sea. Isn’t that just a stunning achievement! Hats off!
Leon’s book tells of another – even crazier – saga of fools building a boat on the Harrismith vlaktes and thinking that it would float. I’ll post that next.
vlaktes – not a place you’d sail a yacht; flats; veld; savannah
bliksem – blow me down!
aasvoël – vulture
Wonderlik wat die blerrie Engelse kan doen! – blow me down!
gooi’ing – slapping
blow me down – bliksem!
‘Bergburgers’ – ‘citizens of the mountain’, meaning Platberg, thus: Harrismithians; us; also a book by Leon Strachan, Harrismithian extraordinaire!
Mossie – sparrow; many Mosterts are called Mossie but I never heard Ronnie called that; Lovely name for the boat!
Bergburgers by Leon Strachan; Tartan Boeke 2017 – ISBN 978-0-620-75393-7
Before the Kiwis start calling themselves the Ferrocement All Blacks, note that Les Bleus invented the stuff and built the first ferrocement boat back in 1848.
Today Mother Mary took a break from playing the piano. She suddenly remembered a time Mona du Plessis came to her after a ‘do’ at the town hall. These memories come and go so she must tell them as she thinks of them.
Mona said to me – says Mary – “While we were at the town hall Kosie took the kombi, loaded up the de Villiers kids and drove to Joan and Jannie’s where our kids were. Then they all got in – Mignon, Jean-Prieur, Sheila, everybody and they drove up and down Hector Street!”
Of course I remember doing stuff like this – I loved “borrowing” the kombi – but I don’t really recall any specific accomplices! I spose it looked a bit like this: