Save Precarious Platberg!

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;

Secondly 50 relevés were sampled between 1975 and 1976 by Professor H.J.T. Venter, Department of Genetics and Plant Sciences, University of the Free State.

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!

That tiny island above the ‘th’ in Harrismith = Platberg
Harrismith townlands
Harrismith townlands

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The UNISA study found 669 plant species in Platberg’s 30km2 area. To compare, Golden Gate Highlands park has 556 species in 48km2.

Koedoe, African Protected Area Conservation and Science, is a peer-reviewed, open access journal published since 1958, which promotes protected area and biodiversity science and conservation in Africa.

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.

Spot Platberg’s highest point, Mtabazwe 2394m ASL
Looking from highpoint Mtabazwe towards Boobejaanskop eastern tip

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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

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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

Petronella van Heerden

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.

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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.’

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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

bakkie – pickup; ute

Virtuoso

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

SLAM!!

I’m NOT going!

Never did.

Scotland the Brave 3

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.

Jeesh!

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.

The girls probly weren’t asked if they’d fought and fray’d

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.

Pedestrian Knocked Down!

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.

The Subway

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!

New York subway’s Grand Central Station

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.

Home-made Bound

Three 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 not.

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.’

Up the Drakensberg to Harrismith village; Left to near Qwa Qwa mountain

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.’

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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 ***

Sources:

  1. Bergburgers by Leon Strachan; Tartan Boeke 2017 – ISBN 978-0-620-75393-7

2. Martin Hedges’ blog actonbooks

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:

The book sold well; a later edition had a shorter title

Two pages from the book: Arriving in Spain and walking in Spain looking for food or money or any help!

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*** 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”.

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* 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?

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Amazingly, ferrocement boats had been invented forty years earlier, in France!

A bateau built by Lambot in 1848