When modern man decided to pinch water from the Tugela river and pump it uphill to satisfy the Vaalies’ thirst, our area around Harrismith and Bergville saw a flurry of activity and an influx of new people. A bus arrived at school and a flock of new kids tumbled out. They were cruelly christened Die Dam Paddas by us parochials.
New things started appearing in the distrik: Sterkfontein dam; TuVa township (Tu Va – Tugela/Vaalies, geddit?); a vertical tunnel in the Drakensberg for the hydro-electric turbines; canals and smaller dams. All had to be built.
One of the latter was Driel Barrage on the Tugela river on Kai Reitz’s farm The Bend, so once we’d had sufficient beer one fine day we drove down on the back of Kai’s big Chevy pickup to look at the construction and to say some insightful engineering things about it.
A very high wall had been built starting out from dry land until its highest point in the middle of the river. Very interesting, but we don’t have to . . . . Oh, we do?
So we climbed up it and inched our way on our bums along the 30cm wide wall to its highest point. Some walked, but they were just being foolish, right? OK, so we’ve seen it, can we go now?
The muddy brown water way below us was completely opaque, no way you could see even one centimetre into it. It could have been knee deep or ten metres deep, who knows, so we definitely won’t be . . . . Mandy! ARE YOU MA-AA-aa-aD?!
She’s jumped! Holy shee-yit!! Ah neely dahd, she took forever to plummet as I watched in slow motion, and then she entered with a big splash and disappeared, which I s’pose was better than if she hadn’t.
Eventually she surfaced with a huge grin on her face and now I knew I was stuffed. I’d have to jump. Unless the others chickened out, but no, there went Sheila and so before long I had to stand up, act casual and plummet meself.
Unbelievable what a fierce hold brave women have over us cowardly um, circumspect men . . .
Fanie, is that a box of matches in your pocket? asked stern Uncle Louis. No Dad, its just a block of wood.
We were having lunch on their smallholding east of Harrismith and father Louis knew enough to ask, but not enough to check. After lunch we were off into the veld and once out of sight Farnie bent down, struck a match and set fire to the grass, watched it in fascination for a few seconds, then beat the flames out with his hands. My turn. Then his turn again.
Who knows whose turn it was – doesn’t matter – but we let it grow too big. Both of us tried to beat it out, stomp it out, but the flames spread and ran away from us.
OH! SH*T!! We ran back to the farm house and phoned the fire engine in town. When Louis found out he phoned again and told them not to come. He had already phoned the neighbours and alerted all hands on deck.
My most vivid memory was herding cattle out of a paddock and having a cow refuse to go, charging straight back at us and forcing her way back in. Her calf was in there and she only left once it was with her.
Nine farms burnt, we were told. And calling the fire engine costs money we were told. And we learnt some other lessons, too. You can tell: Both of us are fine upstanding citizens today (telling our kids to BEHAVE themselves, dammit).
A fire in 2014 in the exact same spot (click on the pic). Our fire was ca 1960.
NB: As memories are notoriously fickle, read older sister Barbara‘s (probably more accurate!) recollection of this day:
Let’s go back to the Schoeman’s farm. The three little Swanepoels were spending a week-end on the farm with the three little Schoemans.
Three Swanies ca 1960
After breakfast the six of us went for a walk in the veld. Unbeknown to me, two little sh*ts had lied about having matches in their pockets. Not far from the house they crouched down and I thought they had seen something on the ground. On inspection I now knew that it was matches that they were playing with. They lit a few little fires and quickly with their bare hands (brave boys!) killed the flames. Until then it was all fun for them but I felt very uneasy.
Suddenly the next little flame became a “grand-daddy” of a flame and within no time the two little sh*ts could not longer use their brave little hands. Guess who ran away first? Yes, the two little sh*ts! Something made me look back at the roaring fire and that’s when I saw little Louie – who was 3yrs old – standing in a circle of flames with his arm raised and covering his face – he was frozen stiff. I turned around, ran through the flames, picked him up and ‘sent it’ back to the farmhouse.
With no grown-ups at home, I phoned my mother at the Platberg Bottle Store and through lots of “snot and trane” told her what had happened. She ran across the road to the Town Hall corner and “hit” the fire alarm for the Harrismith Fire Brigade to come and save the day. Needless to say they saw no fire in town so must have just gone home.
The fire did burn through about three farms – the damage was extensive. Uncle Louie and Aunty Cathy, on coming home that afternoon, apparently stopped the car on the main road, got out and just stared – could not believe what they was seeing.
Well, we were supposed to spend the week-end there but all the grown-ups had had enough. We were packed up, bundled up into the car and taken home.
Years later (before they left SA) I bumped into Louie and Gaylyn and told them the story. I could not believe it when Louie told me he had always known that I had saved his life – and I thought that that memory had gone up in flames!
Lots of love to you all Yours “Firewoman” Barbara
Later I wrote (thinking that nothing had really happened to us after the fire): Dammitall, we really had amazingly tolerant parents back in the sixties, come to think of it!
To which Farn Schoeman replied: Koos, small correction: YOU had amazingly tolerant parents!
There were two reasons we ‘borrowed’ Gerrie’s 1961 black Saab 93 late one night: (1). If you don’t give a car a run the battery can go flat, and (2). We had Larry the American Rotary Exchange student with us, who might have heard that the Free State can be a very boring place with “nothing to do”. Especially at night. And also (3). A moving car is a safe place to drink beer in. These are facts.
Quietly wheeling it down the driveway we held our breath until we’d pushed it far enough, then quickly started it and we were OFF! Freedom! Beer! Speed! Steph was multi-tasking, driving and handing out the ‘longtom’ cans of Black Label beer his family’s obliging gardener had bought for us from Randolph Stiller’s Central Hotel offsales. My folks lost the sale because of their silly and pedantic “over-18’s” policy.
Tuffy always finished his before we hit third gear . . .
A quick routine stop to tap the fuel pump with the half brick kept under the bonnet for just that purpose, and we headed for new terrain.
We had already done the town athletic track and the school netball fields on other occasions, leaving our trademark donuts and figure-of-eights in the gravel.* This time our destination was the National Botanic Gardens on top of Queen’s Hill, stopping only once more to tap the fuel pump with the half-brick kept under the bonnet for just that purpose.
In the dark we met Kolhaas Lindstrom in his car. He was legit: He’d already left school and was a licenced driver. “Dice?” he challenged, and the game was on! Whizzing through the veld Rring-ding-ding-ding-RRriiing! It’s a two-stroke, remember?
Don’t believe the Minister of Transport, speed doesn’t kill you. Speed exhilarates. It’s the sudden stops that kill you. And the sudden stop and loud bang came as a surprise to us. Dead silence reigned until in an awed American upstate New York accent Larry exclaimed from the back seat, “We’ve had a head-on collision with a hill!” .
That broke the ice. The hill, meantime, had probably broken the suspension.
But no. A committee undercarriage inspection revealed all four wheels suspended in mid-air. Trying to gun it out left the front wheels whizzing around uselessly. Well, that is why there were five of us, so we man-handled it over the ditch and away we went, cleverer than before.
Forty five years later I flew in to inspect the scene of the mystery. Which was still unsolved and now a very cold case. The mystery was this: How could it be that such great and experienced drivers crashed? I mean some of us had been driving for . . well, months! And in not too many years’ time, we’d be licenced drivers.
I flew in via google earth. And there it was: A fault!! It was Queen’s Hill’s fault, not ours!
A great big fault – or ditch? – runs North-South across the whole hill. THAT was what caught us by surprise in the long grass.
I have little doubt that if one were to measure its width you’ll find it just a bit greater than the wheelbase of a 1961 Saab93!
* Next time you’re wondering who made those ‘crop circles’? Think a) Homo sapiens; b) Homo sapiens subspecies pranksterii; c) Alcohol; These are facts.
The mighty Vulgar river had risen! It was flowing way higher than usual, and had overflown its banks. We needed to get onto it!
So Pierre and I dusted off the open blue and red fibreglass canoe the old man had bought us and headed off downstream early one summer morning from below the weir in the park.
By the time we started the river had dropped a lot. Still flowing well, but below the heights of the previous days. This left a muddy verge metres high where the banks were vertical, and up to 100m wide where the banks were sloped and the river was wide.
When we got to Swiss Valley past the confluence of the Nuwejaar spruit, we had a wide wet floodplain to slip and slide across before we reached dry land, leaving us muddy from head to toe. Dragging the boat along we headed for the farmhouse where Lel Venning looked at us in astonishment. I don’t think she even recognised us.
No, You haven’t! You can’t fool me! APRIL FOOL! she exclaimed when we said we’d paddled out from town.
Pierre and I looked at each other and he said “Happy birthday!”
I wasn’t there. It really felt like I was there, and I wanted to be there so bad, but I wasn’t. All I know is the Arabs decided to reduce the availability of their oil, thus raising the price of petrol and reducing the speed limit to 80km/h. Petrol stations closed at night and we were forbidden to carry extra fuel. Also that Tabs his cousin Des decided around then to buy a 1947 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe. A maroon one. Like good mafiosi, they formed a syndicate to buy it.
I also found out that Tabs and Des set off for the sleepy hollow city of Pietermaritzburg with a few jerry cans full of contraband fuel in the capacious boot of their ‘new’ 1947 maroon Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe to attend the Natal Teachers College Ball. Probably at more than 80km/h.
I also know – well, I heard – that when the cops pulled them over late one night Des was driving clad only in his underpants – had they been for a swim in the Epworth Girls School pool? – and there were lots of ladies on the capacious sofa-like back seat who suddenly found Des sitting on their laps in those same capacious underpants, saying ‘Why, I doubt I even know how to drive such a vehicle, officer.’ The cops apparently very rudely said he was anyway way too drunk to have driven and threw them all in the back of the Black Maria.
When it was time to drive off they asked whose vehicle the maroon Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe was. Everyone pointed at Des; so he was hauled out of the back of the Black Maria and made to drive the big maroon beast to the cop shop.
I also heard that when in the custody of the gendarmes in the back of their police van, those same innocent young ladies let the air out of the cops’ spare wheel.
But as I say, I don’t really know WHAT happened that night . . .
My friend Charlie Mason remembers something his old man told him years ago:
My lift from JHB dropped me off at home. The dorp was empty, where WAS everyone?
I phoned 2630 pring pring pring. Or was it 2603 priiiiing priiiing priiiing? I forget. Can you fetch me? No, get yourself here quick, we’re going to Warden to scare some guineafowls. Now.
What could I do? The imported white Ford Econoline 302 cu. inch V8 van was in the garage, I knew where the keys were, and the folks were away. And after all, I’d only be using it to get to Gailian then hop into Tabs’ bakkie and away we’d go. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, and I’d better borrow Dad’s 12-gauge shotgun, too.
As I drew up next to the prefab on Gailian a cry of Perfect! A real shooting brake! went up and six gentlemen holding shotguns and beers piled in, calling Tommy the German Pointer in with them. No, guys, hang on, I said feebly . .
The day at Warden was a blur but the drive back came into sharp focus. We ‘had to’ pull in to the pub in Warden. I of course, had suggested we go straight home, but that went down like a lead balloon. Blithely ignored. In the pub the barman took one look at us and refused to serve us. Someone who shall remain nameless but whose surname maybe started with a G fetched his shotgun and casually aimed it at the expensive bottles of hooch above the barman’s head whereupon he suddenly remembered our order and delivered seven beers pronto. When we decided we’d like to play snooker same thing: A Simpson-like character aimed a shotgun at the cue ball and the cues were produced with alacrity. And chalk.
When to my huge relief, we finally got going, the G-man, who was riding shotgun on my right (the van was Left-Hand-Drive), sat on the windowsill and three of Warden’s four streetlamps went ‘pop’.
Now I KNEW I was going to jail forever. Putting my head down and roaring for home I wasn’t stopping again for NOBODY. Except the gentle tickle of a shotgun against my ear persuaded me otherwise and I stopped as instructed with my headlights shining on the Eeram sign. A firing squad lined up, three kneeling in front and four standing behind them. This is for Ram, guys, he’s getting married next weekend! BLAM!! The ‘Ee’ disappeared, and there was ‘ram’. Nor do I believe it.
I finally got home and looked at the van. Holy cow! Dog hair, guineafowl feathers and the mud and the blood and the beer all over the carpets and upholstery of Dad’s Ford Econoline V8 camper van! 302 cu. inches. I set to work cleaning it. And cleaning it. And scrubbing it. Still it stank of that mixture. In desperation, I took a jerrycan and spread petrol liberally on the carpet and scrubbed again.
When the folks got home I made a full – OK, partial – confession: Dad, I spilled some petrol in your van, but I’ve cleaned it all up. Sorry about that!
the mud and the blood and the beer – Johnny Cash –
The rumour on the Kestell bus was that in South West Africa the laws pertaining to grog did not actually, y’know, pertain. Specifically, the drinking age laws. You could order a beer in a pub in South West Africa even if you were only fourteen or fifteen, as we were. In fact, so the rumour went, it wasn’t a rumour, it was a fact.
It was 1969 and we were on tour in the little Kestell bus. Kestell had been unable to fill it so they extended the invite to Harrismith se Hoer School: Who wants to join us on an adventure? R25 for 15 days! Pierre, Pikkie, Tuffy, Fluffy and I jumped at the chance, our folks said yes and we were off on a historic adventure which included a World-First in Kimberley on the way: The world’s first streak, Pierre and Tuffy giving their thighs a slapping as they raced kaalgat from the showers to our campsite in Kimberley’s Big Hole (or their caravan park anyway). Some historians think streaking started in California in 1973. Well, they weren’t in Kimberley in 1969, were they?
We crossed into Nirvana at the Onseepkans border post armed with our newfound legal knowledge and confidently entered the first licenced premise we found: The Karasburg Hotel. It was hot, the beer was cold and we were cool. We sat in the lounge and supped as though we had done this for YEARS.
We decided to order a refill while that friendly man who hadn’t batted an eyelid when we ordered our first round was still around. His relaxed response had confirmed the now well-known fact that South West Africa was a bastion of good sense and sound liberal values. I got up to press the buzzer which would bring him back.
Unfortunately, the buzzer stuck and it buzzed too long, which must have annoyed the owner or manager, as he came stomping into the lounge to see vuddafokgaanhieraan.
He looked at our short stature, our short pants and our tall beers in astonishment and demanded Wie is julle? and Waar’s julle onderwyser? and other seemingly pointless questions which were disrupting our peaceful ambience. He dispatched me to go and fetch our onderwyser forthwith and instructed the others to sit, stay.
But as he turned his back the rest of our gang disappeared after me, taking their beers with them. And like the good mates they were, they brought mine along too!
Early next morning we hightailed it out of the metropolis of Karasburg and headed for the nearby Finger of God. Was it going to wag at us sternly for our little alcoholic misdemeanour?
kaalgat – no clothing; ‘as the day they were born’
vuddafokgaanhieraan – What’s up, gentlemen?
Wie is julle? and Waar’s julle onderwyser? – Time, gentlemen, please!
The first time I ran from the cops was about 1969 in the wee hours of a Harrismith Vrystaat morning. We were lurking, having climbed out of our bedroom windows to rendezvous on the dark streets of the silent metropolis as unaccompanied minors.
Near Greg’s cafe we spotted one of The SAP’s Finest, drunk behind the wheel of his grey cop van. Remember them? Ford F150’s with that metal mesh over the windows.
Being upstanding citizens we phoned the pulley stasie from a tickey box to report him.
Next minute we heard a squeal of tyres and we were being chased in the dead of night by the drunk himself – his buddies had obviously radioed him. Or maybe his stukkie was on desk duty.
No ways he could catch us fleet-footed schoolboys in his weaving van. We ducked and eventually dived under the foundations of Alet de Witt’s new block of flats and watched him careen past us. We emerged boldly and walked home, knowing we would hear him LONG before he could spot us. Anyway, we didn’t want to be late for school.
No doubt he took another sluk of brandy and went looking for someone dark to beat up.
Chips! The gendarmes are coming!
That was also the last time I ran from the law, come to think of it.
pulley stasie – the fuzz; the police station
tickey box – public phone booth – see picture stukkie – significant other; connection
Camping on the slopes of Platberg below Khyber Pass Pierre, Tuffy and I had made a fort of ouhout branches and cleared a big spot to make a fire. Sitting around talking shit when we heard a rustle and a shout and who appeared before us but Guillaume. He was excited that we were overnighting and asked to join us. Sure! we said. With pleasure!
He first had to head back to town, though, to go to movies. He had recently left school and had a date with one of the onnies. The one with the micro miniskirts! The one we had lustful thoughts about. That little blonde one with the pageboy hairstyle. That one!
Well after midnight there was another rustle, another shout, and Guillaume squeezed back through our hedge with a blanket over his shoulder and a plastic packet in his hand. He sat on the blanket, took a bloody ox heart out of the packet, stuck it on a stick and roasted it over the coals.
Look: We knew he was the nephew of the famous Deneys Reitz of Boer War Commando fame; and the son of legendary Dr Frank Reitz – but MAN, were we impressed! I mean Action Man had walked up a mountain in the dark, carried the lightest provisions (when we looked at the size of our rucksacks and sleeping bags), roasted and ate an ox heart – and pomped a teacher. All in one night!
Eat your heart out, Chuck Norris!
ouhout – Leucosidea sericea, lovely aromatic scrub bushes and trees found in stream beds in the Drakensberg our inselbergs, and surrounding foothills
onnies – teachers; from onderwyser
pomped – made love; who we kidding? had sex; shunted; or so we surmised
Trudi won Miss Personality at Maritzburg Varsity. We could have told them that beforehand if they’d asked. Her prize: A trip to Rio de Janeiro! Steph arranged a farewell party at Shady Pines on the night of her departure, after which we would deliver her safe and pickled to the Harrismith stasie. You didn’t know trips to Rio de Janeiro start at Harrismith Railway Station?! Ha! It goes to show . . .
At the station we bid her farewell in moviestar style, Trudi hanging out the window, fans crowded on the platform, much hubbub (just like in any good romantic movie). Here we are, hubbubbing:
Here’s Trudi with her hatbox:
Except some ringleaders are missing. Where could John and Nick be? At the very far end of the platform talking to the train driver. I get there just in time to hear: “Nooit, meneer, this are not a melktrein, this are ve Orange Express! No stops before Beflehem.”
He reminds me that they say you can’t find three wise men in the Vrystaat. But he does turn out to be wise after some rooinek private school farmer persuasion, as he partially relents: “OK, ve bess I can do for yous is I’ll slow down when I pass Rivierdraaistasie.”
We hop on, and soon the train pulls off. John the agile gymnast has a case of beer under his one arm and a wicked grin under his one moustache. We make our way to Trudi’s cabin. “What on earth are you guys doing here?” We repeat a very hasty goodbye because already the train is FLYING! I myself am now rather nervous and if it wasn’t for the medicinal value of beer I might have said something sensible. We each take position at a door and watch as the poles whizz past us in a blur. Past the crossing to Swiss Valley where Nick (whose leg was in plaster so he was chosen to drive the getaway car – just like in any good gangster movie) was going to meet us. The railway crossing whizzes past and it feels like we’re accelerating!
Suddenly a decrease in speed and, peering forward, some lights in the dark. Get ready to jump. Arse over kettle each one of us hits the ground and tumbles. I almost stayed on my feet but then had to duck for the big sign RIVIERDRAAISTASIE one word. But one man didn’t fall: He who held the case of beers kept it together! We ran back up the track into the dark as a man came stumbling out of the stasie kantoor, lantern held aloft (just like in any good Orient Express movie).
When we gathered, a sober head prevailed. “Boys, we can’t go! We can’t ‘drop’ the train driver. The stasiemeester will have to put in a report and our man will get into trouble. We have to go and talk to the stasiemeester.”
So a delegation is sent back to the stasie and some of us sit in the veld awaiting their return, supping thoughtfully on John’s case of ales. And we wait and await.
Eventually – just when we think maybe they’ve gone to jail – they return, much merrier and cleverer than when they left. Apparently as they started to say Naand Meneer the oke said: “That’s the BEST thing that’s happened to me in all my years at Rivierdraai Stasie!” and insisted they sit and join him for a dop, pulling a bottle of brandy from the top drawer of his desk (just like in any good cowboy movie).
A sequel: Is nothing a secret in a small dorp? I get home before sunrise, and later that same morning my Mom peeps her head into my bedroom in my garden cottage, The Country Mansion: “Were you on that train?” asks Mary Methodist in her woe-unto-us voice. And “I’m so glad you’re home safely,” what a special Mom. At about nineteen years old, though, I couldn’t understand why she was fussing.
Now the desk with the brandy bottle in the top drawer has gone . .