Cunene River Pioneers

While clearing out my stuff I found a 1965 African Wildlife magazine we used to subscribe to. It contained Willem van Riet‘s tale of his and Gordie Rowe’s trip down the Cunene river – blind (unscouted) trip down the Cunene! Shades of Powell’s first trip down the Colorado! I took photos to quickly save it here. Small difference between the two rivers: No Crocs in the Colorado!

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Prices Back Then

Dad: I bought a Russian 12-gauge shotgun, a Baikal. I paid R139. I got it from Musgrave in Bloemfontein.

Internet comments are mostly very complimentary about Baikal down-to-earthness, ruggedness and value: The first Baikal shotguns years ago were side-by-sides; They were not very sophisticated; They are more reliable than their price would suggest; You can depend on them; If you’re on a modest budget then a Baikal is a good first buy; etc.

– I used this to miss guineafowl occasionally ca.1977 –
– guineafowl shoot on Rust outside Warden ca.1977 – I’m 2nd left –

Dad: When Harry Mandy went to Japan I asked him to get me a Canon camera and telephoto lens. He got me a FT QL camera body with standard 50mm lens, a close-up lens and a 200mm telephoto lens for R140.

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Mist or Smoke?

Mom says they loved swimming. All the boys were at the baths – the Harrismith Municipal Swimming Baths about a kilometre away up the hill past the Town Hall.

Some days they’d get ready to go – cozzies and towels over their arms, but Granny Bland would be standing on the back stoep with her hand on her hip, looking at the mist on the eastern end of Platberg and announce firmly, ‘No, you can NOT go swimming. You can put that in your pipe and smoke it!’

Table Tennis Champ

Somewhere around 1969 I won the world-famous Harrismith Methodist All-Stars inaugural (and last) Table Tennis Tournament held in the Wesleyan Hall on Warden Street. This was a huge event for us dedicated Harrismith Methylated Spirits. There must have been . . what? half a dozen or more people watching, spellbound. Many of them would also have been among the entrants to this high-level event. Which I won, did I mention that?

My prize: The gold medal and a vinyl LP by The Tremeloes! except for the medal. The LP was real and was my first ever. And maybe my only? I don’t remember owning any other LPs.

How hip was the Harrismith Methodist Church?! I’d love to know who donated this lovely prize.

The feature pic shows our table tennis table on the side veranda at home. Training ground.

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What’s Wrong Swanie?

This was the problem: Most of the guys and gals I would do river trips with had a serious deficiency: a lack of some specific paddling strokes one should use on a river trip. Most of them especially couldn’t execute my favourite stroke: Paddle on your lap, arms folded, gaze around in awesome wonder, and allow the boat to gently rotate in the current. The Swanie 360° River Revolution, or Swannee River for short.

They were racing snakes. They’d say ‘Let’s Go,’ and then they would actually do that! Weird. Then they’d look back, wait till I eventually caught up and ask, ‘What’s Wrong Swanie?’ I was of course much too polite to reply, ‘Nothing. What’s The Hurry?’ I’m polite that way. What I meant was, ‘I don’t want this day to end.’

And so we would gently bumble downriver. Every few hundred metres they’d wait, or one of them would paddle upstream (more weirdness) back to me and ask ‘What’s Wrong Swanie?’

Weird. Although I must admit, you wouldn’t want me in charge of timing or logistics on a trip!

When the current was swift enough my speed could match theirs. It was the flat water that was tricky. In their defence, they were actually going slowly and enjoying the scenery in awesome wonder. It’s just that their slowly and mine was out of sync!

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Watch Luca Sestak (then 14yrs-old) show us how to do the Swannee River:

Bertie on Bespoke

Bertie van Niekerk was tall and impeccably dressed and rich. He wore a big hat, drove a lang slap American car and rode beautiful horses. One was called Bespoke and the rooineks were too scared to tell Bertie you didn’t pronounce that as though it was haunted.

I remember him in a tall hat – not a tophat, though – and a coat with tails – special riding gear.

Dad remembers him winning one ‘Best Farm Horse’ (beste boerperd?) award at the show: Everyone had to put their horses through their paces. Their mount had to stay put when the reins were tossed over its head and left to dangle; it had to not flinch when its owner cracked a whip next to its ear; and other stuff. After he’d done all he needed to do, Bertie kicked his boots out of the stirrups, got up on the saddle, stood tall and looked around. Then he removed binoculars from his pocket and gazed around serenely, still standing on the saddle, his horse dead still and calm.

The crowd loved it and roared their approval!

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I wish I had pictures! The pics above remind me of what I saw at the show all those years ago – horses stepping exaggeratedly with a rider or pulling a cart. Be great to see authentic pics from back then.

Internet Fame

The ole man got a visit from his alma mater. Now he’s on the internets at maritzburgcollege.co.za! Their article follows, modified, with spelling and grammar corrected by me (non-College):

– Big Sis Lizzie with barefoot young Pieter –

A few weeks ago, we popped in for a quick chat with Mr. Pieter Swanepoel. Class of 1939 – so he finished College before World War II started! (I have him as class of ’38, College?)

Mr. Swanepoel gives a lot of credit to his older sister for him getting to College. He says his family were not wealthy, as his Dad had been seriously affected by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Fortunately, he kept his job throughout – but he always felt pressure to get money for his family of six. To help her Dad, Pieter’s older sister Anne, or ‘Lizzie’ as he called her, stopped school at Russell High School early to get a job. Pieter was still at junior school in Havelock Road, just below the railway station where his father worked. Sister Lizzie used to get him to read every night, even though he wasn’t particularly partial to it! She also helped him to apply for College and motivated – successfully – for him to secure a scholarship.

..

– one of these sadistic old goats, no doubt –

He remembers one of his first classes was a Latin lesson with the headmaster, Mr Pape; he was walking around the class talking with the boys, and Pieter decided he needed to look very serious and studious to keep out of trouble. Pape walked over to him and said, “Why are you frowning at my teaching?” and promptly lashed him a few good whacks there and then. All lessons took place in Clark House which doubled as dormitories and class rooms. His sister encouraged him to knuckle down at school and take the more difficult courses like Latin and Math, to give himself a head start.

He excelled at sport, and athletics was his particular passion. He won the best athlete prize in 4th and 5th form and recalls College doing very well in inter-school meets. See the results from 5th form in 1937 here.

– first car –

The school itself was a little out of town and there were very few buildings nearby.

Much of the conversation among the boys was about either about Philip Nel, who was then Springbok rugby captain, or the global tensions developing in Europe with Nazism on the rise. (nothing about girls, beers or cars, then). As it was, Pieter didn’t finish 6th Form; he left College in early 1939 (1938 I thought) to take his trade exams at the post office and started working there to earn money for the family. And soon he bought his first car.

He left the post office to join the army once South Africa joined the Union Defense Force. He was part of the 14th South African Armored Brigade as a radio operator and spent most of the war fighting across Italy. The impact of war on him and his friends was rather marked. In an incident in Abyssinia – present day Somalia – seven Old Collegians were killed in action. He wasn’t there, but two of his friends, Hornby and Berlyn, were among those College boys killed (read more about the White Flag Incident here).

– proposed trophy for the u/15 athletics champion – – handmade by the 1937 u/15 athletics champion –

Mr. Swanepoel has his class photo still and in the notes below he lists seven of his class of twenty-five that were killed in World War II. Almost a third of his 5th form class! The loss of some of these friends took a long time to come to terms with. He spent time in Egypt and in Italy. Interestingly, his inauspicious start to Latin lessons with Mr. Pape had some good consequences. Once in Italy, he found that he picked up the language very quickly, allowing him to speak to the local citizens. He found this a useful skill and was soon able to converse for the army and on a personal level. He found the Italians to be very friendly and accommodating. After the fighting stopped he was offered a position in Japan before returning home, but he opted to return to SA.

He survived the war and returned to Harrismith where he married, started a family and farmed. He still has a love for horses, and talks with fondness of some of his horses and the excellent ponies he bred from Basotho stock. He remains a passionate Old Boy and is an avid woodworker. He has made a number of wooden articles for the school to use.

Family is very important to him as are his friendships. He remained friendly with his classmates and attends the Veteran’s luncheon and Reunion whenever he can. He has been very disappointed about the current lack of events due to COVID and looks forward to being back on campus. He met our last centenarian Cyril Crompton at the 150th reunion. Cyril passed away a few years back at the age of one hundred. Mr. Swanepoel wishes the current boys well, and encourages them to be diligent and work hard as the opportunity at College is not something afforded to everyone. Saint Pieter.

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College Junior Champ

As he said to the Maritzburg College chap who came round to interview him: He excelled at sport, and athletics was his particular passion. He won the best athlete prize in 4th form 1936 and 5th form 1937. This was the Old Man talking, Pieter Gerhardus Swanepoel, born in 1922. (‘6th form’ is matric, or high school senior year, which he started in 1938, but he left school on 1st April that year to start an apprenticeship at the post office).

He recalls College doing very well in inter-school meets:

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A New Author!

We have a new book out! ( – get it on takealot.com – )

OK, the author has a new book out, his first. School friend Harry ‘Pikkie’ Loots is Harrismith’s latest published author, following in the footsteps of FA Steytler, EB Hawkins, Anita van Wyk Henning, Petronella van Heerden and Leon Strachan. There must be more?

So far he has it as an eBook – you can get it now already.

Real paper hard copies to follow. I had the privilege and fun as one of his proof-readers, of reading it as he wrote and re-wrote.

UPDATE 10 Feb 2021: It’s he-ere! In my hand!

Now you gotta realise, Pikkie is a mountaineer and trekker. These are phlegmatic buggers; unflappable; understated. So when he says ‘we walked and then crossed some ice and then we got here’:

– 5109m above seal level – the Drakensberg’s highest peak is 3482m –

. . with lovely pictures and fascinating stories along the way . . you must know what he doesn’t show you. And this is only the third highest peak he climbs in Africa! There’s more!

.

.

Those of us who climbed Mt aux Sources should also remember how we drove to within an hour or two’s walk from the chain ladder. To get to these higher mountains there’s days of trekking before you reach the point in the picture. And way less oxygen!

I can’t wait to hold a copy in my hand . . Goddit now. Here’s the back cover blurb: ( – get it on takealot.com – )

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Launch Aborted

After a long gap from paddling I decided to relaunch my river paddling career, striking fear into the heart of all contenders.

I would need a boat. Being a cheapskate I searched far and wide, high and low and I found one far and low. In PMB dorp. A certain gentleman in fibreglass, Hugh ‘user-friendly’ Raw had one for sale at a bargain price. His glowing description of the craft made me know this was the boat with which to relaunch – OK, launch – my competitive career in river paddling.

At Hugh’s place he showed me the boat and it did indeed look pristine. I went to pick it up and load it on my kombi’s roofrack, but Hugh held me back with a firm, ‘NO. Let me have that done for you!’ Customer service, I thought. User-friendly. So I watched as he got his two biggest workers to load the boat for me, which they did with ease. Big, strapping lads.

On the way back to Durban the kombi seemed to be struggling. I had to gear down on the hills, never had that before. Strong headwind, I thought.

The boat stayed there till Thursday, the big day. The first day of my relaunched paddling life. The dice on the Umgeni river outside my Club, Kingfisher. And then I understood. Getting the boat down off my roofrack took a Herculean effort. When I plopped it into the water the Umgeni rose two inches.

I can say this: Rands-per-Kg – pound-for-pound – I got the best bargain from Hugh ‘user-friendly’ Raw of that century.

While I was contemplating thus, and thinking I’m loving being back on the water, what kept me away so long, Ernie yelled at me through his megaphone and the water exploded around me. What the hell!? All these fools around me suddenly went berserk, water was flying everywhere. It took a few minutes before calm returned and I was sitting bobbing on the disturbed surface. This tranquility was again ruined by Ernie yelling through that same damned megaphone: ‘Swanie what are you waiting for!?’

Jeesh! I headed off after the flotilla disappearing in the distance and after twenty or thirty strokes it suddenly came to back to me in a blinding flash of realisation: I knew why I had stopped paddling. It’s damned hard work.

And race days are noisy, chaotic things.

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