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, though. 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.
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!
Watch Luca Sestak (then 14yrs-old) show us how to do the Swannee River:
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!
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.
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):
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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
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’:
. . 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 – )
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.
Here’s a re-post – I’m running out of things to say as the era of this blog recedes ever-further into the mists of time – and the misseds of my time. This blog’s era ends around about when I met Aitch – 1985-eish. Post-aitch, marriage, kids and other catastrophes, and current stuff are over at bewilderbeast.org
In 1969 a bunch of us were taken to Durban to watch a rugby test match – Springboks against the Australian Wallabies. “Our” Tommy Bedford was captain of the ‘Boks. We didn’t know it, but it was to be one of his last games.
Schoolboy “seats” were flat on your bum on the grass in front of the main stand at Kings Park. Looking around we spotted old Ella Bedford – “Mis Betfit” as her pupils called her – Harrismith’s English-as-second-language teacher. Also: Springbok captain’s Mom! Hence our feeling like special guests! She was up in the stands directly behind us. Sitting next to her was a really spunky blonde so we whistled and hooted and waved until she returned the wave.
Back at school the next week ‘Mis Betfit’ told us how her daughter-in-law had turned to her and said: “Ooh look, those boys are waving at me!” And she replied (and some of you will hear her tone of voice in your mind’s ear): “No they’re not! They’re my boys. They’re waving at me!”
We just smiled, thinking ‘So, Mis Betfit isn’t always right’. Here’s Jane. We did NOT mistake her for Mis Betfit.
“corrections of corrections of corrections”
Mrs Bedford taught English to people not exactly enamoured of the language. Apparently anything you got wrong had to be fixed below your work under the heading “corrections”. Anything you got wrong in your corrections had to be fixed under the heading “corrections of corrections”. Mistakes in those would be “corrections of corrections of corrections”. And so on, ad infinitum! She never gave up. You WOULD get it all right eventually!
Stop Press! Today I saw an actual bona-fide example of this! Schoolmate Gerda van Schalkwyk has kept this for nigh-on fifty years!
Tommy’s last game for the Boks came in 1971 against the French – again in Durban.
Two or three years later:
In matric the rugby season started and I suddenly thought: Why’m I playing rugby? I’m playing because people think I have to play rugby! I don’t.
So I didn’t.
It caused a mild little stir, especially for ou Vis, mnr Alberts in the primary school. He came up from the laerskool specially to politely voice his dismay. Nee man, jy moet ons tweede Tommy Bedford wees! he protested. That was optimistic. I had played some good rugby when I shot up and became the tallest in the team, not because of any real talent for the game – as I went on to prove.
ou Vis – nickname meaning old fish – dunno why
Nee man, jy moet ons tweede Tommy Bedford wees! – Don’t give up rugby. You should become our ‘second Tommy Bedford’ – Not.
Meantime Jane Bedford has become famous in her own right in the African art world and Durban colonial circles, and sister Sheila and Jane have become good friends.
Also meanwhile, our sterling Mrs Bedford’s very famous brother – one of twelve siblings – Lourens vd Post, turned out to be a real cad a fraud, an adulterer and a downright liar. Fooled Prince Charlie, but then, that’s hardly a difficult achievement. The vegetables he talks to probably tell him fibs.
A childhood friend is writing a lovely book on his mountaineering exploits and the journey he has made from climbing the mountain outside our town to climbing bigger and more famous mountains all over the world!!
Flatteringly, he asked me and a Pommy work and climber friend to proofread his latest draft. Being a techno-boff, he soon hooked us up on dropbox where we could read and comment and suggest.
I immediately launched into making sensible and well-thought out recommendations. But some of them were instantly rejected, side-stepped or ignored, I dunno WHY!!
Like the title I thought could be spiced up. Three African Peaks is all very well. But it’s boring compared to Free A-frickin’ Picks!!! to lend drama and a Seffrican accent to it, right?! I know, you can’t understand some people. !
John, very much under the weight of a monarchy – meaning one has to behave – was more formal:
‘What is it with south africans and the “!”? (which is my major comment on your writing style!)
Well!!! Once we had puffed down and soothed our egos by rubbing some Mrs Balls Chutney on it, the back-n-forth started. I mean started!!
My defensive gambit was: ‘We’re drama queens!!’
My attacking gambit was an accusation: ‘Poms hugely under-use the ! In fact, they neglect it terribly! John was quickly back though, wielding his quill like a rapier:
‘Not true. We use our national quota. We just give almost all of them to teenage girls.’
I was on the back foot. When it came to the cover, the Boer War re-enactment resumed. I mean resumed!! I chose a lovely cover with an African mountain and a lot of greenery on the slopes. The Pom chose an ice wall, no doubt thinking of the London market. Stalemate.
Next thing he’ll be suggesting a stiff upper cover.
A strange thing has happened since John’s critique! I am using less exclamation marks! I have even written sentences without any!! It actually feels quite good. The new, restrained me.
I canoed the Vrystaat Vlaktes thanks to Charles Ryder, who arrived in Harrismith in about 1968 or ’69 I’d guess, to start his electrical business, a rooinek from Natal. He roared into town in a light green Volvo 122S with a long white fibreglass thing on top of it like this:
I asked: What’s that? It’s a canoe What’s a canoe? You do the Dusi in it What’s the Dusi?
Well, Charlie now knew he was deep behind the boerewors curtain! He patiently made me wiser and got me going and I got really excited the more I learned. I decided I just HAD TO do the Dusi. What could be more exciting than paddling your own canoe 120km over three days from Pietermaritzburg to the sparkling blue Indian Ocean at the Blue Lagoon in Durban? Charlie made it sound like the best, most adventurous thing you could possibly think of. He showed me how to paddle (how was I to know at the time he was making me a ‘Left Feather’?) and was so generous with his time. Both in paddling and with Harrismith’s first Boy Scouts troop, which he helped establish.
I started running in the mornings with a gang of friends. Tuffy Joubert, Louis Wessels, Fluffy Crawley, Leon Blignaut, who else? We called ourselves the mossies as we got up at sparrow’s fart. Then I would cycle about two miles to the park in the afternoons and paddle on the flat water of the mighty Vulgar River in Charles’ Limfjorden, or Limfy, canoe, which he had kindly lent me/given to me. It was the fittest I’ve ever been, before or since.
Overnight I would leave it on the bank tethered to a weeping willow down there. One day around Christmas time with only a couple of weeks to go before Dusi I got there and it was missing. I searched high and low, to no avail. So I missed doing the Dusi. Not that I had done anything but train for it – I hadn’t entered, didn’t know where to, didn’t belong to a club, didn’t have a lift to the race, no seconds, nothing!
Still enthused, though, I persuaded my mate Jean Roux to join me in hitch-hiking to the race. We were going to do the Duzi! All except the part where you used a boat.
We got to Pietermaritzburg, and early the next morning to the start in Alexander Park. Milling around among the competitors and their helpers, we watched the start and as the last boats paddled off downstream Alxendra Park started emptying, everyone seemed in a big hurry to leave. We asked Wassup? and someone said, We’re Following Our Paddler! so we bummed a lift with some paddler’s seconds to the overnight stop at Dusi Bridge. We slept under the stars and cadged supper from all those friendly people. They let us continue with them the next day to the second overnight stop at Dip Tank and on the third and last day to the sea, the estuary at Blue Lagoon, following the race along the way.
I continued the search for my missing Limfy after we got back from watching the Dusi and eventually found a bottle floating in the Kakspruit, a little tributary that flows down from Platberg and enters the river downstream of the weir. It had a string attached to it. I pulled that up and slowly raised the boat – now painted black and blue, but clearly identifiable as I had completely rebuilt it after breaking it in half in a rapid in the valley between Swinburne and Harrismith. Come to remember, that’s why Charles gave it to me! I knew every inch of that boat: the kink in the repaired hull, the repaired cockpit, the wooden gunwales, brass screws, shaped wooden cross members, long wooden stringer, shaped wooden uprights from the cross members vertically up to the stringer, the white nylon deck, genkem glue to stick the deck onto the hull before screwing on the gunwales, the brass carrying handles, aluminium rudder and mechanism, steel cables, the lot. In great detail.
Except! I recently (2020) cleared out my garage under lockdown and discovered this: My notes preparing for the Duzi! I was less disorganised than I remember. I may not have DONE, but at least I did do a bit of planning! Check “Phone Mr Pearce” and “Buy canoe?” – uh, maybe not so very well organised!