The new preacherman at the Christian Church of Apache Oklahoma, looked me up after he’d been in town a while and invited me over to his place. Turns out he was interested in becoming a mission-nary to Africa and wanted to meet one of the real-deal Africans he’d heard and read so much about. Maybe suss out just how much we needed saving?
A HUGE man, six feet and nine inches tall, Ron Elrick wore a string tie, a 10 gallon stetson and cowboy boots, making him damn near eight feet tall fully dressed as he stooped through doors and bent down to shake people’s hands. I met his tiny little wife who was seemingly half his height, and two lil daughters. He was an ex-Canadian Mountie and a picture on his mantelpiece showed him towering over John Wayne, when Wayne was in Canada to film a movie.
Soon he invited me to join him on a men’s retreat to “God’s Forty Acres” in NE Oklahoma (the yanks are way ahead of Angus Buchan in this “get away from the wife, go camping on a farm, and when you get back tell her you’re the boss, the head of the house, the patriarch – the ‘prophet'” shit. I mean, this was 1973!). I had made it known from my arrival in Apache that I would join anybody and go anywhere to see the state and get out of school – I mean hey! I’d already DONE matric!
So we hopped into his muddy pink wagon with ‘wood’ panelling down the sides – it looked a bit like these in the pictures. We roared off from Caddo county heading north-east, bypassing Oklahoma City and Tulsa to somewhere near Broken Arrow or Cherokee county – towards the Arkansas border, anyway. Me n Ron driving like Thelma and Louise.
Non-stop monologue on the way. He didn’t need any answers, I just had to nod him yes and he could talk non-stop for hours on end. At the retreat there were hundreds of men & boys just like him, no women. Unless you count them who made and served the food. The men were all fired up for the Lawd, bellowing the Retreat Song at the drop of a hat:
♫“In Gahd’s Fordy Yacres . . !!”♫
We musta sang it 400 times in that weekend. If I was God I’d have done some smiting.
We left at last and headed back, wafting along like on a mattress in that long slap wagon, when Ron suddenly needed an answer: Had I ever seen a porno movie? WHAT? I hadn’t? Amazing! Well, jeez, I mean goodness, he felt it as sort of like a DUTY to enlighten me and reveal to me just how evil and degraded these movies could be. So we detoured into Tulsa. Maybe he regarded it as practice for the mission-nary work he was wanting to do among us Africans?
We sat through a skin flick in a seedy movie house. It was the most skin ‘n pubic hair ‘n pelvis ‘n organs this 18yr old boykie from the Vrystaat had seen to date so it was, after all, educational. Thin plot, though.
I suppose you could say I got saved and damned all on one weekend.
Ron did get to Africa as a mission-nary. He was posted to Jo-hannesburg. Lotsa ‘sinners’ in Jo-hannesburg, I suppose. I’m just not sure they need ‘saving’ by a Canadian Mountie.
Sometime back in the fifties uncle and family lawyer Bunty Bland needed to go up to Rhodesia – ‘up north’ – to sort out the sale of his sister’s property. His Rhodesian brother-in-law drove down to Harrismith to fetch him. As ever, the finer details of my story should be checked out . . . pinch of salt. The car is probably right, the country – now Zimbabwe – is almost certainly right, and two of the people – Dad and Bunty – are right, that’s all I know. At first Dad said they drove up in Bunty’s Rover, but I couldn’t find a Rover station wagon. Seems they left ‘that sort of thing’ to Land Rover. I found this Vauxhall Victor station wagon and then Dad remembered it was the bro-in-law’s car and yes, it was a Vauxhall! Memories! Dodgy things.
The reason they took young Pieter Swanepoel, husband of favourite niece Mary, along was to share the driving. He says he ended up driving all the way there and back.
With him he had his new Eumig 8mm cine camera! He took footage of the ruins of the magnificent Great Zimbabwe. Bunty features in his trademark ‘fairisle’ sleeveless jersey . .
Other footage featured the Vauxhall, Bunty again and some fountains . .
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.
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.
Back around 1962 we joined the du Plessis on a beach and fishing holiday on the Natal north coast – Chaka’s Rock! They were beach regulars, this was one of our two beach holidays that I can remember. It was amazing! The cottage on a hill above the beach, the rocks and seaside cliffs, narrow walkways along the cliffs that the waves would drench at high tide; magic swimming pools set in the rocks. The men were there to fish:
We baljaar’d on the beach and sometimes even ventured into the shallows – just up to safe vrystaat depth. A swimmer I was not and I still vividly remember a near-death experience I had in the rock pool: a metre-high wave knocked me out of Mom’s arms and I was washed away out of her safe grasp! I must have been torn away by up to half a metre from her outstretched hands; little asthmatic me on my own in the vast Indian Ocean for what must have been a long one and a half seconds. Traumatised. To this day I am wary of the big-dam-that-you-can’t-see-the-other-side-of.
baljaar – frolic
vrystaat depth – about ankle deep
postscript: I tried to keep up the luxury cottage theme but Barbara talked about the big spiders on the walls and yesterday even Dad, who was talking about Joe Geyser, mentioned ‘that ramshackle cottage we stayed in at Chaka’s Rock’.
Dad was saying Joe hardly ever caught a fish. He would be so busy with this his pipe, relighting it, refilling it, winding the reel with one hand while fiddling with his pipe with the other. My theory is the fish could smell the tobacco and turned their nose up at his bait. Dad reckons tobacco was never a health hazard to old Joe. Although he was never without his pipe, it was mainly preparation and cleaning, and the amount of actual puffing he did was minimal.
Once he caught a wahoo and brought it back to Harrismith. Griet took one look at it as he walked into her kitchen and bade him sally forth, so he brought it to Dad and they cut it up and cooked it in our kitchen.
Stage Three (in yellow on the map) of my Great North American Road Trip started in Cobleskill in upstate New York, where Stage Two had ended.
A red VW Bug swept up the drive and out poured three lovely Okies and an Aussie. Sherry Porter, owner of the Bug and twins Dottie and Dale Moffett. Sherry had been a favourite high school teacher of the girls in Ardmore a few years prior. Jonathan Kneebone was an Aussie, a character, say no more. Liked a beer.
We headed north to the Canadian border. At the border the man leaned in, asked “All American?” and was about to wave us through when Jonathan and I said “Um, no”. “Australian” said Kneebone and the man made to step back again and wave us through when he registered what I had said. “Uh, come with me please sir. I need to check your passport,” he said. An hour later we were off again – to Montreal. That’s where you see Dottie sitting on the grass.
On to Ottawa where we bumped into Indira Ghandi on a state visit to Pierre Trudeau. She chose to arrive while we were staring at some government building or other. I’m not sure I’ve seen another head of state in the flesh ever. Oh well, one’s enough.
Somewhere around here I dinged Sherry’s car! “I’ll drive!” I shouted as we headed for the pub. I promptly reversed and BANG! I got out and saw to my great relief – how horrible was this!? – that I’d hit a huge Dodge pickup with a bumper a yard deep; not a scratch on it! Poor Sherry’s prize VW wasn’t so lucky. I wrecked her left rear fender and light and I had no money to pay for the damage. DAMN!! Sherry of course was an absolute star about it, bless her!
Then Toronto, Waterloo and up around Lake Superior, Sudbury, Sault St Marie, Thunder Bay. What a sight Superior was! Biggest stretch of fresh water imaginable. For a Vrystater, awe-inspiring! We camped en route wherever we could squirrel away for free. Only once were we shoo-ed, but by a Mountie with a big hat, so it was worth it!
Here we used a rock for a mattress. We had just woken up but Kneebone was already being Australian!
Me, Dottie, Dale & Jonathan Kneebone (can you guess where from?)
Once we stayed in an old railway station converted to a sort of backpackers, the track ripped up and turned into a trail. Then we needed to go canoeing. When in Canada, canoe! So we hired two boats in Quetico National Park, Lake of the Woods (take all these names with a pinch of salt; these are 45yr-old memories!). Internet pictures of the area:
After one night we turned back and ran, tails between our legs! We had spent the day trying to dodge dark clouds of midges and no-see-ems, or black flies. When you ran your hand through your hair it came out covered in blood. That night we pitched the tents on an island in a cloud of mozzies. We lined up with our kit, zipped open, dived in and zipped up immediately. So fast that we only had fourteen million mosquitoes in the tent, a fraction of what was hovering and zeeeee-ing outside! Ama-azing! Canada sure has bugs!!
But what beautiful country:
As we’d cut our canoe trip short we decided to carry on into Manitoba, but Canada is vast, so we soon cut back and headed south for the US border at International Falls, into Minnesota, across the Mississippi River where its still quite small and headed south for Iowa, where I had to leave the gang.
My host family from Apache Don & Jackie Lehnertz were up there and would be driving me back to Apache via Iowa, Missouri and Kansas on Stage Four. I’m afraid I slept a lot of that trip!