I asked Leanne Hilkovitz Williamson about Poccolan / Robinson’s Bush and this brought a flood of memories:
She takes up the story:
I was born on the farm De Nook which belonged to my grandfather Elias Hilkovitz and was inherited by my father Leo Hilkovitz after the 2nd World War probably round about 1945, two years before I was born.
Dad built Little Switzerland Hotel on the farm and we made pathways through the forest called Robinson’s Bush for guests to hike to various spots: The Wishing Well, Protea Plateau, etc. I named most of the spots, and one that meandered in and out of the forest edge I named Hilky’s Way after my grandfather who was affectionately known as Hilky.
We sold the hotel when I was in my early twenties but the various owners over the years have kept the use of the forest and the guests continue to enjoy its wonderful beauty – it is wonderfully exhilarating to either clamber down Breakneck Pass from the Wishing Well or climb up to it from the road below. The path twists and turns in amongst indigenous trees, true and mock yellowwoods, and lianas and ferns along the side of a stream full of huge beautiful boulders in all shades of grey & lichen & dappled shade. So one experiences the mountain air, the refreshing sound of the steam and always the melodious bird song. I particularly loved calling up the Mocking Chats and Natal Robins that mimic other birds and have a whole repartee of calls, copying them and they’d call back. A wonderful game that Dad taught me.
According to my father, Robinson’s Bush is the biggest natural forest in the Drakensberg. I wouldn’t take that as gospel. I’ve come to be a bit circumspect about those sorts of claims that locals all over the world tend to lay claim to!
Robinson’s Bush abuts on De Nook and we treated it as part of our farm. Dad looked after it although it is part of government nature conservation; at one stage in my late teenage years there were two nature conservation officers who lived in a hut on the edge of the forest and tended it but that did not last.
I was there for my 70th birthday in 2017 with my two sons and their families and we climbed up Breakneck Pass through the forest and I showed it to my granddaughters and taught them the things my Dad had taught me.
Some of my earliest memories are of picnics in the forest on the side of the stream with our neighbours Udo and Margo Zunkle of Cathkin Hotel fame when they lived on Windmill farm. Udo would put small pieces of raw steak on the river rocks and we’d be fascinated by the crabs that came from all sides to feast on it.
Leanne again later:
I put together a Power Point family history together for the family and we had an evening when I showed it to them. It started with the great grandparents on both sides and their cars and the farm in the very early days and the beginnings of the hotel and its growth as I grew up & went to HS Volkschool & then boarding school, varsity, etc. and then our children growing up and then finally the grandchildren from babies to present. I can never leave the farm & the berg for long & return there often – even if it is just up and down in a day – and I climb a mountain, drink in the soul food and return home refreshed, invigorated and together. The families also love it and visit but we have never all been there together at the same time & so took advantage of my 70th to ask this favour. So we stayed in the timeshare from 24-28 Dec & had a wonderful Christmas & my birthday on 27th. We had a wonderful time and I was able to share some of my favourite places & stories with them just this once as you know how short attention spans are when kids are having fun. Didn’t want to bore them!
Pic of me on my birthday in my most favourite place in all the world.
Famous shenanigans: South Africa’s most notorious bank robber, Trust Bank robber Derek Whitehead, was arrested at Little Switzerland in 1971 at 3am on Friday morning the 14th of May. They had arrived at 4.30pm the previous day. A team of CID detectives from Johannesburg, the Orange Free State and Natal were involved in the swoop. After the arrest, the Whiteheads were taken to Bloemfontein for questioning
Drunken shenanigans: Omigoodness; You don’t want to know . .
Our Bruno the doberman was a Hilkovitz! A Little Switzerland doberman puppy! Dad Pieter Swanepoel told me Leo came to town one day, called in at the Caltex garage and said ‘Come and look!’ On the back of his bakkie he had a bunch of little black pups in a box. Dobermans.
Dad chose one – he says he gave Leo a pocket of potatoes! – and we grew up with ‘Bruno’ – I only now know he was a citizen of Little Switzerland! He grew up to be a handsome lad!
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. ‘
– and I say in 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! – In fact, I think they hire out the grazing for cattle – I hope not, as that really damages the veld and wetlands.
The UNISA study found 669 plant species in Platberg’s 30km2 area. To compare, Golden Gate Highlands park has 556 species in 48km2.
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.
inselberg – German for ‘island 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 Platberg mountain or inselberg a ‘koppie.’
koppie – a smaller thing than Platberg; Just west of Platberg is Loskop; you can call that a koppie, maybe, if you call it a beautiful high koppie with an impreesive cliff
relevé – in population ecology, a plot that encloses the minimal area under a species-area curve; right
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
People often rail against cuckoos and use all sorts of pejorative descriptions about them and their ways. Hey! Cuckoos gotta do what cuckoos gotta do. Nature. Survival of the fittest. Evolution. Life. Bird life.
Consider three things: 1. Cuckoos have no alternative. This is the ONLY way they can breed; 2. Cuckoos eat a whole bunch of caterpillars, even the ones with poisonous hairs and barbs. We need cuckoos. 3. Anthropomorphising animals is never a good idea. Cuckoos aren’t little feathered humans deciding ‘What the hell, I’ll drop the kids off at a neighbour’s house and abandon them there.’
So I’m always disappointed when people use descriptions like ‘nasty cheat’, ‘treacherous’, ‘deceitful’, etc when describing cuckoos. Many birds like hawks and eagles who do bring up their own young catch and kill other birds – including baby birds taken from their nests – to feed to their young. It’s all just nature, people!
In fact the ‘arms race’ between cuckoos trying to lay their eggs in their hosts’ nests and the hosts trying to thwart the cuckoos makes for fascinating natural history. And every now and then one might even get to see it happening! I did once and this story of an African Cuckoo coming to a sticky end after trying to enter an Indian Mynah nest reminded me of it.
My encounter was on the last day of a Dusi Canoe Marathon back in the nineteen eighties. I was drifting along on the Umgeni River just upstream of the big N2 bridge across the river, wishing the current would do a bit more to get me to the finish at Blue Lagoon, when I heard a ruckus and saw a bunch of weavers chasing and mobbing a bird. As I got closer I saw it was a Diederik Cuckoo pulling its best aerial dogfighting maneuvres to try and escape the mob. Even flying upside down much of the time so its claws could fend off the pecking. To no avail. They beat her down into the reedbed and then down the reeds onto the water. Then I was past the scene of this neighbourhood vigilante action. So I didn’t see the end and don’t know if the Diederik was actually killed, as the Mynahs in North West Province killed the African Cuckoo. Fascinating!
Thanks to rockjumperbirding.com for the Diederik and hbw.com for the African cuckoo photos.
The Umfolosi Wilderness is a special place. Far too small, of course, but its what we have. I read Ian Player’s account of how Magqubu Ntombela taught him about wilderness and Africa and nature. The idea of a wild place where modern man could go to escape the city and re-discover what Africa was like, was born and actioned right here in Mfolosi. Experience it – it’s amazing.
My first trail was ca 1990, when I went with Dusi canoeing buddies Doug Retief, Martin & Marlene Loewenstein and Andre Hawarden. We were joined by a young lass on her own, sent by her father, who added greatly to the scenery:
A good sport, she took our gentle teasing well and fended off the horny game ranger with aplomb.
We went in my kombi and some highlights I recall were:
Doug offering “bah-ronies” after lunch one day. We were lying in the shade of a tree after a delicious lunch made by our guides: Thick slices of white bread, buttered and stuffed with generous slices of tomato and onion, salt and black pepper. Washed down with tea freshly brewed over a fire of Thomboti wood. Doug fished around in his rucksack and gave us each a mini Bar One (“bah-ronie”, geddit?). Best tasting chocolate I ever ate, spiced as it was with hunger and exertion.
After the five-night trail we went for a game drive on the way out of the park. Needing a leak after a few bitterly cold brews I left the wheel with the kombi trundling along amiably and walked to the side door of the kombi, ordering Hawarden to take over the driving. Not good at taking orders, he looked at me, waited till I was in mid-stream out of the open sliding door and leant over with his hiking stick and pressed the accelerator. The driverless kombi picked up speed and I watched it start to veer off-road, necessitating a squeezed premature end to my leak and a dive for the wheel. Thanks a lot, Hard One!
‘Pleasure,’ he murmured mildly. Hooligan!
Thirty years later Andre Hooligan Hawarden wrote:
“Hey, remember that cool walk we did in the game reserve when you had the tape recorder and we attracted the owl? Then next day we lay on the bank of the Umlofosi river and watched the vultures coming down for a lunch time drink and a snooze? That was a wonderful experience. I’ve never forgotten it.”
But to do it I needed a henchman. You can hike alone, but I’d really rather not, so I persuaded Stefaans Reed, The Big Weed, resident son of hizzonner the Worshipful Lord Mayor of Nêrens (aka Clarens) and fellow optometry student in Jo’burg to accompany me.
We sallied forth, rucksacks on our backs, boerewors and coffee and billy can and sleeping bags inside, up the slopes of Platberg, from Piet Uys Street, up past the Botanic Gardens, von During and Hawkins Dams, into the ‘Government forest’. The pine plantation. ‘Die dennebos.’ We could discern two types of pines. The type we liked had the long soft needles and made a good bed. We walked next to the concrete furrow that led water down the mountain into town. Often broken and dry but sometimes full of clear water, it made finding the way easy.
Halfway up we made camp, clearing a big area of the soft pine needles down to bare earth so we could safely light a fire.
Learning from our primate cousins we piled all those leaves and more into a thick gorilla mattress and lay down on it to gaze at the stars through the treetops. This was 1974, we were eerstejaar studente in the big smog of Doornfontein, Jo’burg. We had learnt to drink more beer, sing bawdy songs, throw a mean dart in a smoke-filled pub, hang out of friends car windows as they drove home thinking ‘Whoa! better get these hooligans home!’ and generally honed our urban skills. Now we were honing our rural skills. Wilderness ‘n all.
As we lay in our sleeping bags, burping boerewors and gazing through the pine fronds at the stars, we heard a loud, startling, beautiful sound.
I was wide-eyed wide-awake! WHAT on EARTH was that!? I knew it had to be a night bird, but what? Which one?
In the dark I scribbled down a picture of the sound. This is what it sounded like to me and I wanted to be sure I didn’t forget it:
I didn’t know I was drawing a “sonogram” – I’d never heard of that.
When I got back home I looked through my ‘Birds of South Africa – Austin Roberts’ by G.R. McLachlan and R. Liversidge, 1970 – and found there was a nightjar that said “Good Lord Deliver Us” and I knew that was it. The Fiery-Necked Nightjar – some call it the Litany Bird. I loved it, I love it, I’ll never forget it and it’s still a favourite bird.
Next morning we hiked on, past the beautiful eastern tip of Platberg – some call it ‘Bobbejaanskop’ – and down round Queen’s Hill through some very dense thicket, across the N3 highway, back home and a cold beer.
Those pine trees may be Pinus patula – soft leaves, not spiky. Comfy. Still an invasive pest, though.
A ‘litany’ is a tedious recital or repetitive series; ‘a litany of complaints’; ‘a series of invocations and supplications‘; – “Good Lord, Deliver us!” T:
The Catholics can really rev it up – Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, have mercy on us. Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, hear us. Christ, graciously hear us. God the Father of Heaven, Have mercy on us. God the Son, Redeemer of the world, Have mercy on us. – This is one-twelfth of the Catholic Litany, there’s eleven-twelfths more! Holy shit!!
boerewors – raw beef wurst; just add fire
dennebos – pine plantation; plantations are not forests!
eerstejaar studente – first year students
Bobbejaanskop – Baboon peak
Nêrens – nowhere, or Clarens in the Free State, named after Clarens, Switzerland to which that coward Paul Kruger fled cowardly after accusing my brave great-great Oom of cowardice. Ha! Who actually stayed and fought the war, huh?