I was born in Harrismith in 1955, as was Mom Mary in 1928, and her Mom Annie in 1893. Annie thought “the queen” of that little island above and left of France was also the queen of South Africa (and for much of her life she was right!).
I attended the plaaslike schools in Harrismith till 1972. A year in the USA in 1973 as a Rotary exchange student in Apache Oklahoma. Studied optometry in Joburg 1974 – 1977. Worked in Hillbrow and Welkom in 1978. Army (Potch and Roberts Heights, now Thaba Tshwane – in between it was Voortrekkerhoogte) in 1979 and in Durban (Hotel Command and Addington Hospital) in 1980.
I stayed in Durban, paddled a few rivers, and then got married in 1988. About then this blog’s era ends and my Life With Aitch started. Post-marriage tales and child-rearing catastrophes are told in Bewilderbeast Droppings.
‘Strue!! – These random, un-chronological and personal memories are true of course. But if you know anything about human memory you’ll know that with one man’s memory comes: Pinch of Salt. Names have been left unchanged to embarrass the friends who led me (happily!) astray. Add your memories – and corrections – and corrections of corrections! – in the comments if you were there.
Note: I go back to my posts to add / amend as I remember things and as people mention things, so the posts evolve. I know (and respect) that some bloggers don’t change once they’ve posted, or add a clear note when they do. That’s good, but as this is a personal blog with the aim of one day editing them all into a hazy memoir, this way works for me. So go’n re-look at some posts you’ve enjoyed before and see how I’ve improved over time (!). It’s just as my friend Greg says: ‘The older we get, the better we were.’
Scope magazine wasn’t always South Africa’s Playboy. Even though it was given a nice niche by the banning of Playboy and Hustler, it seemed to struggle with the intriguing question: ‘What Do Men Really Want?’
Once they got so desperate and misguided they even tried this:
These turned out to be not so much icons as aikonas (to gratefully steal a pun from Pieter-Dirk Uys). Sales plummeted . .
Then they hit on them at last! They had been staring at them all along:
Sales soared! In 1973 they could push their price up . . . to twenty cents! Never again would sweaty, fully-clothed, flat-chested models grace the cover of Scope Magazine!
aikona – isiZulu for ‘no way!’
failed cover – Charles Mason and Tank Rogers, winners of the 1967 Duzi Canoe Marathon!
Talking about the magic photo of the Soap Box Derby on 42nd Hill with Fluffy’s Dad Charlie in it, I got into an extended email conversation with my good mate from Mrs Putterill’s nursery school and Methodist Sunday school in the late 1950’s all the way to matric 1972, Leon Crawley:
Fluff: Amazing the dress code!!!
Me: Yes, from kaalvoet kid to full jacket & tie. And three ‘hoeds’. And a cop. Even the most casual of the ‘racing drivers’ has long pants on. I see your Dad clearly, is that Michael Hastings next to him crouched over the reins with his chin between his knees?
Fluff: Yep, Michael Hastings; I sent the photo to Mom to see if she can identify any others on it. My Dad crashed his kart and came a whopper, apparently had no skin left. He was the moer in when we had our races on the old road, because of the accident he was in. He still owes me a hiding with the kweper lat (quince switch). I bet he is waiting for me in Heaven! But we will just chat about it!!
Me: By the time we raced down that hill the trees were tall next to the road, and it had become the ‘old road’, a new one having been built above it. Traffic volumes had increased and we could no longer just stop the N3 and all the Jo’burg – Durban traffic!
= = = = = Canoe trip from Swinburne = = = = =
Me: So we did the full Swinburne to Harrismith in a day? I remember being picked up at the bridge – I think the same bridge you once caught a huge barbel under – correct? You may remember I went again a few years later with Claudio Bellato. The river was up and we both lost our glasses, spent a wet night sharing one sleeping bag, which was only half wet, the other one was sopping; then wrecked the canoe, which I had borrowed from the Voortrekkers, on a tree block in a rapid on Walton farm. Charlie Ryder fetched us and we got the wrecked boat out two weeks later. Claudio lives in Durban and I see him from time to time. He still introduces me as “Meet my friend Peter. I slept with him.”
Fluff: Your Dad picked us up in Town, but we did not sleep over en route. The river was terribly low and we did a lot of foot work crossing or bypassing the rapids. We made the trip in one day. I can remember the trip you had with Claudio, jeez terrible to sleep wet, and that with a man. You fixed up the canoe in the backyard if I can recall. That fish: It was a huge barbel from the bridge and that with a split rod, Dad used for bass!! Haha early one morning standing on the bridge, it was still too dark to go down to the river.
= = = = = The Voortrekker Camp = = = = =
Me: I joined up briefly, thanks to you. Or to your description of the upcoming camp on Bok or Boy Venter’s farm! I remember the camp in the wattles, a campfire, canvas tents with wooden pegs – and not much else.
Fluff: I remember the Voortrekkers and I think our membership lasted until after the camp. A huge bonfire, that night; Boy Venter. That was about it.
= = = The 1969 South West Africa Trip . . That Kestell Trip = = =
Fluff: We have good memories of the SWA Trek and I still have some photo’s as well.
not of the group or individuals!! I will scan at some stage and put
them in mail.
The welwitchia plant; Namutoni in Etosha; the Finger of God; the ‘bottomless’ lake Otjikoto with schools of small fish – apparently the Germans dumped their weaponry in these lakes, close to Tsumeb. Did we go to a disco in Tsumeb?
The visit to the karakul farm, the meerkats!! Eish the price of that lovely freshly baked brown bread near Twee Rivieren….17 cents OMW – the price of brown bead was about 6 cents back home!!!
Lovely memories; Braam Venter was the guy from Kestell…and who were the brothers who played cowboy and crooks with .303 rifles on horseback!?
I can recall yourself, Pierre, Tuffy, myself who else was in the party from Harrismith?
Swakopmund’s Dune 7 with that huge Chevy bonnet that did not work!!
Me: Was the hiding “on the cards” when he died? Heart attack, was it? How old was he? That was such a damned shame. I can actually still feel (feel, not remember) how I felt standing in the kitchen at 95 Stuart Street when I first heard uncle Charlie had died. And here’s my old man turned ninety one after sixty two years of smoking and all that dop – cane spirits – in the Club and Moth Hall!! Each old toppie I see – and my work consists of seeing old toppies! – has a theory of why he has lived so long but I can tell you right now there’s one main factor: LUCK. For every “formula” they have for their longevity I know someone who did just that but died young. About the dop my old man used to say, “Ah, but remember he drank cane and WATER. It was the mixers other ous drank that stuffed them up (!!)”. That was his theory and you can say what you like, he’s sticking to it! You know you’re not drinking for the taste when your dop is cane and water!
I’d love to see the SWA photos. I didn’t take any. I still have the ossewawiel (axle centre – what’s it called?) that I got there. It had everyone’s names on it, but they’ve faded now as it has spent a few decades outside propping up my offroad trailer’s disselboom.
From HY I can only add Pikkie Loots and Marble Hall’s names. From Kestell I remember ‘Aasvoel’ and ‘Kleine Aischenvogel’. And my name was Steve McQueen thanks to you suggesting it then not using it at the last minute!
I don’t remember a disco but I do recall the beers at Karasburg and the oke storming in to ask Waddefokgaanieraan? Wie’s Julle? Waar’s Julle Onderwyser? Also the springbokke caught in the fence and the shout Ek Debs Die Balsak! from a savvy farm kid. I’d never heard of turning a balsak into an ashtray till that day! And the huge bonfire in the riverbed and sleeping out in the open and shifting closer to the embers as the fire died down. COLD nights! Also slept on the ground outside Etosha gates.
I’ll have to cc Pierre & Tuffy on this one!
I don’t recall cowboys & crooks and 303’s.
I got one letter from Fluffy in 1973 while I was in Oklahoma: Something along the lines of ‘Horrible inflation’ – it was the time of the fuel crisis – ‘a pint of milk has gone up to 6c a litre, and SCOPE magazine is now 20c!!’ Well, we were to learn a lot more about inflation and our Rand’s depreciation in the decades that followed!
Here’s Dr. Frank Reitz’s car OHS 71 on the banks of the Tugela River on The Bend, his farm outside Bergville. Pretty sure this is the car in the 42nd Hill soapbox derby picture.
Fluffy Crawley and I probably met at the Methodist Church Sunday School as toddlers, making us fellow-Methylated Spirits. We definitely both went to Kathy Putterill’s pre-school and then from Sub A to matric in school and Sunday school together. A fine human being.
kaalvoet – barefoot
hoeds – hats
the moer in – not happy
Voortrekkers – youth group for volk and fatherland – somewhat like Scouts, but less knots and more nots
That’s what Jacques de Rauville told my business partner when he heard I was going to do the 1983 Berg River Canoe Marathon. He had come across me one evening on the Bay and I’d asked which way to go, it being my first time out there and the lights and the reflections were confusing. “Follow me” said Jacques, and off he went, but within 50m I was 49m behind him. He waited and told me “Left at the third green buoy” or whatever he said. When he passed me again on his way back and I obviously hadn’t made enough headway, he thought whatever he thought that made him tell his optometrist Mike Lello “tell Pete Swanie not to attempt the Berg.”
Jacques was right, but luckily for me friend and all-round good bugger Chris Logan got hold of me and took me for a marathon training session on the ‘Toti lagoon one day which got my mind around sitting on a hard seat for hours on end, numbing both my bum and my brain. Chris was a great taskmaster. We stopped only once – for lunch (chocolate and a coke, it was early Noakes, not Banting Noakes). He sacrificed a day of his training intensity to stay with and encourage this mud-paddler. Before Chris, my training method entailed using the first half of a race for training, then hanging on grimly for the second half, till the finish. Between races, I would focus on recovery, mainly using the tried-and-tested cold beer and couch methodology.
We set off for Cape Town in my white 2,0l GL Cortina, me and Bernie Garcin the paddlers and sister Sheila and mom Mary to drive the car while we paddled.
The night before the first day of the race in Paarl, the race organisers pointed out a shed where we could sleep. Cold hard concrete floor. Winter in the Cape. Luckily I had brought along a brand-new inflatable mattress and an electric tyre pump that plugged into my white 2,0l GL Cortina’s cigarette lighter socket. So I plugged in and went for a beers.
*BANG* I heard in the background as we stood around talking shit and comparing paddling styles and training methods. I wondered vaguely what that was. The bang, as well as ‘training methods.’ A few more beers later we retired to sleep and I thought “So that’s what that bang was” – a huge rip in my now-useless brand-new no-longer-inflatable mattress, and the little pump still purring and pumping air uselessly into the atmosphere. So I slept on the concrete, good practice for a chill that was going to enter my bones and then my marrow over the next four days.
The first day was long, cold, windy and miserable, but the second day on the ’83 Berg made it seem like a balmy breeze. That second day was one of the longest days of my life! As the vrou cries it was the shortest day – those Cape nutters call 49km a short day – but a howling gale and horizontal freezing rain driving right into your teeth made it last forever. Icy waves continuously sloshing over the cockpit rim onto your splashcover. It was the day Gerrie died – Gerrie Rossouw, the first paddler ever to drown on an official race day. I saw him, right near the back of the field where I was and looking even colder than me. He wasn’t wearing a life jacket. It wasn’t macho to wear a life jacket and I admit that I wore my T-shirt over mine to make it less conspicuous and I told myself I was wearing it mainly as a windbreaker. Fools that we were. Kids: Never paddle without a life jacket.
Later in amongst a grove of flooded trees I saw Gerrie’s boat nose-down with the rudder waving in the wind, caught in the underwater branches, and I wondered where he was, as both banks were far away and not easy to reach being tree-lined and the trees underwater. Very worrying, but no way I could do anything heroic in that freezing strong current. I needed to stay afloat, so I paddled on to hear that night that he was missing. His body was only found two days later.
That night a bunch of paddlers pulled out. Fuck this, they said with infinite good sense. Standing in the rain with water pouring down his impressive moustache my mate Greg Jamfomf Bennett made a pact with the elements: He would paddle the next day IF – and only if – the day dawned bright, sunny and windless. He was actually saying Fuck this I’m going home to Durban where ‘winter’ is just an amusing joke, not a serious thing like it is here. He and Allie were then rescued and taken out of the rain to a farmer’s luxury home where about six of them were each given their own room and bathroom! Bloody unfair luxury! This then gave them an advantage and allowed them to narrowly beat me in the race! By just a few hours.
After devouring a whole chicken each, washed down with KWV wine and sherry supplied by the sponsors, us poor nogschleppers climbed up into the loft on the riverbank and slept on the hard floor. Here I have to confess Greyling Viljoen also slept in the loft and he won the race – which weakens my tale of hardship somewhat.
We braced ourselves for the third – and longest – day . . . which turned into the easiest day as the wind had died and the sun shone brightly on us. ‘The clouds dissolved and the sky turned blue’ – making for a really pleasant day which seemed half as long under blue skies – even though it was 70km compared to that LO-ONG 49km second day. Before the start Capies were seen writhing on the ground, gasping, unable to breathe. They usually breathe by simply facing into the wind and don’t have diaphragm muscles. So a windless day is an unknown phenomenon to those weirdos. At the start, about ten Kingfisher paddlers bunched together in our black T-shirts: Allie Peter, Jacques de Rauville, Herve de Rauville, Bernie Garcin, Dave Gillmer, who else? Greg Bennett was also there, to his own amazement. I hopped on to their wave and within 50m I was 49m behind. I watched the flock of black T-shirts disappear into the distance. I was used to that.
By the fourth day I was getting fit. I was building up a head of steam and could have become a threat to the leaders. Or at least to the black T-shirt armada. I could now paddle for quite a while without resting on my paddle and admiring the scenery. I paddled with – OK, behind, on her wave – a lady paddler for a while, focused for once. Busting for a leak, I didn’t want to lose the tug, so eventually let go and relieved myself in my boat. Aah! Bliss! But never again! I had to stop to empty the boat before the finish anyway (the smell! Must be the KWV sherry), so no point in not stopping to have a leak. I caught up to her again and finished with her, as can be seen in the pic.
Not that there will be a next time! Charlie’s Rule of Certifiability states quite clearly “Doing the Berg More Than Once Is Certifiable.” And while Charles Mason may have done fifty Umkos he has done only one Berg. Being a lot more sensible, I have done only one of each.
Greyling Viljoen won the race in 16hrs 7mins; I took 24hrs 24mins and probably 24 seconds; 225 maniacs finished the race; I was cold deep into my spinal bone marrow.
The freezing finish at Velddrif at last!
The Velddrift Hotel bed that night was bliss with all my clothes on and the bedclothes from both beds piled on top of me. In Cape Town the next day I bought clothes I couldn’t wear again until I went skiing in Austria years later. Brrrr!! Yussis! Nooit! The Berg joins quite high up on my list of ‘Stupid Things I’ve Done’. Top of which is the Comrades Marathon as it’s the only ‘Stupid Thing I’ve Done and Not Even Finished.’
Some interesting stats and numbers for the Berg River Canoe Marathon
241km from Paarl to Velddrif. Four days of approx 62, 46, 74 and 60km. 46 300 – The estimated number of paddle strokes required to complete the Berg
I thought ours was a really high-water Berg. At 19cumecs it was the 7th highest of the 21 Bergs up to then. But since then the river has often been higher and 1983 is now only the 21st highest of 55 races. The very first race in 1962 was a staggering 342 cumecs! Liewe bliksem! The lowest in 1978 was a mere 1.44 cumecs. You could almost say fokol.
Only twice – in 1965 and 1967 – was the overall winning time more than 21 hours (I took 24hrs, but its OK, I didn’t win). The fastest overall time: 13hrs 20mins. Giel doesn’t make mistakes, so I must have the 1983 time wrong.
Five paddlers have completed 40 or more Bergs. Giel van Deventer – Berg Historian, who compiled these facts – has finished the race 45 times! In the book on the Umko canoe marathon I wrote in a draft which I sent to him “the Berg, over 200km long” and he hastened to write to me saying “Pete, it’s 241km long, don’t get it wrong.” I changed it to 241km. (note: Giel went on to do 50 Bergs, then sadly drowned in the Breede river race).
One of the toughest years was 1971. Only 49% of starters finished – the lowest percentage so far. The oldest finisher of the Berg, Jannie Malherbe was 74 when he did that crazy thing in 2014. He made our Ian Myers in 1983 seem like a spring chicken.
1 401 – The number of paddlers who have completed one Berg only. Us sensible ous. 2 939 – The number of paddlers who came back for at least one more – maniacs!
Andy Birkett won the Berg in 2016. He makes no bones about the fact that the grueling race takes its toll, even on well conditioned paddlers. “Flip, it was tough!” he recalls. “It was cold, putting on beanies and two or three hallies and long pants when you are busy paddling. But that is all part of it.” He speaks of how one needs to discreetly tuck in behind the experienced local elite racers, particularly on the earlier sections of the course where local knowledge through the tree blocks and small channels is important.
Photo albums are history, so here’s a digital copy of my now discarded hard copy. Thanks to sister Sheila for the pics.