I have written about our lonely little, short-lived Boy Scout troop in the vrystaat and how wonderful it was, how much we learned and how much fun we had, but as I find more and more material in my Big Garage Cleanup, here’s the thing that strikes me most: How incredibly dedicated our troop leaders were and how selflessly they gave of their time and resources. Take this one incident, a memorable hike to test our map-reading and navigating skills:
Father Sam van Muschenbroek was the Scout leader (what’s that called?) and we met at his house at 6:30 on a Friday evening, got into his car and he drove us off. He stopped for petrol and while his car was being filled he blindfolded us – me and Greg Seibert, Rotary exchange student and American Boy Scout, as we were not to know where our hike started, nor did we know the end-point yet. All of that we were to work out from maps and compass readings.
Greg wrote: ‘We were hopelessly lost after a few tricky turns by Father Sam. After a bit of rough and out-of-the-way driving, we arrived’ at our campsite at 7:50pm. We cooked for Father Sam, his son Sam and ourselves and finished eating (spaghetti followed by a can of pears) at 9:35pm, wherupon the Sams drove off without lights (‘tricky, tricky’ wrote Greg).
All this in his own time and on – I would guess – not a huge salary as a rooinek dominee of a tiny little Anglican parish in a vrystaat dorp! I salute people like Father Sam, Dick Clarke and Charlie Ryder! They enriched and enhanced our growing up in Harrismith, going out of their way to ensure we had adventures and fun and did good stuff. Many, many men, far richer and much more influential than these three did WAY less for the kids in their town.
Oh: So what happened?
The next morning we rose at 6:20am – Greg sure watched the clock, he even said we fell asleep at 10:45pm the night before! – he took a picture of this sunrise on Saturday 29 April 1972, and I made a fire and attempted and failed to bake some bread over the coals. Then at 7:20am PAUL GOT UP! Who the hell was Paul?
We ate coffee, dried fruit, biltong and biscuits. The wind was whistling, and it musta blown page 3 away, so on page 4 the weather was still cold but warming. Still very windy from the WNW. At point C on the map we were obviously following ‘we were only 25 yards off of our calculations!’ We calculated and read the compass and left for point D at 10:15am.
Point E at 11:30am after detouring around a vlei and throwing my pack across a stream (!). Point F was some half-dead trees and some ruins and we rested there for ten minutes to 12:20pm.
Point G was a willow tree, a stone pillar and a little dam. We found it after a longish detour to find a place where we could cross the stream which was 4ft deep and 20ft wide. There we had lunch and a rest till 1:30pm. No mention of what we had for lunch but my guess would be coffee, dried fruit, biltong and biscuits. We ate in the shade while the mysterious Paul slept in the sun. Point H was an empty house and barn down a farm road. After a tricky crossing of a stream we were looking for a windmill. A glint of sun reflected off it revealed it and we headed up a rough hill, stopping halfway up for a rest and a drink. We reached the windmill, point I at 4:15pm and ate an apple.
When we weren’t sure of our position, we would seat Paul under a tree and Greg and I would go and check and then come back, so the mystery Paul wouldn’t get too tired, I suppose?
We were now headed for a Mr Blom’s farm. On the way we got our first glimpse of Platberg in the distance, so that was heartening. We reached Mr Blom’s house at 4:45pm and he invited us in for tea! We chatted till ‘about 5:30pm’ – HA! Greg was less accurate over tea! – when it started to rain.
We moved to camp, Mr Blom having kindly given us milk, apples, grapes and water! We cooked and ate supper at 9:30pm – spaghetti! But also beef stroganoff and oxtail soup. Paul went to sleep at 9pm! So, hike scribe Greg notes, ‘Pete and I gorged ourselves on the beef strog.’
‘We finally climbed in at 9:45pm. We we asleep ‘
It ends like that.
Greg called the adventure Operation Headache – and it occurs to me: Father Sam must have spent hours beforehand setting up the course! Taking compass readings, probably meeting Mnr Blom and getting his co-operation, probably other farmers whose land we crossed, too. What an absolute star! We loved those three days and spoke about the hike in years – decades – to follow.
As proof that We Wuz There, we got Mr Blom’s signature:
Greg’s notes in his unmistakable spidery handwriting:
. . . and I found half of page 3: It said we stopped at a spring and drank. We saw ‘several freshwater crabs, insect larvae and a frog.’
A map I drew of our first campsite:
Accuracy check: What does a satellite pic of the area look like fifty years later? Hmmm . . . good thing I wrote ‘approx’ where I pointed NORTH! And that wind was SW wasn’t it?
Here’s another map, another hike. Maybe my 50 miler hike near Normandien Pass.
Drawings on a hike – in the Drakensberg on the Vrystaat / Natal border again – our usual place; may be same hike, I don’t know:
Greg Seibert arrived in Harrismith from Ohio in 1972 as a Rotary exchange student.
In 2014 he was sending sister Sheila some of his pictures from those wayback days. He wrote: Here is one I’m sure you will like. It is one of the very first pics that I took in Harrismith, probably the day after I got there. You or Koos took me down to the field hockey field. I remember people saying it was by the subway. Boy was I impressed! The only subways that I knew were the underground trains in London and New York! Imagine little Harrismith being so advanced as to having one of those!
Well…I was a bit disappointed…lol!
The feature pic and this pic are not the Harrismth subway, but do give an idea of what it looks like. I’m looking for some actual pics of our illustrious subway.
Greg came to Harrismith from Ohio in 1972. We lost touch, then thanks to Sheila, picked up as though no time had passed! Greg was helping Sheila research ancient family history and was also sending lovely pics of his schooldays in Harrismith. We were so looking forward to seeing more of them. And of him.
He planned to visit once when his brother Jeff came to South Africa to do some work for General motors. He didn’t, so Jeff and I went to Hluhluwe without him!
He was planning to come and visit and, among other places, go back to the de Witt’s game farm near Tshipise – near the Tropic of Capricorn – with Steph.
Then Steph died. So he didn’t. But he was going to! He was going to come and visit us. We were going to see Greg again.
Now he’s gone, suddenly, out of the blue.
R.I.P Greg! Dammit!! What a blow! What a loss!
Wonderful memories of walking down Normandien pass in the Drakensberg with Greg, just me and him along lonely dirt roads and railway tracks, through these tunnels and ending up near Van Reenen – at Moorddraai where we were fetched – I think by Father Sam van Muschenbroek? I had to keep asking Greg to slow down! He was a fast walker and I was in no hurry!
The top pic is one Greg took in our physics class back in 1972.
Greg’s last message on 28 April 2016:
On Apr 28, 2016, Sheila had written:
Gregor! Where the hell have you been? Are you okay?
You just dried up and went away! A bit like our money is doing right now! All’s well here – am having fun putting old pics on FB – am loving the responses. I hope you’re okay.
Lots of love, Sheila
Greg replied same day:
I'm doing just fine. Been a bit of work finishing up the estates of mom and dad. Was quite ready for mom to go, but dad went kinda suddenly.
Such is life. What brought about this great burst of picture activity?
I'll have to get back to posting more of mine again.
My brother is probably going back to Port Elizabeth later this year.
I might try to come with him this time since my last trip got all messed up.
Glad you are doing well!
Sent from my iPad
So Greg's poor kids lost their Grandma, their Granpa and their Dad in quick succession!
Greg's brother Jeff did come to SA in 2014. I took him to Hluhluwe game reserve. Greg did not accompany him. He should have. He never did make it back to SA to visit. Damn!
Was I “sent to” leadership school? I don’t think so, but I just thought of that. Hmm . . .
Veld & Vlei at Greystone on the banks of Wagendrift Dam in the July holidays of 1972, my matric – or ‘senior’ – year of high school. It was a ‘Leadership School’ – ‘a physical and mental challenge,’ they said. Harrismith Rotary Club decided to send me there. Younger sister Sheila’s diary tells me I was taken there on Friday 30 June 1972 by family friend Dick Venning, Durban anaesthetist turned Harrismith character and pig farmer.
Memories of a busy first week: The tough obstacle course – carry that 44-gal drum over the wall without letting it touch the wall! Other obstacles, including tight underground tunnels. And HURRY!
Chilly winter nights in these old canvas bell tents – we slept like logs. Cross-country runs; PT by military instructors. What’s with this love for things military? Brief naked immersion swims in the frigid water of the dam every morning after a 2,5km run; The lazy bliss of sailing an ‘Enterprise’ dinghy out of reach of anything strenuous!
Then the second week: Being chosen as patrol leader of Uys Patrol; A preparatory two-day hike in the area. One of our patrol was a chubby, whiny lad, so we spent some effort nursing him home. He was worth it: good sense of humour! Poor bugger’s thighs rubbed red and sore on the walk!
I had no camera, no photos, the only record I still have of the course is my vivid memories – and the blue felt badge they gave us on completion.
But then I found a website – www.hofland.co.uk – by someone who had been on the same 1972 winter course as me – Willem Hofland from the Natal South Coast, now in England or Holland, I forget which. He had these black & white pics which I am very grateful to be able to use! He also has his course report and certificate. I wonder what they said on them, as our course was cut short. His images are very blurry but you can read the word PASS – so they must have decided we’d done enough to get certificates? I now only have the felt badge.
Then the climax, the big challenge: The course-ending six-day hike! We drove by bus to the magic Giants Castle region in the Drakensberg.
We set off with our laden rucksacks down the valley, up the other side towards the snow-topped peaks, heading for Langalabilele Pass and the High ‘Berg. We had walked about 5km when a faint shout sounded and continued non-stop until we stopped and searched for the source.
It was an instructor chasing after us and telling us to “Turn around, abort the hike, return to Greystones! Walk SLOWLY!” Someone had come down with meningitis and the whole course was ending early! Sheila’s diary records my folks were phoned on 12 July and asked to fetch me. We were given big white pills to swallow and sent home with strict instructions to take it easy: No physical exercise.
But . . our rucksacks were packed . . and our wanderlust aroused, so I’m afraid I headed straight off to Mt aux Sources soon after getting home. Up the chain ladder onto the escarpment and on to the lip of the Tugela Falls, sleeping outside the mountain hut. I think Rotary exchange student Greg Seibert from Ohio accompanied me. I forget who else.
That’s what I remembered. Today, however, 48yrs later, Sheila has given me the letters I wrote home, so I also know this: So much for vivid memories!
My first letter was two days into the course and the main concern was ‘PLEEZ send my rucksack! The rucksack I have been issued with is absolutely messed up!’ I was fit, as shown by my maximums. I had done 63 step-ups with weights. The camp record was 64. ‘The assault course instructor is a sadist.’ Please send the rucksack! They have arranged for parcel deliveries.
Mom’s letter back said she had sent the rucksack – and ‘look inside.’ When it arrived, Wow! Sweets and dried fruit! Moms are great! Thanks, Ma!
The next letter was Monday 3rd July 1972 – Early morning run and naked dip in the dam; sailing and canoeing. Our patrol won both canoe races (‘natch!’ I wrote, being very keen on canoeing at the time) and we won Best Patrol of the Day. ‘Today Monday was much tougher: The assault course consists of eleven obstacles and we only completed five! Only one of the six patrols completed the course. They took one hour and seventeen minutes. The course record is twelve minutes and fifty seconds! PT was based on maximums. My first round took 10 mins 42 seconds, then a run. I did the second round in 10 mins dead. Dead’s the word! I met Stephen Middlemost. A good chap.’
The last letter was on day 9: Our first free morning. On day 7 they had given us twenty minutes to get ready and leave on a two day expedition. Find your way by map to various waypoints. There was ‘not much discipline’ in our patrol,according to poor little ole me: ‘Leaders had been chosen who were not leaders’ (according to yours truly!) and not much hard hiking was done. I saw we were way behind schedule so ‘I tried to push them, but they just got mad and rested often and long.’ I did all the map and compass work and ‘they would argue like mad as to our direction without ever looking at the map!’ By nightfall we were about halfway to our intended destination. We camped and ‘the boys just wanted to turn around and go back. I refused and eventually they agreed to try and finish the course! In the morning we only set off at 9am! I worked out shortcuts for them while one of the guys and I walked to the beacons and took bearings; we would then catch up to them again. We walked along to ‘a chorus of moaning and swearing, mainly at me for ‘rushing them.’ Anyway, eventually we crossed the Bushmans River in the dark and arrived back at camp at 7.30pm. At least we did finish the course! And luckily there was a good supper waiting.’
On the evening of that ninth day we chose patrol leaders; seventy two boys, six patrols; I was chosen to lead Uys Patrol. ‘My deputy is Reg Wilkins, a very good chap: funny, determined, stubborn, etc. but we’ll go great. Our quartermaster is Neville Slade, also a great guy, very conscientious.’
Our full patrol is Eric Cohen, Arthur Lees-Rolfe, John Peterson, Nev Slade, Clyde Nunn, Reg Wilkins, Rusty du Plessis, Bud Marouchos, and me. We lost Rob Hohls abseiling when a big rock fell on his head.
In a letter home: I lost or mislaid my boots; I should find them. Cuthberts made a lousy job of fixing them. R3!! On the first hike I lost half of both heels; on the two-day expedition the other halves came off and the whole sole is coming off, starting at the toe.’
I was so looking forward to the high ‘Berg hike. That was MY territory! None of these city slickers, beach bums and polo-crosse players knew the high ‘Berg and I did. But it was not to be . .
More odds and sods I found, scanned and tossed. Warning: Boring! – only those who were there will be interested:
July 2020 – Found a diary I kept on the course.
Later that year I got a hilarious raunchy letter from my cool-dude side-kick Nev Slade:
Excerpts: He moans about swotting for matric; He says ‘now listen you Free State Fuckup’ (‘that’s the best I have thought up for a long time’) and invites me to a post-matric party – a good thrash! He reports getting as ‘canned as a coot’ at a disco; he says he’ll set me up with a sexy partner; threatens, if I don’t pitch at his thrash, to come to the Free State and castrate you myself!
Signs himself off: ‘Great Poet and the man who lived through Veld & Vlei’ – Nev Slade, Bridgewood, Dargle Rail
Ah, a mystery solved: We did NOT get completion certificates.
So Hofland could not have been on the July 1972 course, I guess. Still, thanks for the photos, Willem! ( I see his course certificate says G14, so he was winter 1973).
I gave a talk to Harrismith Rotary club afterwards, telling them all about it, expressing my disappointment on not doing the high Berg hike; and thanking them for sponsoring me on this lovely adventure.
Another postscript: I now know, from another hilarious and rude letter from Nev Slade, something about our hike up Mt aux Sources. Nev had been to a polocrosse tournament in Greytown where he almost broke his arm due to rough treatment from Transvalers who were “the dirtiest, wildest pigs you’ve ever come across,” – in fact they were “just like Freestaters in the wild Swanepoel tradition.” He couldn’t think of a worse insult! What a lekker oke! Anyway, obviously replying to my letter he says “Wow, you’re lucky to have seen a lammergeier so close up! Lend me some of your luck sometime won’t you?”
I hope Slade has become a preacher and stumbles across this and blushes when he reads how cruelly he treated his good mate, me!
A letter! Sheila found a letter written to me by Mom while I was on camp. She filled me in on happenings in the metropolis of Harrismith in my absence:
1. Two heart attacks – Jonathan McCloy’s Dad and Ds Ras. Lulu was at home with her Dad, but De Wet was away playing Craven Week rugby. He hastened home; Dominee in hospital under heavy sedation.
2. When Eastern Free State won a game at Craven Week rugby, our captain Rudolph Gabba Coetzee had to speak on the radio! Big news for one who did not do much public speaking! (Joan du Plessis coined that affliction ‘verbal constipation’ – opposite of verbal diarrhoea).
3. I had an interview straight after my course in Estcourt to apply for a Rotary Exchange Student posting. It was also at Greystone near Estcourt, so Mom said I should stay with my cousin Marlene – ‘and try and get a haircut in Estcourt before the interview’ – Yeah, like that was going to happen!! A voluntary haircut in matric!
4. They had stayed at a caravan park with Sheila. It was lousy, no lights, no hot water and a long list of other things wrong.
And now lastly: When she was about to send me the rucksack I had requested, Mom bumped into her friend and Harrismith character Harriet vd Merwe. She told Harriett she was urgently sending me a rucksack. Harriet looked into it and exclaimed, No Mary! You can’t send it empty! Put some goodies in it! So Mom included the sweets and dried fruit that were such a hit when they arrived in camp! Thank you Harriet!