Hey JP – I saw Mother Mary Methodist on Sunday (it’s her 91st today) and she told me this: Verster de Witt was the captain of the rugby team and he was her boyfriend! First time I heard that.
She has lots of memory lapses – yesterday things – and then lots of clear flashbacks of olden daze things. Sien vir jou – Koos
Jean-Prieur du Plessis replied from Texas:
Aaaawh! Happy Birthday Aunty Mary. I bet Mona will be able to second/confirm that! I remember she was really good at who dated who in the past in Harrismith. I asked her once: Ma, hoekom hou jy nie van Tannie Havenga nie (I forgot her first name…from the bookstore**). She answered: Want sy was jou pa se girlfriend in matriek! 😀
Thanks for always keeping in touch! Lekker bly. Cheers
** Marie Lotter – was Marie de Beer
Top pic: May and Polly ca.1945 – their matric year
maybe add this to the ‘Harrismith’s automotive designer’ post
Pikkie Loots’ grandad’s ‘lovely old blue Desoto Suburban – probably late 1940s model – OHS 555 (remember the State Express 555 cigarettes)’
Pikkie also added: What about the Herringtons, Charlie and George? They had a few cars between them. At least one Karmann Ghia if I remember. At van Niekerk (Dries’ brother) – a Porsche. Ronnie (Hector) Pienaar’s Alpha Romeo. Abel Caixinha’s uncle’s beige station wagon. Hoender’s (Gerrit – Ritger? – Kock) Volvo B16?
Annie Bland – beige Chevrolet Fleetline 1948 OHS 974
Joan & Vera Simpson – grey Morris Minor pickup, milk cans on the back
McDonald & Friday – British racing green 1938 Buick Roadster coupe. See the feature pic above
Charlie Crawley & Michael Hasting’s ‘s flatbed truck – dark green, wooden bed Chev (1934 – 35 according to Dad);
JN de Witt – big black (de Soto?)
Alet de Witt – VW Karmann Ghia
Max Ntshingila (Max Express bus fleet owner) – gold Chev Biscayne
Hec & Stel Fyvie – a white Pontiac Parisienne and a lang slap off-white Merc 220S that Tabs drove; Tabs’ red Datsun 1600 (was it a SSS?) with the round rear lights that the girls at NTC in PMB called a Ferrari; Then Tabs had a green Datsun 1800 SSS which Geoff Leslie called his ‘Triple Ess Ess Ess’
Patrick Shannon – Chevrolet El Camino pickup (I saw him using it as a pick-up, too!)
Other farmers’ cars: I remember Bertie van Niekerk getting out of a huge car wearing a huge hat, but details are missing. Someone will know; I also have a mental picture of him wearing a huge hat sitting astride a horse and looking down at the admiring throng . . by die skou, I suppose. I remember Chev Kommandos, one driven by an Odendaal, one by Hertzog van Wyk
Ronnie van Tubergh – Ford Ranchero pickup
Piet Steyn – grey Borgward
Gretel Reitz – black VW Karmann Ghia; Dr Frank Reitz – big old black Chev OHS 71
Dad Swanepoel – beige Morris Isis OHS 154 – dark blue VW Kombi OHS 153 – light blue Holden station wagon – white Holden station wagon – white V8 Ford Econoline, all OHS 154
Mary Swanepoel – green & black Ford Prefect – light blue VW 1200 Beetle OHS 155
Jannie du Plessis – green Datsun 300C
Jess Hansen – Hino pickup, grey, I seem to remember;
Charles Ryder – lime green Volvo 122S
Teachers’ cars: Bruce Humphries – new white Ford Cortina; Giel du Toit – old black Mercedes 190; Ben Marais – blue VW beetle; Ou Rot Malherbe – little green Fiat 500; Ou Eier Meyer – something with wings; Daan Smuts – white VW beetle;
Cappie Joubert – green Ford Zephyr 6; gold ‘stompgat’ Zephyr 6
I saw Mr Thandinkosi Ntshingila for an eye test recently. He was born in 1940. I told him I knew a Mr Max Ntshingila in Harrismith many moons ago, who owned a fleet of buses.
He said “Hayibo! That’s my Dad!!”
He grew up in Harrismith! Strictly speaking Max was his uncle, but his Dad died when he was very young and his uncle Max took him in and raised him as his own in Phomolong.
He told me that besides the buses – remember “Max Express” buses? yellow and green, I seem to remember – Max owned two shops, plus a petrol station in Swaziland.
Max died in 1978 aged 60 (so the news cuttings below are ca.1971). His empire collapsed when he died, as his kids “were spoilt” and “none of them could manage anything”, according to Thandinkosi.
Max sent Thandinkosi to college and he ended up in Durban working for Engen or Sapref or one of those fuel refinery places. Retired now, he plays the horses for fun and I see him at the tote on the roof of our centre occasionally.
I had wondered vaguely all these years about something, and I never expected to get the answer. But Thandinkosi had the answer for me: That cream coloured yank tank Max drove was a 1963 Chev Biscayne.
Thandinkosi still goes to Harrismith regularly to look after the house in Phomolong where he was raised. One of his nieces lives in it.
Leon Strachan sent me some pictures and newspaper cuttings. Note how Dr Frank Mdlalose, who we only got to know of post-1994, when he became KwaZulu Natal’s first Premier, was a house guest of the Ntshingila’s in Harrismith.
Update: Today – 12 December 2019 – I saw Mr Thandinkosi Ntshingila again. I phoned him to come in so I could give him copies of these pictures. He’ll be 80 next year. I hoped he was one of the kids in the photo, but he wasn’t. Not one of the people in the photo are still alive, he tells me. They all died quite young. He’s the only survivor of that household. He was chuffed and moved to receive these mementos, and says he’s going to frame the family photo!
Dr Frank Mdlalose died in March 2021 of COVID-19. His wikipedia entry tells a lovely story: Representing the students at the segregated medical school in Durban, established by Jan Smuts for Black and Indian students, he attended the only conference of the Association of Medical Students of South Africa attended by students from one of the Afrikaans-medium medical schools. They had hitherto refused to attend if Black students were present. One of the Afrikaner students said, as the conference finished, “I thank the Chair for having organised this conference. This is the first time I have met a black man with an intelligence equal to, or superior to, my own.” To which Frank responded, “I, too, thank the Chair for having organised this conference. This is the first time I have met an Afrikaner with an intelligence equal to, or superior to, my own.”
OK, not really; more a reverie on drink – a nostalgic lookback on a bottle store. Platberg Bottle Store / Drankwinkel in Harrismith, the Vrystaat. The Swanepoel family business. We all worked here at times.
We were talking about the trinkets, decor and marketing stuff. Like those big blow-up bottles hanging from the ceiling. Turns out big sister Barbara kept some of them from way back when:
Younger sister Sheila has some whisky jugs; and I had found an old familiar brandy-making figure online:
This is where they were displayed, along with the statues of Johnny Walker whisky, Dewars White Label whisky’s Scottish soldier ‘drum major’, Black & White whisky with their two Scotty dogs, Beefeater Gin’s ‘beefeater’, etc. Spot them below:
Way back in 1922 a Pom army major sat in the gentleman’s club in Harrismith and spoke condescendingly about our mountain, Platberg, as “that little hill”. What was ‘e on about? It rises 7800 ft above sea level and he was from a tiny chilly island whose ‘ighest point is a mere 3209 ft above sea level! Being a Pom he was no doubt gin-fuelled at the time. Anyway, this ended up in a challenge to see if he could reach the top in under an hour, which led to me having to run up it years later. Because it’s there, see.
I had often run the short cross-country course and twice the longer course, which followed the mountain race route except for the actual, y’know, ‘mountain’ part. I had also often climbed the mountain, but strolling and packing lunch. When I finally decided I really needed to cross the actual mountain race proper off my list of “should do’s” I was larger, slower and should have been wiser.
Here’s some 8mm cine camera footage taken by Dad Pieter Swanepoel of Platberg Bottle Store of the start and finish in front of the Post Office – 1960’s I guess:
The race used to be from town to the top of the mountain, along the top for a mile or so and back down. Sensible. That’s how I ran it in 1979. The medal then had a handy bottle opener attached!
I recently found some old papers which told me I once ran the race in 79 mins and in 85 minutes another year.
We also walked the race for fun a couple times:
The 12km distance was enough. But no, some fools decided that wasn’t long enough! Apparently a cross-country route needed to be 15km to be “official”, so they added three kilometres of perfectly senseless meanderings around the streets of our dorp causing fatigue before I even started the climb when I ran with Jon and Dizzi Taylor one year.
Oh by the way, Major Belcher did get to the top in under an hour, winning the bet.
Some history from friend Ettienne Joubert, who has also trotted the course:
The Harrismith Mountain Race held annually since 1922, was described as the ‘toughest in the world’ by Wally Hayward, who won five Comrades marathons, the London to Brighton Marathon and the Bath to London 100-miler! (I once spent a wonderful day with Wally).
It originated when, in 1922, a British soldier, Maj A E Belcher, returned to Harrismith where he had been stationed near 42nd Hill during the war. He was referring to Platberg as ‘that small hill of yours’, one Friday evening [lots of silly things are done on Friday evenings] and one of the locals (a certain Van Reenen – or maybe the chemist Scruby) immediately bet him that he could not reach the top (591 metres – just under 2000ft – above the town) in less than an hour.
The major accepted the challenge and set off from the corner of Stuart & Bester streets outside the old Harrismith Club near where the Athertons ran The Harrismith Chronicle the very next day. He reached the summit with eight minutes to spare.
During a later visit to the town, Major Belcher (now a schoolteacher in Dundee, Natal) found out that his record still stood so he took it upon himself to donate a trophy to the Harrismith Club to be awarded to the first club member to break his record to the top. In 1929 the Club management, as the organizers of the race, decided to open the race up to the residents of Harrismith and a Mr Swanepoel won the race to the top of the mountain in 32 minutes. (The last record time I have is 22 minutes and 9 seconds – from town to the top of the mountain! Amazingly quick).
The race route has changed over time – starting in Piet Retief Street outside the post office and police station for some years. Nowadays it starts at the town’s sports grounds, passing the jail, then through the terrain where the concentration camp (second site) once stood, up the steep slopes of Platberg to the top via One Man’s Pass, close to where a fort was built during the Anglo-Boer War. After traversing a short distance along the top, the descent is made via Zig-Zag Pass, and the race is completed back at the ‘Groen Pawiljoen’ sports grounds.
Our friends Steph and JP de Witt’s Mom, Alet de Witt became the first lady to complete the race. She ran in the year her husband, JN ‘Koos’ de Witt died tragically suddenly in January 1967. She then donated a trophy for the winner of the newly allowed (!) women’s category, which was awarded for the first time only in 1986.
Later the apartheid ‘whites-only’ ruling was dropped and as soon as McDermott* stopped winning, the race was won by black athletes, including Harrismith locals; starting with Michael Miya who holds the record for the newer, longer 15km course at 1hr 03mins 08secs.
The ole man gave me a knife quite recently. Well, in the last ten years or so. He told a story in a rare letter to his darling son, written on the back of a Maxprop invoice and folded into the special PUMA green and yellow case:
Let me tell you about this knife, he writes. I first saw it in Rosenthals, a big safari shop in Windhoek more than 30 years ago. This on one of his family holidays he took in the family car. Without the family.
When friends of ours, the Maeders, went to Germany on holiday, he asked them to get the knife for him in Austria, where it is made, by one man, whose name appears in the brochure – a small 50-page brochure that comes with each knife.
The letter continues: Anyway, the knife arrives by post in Harrismith. Uproar!! Urgent meeting: Me, the police and the postmaster – in his office. I had imported a dangerous weapon – the blade was more than 4″ long – illegal!
The postmaster unlocks his safe in the presence of all concerned, removes the knife, makes a tracing of the blade. This is to be sent to the SA Police in Pretoria. Meantime, the dangerous weapon goes back into the safe.
I told them not to be bloody silly; I could walk over to the OK Bazaars right now and buy a butchers knife with a 12″ blade!
After all the dust had settled and all charges paid, the knife cost me R64.00
The ‘over the counter’ price at Rosenthals in Windhoek – which he refused to pay, knowing he could save money by ‘getting it direct’ – had been R63.00!
And I’m always trying to get a better price, to save money! Love Dad
As a kid way back in the sixties, I took over my Dad’s much bigger dagger; also with a bone handle. One day the duP’s came to visit and Pierre and I were playing with it, stabbing it into the hard Vrystaat ground on our side lawn on the aviary side of the house. I plunged it down with all my might, not seeing Pierre was still tamping down the ground and lawn from his attempt! I just about cut his finger off! Typically, stoic Pierre said Shh! and kept it quiet, going straight off to show his Ma Joan, who cleaned and bandaged it!
Donald Coleman was my good mate and older mentor and side-kick in Harrismith up to around 1964. He died in a car crash, alone in the car, around 1975. I have no detail of what exactly happened.
In around 2011 or 2012 I found a letter on the floor of my garage at 10 Elston Place.
It was from “your mate Donald” and consisted of one page. Probably page 2 of a 2-page letter, plus a scrap of envelope addressed to: poel rrismith e Free State
A franked 2½c stamp in good condition is still on the scrap of envelope, but the date part of the franking was missing.
I was gobsmacked! HOW did it get here? I have lived a year in Harrismith after it was written, a year in America, four years in Jo’burg, a year in Potchefstroom, years ‘in the wild’ in Durban as a bachelor, then my first own home for fifteen years and NOW, after being in my second home for six years, a letter falls out onto my very untidy garage floor!
I’d love to know how it happened! I suspected it fell out of the old Cape Colony post office stinkwood desk Dad gave me, as I had moved it to give it back to him before it fell to pieces.
The letter, in neat, flowing cursive writing in blue ink, said (I have copied the line breaks as they were on his page):
This is slightly exaggerated but between points
0 and 1 it is 50 miles and between 1 and 2 it is 13 miles and between
3 and 4 it is 14 miles. Even if you go at 10 m.p.h all the
way you will make it in a day. Well don’t take
too much equipment etc because you’ll shit yourselves
coming. Don’t forget to take hats and plenty of patching
equipment. If something goes wrong and you reach
Bergville or Winterton after dark just ‘phone us our
number is Winterton 2412. Well I hope I’ve got everything down here, any-
way I still hope to run the Mountain Race
with you. I’m going to try harder this year. It’s a pity I won’t be seeing you fellows
because I’ve got some jokes to tell you. From your mate Donald
Not a single correction or spelling mistake (oh, one tiny one changing your to you).
So it seems he had sent a map as well as the (presumed) 1st page of the letter. Obviously we were planning to ride our bikes to Winterton!
I gave the page and the half-envelope to Donald’s mother Jean.
I must ask Dad about the old stinkwood desk. Was it a Harrismith find? From when? That could explain how the letter got in there, I spose. A sudden suspicion: Did my folks open it and not pass it on!? Very unlikely.
UPDATE: I searched the old desk again and found the rest of the envelope! It was franked on 30 March 1971. I was in Std 9, and Donald would have completed his time at Estcourt High School.
I asked the old man. He said he had bought the desk at Cannon and Finlay auctioneers in PMB some time well AFTER 1971. So I suppose the letter was put into a ‘new’ desk. Which raises the unlikely ‘they knew about it but chose not to tell me’ possibility again.
So the mystery remains. Well, I am SO glad I found it anyway. And glad I could share it with Donald’s family.
UPDATE 11 July 2020 – Another find! I found ANOTHER 3-page letter from Donald while clearing out old boxes in the garage, something I’ve been meaning to do for ages!
I was gobsmacked. If you’d asked me if I’d ever received a letter from Donald I would said No, I very much doubt it. Here it is:
I immediately started writing to his little boet Eddie, now in Japan, and while writing it the penny dropped: These three pages are from the same letter. This map is the map he refers to in that “one pager” I found eight or nine years ago.
Now I can rest content! I found a treasured memory from my past from a friend who was really really big in my life for the first nine years of my life and I’m glad to find out we kept in touch later on.
If I had ever got their farm, which Donald christened The Craggs, this would have been the view:
Here’s older boet Donald with sister Anne and lil boet Eddie back when they were in Harrismith; and a pic of four of us in Harrismith:
14 July 2020 – And now another letter DOES pop up: Dated 29 November no year, and the envelope franked 30 November 197_ (probly also 1971 – he gives his address as Eastside Hostel again, but says he’ll be going home soon).
Here he says he hasn’t done any running ‘since the mountain race’ – so that means he came to do the Harrismith Mountain race in 1971? I can’t remember that.
I wrote to Sheila Friday, February 01, 2013 Long ago!! What did Jean (Donald’s Mom) say about the letter? Did she recognise Donald’s handwriting?
She replied: Hi Koos
Jean and Anne loved the letter – I could see they wanted the original, so they made me a copy for you and I left the original with them. They recognised the handwriting immediately – said he always had a very neat writing. He died in 1975 and is buried at their Winterton property – I think Ken is buried next to or near him. Love SS
Harrismith History – Free State Fables – Rural Legends . . well told.
Harrismith has had a few published authors over the 171 years of the town’s existence. One day I’ll make a list. The best by far is Leon Strachan – imho of course! I have four of his books and am searching locally for the others.
In 1999 Leon wrote Blafboom, tales of Harrismith characters bravely told even when some may not have wanted them told! Admittedly some are told anonymously, but those in the know would know exactly who he was writing about . . and shudder. Some, I must confess, left me in the dark, but with a burning curiosity: One day I’d love to ply him with whisky – he drinks scotch, as like me, he has Scottish ancestry – and get him to tell me who the culprits, the instigators and the victims were! Known characters include ‘the man who swapped his wife for a bicycle;’ Petronella van Heerden, pioneer, leader, doctor and farmer; Caveman Spies, famous local mischievous strongman; He also tells the story of some Byrne settlers who moved to Harrismith from Natal – a step up.
Blinkoog followed in 2002. My mother Mary Bland grew up on Nuwejaarsvlei on the Nuwejaarspruit. Their neighbours were Badenhorsts on Stratherick, and Odendaals on Sterkfontein and Eskol. She told the story of how freewheeling downhill was known as ‘using Casper’s petrol’ – ‘ons ry nou op Casper se petrol’ she would say, smiling. He was known as Suinige Casper (Frugal Casper Badenhorst would be one way of explaining his nickname). Today the beautiful and precious wetlands and streams and valleys of Nuwejaarsvlei and neighbours are irreplaceably lost, drowned under Sterkfontein dam. Sacrificed to feed the industrial monster of Gauteng / iGoli / Joburg. Dead water waiting to be flushed downstream and then flushed down a toilet, where before an amazing ecosystem existed. You’ll notice I love wetlands . .
Botterbek in 2004 – I’d love to know the true identity (identities?) of ‘Botterbek,’ Leon’s narrator! More whisky! Characters who feature here include the very well known Kethlaan Odendaal, Jan Schambreel and jackal hunter Frans Olivier. Jurie Wessels’ remarkable ‘Harrismith Harem‘ is featured and explained in Strachan’s characteristic way: he seeks to understand the people involved; and while he will tell you the scandal and the rumours, he won’t simply leave accusations hanging without investigating them. And so it turns out the impressive building was really meant to be the most impressive home in the district for his wife. And it would have been had the 1914 rebellion not intervened . .
Bergburgers: his fourth book published in 2017 tells of Platberg, the beloved mountain that looms over the town and is visible for miles around; the book’s title alludes to the fact that the citizens of the town – past and present – all consider Platberg ‘theirs.’ The annual foot race up and down the mountain, started by an insult and a challenge; the geology of the mountain and how it formed over the millennia; Leon corrects the injustice done to the families living in the Lost Valley by telling their real story – a fascinating tale of quietly capable people living their own lives, yet interacting regularly with neighbours and townsfolk, not at all totally isolated; old Professor Bloch the violin teacher who lived down the road from us in Stuart street; old archeological and fossil findings by Arthur Putterill – one of them maybe the same as the one Donald found? and two boats built in our district, far from the coast, that sailed the high seas – one in 1886 to England and one in 1986 to the Caribbean;
Some of his stories are in the fine English he was taught by Mrs Ella Bedford, mother of Springbok rugby captain Tommy Bedford, but for most of them you have to be able to read Afrikaans.
I know of three heftier tomes he has written:
Leon’s Grandad’s Story
Probably all in suiwer Engels, Son of England, Man of Africa (2009) is the story of a Harrismithian who led the South African chapter of The Sons of England – Leon Strachan’s grandfather Charles Davie. Leon tells the little-known inside story of a secretive organisation for the first time. He then takes a look at other similar societies which took a leaf out of the SOE book. The SOE’s aim of uniting men who were loyal to England and wanted to remain ‘English,’ – sometimes more ‘English’ than their fellow countrymen ‘back home!’ – was based on the Freemasons; SOE was more influenced by the ‘correct’ political and religious powers of the day; plus they were more into charity work. The Afrikaner Broederbond, the Hebrew Order of David and the Caledonians based their organisations to some extent on the principles of the SOE. Ah, well, nothing exceeds like success . . and there was a time when little ‘England’ was the centre of the known Universe. Leon and I both had grandparents who lived secure in that knowledge!
Then Matters Military:
Krygers en Skietpiete (2011): The 150 year history of the Harrismith Kommando, excluding the Boer War, which tale is told in his next volume. From Thabo Bosigo, through the ‘skietpiet’ period; to duty on South Africa’s borders; to deployment against fellow-citizens (though this was denied – ‘they’ were not citizens of South Africa, remember?!) in South Africa’s ‘townships’ – towns in which indigenous African people had to live by law. Leaders and interesting characters; the influence of political developments; incidents, good and bad.
Krygers en Guerrillas (2015). Experience the Anglo-Boer War as it was experienced by people in the Harrismith district, daily as the war unfolded; sometimes far and away and only read about, sometimes in their midst. See why the defenders, invaded by a foreign power, called it the Tweede Vryheids Oorlog – they were fighting for their freedom. Good tales and shocking deeds, including war crimes; the whole war time is unfolded from beginning to end. Comprehensive, the data includes names, casualties, Boer deaths, Brit deaths, prisoners, concentration camp deaths; ‘hensoppers,’ Boers who surrendered; ‘joiners,’ Boers who joined the British invaders; and ‘verraaiers’ who were outright treacherous. Boer Jews and Boer Irishmen and men of other nations who joined the Boers to help them against the invasion by the world’s biggest war machine, deployed by the world’s biggest looting and plundering machine. The war is presented from a local ‘on the ground’ perspective as well as a wide-angle perspective, showing how national and international decisions affected the people doing the actual fighting, suffering and dying.
A keen horseman, Leon leads an annual ride down into and through the Lost Valley every year.
The first recorded polo game in South Africa took place in October 1874 at the King Williams Town Parade Ground between the Gordon Highlanders and the Cape Mounted Rifles.
The Military Ninth Division played during the 1880s at Harrismith, Orange Free State.
Polo was played in Cape Town in 1885 at a club formed by army officers, and in Natal by the officers stationed at Fort Napier, in Pietermaritzburg; a year later, they formed the Garrison Polo Club.
Play in Transvaal began in Johannesburg in 1894, when the owner of the Goldfields Hotel founded a polo club. The game was dominated by the military, but civilian clubs sprouted in several places.
Someone must have the history of Harrismith polo. I hope. The first polo field I remember was in the sixties on the far side of the railway tracks; you drove under the subway to get there. Across the road was the sportsfields: a hockey field and then the cricket oval. Legend has it that Jimmy Horsley once hit a famous six across the hockey field, across the road and onto the polo clubhouse roof!
During a recent visit to Harrismith I spotted this on good friend Bess Reitz’s passage wall: Her Dad and Ginger Bain in the winning team!
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 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.