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.
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?
Arthur Kennedy arrived in Harrismith like a dwarrelwind. Why we were so lucky as to get Arthur to our town I don’t know, but I think his wife Zita had family here. I think she was related to the Kerkenberg mountain vd Bosch’s.
He brought an exciting new venture to the dorp: A new motel on the N3 on the south-east end of town – at the Jo’burg-Durban-Bloemfontein junction – or the Warden-Swinburne-Kestell junction you could say if you weren’t going to drive far.
The motel – Kennedy Motel – was going to have a ‘flyover’ restaurant suspended over the road so diners could watch the road as they munched their mixed grills. All the Durban-Joburg traffic – the busiest rural freeway in South Africa by far – would have to drive underneath them. But meantime the motel and petrol station had to be built, plus all the rooms – the chalets. A cable car to the top of Platberg was also in the pipeline, according to Arthur. Big plans!
The Kennedy family stayed right on-site in novel half-round semi-portable wooden bungalows above the building site and below the track that was an extension of Vowe Street, below the SE end of Hector Street. Arthur was very hands-on and was deeply involved in everything. He made the cardinal apartheid error of starting to pay his workers more than the “known” Harrismith wage which, according to Steph de Witt, got 5ft 6 inch Arthur a visit from 6ft 4 inch Koos de Witt, Steph’s Dad. Steph says Koos found Arthur in a foundation ditch. He jumped in next to him and “explained” to him in international language how he was not to bend the “local rules” of wage exploitation.
Later he built a triangular house of wood and glass above Vowe Street – a huge novelty for the town. It was next door to the du Plessis home, and Pierre and I hopped the fence and inspected it while under construction. The bathroom had a novelty in it which we hadn’t seen before. We didn’t know it was called a bidet, but we spotted right away what it was for. HaHaHa! Our schoolboy humour kicked in. Arthur’s initials were AW (were they? or did we invent that?) and we proceeded to call him Arse Washer after that bathroom furniture that so tickled our crude funny bones. We weren’t always Methodist-polite, ’tis true.
He even became a town councillor, this foreign rooinek in the vrystaat! If America could have a President Kennedy at that time, why couldn’t we have a possible future mayor Kennedy? Quite a guy was our Arthur!
The Cupboard Snake
For a while the Kennedys lived in the middle of town – in or near the house where Nick Duursema lived, near the circle in Warden street, just down from Arthur Grey’s corner store. That’s where the puff adder landed on top of the bedroom wardrobe.
The first and last puff adder I saw ‘in the wild’ was in Hector Street outside our house in about 1965 when – ware vrystater that she was – Mother Mary ran over the poor thing in the blue VW OHS 155. Doelbewus! Swear! The old man was called out from the pub. He came home, caught it and put it in a box which he gave to Zita Kennedy to give to Tommy van den Bosch. Maybe he’d first stunned it with a blast of cane spirits breath.
Tommy lived against the slopes of Kerkenberg and wore a cowboy hat and played the guitar. He’d sing you a mournful – or toe-tapping if that was your poison – cowboy song at the drop of a hat. His cowboy stetson hat. He collected snakes and took them to the Durban snake park who paid him by the foot. They estimated this puffy at five foot, though of course that length may have grown over time! SSSSS – Snake Stories Seldom Suffer Shrinkage.
That night in bed just before lights out Arthur Kennedy asked Zita “What’s that box up on the cupboard?” She hadn’t finished telling him and he was already out in Bester Street opposite the ou groot kerk near the traffic circle in his tiny pie-jarm shorts shouting “Get that thing out of there ! I am NEVER going into that house again until that thing is gone!” and other earnest entreaties.
Strange fear, as he was fearless in other ways: Who can forget Arthur Kennedy dressed only in a white Tarzan loincloth – which looked a bit like a nappy – swinging right across the hele stadsaal on a trapeze above the gob-smacked and ge-be-indrukte Harrismith mense? And outdoors upside-down high on a thin pole above the skougronde? Fearless aerobatics and acrobatics.
But a snake on his cupboard? That was too much for him!
For a while he made Harrismith seem part of the wider world! A bit like this:
Here’s the actual scene of the thrill (I remember the curtains as red back then):
On the big day celebrating South Africa’s freedom from the tyranny of Mrs British Queen, Arthur gave a stunning performance on his own equipment down at the President Brand Park in front of a full pawiljoen of ge-be-indrukte Harrismith mense! Dad filmed it:
Arthur ran our mountain race and, further proving his commitment to Harrismith he married a second local girl – much, much younger than him.
dwarrelwind – whirlwind, tornado, breath of fresh air
Doelbewus – on purpose; Swear! ‘Strue’s God! Gentle Mary did that. In those days you did. The only thing that made you think maybe you wouldn’t drive over it was the story that it would wind itself around your axle and then climb up into your engine, then under your dashboard and THEN pik you on the foot! Swear!
ware vrystater – genuine free stater; born and bred in the free state, as was her mother before her (who would not have been celebrating the 1961 demotion of QEII from monarch to foreign tannie)
tannie – auntie
ou groot kerk – the old Dutch Reformed Church, the Moederkerk
Remember those stuffed ‘sausages’ in front of the doors as doorstops to keep the winter chill out? Some doors had huge gaps under them; some of those doorstops even had sausage dog heads, with ears, eyes, a tail and a red tongue.
The ceilings had no insulation and the windows were wooden sash or steel windows, often with gaps that let in the chill;
The black coal stove in the kitchen was lit through the whole of winter, thank goodness; A cruel boyhood confession: I murdered a few flies at this stove in our kitchen! Tore off their wings and turned them into ‘walks’ then tossed them into the stove to die! Yikes!
Here’s an old one, no longer installed, no longer black:
In other rooms our bar heater was moved to wherever we were sitting; The glowing red bars would heat the air up to about one metre away. Further than that was arctic like everywhere else. If you sat close your shins could start frying while your back froze. Ours had three bars.
Rolls of thin ‘Dunlop’ nylon carpets glued to the floorboards in the passage and other rooms; the concrete floor in the kitchen and breakfast room had linoleum covering;
On the beds lots of blankets, no duvets; If you were lucky your Mom would cut the tassles off the Standard Woollen Mills blankets and sew on a strip of smooth silk-like tape that didn’t tickle your nose! I remember some of our old pillows weighing ‘a ton’. Probably a quarter ton of feathers, a quarter ton of live mites, a quarter ton of dead mites and a quarter ton of sweat and snot! A warmth luxury was having ‘flannel’ ‘winter sheets’ rather than those smooth thin cold ordinary cotton sheets.
We were lucky we had an electric geyser warming up our bath water. You would wallow in warmth, then start dreading having to get out; Soon, though, the decision would be easy as the water cooled rapidly in those old iron baths with their ball-and-claw feet. Long winter jarmies were such a treat. Cosy. Some of ours were hand-made – machine-sewn by Mom.
Leaving for school in the mornings was jersey on, socks pulled up high, gloves on and then off you go! on your bike; Sometimes even a grey woollen balaclava. Riding down Stuart Street your eyes would water and your nose would run, so gloves and sleeves had to do snot duty; When you got to jail – um, school – you’d slide your hands off the handle-bar grips as they didn’t want to ‘uncurl’! Your bare knees would be frozen yet somehow you didn’t feel them as much as you felt your toes in your socks and shoes! Funny that.
Always coldest when the east wind blew and put a ‘blanket’ or ‘table cloth’ on the mountain like this:
I remember it like this:
OK, to be honest that’s Europe and maybe their winters are worse!
We had a horse trough in the backyard about 2m long, 40cm wide and 40cm deep. It was concrete grey but later on it got painted Caltex green. A lot of our stuff got painted Caltex green. The water in it would freeze solid. That ice would thaw a bit by day and freeze again every night. It was OK, though. We didn’t have horses.
In summer the horse trough was good for breeding mosquitoes. I was fascinated by the larvae and had farms of them in ice trays where I could watch them develop and hatch. I was a battery-farmer of mozzies. Free-range hadn’t been invented.
There’s the horseless horse trough
mozzie larva (long) and pupa (round). OK, that took this winter post into summer
Dad remembers the gymkhanas he took part in and so enjoyed in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s.
They were held in Harrismith, Eeram, Verkykerskop, Mont Pelaan and Aberfeldy; and on the farms Appin near Swinburne, Primrose near van Reenen, and Maraishoek.
The entry fee was one pound per event – and prize money was less than the entry fee!
Events included Tent pegging; Sword and ring; Sword; Lance & ring; Potato & bucket.
Races were the bending race, we’ll need to ask him what that was; and the owners race, where the owner him or herself had to ride, no hiring a jockey!
Regular participants he recalls are Manie Parkhurst Wessels; Bertie van Niekerk; Kerneels Retief; Richard Goble; John Goble; Kehlaan Odendaal; his son Adriaan and his daughter Laura; Laurie Campher; Hans Spies and his kids Hansie, Pieter and Anna.
Dad says he was the only non-farmer riding! Kerneels was usually his partner.
** internet pics ** If anyone has some real Harrismith district gymkhana pics I’d sure love to display them – with full acknowledgment of course.
We always called it The Moth Hall, and for a while it was where Dad was probably drinking. But it was more correctly called Platberg Shellhole of the M.O.T.Hs – The Memorable Order of Tin Hats. And there was an older shellhole before that one – an older ‘Moth Hall’. It was down opposite the Royal Hotel; down near the railway line.
This was where old servicemen would lie to each other and themselves in song:
“Old Soldiers Never Die;
Never Die, Never Die;
Old Soldiers Never Die;
They Just Fade Away.”
Back then they were all survivors of WW1 and WW2. Only later did they take in ever-more members from ever-more wars. And there’s an endless supply of those; the armaments industry sees to that.
The things I remember about the old shellhole was playing in the dark next to and behind the building – big adventure; And seeing 16mm movies, with big reels whirring in the dark; some were sponsored by Caltex and other companies; I remember Hatari! about yanks in darkest Africa, catching animals for zoos; It starred John Wayne, but who was he to us, back then?
and Northern Safari, about a 4X4 safari in the Australian outback with a very annoying theme song “We’re Going NORTH on a Northern Safari! We’re Going NORTH on a Northern Safari! We’re Going NORTH on a Northern Safari!” ad nauseum. We loved it!
What the folks would remember, if the truth be told, would be booze and sing-alongs and booze and skits and booze and plays; these were the order of the day. * click on the pic * if you want to read some names.
Seated on the left next to Mary Swanepoel and Trudi Else in full voice, is Harold Taylor, veteran of WW1. Under those voluminous trousers is one wooden leg. The other is buried at Delville Wood. He would take his turn standing next to the piano singing:
Mary & Trudy
Etienne Joubert remembers:
The old MOTH hall was not opposite the Royal Hotel but in the vicinity. In fact it was next to Llewellyn & Eugene Georgiou’s home. It was near the railway line below the G’s house.
I remember Ray Taylor who had some shrapnel in his head, not Harold with a wooden leg; also Uncle Jack Hunt; Arthur Gray & of course your folks. I also remember playing in the dark outside. I remember my first sip of beer which I did not like; but I overcame this in years to come to absolutely love it!
I remember the song A Long Way To Tipperary; The piano was very rickety, as was the wooden floor, which squeaked with the slightest step. On the walls were very big portraits of Winston Churchill & Jan Smuts; Dan Pienaar was also there, but smaller; and a pin-up of Jayne Mansfield. This pin up made it to the “new” Moth Hall.
One thing I did not like was helping my Old Man clean the Shellhole on a Saturday morning; the smell of stale beer & cigarette smoke remains very vivid in my memory.
and here’s Vera Lynn, 101 yrs old and still going (Nov 2018). In 2009, at the age of 92, Lynn became the oldest living artist to make it to number 1 in the British album chart.
Pierre & Erika, Jacquie, Pikkie and me. Joined by the much younger Bonita who is seeking a single, life-long, male partner and who got much invaluable advice from us wiser, more experienced – OK, old – toppies. Mainly: “Don’t”.
We had gathered in the old home town to run the annual Harrismith Mountain Race, and some us even did just that. In fact, we even won one of the trophies on offer!
Pierre and I? Well, we gave much invaluable advice as wiser, more experienced – OK, old – ex-participants on that subject, too. Mainly: “Don’t”.
We were joined in the advice department by Lyn & Sonja du Plessis, Ina van Reenen and James Bell – all in the giving afdeling, none of us in advice-receiving.
We had to wait in the post-race chill for prize-giving to receive our trophy:
OK, its true that Jacquie Wessels du Toit did all the actual winning per se, but still, it felt like a team trophy.
The weekend started off chilly, a full table-cloth blanketing the mountain and a fresh east wind-in-the-willows, as seen in this picture, but it ended off perfect, as per the top picture, taken on Sunday from the top of Kings Hill. The robots changed when we drove thru, the clouds dissolved and the sky turned blue . . . . and everybody loves me baby, what’s the matter with you?
Saturday night at Chez Doep was delicious fresh home-made mushroom soup and bread ala Erika with light smatterings of alcohol and layers of sage advice (yep, more of the same), all of which was ignored. Bonita still seeks Prince Charming and Pikkie and Jacquie are going to run again.
Hulle wil nie luister nie.
Hulle wil nie luister nie – invaluable advice spurned
invaluable – Of great value; costly; precious; priceless; very useful; beyond calculable or appraisable value; of inestimable worth; See?