A childhood friend is writing a lovely book on his mountaineering exploits and the journey he has made from climbing the mountain outside our town to climbing bigger and more famous mountains all over the world!!
Flatteringly, he asked me and a Pommy work and climber friend to proofread his latest draft. Being a techno-boff, he soon hooked us up on dropbox where we could read and comment and suggest.
I immediately launched into making sensible and well-thought out recommendations. But some of them were instantly rejected, side-stepped or ignored, I dunno WHY!!
Like the title I thought could be spiced up. Three African Peaks is all very well. But it’s boring compared to Free A-frickin’ Picks!!! to lend drama and a Seffrican accent to it, right?! I know, you can’t understand some people. !
John, very much under the weight of a monarchy – meaning one has to behave – was more formal:
‘What is it with south africans and the “!”? (which is my major comment on your writing style!)
Well!!! Once we had puffed down and soothed our egos by rubbing some Mrs Balls Chutney on it, the back-n-forth started. I mean started!!
My defensive gambit was: ‘We’re drama queens!!’
My attacking gambit was an accusation: ‘Poms hugely under-use the ! In fact, they neglect it terribly! John was quickly back though, wielding his quill like a rapier:
‘Not true. We use our national quota. We just give almost all of them to teenage girls.’
I was on the back foot. When it came to the cover, the Boer War re-enactment resumed. I mean resumed!! I chose a lovely cover with an African mountain and a lot of greenery on the slopes. The Pom chose an ice wall, no doubt thinking of the London market. Stalemate.
Next thing he’ll be suggesting a stiff upper cover.
A strange thing has happened since John’s critique! I am using less exclamation marks! I have even written sentences without any!! It actually feels quite good. The new, restrained me.
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.’
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 nogschlep along.
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 ‘Bobbejaankop’ – 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‘;
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. – and this is one-twelfth of the Catholic Litany, there’s eleven-twelfths more! Holy shit!!
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?
nogschlep – kom saam; accompany
boerewors – raw beef wurst; just add fire
dennebos – pine plantation; plantations are not forests!
Freezing on top of Platberg, wet and an icy wind. We huddle and chomp some snacks.
I brought matches, I’ll light a fire, I announce. But it ain’t easy, dry kindling is hard to come by, but I persevere. Pierre and Tuffy are skeptical: If you get that going I’ll buy you a farm in Eloff Street, says one.
But I do! Not a roaring blaze, but we warm our hands at least.
This must’ve been ca. 1969. Eloff Street was Johannesburg’s main street and priciest real estate at the time. No longer, as businesses fled the CBD and relocated to Sandton and other nodes outside ‘Old Joburg’.
If I had got my farm I wonder if I’d have sold it before the bust?
We were somewhere below that red flag:
Found this lovely pic on a Harrismith Mountain Race blog site – thanks!!
Veld & Vlei at Greystones 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. Sheila’s diary tells me I was taken there on Friday 30 June 1972 by family friend Dr Dick Venning.
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 – http://www.hofland.co.uk – by someone who had been on the same 1972 winter course as me – Willem Hofland from the Natal South Coast. 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. Greg Seibert may have 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!’ (see at the end – Mom did send it). 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.’ Moms are great!
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. ‘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 and beach bums 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 for those who were there:
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 me! Signs himself off: ‘Great Poet and man who survived 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!
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 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?”
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; Ds in hospital under heavy sedation. 2. When Eastern Free State won a game at Craven Week, Rudolph Gabba Coetzee had to speak on the radio! Big news for one who did not do much public speaking! 3. I had an interview straight after my course in Estcourt to apply for a Rotary Exchange Student posting. It was right near Veld in Vlei in 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!! 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 lastly, when she was about to send me the rucksack I had requested, Harriet vdMerwe saw her and said, No Mary! You can’t send it empty! Put some goodies in it! So she had included sweets and dried fruit.