Categories
1_Harrismith 2_Free State / Vrystaat 7_Confessions 8_Nostalgia

Harrismith Author Leon Strachan

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.

– Leon Strachan’s four books on Harrismith characters’ achievements, foibles, shenanigans, pecadilloes and kakaanjaag –

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.

~~~~oo0oo~~~~

I know of three heftier tomes he has written:

Leon’s Grandad’s Story

– Charles Davie –

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!

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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.

– image from Leon Strachan facebook page –

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.

~~~oo0oo~~~

A keen horseman, Leon leads an annual ride down into and through the Lost Valley every year.

– the author on the right on ____ –

~~~oo0oo~~~

Categories
1_Harrismith 2_Free State / Vrystaat 8_Nostalgia sport travel

Caveman Spies in Engels

Four Spies brothers lived in the Harrismith and Kestell district. These broers had very different personalities; it was said Andries fought for the Spies clan, Hans cursed for them, Frikkie drank for them and Martiens prayed for them all. Harrismith’s historian Leon Strachan has kept this lovely tale of an amazing Eastern Free State character alive.

Andries was known locally as Thor, as his strength was legendary. People soon knew not to mess with him. He was a boxer, wrestler and strongman, and he was also a very wily showman and self-promoter. Legend has it he would hop on his bicycle, pedal to Bloemfontein – that was over 200 rough miles back in the 1920’s – enter a boxing tournament at Ramblers Club, win it and cycle home with the prize money!

One day in 1929 his neighbour came to him with devastating news: his fiancee had upped and offed with another man. Hugely upset, Andries packed a suitcase and left the farm without a backward glance. It would be ten years before he returned. In those years he was mainly a boxer. He fought in Joburg and Durban. One fight at the Seaman’s Institute in Point Road in Durban so stunned an English preacherman – Andries’ style consisted of a non-stop flurry of furious blows from the opening bell with no thought of any defensive tactics – that he christened him ‘Caveman.’ And the name stuck.

His next port of call was England. He left on a below-decks ticket with just £10 in his pocket and one extra set of khaki clothes. In London in his first fight he KO’d his opponent with his first blow. He could still get opponents after that as his build was not impressive – he looked average and he used that to his advantage, as he was often underestimated. Soon his reputation started preceding him and it grew harder to find men who would fight him, so he crossed the Channel.

A typical story was a fight in Stockholm where the ref tried to stop him as his opponent Anders Anderson was ‘out on his feet.’ But Caveman wanted him out off his feet! So he KO’d the ref! Spectators stormed the ring in fury – so he KO’d a few of them too!

The same pattern happened in Holland, Belgium and Germany: He would knock out a number of opponents, then run out of people to fight and move on. When this happened in Germany, he issued a challenge to Max Schmeling, heavyweight champion of the world: Fight me for 500 marks! Apparently this was all Andries had in his money belt. Eventually Schmeling gave in to his persistence and agreed to fight this Caveman character from South Africa.

UNITED STATES – MAY 31: The American Boxer Joe Louis Fighting The German Boxer Max Schmeling During The Heavyweight Championship In New York In June 1938. At The Close Of The Match, Joe Louis Preserved His Title Of World Heavyweight Boxing Champion By Beating Max Schmeling By K.O. In The 1St Round In New York. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Well, this was a horse of an entirely different kettle of tea! In his own words he approached Max in his usual crouched stance and received a mighty short right hook to the head and after that ‘I don’t remember much at all! Except a minute or two of gloves raining on me and then merciful oblivion! The biggest hiding I ever received, but well worth it, as I met the great Max Schmeling. He was a good sport – and after the fight he sent me back to my hotel full of beer and Rhine wine, plus an amazing 1000 marks! Schmeling gave me his 500 marks too!’

In Spain he knocked out ‘The Basque Wrestler’ Antoine Germatte in the first round – drying up any chance of further fights, so he thought he’d try bullfighting. One look at the bull, though and he decided ‘this is out of my league!’

His French opponent Leon Cartout was disqualified for biting the Caveman. After eighteen fights on the Continent, he returned to England, where a raft of better fighters were keen to challenge him as his fame was now such that they wanted to be seen in the ring with him. Things were looking up.

Caveman Spies
– Caveman Spies’ record as a pro boxer – 9 wins, 8 by knockout – 9 losses, 3 by knockout – 3 draws –

Then he caught a bad bout of flu and ended up becoming asthmatic. He got so bad in the English winter he decided it was home time. Back in South Africa he won a few good fights then ran up against the experienced Tommy Holdstock. He lost so badly that he decided to switch to all-in wrestling which had become very popular and was paying well. The showmanship also suited his extrovert and mischievous personality and his remarkable strength.

In a typical rabble-rousing traveling series he fought a Russian named Boganski, who became a great friend. They toured the land. The legend of Caveman cycling to Bloemfontein was well-known, so at each scheduled fight venue he would stop their car outside the town and get onto his bicycle; timing his arrival at the ring just in time for the fight, covered in sweat having ‘just got there all the way from Harrismith!’ This put all the locals on his side like – our poor man now has to fight this blerrie Russian when he’s so tired, having cycled so far!

The showman promoter in him loved public wagers. On the wrestling tour in Grahamstown he bet the local auctioneer, a Mr King, that he could carry a 200lb bag of mealie meal across the town square in front of the cathedral in his teeth without stopping. He did it, donated the bag to child welfare and publicity from the stunt filled the hall for the fight that night!

In Chodos furniture store in Harrismith’s main street the guys were ragging him as they often did about his strength: You can’t really punch a hole through a meal bag! ‘Bring it,’ he said, and walked away with £10, leaving Woolf Chodos and his staff to clean up the flour all over the counter and the floor. He couldn’t resist a challenge or a dare. In 1936 someone said he’d never walk from Harrismith to Cape town in less than ninety days. He did it in seventy three, averaging twenty eight miles a day. This one earned him £75.

Whenever the circus came to town Caveman would be there, ready to shine. Owner and strongman William Pagel‘s feats of strength and his control of the big cats soon made him a household name in South Africa, particularly in the countryside. Small towns loved the circus!

Pagel had a wild mule and offered £50 to anyone who could ride it. Many tried, including Moolman the policeman. Very soon there was Moolman, soaring through the air back into the stalls in an ungraceful arc. Caveman stepped up, jumped on and the mule went wild, bucking, backing up, scraping his legs against the railing, but Cavemans’ legs were firmly hooked under its ‘armpits’ and he rode every move. In the end the mule lay down, exhausted, Caveman still astride it. Get off, said Old Pagel, ‘No, first give me my £50,’ said Caveman. Get off first, said Pagel. He then refused to pay on the grounds that Caveman ‘wasn’t allowed’ to hook his legs under the mule! Caveman threatened ‘Pay me or I shut down the show. Honour your bet!’ Two Alpha males at bay, both famous! Caveman got his due.

Stanley Boswell also had challenges meant to draw the crowds which drew Caveman like a magnet. He had a strongman lifting weights on a wooden platform. ‘Any non-professional weightlifter who can match (exotic strongman name – maaybe Otto Acron?) will win a prize!’ he boasted. The Harrismith crown bayed for their hero, ‘Show him Caveman! Wys hom! Show him!’

– Otto Acron – World’s Strongest Man – he thought – till he got to Harrismith! –

Caveman stepped up, nonchalantly lifted the main man’s maximum weight and looked at Boswell. Boswell, knowing Spies’ reputation, said, ‘ No, you’re professional,’ ducking out of his responsibility. Caveman looked at him, looked at the crowd and slammed the weights down, wrecking the stage as the crowd roared their approval.

Stories grow. Seldom will a re-teller tell a milder story than the original! And so Caveman’s legend grew. Not only did he ride a bicycle to Cape Town; when he got there he boarded a ship to America; the ship sank and he had to swim more than halfway across the Atlantic; arriving in America just in time (covered in sweat?) for a fight against Joe Louis! Of course, he bliksem’d Joe, caught a ship back to Cape Town, where he got on his bicycle and pedal’d back to Harrismith to calmly tend to his flock of sheep! Of course . .

In our time in Harrismith – fifties to seventies – Hansie and Pieter Spies were legends in their own right. Nephews of Caveman, they would apparently tell stories of this special and unusual extrovert uncle. In his old age his right hand started shaking – probably the beginnings of Parkinson’s disease. Challenged, he would blurt, ‘Ag, it’s my hand! Leave it alone if it wants to shake! Or I’ll donner you!’

~~~oo0oo~~~

Categories
1_Harrismith 2_Free State / Vrystaat 8_Nostalgia

Caveman Spies – by Leon Strachan

Harrismith has always had Spies families. The ones I remember were horsemen; or at least, the times I saw them they were usually riding horses at our agricultural shows, playing polo or competing at gymkhanas. Leon Strachan, Harrismith’s historian, tells of one family of four brothers who all had different characters or traits – and how one became world-famous!

Found this lovely series of articles by Leon at a website promoting Stephen Reed’s hometown Clarens, Free State – inclarens.co.za. I have simply taken snapshots of the articles to save them and be able to access them again. I must check in which of his four books on Harrismith characters Leon wrote about Andries ‘Caveman’ Spies.

I have now tidied and stitched them together in sequence. If you can read Afrikaans – go for it. It’s a fascinating story, which I will translate in a summary later – later!!

02 – Caveman Spies – stitched

~~~oo0oo~~~

– inclarens.co.za –
Categories
1_Harrismith 2_Free State / Vrystaat 8_Nostalgia

A Harem in Harrismith?

You know that mansion Mal Jurie is building on his farm? It’s a harem!

A what?

A HAREM! A place where you keep lots of ladies in rooms and they lie around swimming and eating grapes and looking beautiful. When they do have clothes on its not clothes like your mother wears. He says he’s going to bring French dancers to his harem from the Moulin Rouge in Paris! A lot of French ladies in Harrismith in the Vrystaat!

Aag, man, You Lie!

No, I swear. He told me himself!

– just outside Harrismith, Free State – ?? huh? –

This is how an Urban Legend – in this case really a Rural Legend; or, as historian Leon Strachan calls them, a ‘Lieglegende’ – got started.

First of all, it’s true. Jurie Wessels DID say that. His neighbour wasn’t lying.

But what Jurie was really saying was ‘Leave Me Alone!’ ‘Los My Uit!’ ‘Mind your own Business.’

Jurie was a successful farmer, an intelligent, interested man, married to an outgoing and attractive woman and he was building her a home unlike any other in the district. His problem – his sin – the reason he was called Mal Jurie – was that he was an introverted and eccentric character. He didn’t ‘play by the rules.’ And for that you get punished in most communities, maybe more so in small communities. And Harrismith would have been no exception.

For starters, Jurie had brought his lovely engaging wife from far away. People didn’t know her mother and her grandmother. She was actively involved in the community, well liked, and often entertained; but still . . she was from far away. And also, often Jurie wasn’t at her gatherings, preferring to keep to himself, even when she entertained at home.

So when Jurie got Italian stone masons to start building a large sandstone structure on the edge of a hill above his ordinary homestead, overlooking the Wilge river valley and the west end of the dorp, the people started wondering . . and talking. But it was when a consignment of beautiful and really big wooden windows and doors arrived from Italy at the Harrismith spoorwegstasie that the rumours started building and gathering momentum. From ITALY? Nothing from ITALY arrived at the Harrismith stasie! Where was Italy, anyway? This was weird! Just what WAS Mal Jurie up to? Here was evidence, not just skinner, that Mal Jurie was mal.

Well, he was actually building a beautiful home, but he didn’t want people sticking their nose in his business. People always asked too many questions! So when his neighbour asked, he deliberately gave what he probably thought would be an obvious exaggeration. And it would have been taken as just that, had his reclusive behaviour not made him ‘suspect’ – ‘different.’ And so the rumour – the legend – grew wings and became ‘the truth.’

My mother Mary grew up with one of his sons, Hugo. Hugo was a popular, good-looking and talented medical doctor. He and Mom matriculated in the same class of 1945 and both did well in their exams. Here’s Mom on the piano and Hugo enjoying her playing and getting ready to sing at Mom’s 45th birthday party in 1973:

And here’s one of his sons, Max Wessels, who played rugby with me in primary school:

– Max extreme right – me right-most in the back row –

The beautiful new home never got finished. Jurie joined the 1914 rebellie – a rebellion against the government – mad, as were many others, that this blerrie government was joining the blerrie British to fight World War 1! Hadn’t the blerrie Engelse just been killing them a mere twelve years before? Hadn’t they locked up their women and children in concentration camps, starving them and killing them off through disease? Why the hell was South Africa fighting WITH the invaders who had ruined the country just a short decade ago, burning their houses and killing their livestock?

Building ceased. Today the impressive ruins of the home Jurie wanted to build for his wife still stand:

~~~oo0oo~~~

Thanks to Leon Strachan for keeping Harrismith’s history alive – and for the photos. For more and better info, read his book (check which one . . . Blinkoog? He wrote four: Blafboom; Blinkoog; Botterbek and Bergburghers).

Categories
1_Harrismith 2_Free State / Vrystaat 7_Confessions Wildlife, Game Reserves

Another Successful Campaign

A well-drilled, orderly troop of Queen and Empire Poms marched up Platberg. And when they were up they were up **.

– when I say ‘marched’ I mean drove – the easy way –

They reconnoitered the surrounding area looking for Boer commandos, ready to report any sightings to some grand old Duke, or Lord, or someone. Ridiculously dressed in anti-camouflage they stuck out like sore thumbs, but at least they were together and obeying the orders of Field Marshall Lello RSVP. This would not last very long.

Once on top the cohesion started to wobble and soon a small breakaway happened. Some of the troops began behaving like Boers, thinking they could just go home when they felt like it. Five of them headed off down One Man’s Pass, misled by a trooper who said he had local knowledge and ‘it wasn’t far.’

It was far and it was steep and soon more than just cohesion was wobbling.

The remains of the patrol, now only nineteen strong, headed East back to Flat Rock Pass – or Donkey Pass – where a further split took place with trooper Soutar suddenly developing a deep longing for his ancestral home, Howick. I know, who would want to go to Howick?

Down to fifteen, the remainder headed for the Akkerbos for lunch and booze, where another defection saw four more wander off the beaten track and puncture the one wheel of their Ford Platberg Cape Cart. Field Marshall Lello RSVP set off to rescue them, dispatching sergeant Garth, corporal Nigel and Generaal Leon to rescue the original five deserters. Who of course, didn’t need rescuing as they had the whole thing under control and knew exactly where they were as they had a knowledgeable local guide with them. (Right!)

Back at the Oak Forest – where the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret had been kerfuffling in the bushes with equerry Group Captain Peter Townsend back in 1947 when most of us were busy being born – a laager had been formed and tables laden with provisions, especially booze.

A re-grouping took place and the size of the force stabilised at fifteen, with no wounds or injuries other than some grazes and some wobbly legs and some mild miffedness. (Justified, BTW). The disorderly conduct and the booze, together with the coating of dust and black soot on all the troops made the patrol look less and less like a plundering invading force from a small island, and more and more like good, patriotic, camouflaged local defenders.

Back down at the bottom of the mountain, the numbers swelled to nineteen and confidence grew to such an extent that a decision was made by the now almost completely Boer commando, to attack the blerrie Breetish in their blockhouse situated on the banks of that sparkling brook called the Kak Spruit. A clever encircling movement was made and we attacked the crows nest from above, putting the occupants to flight.

– if you look carefully you can see the pockmarks of our accurate rifle shots all over –

So ended another successful campaign by us Boer guerillas. Generaal Leon could heave a sigh of relief and return to his farm after successfully converting a motley band of misled ‘joiners’ and getting them to support the right side at last.

~~~oo0oo~~~

PS: I forgot to mention – During the whole campaign there was a westerly breeze.

** . . and when they were up they were up . .

– and when they were up they were up –

~~~oo0oo~~~

Categories
1_Harrismith 2_Free State / Vrystaat 8_Nostalgia travel

Home-made Bound

Three 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 not.

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.’

Up the Drakensberg to Harrismith village; Left to near Qwa Qwa mountain

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.’

——-ooo000ooo——-

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 ***

Sources:

  1. Bergburgers by Leon Strachan; Tartan Boeke 2017 – ISBN 978-0-620-75393-7

2. Martin Hedges’ blog actonbooks

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:

The book sold well; a later edition had a shorter title

Two pages from the book: Arriving in Spain and walking in Spain looking for food or money or any help!

——-ooo000ooo——-

*** 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”.

——-ooo000ooo——-

* 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?

——-ooo000ooo——-

Amazingly, ferrocement boats had been invented forty years earlier, in France!

A bateau built by Lambot in 1848
Categories
1_Harrismith 2_Free State / Vrystaat 8_Nostalgia

Annie’s Msobo Jam

Steve Reed visited SA from Aussie. He’s a Vrystaat boykie, mainly Bethlehem and was the mayor of Clarens – the first son actually – so was on a visit home.

Him: When visiting my bro in Johannesburg we had plenty of jams and preserves all from ‘Annies Kitchen’ in Harrismith. Wouldn’t be the famous Ann Euthimiou from Harries, would it?

– Annie’s Jams from Nesshurst –

Me: No, not the gorgeous young Annie the Greek, another Annie from Harrismith, a contemporary of my gran – who was also Annie.

Her grandson Leon Strachan was one year ahead of me at Harrismith se Hoerskool. Lived on a farm, but his gran lived next door to us in town. He hopped over the fence one day ca.1965 to come and moer me for my insults. He was giving me a good and well-deserved whipping when younger sister Sheila came to my rescue, jumping on his back and beating him wif a bamboo, putting him to flight.

A first-class fella, he has written four books about Harrismith. I have one, Sheila has loaned me two more, and I have borrowed the fourth from Leon himself. He and his wife Elsa farm on Nesshurst, south of Harrismith on the Natal border. He grows and harvests black nightshade (nastergal – Solanum nigrum) and makes that mauve jam with black berries we called masawba – more correctly umsobo or sobosobo. They also make lots of other jams ‘in season.’

They branded it ‘Annie’s’ after his rooinek gran. Like me he had an Afrikaans side Strachan that originated in Scotland, and an Engelse side Davie. ‘Twas his rockspider gran Strachan what lived next door to us.

This info from the defunct harrismith.co website:

Op Nesshurst met sy allemintige dam groei en besproei Leon en Elsa Strachan nastergal wat hulle in die plaasfabriek inmaak om die wyd-bekende Annie’s konfyte met die veelkleurige etiket met twee tarentale op te maak. Jare lank reeds sien ‘n mens nou oral in die land die bekende flessies met nastergal en tot soveel as twintig ander soorte konfyt. Die beroemde Annie’s konfyte van Nesshurst. Nastergal (Solanum nigrum) dra bossies klein, ronde bessies wat donkerpers is wanneer hulle ryp is.

My translation: Leon and Elsa Strachan make lovely jams (American: jellies) on their farm Nesshurst near the Free State / KwaZulu Natal border. Probably their most famous one uses Solanum nigrum berries, European black nightshade. Although parts of this plant can be toxic, the real deadly nightshade is a different plant. The good one’s berries are a dull, powdery, dark purple in bunches, the deadly one has single glossy black berries.

– Solanum nigrum – black nightshade – nastergal – umsobo –
strachan nesshurst museum
– the museum on Nesshurst – Leon in the hat –

Steve: Well it was blerrie lekker konfyt. And he obviously did not moer any significant amount of sense into you from what I have been able to observe since ca.1974. My eldest brother Doug (68) looks after his health, having had a couple of stents a few years ago. He cycles furiously (the Argus, the 96.4 or whatever long races are going) and golfs twice a week. His one weakness is for the blue cheese, crackers and Annie’s preserves, accompanied by bottomless refills of post-prandial brandy, port, or whatever other alcohol comes to hand. I spent seven nights with them and woke up with a headache on all seven mornings. He woke me up fresh as a daisy with heart-stopping strength coffee every day. Most mornings I was in an arrhythmic state as a result. He couldn’t understand what the hell was wrong with me.

~~~oo0oo~~~

Harrismith se Hoerskool – Harrismith High School

moer – thump; but when Steve said it: educate

Rooinek – English-speaking; Pommy; uitlander; often preceded by fokn

Engelse – English, but usually not from England; more ‘not Afrikaans’; Like when any new product or gadget impresses, someone might say admiringly/mockingly ‘Dis wonderlik wat die Engelse kan doen,’ even if the gadget was made in Sweden

blerrie lekker konfyt – bloody nice jam

Dis wonderlik wat die Engelse kan doen – this is a nifty new gadget

~~~oo0oo~~~

The pics of the museum on Nesshurst are from Harrismith’s best blog deoudehuizeyard.

Categories
1_Harrismith 2_Free State / Vrystaat 8_Nostalgia

Abe Sparks

I thought of Abe Sparks as the “Lord Mayor of Swinburne”.

Ever since he went to Texas he wore a stetson, cowboy boots and a string tie with a polished stone clasp. He was a larger than life character, colourful. He and Lulu were always very friendly to me. He drove an old Rolls Royce which he’d converted into a pickup truck, a bakkie. It looked something like the silver one in the pic. I think a darker colour, though, like the one below.

I have a clear childhood memory of it parked in Stuart Street near the corner of Retief Street, opposite the Post Office. Near Havenga’s. Near Basil’s Cafe. Near the corner Kovisco Butchery. Opposite Herano Hof. Opposite that Co-Op building. You know. Uncle Abe staring down at me with a big smile: ‘How are you Koosie?’

– 1915 Silver Ghost bakkie in Western Australia – a Roller ute –
– 1926 Silver Ghost bakkie in California – a Rolls pickup truck –

Abe owned the Swinburne Hotel which became the Montrose Motel, later bought by Jock Grant; scene of an interesting brandy-filled night many years later.

He and Lulu would throw big parties and the story goes . . yes, the old story goes – Rural Legend Alert! – that one night they decided to cook the mushrooms they had gathered in the veld / garden / woods that day. To be safe they fed some to the dog and asked the kitchen staff to keep an eye on it for the next hour or so. They continued partying up a storm with the grog flowing and then ate supper and carried on until one of the staff came in to say “Baas die hond is dood”.

Panic ensued as they all bundled into cars and rushed off to the Harrismith Hospital twelve miles away, had their stomachs pumped out and returned much later to the farm looking chastened, wan and sober.

Next morning Abe asked to see the dog and was shown where it lay dead and mangled. It had been run over by a passing car.

I imagine a pinch of salt was added to the wild mushrooms.

~~~~oo000oo~~~~

Baas, die hond is dood – Boss, the dog is dead

——-ooo000ooo——-

Leon Strachan, Harrismith’s finest author (nine books), publisher, historian, military buff, farmer, jam bottler, businessman, tour guide and all-round mensch has a much better grip on Abe’s life in Swinburne. His farm Nesshurst is in the same area as many of Abe’s sixteen farms over the years. He tells of pub tales, a Swinburne cricket team made up of eleven Sparkses (one was even selected to play for South Africa!), brandy taken internally and externally, and how the sheer size of Louis Bischoff’s schlong displayed for all to see on the pub counter was one of the few things that ever rendered Abe speechless.

Blafboom 1991, Leon Strachan – ISBN – 1-919740-21-1

=======ooo000ooo=======

This guy Nudie reminded me of Uncle Abe: Abe would have wanted his car!

Abe Sparks Tailor

Dad tells me Abe bought the Rolls Royce from fellow Harrismith farmer and character Nell van Heerden.

An old-car-nut Aussie confirms another version of the old sheep farmers / Rollers rural legend thus:‘I can see why the conversion was done. When the Silver Shadow was introduced, it was unpopular with graziers: it could fit only two sheep on the back seat; the Silver Cloud could hold three.’

~~~oo0oo~~~

Categories
2_Free State / Vrystaat 8_Nostalgia

Martha and My Man Friday

This beautiful 1938 Buick Coupe was a regular sight on the streets of Harrismith back in the Sixties.

Martha McDonald and her friend Carrie Friday used to cruise the streets going nowhere. Mom Mary called them Martha and My Man Friday after Robinson Crusoe. She says Roy Cartwright coined the nickname. Roy ran the Tattersalls horse racing gambling joint in town and was full of wit.

Years later Sheila found out that Pietermaritzburg car enthusiast and restorer Ty Terblanche had found it, bought it and restored it to its former glory. Well done Ty! What a beaut!

1938 Buick coupe2
– here’s the actual Buick we frew wif a stone decades ago! Martha and My Man Friday cruised around the metropolis of Harrismith ca. 1960’s –

With childish logic and mischief we’d occasionally throw it wif a stone (as we’d mockingly say). Always missed, mind you.

The redoubtable Martha McDonald, asked one day if she had any children replied in the negative, adding loftily “My husband is too much of a gentleman.”

~~~oo0oo~~~

Here’s a better angle to showcase those beautiful lines:

Buick 1938

From the front it’s much like other cars of its era, but from the side and half-back you can see why it gets so many oohs and aahs!

Buick sports coupe 66s 1938

edit March 2019: I read in Leon Strachan’s first book about Harrismith ‘Blafboom’ that Martha had actually bought this gorgeous 1938 Buick Century Sports Coupe 66S from Nic Wessels; and that she lived in Murray Street.

for some images, my thanks to conceptcarz.com and powerful-cars.com

~~~oo0oo~~~

Later, Carrie Friday became an organ donor:

– the Methodists get a new organ for Mary Methodist to thump out her hymns on –

This year when Mom Mary put on a pirates eye patch to play the piano as she sometimes gets double vision ‘and I can’t play if there are two keyboards,’ I reminded her ‘But you used to play a double keyboard, Mom!’ She couldn’t remember that, so I must show her this picture of the My Man Friday organ.

– Sheila video’d Mom wearing a pirate patch –

~~~oo0oo~~~