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.’

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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!

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*** 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”.

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* 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?

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

A bateau built by Lambot in 1848

Annie’s Kitchen

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. He wrote:

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 Euthemiou from Harries, would it?

Me:

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

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 to come and moer me for my insults. He was giving me a good and well-deserved whipping when Sheila came to my rescue, jumping on his back and beating him wif a bamboo, putting him to flight.

Good oke, he’s written a few books about Harrismith. I have one, Sheila has loaned me four more. He farms black nightshade (nastergal) and makes that mauve jam with black berries we called masawba – more correctly umsobo or sobosobo – of it. Also other jams.
They branded it ‘Annies’ after his rooinek gran. Like me he had a Dutch side Strachan and an Engelse side Davie. ‘Twas his rockspider gran what lived next door.

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 tarentalete 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.

Translation: Leon and Elsa Strachan make lovely jam (American: jelly) on their farm Nesshurst near the Free State / KwaZuluNatal border. They use Solanum nigrum berries, European black nightshade. Although parts of this plant can be toxic, the real deadly nightshade is a different plant. This one’s berries are a dull, powdery, dark purple in bunches, the deadly one has single glossy black berries.

strachan nesshurst museum
The museum on Nesshurst. Young 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.

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 Annies 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.

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Harrismith se Hoerskool – Harrismith High School

moer – thump; when Steve said it: educate

Rooinek – English-speaking; Pommy

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

blerrie lekker konfyt – bloody nice jam

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

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. It looked something like the one in the pic. I think a darker colour, though.

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. Here are two more conversions similar to his:

1915 Silver Ghost in Western Australia
1926 Silver Ghost in California

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.

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Baas, die hond is dood – Boss, the dog has died

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Leon Strachan, Harrismith 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 Sparks (one was 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

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This guy reminded me of Uncle Abe: Abe would have wanted this 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.’

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 cruising 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 was too much of a gentleman.”

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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