I grew up in Darkest Wildest Africa to the sound of lions roaring in the evenings and the early mornings. This is true. I would lie in my bed at 95 Stuart Street and if the wind was right, there’d be the clear, authentic sound of the ‘King of the Jungle’ roaring in the background. Except of course he didn’t live in a jungle and he didn’t roar – he went ooom OOOOM Oooom oom oom oom like lions do. Here’s how that came about:
On 1st June 1955 I was exactly two months old and in other news Mr CJ (Bossie) Boshoff was appointed as parkkurator of the now well-established President Brand Park by the Harrismith Municipality. It seems to have been a happy choice, as his entertaining letter about the history of the zoo, written in November 2005, fifty years later, attests.
He moved to Harrismith to take up his new post, which included accommodation in the form of the house in the park. Sounds good, but the house was ‘in a state’ due to the previous tenant living in it with etlike groot honde, so the house needed major cleaning and opknap. So much so that Bossie had to stay in the Royal Hotel for a while till the house was livable.
- parkkurator – curator of the HS park
- etlike groot honde – a few big dogs
- opknap – renovate
According to Bossie there was a runaway fire on Municipal property in 1958, and after the municipality had been paid insurance money for the damage, Bossie laid his eyes on a pile of fire-damaged treated fence posts, now written off, and he thought: As ek van hierdie pale in in die hande kon kry dan kan ek n kampie in die park aanle waarin n paar wildsbokkies kon loop wat ‘n aantrekking vir die publiek sou wees.
Once he was given the nod by the town council, he chose an area about one hectare in size just above the Victoria lake, and put a fence round it using those burnt poles, then put a road round the fence so people would be able to see his planned wild animals from their cars once he managed to bekom some wildsbokkies.
- If I can get my hands on those I could make a fenced paddock and keep a few antelope to attract the (paying) public!
According to Bossie, his first inmate was a mak ribbok ooi – a tame mountain reedbuck ewe (‘rooiribbok’) donated by councillor Mike van Deventer. However, according to The Harrismith Chronicle of January 1956 the first inmate was a blesbok ram donated by Hendricus Truter of ‘Sandhurst’. So it seems Bossie’s zoo had an earlier start then he remembers! Such are fifty year old memories!
More animals were offered ‘if they could be caught’ like two fallow deer by Lieb Swiegers. ‘Mes‘ Snyman would be asked to do the catching. After that the park was given a tame aap mannetjie – a male monkey, likely a vervet.
Then the floodgates opened and all sorts of pets were donated to hierdie toevlugsoord! The first of these was a female baboon named Annemarie, so now Bossie needed better cages. Luckily, he says, the town councillor in charge of the park, Pye von During, owned a grofsmit behind the Kerkenberg kerk, and willingly welded iron cages for Bossie.
- hierdie toevlugsoord – this sanctuary or refuge!
- grofsmit – engineering works
His next tenant was a blesbok ram who he thought was behaving a bit oddly – nie lekker op sy pote nie. On enquiry he discovered it was onder sterk brandewyn kalmering.
- Not steady on its feet – it had been given a strong brandy tranquiliser to relocate it!
Then he got a tipiese raasbek boerbok – a typical ‘loudmouth’ goat!
Next he was offered a lioness from one of the Retiefs from Bergville (hy dink dit was Thys). The asking price was fifteen pounds Sterling, and as with all finances, he would need council’s permission and a formal decision to be taken. He went instead to Soekie Helman, as he knew Soekie’s “voice was loud in the council at that time”. Soekie’s decision: “Buy the thing and we’ll argue later.” They did. Bossie soon noticed this five month-old pet was gentle for a while and then would ‘suddenly get serious,’ so he realised a strong cage was needed fast. Two high brick walls were built at right angles, a roof on top and a semicircular front made of strong iron bars was installed from the end of one wall to the other with a sliding door. Inside, a brick shelter was built in the back corner. The roof of that shelter became the lions resting and outlook spot.
At this stage Bossie asks impishly: Sien u nou in watter rigting die onskuldige wildskampie besig is om te beweeg?
- can you spot where this ‘innocent little animal enclosure’ idea is going? Growing!
Now there was a lion cage, and next thing Henrie Retief (Thys se broer) phoned from Bloemfontein to say he had bought a male lion which he was donating to what was now undeniably a zoo (not just a wildskampie) on condition that if ‘something happened to the animal one day’ he would get the pelt! The lion-lioness introduction was – according to Bossie – ‘Love at first sight’!
A lady ‘anderkant Warden’ gave them three small jackals which Bossie fetched and built an enclosure for. The increased enclosures within the overall 1ha camp now necessitated footpaths winding about between them, as most visitors were now on foot, no longer just driving around the perimeter.
Tannie Marie Rodgers donated a spoilt hans – hand-reared – duiker ram which head-butted visitors, his sharp horns sometimes hurting folks. Bossie solved this by putting .303 shell casings on his horns to blunt them!
The male lion grew up and his roars could be hear all over town, ‘to the top of 42nd Hill,’ says Bossie, and certainly at 95 Stuart Street where we lived. The lioness fell pregnant but died in childbirth. The male watched them closely as they removed her body. She was soon replaced by another from Bloem, who was placed in a separate cage for two months so they could grow accustomed to one another, but – alas! says Bossie – when they introduced them the male killed her with one bite! (this happens; and we don’t learn!) Later they got new lions: A male and two females. Bossie said they had to ‘wegmaak’ the original male – kill? sell? Did ou Henrie get his pelt? Wait – The Chronicle of December 1959 says there was talk that ‘a local farmer’ would take the lion in exchange for two blesboks which would be swopped for three lions from Bloem!
How common must captive lions have been? The three new lions cost them two blesbok ewes in an exchange! These were donated by Kerneels Retief who hand-caught them himself on his farm Nagwag from his moving bakkie at 45mph to Bossie’s amazement. So, Kerneels probably took the lion, then.
More on pricing game: The zoo later got two wild dogs and a warthog from South West Africa in 1959, swopped for two mahems! – crested cranes. In 1965 the Natal Parks Board donated six impala and two warthogs. I wonder which of the warthogs became ‘Justin’ the famous one the Methodist minister Justin Michell would feed and talk to on Sundays after his sermon? When he took it its weekly treat it probly listened to him a lot more attentively than your average Methodist, I’m sure.
In January 1964 three lion cubs were born. One was killed the same night, the others were removed and raised by Mrs JH Olivier. In 1966 the Chronicle told of two five month-old cubs for sale. These cubs had ‘been involved in a hectic incident’ a while before when two African attendants were tasked to remove them from their mother and she attacked them! Workman’s Compensation, anyone?
Two porcupines arrived at the zoo, and soon made a nuisance of themselves, chewing the fence posts. One night Bossie’s assistant Machiel Eksteen saw one in the road outside the zoo, caught it with a hessian sack and put it back in the dark enclosure. Only to find three porcupines there in the morning!
Mrs Lindstrom (‘Redge se vrou‘) promised Bossie a python from Pongola and duly delivered it in a hessian sack, saying it was 3m long. Bossie put it in the storeroom on top of the ‘mieliedrom‘. The next morning Tobie (‘the feeder’) said the sack was empty! Of course Tobie was told he was talking nonsense, but he wasn’t. A big search was instigated, the Voortrekkers were even called in but the snake is ‘missing to this day.’ Bossie says, ‘Just as well, as I don’t think he’d have adapted to Harrismith’s cold!’ Another escapee was a civet cat, one of a pair from Ladysmith. But it was found.
Then came their ‘biggest challenge’: A lady phoned. She was oom Kaalkop vd Merwe’s skoondogter (daughter-in-law). Kaalkop was the MP for Heilbron. Did Bossie want two Russian brown bears? They were her children’s pets but had grown too big and they were going for thirty pounds Sterling the pair. The ever-resourceful Bossie got to work: He went to business owners in town and said ‘You owe me one pound.’ Bossie says he badgered ‘Jan van Sandwyk of Harrismith Motors, Rheine Lawrence of the chemist, Redge Lindstrom of the tyres, Jannie du Plessis of the tractors, etc etc’! and by that same afternoon he had his 30 pounds and bought the bears, which, he says, made Bloemfontein zoo, ‘yellow with jealousy!’ Here, he says was a postage stamp-sized zoo in a small dorp that was now known nationwide! He and Pye made the cage of iron, with a concrete waterhole and some tree stumps, just what zoos of the time thought bears needed.
In 1963 a concerned resident wrote to the Chronicle about the poor condition of some of the animals. Mayor Boet Human and councillor Pye von During were interviewed and basically said ‘all is well.’
A large aviary was built. People donated peacocks, guineafowl, fantail pigeons, a tame crow, ‘mahem’ crowned cranes and an ostrich. And tortoises. It became ‘a certain status’ to donate an animal to the zoo, says Bossie – and he ‘appreciated that enormously.’
How to Feed this Menagerie!?
Suddenly food was an issue! How to feed the growing menagerie? They started charging adults a sixpenny entrance fee. Kids were free but had to be accompanied by an adult. But most of the meat for the lions was supplied by generous farmers. He mentions oom Frikkie (Varkie?) Badenhorst whose dairy had no use for bull calves and donated these. Mostly it was on a ‘yours if you fetch it’ basis, so Bossie would have to travel all over the district to keep his lions in meat. Farmers would donate their horses once they got too old to ride. The fact that many of these had names, and that they were still ‘on the hoof’ and looking at him when Bossie arrived didn’t make matters any easier for him.
One such was Ou Klinker, a Clydesdale used in the town’s forestry department. Piet Rodgers, the forester, told Bossie he could fetch Ou Klinker – but only when Piet wasn’t there! Bossie says usually when the shot was fired the horse’s legs would just fold and they would drop on the spot, but not old Klinker! When the shot went off he rose ‘like a loaf of bread and fell as stiff as a pole, says Bossie. And then he says ‘dit was baie vleis!’
- that Clydesdale was a lot of meat!
The local police also phoned whenever they came across road kill, and the health inspector Fritz Doman would tell him whenever he condemned a pig with measles at the abbatoir. One guy even offered a dog on a chain. But surely Bossie didn’t . . Oh, yes he did! But the lions ‘het nie baie van die vleis gehou nie,’ says Bossie. They did like the pork, however.
- didn’t much like the dog meat
To keep surplus meat cool, Bossie built an old-time ‘evaporation fridge’ of bricks and clinker in chicken mesh, kept wet so the evaporation cooled the interior. It worked ‘uitstekend’ (very well).
The Wheels of Change
Bossie took a job in East London, and without its champion this wonderful eccentric project was in a precarious position. A new town clerk DelaRey arrived and decided Harrismith was too small to afford a zoo – he must have been a beancounter! According to Bossie the animals were ‘sold to circuses, given away – and Harrismith is the poorer for it.’
Most of this source material comes from Harrismith historian Biebie de Vos. Thank you Biebie! Without you, Harrismith would have been the poorer for it!
More Research Needed
But here we need to find out what really happened with the sale? Can Mariette Mandy help? Did the Chronicle report on this? Where did Patrick Shannon, who ended up with the cheetah, fit into the tale of the Harrismith zoo? I heard he bought it lock, stock n barrel and then sold what he could, kept what he wanted and turned the rest loose! I know that I saw Justin the warthog floating pote in die lug * all bloated up, stone dead and smelly in the Wilge river when I was out canoeing one afternoon (about 1970 if my memory is right, so we can check that timing).
- legs sticking up vertically out of the water as I paddled past
I’d love to get some pics of the zoo from a distance or from outside, plus any of the animals. Who knows the general layout? I can draw a rough plan as I know where warthog corner was, where the lion cage was, and where the entrance gate was; plus the aviaries (and am I right there were vultures?). But other than that I’m a bit vague. Someone will know!
I also need to know if Biebie’s pic of a male lion is really one of ‘our Harrismith lions?’ – I sure hope so! What a magnificent specimen! I could hear him roaring uuuuunh uuuuunh uh uh uh uh lying in my bed on the other end of town!
Mom remembers a Mr Patterson running the zoo. His one daughter Mary married Jack Hunt; the Hunts ran the dry cleaners and were Steve and Jenny de Villiers’ loving grandparents. Another daughter Margaret, married Frank Mandy, Syd’s father.