Save Precarious Platberg!

Platberg, overlooking the town of Harrismith in the Free State, is an inselberg that presents a refuge for indigenous plants and animals. And its status is precarious.

‘Little is known about the different taxa of Platberg and hence a detailed floristic and ecological survey was undertaken in 2009 by UNISA’s Robert F. Brand, Leslie R. Brown and Pieter J. du Preez to quantify threats to the native flora and to establish whether links exist with higher-altitude Afro-alpine flora occurring on the Drakensberg. Vegetation surveys provide information on the different plant communities and plant species present and form the basis of any management plan for a specific area. No extensive vegetation surveys had been undertaken on Platberg prior to this study;

Only limited opportunistic floristic collections were done:

Firstly in the mid-1960s by Mrs. Jacobs. These vouchers were mounted and authenticated in 2006 and are now housed at the Geo Potts Herbarium, Botany Department, University of the Free State;

Secondly 50 relevés were sampled between 1975 and 1976 by Professor H.J.T. Venter, Department of Genetics and Plant Sciences, University of the Free State.

Mucina & Rutherford 2006 say: ‘Platberg is the single largest and best preserved high-altitude grassland in the Free State. ‘ I say 2019: Look how tiny it is! You can hardly see Platberg on this map of all nearby high altitude places. Yet this is our single largest tiny piece of this grassland left! The authors plead: ‘As an important high-altitude grassland, it is imperative that Platberg be provided with protection legislated on at least a provincial level.’ At present, Platberg is still municipal, with very little protection!

That tiny island above the ‘th’ in Harrismith = Platberg
Harrismith townlands
Harrismith townlands

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The UNISA study found 669 plant species in Platberg’s 30km2 area. To compare, Golden Gate Highlands park has 556 species in 48km2.

Koedoe, African Protected Area Conservation and Science, is a peer-reviewed, open access journal published since 1958, which promotes protected area and biodiversity science and conservation in Africa.

Platberg’s altitude ranges from 1 900m to 2 394m ASL. The surface area covers approximately 3 000ha. The slopes are steep with numerous vegetated gullies and boulder scree slopes below vertical cliffs that are 20m to 45m high. Waterfalls cascade down the southern cliffs after rain. A permanent stream arising from the Gibson Dam on the undulating plateau flows off the escarpment and cascades as a waterfall.From a distance, Platberg appears to have a distinct flat top. However, once on the summit the plateau is found to be undulating, with rolling grass-covered slopes. The vegetation of the plateau is dominated by grassland, with a few rocky ridges, sheet rock and rubble patches, as well as numerous seasonal wetlands and a permanent open playa (pan) on its far western side. Woody patches of the genera Leucosidea, Buddleja, Kiggelaria, Polygala, Heteromorpha and Rhus shrubs, as well as the indigenous Mountain bamboo Thamnocalamus tessellatus, grow along the base of the cliffs. The shrubland vegetation is concentrated on the cool (town) side of Platberg, on sandstone of the Clarens Formation, in gullies, on scree slopes, mobile boulder beds, and on rocky ridges. Shrubs and trees also occur in a riparian habitat in the south-facing cleft, in which the only road ascends steeply to the summit up Flat Rock Pass. Platberg falls within the Grassland Biome, generally containing short to tall sour grasses. Platberg is a prominent isolated vegetation ‘island’ with affinities to the Drakensberg Grassland Bioregion, embedded in a lower lying matrix of Eastern Free State Sandy Grassland. Platberg also has elements of Fynbos, False Karoo and Succulent Karoo, as well as elements of Temperate and Transitional Forest, specifically Highland Sourveld veld types.

Spot Platberg’s highest point, Mtabazwe 2394m ASL
Looking from highpoint Mtabazwe towards Boobejaanskop eastern tip

I wonder if there are any grey rhebok left?

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inselberg – from the German words Insel, meaning ‘island,’ and Berg, meaning ‘mountain,’ the word first appeared in English in 1913, apparently because German explorers thought isolated mountains rising from the plains of southern Africa looked like islands in the midst of the ocean. Geologically speaking, an inselberg is a hill of hard volcanic rock that has resisted wind and weather and remained strong and tall as the land around it eroded away. Wikipedia says in South Africa it could also be called a koppie but I think we’d klap anyone who called our mountain or inselberg Platberg a ‘koppie’

koppie – a smaller thing than Platberg; Just west of Platberg is Loskop; you can call that a koppie, maybe

relevé – in population ecology, a plot that encloses the minimal area under a species-area curve

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Aside: Talking of special places, and in this case special high altitude grasslands, who knew of the Korannaberg near the mighty metropolis of Excelsior of dominees-wat-meidenaai fame? It has 767 plant species in its 130km2! It sure looks like a must-visit place! 227 bird species too.

dominees-wat-meidenaai – practicing what you preach against

Early Daze

My first recollections are of life on the plot outside Harrismith, playing with Enoch and Casaia, childhood companions, kids of Lena Mazibuko, who looked after us as Mom and Dad worked in town. The plot was was called Birdhaven – Dad kept big aviaries – and was in the shadow of Platberg. I remember Lena as kind and loving – and strict!

1955 Koos with aviaries

The pigeon aviaries – and me

What I remember is suddenly “knowing” it was lunchtime and looking up at the dirt road above the farmyard that led to town. Sure enough, right about then a cloud of dust would appear and Mom & Dad would arrive for their lunch and siesta, having locked up the Platberg bottle store at 1pm sharp. I could see them coming along the road and then sweeping down the long driveway to park near the rondavel at the back near the kitchen door. They would eat lunch, have a short lie-down and leave in time to re-open at 2pm. I now know the trip was exactly 3km door-to-door, thanks to google maps.

Every day I “just knew” they were coming. I wonder if I actually heard their approach and then “knew”? Or was it an inner clock? Here’s an old 8mm movie of the Ford Prefect on the Birdhaven circular driveway – four seconds of action:

birdhaven

1. Ruins of our house; 2. Dougie Wright, Gould & Ruth Dominy’s place; 3. Jack Levick’s house; 4. The meandering Kak Spruit. None of those houses on the left were there back then.

Back then they would buzz home in the tiny green and black Ford Prefect or the beige Morris Isis, not yet the little powder-blue Beetle.

Our nearest neighbour was Jack Levick and he had a pet crow that said a few words. We had a white Sulphur-crested Cockatoo Jacko that didn’t, and an African Grey parrot Cocky who said more. A tame-ish Spotted Eagle Owl would visit at night. Our next neighbours were Ruth and Gould Dominy and Ruth’s son Dougie Wright on Glen Khyber. They were about 500m further down the road towards the mountain, across the Kak Spruit over a little bridge. Doug’s cottage was on the left next to the spruit that came down from Khyber Pass and flowed into the bigger spruit; The big house with its sunny glassed-in stoep was a bit further on the right. Ruth and a flock of small dogs would serve Gould his tea in a teacup the size of a big deep soup bowl.

Jacko the sulphur-crested cockatoo

Jacko the sulphur-crested cockatoo outside the rondavel

Judas Thabethe lived on the property and looked after the garden. I remember him as old, small and bearded. He lived in a hovel of a hut across a donga and a small ploughed field to the west of our house. He had some sort of cart – animal-drawn? self-drawn? Self-drawn, I think.

Koos

Me and Sheila on the front lawn – 1956

Other things I remember are driving out and seeing white storks in the dead bluegum trees outside the gate – those and the eagle owl being the first wild birds I ‘spotted’ in my still-ongoing birding life; I remember the snake outside the kitchen door;

1990 Birdhaven Mum & Dad in the Kitchen

Scene of the rinkhals leap – this taken thirty years later, in 1990

I don’t remember but have been told that my mate Donald Coleman, two years older, would walk the 1.1km from his home on the edge of town to Birdhaven to visit me. Apparently his Mom Jean would phone my Mom Mary on the party line and ask “Do you have a little person out there?” if she couldn’t find him.

1990 Birdhaven Mum & Dad on the front veranda

1990 pic Mom & Dad near where the 1956 pic was taken

1955 Barbs Birdhaven tyre Dad.jpg

Fun on the lawn – and Bruno the doberman

Bruno the doberman came from Little Switzerland on Oliviershoek pass down the Drakensberg into Natal. Leo and Heather Hilcovitz owned and ran it – “very well” according to Dad. Leo came into town once with a few pups in the back of his bakkie. Dad said I Want One! and gave him a pocket of potatoes in exchange for our Bruno. He lived to good age and died at 95 Stuart Street after we’d moved to town.

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rondavel – circular building with a conical roof, often thatched;

spruit – stream; kak spruit: shit stream; maybe it was used as a sewer downstream in town in earlier days?

stoep – veranda

donga – dry, eroded watercourse; gulch, arroyo; scene of much play in our youth;

bakkie – pickup truck

A newsflash the year I was born – check the cars.

Platberg’s Flat Rock Pass

The eastern-most pass up Harrismith’s Platberg is the fabled Donkey Pass. We called it Flat Rock Pass. Mountain Passes South Africa says it’s the sixth highest above sea level, and the second steepest pass in South Africa.

The road traverses a nature reserve and you need a permit to drive up. The steep parts – with sections as steep as 1:3 – are concrete stripped to aid traction. 4X4 and low range is essential for a safe and – especially – non-destructive ascent.

For those that do get to drive this amazing pass, you will be one of a select few to have done so.

On top you’ll find Gibson Dam, built by British soldiers soon after the Boer War.

Other passes on Platberg’s south side – the side facing the town – are Khyber Pass, ZigZag Pass and One Man’s Pass. They’re all footpaths only though.

Hopefully Platberg’s custodians limit the number of vehicles they allow on top to keep the mountain top as undamaged as possible. Sensitive wetlands!

Here’s the extent of Harrismith’s townlands:

Harrismith Townlands

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pics from dangerous roads and mountain passes of SA. Thanks!

Cosmos Niks

Mom Mary in the cosmos outside Witsieshoek back ca. 1970:

Mary Cosmos Witsieshoek2.jpg

Sheila years later at the foot of the eastern tip of Platberg – some call it Bobbejaankop:

Sheila cosmos Platberg.JPG

Sheila sent a 2018 pic of Brenda Sharratt in the cosmos behind Platberg:

Brenda_Sharratt_cosmos_Platberg[1].jpg

Apparently cosmos got here in horsefeed imported from Argentina during the Boer War for the Poms’ horses. Hopefully only the seed, as the greenery must have tasted foul! It has a pungent smell.

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wikipedia: Cosmos is native to scrub and meadowland in Mexico where most of the species occur, as well as the USA, Central America and South America as far south as Paraguay.  One mainly Mexican species, Cosmos bipinnatus, is naturalized and widespread over the high eastern plains of South Africa. It has also spread to the West Indies, Italy, Australia and Asia.

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cosmos niks – free! literally ‘costs nothing’

Cosmos

pic from Getaway mag

Good Lord, Deliver us!

I really needed to take a hike, I really did.

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, son of hizzonner the Worshipful Lord Mayor of Nêrens (aka Clarens) and fellow optometry student in Jo’burg to accompany me. Sucker, he agreed.

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’. Pine forest. We could discern two types of pines, I’m sure there are more, but the type we liked had 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.

Gibson Dam furrow

The furrow on top

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 raked together a huge pile for a gorilla mattress and lay down to gaze at the stars through the trees. This was 1974, we were eerste jaar 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:

sonogram-fiery-necked-nightjar

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.

Here you can hear it as we heard it that night.

Fiery-necked nightjar_2.jpg

Next morning we hiked on, past the beautiful eastern tip of Platberg – ‘Bobbejaanskop’ – and down round Queen’s Hill through some very dense thicket, across the N3 highway, back home and cold beer.

Sheila in the cosmos

Dense thicket in foreground

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  • Thanks xeno-canto.org for sharing birdsounds from around the world.
  • 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 – “Good Lord, Deliver us!” 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.

– 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!

Mary Bland Grew Up On A Farm

This was taken on my grandparents’ Frank and Annie Bland’s farm, Nuwejaarsvlei in the Harrismith district, 18 miles out on the road to Witsieshoek. The farm is now under Sterkfontein Dam. The solid sandstone stables (“five loose boxes”) were more stable (!) than the house, which was a long thin prefabricated structure bought from the British army on Kings Hill when they left town in 1913.

Her father Frank cut off a portion of the long house so they only lived in four rooms: A lounge, a kitchen and two bedrooms. They bathed in a zinc bath in the kitchen while Frank showered with cold water in a reed enclosure outside. Bath water was heated in paraffin tins on the coal stove. Lighting was by lamplight. The toilet was a long-drop outside under trees along a path of white-washed stones leading from the kitchen door.

Here’s older sis Pat pushing Mother Mary in the pram in the farmyard. See the stables in the background.

pat-mary-nuwejaarsvlei

Frank started to build a big stone house from sandstone quarried on the farm. Built on a slope it was level with the ground at the back, but ended in a high drop in front, which never did get the steps that were to lead up to the big veranda. The walls went up and the kids would roam around the big house, four bedrooms, big rooms, big kitchen but Mom says “no bathroom.” The roof never went on. The builder wanted many sheep (Mom thinks 200!) to do the roof and Frank balked at that / couldn’t afford it.

Other buildings on the farm were a workshop, Frank’s office and a garage for his yellow ‘Erskine’ tourer. It had open sides; when it rained you put up side flaps.

Erskine_Touring_1927

Later Frank bought a 1936 Chev Standard – perhaps like this one, but ‘light brown’:

Mom Mary remembers cousin Janet leaving the door open after she and older sister Pat had jumped out just before Frank drove into the garage. The door, she says, was “damaged forever.”

The Nuwejaarspruit runs from Nuwejaarsvlei down to the Wilge river downstream of Harrismith and then into the Vaal Dam. Sterkfontein dam was built on the spruit and drowned the farm under Tugela river water pumped up from KwaZulu Natal. You would now have to scuba dive in the clear water to see the farmhouse. The pictures are taken from roughly above the farm looking back towards Harrismith’s long Platberg mountain with Baker’s Kop on the left:

sterkfontein-dam

They called the hills on the farm ‘Sugar Loaf’ and ‘Horseshoe’. Mom loved the walks they would undertake with Dad Frank.

Annie also always drove. Frank said she always drove too fast. Years later the younger crowd John Taylor and Mike ___y said she should speed up – “to the speed limit”!!

Annie in old car
Annie & dog in a _____

Then the Blands moved into town – the metropolis of Harrismith – ca1939 to start a petrol station and garage, having lost the farms. In September 1943 had a colosistectomy for gallstones’ performed by GP Dr Frank Reitz. Mom went to visit him in hospital on her fifteenth birthday, 18 September. He died two months later, aged fifty. The next year when Annie needed an op she sent Mary off with Granny Bland to stay with Mrs Jim Caskie – ‘a huge fat lady’ – in the Echoes Hotel in Durban.

Durban Echoes Hotel Mom Granny Bland

While in Durban they saw a movie “This Is The Army.”

Luckily Annie came through the ordeal intact.

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Nearby farm neighbours on Kindrochart were the Shannons, George and Belle, with son Jack, a few years older than Pat and Mary. The Shannons also bred racehorses and achieved forever fame when they won the Gold Cup with _____.

When Jack had outgrown his Shetland Pony his parents suggested to him that he give it to the Bland girls on Nuwejaarsvlei. He looked dubious but his parents encouraged him.

“Will you do that?” they prodded him.

“Yes, but not with pleasure” said Jack.

Recently Sheila found a pic of Jack – probably on that very pony!

1920 Jack Shannon & Peter Bell
Jack and Peter Bell

Peter Bell (or Hastings-Bell) became a pilot in the Rhodesian airforce and tragically went missing in action in WW2.

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1930 Bland group at NJV
Jessie & Annie sitting with Janet & Mary between them – (then two unnamed guests) – Frank lying with Pat

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Decades later, here’s Mary in 1990 cruising above Nuwejaarsvlei in a boat the ole man built, with her old family home somewhere underwater below her:

1990 April Sterkfontein 50003

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The Erskine was an American Automobile built by The Studebaker Corp. in South Bend, Indiana from 1926 to 1930.

I Believe I Can Fly

I’ve always wanted to fly. Who hasn’t? But I dislike noise, so while my first flight in a light aeroplane (I think with an Odendaal or a Wessels piloting it?) was great, and my first flight across the Atlantic in a Boeing 707 at seventeen was unforgettable, it was a glider flight that first got me saying “Now THIS is flying!!”
We hopped into the sleek craft, me in front and pilot Blom (?) behind me. Someone attached the long cable to the nose and someone else revved the V8 engine far ahead of us at the end of the runway of the Harrismith aerodrome on top of 42nd Hill. The cable tensed and we started forward, ever-faster. Very soon we rose and climbed steeply. After quite a while Blom must have pulled something as the cable dropped away and we turned, free as a bird, towards the NW cliffs of Platberg.

glider-platberg  glider_onfinal

The finish at the Groen Pawiljoen grounds

“OK, you take the stick now, watch the wool” – and I’m the pilot! The wool is a little strand taped to the top of the cockpit glass outside and the trick is always to keep it straight. Even when you turn you keep it flying straight back – or you’re slipping sideways. I watched it carefully as I turned. Dead straight.

“Can you hear anything?” asks Blom from behind me. No, it’s so beautifully quiet, isn’t it great?! I grin. “That’s because you’re going too slowly, we’re about to stall, put the stick down”, he says mildly. Oh. I push the stick forward and the wind noise increases to a gentle whoosh. Beautiful. Soaring up close to those cliffs – so familiar from growing up below them and climbing the mountain, yet so different seeing them from a new angle.

see: https://bewilderbees.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/i-flew/