Early Daze

* updated *

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 one pigeon aviary – 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 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 on the road and then sweeping down the long driveway to park near the rondawel 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. The trip was exactly 3km door-to-door.

Every day I “just knew” they were coming. Wonder if I sub-consciously heard their approach and then “knew”? Or was it an inner clock?

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 were probably buzzing 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. And a tame-ish Spotted Eagle Owl that would visit at night. 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 K 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 K 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

Me and Jacko outside the rondawel on the plot with Platberg in the background. 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? I can’t recall.

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; 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

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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 decades 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.

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) 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 Hector 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 Joburg. 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 into Hector Street 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, but 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. The farm is now under Sterkfontein Dam. Here’s older sis Pat pushing Mother Mary in the pram in the farmyard.

pat-mary-nuwejaarsvlei

The Nuwejaarspruit runs from there down to the Wilge river 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 feature pic looks across the dam towards where the farm was. This pic is roughly above the farm looking back towards Harrismith’s long Platberg mountain:

sterkfontein-dam

Then they moved into town – the metropolis of Harrismith – to start a petrol station and garage, having lost the farms.

Nearby neighbours on Kindrochart were the Shannons, ___ and ___, with son Jack, a few years older than Pat and Mary.

When he had outgrown his Shetland Pony it was suggested to Jack 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

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1930 Bland group at NJV
Jessie & Annie sitting with Janet & Mary between them – (two guests) – Frank lying with Pat
Annie in old car
Annie in a ___ with canine driver

Here’s Mary in 1990 cruising above her old farm in a boat the ole man built, with her old home somewhere underwater below her:

1990 April Sterkfontein 50003

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/

Harrismith Mountain Race

Mountain-Race site - Copy

Way back in 1922 a Pom army major sat in the gentleman’s club in Harrismith and spoke condescendingly about our mountain, Platberg, as “that little hill”. What was ‘e on about? It rises 7800 ft above sea level and he was from a tiny chilly island whose ‘ighest point is a mere 3209 ft above sea level! Being a Pom he was no doubt gin-fuelled at the time. Anyway, this ended up in a challenge to see if he could reach the top in under an hour, which led to me having to run up it years later. Because its there, see.

I had often run the short cross-country course and twice the longer course, which followed the mountain race route except for the actual, y’know, ‘mountain’ part. I had also often climbed the mountain, but strolling and packing lunch. When I finally decided I really needed to cross the actual mountain race proper off my list of “should do’s” I was larger, slower and should have been wiser.

The race used to be from town to the top of the mountain, along the top for a mile or so and back down. Sensible. That’s how I ran it in 1979. The medal then had a handy bottle opener attached!

20141110_183249

Then some fools decided that wasn’t long enough (apparently a cross-country route needed to be 15km to be “official”!) so they added 3km of perfectly senseless meanderings around the streets of our dorp causing fatigue before I even started the climb.

Leaving town
Start of One Man's Pass Mountain Race 9

It gets steeper, then at times its hands and knees

The

Top of One Man’s Pass looking back down on the City of Sin and Laughter

Top of ZigZag Pass

The best part: On top, heading for Zig-Zag pass

The finish at the Groen Pawiljoen grounds

Run to A then to B and back (who added 3km of tar road!?)

Oh by the way, Major Belcher did get to the top in under an hour, winning the bet.

Some history from friend Etienne Joubert, who has also trotted the course:

The Harrismith Mountain Race held annually since 1922, was described as the ‘toughest in the world’ by Wally Hayward, who won five Comrades marathons, the London to Brighton Marathon and the Bath to London 100-miler! (More about a wonderful day with Wally).

It originated when, in 1922, a British soldier, Maj A E Belcher, returned to Harrismith where he had been stationed near 42nd Hill during the war. He was referring to Platberg as ‘that small hill of yours’, one Friday evening [lots of silly things are done on Friday evenings] and one of the locals (a certain Van Reenen – or maybe the chemist Scruby) immediately bet him that he could not reach the top (591 metres – just under 2000ft – above the town) in less than an hour.

The major accepted the challenge and set off from the corner of Stuart & Bester streets outside the old Harrismith Club near where the Athertons ran The Harrismith Chronicle the very next day. He reached the summit with eight minutes to spare.

During a later visit to the town, Major Belcher (now a schoolteacher in Dundee, Natal) found out that his record still stood so he took it upon himself to donate a trophy to the Harrismith Club to be awarded to the first club member to break his record to the top.  In 1929 the Club management, as the organizers of the race, decided to open the race up to the residents of Harrismith and a Mr Swanepoel, won the race to the top of the mountain in 32 minutes. (The last record time I have is 22 minutes and 9 seconds).

The race route has changed over time – starting in Piet Retief Street outside the post office and police station for some years. Nowadays it starts at the town’s sports grounds, passing the jail, then through the terrain where the concentration camp (second site) once stood, up the steep slopes of Platberg to the top via One Man’s Pass, close to where a fort was built during the Anglo-Boer War. After traversing a short distance along the top, the descent is made via Zig-Zag Pass, and the race is completed back at the ‘Groen Pawiljoen’ sports grounds.

A friend’s Mom, Alet de Witt became the first lady to complete the race. She ran in the year her husband, Steph and JP’s Dad Koos de Witt died tragically suddenly in January 1967. She then donated a trophy for the winner of the newly allowed (!) women’s category, which was awarded for the first time only in 1986.

Later the apartheid “whites-only” ruling was dropped and as soon as McDermott* stopped winning the race was won by black athletes, starting with Michael Miya who holds the record for the newer, longer 15km course at 1hr 03mins 08secs.

*McDermott won sixteen times consecutively from 1982 to 1997 and in 1985 established the “short course 12.3km” record at 50mins 30secs.