Cosmos Niks

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

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Sheila decades later at the tip of Platberg – or Bobbejaankop:

Sheila cosmos Platberg.JPG

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

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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. You would now have to scuba dive 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:

sterkfontein-dam

Then they moved into town – the metropolis of Harrismith.

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 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.

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!

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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.

Early Daze

My first recollections are of life on the plot outside Harrismith, playing with Enoch and Casaia, childhood companions, kids of Lena, who looked after us as Mom and Dad worked in town.

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 between 1 and 2pm. 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.

Every day I “just knew”. Wonder if I sub-consciously heard their approach? 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. Kak Spruit

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 spoke. I think. We had a white sulphur-crested cockatoo Jacko and an African Grey parrot Cocky. And a Spotted Eagle Owl that would visit at night.

Jacko the sulphur-crested cockatoo

Me and Jacko outside the rondawel on the plot with Platberg in the background.

Theft & Punishment

Didn’t steal much as a kid. But I did slug down a bottle of Monis red grapejuice on the quiet in the back storeroom of the Platberg Bottle Store / Drankwinkel working for Mom & Dad one Saturday morning. You can see the door to the storeroom in the pic. Warm, straight out of one of those cardboard boxes all the bottles were packed in.

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Platberg Bottle Store – the dark side – Note that BrandyAle poster – booze “fights the high cost of living”!!

That afternoon we went for a long drive out Witsieshoek way in the beige Morris Isis (no, not Islamic State of Iraq & Syria, just Isis).

After a while the car door had to be flung open for me to have a hearty grapey chunder out onto the gravel road in the veld. It would have looked like blood, so I imagine a confession then also would have had to take place. Can’t remember.

I haven’t liked red grape juice since. Communion in the teetotal Methodist church has had me being possibly the only sinner rudely reminded of theft and puke every time the shed for you came round. Divine retribution? Communion? Confession? He does seem to move in mysterious ways!

Here’s the cave on the Witsieshoek road:

cave-witsieshoek-road

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As an aside –

The Morris Isis was named after the River Isis – which is actually just the Thames in Oxford. The Morris Isis was “designed for work in the Dominions, Colonies and Protectorates” . . . “the factory’s output . . . is entirely for export. Great attention was given to providing a low appearance without sacrifice of ground clearance. The all-metal 5-seater saloon body is stated to be practically indestructible and climate-proof.”

Morris Isis

It had the fascinatingly bizarre feature that both the gear lever and the handbrake were on the floor to the right of the driver, wedged in the narrow space between the seat and the driver’s door. When changing gear it looked like you were fiddling for something you’d dropped between your right thigh and the door.

Morris Isis gear lever

 

The Morris Isis Series II was based on the Morris Oxford Series III. The engine power increased to 90 bhp. The manual version had a four-speed box operated by a short gearstick located on the right-hand side of the front bench seat. The handbrake lever was located just behind the gearstick.

Sales remained weak, and the line ended in 1958. It had a top speed of 90 mph and could accelerate from 0-60 mph in 17.6 seconds. Fuel consumption of 26.2 miles per imperial gallon (10.8 litres/100 km) was recorded. The test car cost UK£1025 including taxes.

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Morris Isis interior