Jolling in the Harrismith Park

We loved the park down by the riverside. We’d go there on Sundays with Mom or Annie or both – in our light blue VW beetle ca.1959, or in Annie’s beige Chev Fleetline ca.1949. The centre of attraction at first were the swings, but the kiosk was the real place if you could get Mom to buy anything from them. You can read some dodgy history of the establishment of the park here.

Near the lake there was a cork tree, surrounded by a fence to protect it, as people would pull off the cork bark. The lake had some ducks, I think. I seem to remember feeding them at this fence, which was probly quite old by the 60s when we used to go.

Later the road next to the river became a focus, with its huge leaning trees that I just knew were going to fall down at any time! Then the suspension bridge which was great fun – some wanted to make it sway and some said Hey! Stoppit! Don’t make it sway! When we were even bigger, the swing from the willow tree a couple of hundred metres further down the road. It swung out over the river. Being a bit of a bangbroek, I remember my first swing and successful return to dry land quite clearly. And I remember teacher Bruce Humphries not making it back once and causing quite a splash.

By now another weir had dammed the river much further upstream at Sunnymede, creating a bigger and wider expanse of water, so not much motor boating was done in the park in our time.

In the fifties a zoo was added in the NW corner of the park. That’s a fascinating story in itself!

As time went on we used the park more for its sportsfields – there was a cricket oval, a rugby field surrounded by a 440m cinder athletics track overlooked by a big new concrete pavilion for spectators, a hockey field, a netball field and probably some jukskei sandpits for those stuck in the past.

The park was extended across the river, but the other side was not oft-frequented by us. I remember it mainly as a late night race track and a picnic spot for the annual MOTH picnic.

In our time, a caravan park was started on the town side of the park with a new ablution building.

img563
– view of the Wilge River from a bridge – the suspension bridge or the ysterbrug, not sure-
They named the lake
  • Victoria Lake

Personal memories of the park were about rugby games, athletic meetings and then later on, cars – cars before we were actually allowed to drive! ‘Borrowed’ cars. Stealthily borrowed late at night from our parents on a no-permission-sought understanding. The best was Steph de Witt’s black Saab. Actually Gerrie Pretorius’ Saab but ours for the night – ‘borrowed!’ We would hurtle around the atletiekbaan at speed , drifting sideways left then sideways right long before ‘drifting’ had a name. One night we hugged the final bend coming into the home straight and there was a moerse big bloekom stump in the headlights right in front of us! Someone must have seen our tracks and thought ‘I’ll put a stop to this!’ or ‘Ek sal hierdie bliksems wys!‘ How Steph missed that huge log I do not know, but we hosed ourselves and roared off. Instead of Yee Ha! we’d say Arrie-ee! (from a joke about camels . . )

On the other side of the river it was in Tim Venning’s light blue Triumph 2000. Actually Dr Dick Venning’s Triumph, but ours for the night – ‘borrowed!’ Tim behind the wheel, laughing his head off as we roared around in a cloud of dust late at night, drifting sideways most of the time.

We were good kids all in all though, of course. Nostalgia makes it ‘naughtiness,’ ‘mischief.’ Nowadays people would slate the ‘Hooliganism Of The Youth Of Today!’ Maybe adults did then? Tut tut, how wrong they were . . and are.

~~oo0oo~~

atletiekbaan – 440 yard athletic track – a cinder track

moerse big bloekom stump – huge ‘blue gum’ eucalyptus log or stump – over half a metre in diameter and three to five metres long. If we’d hit it, the SAAB would have been moertoe

moertoe – varktap

varktap – damaged

Ek sal hierdie bliksems wys! – I’ll show them! Ha! he missed! We were too rats

rats – nimble; artful dodgers

~~oo0oo~~

Later, a zoo was established in a corner of the park.

I Must Go Down To The Seas Again . .

. . to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking

Maybe Steph was thinking of Masefield’s poem when he suggested we’d done enough short jaunts with our parents’ cars late at night while the dorp was sleeping and good kids were in bed dreaming of homework well done.

Been to Kestell? Tick;

Been to Swinburne? Tick;

Been to Queen’s Hill? Tick;

Had a head-on collision with a hill on Queen’s Hill? Tick;

Drifting laps around the atletiekbaan in Pres Brand Park? Tick;

Donuts on the high school netball courts? Tick;

What was there left to do? Maybe this was the first sign of his lifelong love of the sea – in time to come he would sail a huge ocean-going catamaran and go deep-sea fishing on his skiboat off Sordwana. In those far-off days of our youth, all that was yet to come.

Whatever – (let’s face it, more likely Steph was just thinking ADVENTURE! REBELLION! ADRENALIN!) – he started us plotting a biggie.
It was certainly him who came up with the bold idea:
I know. Have we been to the sea? Does the Vrystaat even have a sea? NO!! Let’s go to Durbs, dip our toes in the Indian Ocean and bring back a bottle of sea water, and – as always – be back before sonop.

RIGHT!!

Ford Corsair
– Ford Corsair –

We must plan:
– We need the white Corsair, not the black Saab; It’s faster.
Here’s what it looked like except Gerrie’s was white. And four-door. Otherwise like this.

We must leave much earlier. We can’t wait for our parents to fall asleep; We need longer.

But not too much planning:

– I don’t remember discussing fuel or mileage or consumption. Those weren’t really fashionable topics in those days.

So Steph strolls into his Mom Alet’s bedroom, the one nearest the long getaway driveway, to talk to her as she lies reading in bed in their lovely sandstone home The Pines. At a given signal we start wheeling the Corsair out of the open garage and down the long driveway to Stuart Street. The driveway is downhill – that helps – and made of two long concrete strips – that doesn’t help: the wheels fall off the edge GghgGghgGghg! SHHH! shhh!

And they’re off!
There’s no beer this trip. This is more serious. It’s a journey, not a jaunt. We have a mission.

We roar past Swinburne; We roar past van Reenen; We leave the Orange Free State; We enter Natal; We zoom down van Reenen’s Pass; Past Ladysmith and on into unknown territory.

Suddenly: Flashing Blue Lights! Oh Shit! They’re after us. We slow down a little bit. Just to the speed limit. We sit straight in the car, no slouching. We practice ‘innocent face.’ We rehearse our story: Ja Meneer, Nee Meneer. The flashing blue light fills the car – then overtakes us and whizzes past and shrinks into the distance.

We slow down. We think. We reconsider. Wordlessly, we make a U-turn and head back to the big HY, City of Sin and Laughter.

Oh well, it was a good idea while it lasted. And anyway, that story about the bottled sea water is just a myth.

~~~oo0oo~~~

I must go down to the sea again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over

R.I.P Steph – Our histories are forever entwined. You are part of who I am. My sense of self would be poorer without those short-lived mad crazy daze!

Your long trick’s over and I have no doubt there’s a quiet sleep and a sweet dream for you. Whattalife. MANY a merry yarn we got from you, our laughing fellow-rover!

~~~oo0oo~~~

dorp – our village, The City of Sin and Laughter

atletiekbaan – athletic track; our oval, cinder track

sonop – sunrise, when swimming training started

Ja Meneer, Nee Meneer – Yes Sir, No Sir

Raiders of the Lost Saab

The black Saab is packed to capacity as we roar off in the dead of night to Kestell, that mecca of silence and stillness and, uh peace, I guess. Or was that Vrede? We aimed to fix that in our 1961 black two-door Saab 93. Riiing! ding ding ding ding Riiiiing! – that’s the two-stroke engine you can hear.

Steph, Larry, Pierre, Tuffy and Me. Warmly dressed against the Harrismith winter chill, we’re packed shoulder-to-shoulder, hardly able to lift our elbows to down the 455ml can of beer we each have. Black Label. It’s 5.5% so better value than Castle 5%. The sixth one of the carry-pack we’ll share. Tuffy’s empty can goes clanking along the tarmac before Steph has even hit third gear. Glugged. He’s focused. He knows the object is to get that stuff circulating in the brain soonest, to provide fun and courage and laughter.

– the occupants – Pierre, me, Steph, Tuffy, inset Larry –

When the Saab goes quiet we stop briefly to tap the fuel pump with the half brick kept under the bonnet for that purpose and we’re off again. Riiing! ding ding ding ding Riiiiing!

– Saab engine and corobrick spanner –

After cavorting on the gravel main street of Kestell and losing a tyre off the rim on one of our laps drifting – did I mention we invented drifting? – around the biggest thing in Kestell, the Groot Klip Kerk, we pick up the car to change the wheel as there’s no jack. Come to think of it, the word ‘domkrag’ might have been invented that night!

The guys at Jakes Grove’s garage kindly fix things for us and we’re away, heading for Jan van Wyk’s place on the way home.

Jan’s farm is a turn-off to the left on the way back home. He’s the sitting hoofseun at Harrismith se Hoer, 1970 edition. It’s 3am and there’s something we need to tell him.

Tuffy tackles an ox en-route

Driving down the farm road with its middel-mannetjie the passenger-side door suddenly flies open as we drive past a few cattle blinded by our headlights. Next thing we know there’s a dust cloud and some concerned moo-ing. Tuffy has launched himself into a flying tackle of one of the cows / bulls / oxen. We stop and Tuffy gets back into the car dusting off his khaki grootjas with a smug look of “that’ll teach them” on his dial. Long toms always went straight to the clever-witty-and-brave lobe of his brain, especially when he downed them in seconds flat. We didn’t know it yet, but he was practicing to be a parabat and a recce.

Arriving at the homestead all is in darkness. The dogs sniff us as we tiptoe into Jan’s room and wake him. Maybe we aren’t quite as stealthy as we think, as a voice comes from down the passage ‘Jan, maak tog vir hulle tee.’ His Ma. Ma’s. They always know what’s going on.

As we leave we spy pa Hertzog’s big Chev Commando parked in the open garage with a few big sacks next to it. Mielies, probably. Takes a bit of effort but we manage to raise it and push the sacks under it, leaving the rear wheels just off the ground. The beer is obviously still circulating, making us innovative, witty and irresistible. Oom Hertzog van Wyk probably had a good chuckle as he heaved his car off the sacks, we felt sure.

~~oo0oo~~

Larry left for home – Cobleskill, in upstate New York – soon after, missing the school photo session. We sent him this: Pierre, matric; me, Std 8; Steph, matric; Tuffy, Std 9

.

– a picture of innocence –
– as can be clearly seen here, I should have been driving – I’m the only one here who’d had his eyes tested –

~~~oo0oo~~~

Vrede – peace; the name of a town; dorp, really; misnomer

dorp – village; hamlet; no metropolis

Groot Klip Kerk – see the action picture of us drifting; It’s the building in the background;

middel-mannetjie – hump between the tracks in a rustic road to tickle the undercarriage;

domkrag – car jack; literally ‘stupid strength’; Us;

hoofseun – head boy;

Harrismith se Hoerskool – Place of learning; but without an umlaut: place of ill repute; place where you could learn some tricks;

grootjas – greatcoat issued by the army or bought 2nd-hand from army surplus stores;

parabat – parachute battalion; mal ous; jump out of aeroplanes

recce – recconaissance battalion; mal ous; jump out of helicopters

‘Jan, maak tog vir hulle tee’ – Give these drunks something to sober them up, would you? Moms always know what’s happening

Mielies – maize, corn;

drifting – right foot flat; steering wheel turned full lock; hold till you cannot see a thing from all the dust; turn the steering wheel to opposite lock; rinse and repeat; any passengers present should be yelling advice at the driver, telling him they should be driving;

~~~oo0oo~~~

Update: R.I.P – Jan van Wyk died in a car accident ca.2010. Shit.

Update again: R.I.P – Steph de Witt died in a car accident 2015. Shit.

An Old Mystery: Whose fault?

There were two reasons we ‘borrowed’ Gerrie’s 1961 black Saab 93 late one night: (1). If you don’t give a car a run the battery can go flat, and (2). We had Larry the American Rotary Exchange student with us, who might have heard that the Free State can be a very boring place with “nothing to do”. Especially at night. And also (3). A moving car is a safe place to drink beer in. These are facts.

Quietly wheeling it down the driveway we held our breath until we’d pushed it far enough, then quickly started it and we were OFF! Freedom! Beer! Speed! Steph was multi-tasking, driving and handing out the ‘longtom’ cans of Black Label beer his family’s obliging gardener had bought for us from Randolph Stiller’s Central Hotel offsales. My folks lost the sale because of their silly and pedantic “over-18’s” policy.

Tuffy always finished his before we hit third gear . . .

A quick routine stop to tap the fuel pump with the half brick kept under the bonnet for just that purpose, and we headed for new terrain.

We had already done the town athletic track and the school netball fields on other occasions, leaving our trademark donuts and figure-of-eights in the gravel.* This time our destination was the National Botanic Gardens on top of Queen’s Hill, stopping only once more to tap the fuel pump with the half-brick kept under the bonnet for just that purpose.

In the dark we met Kolhaas Lindstrom in his car. He was legit: He’d already left school and was a licenced driver. “Dice?” he challenged, and the game was on! Whizzing through the veld Rring-ding-ding-ding-RRriiing! It’s a two-stroke, remember?

Don’t believe the Minister of Transport, speed doesn’t kill you. Speed exhilarates. It’s the sudden stops that kill you. And the sudden stop and loud bang came as a surprise to us. Dead silence reigned until in an awed American upstate New York accent Larry exclaimed from the back seat, “We’ve had a head-on collision with a hill!” .

That broke the ice. The hill, meantime, had probably broken the suspension.

But no. A committee undercarriage inspection revealed all four wheels suspended in mid-air. Trying to gun it out left the front wheels whizzing around uselessly. Well, that is why there were five of us, so we man-handled it over the ditch and away we went, cleverer than before.

Forty five years later I flew in to inspect the scene of the mystery. Which was still unsolved and now a very cold case. The mystery was this: How could it be that such great and experienced drivers crashed? I mean some of us had been driving for . . well, months! And in not too many years’ time, we’d be licenced drivers.

I flew in via google earth. And there it was: A fault!! It was Queen’s Hill’s fault, not ours!

A great big fault – or ditch? – runs North-South across the whole hill. THAT was what caught us by surprise in the long grass.

Queen's Hill - Annotated

I have little doubt that if one were to measure its width you’ll find it just a bit greater than the wheelbase of a 1961 Saab93!

~~~oo0oo~~~

  • * Next time you’re wondering who made those ‘crop circles’? Think a) Homo sapiens; b) Homo sapiens subspecies pranksterii; c) Alcohol; These are facts.