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2_Free State / Vrystaat 7_Confessions 8_Nostalgia

The Harrismith Park

A decision to make a park on the banks of the Wilge River on the south-west edge of Harrismith town was made by the newly-established town council in 1877 (the council having been established just two years earlier).
Mainly thanks to the efforts of the Landdrost Mr. Warden who came to Harrismith in 1884, and Harrismith’s first Town Clerk Mr. A. Milne, the area was laid out with winding roads, walking paths, a “lovers lane of poplar trees” and a variety of other trees (up to 38 species) in what park enthusiasts described as “a bare, crude piece of ground” but which was probably really open highveld grassland.

The troops stationed in the town around the time of the Anglo-Boer War erected the suspension bridge seen above, near where the Hamilton sandstone and iron bridge is today (named after Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams, Lieutenant-Governor of the then Orange River Colony):
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Tree planting commences on that bare piece of ground:

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The river was narrow and shallow at the time and so an attractive little lake with a central island was added and used for boating. Swans were introduced from London ‘for beauty’ (as for trees, so all local life was regarded as inferior to things imported from “home”!). The swans did quite well, cygnets being sold for £15 a pair, but they met their end at the hand of ‘some unidentified vandal with a .22 gun.’ As the trees grew, so more and more birds roosted in them, large heronries eventually being established. Predictably people complained and as predictably, the council ‘did something about it,’ shooting the birds and causing a big stink when their carcasses dropped into the lake!

In 1887 the lake was named Victoria Lake in honour of the Queen of England’s silver jubilee (along with thousands of other things named ‘Victoria’ that year around the world in a mass-hysterical colonial spate of arse-creeping!). The park itself was called the President Brand Park (when?), similarly to curry favour, no doubt – this time local favour, not far away ‘little island called home’ favour.

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More & more trees would be planted over the years by schoolkids and enthusiasts:
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At ‘a colourful ceremony with troops on parade and a military band in attendance,’ the park was officially opened in 1906 by Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams, Lieutenant-Governor of the Orange River Colony.

In 1907 the river was dammed by a weir just downstream of the park, thus creating a wider and deeper river for the full length of the park, greatly adding to its charm and allowing for swimming, more boating and bigger boats – even the first motorboat in 1918, owned by Mr E.H Friday. Later a boat house and a landing stage were erected by the Boating Syndicate who advertised ‘Boats for Two and boats for Four and boats for All’ in 1922. The Syndicate graduated to a motor launch capable of taking 14 passengers slowly along the river, including full-moon evenings where people would sing the songs of the day accompanied by ‘the plaintive sounds of the ukelele.’

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On the edge of the park nearest town sportsfields were laid out, starting with a cricket oval and an athletic track, then rugby, soccer, softball and hockey fields, and jukskei lanes.

The park was extended across the river and a new suspension bridge about 300 yards downstream replaced the one the military had erected. The thrifty town council using some of the metal from the original in the replacement. Jolly good. In time, a caravan park was started, but this was soon moved to the town side of the park.

An impressive entrance gate of wrought iron between sandstone pillars was erected and named the Warden-Milne gate in honour of those who had done so much to get the park established.

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They named the lake
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– the Wilge in high flood –

Thanks to Harrismith Historian Biebie de Vos for most source material, and to SA Watts’ military history article


Personal memories of the park were about cars – cars before we were actually allowed to drive! On the town side in 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 – about half a metre to 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! You missed!

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

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1_Harrismith 2_Free State / Vrystaat 7_Confessions 8_Nostalgia

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. 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.

– the occupants –

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 brick 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.

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.

~~~oo0oo~~~

Larry left for home – Cobleskill, New York – soon after, missing the school photo session. We sent him this:

– 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~~~~

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;

‘Jan, maak tog vir hulle tee’ – Give these drunks something to sober them up, would you?;

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~~~

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

Categories
2_Free State / Vrystaat 7_Confessions 8_Nostalgia

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.

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 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!” .

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~~~