I was born up Shit Creek without a paddle. Quite literally. OK, my actual birth, per se, was in Duggie Dugmore’s maternity home, less than half a kilometer away on Kings Hill, but mere days after I was born – as soon as I could be wrapped in swaddling clothes – I was taken home to my manger on a plot on the banks of Shit Creek in the shadow of Platberg mountain. And it was twelve years or so before I owned my first paddle. So this is a true story.
I paddled my own canoe about twelve years later after we lost the plot. OK, sold the plot, moved into town and bought a red and blue canoe with paddle. The first place we paddled it was in a little inlet off the Wilge river above the Sunnymede weir, some distance upstream of town. Right here:
Before this, I had paddled a home-made canoe made of a folded corrugated zinc roofing sheet, the ends nailed onto a four-by-four and sealed with pitch. Made by good school friend Gerie Hansen and his younger boet Nikolai – or maybe his older boet Hein; or by their carpenter father Jes? We paddled it, wobbling unsteadily, on their tiny little pond in the deep shade of wattle trees above their house up against the northern cliff of Kings Hill.
Good school friend Piet Steyl wrote of the wonderful days he also spent in the company of Gerie Hansen – who died tragically early. He told of fun days spent paddling that zinc canoe, gooi’ing kleilat, shooting the windbuks and smoking tea leaves next to that same little pond. We both remembered Gerie winning a caption contest in Scope magazine and getting reprimanded for suggesting Japanese quality wasn’t good. Irony was, the Hansens actually owned one of the first Japanese bakkies seen in town – a little HINO.
Gerie used to say ‘He No Go So Good’, and Piet says when it finally gave up the ghost he said, ‘He No Go No More’!!
Shit Creek – actually the Kak Spruit; a tributary of the Wilge River which originates on Platberg mountain, flows down, past our old plot and westward through the golf course on the northern edge of town, then turns south and flows into the Wilge below the old park weir; Sensitive Harrismith people refer to it as ‘die spruit met die naam;’
die spruit met die naam – ‘the creek with the name’ – too coy! It’s Die Kakspruit; always will be. Shit Creek.
gooi’ing kleilat – lethal weapon; a lump of clay on the end of a whippy stick or lath; spoken about way more than practiced, in my experience; Here’s a kid loading one:
Talking about the magic photo of the Soap Box Derby on 42nd Hill with Fluffy’s Dad Charlie in it, I got into an extended email conversation with my good mate from Mrs Putterill’s nursery school and Methodist Sunday school in the late 1950’s all the way to matric 1972, Leon Crawley:
Fluff: Amazing the dress code!!!
Me: Yes, from kaalvoet kid to full jacket & tie. And three ‘hoeds’. And a cop. Even the most casual of the ‘racing drivers’ has long pants on. I see your Dad clearly, is that Michael Hastings next to him crouched over the reins with his chin between his knees?
Fluff: Yep, Michael Hastings; I sent the photo to Mom to see if she can identify any others on it. My Dad crashed his kart and came a whopper, apparently had no skin left. He was the moer in when we had our races on the old road, because of the accident he was in. He still owes me a hiding with the kweper lat (quince switch). I bet he is waiting for me in Heaven! But we will just chat about it!!
Me: By the time we raced down that hill the trees were tall next to the road, and it had become the ‘old road’, a new one having been built above it. Traffic volumes had increased and we could no longer just stop the N3 and all the Jo’burg – Durban traffic!
= = = = = Canoe trip from Swinburne = = = = =
Me: So we did the full Swinburne to Harrismith in a day? I remember being picked up at the bridge – I think the same bridge you once caught a huge barbel under – correct? You may remember I went again a few years later with Claudio Bellato. The river was up and we both lost our glasses, spent a wet night sharing one sleeping bag, which was only half wet, the other one was sopping; then wrecked the canoe, which I had borrowed from the Voortrekkers, on a tree block in a rapid on Walton farm. Charlie Ryder fetched us and we got the wrecked boat out two weeks later. Claudio lives in Durban and I see him from time to time. He still introduces me as “Meet my friend Peter. I slept with him.”
Fluff: Your Dad picked us up in Town, but we did not sleep over en route. The river was terribly low and we did a lot of foot work crossing or bypassing the rapids. We made the trip in one day. I can remember the trip you had with Claudio, jeez terrible to sleep wet, and that with a man. You fixed up the canoe in the backyard if I can recall. That fish: It was a huge barbel from the bridge and that with a split rod, Dad used for bass!! Haha early one morning standing on the bridge, it was still too dark to go down to the river.
= = = = = The Voortrekker Camp = = = = =
Me: I joined up briefly, thanks to you. Or to your description of the upcoming camp on Bok or Boy Venter’s farm! I remember the camp in the wattles, a campfire, canvas tents with wooden pegs – and not much else.
Fluff: I remember the Voortrekkers and I think our membership lasted until after the camp. A huge bonfire, that night; Boy Venter. That was about it.
= = = The 1969 South West Africa Trip . . That Kestell Trip = = =
Fluff: We have good memories of the SWA Trek and I still have some photo’s as well.
not of the group or individuals!! I will scan at some stage and put
them in mail.
The welwitchia plant; Namutoni in Etosha; the Finger of God; the ‘bottomless’ lake Otjikoto with schools of small fish – apparently the Germans dumped their weaponry in these lakes, close to Tsumeb. Did we go to a disco in Tsumeb?
The visit to the karakul farm, the meerkats!! Eish the price of that lovely freshly baked brown bread near Twee Rivieren….17 cents OMW – the price of brown bead was about 6 cents back home!!!
Lovely memories; Braam Venter was the guy from Kestell…and who were the brothers who played cowboy and crooks with .303 rifles on horseback!?
I can recall yourself, Pierre, Tuffy, myself who else was in the party from Harrismith?
Swakopmund’s Dune 7 with that huge Chevy bonnet that did not work!!
Me: Was the hiding “on the cards” when he died? Heart attack, was it? How old was he? That was such a damned shame. I can actually still feel (feel, not remember) how I felt standing in the kitchen at 95 Stuart Street when I first heard uncle Charlie had died. And here’s my old man turned ninety one after sixty two years of smoking and all that dop – cane spirits – in the Club and Moth Hall!! Each old toppie I see – and my work consists of seeing old toppies! – has a theory of why he has lived so long but I can tell you right now there’s one main factor: LUCK. For every “formula” they have for their longevity I know someone who did just that but died young. About the dop my old man used to say, “Ah, but remember he drank cane and WATER. It was the mixers other ous drank that stuffed them up (!!)”. That was his theory and you can say what you like, he’s sticking to it! You know you’re not drinking for the taste when your dop is cane and water!
I’d love to see the SWA photos. I didn’t take any. I still have the ossewawiel (axle centre – what’s it called?) that I got there. It had everyone’s names on it, but they’ve faded now as it has spent a few decades outside propping up my offroad trailer’s disselboom.
From HY I can only add Pikkie Loots and Marble Hall’s names. From Kestell I remember ‘Aasvoel’ and ‘Kleine Aischenvogel’. And my name was Steve McQueen thanks to you suggesting it then not using it at the last minute!
I don’t remember a disco but I do recall the beers at Karasburg and the oke storming in to ask Waddefokgaanieraan? Wie’s Julle? Waar’s Julle Onderwyser? Also the springbokke caught in the fence and the shout Ek Debs Die Balsak! from a savvy farm kid. I’d never heard of turning a balsak into an ashtray till that day! And the huge bonfire in the riverbed and sleeping out in the open and shifting closer to the embers as the fire died down. COLD nights! Also slept on the ground outside Etosha gates.
I’ll have to cc Pierre & Tuffy on this one!
I don’t recall cowboys & crooks and 303’s.
I got one letter from Fluffy in 1973 while I was in Oklahoma: Something along the lines of ‘Horrible inflation’ – it was the time of the fuel crisis – ‘a pint of milk has gone up to 6c a litre, and SCOPE magazine is now 20c!!’ Well, we were to learn a lot more about inflation and our Rand’s depreciation in the decades that followed!
Here’s Dr. Frank Reitz’s car OHS 71 on the banks of the Tugela River on The Bend, his farm outside Bergville. Pretty sure this is the car in the 42nd Hill soapbox derby picture.
Fluffy Crawley and I probably met at the Methodist Church Sunday School as toddlers, making us fellow-Methylated Spirits. We definitely both went to Kathy Putterill’s pre-school and then from Sub A to matric in school and Sunday school together. A fine human being.
kaalvoet – barefoot
hoeds – hats
the moer in – not happy
Voortrekkers – youth group for volk and fatherland – somewhat like Scouts, but less knots and more nots
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):
Tree planting commences on that bare piece of ground:
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.
More & more trees would be planted over the years by schoolkids and enthusiasts:
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.’
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.
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.
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!
Down the Mighty Vulgar River (Wilge really) in a borrowed canoe ca 1970. An Accord double kayak borrowed from the ‘Voortrekkers’ – Afrikaner Propaganda Volks Brainwashing Outfit – thanks to Ou Lip’s kindness. He had a good heart, Ou Lip Snyman, and I’m sure he thought he looked dashing in his Voortrekkerleier uniform.
I’m with my mate Claudio Bellato. He’s not a Voortrekker, even though his Afrikaans is bedonderd good. For an Italian. We embark in Swinburne.
The water’s high, it flows up in the willow branches making some sections very tricky. A branch whips off Claudio’s specs – down into the swirling muddy waters go his 5D cylinders (optometrists will know that’s no mean amount of astigmatism). His view of the world has changed from clear to er, interesting. He wants to go after them, knowing that Dad Luigi will take a dim view of the loss. I say “Are you mad!? You’ll drown!”
Later I lose my specs after an unscheduled swim and I go out on a precarious willow limb sticking out over the current looking ‘just in case’. “Oh!” says Claudio, “I’m mad to think of looking for mine, but its OK for you to look for yours?!” Well, mine are only 4D spheres I didn’t mumble, illogically. I must have muttered something, though. Optometrists will know that even with all my foresight, my view of the world was now also not pin-sharp. Rocks in the river would now be navigated by sound.
We paddle on in the blur, the myopic leading the astigmatic. I’m wearing my PlusFours. We decide we should camp while there’s still daylight. That night we share one damp sleeping bag, as mine’s sopping wet. Little did I know that for decades ever after Claudio would introduce me: “Meet my mate Peter. I’ve slept with him.”
The next day we sally forth, peering ahead and paddling tentatively, which we later learn is not the way to negotiate a swift current. The river forks to go round an island, there’s a treeblock, and we wrap the boat around the semi-submerged treetrunk. Our downriver expedition has ended and we’re marooned on the island.
This is new to Claudio, but it’s the second time I’ve now wrapped a borrowed boat on a flooded Wilge River. Fording the rushing current, I only just make the right bank and I signal above the roaring water for Claudio to SIT! STAY! on the island. DON’T try and cross this stream, its DANGEROUS! I semaphore in my best sign language. Then I turn and run off to the beautiful old sandstone house under the splendid oaks of Mrs Girlie and the Misses Marie and Bettie Jacobsz’ farm Walton to phone Charlie Ryder.
Not long after, says me, ‘A hundred years later,’ says Claudio – he comes roaring out in his pale green Volvo 122S in a plume of dust with a long rope. We pull Claudio off the island, but the boat is pinned to the semi-submerged tree. We only rescue the Voortrekkers’ green and white boat two weeks later when the water has subsided.
The Voortrekkers take a dim view of my treatment of their flatwater fibreglass Accord craft and rush me R50 – keep the wreckage.
I’m hooked on kayaking! I can do this! I think . . .
Fluffy Crawley and I were dropped off in Swinburne on the banks of the Mighty Vulgar in the grounds of the Montrose Motel with our open red and blue fibreglass canoe by my Old Man. We were aiming to head off downstream, camp overnight and finish in Harrismith the next day. This was circa 1970.
But we bumped into the inimitable Ian Grant who persuaded us to spend the night at Montrose. His folks Jock & Brenda owned Montrose. They agreed to let us sleep in one of the rondawels.
As evening fell Ian was up to mischief as always, and soon after dark one of the petrol attendants snuck up and slipped us a litre bottle of brandy. Ian organised a litre bottle of cream soda and we were set for nonsense. After a couple of quick shots I suggested we hang around and let the alcohol take effect and let the laughing begin, but as I was in the bathroom taking a leak I overheard Ian mutter “Fuck him, I’m drinking the lot!” so I came out and said “Pour!”
Well Ian was first and I stuck a bucket under his chin as his technicolor yawn started. Just then I heard HURGH! from Fluffy so I grabbed the little wastepaper bin from the bathroom and stuck it under his chin. It was a lumpy laughter duet.
Early the next morning I woke Fluffy and said “Come!” and we carried the red-decked boat to the river and launched it onto the muddy waters. Well, actually “launched” it because it touched bottom.
The river was so low we didn’t even get our shoelaces wet! A long spell of carrying the boat on our shoulders, stopping for a hurl, carrying a while till another stop for a chunder ensued till we found deeper water and a settled stomach and could paddle home.
Fluffy remembers: “The river was terribly low and we did a lot of foot work crossing or by-passing the rapids. We made it in one day, no overnight stop. Your Dad picked us up in town under the old ‘ysterbrug’.“
Dave Walker tells of a Tugela trip or race with Clive Curson when they broke and had to carry their boat for miles. They christened their trip Walkin’ an Cursin’.
Mine with Fluffy Crawley would then be Walkin’ an Crawlin’.
Just been given a picture of the very fibreglass craft we paddled. Sister Sheila, keeper of the archives, had it. Red deck, powder blue hull, wooden slats on the floor.
The mighty Vulgar river had risen! It was flowing way higher than usual, and had overflown its banks. We needed to get onto it!
So Pierre and I dusted off the open blue and red fibreglass canoe the old man had bought us and headed off downstream early one summer morning from below the weir in the park.
By the time we started the river had dropped a lot. Still flowing well, but below the heights of the previous days. This left a muddy verge metres high where the banks were vertical, and up to 100m wide where the banks were sloped and the river was wide.
When we got to Swiss Valley past the confluence of the Nuwejaar spruit, we had a wide wet floodplain to slip and slide across before we reached dry land, leaving us muddy from head to toe. Dragging the boat along we headed for the farmhouse where Lel Venning looked at us in astonishment. I don’t think she even recognised us.
No, You haven’t! You can’t fool me! APRIL FOOL! she exclaimed when we said we’d paddled out from town.
Pierre and I looked at each other and he said “Happy birthday!”