Once chosen as a Rotary Exchange Student in 1972, I had to get to Durban to get my passport done and – I think – some other paperwork; My big mate Leon Fluffy Crawley hitch-hiked down with me. On the way down – or on the way back – we called in at big sister Barbara where she was staying in the Pietermaritzburg YWCA. We met her friend Lyn there.
That’s about all I remember! Luckily, Fluffy remembers it too!
Other hitch hiking at school was to Witsieshoek with Claudio and Carlos.
The picture is the group of Rotary exchange students chosen in 1972 for 1973. It may have been taken at the airport, about to leave. If so, it was students from all over South Africa, leaving for all over the world. Kneeling next to me is the guy who went jolling with me in New York; Seated next to him is Eve Woodhouse from Durban, who ended up in a village Fort Cobb near mine – Apache – in Oklahoma; Right behind me is Lynn Wade from Vryheid.
Today fifty years ago was also a Sunday. I know cos sister Sheila kept a diary in high school and every now and then she pops out with an entry that brings back a flood of memories. Even everyday entries like ‘had lunch at (place) with (people)’ can trigger memories and start some lovely reminiscing.
On the 5th April 1970 she wrote:
Climbed Mt aux Sources, had lunch at the waterfall and climbed down again.
“My descriptive writing was still under development” she now says! She was thirteen at the time. I had just turned fifteen. Mother Mary was forty one.
Leading us were Mother Mary, Uncle Cappy and Auntie Joyce Joubert. Making up the party were two older boys, Etienne Joubert and Whitey Fourie; myself, Sheila and Deon Joubert, in descending age order.
Mom always knew all the peak names – from the Sentinel to Giants Castle.
The feature pic of the chain ladder is more recent – to show the surroundings – the second chain ladder on the right in that pic was added long after 1970. For wimps. Like airbags in cars, we didn’t have spare ladders back in our day (!!!).
Around April 1970:
Rhodesia under Ian Smith had just become a Republic, severing their last ties with Britain;
Apollo 13 was in space, having gone to the moon but not landed, after an oxygen tank had malfunctioned; The first moon landing had been eight months earlier;
We were singing 1969 and 1970 hits like – All Kinds Of Everything; Mama Told Me Not To Come; Build Me Up Buttercup; Crimson and Clover; Proud Mary; Come Together; and many MANY more! In the Summertime; A Boy Named Sue; My Baby Loves Lovin’; Ma Belle Amie; Yellow River; Beatles hits; Elvis hits; Creedence hits – a long list, seared into our memories, never to be forgotten.
I’ve never forgotten “kickin’ and a-gougin’ in the mud and the blood and the beer . . “
Norwegians in Witsieshoek were homesick and probably horny. They
longed to go home to Norway, so they rode their horses to Port Natal,
bought a ticket on a sailing ship and off they went, right? Actually
They decided they would build their own ship in the veld on their farm Bluegumsbosch in the shadow of Qwa Qwa mountain, load it onto an ossewa, trundle it to the coast and then sail themselves to England, seeking – and finding – huge publicity all the way. The huge publicity was because everyone knew it couldn’t be done. They were going to drown in a watery grave and everybody TOLD them so.
As always: pinch-of-salt alert. This is me talking about history I have read a bit about. A little bit of knowledge . . . you know. For actual facts and a lot more fascinating detail, including how their boat amused the Laughing Queen (Victoria herself, who actually ended up buying it), rather read Harrismithian Leon Strachan’s highly entertaining book Bergburgers which illustrates clearly that Harrismithans are amazing and wonderful people. Amazingly, some people apparently are unaware of that fact.
For starters, hello! what do you build a ship of when you’re living on the vlaktes un-surrounded by trees, just grass? Grass is no good, mielies are no good and ferro-cement has not been invented yet. The few trees you have are the bluegums the farm is named after and some small poplars you planted yourself on the bottom end of your werf ; and poplar wood is no good for keeping water out for long enough to do the Atlantic. And these okes want to do the Atlantic. Now I’ve no doubt they were drunk. I mean, join the dots: Three males, tick; Norwegians, tick; in the Vrystaat, tick; lonely, tick. They were drinking alright. They were a bit like ignoring the perfectly good bus that runs from Pietermaritzburg to Durban and running there instead; Wait! Some fools did do that some thirty years later and called it the Comrades Marathon.
Turns out there are trees in the Vrystaat if you know where to look: In the shady, damp south-facing kloofs there were some big old yellowwoods, excellent wood for ship-building if you’re inclined to build ships. So they didn’t use those. They ordered wood from America. I know! Mail order! But apparently this is true. Somewhere in America a pile of pitch pine beams and planks got addressed to c/o Ingvald Nilsen, farm Bluegumsbosch, foot of Qwa Qwa, Witsieshoek, near Harrismith, Oranje Vrijstaat and put on a wooden ship. Which crossed the Atlantic, got loaded onto an oxwagon in Port Natal and schlepped across Natal, up the Drakensberg, turned left at the bustling regional centre, transport hub and rooinek metropolis of Harrismith and were delivered: ‘There you go, sir. Please sign here that you received in good order.’
So how big do you build a boat you want to sail 10 000km in, knowing the sea can get lumpy at times? Are you asking me? 362m long, 23 stories high, 228 000 tons, sixteen cocktail bars, a massage parlour and better airtight compartments than the Titanic had, please. No, but seriously, this is twenty seven years before the Titanic set sail, and you’re building it in your farmyard in the Free State. Like this:
Now hey! Don’t laugh. Read on to see how the Harrismith-built boat fared, and read up how the Belfast-built Titanic fared! Both were trying to cross the Atlantic – just wait and see who did it better!
The Nilsen-Olsen craft was 6,7m long and weighed about two tons. They called it Homeward Bound, though they were actually aiming for England. Seems Nilsen had become very British. He had signed up with Baker’s Horse and fought for Britain in the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. He knew all the hoopla would be in English language newspapers in Harrismith where the Chronicle was already chronicling, Pietermaritzburg where the Witness was witnessing, Port Natal / Durban and in England, so shrewdly, he capitalised on that publicity.
All along the route people would look in amazement and offer advice (‘You’re never gonna make it’) but whenever he could – in Harrismith, Estcourt, PMB and in Durban – Nilsen isolated the boat and charged people a fee to view it and offer their opinion (‘You’re never gonna make it’). He raised so much money this way that in PMB he wrote: ‘. . had not the weather been unfavourable, we should very nearly have cleared our expenses, so general was the interest in the boat.’
In Port Natal the coastal people really REALLY knew these inland bumpkins were never going to make it and made it so plain that it gave Nilsen great pleasure some months later to enter in his log: ‘ . . sighted Ascension; this we found, in spite of what people said in Durban, without the least trouble and without a chronometer.’
Long story short – we won’t bother about details like navigating, surviving, hunger, etc now that the Harrismith part is over – they made it to Dover in March 1887 after eleven months, a journey that took passenger ships of the day around two to three months*. Nilsen sold the boat to the queen, who displayed it in the new Crystal Palace exhibition hall; he wrote a book with the natty title, ‘Leaves from the Log of the Homeward Bound – or Eleven Months at Sea in an Open Boat’, went on speaking tours where he was greeted with great enthusiasm, married a Pom, became a Pom citizen and lived happily ever after. I think.
Greeted with great enthusiasm, yes, but this was after all, England, so not all were totally enamoured. One commentator harumphed: ‘ . . Their achievement is a magnificent testament to their pluck and endurance, and one can only regret that such qualities have not found some more useful outlet than the making of a totally unnecessary voyage.’
What’s 362m long, 23 stories high and weighs 228 000 tons? – That’s the Symphony of the Seas, biggest passenger ship afloat as at Feb 2019
veld – savanna; no place for a sea-going shiplet
bergburgers – citizens of the mountain; Harrismithians
ossewa – ox wagon.
vlaktes – plains; not where you’d sail a 2-ton wooden boat
mielies – maize; corn
werf – farmyard
Oranje Vrijstaat – Orange Free State, independent sovereign state; President at the time was Sir Johannes Henricus Brand, Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, abbreviated GCMG ***
Bergburgers by Leon Strachan; Tartan Boeke 2017 – ISBN 978-0-620-75393-7
3. A Spanish blog with pages from the book dealing with their tribulations in Spain – a month on land which was arguably the toughest part of their journey!
4. Nilsen’s book ‘Leaves from the Log of the Homeward Bound, or Eleven Months at Sea in an Open Boat’. Here’s a reprint with a snappier title:
Two pages from the book: Arriving in Spain and walking in Spain looking for food or money or any help!
*** Enlightenment from the satirical British television program ‘Yes Minister’ season 2, episode 2, ‘Doing the Honours’:
Woolley: In the civil service, CMG stands for “Call Me God”. And KCMG for “Kindly Call Me God”. Hacker: What does GCMG stand for? Woolley (deadpan): “God Calls Me God”.
* The Lady Bruce, one of the twenty ships that brought Byrne settlers from the UK to Natal, arrived on 8 May 1850. The record says ‘their passage was a speedy one of 70 days.’ – Natal Settler-Agent by Dr John Clarke, A. A. Balkema, 1972. By 1887 the average time may have been shorter?
Mom Mary in the cosmos outside Witsieshoek back ca. 1970:
Sheila years later at the foot of the eastern tip of Platberg – some call it Bobbejaankop:
Sheila sent a 2018 pic of Brenda Sharratt in the cosmos behind Platberg:
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.
wikipedia: Cosmos is native to scrub and meadowland in Mexico where most of the species occur, as well as the USA, Central America and South America as far south as Paraguay. One mainly Mexican species, Cosmos bipinnatus, is naturalized and widespread over the high eastern plains of South Africa. It has also spread to the West Indies, Italy, Australia and Asia.
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.
That afternoon we went for a long drive out Witsieshoek way in the beige 1956 Morris Isis (no, not Islamic State of Iraq & Syria, just Isis, after the river in England that most call the Thames).
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 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:
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.”
The 1956 version 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.
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.
School holidays. We have to DO something or we’ll go crazy! Ma, we want to go and climb Mt aux Sources. How are you going to get there? We’ll hitch-hike. Over my dead body! or words to that effect. NO, I think she meant.
So two days later we get home – me, Claudio Bellato and Carlos da Silva – drenched, muddy and weary, having reached Witsieshoek, but not the mountain, as the heavens had opened up, torrential rain turning the roads into quagmires. So the mountaineering goal of the expedition had been thwarted, but the main goal – having fun – had not!
Where have you been?! To Mt aux Sources, like I said. How did you get there? We hitch-hiked, like I said.
One of our lifts was with one of the Trading Greys, dunno who exactly. The rain bucketed down and I learnt a lot about driving in slick mud by watching him continuously turn into the skid on the muddy Witsieshoek road.
As always, Mother Mary couldn’t stay cross with me for long. My companions on this adventure, Claudio and Carlos, loved it as much as I did.
The images show that same road in sunny weather years later. Then it was wet and gravel, not dry and tarred.