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My Small Slice of Vrystaat

Born in Harrismith in 1955 as was Mom Mary in 1928 and Gran Annie in 1893. Annie thought “the queen” was also the queen of South Africa. Elizabeth, not Pieter-Dirk.

To balance that, there’s this side of the family.

Attended the plaaslike schools in Harrismith till 1972.

A year in the USA in 1973 as a Rotary exchange student in Apache Oklahoma.

Studied optometry in Joburg 1974 – 1977.

Worked in Hillbrow and Welkom in 1978.

Army (Potch and Roberts Heights) in 1979 and in Durban (Hotel Command and Addington Hospital) in 1980.

Stayed in Durban and got married in 1988. About then this blog’s era ends. (Post-marriage tales are told in Bewilderbeast Droppings.

‘Strue!! But also: Pinch of salt.

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The Lowveld Croc

Never mind the crocs, watch out for the hippos!

There’s a Crocodile River in Gauteng, so the river near Nelspruit that flows east into Mocambique and forms the southern boundary of the Kruger National Park has to be called the “Lowveld Croc”.

A wonderful canoe (kayak really) race is held annually on this river. The presence of hippopotamuses in the river adds a risk and a thrill to the two-day race. Race organisers engage with local farmers and wildlife people and trip the river in the weeks before the race in order to identify possible hippo hotspots which are then compulsory portages on race days. Sometimes a helicopter is used to do a scouting flight on race day morning, and volunteer paddlers also scout the route by starting ahead of the competing racers.

The year I did the race (1983 or 1984) I remember the route as from above Montrose falls to Mbombela town (formerly known as Nelspruit). The hippo were in the last pool before the finish in Nelspruit, so the race was ended a few km short at the last accessible spot before the hippo pool. I see they now start higher up and end the race above Montrose falls.

John Weston, Aviation and Motorhome Pioneer

This magic post is from deoudehuize.blogspot.co.za/ – do go and look, they are doing wonderful heritage conservation things in Harrismith! And they have a cool old car!

Maximilian John Ludwick Weston was a South African aeronautical engineer, pioneer aviator, farmer and soldier. He was probably born on 17 June 1873 in an ox wagon at Fort Marshall south of Vryheid in British Natal. He married Elizabeth Maria Jacoba ‘Lily’ Weston (nee Roux) a direct descendant of Adam Tas. The couple had three children, Anna, Kathleen and Max.

250px-John_Weston_family

Weston began the construction of his own aeroplane in 1907 at Brandfort in the Free State. This was the first South African-built aeroplane. He lacked an engine with enough power so he dismantled the aircraft and shipped it to France. In France he fitted a Gnome rotary engine (50hp) and flew it successfully in 1910. On 16 June 1911 John made the first flight in Kimberley establishing a South African non-stop flight record of eight-and-a-half minutes in his Weston-Farman biplane.

first-sa-plane

At the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918) Weston was appointed ground officer in charge of landing grounds in South West Africa and prepared an airfield with hangars and workshops at Walvis Bay.

For services rendered to the Greek Ministry of Marine he was made an Honorary Vice-Admiral in the Royal Hellenic Navy. Thus he was often glorified by the title of Admiral. Isn’t that delicious? The land-locked Free State had an Admiral!

In 1918, John Weston took his family on an amazing adventure in this motorhome, a converted Commer truck. From about 1920 for twelve years, he and his family traveled the world.

DSC_0464

The ‘Weston Caravan’, as it was called, was an extraordinary example of his tenacity and ingenuity. It doesn’t look like much from the outside and if the truth be told, the interior is enough to give anyone claustrophobia, yet this neat and compact arrangement of luggage and folding bed served them well. It could be removed from the chassis proper in a mere 10 minutes.

Remarkably, this ingenious ‘seven-by-fourteen-foot mansion’ ferried the pioneering Weston family on the kinds of far-flung adventures many of us can only dream about.

The purpose of Weston’s project was not simply to satisfy his lust for travel but was also an expression of his idealism. “To travel from land to land, to mix with the people of all nations…, to speak to them and hear their views, to study their institutions and their customs, that is his aim”. It was also a bold experiment in the education of his children: he wanted them to see the world, to be freed from the narrowness and prejudices of those who grow up among never-changing surroundings, who know nothing of life beyond the pale of their dorp or city, the beauties and the grandeur of the earth, or of the nations and races who people it, and adorn (or mar) it with their works. He is preparing them to be citizens of Planet Earth”

Their journeys included a fifteen month Trans-African trip from Cape Town to London, an odyssey fraught with challenges and tribulations. They had run-ins with elephants, occasionally had to float their vehicle across rivers on logs, and on occasions ‘entire villages of more than a hundred natives’ had to dig them out of mud and thick sand and pull them up river banks. Weston said “It can be stated without reservation that the indigenous people encountered on the African continent were all friendly and helpful“. There were no fuel stations dotted along the route and no easy access to fuel, water or spares shops. Even the girls became handy mechanics. In the Southern Sudan they suffered misfortune when the rains broke later than usual. Weston broke a bone in his foot and the two daughters were also laid up with injuries.

On their trips Weston used to fly the South African blue ensign from a long bamboo pole on “Suid-Afrika” as he called the truck. On the side was painted a disc with the inscription ROUND THE WORLD circling the following inscription:

Our mansion: seven by fourteen feet

Our field: the whole world

Our family: mankind

Today it can be found in the museum of the picturesque little town of Winterton, KwaZulu-Natal.

On his return to South Africa in 1933, Weston bought a farm near the present Sterkfontein dam in the Harrismith district and called it “Admiralty Estate”. One Friday night 21 July 1950 Weston and his wife were in the dining-room when they were attacked by three masked men. Mrs Weston regained conscious three days later in the Harrismith hospital, but John went on his last mission at the age of 78 on 24 July. It was his wish that his funeral should be quiet and simple. His body was cremated and no last word spoken. Lily recovered from the attack although certain permanent injuries persisted. She passed away on 14th April 1967 at the age of 91.

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Read a fuller story of this amazing man’s astonishing life here.

 

Telecommunicating, Clarens-style

TV, harbinger of kommunisme, arrived in South Africa in 1976. This in spite of the Nationalist Party’s Posts and Telecommunications Minister Albert Hertzog’s determination not to telecommunicate.

Hertzog had vowed that television would come to South Africa over his dead body, denouncing it as ‘a miniature bioscope over which parents would have no control’. He also argued that “imported fillums showing race mixing and advertising would make non-white Africans (or ‘plurals’) dissatisfied with their lot.” The new medium was the “devil’s own box, for disseminating communism and immorality.” The influential Dutch Reformed Church (the National Party at prayer) saw the new medium as ‘degenerate and immoral’. No doubt they had to send a few dominees oorsee to check and make sure it was as bad as vey fought. Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd was also full of wisdom, comparing television to atomic bombs and poison gas – “they are modern things, but that does not mean they are desirable. The goverrinmint has to watch for any dangers to the people, both spiritual and physical.”

Very prescient of them all – and this was even before reality TV.

But TV came to South Africa irregardless, only not to Clarens. Citizens of Clarens had to listen enviously to Bethlehem se mense when they spoke of staring at the test pattern or watching The World At War.

Then came The Dingleys and The Villagers, as well as comedy series Biltong and Potroast, featuring South African and British comedians, and variety program The Knicky Knacky Knoo Show. Also The Sweeney – in Afrikaans it was called Blitspatrollie. Things were now getting Crucial in Clarens! The frustrasie mounted.

Then: A breakthrough! Someone discovered there was TV reception on the top of Mount Horeb which looms above the dorp! Mount Horeb, where Moses got the Ten Commandments, was about to beam down much breaking of the seventh and tenth commandments – the ones about adultery and coveting your neighbour’s wife’s ass. Yes, Mount Horeb is near Clarens, as is Bethlehem and the River Jordan. They wrote a book about it.

What was needed was a ‘repeater’. A what? A repeater. You get an aerial to catch the signal, then a repeater, then another aerial aimed down at the dorp and voila (or ‘daar’s hy’): you have TV.

Steve writes of the “many trips up Mount Horeb. At one stage we enlisted the TV expert from the Bethlehem TV shop – Haas Das – and at another point a wind charger was installed so we didn’t have to change batteries every day. Two-way radios were used to speak to the manne down in the dorp, hunched over the test TV set:

“Hoe lyk die picture nou? Over”

“Nee man dis net sneeu – Over”

“En nou? Over”

Ens ens…

So that was done and TV arrived in Clarens to groot vreugde and great joy. The mense didn’t know it, but they had embarked on learning to speak Engels.

tv.jpg

 

And then it died. Wat de hel gaan aan? The battery’s flat. What battery? Ja, it has a battery to drive the repeater. O bliksem, so a roster had to be drawn up for all the townsfolk to take turns driving up Mount Horeb to change the battery and bring the flat one down to charge it. Daily. Every day. (Moses se Moses, he only went up once).

Porters Hella Hella (6)
Different home-made repeater aerial; Same battery-changing

Then there was peace on Earth and good will toward men. Except if someone forgot his roster slot. Then there was hell to pay.

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kommunisme – communism

fillums – motion pictures

box – doos

dominees oorsee – they sent preachers overseas to watch porn

vey fought – they thought

goverrinmint – guvmint (Pik Botha discovered the ‘R’ in guvmint)

Bethelehem se mense – Bethlehem’s people

frustrasie – frustration, impotence, FOMO

dorp – village

daar’s hy – there it is, Suzelle, voila

manne – the boys

“Hoe lyk die picture nou? Over” – What’s the picture look like? Over

“Nee man dis net sneeu – Over” – No man, its just snow – Over

“En nou? Over” – And now? Over

Ens ens... – etc etc

groot vreugde – great joy

Wat de hel gaan aan? – What gives? Whatsa happening?

O bliksem – Oh shit

se Moses – like . . . “that was nothing!”

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I wanted to know more about how they did this, so asked

The South African Radio League
The National Association for Amateur Radio in South Africa
Proudly serving Amateur Radio since 1925

and got a reply from Jaap:

Yes this is no secret, in fact we at the SABC/ Sentech, encouraged the use of TV repeaters for the smaller communities, and at one stage there were more privately owned “self- help” TV stations than those we ran for the SABC.

The right way to do this was to purchase a transposer, a combined TV receiver and transmitter that will receive a TV signal on one channel, then re-broadcast the signal on another channel. This could be UHF-UHF or VHF-VHF or VHF-UHF. Then you need a receive antenna and transmit antenna. Install on a high structure, such as a grain silo or mountain top. This transposers was in the order of 1-10 Watts output. This then would receive the distant TV signal from the TX station through a front-end amplifier on one channel before feeding into the transposer, and transmitting it on another channel.

The cheap and dirty, crude way was to get hold of a VCR with AV out, a TV tuner with a AV output, or even a modified TV set. The AV output would then be taken to a TV modulator, which you can buy off the shelf, and then tune it to a suitable channel, and then put the RF into a amplifier that could be home-built or even a commercial distribution (set-back amplifier ) connect it to the antenna and away you go. Equipment could be bought from your local TV spares/ equipment dealer, Ellies Electronics, Space TV, or even your local co-op store. Drawback was that only one channel, normally TV3 (SABC3) could be re-broadcasted like this, any other additional channels would have to have identical set-ups.

According to the law, such self-help stations had to be licensed by the SABC, but many of them did not bother to do so. Obviously the home-brewed equipment was very prone to causing interference as the amplifiers they used was not channelized, with no filtering whatsoever.

In all instances the equipment had to be placed so that the clearest possible signal could be received and the maintenance of such repeaters was obviously the responsibility of that community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Communicating, Clarens-style

Stephen Charles Reed was the laat lammetjie son of Vincent and Doreen Reed. Vin and Dor. Butch was the big black Labrador in residence.

Vincent was the Mayor of Clarens so although Stevie was by a long shot not their first son he WAS the First Son of Clarens.

In the holidays I would ring up Oom Lappies Labuschagne at the Harrismith sentrale. He would say ‘seker‘ and patch me through to the Clarens telephone exchange – their ‘sentrale‘. The operator lady would answer with a chirpy “Clarr-RINSE”!

Three Four Please. Seemed somehow wrong that their number was 34. I mean, Vincent was the Mayor. Surely it should have been One Please?

Anyway, Three Four Please.

“No, Stevie’s not there, he’s at the Goldblatts, I’ll put you through”.

Old Clarens, before the rush. Here’s the Reed’s store.

clarens2.jpg

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seker – sure

sentrale – telephone exchange

 

 

 

Charlie Crawley’s Chevy Truck

Behind the Crawley’s house in Warden street was an amazing garden. Huge trees and a fascinating big wooden shed, filled with all sorts of interesting stuff. And a fascinating big old green truck with a flat wooden bed parked under one tree.

Everything was big – industrial size. I remember long planks and pipes in shelves with pots and tins and everything. Everything. A robin nested in one of the pots on one of the shelves. I don’t know why I think it was a robin, but I’m sure I saw a bird’s nest there anyway. Leon confirms this memory.

The old Chevy truck was quite unlike any other in town. You couldn’t mistake it. I checked with the old man. He says it said ‘Hastings & Crawley Builders’ and it was a Chev – “1934 or 1935 judging by the grille”.

I remember it looking something like these:

 

Close. But not quite right, the one on the right is a Studebaker.

Dad also says he thinks Charlie’s first car was a 1939 2-door Chev he bought from the mayor Sepp de Beer, whose numberplate was OI 1 (we were Oh Eye before we were OHS). That’s all I got from him on the phone. His hearing is a bit ‘Whut?’.

Chev 1939 2-door.jpg

 

 

Abe Sparks

I thought of Abe Sparks as the “Lord Mayor of Swinburne”.

Ever since he went to Texas he wore a stetson, cowboy boots and a string tie with a polished stone clasp. He was a larger than life character, colourful. He and Lulu were always very friendly to me. He drove an old Rolls Royce which he’d converted into a pickup truck. It looked something like this:

Rolls Royce Abe Sparks

I have a clear childhood memory of it parked in Stuart Street near the corner of Retief Street, opposite the Post Office.

He and Lulu would throw big parties and the story goes – yes, the old story goes – that one night they decided to cook the mushrooms they had gathered in the veld that day. To be safe they fed some to the dog and asked the kitchen staff to keep an eye on it for the next hour or so. They continued partying up a storm with the grog flowing and then ate supper and carried on until one of the staff came in to say “Baas die hond is dood” (Sir the dog has died).

Panic ensued as they all bundled into cars and rushed off to the Harrismith Hospital twelve miles away, had their stomachs pumped out and returned much later to the farm looking chastened, wan and sober.

Next morning they asked to see the dog and were shown where it lay dead and mangled. It had been run over by a passing car.

 

The Grand Old Man of Harrismith

Janet & Stewart Bain – Royal Hotel Harrismith
  • Stewart Bain came to Harrismith in 18__
  • Became Mayor of the town and ‘reigned’ for years, becoming known as ‘The Grand Old Man of Harrismith’
  • Pushed for the building of a very smart town hall. Some thought it was way too fancy – and too expensive – and called it “Bain’s Folly”

He died in 1939 and the town pulled out the stops for his funeral:

Stewart Bain 1939.jpg

I thought I remembered that, despite the fact that every dorp has a Royal Hotel, the Harrismith Royal Hotel was one of only two that could officially call itself ‘Royal’. Sheila has confirmed that I have a flawless memory (well, something along those lines):

Royal Hotel article

Here you have Platberg mountain & Town Hall seen from the Royal Hotel:

Oupa's bible and Grandpa Bain's funeral
Oupa Bain’s funeral from the Royal Hotel balcony