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.

 

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Jock Grant

Jock Grant was a Harrismith legend. “A legend in his own lunchtime” as they say.

Fresh out of Scotland he joined the golf club and announced to the usual crowd leaning up against the bar in his broad accent that he was taking Afrikaans lessons.

“Jock”, said Jannie du Plessis, “We think you should first take English lessons!”

He started a plumbing business, married lovely local lass Brenda Longbottom and ended up owning the quarry, becoming famous for his loud booms which would rattle the windows of the town at noon, as he dynamited rock on 80th hill on the western edge of town.

Then he owned Swinburne. Well, the Montrose Motel, anyway. Not much left now:

Montrose Motel2

The entrance was around the corner on the left and as you walked in there was a pianola in the hallway.

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Ian Fyvie has a story about when Jock went over to visit his family in Scotland. On his return they were playing golf and Ian asked him if he had enjoyed the visit. Jock’s reply was very non-committal and unenthusiastic. Ian said “But you must have enjoyed some part of the trip! What was the highlight of the whole holiday?”

“When I came over 42nd and saw the lights of Harrismith!”

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Nick Leslie tells of going for a walk in the veld with Jock and Brenda. Climbing through a barbed wire fence Brenda got her slacks caught. Jock said “Well your name’s not Longbottom for nothing!”

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Dad tells of Jock’s big talk which was most unlike most of their Harrismith friends’ more modest approach. Jock could swagger. He arrived at a party (always there were parties!) smoking his big cigars and between puffs boasted “He wanted *puff* six million *puff* but I said I’ll offer you five million and not a penny more *puff*”. When he left that night Hector Fyvie said in his quiet way “There goes Jock Maximilian”.

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Jock brought his nephew Morris Crombie out from Scotland to join him in his plumbing business. Morris was invited to join Round Table and at his first meeting stood up to announce himself. In his broad Scots accent the lanky Scotsman intoned: “I’m Mawriss Crawmbie – Ploomer” and probably didn’t understand why the whole room collapsed with laughter.

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Mom was dancing with Jock at yet another party on Swiss Valley, the Venning’s farm. “Och, its smoky in here, I’m going oot fir a breath a fresh air” said Jock. Mom thought that was rich as he’d been smoking his cigars like a chimney, causing the haze indoors. He was soon back, muttering “I toook one deep breath ootside and I came running back in!” (He was referring, of course, to the famously strong smell of pigshit from the piggery).

Whenever any new guests on the farm referred to the smell the Venning they mentioned it to would look mystified, sniff around cautiously and then pronounce seriously “I smell money”.

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River Trip Swinburne – Walton

Down the Mighty Vulgar River in a borrowed canoe ca 1970. An Accord double kayak borrowed from the ‘Voortrekkers’ 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. 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 cyls (optometrists will know that’s no mean amount of astigmatism). 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 mine 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 4D sphs I mumble, illogically.

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 (mine’s sopping wet) – little knowing that for decades ever after Claudio would introduce me: “Meet my mate Peter. I’ve slept with him”.

The next day we sally forth, the river forks to go round an island, there’s a treeblock, we wrap the boat around the semi-submerged treetrunk. This is new to Claudio, but it the second time I’ve now wrapped a borrowed boat on a flooded Wilge River. Fording the rushing current, I only just make the bank and signal above the roaring water for Claudio to SIT! STAY! on the island and run off to the beautiful old sandstone house under the oaks of Mrs and the Misses Jakobs’ farm Walton to phone Charlie Ryder. He comes roaring out in his pale green Volvo 122S with a long rope. We pull Claudio off the island, but we only rescue the Voortrekker’s boat two weeks later when the water has subsided.

The Voortrekkers take a dim view of my treatment of their flatwater craft and rush me R50 – keep the wreckage.

I’m hooked on kayaking! I can do this! I think . . .

Jock with the Swanie/Bellato Vulgar River Expedition Voortrekkers’ canoe
Back home, Jock shuns the broken boat

River Trip Swinburne – Harrismith

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. We were aiming to head off downstream, camp overnight and finish in Harrismith the next day.

But we bumped into Ian Grant who persuaded us to spend the night at Montrose. Jock & Brenda 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 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 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.”

railway bridge wilge river

 

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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 be Walkin’ and Crawlin’.

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