Against all odds

For purely practical reasons I am not a punter and if I do gamble I fully prepare to lose my money – I rarely win. If I do I get so exhilarated I blow the winnings on the next bet. I tend to bet on my gut feel; ’tis my Irish ancestors….

Just an aside before the main tale. For obvious reasons, I rarely go to the horse races: I usually can’t afford it and if I have some spare cash, I lose it quickly. Added to this is the fact that at the time I served on the bench as a magistrate in the city courts. As Dick Francis so well describes, racecourses attract shady characters with whom I should not socialise.

But the elements conspired against me. A friend had been given some complimentary tickets to the members’ enclosure. Now, this is quite swanky and has a fine view of the track, the parade ring and the spectators, as well as a well stocked bar. Rugby season was over, so what better way to spend a Saturday afternoon?

To cut a long story short, a man who I didn’t send to jail but fined heavily for repeated drunk driving gave me a tip, which I put a small bet on, not really trusting the source.

It cruised in at 10-1, so drinks were on me.

I should have sent him to jail. At a subsequent meeting he again gave me another tip and I bet half my salary – the bloody horse is still running….!

Anyway, what I meant to tell you about was an amazing stroke of luck in the middle of the Botswana desert. A group of us were on a fishing trip, travelling in two utes (Australian for bakkies) when I noticed a single wheel overtake us – it was ours!

We had sheared a half shaft. Fortunately we had an engineer with us. Engineers never travel without their tools, but no-one carries spare half shafts.

Unfortunately we were 170 kilometres from Gaborone and 120 from Palapye in the semi-desert of Botswana. There was little traffic.

Our engineer went off to Palapye in our other vehicle; we expected him back in 6 to 7 hours. We were not unduly worried about being stranded in the Botswana semi-desert.

Our supplies were ample: a case of tinned peaches, a case of bully beef and eight crates of beer. We lay down in the shade to snooze (to avoid the temptation of starting on the beer…)

To our surprise, after less than an hour, we were roused by a beep beep beeep!

This is the part that is hard to believe.

About 20 minutes down the road, Peter, our engineer saw a cluster of houses just off the road and a tree with an engine suspended on a chain from a branch.

He stopped and inquired. When showed the broken half shaft, the man said “No problem” and led the way to an Isuzu bakkie, smashed up front. In 20 minutes they had stripped an identical half shaft, paid the man R200 and driven back to us.

It fitted perfectly! We went on to have a wonderful fishing trip.

Once back home the vehicle owner decided to order a spare half shaft, in case of another problem (he was an engineer..) There were none to be had in the Western Transvaal, nor Johannesburg ! Eventually, after a few weeks, a spare was sent from Cape Town!

Now what are the odds one could be found in the bush on the edge of the Kalahari desert?

Happy Hookers FC

We thought it was a quite amusing name for our venture. FC of course stands for Fishing Club, which in itself is quite amusing, as we weren’t really fishermen. Most of us were amateur birdwatchers.

It was an idle suggestion which bubbled up during a few beers at the club after work. Henties Bay came up and how renowned it was for fishing and now there was no longer a war in Namibia, it was safely accessible. It wasn’t long before somebody said “let’s go there”.

Initially, we were a Production Manager on a gold mine, two Personnel (HR) superintendents and an accountant, all over 40 and not exactly athletic. We invited some young fellows who were actually fishermen and full of energy who could do the driving and heavy lifting.

After weeks of serious planning meetings over beers at the club, we departed.

It was a long trip, almost 1800 kms and most of us had never been to Namibia.

We travelled in two four wheel drive bakkies (utes in Australia) and those sitting in the back on our luggage, played long games of liar dice and slept a lot.

We had booked into a motel – no roughing it or camping had been one of our first rules. On arrival we prepared our tackle and planned what to do with our catches.

The next day, after breakfast, we drove to the area where the best fishing was to be had. No-one caught a fish all day. We retired early to drink beer and plan. The next day we went to Swakopmund to eat the legendary German Eisbein. The restaurant only had four left, so we had to draw straws. I lost and have never had eisbein since in protest.

The next day we drove out and saw an animated group of fishermen who were feverishly casting into a shoal of steenbras. We managed to catch two and a small shark. That was the sum total of our catch on the trip. It is a bleak country and the coast is covered in a fog belt, making everything grey.

Not a very succesful first trip, but we had quite a good time, drank some beer and there were no fights.

We decided that the next trip would combine fishing with birding. We travelled 1700 kilometers to Shakawe on the Okavango Delta in Botswana and had a marvelous time. We caught no tiger fish but bagged a few bream which we ate. The birdlife was wonderful.

The next trip was to Pafuri, 800 km away on the northern border of the Kruger National Park and the border with Mocambique. There was no fishing but the bird life was wonderful.

The following year, we went to Kosi Bay, only 780km away in kwaZulu. We saw quite a few birds, but caught no fish even though it was a legendary spot for grunter and kingfish.

It was hot, so we drank lots of beer.

At Morgans Bay on the next trip (about 900kms), two cold fronts passed over, so it rained the whole time. We only caught one small fish and we barbecued the squid and sardines we had bought for bait – it was wet, so we drank lots of beer

There was another trip to Pafuri as well.

All in all, we made six trips, travelling almost 14, 000 kilometres and caught at least ten fish.

It was, I believe, a very succesful association.

Fish after all are slimy and smelly….

who am I /who I am

Having been a taxpayer in five countries and a citizen of five, not all the same, including one in which I never lived, I sometimes ponder on the nature of my ethnicity and nationality.

My patronymic grandfather was born in Ireland and I believe is descended from 11th Century knights from Normandy, who assisted William the Conqueror invade England and later Ireland. They in turn were descended from Alaric the Visigoth, who trashed Rome.

Thus I am an Irish citizen by descent.

By naturalisation, I am also a New Zealand citizen and have been a citizen of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, Swaziland and the United Kingdom and Colonies.

But I can’t really call myself Irish or Kiwi because I sound like a rooinek Japie from South Africa. My paternal grand mother is descended from Scottish Brownlees (landing in South Africa in 1817) and Dutch De Jagers (1697) – making me a 10th generation South African.

On my maternal grandfather’s side I am an Englishman descended from John Vialls of Orton in the 1600’s. My Gogo (grandmother) was descended from Danish and German settlers in 1700’s (perhaps Huguenots fleeing religious persecution?)

Now here’s a thing! Geni genealogy website tells me that I am directly descended from John Lackland Plantagenet, King of England following Richard the Lionheart, through both my father and my mother. Genealogy is a fascinating subject!

(No need to stand on ceremony, the occasional Milord will do).

So that is why why I support the Bokke then the Wallabies (I live there) and then the All Blacks, but Ireland above all of them.

Strangely I would probably never support the English!

Of course being white skinned and English speaking I am rejected by Afrikaner and black and brown Southern Africans. I have too many Afrikaner ancestors to be denied (at least 18 different Afrikaner family names in my family tree), but only a Timorese ancestor in the 1600’s to darken my skin.

I feel like a colonial mongrel, but I suppose at the end of the day, we all are!

Bird spotting in the Okavango

Story proposed by Louis Boshoff Thursday 25 March

We awoke early in the morning to a twittering, swirling flock of carmine bee eaters flying above the house we had slept in.

Can you believe the exhilaration of the birders in our party. We stood open-mouthed at our first sighting of this quite rare bird, certainly none were to be found in the Transvaal or Eastern seaboard that we knew.

Our safari had arrived at our destination after two in the morning and fallen exhausted into our beds, having been on the road since about 8 am the previous day and travelling over 1300km’s.

We were a group of work mates who had formed a travelling fishing club. Not for us the muddy dams and turgid rivers of the Western Transvaal – we wanted to get away from there. Not all of us were avid fishermen. Of the dozen or so of us, maybe two were real fishermen. Most of us were more interested in bird watching and beer.

Our first trip had been an 1800 km trip to Henties Bay in Namibia. We hadn’t caught many fish at this legendary locale, but we had drunk Namibian beer, eaten Eisbein and had a great time.

This trip was to Shakawe at the top of the panhandle of the Okavango Delta. Two of our members were managers in TEBA the mine recruiting agency,which had recruiting stations in some of the most exotic places in Southern Africa. Each station had a well appointed, serviced guest house which often went unused for years at a time.

This station had two boats with which to navigate the river. The Okavango river was well known for tiger fish and delectable three-spot bream.

The fishermen pointed out that it was possible to fish, look for birds and drink beer while cruising the river. They were wise men! There was no dissent so we embarked after a sumptuous breakfast of scrambled eggs, boerewors and bacon, with toast and marmalade to accompany strong coffee.

The river tiger fish is a worthy opponent and we lost many more than we landed. Once hooked they will leap into the air and shake their head violently. This is usually enough to shake free the lure which comes whizzing back at dangerous speed.

The river is wide and there were virtually no other boats other than a mokoro. On the papyrus islands in the river, large Nile crocodiles sunned themselves, slipping into the water if we got too close.

A first for us all was seeing African skimmers, fishing by skimming their lower beaks in the water. We saw their nests on sandbanks and had to slow the boat to avoid swamping them.

Fish eagles and kingfishers of all sizes abounded. As did the carmine bee eaters, which nested in the river banks. There were also European, Little and White fronted bee eaters. Birdlife abounds, so the birders were happy.

The fishermen were defeated by the tigers, so we adjourned to a local lodge for G&T’s. In the evening some fished for the legendary three spot bream and caught enough for supper. 

Over our three days there were nudges from crocs and charges by hippos and lots of laughter. The only bird we missed seeing was the Pel’s fishing owl, but our faculties became quickly distorted after nightfall; we would likely have missed a passing ostrich by then!

That was a trip to Paradise and worth the thousands of kilometers. I would like to go again.

Tin Mines in Mbabane

Following the discovery of gold in the Transvaal, prospectors swarmed all over the sub-continent of Africa, fossicking and digging and squabbling over access to likely ground.

In 1874 two Scots acquired the first mining concessions in Swaziland, then a region ruled by Mbandzeni with an unsophisticated people still embracing Iron Age technology.

There was no regard for the environment or the interests of the people who were easily corrupted by modern trade goods, particularly alcohol.

By 1890 so many concessions had been granted for so many purposes that practically the whole country was covered two, three, or even four deep in concessions of all kinds and for different periods.

White settlers flooded the country and Swazis quickly took up favours offered without concern for regulation or control. Settlers pillaged the country, despoiling the land and rivers, consuming the game animals and generally corrupting the Swazi, under the guise of civilization.

The tin miners were the worst. Mbabane was initially a tin mining village before it became the capital in 1902. Tin mining was very simple, they washed away the hillside to expose the nuggets of tin that lay above the bedrock. This meant that miners needed long canals to get enough water pressure  to hose away the hill.

It took until the 1950’s to stop their depradations. This accounts for a large amount of deep erosion gullies  as seen at Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary

The soil that was washed away tended to accumulate and create swamps or wetlands, polluting the rivers and streams with silt, killing cattle.

I remember the dams  and claybelts all around Mbabane. Playing in the dams was strictly forbidden as a few years before a child had drowned in Lake Adelaide. I recall my Dad telling of having to dive in to retrieve the body, which was tangled in reeds on the dam floor.

However our gang of young boys found an old raft of petrol drums with a deck of wattle sticks on a small dam which we couldn’t resist, and had an inspired  pirate game. Unfortunately one of the gang lost his pellet gun overboard there – we were too scared to dive for it.  I wasn’t too sorry as he had shot me in the leg once, possibly by mistake…

Below Mbabane Club there were a number of claybanks which saw many a clay fight. Fortunately we could wash some of the red clay off in the river afterwards.

We later moved to Havelock Mine nestled in the East Drakensberg Mountains in the north of Swaziland. As boys we roved the hills and mountains and found prospectors’ trenches and implements all over the area.

Tin, gold, asbestos, iron ore, coal, diamonds lured many who came to love the land and its people. But they have run out now, so the burgeoning population has to rely on other ways of selling their resources.

Overpopulation and a lack of planning and control of development is turning many areas into semi-desert. So sad.

Photos courtesy of Swaziland Digital Archives

Tok tokkies

Story suggested by Susie Drake          Wednesday 10 March

I have always  had a little confusion about tok tokkies.

I knew they were insects but confused them with ant-lions, about which my elder brother is an authority. When he was about eight or ten he was sent to St Marks, a boarding school in Mbabane, about 75 miles from Stegi, which was home. He was in Duncan House and his best friend was Tienie Herbst. Sixteen years later I was in Duncan too and one of my classmates was Hennie Herbst.

My brother and Tienie kept ant lion farms. But back to tok-tokkies…

Tok-tokkies are clever beetles that live in the desert and collect moisture from fog. Darkling beetle is their formal name (Tenebrionidae if you want to be technical). 

They make a clicky-knocking sound to lure females. That is why they are called Tok-tokkies, after the children’s game of knocking on doors then running away.

I don’t think I have ever met a tok-tokkie beetle.

But I have met a number of ant-lions, which we called tok-tokkies, so I can tell you about them. They are fierce predators that dig pit traps for unsuspecting prey.

Once the prey falls into the trap, the ant-lion springs out from its cover and seizes a leg in its gruesome jaws and injects its venom. Slowly, inexorably, it drags the struggling prey under the sand and devours it.

I can remember tok-tokkies from when I was in Duncan. I suppose they were the descendants of my brother’s insects. 

They are very entertaining and can keep one absorbed for hours. There were some pits in the sand, near the boiler where we went to smoke cigarettes.  If you tickled the sand of the crater with a grass stalk, the lion would spring out of the sand and grip it and you could lift it up to look at it.Even better was to get an ant and drop it into the pit. Quick as a wink it was goodbye Mr Ant.

To even the competition we got bigger insects, like a small hotnotsgod, a praying mantis. They could usually get away, but sometimes lost a leg.

After eating enough over a couple of years the ant-lion spins a cocoon and retires into it for a while. When the moon is full, it emerges as a delicate lacewing beauty who flies off in avid search of a mate. Her search is frenzied and relentless without pause to even eat. Once mating is over, she lays eggs in the sand, and dies.

Talk about Beauty and the Beast

Just imagine if there were giants of the species …. aarghhh!!

The Green Hand of Overdale

Story suggested by Keith Struwig 8 March Monday

The little boys at our boarding school, juniors ranging in age from seven to twelve, lived in Overdale House. They were under the care of a young Scotsman who was diligent but strict in his exercise of care.

Each morning the prefect awoke the boys with a little bell. No lolling in bed was permitted. All faces were to be washed in cold water (there was no hot); shoes polished, hair brushed, beds made before breakfast. Their appearance and clothes trunks were inspected. Then they were marched off to breakfast.

The housemaster ensured that the senior boys allowed them to get some food at meal times, but like all boys, they were always ravenous.

Every second night they were marched to Duncan House for a bath. On the intervening day grubbiness and dirt were to be removed under the cold water tap at the back, in the shade of the oak trees.

Lights out was at nine o’clock, with only the prefect’s light left on until later. The toilet was an outhouse, under the oak trees and it was very dark out there. But little boys were well aware of the horrible embarrassment and miserable disgrace awaiting those who wet their beds… so braved the dark.

Unfortunately, an idle, wicked prefect, who shall remain nameless, was struck by a brainwave.  He knew how to stop the littlest boys waking him in the middle of the night to take them to the loo, which he was under instruction to do. 

One winter night, just before lights out, he idly inquired if anyone had heard anything the previous night, like tapping on the window. No-one had. He admonished them all not to investigate if they ever did hear it. 

It could be “the hand” that was tapping…. 

He said he had been told by Sikwini, the Head Waiter, that many years ago, a man had slipped and fallen into the saw pit and his left hand had been sliced off. He was rushed to hospital but bled to death on the way. His hand had been forgotten in the panic and it is thought that Fly the school dog had stolen it. 

Now, it was said, usually at full moon the hand came to find its owner….

Boys were dumbstruck and everyone of them slept with their head under the blankets. No-one woke the prefect. 

Over the following days, any visits to the outhouse after dark were done before lights out, in company of at least two others, who took turns to wait outside while business was completed. Nobody moved after lights out.

Inevitably there was a sudden increase in incidents of bed-wetting, surprisingly including one or two older boys.

The canny young Scotsman conferred with the Matron (soon to become his wife) and she spoke to some of the younger boys. She soon extracted the legend of “the hand”, which had now become green and “scrabbled at the tops of windows and would strangle anyone who saw it and they would become ghosts of Overdale too….

Once such terrifying seeds have been planted, they grow unchecked and become rooted, despite pronouncements from the housemaster and the matron and a recant by the demoted prefect.

That is why, until Overdale was no longer a dormitory, chamber pots were used at night.

Everyone who was a boarder at St Marks knows the story and the duty monitors who fetched the cocoa at night always gave Overdale a wide berth, especially around full moon.

Conversation with a hyena

Story proposedby Tom Purcell Friday 5 March

Hyenas are as clever as they are ugly. It is reported that they are cleverer than chimpanzees which probably means cleverer than a lot of guys with whom  I played rugby. They are also meaner than junkyard dogs and hippos with toothache.

Contrary to popular belief, hyenas are not cowardly animals. The smaller ones who are scavengers might be shy and cautious but they fiercely protect their interests if threatened. A bold strategy of the spotted hyena is to lock on to the prey’s testicles and hang on until the victim bleeds out. 

However, if you ever sat down and talked to a hyena, you would be amazed by the variety and self-deprecating humour of the conversation.

That’s one thing about hyenas, they giggle quite a bit. So you giggle too, because its probably a good tactic – their jaws can crack a giraffe femur and they are a bit temperamental (with the emphasis on mental).

The other thing is: don’t mention the smell around hyenas. They have scent glands around their anus and are continuously wiping their arse on grass to tell you they’ve been there.

If you are determined to talk to a hyena it is probably prudent to first get to know the aardwolf. They are the gentlest of the species and usually eat ants, so you should be quite safe. Like most hyenas they sleep in the day so remember to seek them out after dark . Nothing like waking a grumpy dog for a chat, or anyone else for that matter.

The smallest hyena is the striped one and he is very shy and misunderstood and reportedly endures significant bullying. However it is the national animal of Lebanon.

It is perhaps wiser to seek conversation with the male spotted hyena. Males are generally more affable and smaller than females, who are always leaders of the pack. In fact males are at the bottom of the hyena caste system and will probably talk to anyone who shows remote interest in them.

Like most females, lady hyenas (respect goes a long way) have complicated anatomies. When I investigated this I skipped a great deal as it was eye-wateringly uncomfortable sounding.

Apparently the spotted hyena’s extraordinary sexual equipment remains “one of the most interesting mysteries in biology.”

It seems lady hyenas have plenty to be bitter about.

Save to say that they were thought to be gender fluid hermaphrodites but closer observation disclosed this was not so. Perhaps they could be adopted as a mascot of the less certain citizens of the LGBTQ rainbow?

Some people seek out the company of hyenas, so they may well be good company

Probably the best  topic for conversation with a hyena is food. It may be wise to only raise this after a meal, as if the conversation becomes too descriptive they might get hungry. Hyenas can and do take down buffalos so a well fed human would be a piece of cake.

Oh crumbs!

Patting a cow for the first time

for Max 3 months old 3 Mar Weds

Cows are friendly critters. 

They will remember you 

Mind you, there are cow pats and there are cow pats. You can pat a cow, but don’t pat a cow pat. Ask your Daddy to tell you why.

The first time I remember patting a cow was at the Hennessey’s dairy farm. They had a herd of Jersey cows and a few Shetland ponies.

First I will tell you a bit about these ponies. They are very small which is just right for little people to ride. Some can be bad tempered and some can be sweet.

When I was about seven years old my parents gave me a Shetland pony for my birthday. Her name was Sweetie. I will tell you why that was not a good name for her. 

Mum had invited all my friends to a birthday party for me. Even June Rose who had lived next door to us in Bremersdorp was there, looking very smart in  a bonnet and a frilly dress. She was only five.

The best thing about the party was that we all got to have a ride on Sweetie. Everybody was thrilled, except for one person. That person was Sweetie, who was not happy to have to carry lots of little children around the garden on her back all afternoon.

So, she had a huff. 

When ponies have a huff, they toss their heads, then jump forward onto their front legs and throw their hindlegs up into the air. If there is someone on their back, they get tossed off, over the horse’s head to crash down to the ground.

Poor June Rose, she landed in a rose bush and got quite badly scratched. That really spoilt the party. 

Sweetie was sent back to Hennessey’s farm, which is I suppose what she really wanted.

I always thought it was weird that June Rose was bucked off in the rose garden. Perhaps if her name was Daisy she would have been tossed into the daisies?

Anyway back to the cows. Jersey cows are a soft beige brown colour and have big brown eyes and long eyelashes.  They have big udders which give lots of milk every day. 

The farmer showed us how to milk a cow, after we had patted it of course. Cows like being patted and if they know you well enough will give you a big kiss. A cow kiss is a lick across your face!

Its not that difficult to milk a cow. You squeeze one of the teats on the udder and warm milk squirts out into the bucket under the cow. Sometimes the cow stamps her foot  and swishes her tail because she doesn’t like flies bothering her.

We gave some of the milk in a bottle to a calf, which was very sweet with big brown eyes too. It wanted more and sucked and sucked and moo’d  very loudly.

We patted its head and scratched its ears and it seemed to like that.

We didn’t want to go home, but the farmer said the calf had to go to the barn to sleep as it was getting dark.

It was lovely day – we got to pat a pony, a cow and a calf. We also patted the farmer’s dog and his cats. And he gave us a bag of big forest mushrooms called makhowe  to take home for our supper. 

Cradle Rock

Story proposed by Tim Jackson Mon 1 Mar

This singular hard rock formation can be seen as an icon representing the ethos of St Marks School in the 1950’s and early 60’s.

The cluster of large granite boulders near the top of a steep slope, looked like a cradle. It nestled on the mountain in full sight of the school, a daily reminder of the challenge it posed every year.

St Marks was a small school with the boarders comprising the majority of pupils. Day bugs made up about a quarter of the school and were generally regarded with a slight sneer by boarders, who had no doubts that they represented the core and backbone of the school.

In keeping with the times, discipline was severe: corporal punishment for boys was administered by the Headmaster and his Deputy, all housemasters and prefects and sub-prefects. One had to be very diligent and careful not to commit some infraction incurring cuts – strikes with a cane, coathanger or in some cases a cricket bat.

Early morning runs in winter and swims in summer were compulsory. As were the cross-country runs after school in summer – about 4 miles of dust, then mud. If you were slow you had a very muddy bath. 

But the real glory was a test of toughness, witnessed by the whole school. It was  a fast cross country scramble across the valley through a gum forest, up the rockstrewn side of Malunge mountain, to seize the cup, placed on top of Cradle Rock.

All boys took part and points were awarded to your sports house depending on your time. To gain points you needed to complete the course in about 20 minutes.

We all ran barefoot in those days, helter skelter down from school, over the golf course bridge, then a choice had to be made. Either shorter but steeper and rougher, straight up through the trees and over the rocks, or around the side on the road past Jimmy’s Pool, then striking right up the hill, longer but faster. 

Michael Connolly won in ‘64 and Mapipa Long in ‘65. I believe the record time was about 14 minutes.

In the mischief and mayhem after year end exams and break-up day, some gentlemen who remain nameless, climbed the mountain under cover of darkness.

There they beautifully enhanced the front facade of Cradle Rock by painting in large white letters “Queens”.

Just in time too, as in 1967 the sports house was re-named Taylor to honour Miss Tilly Taylor, who had served the school for over 20 years.

The Cross of Lorraine, from our school badge, was painted large on the vertical rockface a few hundred yards away on the  same mountain, after Gordon Highlanders painted their badge there.

Those are some memories inspired by the Cradle Rock .

The paint on the rock has faded now and most of the trees are gone; there are houses quite close. But Cradle Rock endures.

(* To see a photo of the view of the rock taken from the school, go to the webpage by clicking the Title)

Photo courtesy of Mike Ellis, of course!