Grapes from Thorns

Location: Cincinnati, Ohio

Friday, February 29, 2008

On the road to Lesotho

The next day, we got an early start and headed out for a new African country. Lesotho is an African country entirely surrouded by South Africa. Both Heather and I wanted to add this country to our list of African countries. Our initial goal was to drive from Spion Kop to a town called Clarens, just north of Lesotho. Enroute, we drove through some beautiful country. The highlight was probably Golden Gate Highlands National Park.

Just as I was getting ready to move our luggage to the car, two of the employees at Spion Kop Lodge appeared to help. Much to my surprise, they hoisted our suitcases to their heads and walked to the car very easily chatting to each other. Later, of course, I would see much more of these balancing acts. The next two pictures are of the rugged terrain in Golden Gate Highland National Park. Lastly is a view of the mountains from the guest house where we stayed in the beautiful little town of Clarens. At the breakfast that morning, I had a nice talk with a young couple who had spent the weeked at Clarens and were heading back that morning to their jobs in Jo-burg.

Spion Kop III

At top, Raymond and I stand on Spion Kop. Next, I'm standing next to the main monument. If you click on it and read the writing you can see that the monument was placed, in part, by the second battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, my grandfather's unit. The next two photos are of markers remembering officers killed at Spion Kop.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Spion Kop II

On Jan. 20, 1900, as British forces began to move to engage Boers who held the high ground at Spion Kop, the first action began along the Tugela River where Venter's Spruit (stream) joins it. Commanded by Gen. Sir Charles Warren, the British army, including the Lancashire Fusliers, began to advance toward Boer trenches. Kind of a foothill of Spion Kop, this hill is known as Tabanyama. Boer and Brit clashed on this remote spot in Africa. By the time the British withdrew twenty-eight officers and men had been killed and 280 had been wounded. Most likely, Tom McNay was among these wounded soldiers.
Eventually, on Jan. 24, a larger force of British soldiers attacked Spion Kop itself. Without going into great detail, here is what Byron Farwell had to say in his history of the battle:
"Cramped on the top of Spion Kop, excited and fearful but without rancour, Britons and Boers slaughtered each other... Each man had an arduous role to play. The Transvaal farmers and their sons, the Lancashire ploughboys and the sweeps of city slums - all were to face on this hot summer's day an ordeal beyond any of their imaginings, for the concentrated hell that Spion Kop became was beyond any man's experience... Neither Boer nor Briton had considered Spion Kop of great importance, yet now it had become the whole battle; indeed, on this day it became the entire war."
At top on the right is our guide Raymond making a point about the battle. The man standing close to the camera was a veteran of the British military. Heather is in the middle in the pink. The man behind her had an interesting personal history in South Africa going back a great number of generations. Next, is a view from Spion Kop of where Venter's' Spruit flows into the Tugela. My grandfather was likely wounded as the Fusiliers attempted to take the ridge on the right.
After the battle, the British soldiers were buried in the trenches where they fell and these old trenches outlined by the white rocks remain their graves today. Many of the officers who were killed are commemorated with crosses.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Spion Kop I

As Heather and I drove into the province of Kwazulu-Natal, it seemed strangly familiar. From my reading of South African War, I knew many of the place names, places that must have been familiar to my grandfather. After getting a little lost, we quickly found the correct road and suddenly found ourselves at the gate of Spion Kop Lodge, where we were to spend the night and have dinner.
The lodge itself is important because it was the headquarters of Gen. Sir Redvers Buller. Located in a beautiful setting, the stone walls of the interior are lined with a collection of photos of people connected to the Boer War. It also has a fine little establishment known as the Churchill Pub.

Besides my grandfather being at the Spion Kop battlefield, there were three other important people who found themselves in this remote African location in January 1900. Winston Churchill was at Spion Kop reporting for a British newspaper. And Mahatma Ghandi was a British stretcher bearer (perhaps he helped carry my grandfather from the battlefield).

From the deck of Spion Kop Lodge, the mountain, Spion Kop looms. It is a rather unassuming hill for the important battle that took place there. It's imporance stems from the fact that Boer guns placed at the summit would overlook the route to Ladysmith. One of the British Army's goals was to relieve the siege of that city and thus British commanders believed that it needed to be in British hands.

Our guide, Raymond, was a skilled storyteller and historian. The night before our tour, we sat in the Chuchill Pub and I showed him my grandfather's military records. He was excited and poured over the documents getting every detail. He had never actually seen the record of a British soldier in the Boer War. I've promised to send him a copy of the record so that he can use it in the future. So often over the years I've mentioned to people that my grandfather was in the South African War and have seen a puzzled look on people's faces. Not in South Africa and not in the Churchill Pub. I was a bit of a minor celebrity since I had a personal connection to these great events.

Raymond assured me that he would be able to show me the area where my grandfather was wounded. At top is a sign on the road to the Spion Kop Lodge. Next is Heather and I havin dinner at the lodge. Next is a view of Spion Kop from the deck at the lodge. Next a picture of Raymond, looking toward Spion Kop, explaining the disposition of forces from Buller's location during the battle. At bottom is a photo of the Tugula River as it winds it way near the foot of Spion Kop.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Thomas McNay, Lancashire Fusiliers

Some of you may already know that a key reason why I wanted to go to South Africa was to see some battlefields of the Anglo-Boer War, fought 1899-1902.

My grandfather, Thomas McNay, of Wigan, England, joined the Lancashire Fusiliers, a British regiment based in the Liverpool-Wigan-Manchester area. A few years ago, I found his military record at the British archives in Kew, near London. It has been a revealing document. Tom McNay was only 18 and gave his height at 5-5 and his weight at 116 (about my size in seventh grade). Listing his occupation as a coal miner, he had coal scars on his back which come from scratching your back on a rock wall in the mine and getting coal dust into the wound. As it heals, coal dust is sealed under the skin leaving a black line.

I never met my grandfather on my father's side since he died in the 1930s. He had been born in Ireland and the family apparently moved to the Wigan area sometime after that. My grandfathehr immigrated to the U.S. in 1908 bringing his eldest son, Pat, with him. His wife Bridget followed bringing other children who were born in England. More children were born in Anaconda, Montana, for a total of seven in all.

He joined the Lancashire Fusiliers at the height of the British empire on June, 13, 1894. It was the defense of the empire that brought him service in South Africa as well as at Khartoum in Sudan. Apparently an independent thinker, Tom McNay was in trouble a few times, including a district courst martial on Aug. 12, 1897 for striking his superior officer that led to his imprisonment for six months at hard labor.

It appears that Tom McNay served in all three battalions of the Lancashire Fusiliers and that when he was released from confinement he entered the second battalion. It was this battalion that would make a name for itself at Spion Kop in South Africa.

Tom McNay's military record shows that he participated in a campaign in the Sudan in 1898 and in South Africa in 1899-1902 and was also involved in the occupation of Crete in 1898. He received no special medals but the medals he did receive tell of his service. His Sudan medal had the "Khartoum" clasp and this suggests that perhaps he was in on the famous battle of Omdurman. He received a Queen's South Africa medal with clasps for the Free State, Transvaal, Tugela Heights, Relief of Ladysmith, and Laing's Nek. He also received a King's South Africa medal. It is useful to note that his record shows that at least twice the army aimed to send Tom McNay to serve in India and both times in 1897 and 1898 the move was cancelled.

Imporantly, it is also recorded that he was wounded at Venter's Spruit, an engagement that occurred Jan. 19-20, 1900. This is important information because being wounded just before the famous battle at Spion Kop in which many members of the Lancashire Fusiliers were killed seems to have been a stroke of luck, particularly for his descendants.

The reasons for the South African War (also known as the Anglo-Boer War or Boer War) are complicated and fascinating. Please read the good books by Thomas Packenham or by Byron Farwell if you are interested. Basically, spurred on by the discovery of diamonds and gold and the machinations of Cecil Rhodes, Britain set out to expand its holdings in South Africa. The Boers, descendants of Dutch settlers in the 1600s, badly wanted to maintain their independence and fought vigorously. Black Africans fought on both sides and were victimized by both sides. Eventually, the whole weight of the British Empire was brought to South Africa and the Boers were defeated.

Above is a photo of a chocolate box that Queen Victoria sent to the troops in South Africa in 1900 wishing them a Happy New Year. I bought this one separately a few years ago but my grandfather's chocolate box is still in the family.

Road warriors

On Saturday, I flew on Kukula airlines to Jo-burg. This airline is kind of a cross between Southwest in the US and Ryan Air in Europe. Inexpensive and kind of quirky. The pilot started off with: "Our flight time to Jo-burg will be 22 hours .... via New Delhi." Then: "Don't drink and drive, drink and fly instead. That's what I do." There were dozens of these during the flight and he had me rolling.

At Jo-burg, my former college chum, Heather Shaffer, was waiting for me. Looking a little tired from her ordeal with pneumonia but beautiful as usual, she had already fixed the arrangements for the rental car and all we had to do was walk to it. She had flown in earlier from Mozambique. I surrendered all driving responsibilities to her since she knew her way around and also was more accustomed by now to driving on the wrong side of the road. As I came to say in coming days "You're in good hands with All-Shaff." We had rented a Volkswagen Polo which would serve us well, although it was a little under-powered.

We quickly got on the equivalent of an interstate highway heading south out of the Jo-burg and Pretoria area. Something occurred to me very soon. Much of the terrain in this part of Africa reminded me a great deal of Montana. Rolling grassy plains roll off in the distance to jagged mountains. Pretty ironic to fly so very far from home and find something so familiar. This familiarity is, however, only as deep as appearances. Scratch a little deeper and things begin to understandably be quite different.

We had quite a long way to go. Because everything was measured in kilometers and not miles I was always confused about just how far we had to go. We were aiming for Ladysmith. Enroute, there were some cave drawings that we wanted to find. This resulted in what would become a continual problem. We would see interesting things on our maps, drive to near where these things ought to be, and find no sign posts or any sign at all about them. The bottom line is that we took at least an hour detour looking for these cave drawings. We even stopped at a B&B knocked on the door and asked for directions. The woman tried very hard to help us. We even walked over to the neighbor's house and she talked to him in Afrikaans trying to figure out how to get to where we wanted to go. The end result is the only cave drawings they knew of were a long way from where we were.
So, because of time constraints, we started to head off for the place we would stay the night near Ladysmith.
At top is my good friend, Heather, piloting the Polo. Next is a beautiful view from a mountain pass as we looked in vain for the cave paintings.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Scenes of the cape

There is so much to say about Cape Town and I left with much left to do. I must return some time to see much more of the city and its environs. At top are the steps to the light house at Cape Point. Next is a better shot of the penguins at Simon's Town. There is a lot of pride in the penguins and there breed is now known as "African Penguin." Next is an example of the really rugged sea being stirred up by the powerful winds we encountered and you can see that sand is being blown over the road. Next is a massive government building in downtown Cape Town. Finally, is the figurehead from a wrecked ship. A plaque next to the statue says that sometime in the 19th century, it washed ashore here. It then hung over the entrance to a pub for many years before finally be installed at the Victorian and Albert waterfront.


Our trip around the cape also included a stop at Stellenbosch. The beautiful town, founded in 1679, is the leading community in the South African winelands. We naturally stopped for a wine tasting. There was a lot of activity in the attractive downtown and lots of young people since Stellenbosch is a university town. The trip has made me something of a fan of South African wines. At top is the sign for the Zevenwacht wine estate where we did a tasting. Next is the room with the wine barrels. Next is a view of the entrance to the winery through a shop and then a wine tasting room where tables were set up for us. At bottom is the original estate home built in the Cape Dutch style.


Baboons are plentiful inhabitants of the Cape Point region. We were warned to be careful with them because just holding up a camera to take a photo of them looks to them like we are offering them something to eat and they may well take our cameras. The closest we were was when they were alongside the road as we were going past in the van. We stopped to watch them. The dominant males look like pretty tough characters. In the top two photos, you can see baboons in the grass. In the next photo you can see baboon youngsters. And at the bottom is another view of beautiful coast on the east side of the cape peninsula.

Cape of Good Hope

With Heather in the hospital in Maputo, I decided to take a tour to Cape Point which is at the end of a peninsula south of Cape Town and is the most southern point of Africa. When Portuguese explorer Bartholomeo Diaz rounded this point, it changed history because this would be the new trade route between Asia and Europe. I have to thank Nuno for suggesting this.

We were an international group that morning on the tour bus. The guide, Hein ("just Hein") who was an Afrikanner, the black African who was our driver, a couple from Ireland, a Chinese couple from Malayasia, a Japanese man, an Australian man, and three women who had been attending an international mining conference in Cape Town who were all living in Canada - one was a black woman from Ghana who lived in Toronto, another woman was Russian and lived in Vancouver, BC, and the third woman was just Canadian and also lived in Vancouver.

I was picked up at 9 at the guest house and we returned at about 5:30 so the trip took all day. The wind, which had spoiled my trip to take a tram to Table Mountain, was a constant adversary when we stepped out of the vehicle.

The route we took led us through suburban Cape Town along the coast, a quite wealthy area. As we got further out of town, the road hugged the coastline alongside mountains and looked something like taking the coastal highway in California. Beautiful little towns sprawled through little valleys. But there were be crowds of black men at the intersections just sort of waiting, an example of the problems clouding South Africa. The driver said that because of the high employment the men wait at the intersections hoping that someone will offer them work, perhaps odd jobs for the day.

There are great contrasts in South Africa. Shiny suburbs like those we drove through but also villages of shacks between the airport and Cape Town. Similar shanty towns surround Jo-burg. These places represent immense challenges for South Africa's future.
At the top is the famous Cape of Good Hope, the most southern point of Africa. The guide noted that originally this was named Cape of Storms rather than the Cape of Good Hope and the wind we experienced shows why that could be. Next comes Hout Bay and the mountain known as the Sentinel. Then I wanted to show you how this road often just hangs on the edge of the cliff. Next is just a scene along the coast. Nice drive. At bottom, we visited the penguin colony at Simon's Town. The wind was really howling. You can see I was kind of hanging onto the railing to stay upright. It almost ripped the camera from my hands. The poor penguins were laying with their rear ends into the wind for protection.

Long Street

I walked along the famous Long Street lined with bars and restaurants and got a real feeling for the city. It was very busy with a mix of Victorian buildings and shiny glass and steel buildings. The people were a mix of black Africans, whites, east Asians, and people from India. One guy saw me trying to read the menu on the wall of one nice place called Nyoni's Kraal and invited me to come on in. Always careful after my years in Philadelphia, I decided to take a chance on this guy. I told him I just wanted a place where I could rest my feet, have a beer, and something to eat. He welcomed me and I found a nice little bar with window on the street. Patrick, whose English was quite good, was from the Xhosa people and had lived in Cape Town all his life and we had a good conversation. He introduced me to some good local brews, including the most popular, Castle, and one that I favored, Windhoek, brewed in Namibia thanks to its history as an outpost of the pre-WWI German empire.

Refreshed, I bid Patrick farewell, and set off down the street where shockingly enough I found a fine Irish bar called the Dubliner. Inside, I discovered the young guy bartending had attended high school in Florida.

I had heard stories about crime problems in South Africa - soaring random violent crime rates that made it unsafe at night. This belief was confirmed at the Dubliner where the bartender advised I get out of the downtown before dark. This was emphasized by another couple who over heard our conversation and said I would just be a target. So with directions to Strand street where I could find cheaper cab fare, I caught a cab back to the guest house, which was quite a bit closer to the waterfront than to downtown. It is a sad situation that, even more so that some American cities, fear of violent crime in South Africa makes people have to adjust their plans. I need to emphasize that in my travels I met nothing but friendly and helpful people (except for the police in Lesotho but more on that later)..

It was sometimes a little difficult to communicate. Many of the black Africans had their own language as their primary tongue, like Patrick.. Many of the whites Africans were Afrikans who spoke as their first language, Afrikaans, like the bartender in the Dubliner.
At top is a view of Table Mountain from the downtown. I have to say that Cape Town reminded me quite a bit of Honolulu. A big city set on the water with mountains looming in the background. A beautiful setting. Next is the busy Greenmarket Square, a couple of blocks off Long Street. Next is an example of the Victorian buildings that dot Long Street and the downtown with their interesting verandas. The dark brown building on Long Street is Nyoni's Kraal where I took a break during my walk.

Victoria and Alfred Waterfront

The waterfront in Cape Town has an interesting history. For many years, it was a busy commercial port. In fact, it became an important port in the 1500s, operated first by the Portuguese and later by the Dutch on the route to the far east. However, the global sanctions placed on South Africa because of the racist policies of the apartheid regime destroyed the commercial operation of the waterfront. So, at the end of apartheid, South Africans decided to create a kind of tourist mecca there.Today, the watefront is a glittering area of shopping, bars, and restaurants. From there you can take a short boat trip out to Robben Island to see the prison where political dissidents were held, including Nelson Mandela. In fact, the island was a prison for about 400 years. Visiting Robben Island was moving and fascinating.Central Cape Town is a pretty compact area and so I walked from the waterfront to the downtown. I heard about some bars and restaurants along Long Street and I was hungry by this time.
At top, is a view across the marina to the main mall and hotel. There are numerous shopping places around the water front but the mall had an internet cafe as well as several places to eat. Wifi access was relatively easy to find, terminals less so, so I was left wishing I had brought tmy camera. Next photo is a sign post to every places in the world followed by a view of the several bands I stopped and listened to while walking around.
At the bottom is a fine view of Table Mountain that looms over Cape Town. I wanted to take a tram to the top but it was very windy while I was there and the tram doesn't operate in high winds. Awesome view from there, I understand. This is a good reason to return sometime in the future to Cape Town :)

Trip to Africa - Cape Town

In February I resumed my infamous practice of finding some friend or relative who now lives in a distant country and proposing that I visit. My English cousins have been the primary target of this but this month I visited a friend of mine from graduate school at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Over four years ago, Heather Shaffer married Portuguese diplomat Nuno Mathias and the couple shortly after moved from Washington, DC, to Maputo, Mozambique. where Nuno took up duties as first secretary of the embassy there.

So relying entirely on Heather, my personal travel agent, I set off for Africa on Feb. 4. My first goal was Cape Town where Heather would meet me at a guest house, a large B&B, near the waterfront. My flight was interesting - Cincinnati to Atlanta to Dakar, Senegal, to Johannesburg to Cape Town - at least 24 hours from beginning to end and at least 11,000 miles. It was about nine hours from Atlanta to Senegal. Passengers were not allowed to leave the plane at Dakar. The plane refueled and more food and supplies were brought on and there was a crew change. Security people at Dakar also came on board to search the plane to make sure that those folks who got off at Dakar didn't leave anything dangerous behind. They were pretty thorough, checking under all the seats and seat cushions and making sure the each bag on the plane belonged to someone.

All this meant that we got to stand up and walk around a bit while we were on the ground a little over an hour. Then it was wheels up and another nine hours to Jo-Burg. At Jo-Burg, I discovered my suitcase had been left behind in Atlanta. I gave the info to the baggage claim and set off to find the domestic terminal where I was to catch my next flight to Cape Town on, appropriately enough, South African Airlines.

This went rather smoothly, I changed some dollars to rands (roughly 7 rands to the dollar), and I soon found myself airborne to Cape Town. I caught a cab in Cape Town to the guest house.

Heather was to meet me the next morning and there was a message for me to call her husband. I did so in the morning and discovered that Heather had contracted pneumonia and wouldn't be meeting me in Cape Town but on Saturday would meet up with me at the airport in Jo-burg. Naturally, I was more concerned about her health than this little change in plans and assured Nuno that all was well since I traveled alone most of the time anyway.

So, I set off, guide book and camera in hand, to discover Cape Town. Above was the view out my window at the guest house.