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Tales from the heights

Cape Town - Caught in the headlights we see a man wandering on a lonely stretch of road.

It’s 9pm, why is he here? We stop, introduce ourselves, he tells us he’s lost a horse.

We tell him of our plans for the next day. He invites himself along and Steve agrees. But can he hike? Is he fit? Who is he anyway? Right now, all I can think of is a glass of wine and stars to light the way to it.

Later, sitting around a fire, I relate the story of the previous time we were in Ladismith, in 2007.

The plan was to climb Towerkop, at 2 197m its distinctive cleft dominates the skyline for miles, a mountain with a rich history of myths and characters.

Halfway up the mountain, despite a favourable weather report, it started to rain. We took refuge in a shelter built by the forestry department long ago and now with only half a roof.

Seated on the dirt floor were a group of rock climbers cooking up a storm and chattering away. Led by the late Ulli Deutschlander, their plan was to set up a Tyrolean Traverse – a complex system of ropes and pulleys enabling them to slide from one side of the cleft to the other.

Squashed like sardines and with standing room only, three wet Labradors passing between legs, there was only one thing to do. Hauling out the booze, we toasted the rock climbers, the witch and Gustav Nefdt.

The story goes that a witch, in a hurry to fly home but with the peak looming before her, thwacked it with her broomstick, splitting it in two.

As for Nefdt, Towerkop was said to be one of few peaks in the world that could be summited with the aid of climbing gear.

The first known attempt was in 1850 when a party led by a Mr Ziervogel failed because of a severe thunderstorm. Several climbers almost lost their lives and pronounced the peak unclimbable.

The next attempt was five years later, by Nefdt. He woke early one morning, sneaked off, removed his boots, and with superhuman strength and nerve climbed the peak without a rope. Elated with his success he built a mound of stones, burying a sock beneath it.

Back in town, no one believed him.

“Not even a lizard could scale the sheer face of the dome,” they said.

Angry, Nefdt gathered a party and, removing his boots, climbed, lowered some string to tow up a rope and pull up two friends who then recovered his sock.

Nefdt became the first to open a rock climbing route in South Africa.

He did not climb that route again, but it became a challenge to other climbers.

The third to ascend the peak, but using a different route, was George Travers-Jackson in 1906. Frank Berrisford climbed what he thought was Nefdt’s route in 1929, but it proved to be yet another. Two years later Bert Berrisford tried, but it was 64 years before Nefdt’s original route was climbed again.

Since Nefdt’s day and with the development of climbing gear, cairns have popped up and mark over 32 routes which include Saturday’s Corner, Crazy Cracks, Super Faffer, Space Captain and Afterglow.

As for us, suddenly the weather turned, the climbers vanished and we slept under a star-studded sky.

Next day we watched the climbers set up their Tyrolean Traverse and wondered what Nefdt would think of it.

And now we were back, this time in search of Oom Stan’s se Liggie (Stanley’s Light) on Elandsberg, 1 430m, also known as Toringberg, and south of Towerkop. Not an insignificant plan, considering we’d climb the equivalent of Table Mountain from the sea.

When Stanley climbed this mountain he ascended vertically, through a ravine. CapeNature built the “easy” route on what is a well-maintained path initially following contours along a sluit or canal before ascending a steep zigzag.

Passing under steep rock walls folded to almost 90 degrees, we slipped and slid and thought of Stanley de Wit who installed the light to warn townsfolk of impending droughts. It took several ascents for Stan to carry cement, electrical cable and plastic piping. Finally, on May 31, 1963, he switched on his light, possibly the smallest hydro-electrical unit in the world.

Andy Hillock, our “lost horseman”, said Stan climbed the mountain 278 times over 30 years to maintain his light because of the many fires. The original bicycle lamp was replaced by two 24-volt truck lights and an alternator and solar panel replaced the dynamo.

On our descent Andy regaled us with tales of the area.

“Van Wyksdorp is the home of the creator of the air brake. It’s also the home of the Vanwyk’s Blue,” he said, referring to what he said was an endangered butterfly. And, pointing to Ladismith, he said the town was once an inland lake. For someone who had lived in the area for one year, he seemed to know a lot.

He describes his wife, Penny, as a “sophisticated lady who wanted to retire to New York, Paris or Rome”. Instead she ended up as a farmer’s wife in Ladismith.

“She came here with a couple of suitcases. When I phoned a few weeks later to ask when she was coming home, she told me the contents of the suitcases would last longer than expected.”

One of Andy’s tales turned out to be true. Steve and I tracked down Stan to find he’d just taken possession of a photograph of his precious peak, dated 1930. He was disappointed that a liquor chain had built a storeroom in front of his modest home, blocking his view of the peak and his light. Producing a tape cassette he said David Kramer had produced a song about him, Stanley en die Koei.

When we tried to track him down more recently, his good friend Johann Ellis said Stan died on October 14, 2012. He was 86. He never heard his song.

Johann’s daughter, Zaan, now has a coffee shop in Stan’s house, called Stanley’s. “We try to keep the nice conversations going. Kuiers op die stoep,” said Johann.

As for the light, it’s still burning, thanks to the whole of Ladismith assisting with the upkeep.

“Earlier this year the 24-volt generator packed up. Jacques du Toit, the auto electrician, managed to get a new one from the Bosch company, and a few of the young people from Ladismith carried it up the mountain. Stan’s light is going strong again. It’s a great tourist attraction and has been going for more than 50 years.”

As for Andy’s horse… it seems he often disappears down the road in search of a filly.

Karen Watkins, Cape Times

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