Ninety years of rambling

2011-06-10 00:00

PERHAPS the last thing I expected going on a hike with the Pietermaritzburg Ramblers’ Club was chocolate cake, brownies, jam slices and scones in a forest glade at the halfway mark. But this was no ordinary ramble. It was the Steve Jones Memorial Hike through Bushy Park farm and it marked the 90th birthday of the club.

The Pietermaritzburg Ramblers’ Club was founded in 1921 with the intention of enjoying “the splendour of Natal on foot”. Weekly hikes are the club’s staple activity and each walk has a designated leader. The walk on the Bushy Park farm in the Upper Mpushini Valley on June 4 was led by the club’s chairperson, Francois Marais. At one point during the walk he produced the club’s very first cash book with its roster of names — Aitken, Armitage, Holgate, Halden, Longhurst, Phipson — some of which still feature in the local telephone directory.

The first entry page in the 1921 cash book is headed Baptist Ramblers’ Club. The Holgates were reportedly keen Baptists and the club was started originally as an activity for the Baptist Church youth. However, the club soon lost its church association. “Exactly when the name changed to the Pietermaritzburg Ramblers’ Club isn’t known,” says Marais, “but it must have changed during the twenties as the new name can be seen on documents dated 1931.”

Though shank’s pony is the favoured, indeed only, form of locomotion permitted on the actual hikes, the mode of transport used in getting to the starting points has changed over the years. “The club is steeped in history with outings such as the Easter Camps that started off on an ox wagon,” says Marais. “Later on, a truck was hired to convey hikers.”

Hikes were organised that ventured beyond the city and its immediate environs. “Venues in the Drakens­berg were regularly visited,” says Marais. And it wasn’t all foot-slogging. “Parties and dances were arranged and many a couple was hitched.”

Particular hikes were given names, such as Streptocarpus Saunter, Lido Loop, Toffee Tunnel and Doc’s ­Delight. In the mid-20th century, an annual hike was made up Voortrekker Road on the Saturday of the Durban July when, according to a 1972 article in The Witness, a “member of the SABC’s engineering staff at the World’s View medium-wave transmitter used to be a Rambler.” The hike was “arranged to terminate at the radio station, where members were allowed to listen to the broadcast of the Durban July.”

To mark the 70th anniversary of the club in 1991 the Breakfast Rock Bench was erected at the famous viewpoint above the Ferncliffe forest. It was made by the municipal parks department from old granite ballast blocks and duly carried up the steep cliffs by members of the club.

Last Saturday, June 4, was a good day for the club’s ninetieth anniversary and the Steve Jones Memorial Hike. “The autumn colours of the grasses and trees are richer thanks to the late rains,” said Marais. “They have also left the air clearer than is usual at this time of year so you can see further.”

According to the current Ramblers’ Journal the hike was designated as “moderate to steep”. The Bushy Park farm is owned by one of Jones’s daughters, Cindy Scott, and the Jones family have enjoyed a long association with the area.

There were about 25 people on the walk (there is currently a membership of 183) and though I was told the Ramblers tended to attract an older age group, there were some as young as 40. Everyone introduced themselves by their first names and the informal nature of the proceedings quickly became apparent as the walk began and conversations started up. Indeed, they only seemed to pause for the steeper climbs up out of the valley.

Coming down a hillside through indigenous bush, we arrived at a glade by a rock pool, now drying out with the onset of winter. Beneath a tree was a table, on it a chocolate cake baked by Jones’s wife Rhoda and proudly bearing the number “90” together with a vase of colourful flowers caught in a shaft of late afternoon sun. A specially dug hole awaited the planting of a Wild olive. When it has grown, the intention is to place a plaque on it in memory of Jones, a hike leader and long-serving committee member.

“At Steve’s funeral his son Michael suggested we should have a hike in honour of him, so here we are today,” Marais told the assembled Ramblers. “It was only after I had scheduled the date that I realised it was on this day the club was also ninety years old.”

Sharon Gaydon, another of Jones’s daughters, also addressed the gathering. “My father loved the birds, the trees; he loved the peace and quiet and coffee with his friends. This is the kind of place he’d love to be in.”

Tributes paid, tree planted, tea, coffee and cake finished, the Ramblers began to move off. There was still the other side of the valley to climb up.

Back at our cars a breeze was blowing through the autumn grasses, and looking west to the line of hills that ring Pietermaritzburg the sun was setting over Swartkops. Sometimes we forget where we live. The splendour on our doorstep. A walk with the Pietermaritzburg Ramblers’ Club is a timely reminder. • To join the Pietermaritzburg Ramblers’ Club contact Francois Marais at 033 344 2754 (a/h). Subscriptions are R30 per member (R50 for couples) and R10 registration. Hikers need to complete three hikes in a two-month period and sign an indemnity form, then membership is approved at one of the quarterly committee meetings.

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