Author Archives: dtabb1973

Oudtshoorn Scale Radio Control, 50th anniversary

An index to this series appears in the header of the first post.

September 20, 2019

A little less than four decades ago, my father took me to a Kansas City airfield for a show unlike any I had ever seen before. I saw grown-ups grinning like little kids, directing their model airplanes by remote control to fly loops and rolls! When I saw that the Cango Flying Club was organizing the 50th anniversary Oudtshoorn Scale RC event during my week off work, I knew I had to attend.

Many scales, and many eras

If you have never been to such a show, you might imagine a bunch of plastic airframes propelled by little electric motors. As I’ll describe, though, the types of planes and the engines that powered them were incredibly diverse. What distinguishes this airshow is its emphasis on scale models. For a scale airplane to qualify for the event, it needed to represent a real airplane that flies today or back in history. Every era of flight was represented, from the birth of flight at the start of the 20th century to contemporary jet fighters!

Perhaps the most dramatic example for me was a model of the Santos-Dumont Demoiselle (“Damselfly”). The real airplane first took flight in 1907 in France. Mark and Roux, representing the Cape Radio Flyers and the Stellenbosch Model Aircraft Academy, were piloting a Demoiselle in ovals around the Oudtshoorn Aerodrome. The other four planes in air were tearing around in acrobatics, but the Demoiselle took a more deliberate pace. Its slow speed made me hold my breath every time it reversed course. I decided to record a little video of the scrappy airplane; it was moving slowly enough that my camera could focus on it! Rather suddenly, though, the plane seemed to make an erratic turn, and then its nose pitched down. I imagined rather than heard a sick crunch as it smacked the dirt beside the runway and shattered to pieces. I felt terrible for its crew.

The remains of the damselfly. I am sure it will take the skies once more!

Real pride of place, however, must be given to the World War I-era Gotha G.II, a heavy bomber employed by the Imperial German Air Service (the Luftwaffe didn’t exist until 1935). The biplane features two wing-mounted propeller engines and a central fuselage for the pilot and gunner. I found myself wondering if this were the type of plane stolen by Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade! The enormous plane (perhaps a 1:3 scale model?) was towed by its pilots to the rear of the airfield for its brief flight. It seemed everybody was watching as they spun up its engines. It slowly lumbered into the air, and everyone applauded. It was only in the sky for a couple of minutes before it was navigated to a careful landing. The Pilot’s Post captured an amazing photograph of the plane in flight.

Just how would one transport such a huge plane?

I had interesting chats with Andries of the Bloem Radio Aero Team and Daniel of Port Elizabeth Radio Flyers. They explained that RC flight has been swamped by newcomers purchasing ARF (“Almost Ready to Fly”) kits. The artistry of building a scale model airplane from hundreds of parts takes considerably more time and energy. Because this airshow was limited to scale models, we were really seeing the products of months of craft. Electric motors are hardly the limit of today’s planes, though they are quite popular for reliability and cost. Plenty of airplanes at the show used two-stroke engines burning methanol, while others featured four-stroke engines burning unleaded fuel. One plane featured a turboprop, quite a technically complex mechanism to fit into a small space!

Oddly enough, South African companies produce components for the Eurofighter Typhoon.

As someone who grew up making model airplanes of military jets, though, I felt an incredible thrill to see scale model jets taking to the skies! My personal favorite was a model of a Eurofighter, dressed in South African colors. Werner previously flew with the Tygerberg Model Flying Club. The group apparently limited its activities to propeller-powered planes, though, so he has been flying solo in recent years. I also had my eye on a nearby model of an F-15, but I didn’t get to see it in motion.

The F-15 first flew in 1972, the year my brother was born.

I watched in awe as planes completed Immelmann turns, snap rolls and many maneuvers one could only do in an RC plane with more energy to spare than the real thing. The air marshals gamely kept limits on the total number of planes in the sky (and kept nosy bloggers behind the barrier separating pilots from civilians). I felt my head getting a bit warm, despite my hiking hat, so I paused for a blue slushy. Oh, life was very good!


In the evening, I attended a special indoor event for the Oudtshoorn Scale RC. The big boys had their fun in the morning, but the smaller aircraft, ranging from rubber-band powered planes up to electrical “foamies,” had a chance to fly inside the De Jagers Sports Complex. The cardinal event was the balloon race. All around the enclosed gymnasium, balloons were tied to crepe paper, with a chocolate bar tied to the other end. Whichever pilot popped the balloon could lay claim to the chocolate bar. Some of the balloons, however, were placed within PVC pipe squares or even under a folding table.

Two “foamies” attempt to destroy the remaining balloon.

Naturally, this event lent itself to younger pilots. One of their favorite tactics was to direct their foam airplanes into hovers, with the planes hanging down from their whining, madly-spinning propellers. That thrust-to-weight ratio is not typical of private airplanes!

Yes, you can power flight with a rubber band.

I was fascinated with the diversity of aircraft on display in the windless indoor environment. When I think “drone,” I automatically think “quad-copter.” A company called “E-flite,” among others, has been making very lightweight RC airplanes that are designed for indoor use. I must resist my buying urge! I sat next to Raffaele and Karin and their son; they had come from the Helderberg Radio Flyers near Somerset West to see the show. Their little boy was so excited; when he saw some foam gliders making an appearance, he begged his father to buy one. His dad replied that they would build one together. I rather suspect his son will someday be a young man attending the 70th anniversary of this event!

I am very glad that I was able to attend this 50th anniversary event for the scale model airplane community. I really had no idea that so many flying clubs surround me here in the Western Cape. If you are interested in this hobby, you might want to check in with the South African Model Aircraft Association to find a group near you!

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Oudtshoorn: Connecting with C.J. Langenhoven at Arbeidsgenot

An index to this series appears in the header of the first post.

September 19, 2019

I have mentioned several key pieces of Afrikaner culture, for example the Taal Monument in Paarl, the life of D.F. Malan, or the origins of Stellenbosch University. My visit to the home of C.J. Langenhoven, however, felt much more personal than those others. Langenhoven is sometimes billed as the “father of Afrikaans.” Arbeidsgenot, his steady home from 1903 to his death in 1932, is just a couple blocks from the center of Oudtshoorn. He wrote the words to “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika” in this house. The poem, set to music, became the South African national anthem; part is incorporated in the current anthem, as well. He also helped usher the National Party to prominence from Oudtshoorn. That’s rather a lot of history for one house.

This image of Arbeidsgenot is from Carin Smuts Architects.

On the other hand, Arbeidsgenot is nothing like the feather palaces that I have described in previous posts. Instead, it is a rather unassuming cottage, with three bedrooms, a small living room, a rather more sizable dining room, a bathroom, and a decent kitchen and pantry. J.C. Kannemeyer explains in “Langenhoven. ‘n Lewe” (“Langenhoven: a Life”) that in 1902 the Langenhoven family’s budget was stretched very tightly, so the Langenhovens sought a property they could buy inexpensively [pp. 201-202]. They opted for a cottage named “Woodbine” on Western Road. (The road was only renamed for Jan van Riebeeck in 1952, twenty years after Langenhoven’s death.) C.J. Langenhoven decided to rename the cottage “Arbeidsgenot” (“The joy of labor”) at a later date, as part of his advocacy for the Afrikaans language. The Langenhovens were setting up their permanent home on a tight budget just as Oudtshoorn was exploding with new wealth and opulent new manor homes. The first Feather Palace, Olivier’s The Towers, was constructed nearby at about the same time the Langenhovens moved to this area. The closest Feather Palace, Pinehurst, was constructed essentially across the street one decade after they moved to the neighborhood.

Hats for her and for him. I have to think a preservationist would have some ideas…

What was it about this tidy bungalow that made it “just right” for Langenhoven? Keanan, my guide for this visit, gave the first hint: “In die sitkamer ontvang ek my vyande, in die eetkamer my vriende!” (“I meet my friends in the dining room and my enemies in the living room.”) [Kannemeyer p 205] Langenhoven’s own words acknowledge the rather cramped living room offered by his home. Several of the totems remaining in the house also have significant links to his work. One of his most famous characters, named Herrie, was a bull who towed a family around in Herrie op die ou Tremspoor, his 1925 contribution to children’s literature. Several other bulls were gifted to him after its success. Similarly, a stuffed iguana at the house points to  Brolloks en Bittergal. I liked the air of whimsy that these inclusions produced.

For a moment, this clothes washer was not the only American thing on the property!

I realized I have omitted a visit to the Stellenbosch Museum. The armoire in Engela Langenhoven’s room (his daughter) is a reproduction; the original can now be found at Stellenbosch, much closer to home than Oudtshoorn. The bedroom for CJ Langenhoven himself is separate from the bedroom for his wife. He found a bedframe crafted for an Indian princess that had mistakenly been removed from a ship at Mossel Bay and bought it at auction for his wife [Kannemeyer p. 206]. CJ Langenhoven himself slept in a bed with a blanket of skins that had been stitched together. A selection of his walking canes appears beside the bed. Keanan showed me his veranda chair where he was known to enjoy a drink and a smoke. Apparently these habits were not similarly enjoyed by his wife.

One must wonder how recently the electrical system was replaced!

A few years back, the graves of CJ Langenhoven (1873-1932) and of his wife Magdalena Hugo (1863-1950) were relocated to the property that he loved so much. There’s another curious inclusion there, too. The ashes of Sarah Goldblatt (1889-1975) have been interred quite near a bust of CJ Langenhoven that overlooks the other two graves. Keanan noted that she and CJ Langenhoven worked together, and he also offered that she was CJ Langenhoven’s lover (Kannemeyer offers much less certainty on this point at pages 371-372). Why, then, was she buried here at his home? In fact, a much larger question asks why CJ Langenhoven named Sarah Goldblatt in his will as the administrator of his literary works! A Master’s thesis by Leonie van Zyl helps to shed light on this subject, outlining Goldblatt’s many contributions to promoting Afrikaans in the 43 years she lived after CJ Langenhoven’s death (including her work promoting Arbeidsgenot as a key piece of the national heritage). It seems unjust to suggest that her only significance to Langenhoven was to be “the other woman.”

Sarah Goldblatt was a less-heralded stalwart for the development of the Afrikaans language.

In democratic South Africa, one rarely hears any mention of the National Party that is not immediately followed by “Apartheid,” the policy of racial segregation that caused so much anguish and death for so many people. It is worth noting that Langenhoven’s involvement with the party necessarily ended at his death in 1932, and Apartheid policy is often dated to have begun with the National Party’s attainment of a majority in 1948. At the same time, it would be quite undeniable that Langenhoven’s promotion of Afrikaans was a linchpin in the rise of Afrikaner nationalism. I need to read more to discern Langenhoven’s racial attitudes. Visitors to Arbeidsgenot today are most frequently white Afrikaners, not members of the South African Coloured community that frequently learns Afrikaans as a first language.

Who doesn’t love a pretty garden?

As an American, my grasp of Afrikaans is essentially nonexistent. I can report that the house has relatively little information presented in English. Most of it appears in little papers affixed to the door frames. If visiting vintage houses is your thing, you will enjoy your visit regardless. If you enjoy strolling in sunlit gardens, Arbeidsgenot is also a winner (I enjoyed listening to bumblebees sampling the tree flowers at the exit). If you want to learn more about the Afrikaans language or read some selections from CJ Langenhoven, you will find little help here. I would really love to see a reading room added to the property, particularly if they can offer some of Langehoven’s most popular writings in translation.

Oudtshoorn: the Safari Ostrich Farm

An index to this series appears in the header of the first post.

As a rule, I try to avoid places that are surrounded for miles in every direction by roadside marketing billboards. Having been drawn to Safari Ostrich Farm to see its farmhouse Feather Palace, though, I knew I needed to take the tractor tour. I paid my R146 (around $10 USD) and waited in a shady spot on the bench. Conveniently, the site offers an extensive gift shop, a sit-down restaurant, and a large cafeteria to help one pass the time. Soon others began joining me on the bench for our 11AM tour. I was pleased that I could differentiate the accent from Great Britain from the accent of South Africa (don’t judge– I’m an American!).

Today’s ostrich incubators can house hundreds of eggs!

Our group appeared to be only five people, and the site appointed Picasso as our tour leader. He seemed very young, and he didn’t have the tour guide badge in the colors of the South African flag, but Picasso handled himself well as he still pointed our little group into the start of the tour. It began a bit damply as we were all walked over a sponge filled with disinfectant to protect the youngest birds we would see. We entered a room displaying some basics on the birds, including a replica of an early ostrich incubator model. The “Eclipse” triggered a revolution in the ostrich industry, back when it was invented by Arthur Douglass in 1869. Shooting wild ostriches for their feathers was inhumane and wasteful, but controlling the birds from the moment the eggs were laid led to much more manageable animals. Picasso shared that ostrich chicks require several hours to break out of the eggs, kicking with their toenails to shatter the 2mm-thick shells.

Ostrich feathers remain the height of fashion.

Picasso was rather suddenly taken from us. A group of approximately ten Brazillians had been a bit tardy to come to the tour start site, so Picasso returned to walk them over to us. We peered around the chamber and discovered a booth with natty leather hats and ostrich feather boas. The Brits and I wasted no time acquiring some photos in these high fashions.

When Picasso returned with the large group, he found us spread all over the room, but soon he marshaled us into a coherent, listening audience. I was grateful for a little discussion on the niche the ostrich fits among the Ratitae: flightless birds. Yes, the ostrich is the largest flightless bird today, but a couple thousand years ago, that honor would instead have gone to the elephant bird, found on Madagascar. I liked the exhibit Picasso showed us that compared the thick sternum bone of the ostrich to its tiny brain (you could probably fit three or four brains into one ostrich egg). The emu, a significantly smaller flightless bird in Australia, produces an egg of nearly the same diameter as the ostrich.

The breast bone is a key factor differentiating flightless birds from others; it has no keel for wing muscle attachment.

As we came outside, it was time for Picasso to demonstrate the incredible strength of ostrich eggs. We were invited to stand atop a small clutch of eggs. He noted that the eggs could likely withstand the force of a person massing 220 kg (~485 pounds) atop them. Nobody in our group was even close.

The female African ostrich is gray, while the male is black-and-white.

From there, we had the opportunity to meet the birds up close. We learned that the adult male and female birds can be easily distinguished by coloration. The black and white color pattern (along with a frequently dusty tail) is the male bird, while the gray pattern distinguishes the female. The adults we saw in this first enclosure were around twenty years of age, but they can live just as long as humans can! The birds were clearly not intimidated by us. Both males and females snapped with their beaks at the top wires of the fence. We had all received the warning that an ostrich will snap up anything shiny it sees. I kept my distance. Several people, though, tried their hand at feeding the birds.

The jerking lunges for the food in mid-air left me sure I should keep my distance.

Oudtshoorn was ideal for the ostrich industry in two particulars: 1) its temperature led to rapid plumage replacement (ranchers could pluck adult birds every eight months), and 2) the area’s soil is rich in lime, making it ideal for growing lucerne (Americans would say alfalfa). The lucerne is milled into pellets for the birds to eat. The guests at the farm could scoop up some pellets and toss them in the direction of the ostrich, which would strike at the pellets to gobble them mid-air. It looked downright threatening! Picasso built their fearsome reputation by noting that the middle toenail for an adult ostrich can grow to seven centimeters (3 inches). Yes, an ostrich can disembowel a lion with a lucky kick. The toe claw also plays an important role in traction as the birds maneuver at high speed.

Emus are from an entirely different continent than ostriches.

The Safari Ostrich farm is also home to emus, but these animals are only for show; they are not farmed for feathers, leather, or meat like the ostriches (though some enterprising farmers have grown them to produce emu oil!). The emu enclosure had just a few animals, and they seemed much less prone to intimidating the visitors. Picasso noted that the females were more aggressive than the males, a reversal of the ostrich split.

Nice trailer you have here. It would be a shame if something were to happen to it!

With that, we boarded the trailer for our tractor ride. It wasn’t a particularly long loop. I hadn’t anticipated that our trailer would be rolling among the birds. Those long necks allow for quite a lot of reach! Because the driver occasionally dumped a shovel of pellets on the ground, the birds were very interested in us. I and others reached out to touch their feathers when they were distracted.

These ostrich chicks were just adorable.

Seeing the five-day-old chicks was definitely a highlight for me. The light colored feathers on a dark background made them look like hedgehogs! I liked the cheetah racing stripes on their necks, too. The enclosure of individuals that were several months old was interesting, too. I hadn’t realized that determining the sex of the animals required them to age so much. The ranch had quite a range of ages all mixed together.

The scientific name for the ostrich is Struthio camelus. The displays had informed us that the farm featured subspecies of ostrich from three regions: South Africa, Zimbabwe (just northeast of South Africa) and Kenya. The Zimbabwean birds are even larger than the South African ones. As our trailer passed by, the male seemed to lose his temper with the female standing nearby. It was unnerving. South Africa invested serious effort into acquiring breeding birds of “double-fluff” plumage from the rest of Africa back in 1911, but since the ostrich farms have turned their attention to leather and meat, I suspect those lines have not continued to today.

Check out the leg muscles on both of these Zimbabwean ostriches!

The Kenyan birds seemed much more restrained. The male bird spread his wings wide, as though showing his toughness. I imagined my older brother ghosting a punch at me and taunting me, “you live in fear.”

The Kenyan ostrich brings out the gun-show.

With that, our ostrich adventure had come to a close. Having been this close to adult ostriches, I would only say I feel more intimidated by these birds than before! I will continue to look forward to my next ostrich burger.

Oudtshoorn: The Cango Caves!

An index to this series appears in the header of the first post.

September 18, 2019

Cango Caves has attracted attention since this area was named Oudtshoorn. Discovered in 1780, the cave system extends for 2400 m underground. I had anticipated that I would have only a short drive from Oudtshoorn to reach it, but the trip took me at least a half hour on a pretty good climb with some switchback turns. Travelers continuing to Prince Albert over Swartberg Pass take a turn just before the caves. I’ll see that road when I return to Cape Town!

In preparing for this trip, I read a 1992 doctoral dissertation from Stephen A. Craven detailing the long-term management of the Cango Caves. One of the first tasks by the South African Spelaeological Association after it was founded in 1956 was a detailed survey of the caves. Its map, however, soon fell behind the times due to the 1972 discovery of Cango II and 1975 discovery of Cango III. Happily, Cango II and III remain inaccessible to the general public so that their contents are not compromised further. Cango I has already been changed substantially to serve as a show cave, in many ways to its detriment. Cango is a “low energy” cave, meaning that relatively little flow of heat or food or water comes in or goes out. An underground channel of water flows in Cango II and III, but at least tourists aren’t traipsing through it!

You won’t have to wait in the harsh sunlight for your tour group at Cango Caves.

The four-story visitors’ centre stands tall above the parking area at its base. I visited before the start of school holidays, so the parking lot had room for at least four times as many visitors as had come on my Wednesday. In contrast to what Craven reported in 1992, I found that the interpretation centre was solid, with exhibits summarizing the grand scope of time, from the formation of the earth to the evolution of mankind, though some seemed faded with time. Cango Caves formed in a type of limestone environment called “Karst” (a term originating with similar caves in the former Yugoslavia). Essentially, the changing water table means that areas of limestone dissolved away at higher water tables and were then exposed as voids in the rock by a drop in the water table. After its prominence in the Craven thesis, I had expected to learn a bit more about why this cave is called “low energy”, and I hoped I would learn a bit about the genet cats for which skeletons were found in the cave, but these were omitted.

The original Cango Caves tea room, constructed in 1930, served guests until the massive visitor’s centre was constructed.

I opted for the 90-minute “Adventure” tour of the caves, which enabled me to reach the “Devil’s Workshop” part of the cave. It’s perhaps 50% more cave area than the less-taxing “Heritage” tour. It also came at a bit of a price premium. My ticket was R220 (a bit under $15 USD). I was on the penultimate Adventure tour of the day, starting at 2:30 PM.

I was quite surprised to discover I was the only person on the 2:30 tour! Apparently the word has gotten around that the more strenuous tour doesn’t merely require the ability to navigate through tight pinches but also requires a bit of muscle power and flexibility. Amelia was my initial tour guide, and we had a lot of fun talking. I appreciated that she showed me the rock art of an elephant, close to the cave entrance (this part is omitted on group tours because the art is quite vulnerable).

Looking down into van Zyl’s chamber at Cango Caves from the stairway

When we descended into van Zyl’s chamber, I was really dumbfounded. I had read that concerts were conducted inside the cave for an audience of more than 1000, but I was sure that it had been an exaggeration. The chamber really is that big, though. The concerts extended from 1964 to 1994, when management realized that the cave really was being damaged by that much added body heat and carbon dioxide (“low energy” caves are more vulnerable). The tiered choir stand is still visible, though, and the raised dais remains in place. Amelia was pleased to learn I am a choir boy, so I sang a few bars of “Why We Sing,” accompanied by my own echoes. I had tingly skin before I had sung for long. Van Zyl’s chamber is probably the most heavily altered parts of the cave, with a floor that is perfectly smooth, with stalagmites, guano, and boulders removed from its base.

Botha’s chamber at Cango Caves offers dramatic flow stone and drip stone.

Botha’s chamber, following soon on the heels of can Zyl’s, is better preserved, with examples of “dripstone” (such as stalactites) and “flowstone” abounding. It’s an enormous space, and it’s quite easy to navigate since the floor has been smoothed with a brick path and footlights (hooded to prevent the heat and light from being directed upward). Amelia showed me a dark tunnel at one end of the chamber that reflected the original passageway taken by the explorers of the cave. After that, she handed me off to Lesley, an athletic twenty-something on staff who argued that he would be better positioned to navigate the tight corners of the later tour. We moved through much of the rest of the heritage tour at a brisk clip, with fewer stops for conversation. He was clearly looking forward to putting me to work!

At the upper right, I believe you can see places stalactites have been snapped off.

We passed through the end of a heritage tour at the “Drum Room,” and from there forward we were by ourselves. The Jacob’s Ladder walk was not so very bad, though it did involve a fair number of stairs and then a high ladder. The “Lumbago Walk” was much less pleasant, though, since the ceiling frequently required us to walk crouched over. I was grateful that we paused at “King Solomon’s Mines,” since that’s the jumping off point for researchers who are entering Cango II and III.

The “Tunnel of Love” at Cango Caves could also be called “The Dietitian’s Dream.”

I learned that we would pass both directions through the Tunnel of Love, but the tour runs in a loop on the other side of it. The tunnel was a fair squeeze, and I ran into a part where my foot was pointing the wrong direction, briefly giving me the unpleasant feeling I was going to be stuck in that pose!

I was so out-of-breath that I could barely notice the beauty around me.

The Devil’s Chimney, however, was probably my biggest moment for realizing I’m out of shape. Getting my feet high enough to reach the footholds was problematic, and pushing myself up a vertical tube of limestone didn’t feel very good. I was panting like a dog as I passed upward through “the Coffin” (a window in a thin sheet of limestone). When we reached the “Postal Slot,” I was taking multiple breaths for each step. It didn’t seem like any passage was even possible, but Lesley walked me through extending my arms and then belly-whopping down a smoothed limestone slope. I just lay there, awkwardly gasping, with my face on the sheet and my hips and legs pointing upward behind me at a 45 degree angle.

The Postal Slot at Cango Caves at least provided an opportunity to lie down on the job.

From that low point, I rallied back to life as we returned to the easier parts of the cave, though I confess I don’t remember passing through the Tunnel of Love or Lumbago Walk a second time. We passed a Spanish-language tour group that seemed delighted to hear a stranger say “Hola,” but I know that I looked a caution, with dirty jeans and a liberal slathering of sweat in my hair. As we neared the exit to the cave, I asked about something that had been bothering me. Craven’s thesis had mentioned that the Apartheid government had begun boring a second entrance to the caves so that whites and people with darker skin would not share a common passageway (my skin crawls just typing that). Lesley explained that the caves drew enough traffic in vacation weeks that using separate openings for entrance and exit was helpful; the “South African Coloured” entrance was now everybody’s exit. Lesley expressed his hope that a hundred years from now, everyone could laugh about how crazy those racist ideas were. For now, there’s plenty of resentment still in circulation.

I enjoyed this aloe at the lip of the parking lot at Cango Caves.

I was really impressed with the quality of Cango Caves, and it’s a great opportunity for high school students to become interested in geology as a career. I would hate for the people of South Africa to think that underground is only important because it’s where we find the gold or diamonds!

Oudtshoorn on foot

Index for the Oudtshoorn series:

September 18, 2019

Jeremy van Wyk is always ready to tell the story of Oudtshoorn; he has been recording oral histories for the area for several years. I first learned about him from the tourist information center in the city, and I decided to start my first full day in Oudtshoorn with his “Velskoen Shuffle” Central Business District Heritage Walk. We agreed to meet at 8:30 AM.

We wandered down to the Pick N Pay first to grab some water bottles, and then Jeremy was off to the races! He started his monologue very early in the region’s history, noting that the third war of dispossession and resistance / Frontier War (British vs. Trekboers vs. Khoikhoi vs. Xhosa, 1799-1803) had come quite close to where we were standing, with a front on the Kammanassie River just east of Oudtshoorn. At that time white settlers and accompanying people of mixed race began occupying the Klein Karoo in greater numbers as the Xhosa began expanding west.

The “Velskoen” in the title of Mr. van Wyk’s tours relates to a particular type of hardy walking shoe manufactured in this area, separated from the southern coast of South Africa by the Outeniqua Mountains. The area frequently went by the name “Veldschoendorp” until the growing town at its heart was named “Oudtshoorn” in 1847. A magistrate of George had married the granddaughter of Pieter Baron van Reede van Oudtshoorn and wanted to honor the noble who had moved to the Cape in 1741; the baron had been named governor of the Cape in 1792, though he died while returning to South Africa to take this post. The Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town stands on lands granted to Baron van Outdshoorn in 1743. The main street leading north from Oudtshoorn’s city centre was named “Baron van Reede” in his memory, as well.

The C.P. Nel Museum, originally a high school, dominates the chief intersection of the city.

During the first decades of the 20th century, Oudtshoorn had a major building boom. The town neighbored two quarries that produced sandstone, so this yellow-brown rock was dominant in the permanent buildings erected during that time. Builders would occasionally knock out a foundation for a building with some delay for completing the project because their services were needed for several projects at once. Sadly, their use of inferior sandstone for some key buildings’ foundations has led to stability problems. This material is sometimes called “brown sugar” because it dissolves to grainy sand as the decades pile up. In any case, many of the historic buildings from the golden age of Oudtshoorn have been replaced by more contemporary construction techniques from the 1970s and later, so one needs a leap of imagination to envision how the town would appear back when.

The 1930s expansion of the Queen’s Hotel completely masked its original sandstone appearance.

The golden age of Oudtshoorn coincided with a sharp rise in the trade of ostrich feathers for ladies’ hats at the start of the 20th century. The golden age fell away at the end of this fashion around 1914; the rise of the motor car and the commencement of World War I altered consumption patterns worldwide. I will have much more to say about the distinctive “Feather Palaces” that resulted in a later post. In the aftermath of the Ostrich Feather Boom, Oudtshoorn was cast back on its local resources. Some resourceful farmers returned to growing tobacco.

The Oudtshoorn district was probably the first part of South Africa to grow tobacco, which was planted there as early as 1845, before the town existed. When an Agricultural Society was formed in 1859 the amount of tobacco sold that year was more than 100,000 kg. There was no marketing organisation, and very indifferent transportation, so the farmers used to turn the tobacco leaves into rolls which they took on “togt” [“tour” or “expedition”] as far as the Free State and Transvaal, and sold as chewing and pipe tobacco.

The Little Karoo, by Jose Burman, p. 108

The crop grew to some prominence until other nations in the area, notably Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) began growing tobacco in greater volume. A sign embedded in the sidewalk in the commercial district shows that spitting chewing tobacco on the ground had become a hygenic problem on the city streets, especially with the long, blooming dresses that were popular at the time.

Since coming to South Africa in 2015, I have developed an abiding love for ostrich meat. We have to be somewhat sparing in purchasing this food, however, because it is one of the premium meats at our Woolworth’s grocery store. Jeremy related, however, that when he was growing up, eating ostrich was considered a sign of poverty! Oh, how times change.

Jeremy related an entertaining story about the friendly competition between the NG Church (Dutch Reformed Community) and the Anglican Church. In the 19th century, these two groups were locked in competition to see who could erect a permanent building first for the emerging city. The NG Church ordered roof buttresses from England that were shipped by ox wagon over the mountains from George, but they were discovered to be the wrong size upon their arrival. Thus the first pictures of the church lack its roof. The Anglicans opted for a different strategy and thus were able to complete their cathedral earlier, in 1863. Jeremy and I wandered around the NG Church grounds for a few moments. He pointed to a monument erected to commemorate the centenary of the Great Trek, with unusual shapes atop it. The church had removed stalactites from the roof of the nearby Cango Caves to stand atop the monument. These surely took more than a millennium to develop, since their growth rate is around 13 mm for a hundred years.

The NG Moederkerk in morning sunlight, with monument at right

The NG Church has an interesting complex of buildings nearby. The Drill Hall stands just to the northeast, still bearing its foundation stone, laid by Cecil Rhodes in 1892. His name has come into disrepute in recent protests at the University of Cape Town. As we approached the church wall, Jeremy noted that the church had sought to clean up the exterior for a celebration. The contractor, however, had painted the outside of its sandstone buttresses with latex paint to cover some of the age damage on this porous stone. The result has been that water damage to the underlying stone has greatly increased, and the structural integrity may drop considerably over the next couple of decades without expensive remediation.

The neighborhood also features a few small residences sometimes called “Communion houses.” Because the Oudtshoorn district featured a large number of farms, some families would travel long distances by wagon into town for special church services (Communion or nagmaal). Acquiring small town houses near the church made these visits more convenient. The residence of the NG Church minister is also quite close to the church. Its use of woodwork for its veranda rails on two floors makes it look quite distinct from other residences in the city

The minister no longer lives here.

Just around the corner from the church, one can see a sandstone doctor’s office and surgery. I leaned against a well-place oak tree on the opposite site of the road to listen to Jeremy’s discussion, but then he pointed to the tree itself. At the time, people of mixed ancestry or who were black were not allowed to wait on the veranda of the doctor’s office. Instead, they would wait in the shade of the “Doctor Tree” until their names were called by a nurse. The tree under which I was resting had been used for that purpose for a century!

The Methodist and Catholic churches are across the street from each other, but they could hardly look more different!

Jeremy and I saw a few more houses of worship that play a prominent role here. The Methodist church is covered in vines; apparently the church looks entirely different when they are covered with leaves. The current Catholic Cathedral, dating from 1967, is very distinctive, with the look of a flying saucer! Not far away is the city’s Synagogue. I was grateful that a groundskeeper opened its doors for us, though I was wearing my hiking hat rather than a kippah. The rich interior illustrates how important this community has been over time to Oudtshoorn (more on this when we talk Feather Palaces).

The “Englishe Shul” synagogue dates from 1888.

St. Jude’s Anglican Church is a complex of sandstone buildings surrounding a pretty garden . The church itself is the oldest stone building in the city, completed in 1863. Jeremy explained that the building originally featured stained glass windows for the trio of St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. Simons. In 1961, many of the church members were compelled to move to the Bridgeton area under the Apartheid Group Areas Act of the city designated for the “South African Coloured” population (these categories were forced on the population by the Apartheid Population Registration Act). Those members went on to build their own Anglican church. Similarly, many black congregants were compelled to move even further to the Bongolethu township. Jeremy reported that the congregants of St. Jude’s Anglican Church removed the window representing St. Simons to reflect that their congregation had been torn apart.

The Anglican Church won the race for first stone church in town!

To close off our tour, Jeremy brought me to the Grobblears River, which separated the town from the nearest farms (as well as the communities of farm workers) back at the close of the 18th century. The city commissioned a suspension bridge in 1914 to simplify foot traffic. Although the bridge has sometimes featured as a historic landmark to represent the city, it was allowed to dip into a poor state of repair. Though many of the boards on its walkway have been replaced, some of those boards have already begun to degrade. I developed some problems with vertigo in connection with my vestibular migraine diagnosis, so I found walking on the bridge quite problematic. We continued our chat on the ground!

The Grobblears River was previously at a higher water level, but irrigation consumes much of its flow now.

Jeremy offered me a sprig of Helichrysum crispum, or “Khoi bedding.” He explained that this plant was used to clean the air of a dwelling and also for ceremony. To say our farewell, I could cast the plant into the river. I offered my best wishes for Oudsthoorn to continue in health and then let the plant fall into the waters. Our tour was at an end!

The University of Manchester and Manchester Museum

An index to this series appears on the first post.

Today, it seems that any major city should offer its own university, but that was not always true. Today, it seems obvious that a city should offer a variety of museums to host school groups and tourists, but that, too, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Just how did the University of Manchester and its associated Manchester Museum come about?

A University through Union

This former Medical School building is not the first home of medical training in Manchester, since it only opened in 1874!

The 1820s were a time of rapid growth for Manchester. The first national census in 1801 determined that the city had 78,727 inhabitants, but that number had almost doubled to 142,000 by the time of the 1831 census. “It should be remembered that for about 700 years there had been only two universities in England, devoted largely to the production of clerics and, later, administrators” [Walsh 1996]. In the space of a single year, though, two different seeds of change sprouted in Manchester. During 1824, both the Manchester School of Medicine and Manchester Mechanics’ Institution began operations, trying to bring advanced training within the reach of middle-class families. Durham University and the University of London were established in 1832 and 1836, respectively. In 1846, a bequest for educational purposes by textile merchant John Owens brought £96,654 to the cause of establishing a college at Manchester, and the Owens College was launched formally in 1851. “Owens did not have powers to grant degrees, but a Royal Warrant permitted the College to award certificates to qualify students to take the degrees of the University of London” [from Owens College Archive]. The (now Royal) Manchester School of Medicine joined Owens College in 1872.

The John Owens building on the Oxford Road campus once housed almost all the classes of Owens College.

Gaining university standing was quite a challenge for the colleges of northern England; the universities near London naturally enjoyed having exclusive right to this title. Yorkshire College in Leeds and Owens College at Manchester stepped on each other’s feet to become the first university in the north. In the end, a federated Victoria University was created in 1880 at Manchester, with partner colleges at University College Liverpool (1884) and Yorkshire College at Leeds (1887) joining soon thereafter. This structure of a single university with three campuses was an uneasy arrangement, and when Liverpool began adding specialized programs such as the School of Tropical Medicine, the other colleges within Victoria University were slow to approve. In 1902, this conflict boiled over, and Liverpool applied for the right to be a university in its own right. Manchester declared that if Liverpool were granted the right to be a university, it should, as well. (This is quite similar to the way that the college at Stellenbosch acquired university status at the same time as the college at Cape Town.) In 1903, both of these colleges were granted independent university status, and the Yorkshire College at Leeds was invited to request the same standing.

Even the Student Service Centre of the U-Manchester campus is beautiful!
The Sackville Street Building, opened in 1902, was the mainstay of UMIST for a century.

The 1824 Manchester Mechanics’ Institute, now operating as the Manchester Municipal School of Technology, entered an agreement in 1905 to serve as the Faculty of Technology of the Victoria University of Manchester. The faculty’s name continued to drift substantially until receiving a royal charter in 1966 as the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology or UMIST. In 1994, changes in the law made UMIST a separate university, but it opted for complete merger with the Victoria University of Manchester in 2004 to form today’s University of Manchester.

The Renold Building, constructed in 1962, was part of a UMIST campus expansion in that era.

From collector to society to university

In the late Enlightenment, well-to-do English people often sought to demonstrate their refinement through the collection of rare items, whether fine art or insects. At the time, the boundaries between geology and entomology were somewhat less rigid, and so a fair number of these collections sprawled to a wide variety of exhibits. John Leigh Philips (1761-1814) was a partner in the family business, spinning cotton and silk. At his death, the Philips collection included three mahogany cabinets just to hold his insect collection, along with a substantial number of artworks. Religious dissenters had formed a nucleus of learning in Manchester, and a merchant from their ranks purchased the collection at auction. Intellectual societies had developed in many major cities, and Manchester was home to one of the largest, the “Lit and Phil” (The Manchester Literary and Philosophy Society, founded in 1781). The Lit and Phil declined to purchase the Philips collection when it was offered to them in 1821; instead, a few of its interested members banded together to form the “Manchester Society for the Promotion of Natural History” in order to buy the collection and display it for a broader audience.

“Possessing a bunch of stuff” is not the same thing as “running a modern museum.” The Philips collection and additions surfed from location to location at first, but then the Society was able in 1835 to construct a purpose-built museum facility on Peter Street in the center of Manchester after raising significant funds for that purpose. This museum, however, was not open to the public but rather limited to part-owners of the collection, substantial contributors of funds, and members of partner societies. Enjoyment of the museum became broader as students and staff of the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution were allowed entry. Eventually museums needed to subsist on entry fees as the societies lost senior members. By 1860s, the building and upkeep costs from the museum had left the Society in bad condition, and civic corporations were unwilling to take on the museum and its mission. In 1868, the Society dissolved itself, having transferred the museum and its contents to Owens College, soon to become part of Victoria University. Many of the “curiosities” in the collection were sold at auction at this time. The Manchester Museum facility on Oxford Road finally opened its doors to the public in 1888, twenty years after the Society had closed down its predecessor.

A college home on Oxford Road

The Manchester Museum begins at that grand entrance and extends through that first vaulted ceiling, extending away from the camera. The baroque bit closer to the camera now offers a ground-floor cafe.

Alfred Waterhouse had already developed a brilliant reputation as an Manchester architect in 1873; his Neo-Gothic town hall for the city had begun construction five years earlier. Owens College turned to him to craft its campus on Oxford Road, running south from downtown. His answer produced an original campus quadrangle that is truly striking to the eye. The Manchester Museum building was added to the quadrangle starting in 1882, forming its northeast corner (at a total cost of £95,000). The last 130 years since the Museum opened its Oxford Road building have hardly been static for the facility. A 2009 book by Samuel J. M. M. Alberti (author of several of the citations I’ve read above) discusses how the various disciplines under the museum (geography, ethnography, or ornithology, to name a few) and the objects associated with them have evolved over the years.

The quad behind the facade is a lovely place to relax. Here’s Simon, the M.Sc. student I get to work with through DARA.

During my visit to the Manchester Museum, substantial renovations were underway. I was really grateful for the chance to visit its original gallery, though. I particularly liked the skeleton of a sperm whale, suspended from the ceiling. The animal washed ashore in Massachusetts in 1896 and was purchased for the museum at a cost of $300.

I was not the only American in the museum!

In 1922, a nearly-complete fossil of a Tyrannosaurs Rex was uncovered in South Dakota. A cast of the fossils has been arranged to show the creature running, and it’s a very dynamic component to the floor of the gallery. I was grateful for the opportunity to show him to Simon, the graduate student I visited in Manchester!

“Stan” guards the floor of the main gallery.

Manchester: Jodrell Bank and the Lovell Telescope

An index to this series appears on the first post.

June 28, 2019

In retrospect, it is remarkable how close the U.K. came to canceling the construction of the massive Lovell Radio Telescope. Bernard Lovell had been awarded the Order of the British Empire for his pioneering work in radar during World War II. After the war, the University of Manchester had named him a professor of radio astronomy in the Physics Department. His odd experiments with re-purposed equipment from the war had led him to the quiet farms at Jodrell Bank of the Botany Department to avoid the noisy radio environment of Manchester. In 1952, however, he moved away from the makeshift antenna poles and mesh reflectors of his pilot experiments on the ground to design an incredibly bold telescope that could be aimed at any part of the sky. The mammoth antenna would rotate on an axle 165 feet above the ground, with a dish that measured 250 feet in diameter. The axle itself would rotate in racks taken from 15 inch gun turrets from former battleships. The entire structure would turn because it was built atop bogeys riding on two concentric circles of rail tracks.

At left: this WW2 searchlight was repurposed as a radio telescope by the Jodrell Bank team (1951). At right: the remains of the searchlight cart today, as yet unrestored.

Lovell originally projected that all could be accomplished for £170,000. His initial budget, however, was more than optimistic, and the United Kingdom had run up incredible debts to continue fighting in World War II. Lovell’s government grant funders began grumbling about “Lovell’s Folly,” and Members of Parliament began alleging that he was misusing government funding. The auditors moved in. Five years into construction, the telescope project appeared on the verge of collapse.

This 218 ft. reflector of metal mesh, constructed in 1947, was subsequently replaced by the “Mark II” telescope at Jodrell Bank. In its time, though, this was the largest radio telescope in the world, prefiguring other immobile dishes such as the one at Arecibo.

In a surprising historical accident, the Cold War saved Lovell’s dream. On October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite. What had seemed an incredibly expensive crackpot caprice was suddenly reappraised as a priceless national security asset. With money no object, “wiring and electrical work scheduled to take two months were complete in two days.” Five days after Sputnik I was launched, the Lovell Telescope dish was moved automatically via remote commands generated by an analog computer in the control room for the first time. Within two additional days, the telescope had made it possible to detect the carrier rocket, with confirmation on October 16th. Why was the U.K. so intent on finding that rocket? The rockets required to launch a satellite are very, very similar to those that serve as inter-continental ballistic missiles. From this point forward, this and other radio telescopes would play a role in monitoring the skies for ICBM launches and to track the course of extraplanetary missions, such as the first manned moon landing in 1969.

The emphasis was on telescope construction, not great architecture. Most of the original observatory buildings are now under restoration. The small, modern dish here is a student telescope.

I was very grateful to be hosted as a visiting “astronomer” by Nick Wrigley. As I’ve written before, my specialty covers the algorithms we use to interpret biological mass spectrometry data, but I have teamed with Prof. Anna Scaife at U-Manchester to co-supervise Simon Ndiritu, an M.Sc. student working on problems of missing data in astronomy through the Development of Africa with Radio Astronomy program. Nick gave me a brilliant tour of Jodrell Bank, despite limited time at the facility. We started at the fields where Lovell first tested his ability to measure radio signals in the gardens of the botanical station, using a World War II searchlight with antennas attached to it. The equipment is barely recognizable today; historical preservation for it became a priority rather late. This should improve now that Jodrell Bank has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (announced just last week)! We visited the area where his mesh-and-pole pilot project was attempted. It is hard to believe that these “duct tape and baling wire” experiments could have allowed anyone to conceive of the Lovell Telescope. It is so enormous that it dwarfs everything around it.

This is the first unobstructed view a visitor sees of the Lovell Telescope.
The preserved control panel is refreshingly analog.

I was really delighted to take a moment in the control room of the instrument. The console definitely looks like something from the 1950s, with analog rheostats mounted to the metal frame. The modern controls, of course, are mediated through contemporary computers, and displays for a project called “e-MERLIN” can even show external cameras monitoring the current positions of other companion telescopes. When Nick showed me the systems for examining the Lovell Telescope from the control room, my eyes popped. Lovell had taken advantage of war surplus to acquire very finely-crafted “big eyes” binoculars, and the symbol of the Nazis is still visible, right there below the eyepieces.

Does he look like an astronomer to you?

It was not until its thirtieth anniversary that the 1957 telescope was named after its inventor; before that it was frequently called the “Mark I.” The smaller “Mark II” radio telescope, with a far smaller surface area than its older brother, was completed in 1964, also at Jodrell Bank. Over the years, new engineering capabilities have transformed the Lovell Telescope into a much more capable instrument. Its original reflecting dish is an integral part of its structure, but a new reflector that was closer to the ideal paraboloid shape was mounted atop the original surface between 1968 and 1971. That surface was recently replaced in 2001-2003. The receiver at the focus of that bowl is now cooled to only thirteen degrees above absolute zero, removing much of the radio noise that it would otherwise contribute. Dr. Scaife noted that some pairs of peregrine falcons have built nests in the substructure of the reflector. Their selfless activities have greatly reduced the interference caused by the droppings and body heat of pigeons in the ongoing operations of the Lovell Telescope.

The Lovell Telescope might be the oldest of the big dish radio telescopes, but its surface and receiver updates have made a big difference in the frequency range it can monitor as well as the sensitivity of its measurements. Since Lovell’s 1957 completion, only two re-positionable single-dish antennas have surpassed its size. The 100 meter dish in Effelsberg, Germany was completed in 1972, and the 100 meter dish in Green Bank, West Virginia was completed in 2001. These are not, however, the largest radio telescopes in the world. That honor remained with the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico (305 meters, completed in 1963) until China created its immobile but tunable dish at Guizhou with a diameter of 500 (!) meters in 2016. These telescopes offer incredible sensitivity, but because these telescopes cannot be moved, they can “see” only astronomical objects within a few degrees of where the Earth’s rotation and revolution has oriented them.

The 1964 “Mark 2” telescope is elliptical, with a major axis just half of the Mark 1 telescope. Its finely-crafted surface allowed study of smaller wavelengths than did the Mark 1.

A big dish lends itself to sensitivity, but it is not ideal for seeing details within regions of radio signal. Recent years have seen a shift toward radio astronomy that is distributed across an array of dishes rather than a single big dish. Signals are combined across dishes using significant number crunching computation with methods from “interferometry.” The Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico spans twenty-seven 25m dishes. It was completed in 1980. South Africa and Australia are now building an even larger array of antennas, with a total surface area of a square kilometer (thus the name, the “Square Kilometer Array“). The first subset of 64 dishes came online in 2018 in South Africa under the name “MeerKAT.” Because this array is located in the Southern Hemisphere, humanity will have the ability to detect astronomical phenomena in an altogether different part of the sky! Happily, the Lovell Telescope has been able to join with other radio telescopes across Great Britain to create a interferometry array in the e-MERLIN project, with Lovell providing high sensitivity and gaining substantial detail through the distant antennas.

The weight of the axle is managed by turrets scavenged from WW1 battleships.

Nick allowed me to see the server room (which looks very much like a bank vault) for the computing resources to combine the signals of e-MERLIN. For the “Correlator,” designed fifteen years ago, the site opted to handle these parallel computations through field-programmable gate array (FPGA) hardware rather than standard CPUs or graphical processing units (GPUs). In an even more ambitious undertaking, more than 40 sites in 19 nations have joined into a massive Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) network to allow extremely highly detailed images to be created of very distant objects. The computation to combine these data is handled in the Netherlands. At present, coordinating data among so many sites limits the amount of VLBI observation time to three week intervals only three times a year. As network bandwidth and parallel computation gains speed, however, this window of time may be increased in the future.

This 42 ft dish was previously used in Australia for missile tracking. Now it is deployed for pulsar observation.

Dr. Sally Cooper handled many of the details for my trip to Manchester. She showed me a very different face for Jodrell Bank. In less than a week, the site will host the Bluedot festival, featuring live music and talks about science, much like Pint of Science but with a larger audience! Dr. Cooper had a great idea for how to make pulsars understandable to the broader public. I wish I could be there!