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HTN 207 - 1200 km to a Dinner Party? You must be crazy! - by Andy Selfe

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1200 km to a Dinner Party? You must be crazy!

But if the invitation is to an Edwardian Experience at Sandstone Estates in the Eastern Freestate, the answer, without doubt, is Yes! I knew that this was a party we would all remember for the rest of our lives, and that every small detail would be attended to, to make it that way.

A 4am start and a right turn after !Gariep Dam, via Smithfield, then via 90 km of dirt road to near Wepener, then northwards on the Maloti Route via Hobhouse, Clocolan and Ficksburg, meant I arrived just before 4pm, feeling jaded, but after a cuppa, felt much better.

I ran straight into Hester, in whose house I was supposed to stay. She took one look and said, 'Wouldn't you rather like to be with your friend Charles in the Single Quarters?' meaning, 'You aren't coming to stay with me, mate!' This was a good move as the quarters are near the main gate, and handy for everything. It was great living on the farm and saved the hassle and expense of a B&B outside.

I wandered around, clocked in with Wilf, our host at his house, sang Happy Birthday to his daughter Hayley (16) while she blew her candles out, and started exploring the farm with the movie camera rolling. I met Jan (AWB) Fouche from Lichtenburg, who is the Tiffy who looks after the Military Vehicles, and his son Francois, son in law Kevin and another helper, Danie.

Drinks and a braai were laid on at farm manager Terry Reilly's house, where we caught up with other old and new friends, meeting some e-mail pals for the first time!

Up early on Saturday morning, not having needed much rocking. I had been told to report to Jan to drive 'my Saracen'. More wandering around and filming and chatting with Jan, then we put some petrol in the Saracen, and I did pre-start procedure. Some old brain paths reopened without too much effort! While adjusting the brake bands by pumping the Gear Change Pedal 25 times in each gear, I decided 4th gear wasn't right and reported the fault to Jan. So Francois and I set to and removed the floor and opened the cover of the gearbox to see why it wasn't self-adjusting on 4th. He wasn't happy with 2nd either. Once manually set, we put the covers back on and cleaned the oil sieve, all good reminders of forgotten maintenance procedures. (It's great that a younger chap like Francois is getting experience on a Wilson Epicyclic gearbox, designed for tanks in WW1!). Having swotted that gearbox at College all those years ago, I was able to relate well with him on the subject. He'd had to learn the hard way with nobody to instruct him at all!

I then wasn't happy with the steering oil level, so a message was sent to somebody to buy some in town. The engine dipstick also showed nothing, but without starting that is normal. The engine has a dry sump, and a tank which is higher than the engine sump. The dipstick is in this. The oil leaks slowly back from the tank into the engine sump, so the checking procedure is to start up, then switch off and then check the dipstick. This needed another message to get monograde oil for the engine, a Rolls Royce straight 8.

Then we checked why the steering oil was low, found a leak at the oil cooler. This meant removing part of the engine cover and the nose of the Armoured Car to get at the faulty connection, and at the same time cleaning the radiator which was badly blocked with oily dust. Once this was together, it was lunch time, so I got my chance to drive it (with a car full of experts ready to criticise) the few hundred metres to lunch with Francois coaching at my shoulder. He has an amusing story, where he had done the same with Koos Moorcroft, who was just not getting it right, not wanting, it seemed, to listen to a youngster, till Francois lost his temper and said, Maar oom Koos moet fo####n luister! (But uncle Koos must [please!] listen!) One brain path that reopened was when Jan told me to engage the forward / reverse lever backwards to drive forward. Cobwebs cleared, and I said, 'It's the other way around on the Ferret, isn't it?' He smiled when he nodded! It was great to have been able to point out the faults to the experts having been a once-or-twice driver 30 years ago, and also from swotting it (amongst many others), knowing what was wrong inside the gearbox!

Jan Fouche in the Saracen

After lunch the next attraction was a train ride of the whole line which now has loops at both ends, a smaller one at Grootdraai and a huge one at the Vailima end including some impressive mountain climbing through orchards, drawn by double-headed Garratts, the most powerful locomotives ever made for 2’ gauge, making easy work of it. We were able to make friends with more of the guests as this trip was for dinner guests as well as volunteers invited to get things running for the principal guests, the Trustees of Sandstone Estates and Sandstone Heritage Trust.

Naturally the camera was rolling all the time on the trip! We were escorted part of the way by Jan in the Saracen. It was great that we had done all that work, knowing the oil leak was fixed, and the radiator clean.
Once back from the train trip, we were free to go 'home' and change into our gear. I knew there'd be a small problem here, because I needed some help getting into my uniform, that of the Middlesex (Duke of Cambridge's Hussars) Imperial Yeomanry. Charles was busy with the Marshall Colonial traction engine, which we were to see later. This was solved when I got back and found that the String Quartet members had moved into the single quarters as well.
The Quartet at Hoekfontein, in the foreground, the International Harvester 1907 Carriage Car

A leisurely shower, and then the fun of getting into the uniform again, for the first time in 20 years. This time I'd brought some string to feed through the loops in the boots so I could pull them up, and I had some thin socks. The problem is that you have to put the boots into the 'Overall' trousers, as they are called, buckle them up under the heel and then pull them up as one. But they are so tight you can't reach the tops of the boots to pull them up. I had cramps both sides and had to rest, laughing, before they were on! The next problem was the hooks on the collar, and then the white tabs which are held in place by three poppers each side. Here the musicians were able to help.

We all wandered the short distance to Hoekfontein Station where the festivities were to start. The Quartet started playing, there was bunting which had just been finished all around the station verandah. The building itself is a hundred years old, corrugated iron on the outside and beautifully appointed inside with steam photographs and a Station Master's office with an old typewriter and till. All it lacks is a van Schoor token machine! All the train staff were in railway uniform, even the lads who had been detailed to carry refreshments. The train came in, drawn by the prize of the fleet, BR7, a Lawley bought by Cecil John Rhodes for the Beira Railway in 1895, some closed carriages and some open wagons which have been fitted with benches, some facing forward, some back. There seemed to be some anxiety amongst the loco crew, we were not sure why. We found out later!

Out pulled the train, in the direction of Grootdraai, but it wasn't long before we realised why the crew was anxious, the wheels just couldn't make enough traction on the slope. Soon there was a nudge from behind, and a Garratt had sidled up to help, and pushed gently from behind. The trip to Grootdraai can't be more than 15 minutes, but when we got there...... there was the Quartet playing! Yes, the same one!

But that wasn't all, steps were opposite the carriage doors, and the people were helped off the train. Wilf jumped off first, and as he said later, he hadn't seen much of the dress before the train moved off, but he'd thought perhaps a third of the people would have dressed for the part. He admitted to being astonished with what he saw when he turned around! Here, pictures alone will suffice to describe the scene..... we had gone past Charles on the Marshall Colonial traction engine towing a hay wagon, then from the other side on the skyline, an ox wagon and team of eight leisurely strolled into vision. Champagne and canapes were served by uniformed waiters from Prue Leith.

After about half an hour, perhaps more, of savouring this Out of Africa scene, we climbed back on to the train and went back to Hoekfontein....... where the Quartet was playing! Those of us not with our spouses were paired off and just before entering the marquee, were stopped for an official photo, then announced as we went in. Tables were arranged cleverly with people with similar interests sitting together. Ours was military with the RSM of School of Armour and some vets from Zimbabwe, as well as the organisers of the event.

Again the inside of the marquee is difficult to describe fully. Tall silver candelabra, ringed with red rose arrangements, covered chairs, round tables, drapes inside the tent walls with period monochrome photographs. The whole filled with people turned out in beautiful clothes. The marquee was connected to the main building, an old wagon shed, where the youngsters were at another table. We were told that the menu was from the last night of the Titanic, another detail. The food, champagne, wine and service were exquisite, and in the middle of the meal a thunderstorm passed over, adding to the dramatic atmosphere. Not to be deterred, the waiters at one stage made a roof of two umbrellas under the gap between the building and the marquee so that other waiters and food could pass through dry.
The Lawley coupled with the NG4 down at Grootdraai
Left to right: Ron Nell, Annette & Charles Barrett, Andy Selfe
Towards the end of the meal three short speeches were made, one from Wilf, one from Gerhard Wille, original owner of the farm, who gave us a short family history and one from Jim Edmondson, one of the Trustees. He spoke of a wish to try to bottle the atmosphere there in the tent that night. Impossible, but we're hoping that the two photographers there, Ron Nell with movies and Tessa Joughin with stills will help us recall it.

While the last speech was made, there was a toot from outside! We all trooped out and boarded the train in the pitch dark. Everything was fresh, wet and shiny, there were millions of stars, and lightning was still flashing in the distance over Lesotho. All huddled in the compartment, looking out of the windows in the cold at these sights, is an experience which I will never forget. At one stage I asked the others whether they didn't think they'd all wake up and think, 'Wow, that was a strong one!' Colin Shaw, one of the Trustees joked that if I still fitted in my uniform of 30 years before, I must be a bad businessman! I had to agree! We did the Grootdraai circuit again, the other way around. Somebody must have been out there in the cold to throw the points.

Back at Hoekfontein we needed warming up again. There was a roaring log fire in the hearth of the main building, more champagne, records played on an old Gramophone and more socialising. Towards midnight, I think, people started drifting off, probably ready for bed. I knew I couldn't undo my collar on my own, the musicians had gone so I had to ask the last of the guests to help, and for the first time in the evening I could move my neck. Wilf commented later on my bearing. It's difficult to slouch in that gear!

Back to the single quarters expecting darkness and quiet. Far from it! The musicians had now finished work, now it was time for a party! Well, after playing them a selection of the music I had brought to keep me awake in the car, and discussing how Beethoven's Triple was thought to be worthless up to the '60s, being hardly ever played, and how Quartet leader Francois' class at University of Cape Town had persuaded their lecturer that it was great, all the while listening to Yo Yo Ma gracefully going through the cello part....... then some Britten then some Bach, all lubricated with more delicious red wine. When we were finished, it was 3am!

Up again before 7, I left some Vivaldi on original instruments playing to ease the musicians' hang-overs, which made Lyndie think they were practising when she walked past. When I metioned this to them, they laughed and said, 'She doesn't know musicians!' They were still fast asleep! I wandered around, savouring the atmosphere and the fresh memories of the night before. Breakfast was laid on, after which it was really just a question of packing up, pulling the single quarters straight, and saying goodbye. I had a cup of tea with Wilf, Lyndie and Mike Myers, talking flower arrangement and BEE and then reluctantly left.

I had realised there was no way I could make it back in one go after the party, so arranged to stop at Colesberg, 1/3 of the way home. Up at 3 on Monday morning, an uneventful trip back on the N1 got me home at 12 noon, with 2506 km on the clock from the start. The phone was ringing from 8.00, calls from anxious customers, 'When can you.....?', so after lunch, it was back into blue overalls, bubble burst, and back to the grind!

The best things of the Experience were being able to enjoy the 'Upstairs' company and fare, while still being able to grovel in the bowels of a Saracen gearbox, to talk about and listen to music till the small hours, and to meet a lot of friends I had been corresponding with for years for the first time! Friends we have met at Sandstone (I've only been there once before) have stayed special friends, with lots in common to talk about!

Was it worth it?

Every inch of the way!
From left: Andy Selfe, Janice & Stewart Currie