Recollections of being an instructor

Rob Birt instructed over several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He writes this interesting account of his observations and experiences which certainly encapsulate the essence of Veld and Vlei back then.

I was a final year student at Johannesburg College of Education (JCE) in 1968. The following year I started my geography teaching career at Krugersdorp High School.

I was first introduced to Veld and Vlei through John Hall. We were both at Wits and stayed in the JCE Knockando residence. We also taught together at KHS. John, I think, was inspired by Outward Bound and coming from Cape Town where he went to school at Westerford, he had probably heard about the Veld and Vlei organisation through Outward Bound (Veld and Vlei) at Elgin and Wilderness. I am speculating and cannot verify this.

In the early part of 1968 John introduced me to Cedric Amoils who was already involved in Veld and Vlei, specifically at Greystone, and with Ian Webster, a teacher at Estcourt High School. They were looking for instructors for the July camp and specifically for a map-reading instructor. Being a geography teacher I enthusiastically agreed and joined the local Johannesburg organising committee.

The first camp I went to as a map-reading instructor was in July 1968 at Greystone. I cannot recall the camp number, but the following year in 1969 I again volunteered and joined the G7 camp in December. This was followed up with G9 in December 1970 and again in December 1972 on G13. I have the beer mugs which confirm these dates.

My involvement with Veld and Vlei was a long 54 years ago so recalling details is difficult. However the whole experience on those camps was very rewarding as an instructor, seeing the impact they had on the trainees. As instructors we were able to see the changes in confidence and the emergence of leadership over three weeks. The highlight was ending the course traversing the Berg from Giants Castle to Cathedral Peak. It was a rite of passage and in winter a huge challenge for all of us, instructors and trainees alike.

I recall the typical first day of the three week camp when the trainees split up into groups, given a map and a compass bundled into a bakkie, blindfolded and driven some way away from Greytsone and dropped. They had to make their own way back. It was a baptism by fire but gave them a taste of what to expect.

Each course provided the trainees with a variety of experiences included map-reading, rock face climbing, sailing on the Wagendrift dam, fitness training and developing team work on the obstacle course. In combination it exposed them to the dynamics of working with and respecting the environment, and each other. Cold showers in winter, mastering the challenges of sailing and overcoming fear on a rock face all contributed to their development. The “foofie” slide, climbing net, climbing wall and going through the closed tunnel added excitement to the experience. These all tested individual resolve and an ability to plan and work together; a small taste of what their lives were going to be exposed to after the exhilaration of Veld and Vlei.      

As I said earlier, the changes in so many of the boys who joined the camps was very apparent. They all seemed to leave hugely enthusiastic after the experience, and a whole lot more knowledgeable and confident about themselves and their leadership potential. It was a great grounding for life.

Some of the personalities whom I worked with and who were involved in the Veld and Vlei organisation included Jumbo Swan who lived at Greyston, Iain Kellman, Cedric Amoils, John Hall, Ian Webster and Ray Basson. There were many others who gave up their time to become involved in providing the boys with a wonderful experience. No doubt there are many beer mugs gracing the shelves of pubs of those who had the privilege of being involved with a great organisation. 

I have fond memories of the four camps I attended and have little doubt that they also contributed to my own development as a newly qualified teacher.

Rob Birt found an old box of his 35mm slides and sent these very good photos.

Early Pioneers

John Hall

Submitted by Hugh Solomon G8    John Hall taught at Krugersdorp High School for 39 Years. During many of those years, particularly the 1970 and 1980s John was very involved with Veld and Vlei, Estcourt. I attended G8 in July 1970 and he was the warden of our course.

John matriculated in Cape Town in 1963 where he was headboy at Westerford High School and played for the first team hockey and cricket. After university at Wits and a BA degree he joined Krugersdorp High School in 1969 as a newly qualified teacher, and stayed there, holding positions such as senior housemaster of the girls’ hostel, head of department educational guidance, and senior deputy headmaster.

John was on the administrative council of the Veld and Vlei Adventure School Trust.

Many pupils from KHS attended Veld and Vlei courses at Greystone. The school also formed their own personalised courses at Greystone to promote leadership training and outdoor education. Such courses went under the banner of inter alia Adventure Camp, Boys’ Trip to the Berg, and Prefects’ Camp. John was the driving force behind these initiatives which were very successful.  

Lex Morton from KHS attended course G9 in December 1970. He wrote an article for the school magazine that year saying “We can see the immense value of a movement like this. It is designed to develop those particular qualities of leadership, initiative and so on, which are evident in every human along the right lines. I would recommend this Veld and Vlei course to every boy over sixteen years of age who has the opportunity of attending one”.

I asked Lex Morton 50 years after he had attended G9, to reflect on John Hall the man. He replied: “John was a brilliant history teacher and the history of Outward Bound was well known to him. He had a love for teaching which extended way beyond the classroom and he believed strongly in the growth of the whole soul. Character and leadership development was a passion for him.

He was a hostel master who knew his boys well and he was able to identify those who would contribute and benefit by attending Veld and Vlei. During those years Krugersdorp High had a number of very active and successful service clubs. If John didn’t serve, he certainly had connections because the clubs gave us amazing support.

John was, together with Rob Birt, forever in the Berg. History trips, geography trips, staff team-building etc. He eventually became deputy principal at the school and always preferred his classroom to the office. He became an absolute legend and had a profound influence on the lives of so many students. My three children passed through John’s hands and his influence on them was as great as it had been on me. What I found fascinating was that guys like him and Rob Birt had all these strengths and yet they were youngsters themselves. At a guess I think they were first year teachers when I went to Krugersdorp High School”.

Early pioneers

Cedric Amoils

Cedric was asked to dip into his memories of Veld and Vlei, Greystone, and he has shared some below.

In 1972 I became very involved with Veld and Vlei Adventure Schools. I was still in the Rotary International movement and was on the Board of my club. At a board meeting, the president asked for approval of a donation of R 10 000 to Veld and Vlei and I asked questions about the organisation. All I was told was it was a leadership course for young boys. I stated that I would not consent to the expenditure until I knew more about the purpose of the organisation. I was unable to get satisfactory information and used my veto to stop the donation. I finally telephoned Haywood Tanner-Tremaine the chairman in Estcourt and was invited to spend the December school holidays observing a course. I took my whole family – my caravan and my sailing yacht to Estcourt to see what Veld and Vlei was all about. Once we had set up our caravan and tents on a lovely shady site near the main house we were introduced to Henry and Jo Hyde. They were handling the cooking for the summer camp. Henry asked me what I did for a living and I told him I was professionally a Land Surveyor and Town Planner and property valuator but worked for Metboard. The next day the warden John Hall came to see me and said “My map reading instructor has let me down would you please assist and do the course for us”. It was only one lecture of one hour each day they were in camp and the lecture was at 8.30 a.m. so my day with the family was not messed up. I agreed and was required to meet with the other instructors every evening at 6.00pm for the warden’s debriefing of the day’s activity. Needless to say when I returned to Johannesburg I approved the R10 000 to Veld and Vlei.

The following year I was asked to be the Sailing Instructor and we again made the trip to Estcourt. It was during this trip that I was asked to climb to Bannerman’s Pass and ensure that the patrols went down the right valley to reach Giant’s Castle Pass and not wander into Lesotho. I decided to take my son Howard and Henry Hyde’s son Edward with me. The boys were 12 years old and I considered them old enough to cope with the climb. I was to climb to the hut with two other instructors (for safety reasons). Trevor was just 10 years and he nagged and nagged to be included in the hike. I eventually caved in and agreed he could join us on the hike. We had been walking for about 35 minutes when Trevor started to cry and said “Dad I cannot go any further”. I stopped every one and then addressed Trevor “Son can you see the car from here? – Here are the keys you can walk back to the car and sleep there tonight and we will join you tomorrow afternoon.” He responded” I can’t be by myself all night”. I then pointed to the tent I was carrying above my back pack.  “Son, I can pitch this tent here for you “.  “No” he blubbered “I’m scared to be by myself”. I then took off my wrist watch and gave it to him and said “OK then you will be our timekeeper, we hike for twelve minutes and rest for three minutes and we start on the hour. There were just three minutes to 11.00 a.m. This system kept him going and we reached the hut without further incident.

The hut was fortunately not occupied so we did not have to pitch our tents. It was 3.00 p.m. when we reached our destination and it was a hot summer’s day. I said to the boys “ Guys how about a swim in the stream” Trevor piped up “ Dad we did  not bring costumes” I replied “We don’t need them here “ We all stripped and jumped into the freezing pool.

The sun went down and we all returned to the interior of the hut. It was time for supper and I asked the two lads with me what they had brought for dinner. There were two cans of tomato soup and two tins of bully beef. There were also a lot of Anderson’s biscuits – commonly known dog biscuits because they were hard. They were extremely nutritious and great when dunked in hot tea. It was decided to combine the tinned items into a strong broth and dunk the dog biscuits into it. Everyone except Trevor tucked into the meal. He complained and complained but was told that is your dinner and if you won’t eat it you will go to sleep hungry. He campaigned to eat his survival rations – chocolate and dried fruit – without success. He went to sleep hungry.

Next morning we were all up with the rising sun and I made ready the breakfast. Pro-Nutro with milk – powdered milk mixed with water. Trevor again put his nose up at eating and when I left to climb the pass he was sitting in the corner of the hut sulking.

I climbed Bannerman’s Pass in veldskoens, and on coming down I slipped in the spree and broke a toe on my left foot. I was in agony when I reached the hut. Howard ran out to meet me and with a huge smile shouted “Dad, Trevor ate a huge bowl of Pro-Nutro about an hour ago”. At the hut I managed to strap my broken toe together with another toe and got a little relief from the pain. Trevor was a star on the journey back to the car. He propped me up like a crutch and thus helped me to take the weight of my left foot. He showed me that he was old enough to participate in the hike and the moment of crisis he rose to the occasion.

My involvement with Veld and Vlei increased with time and I was asked to join the Executive of the organisation. A meeting of the Board was called and Heywood, Henry, Alan and I travelled to Sedgefield and Elgin for meetings with the Cape Executive. We drove from Estcourt via Bloemfontein to Colesberg. Alan was the Natal Education Department’s geography examiner and he took over as the map reader for the trip. Some how he got us on the wrong road and we had to ask an old African how to get back on the road to the Cape. We were told to make a left turn at the next farm road and travel south until we reached the railway line. The gravel road gave way to a farm track and then we had to open farm gates and at one stage drove between the farm house and the barn. We were travelling due south according to Henry’s compass and eventually saw a lone light in the distance. When we reached the light it was a railway worker’s cottage and as we pulled up in front of the house the old Afrikaner shouted” Sannie, bring die koffie en branderwyn –ons het gaste.” After coffee and a stiff brandy we were shown how to reach the N1 to Cape Town.

Our visit to Sedgefield Camp site was uneventful. We were amazed at the quality of their facilities, luxury compared to Wagendrift. Our next stop was Elgin, the Appletizer farm where they held the course for Coloureds. We were taken to the camp by the Cape Town Committee – Commander Maynell and his wife. After inspecting the camp we wandered down to the dam to view a sailing exercise. I noticed that one yacht was stuck in the reeds and immediately stripped off my clothes and swam to the yacht and its crew. I boarded the small vessel and removed the rudder and centre board and then held the sail against the wind and the boat reversed out of the reeds. When the yacht was safely in the middle of the dam I replaced the centre board and the rudder and dived overboard and swam back to my clothes. I used my vest as a towel and got dressed. That evening at the cocktail party in our honour Alan introduced me as the instructor who taught the young Coloured men to sail backwards.

After the visit to all the Veld and Vlei sites I discussed with my other executive members the possibility of us running a multi racial course. I received overwhelming support and arranged a meeting with the then Prime Minister John Vorster (1966 – 1978). He was very helpful but suggested that we first do separate courses for Indians and Blacks so that we could assess the differences relative to culture and physical ability. The Indian community were instantly supportive.

I then approached Gatsha Buthalezi the leader of the Zulu Nation. He was totally opposed to a course for Blacks even as a lead up to a fully multi racial course. I set up the first Indian course with the help of the Indian community – they gave me the names of young men who they claimed would make good instructors. I arranged a instructors’ camp during the school winter holidays. Most of the candidates were student teachers and they were very keen to participate in the training. We arrived at Wagendrift camp on a Saturday afternoon and I took them for a long hike of 15 kilometres. I had two white instructors with me, John Thomson my chief instructor and Gareth Peddie my climbing instructor. The new recruits did well on the hike. We observed that they had strong lower body strength – all of them we assumed were soccer players. The next morning John woke the camp up at 5.30 am and shouted “Everybody up we are going for a run” The run was down to the dam. Arriving at the water’s edge he called out “Everybody strip and go for a swim”. Gareth, John and I stripped naked and the candidates just stood there. John then looked at me and said “Mr. Warden, will you show the guys how it’s done!” I walked into the water until waist deep and then rolled onto my back  – this allows your back to take the cold and you can expand your lungs. John then shouted” Hey guys if the boss can do it you’d better follow suit.” Very reluctantly they undressed and got into the water. We discovered that not a single one of them could swim, hence their reluctance to get in the water. Swimming lessons were incorporated into the Indian course. Another adjustment we had to make was on the assault course. The upper body strength of the Indians was much less than the white kids and not one Indian could do a chin up. The final problem that we had to solve was related to diet. We could not let them have their very hot curries and we had to adjust our menus to allow some mild curries. The adaption process went smoothly and that summer we ran a very successful Indian course.

Two years later I got permission to run a multi racial course. This was a major achievement in Apartheid South Africa. I was proud to have been chosen to lead this experiment.  The course started on a Saturday and then on Sunday morning we opened with a non-denominational church service. I had arranged for the local Catholic priest to take the church service. At about midnight I received a call from the good minister to tell me he was unable to meet his commitment as he had to be at the bedside of one of his parishioners who was dying.  I immediately went to our small library armed with a Gideon Bible and Reg Pearse’s “Barrier of Spears” and proceeded to write a suitable church service. Reg’s book provided me with some outstanding motivational pieces. I was fortunate to have read the book before and remembered some of the good passages.

Sunday morning’s church service went off well and at morning tea break my executive colleagues  pulled me aside and in unison said ”Well done Rabbi” The nick name has stuck all these years and even today when I get a call from Henry Hyde he always says “Hullo Rabbi”

Every course has its problems and also some lovely stories to relate. My first Indian course was going well and I as arden paid a visit to my climbing instructor Gareth Peddy. He was having difficulty with a couple of trainees when it came to abseiling. 

He said to me “Mr. Warden please show them how easy it is to do the job”. Now I had never abseiled before but remembered the great abseiling scenes in movies with Michael Caine. I took hold of the rope and bounced down the climb like a veteran. That evening Gareth called me aside and said “I asked you to show them how to abseil – I didn’t expect you to show off and make my task more difficult.”

Then on my first multi racial course I had a patrol leader at my first meeting complain that one of his members stank. I was aware of the possible racial problem; black body odour is very different from white body odour. I asked the leader to identify the culprit; fortunately it was the young Pom lad from the St George’s home for orphans. I gave the patrol leader guy a cake of Lifebouy soap and told him to take his whole patrol to the showers and to wash the Pom and his clothes. In another group I received a complaint from the two very bright black guys that a whitey was taking the “mickey” out of the map reading instructor. On investigation I discovered that the whitey in this case was another boy from St George’s home and he was actually rather backward. So I gave the two black guys instructions to assist the poor soul with his map reading exercises.

The same white guy was brilliant in the aerial log-walking exercise and the two black guys had a fear of heights. Help this time round was given by the whitey to his two mentors at map reading. It was lovely to see the patience that he had when helping his two black friends.

Then there was a big Afrikaner, who was a born leader and had an amazing rapport with his patrol. In his patrol was an Indian guy Ramesh. Now Koos, the leader could not pronouns Ramesh and he said to him “Listen friend, I battle to say your name, so for this camp you will be called Joe.” There was no objection from Ramesh and he became Joe for the duration of the camp. When I was debriefing Koos’s patrol I asked Joe to say a few works to his mates. Joe stood up so that each guy could see him and hear him. He then addressed the gathering “Guys you have to promise me that even though you have my phone number you will not call for at least three weeks.” They all looked at him in dismay and then he said  “Guys it is going to take me three weeks to convince my dear mother that I am no longer Ramesh but I am Joe.”


Lee Haldeman attended the December course in 1971. He writes:

We arrived by train from Pretoria late morning. Taken to Greystone. Had lunch and then were put on the floor of an old beaten up Kombi. We were blindfolded with socks and driven around in circles for quite a while. Then dropped off with a map and a compass. I had some exposure to map reading before so started on analysing where we were, but nothing made sense. So we asked a farmer and were pointed in the right direction. After a couple of hours of walking/jogging, we got back to Greystone – about 4 in the afternoon. The instructors eventually sent out search  parties about 8 in the evening to find the last guys and bring them back. I found out that the compass no longer worked and we had been dropped off the edge of the map that they provided to us. Now I know their intention was to deliberately fool us. And that was just the start!

I attended with Michael Sunshine – we were both sent by our school, Clapham High in Pretoria. I lost contact with Michael – think he went into medicine. I think the patrol leader for Dick King was Bobby Hartslief – I think he was the head boy designate for King Edward School. Can’t remember the names of the instructors. Have some memories that the map reading instructor was a land surveyor and the PT instructor was a staff sergeant PT instructor from the army.