Chapter 8.03 Minette, the Cape Slaves, the Witels and Nitrogen

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

The quest to understand how great bacon is made takes me around the world and through epic adventures. I tell the story by changing the setting from the 2000s to the late 1800s when much of the technology behind bacon curing was unraveled. I weave into the mix beautiful stories of Cape Town and use mostly my family as the other characters besides me and Oscar and Uncle Jeppe from Denmark, a good friend and someone to whom I owe much gratitude! A man who knows bacon! Most other characters have a real basis in history and I describe actual events and personal experiences set in a different historical context.

The cast I use to mould the story into is letters I wrote home during my travels.


Minette, the Cape Slaves, the Witels and Nitrogen

Copenhagen, May 1891

Last week Andreas tells me that we will not be doing anything the following Saturday.  Uncle Jeppe visits Liverpool once a year.  He is returning to Copenhagen and Andreas and his dad asked me to welcome him to the harbour.  I am always delighted to spend time with the old man!  I was looking forward to the train ride into the city with him.  I was bright and early at the harbour and when the English steamer docked, I eagerly looked through the crowd to see him.

Minette

The crowd was milling around with people greeting and porters busily hauling luggage to waiting horse carts and some, off to board the train. I scanned the milling crowd and my eye caught sight of a beautiful young lady, a bit younger than me.  She looked a lost with no porter by her side, carrying two leather travel bags, too heavy for her.  My glance passed over her, looking for Uncle Jeppe.  My gaze almost immediately returned to her.  There were two reasons for this.   She was beautiful and there was something familiar about her!  She looked up and right at me and suddenly I recognized her.  “Minette!!”

My heart jumped with excitement!  At the same time as I recognised her, she saw me and a broad smile graced her beautiful face!  “Minette!” I blurted out!  The last person on earth I was expecting and the one person that I most dearly want to see!  “Minette!” I said again, this time a lot softer as I riched her after a few large strides to get to her.  “Minette, what on earth!?” I said again.  She dropped her bags and we embraced!  “I almost did not recognise you with your hat and your nice dress!

“What are you doing here?”  “Where are you staying?”  “Come,” I said and picked her bags up.  “I’m here to visit you,” she said and started walking with me towards the train. I was still baffled. “Two months ago Andreas wrote to me.  He invited me to visit and surprise you.”  I realised that it must have been after Andreas and my long drinking session in Copenhagen that I write to you in my last letter that he hatched his plans.  It appears that he took his lead from the many times I spoke about you in all my adventures.

Suddenly I remember that I was there to welcome Uncle Jeppe! She saw the panic in my eyes as I started looking around again.  “Uncle Jeppe is only arriving next week,” she helps me out of my misery.  “He is still in Liverpool.  The whole thing was a ruse to get you to the harbour!”

I have never been this excited to see anybody!  The last time I saw her we were sitting in Pennys Cave on Table Mountain with our friends.  Minette and I love exploring the mountains and valleys around Cape Town and we would do this as often as we get an opportunity.

Drosters Gat

It was on one of our hikes that we discovered the cave on Kogel Bay, Dappa se Gat, where I think the slaves lived who took in the pigs from the Colenbrook which became known as the Kolbroek pigs.  We discovered the Cave when we hiked from Hermanus to Cape Town, one year.  We started at Hangklip at Pringle Bay close to Hermanus where my younger brother, Elmar, Juanita and their two kids live.

I started reading Alexander Von Humboldt’s work when I was still a small boy and was captivated by the destruction brought about by European colonists.  In my imagination, I would accompany Von Humboldt on his travels across South America and the Russian Steppe.  I got intensely interested in the physiology of the human and animal body when I read about his work with Guthrie.  The sense of adventure and the need to explore partly come from stories such as his.

Across the decades that separate our lives, Von Humboldt mentored me.  If I had enough money to buy a book I wanted, but not enough for food for the day, I would buy the book.  Choices between using my savings from my Transport work to buy a house in Cape Town or to either travel to Europe to learn how to make bacon or go on an expedition to the Magaliesberg Mountains always ended up on whatever would teach me the most and be the greatest adventure.  Buying a house never was a priority!

During my time as a Transport Rider across the vast open spaces of Southern Africa, I witnessed the destruction that people bring to nature and each other first hand.  I visited old Tswanruins at the Vaal River between Paryd and Potchefstroom and at Hartebeespoort.  I hiked through these massive Tswana and Sotho cities at the Suikerbosrand and in Johannesburg on the farm of Sarel Marais. The cities of the Tswana and the Sotho were decimated by  Mzilikazi Khumalo, a Southern African king who founded the Mthwakazi Kingdom now known as Matabeleland.  It was precisely because Minette and I shared these priorities and values that I was drawn to her.  Well, apart from her good looks and inquisitive personality.

The existence of slavery and the wholesale destruction of our natural world went hand in hand.  A period followed where I had an intense interest in slavery and the knowledge I gained allowed me to understand our land better.   The Kolbroek pigs are an excellent example.

Minette and I knew there was another famous cave where a community of runaway slaves lived.  Between Pringle Bay and Rooiels, much closer to the water’s edge, legend has it that these poor people discovered a cave that can house them and hide them from the slave masters.  The entrance is very narrow and like Dappa se Gat, one can enter it only during low tide.  It is accessible from the sea.  It became known as Drostres gat (cave). From Rooi Els to Kogel Bay is a short distance.

We rode out to Pringle Bay at Cape Hangklip.  It is always good to rely on local knowledge when looking for these things.  Locals directed us to a restaurant and bar called Miems.  The owners are Morris and Kerneels.  Morris, a tall and well-built man, is a trained geologist who worked in Johannesburg mines for many years.  Kerneels, his partner and he traveled to Ireland a few years ago in a stunning reversal of where people go to find their fortunes.  Where most Europeans are hoping for the new world to provide a living, Morris and Kirneels went to Ireland where they worked till they saved enough to start Miems at Cape Hangklip.  He too read the account of Green about Drostersgate (Drosters cave) between Pringle Bay and Rooiels.

An old farmer wrote that the Gat (Cave) can only be accessed at low tide and climbing down down a precipice with a rope. A neighbor and he went in with candles for about eighty yards. He remembers that it was dark and damp and one could see bones of large game animals and cattle still scattered across the cave floor. They also found trunks of melkhout trees, used to make fire to roast the meat.  He wrote that there are graves of “strandlopers” (scavengers) around the general location of the cave.  Morris has been to the exact location more than once and says that he is not able to get into the cave.   The opening is too small for such a big man.  He tried to access it from the sea without any success.   It does not surprise me that the salves managed to get into areas where he could not. By all accounts, they were gaunt and small.

Minette and I looked for it and when we could not find it, we returned to Miems for another few pints.  Back at the bar that evening, it seemed as if everybody had a cave story where runaway slaves hid out.

It is immediately obvious that finding food would have been a massive challenge.  There are accounts of such slaves wandering around on Table Mountain only to eventually returned to Cape Town and hand themselves over to authorities to face the cruelest punishment rather than dying of starvation.  It is this reality that made the feat of young Joshua Penny even more remarkable who stayed for an extended time period on Table Mountain.

The only place on the mountain that was regularly inhabited by these most unfortunate people was an overhang up Platteklip Gorge on Table Mountain.  There are accounts of slaves who lived up this gorge taking live cattle up.  Anyone who ever hiked up there will know that taking a cow or an ox up there must have been extremely arduous.  The cave can still be seen to this day up the oldest recorded route up Table Mountain.

The many accounts of the struggle for food of the slaves and the fact that keeping livestock was a strategy they used to sustain themselves lend tremendous credence to my theory about the fate of the Kolbroek pigs.  In the Hangklip area, there are a number of other well-known legends of runaway slaves-communities hiding away in caves.  The area is mysterious and to this day, sparsely populated.  An old man once told me, there are many ghosts in these mountains!

We hiked from Rooi Els to Kogel Bay when we first discovered Dappa se Gat.  We just passed Kogel bay and I got to the stretch of beach, strewn with round boulders, resembling cannon shot when I saw the cave.  Dappa se gat!  The cave is a couple of hundred meters deep and during high tide it is inaccessible.  I sat in front of the cave and tried to imagine what it must have been like for the runaway slaves.

My mind effortlessly wondered to the sinking of the Colebrook and the fate of the pigs that swam ashore.  So it happened that not even on Minette and my wildest adventures were we ever very far from bacon, hams, salamis, and pigs.

The Witels

Another favourate site of ours is the Witels River.  Between the Matroosberg and the Winterhoek Mountains is the town of Ceres that officially existed since 1854.  A pass was constructed called, Michells Pass which follows the route to Ceres next to the Bree River.  Where the Witels flows into the Bree River is an open “outspan” area which is clearly seen on the West bank of the river.  I am sure that the trekkers spent a couple of nights here, feeding and resting their cattle before taking on the pass.  

The first pass was built by Jan Mostert and was called Mostert’s Hoek Pass (1765).  Jan was one of the first settlers to settle on Ceres’ side of Tulbagh.  The pass was a very rugged 3kms.  The road was so bad that wagons had to be dismantled and sections crossed on foot, the cargo and the wagons strapped to the backs of oxen.

Charles Michell surveyed Mostert’s Hoek Pass in 1830 to improve it.  Andrew Geddes-Bain constructed the new pass in 1846, with the assistance of 240 convicts.  The Bree River runs all the way into the Warm Bokkeveld. The pass effectively reduced the travel time from Cape Town to Beaufort West from 20 to 12 days.  It was almost possible to do the route with a horse-drawn carriage.

dwars, bree and witels.png

On my way to Johannesburg through Kimberly, I stayed at the Winterberg Mountain Inn.  It was the main road between the Cape and Kimberley. It was formerly known as Mill & Oaks Country Inn.  The restaurant is built on the foundations of an olf wheat-mill dating from the 1800s.  It was called the Ceres Meul (Mill).  It is not known exactly when the Mill was built.  Probably in the late-1700s by the first European settlers.  The Inn is the kind of place that I prefer.  Steeped in history, enough ghosts to chase, legends to unravel, exceptional food and great company!

One of Minette’s banking clients told her about the Witsels river; that it runs down towards the Bree River from the southern Peaks of the Hex River mountains.  The best approach is through the Waaihoek Kloof.  The man who first identified the route will forever remain nameless in accordance with his own wishes. The next time I stayed at the Winterberg Mountain Inn, I asked the locals if they know the access route. They explained to me in great detail.  When I got back to Cape Town a few months later, I immediately looked Minette up at the Bank and the plan was set out for a legendary hike.

IMG_3238

One ascends a mountain and through a very precarious route, access the river.  Once you are in the river, there are very few ways out.  The cliffs are for the most part right next to the river, forcing you to either swim or jump from boulder to boulder.  At certain places, the cliffs fold over the river creating long stretches that you swim through caves, following the flow of the river.  Next to the river, there are small stretches that resemble sea sand.  It created the most amazing places to sleep.  To go up the mountain, into the Witels River and out at the Bree River takes around 5 days.  Some young people are able to cover the distance in a day provided that they don’t take anything heavy in their backpacks.  The best Minette and I did was 2 days from start to finish, but the river was very full and progress painfully slow.  The Witels river has become a spiritual pilgrimage for us and ranks as one of our most favourate routes on this bountiful earth!

One of the Witels hikes it started raining.  Rain down the Witels can be life-threatening if it rains higher up in the catchment area and the river comes down.  The force of the river carries large boulders from higher up, downstream and the force is such that if one would be in the water when this happens, chances for survival are slim to zero.  We moved our backpacks higher up the sandbank and as close to the cliff as we could get a comfortable place to lay down.  I was trying to get Minette’s mind off the raging river!

Nitrogen

I was laying under my sleeping bag.  Minette was getting her overnight spot comfortable for the night; painstakingly removing the rocks that would start to irritating her once the initial tiredness has worn off.  I asked her if she knew what air was made off.  “Oxigen and of course. . . ”  “Nitrogen!” she answered.

“Correct! It was discovered separately in 1772, by the Scottsman, Daniel Rutherford and in the early 1770s by a Swiss, Carl Scheele.  Rutherford called it “noxious air” and Scheele, “foul air.”” I replied.

I briefly explained for fear that I would bore her, “It exists as a gas and comprises of two nitrogen atoms, joined to form one gas molecule.  They are split apart by something of high energy such as a lightning strike.  This leaves the two atoms free to react with other matter floating around it.

Nitric Oxide

“One of these elements floating around in the atmosphere is oxygen.  Nitrogen reacts with oxygen and forms nitrogen monoxide (NO).  Nitrogen monoxide, a colourless gas, is an extremely important compound.  It is also called nitric oxide or nitrogen oxide.  The nitric oxide is heated from the energy from the lightning flash that created it.”

The drizzle was coming down softly.  Minette finished nesting and I got enough energy together to build a fine.  I cleared a small sandy patch at my feet and with a twig I wrote the simple chemical reaction in the sand.

N2 (g) + O2 (g)  lightning —> 2NO (g)

“There are different sources of Nitric Oxide.  Very important one which I will tell you about later.”

Nitrogen Dioxide

“As it cools down, it reacts further with the oxygen molecules around it to form nitrogen dioxide.  Nitric Oxide is one nitrogen atom attached to one oxygen atom.  It now combines with another oxygen atom and forms nitrogen dioxide, a poisonous, brown, acidic, pungent gas.  There is another important molecule that exists in our atmosphere as a gas namely ozone which is three oxygen atoms that combined into a molecule.  Nitrogen mostly reacts with ozone to form nitrogen dioxide.”

“Like nitrogen, oxygen occurs as two oxygen atoms, bound in one molecule.  Ultra-violet light and lightning cause the two tightly bound oxygen atoms to separate and react, either with other single-atom oxygen molecules or with more stable two-atom oxygen molecules.  In the latter case, three oxygen atoms are bound into one molecule (O3).  It is not very stable and quickly breaks down into one oxygen atom and or two oxygen atom molecules or it reacts with nitric oxide to form nitrogen dioxide.”

I wipe my previous simple formulation from the sand to write another very simple one.

NO (g) 1/2O2 (g) —> NO2 (g)

Nitric Acid

“Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) reacts with more oxygen and raindrops.  Water is H2O.  The two oxygen atoms of nitrogen dioxide combine with the one from water to form 3 oxygen atoms bound together.  There is still only one Nitrogen atom giving us NO3 or nitrate.  There is now still one Hydrogen atom left and it combines with the nitrate to form nitric acid (HNO3).  Nitric acid falls to earth and enters the soil and serves as nutrients for plants.  Old writers  called nitric acid (HNO3) aqua fortis or spirit of niter.”

I clear the sand at my feet for a third equation.

3NO2 (g) + H2O —> 2HNO3 (aq) + NO (g)

“Nitric acid is highly reactive and combines with salts in the soil.  The Hydrogen atom is replaced by a calcium, potassium or sodium atom, converting it to a nitrate salt.  This salt is called saltpeter. The extreme importance of this is that it is plant food.  Saltpeter is used today for gunpowder, fertiliser and to cure meat.”

“Fascinating,” Minette said a bit sarcastic.  I did not notice that she started cooking supper and I can help.  She hands me an onion to peel.  “Saltpeter!”, she said.  I thought its the sweat from a horse.  My dad always said that we ride the horses till the white saltpeter is running down his neck!

I smiled because she did not know how completely correct she was!  The few raindrops that fell stopped.  The sound of the rushing river and the peace of the mountains transcends everything.  I looked at her in the glow of the fire and was struck by her beauty!

The Witels became one of those important cathedrals in our life!  The first time I came down the Witels, it arrested my soul and I fell in love with it.  Unspoiled! If you are thirsty, you drop into the water and drink directly from the river.  The only company for almost the entire length if the baboons on the cliffs.  The place I gave my first lecture on nitrogen and the place where I first noticed how beautiful Minette is.  It was the start of the two great loves of my life.  Unraveling the technical reasons why saltpeter cures meat and Minette!

How much I would love to have you guys here with us.  Today, as they say in the Bible, “my joy is complete” with Minette here with me.  What I was feeling on the Witels and in Penny’s Cave is now undeniable.  I have very strong feelings for this amazing woman who traveled halfway around the world to see me.

When we got home, Andreas and his family provided Minette with her own room.  I was overjoyed that she is staying with us.  That evening around the supper table we told our stories, including my nitrogen lecture on the Witels.  Andreas slapped me on the shoulder when he walked past me.  Let Minette join you tomorrow for Uncle Jeppes’ lunchtime lecture.  He is going to start with “satltpeter” and if you and Minettes’ interest in it, you will both find it fascinating.”

We had the most amazing dinner!

Well, kids, its time to go to bed.  A great week is waiting for me with Minette here.  Next weekend I will write and tell you all about it!

Lots of love,

Dad


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(c) eben van tonder

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References

Mechanisms of meat curing – the important nitrogen compounds