The first automobiles began to appear in the Pilgrim’s Rest district in about 1910.
This form of conveyance was already fairly common in other parts of the Transvaal, but there the roads were on the level.
The two problems that faced the would-be motorist at Pilgrim’s Rest was whether these new fangled machines could climb the last stretches of the road from Lydenburg, and, if they did make the journey down Pilgrim’s Hill into the valley, whether they would ever get out again. The general opinion was that no horseless carriage would ever climb that precipitous road, which in those days was a great deal steeper than it is now, since it followed a more direct route to the summit.
These doubts were justified. Aimetti, the general manager, bought a grand five-seater Hispano-Suiza, a car that was the fashion icon of its day, positively gleaming with its highly polished brass lamps and other parts.
It fairly spanked along the road between Clewer House where the Aimettis lived, and the Royal Hotel in the main street. On Pilgrim’s Hill however, it roared, puffed, panted – and then gave up.
The next machine to reach the village was a humbler shiny black Model T Ford, and owned by H.P.Valintine, the claims inspector. Up until this time, Valintine had spent most of his life on horseback. He had however recently learned to ride a motor-cycle, and had made a careful study of a manual on how to drive and care for a Ford. Nevertheless he had much to find out. He approached things on a “learn while earning” basis.
“Although I wound and wound the starting handle till near exhaustion, I got no reaction from the engine. After wondering what next, I spotted a key hanging from the steering wheel column. I decided to insert it into the aperture marked ignition, and returned to the starting handle. At the first swing the engine delightedly roared to life, revving loudly. “After rushing round to the close the throttle lever, I climbed into the driver’s seat where I released the hand brake cum top gear lever – and the engine stalled immediately. “Having restarted the engine, I made sure to put my foot on the clutch pedal, and gradually started my driving career around the goods yard at the railway station in Lydenburg.
Having never driven anything but a motor-cycle before, I continued to go round and round until I realized that I had to turn the steering wheel back again to regain a straight course.” However Valintine was quite fearless, and after a few hours of practice, he set off for Pilgrim’s Rest, descended the Hill in bottom gear, and drew up in front of the Royal Hotel. The car was much admired. But the real test was yet to come. Would the car climb Pilgrim’s Hill?
One Sunday morning, while the village was still asleep, Valintine and his stable boy set out to see if it could be done. They crossed the Blyde River bridge, and set the Ford’s blunt nose towards the Hill. With only four stops to cool the engine, and to replenish the boiling water, she made it! In a second test the car climbed the Hill carrying the owner-driver and three passengers. She was the first car to reach the top of Pilgrim’s Hill under her own power. After that the test of any car in Pilgrim’s Rest became: “Can it do what Valintine’s Ford has done? Can it climb the Hill carrying three passengers?” Many were tried, but few were chosen. Enterprising motor-car salesmen who visited the district from time to time were allowed to talk about the merits of their particular model without interruption. Then the prospective purchaser would say: “I’ll buy it if it can climb the Hill with three passengers on board.”
As often as not, that meant that the disappointed salesman had to get his heap back to Lydenburg, usually vowing that he would never do business in that accursed valley again, where the road climbed the side of a house. The early motorists of the district were among the first to discover that the reverse gear on most cars developed more power than the forward gears.
It was not considered at all unusual to climb the Hill backwards, pausing from time to time to refill the engine from a water bottle that was an essential part of the Pilgrim’s Rest motorist’s driving kit.
When General Smuts visited the village to open the Belvedere power station in his powerful official limousine, it was realized that the car would never make it through the five drifts to Vaalhoek without cracking the sump, or flooding the engine. The versatile Valintine and his Model T Ford were summoned to the rescue. Could they carry the General to Vaalhoek? They could and they would.
That night there was an enormous banquet and fall-down party at the Royal Hotel, at which General Smuts spoke of Pilgrim’s Rest’s past, and of the great contribution that the T.G.M.E. was making to the whole district, and of the bright future he forsaw for it.
The next morning Valintine and his Model T presented themselves in “traveling kit”. The radiator of the car carried an oilcloth “hood” which could be lowered to keep water out of the engine. To the exhaust pipe was attached a length of hosepipe which was tied to the tail light – a primitive form of “snorkel” for river crossings.
With the General taking the keenest interest in the proceedings, from his seat next to the driver, the Ford safely forded the first four drifts. At the fifth, the General transferred to a bucket, and was hauled across the river, while Valintine bravely headed into water one meter deep.
The brave little Ford stalled just as it had completed the crossing, was hauled out by oxen, and once its plugs and carburetor had been dried out, proceeded on its way.
So impressed was the General with Valintine’s innovative solutions to his problems, that he offered him the opportunity to join the South African Flying Corps as a learner pilot. Valintine reluctantly turned down the offer, as his salary would be no more than a claims inspector, and he was a married man.
Some years later Valintine approached Smuts at the Savoy Hotel in London for assistance in obtaining a commission in the Royal Flying Corps. The General had not forgotten him, and wrote the necessary letter of commendation. I wonder how the General’s limo. managed to exit the Pilgrim’s valley up the Hill?
Another snippet from “The Valley of Gold” by A.P.Cartwright.
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