1979 Army “basics” – basic training – and my buddy Graham and I are hitch-hiking from Potch to Harrismith. Waiting for a next ride outside Villiers in the darkness of that Friday night a clapped-out bakkie stopped. At last. Jump on, says the weirdo who looks three sheets to the wind, while handing us a quart of beer to share. We jumped; We drank; Screaming along the road to Warden we glance nervously through the back window into the cab and over the driver’s shoulder, the speedo needle was quivering at 135kmh! We glance at each other, trying to be casual. Nonchalant.
Suddenly a loud schlap schlap schlap schlap sound and the bakkie lurches. Burst tyre! We start skidding sideways with the white line coming at us from the left; Then skidding with the white line coming at us from the right; Then going backwards staring at the white line racing under the back of the bakkie towards us as we sit facing what should have been backwards; Then spinning round to see the white line receding away from us – as it should.
We come to a halt still upright and facing forward – and on the correct side of the road; RELIEF!
COME! I barked at Graham. Grabbing our balsaks we hopped off and walked back where we’d come from into the night without a backward glance or even a single word to the driver. I did not want to engage with him in any way at all. We walked till completely out of sight and out of earshot in the dark night.
I wasn’t there. It really felt like I was there, and I wanted to be there so bad, but I wasn’t. All I know is the Arabs decided to reduce the availability of their oil, thus raising the price of petrol and reducing the speed limit to 80km/h. Petrol stations closed at night and we were forbidden to carry extra fuel. Also that Tabs decided around then to buy a 1947 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe. A maroon one. In a syndicate with his cousin Des.
I also found out that Tabs and Des set off for the sleepy hollow city of Pietermaritzburg with a few jerry cans full of contraband fuel in the capacious boot of their ‘new’ 1947 maroon Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe to attend the Natal Teachers College Ball. Probably at more than 80km/h.
I also know that when the cops pulled them over late one night Des was driving clad only in his underpants – had they been for a swim in the Epworth Girls School pool? – and there were lots of ladies on the capacious sofa-like back seat who suddenly found Des sitting on their laps in those same capacious underpants saying ‘Why, I doubt I even know how to drive such a vehicle, officer.’ The cops apparently very rudely said he was anyway way too drunk to have driven and threw them all in the back of the Black Maria.
When it was time to drive off they asked whose vehicle the maroon Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe was. Everyone pointed at Des; so he was hauled out and made to drive the big beast to the cop shop.
I also heard that when in the custody of the gendarmes in the back of their police van, those same innocent young ladies let the air out of the cops’ spare wheel.
But as I say, I don’t really know WHAT happened that night . . .
My friend Charlie Mason remembers something his old man told him years ago:
My lift from JHB dropped me off at home. The dorp was empty, where WAS everyone?
I phoned 2630 pring pring pring. Or was it 2603 priiiiing priiiing priiiing? I forget. Can you fetch me? No, get yourself here quick, we’re going to Warden to scare some guineafowls. Now.
What could I do? The imported white Ford Econoline 302 cu. inch V8 van was in the garage, I knew where the keys were, and the folks were away. And after all, I’d only be using it to get to Gailian then hop into Tabs’ bakkie and away we’d go. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, and I’d better borrow Dad’s 12-gauge shotgun, too.
As I drew up next to the prefab on Gailian a cry of Perfect! A real shooting brake! went up and six gentlemen holding shotguns and beers piled in, calling Tommy the German Pointer in with them. No, guys, hang on, I said feebly . .
The day at Warden was a blur but the drive back came into sharp focus. We ‘had to’ pull in to the pub in Warden. I of course, had suggested we go straight home, but that went down like a lead balloon. Blithely ignored. In the pub the barman took one look at us and refused to serve us. Someone who shall remain nameless but whose surname maybe started with a G fetched his shotgun and casually aimed it at the expensive bottles of hooch above the barman’s head whereupon he suddenly remembered our order and delivered seven beers pronto. When we decided we’d like to play snooker same thing: A Simpson-like character aimed a shotgun at the cue ball and the cues were produced with alacrity. And chalk.
When to my huge relief, we finally got going, the G-man, who was riding shotgun on my right (the van was Left-Hand-Drive), sat on the windowsill and three of Warden’s four streetlamps went ‘pop’.
Now I KNEW I was going to jail forever. Putting my head down and roaring for home I wasn’t stopping again for NOBODY. Except the gentle tickle of a shotgun against my ear persuaded me otherwise and I stopped as instructed with my headlights shining on the Eeram sign. A firing squad lined up, three kneeling in front and four standing behind them. This is for Ram, guys, he’s getting married next weekend! BLAM!! The ‘Ee’ disappeared, and there was ‘ram’. Nor do I believe it.
I finally got home and looked at the van. Holy cow! Dog hair, guineafowl feathers and the mud and the blood and the beer all over the carpets and upholstery of Dad’s Ford Econoline V8 camper van! 302 cu. inches. I set to work cleaning it. And cleaning it. And scrubbing it. Still it stank of that mixture. In desperation, I took a jerrycan and spread petrol liberally on the carpet and scrubbed again.
When the folks got home I made a full – OK, partial – confession: Dad, I spilled some petrol in your van, but I’ve cleaned it all up. Sorry about that!
the mud and the blood and the beer – Johnny Cash –
The rumour on the Kestell bus was that in South West Africa the laws pertaining to grog did not actually, y’know, pertain. Specifically, the drinking age laws. You could order a beer in a pub in South West Africa even if you were only fourteen or fifteen, as we were. In fact, so the rumour went, it wasn’t a rumour, it was a fact.
It was 1969 and we were on tour in the little Kestell bus. Kestell had been unable to fill it so they extended the invite to Harrismith se Hoer School: Who wants to join us on an adventure? R25 for 15 days! Pierre, Pikkie, Tuffy, Fluffy and I jumped at the chance, our folks said yes and we were off on a historic adventure which included a World-First in Kimberley on the way: The world’s first streak, Pierre and Tuffy giving their thighs a slapping as they raced kaalgat from the showers to our campsite in Kimberley’s Big Hole (or their caravan park anyway). Some historians think streaking started in California in 1973. Well, they weren’t in Kimberley in 1969, were they?
We crossed into Nirvana at the Onseepkans border post armed with our newfound legal knowledge and confidently entered the first licenced premise we found: The Karasburg Hotel. It was hot, the beer was cold and we were cool. We sat in the lounge and supped as though we had done this for YEARS.
We decided to order a refill while that friendly man who hadn’t batted an eyelid when we ordered our first round was still around. His relaxed response had confirmed the now well-known fact that South West Africa was a bastion of good sense and sound liberal values. I got up to press the buzzer which would bring him back.
Unfortunately, the buzzer stuck and it buzzed too long, which must have annoyed the owner or manager, as he came stomping into the lounge to see vuddafokgaanhieraan.
He looked at our short stature, our short pants and our tall beers in astonishment and demanded Wie is julle? and Waar’s julle onderwyser? and other seemingly pointless questions which were disrupting our peaceful ambience. He dispatched me to go and fetch our onderwyser forthwith and instructed the others to sit, stay.
But as he turned his back the rest of our gang disappeared after me, taking their beers with them. And like the good mates they were, they brought mine along too!
kaalgat – no clothing; ‘as the day they were born’
vuddafokgaanhieraan – What’s up, gentlemen?
Wie is julle? and Waar’s julle onderwyser? – Time, gentlemen, please!
The first time I ran from the cops was about 1969 in the wee hours of a Harrismith Vrystaat morning. We were lurking, having climbed out of our bedroom windows to rendezvous on the dark streets of the silent metropolis as unaccompanied minors.
Near Greg’s cafe we spotted one of The SAP’s Finest, drunk behind the wheel of his grey cop van. Remember them? Ford F150’s with that metal mesh over the windows.
Being upstanding citizens we phoned the pulley stasie from a tickey box to report him.
Next minute we heard a squeal of tyres and we were being chased in the dead of night by the drunk himself – his buddies had obviously radioed him. Or maybe his stukkie was on desk duty.
No ways he could catch us fleet-footed schoolboys in his weaving van. We ducked and eventually dived under the foundations of Alet de Witt’s new block of flats and watched him careen past us. We emerged boldly and walked home, knowing we would hear him LONG before he could spot us. Anyway, we didn’t want to be late for school.
No doubt he took another sluk of brandy and went looking for someone dark to beat up.
Chips! The gendarmes are coming!
That was also the last time I ran from the law, come to think of it.
pulley stasie – the fuzz; the police station
tickey box – public phone booth – see picture stukkie – significant other; connection
Camping on the slopes of Platberg below Khyber Pass Pierre, Tuffy and I had made a fort of ouhout branches and cleared a big spot to make a fire. Sitting around talking shit when we heard a rustle and a shout and who appeared before us but Guillaume. He was excited that we were overnighting and asked to join us. Sure! we said. With pleasure!
He first had to head back to town, though, to go to movies. He had recently left school and had a date with one of the onnies. The one with the micro miniskirts! The one we had lustful thoughts about. That little blonde one with the pageboy hairstyle. That one!
Well after midnight there was another rustle, another shout, and Guillaume squeezed back through our hedge with a blanket over his shoulder and a plastic packet in his hand. He sat on the blanket, took a bloody ox heart out of the packet, stuck it on a stick and roasted it over the coals.
Look: We knew he was the nephew of the famous Deneys Reitz of Boer War Commando fame; and the son of legendary Dr Frank Reitz – but MAN, were we impressed! I mean Action Man had walked up a mountain in the dark, carried the lightest provisions (when we looked at the size of our rucksacks and sleeping bags), roasted and ate an ox heart – and pomped a teacher. All in one night!
Eat your heart out, Chuck Norris!
ouhout – Leucosidea sericea, lovely aromatic scrub bushes and trees found in stream beds in the Drakensberg our inselbergs, and surrounding foothills
onnies – teachers; from onderwyser
pomped – made love; who we kidding? had sex; shunted; or so we surmised
Trudi Wessels won Miss Personality at Maritzburg Varsity. We could have told them that beforehand if they’d asked. Her prize: A trip to Rio de Janeiro! Steph de Witt arranged a farewell party at Shady Pines on the night of her departure, after which we would deliver her safe and pickled to the Harrismith stasie. You didn’t know trips to Rio de Janeiro start at Harrismith Railway Station?! Ha! It goes to show . . .
At the station we bid her farewell in moviestar style, Trudi hanging out the window, fans crowded on the platform, much hubbub (just like in any good romantic movie). Here we are, hubbubbing:
Here’s Trudi with her hatbox:
Except some ringleaders are missing. Where could John and Nick be? At the very far end of the platform talking to the train driver. I get there just in time to hear: “Nooit, meneer, this are not a melktrein, this are ve Orange Express! No stops before Beflehem.”
He reminds me that they say you can’t find three wise men in the Vrystaat. But he does turn out to be wise after some Venning-Leslie persuasion, as he partially relents: “OK, ve bess I can do for yous is I’ll slow down when I pass Rivierdraaistasie.”
We hop on, and soon the train pulls off. John the agile Venning has a case of beer under his one arm and a wicked grin under his one moustache. We make our way to Trudi’s cabin. “What on earth are you guys doing here?” We repeat a very hasty goodbye because already the train is FLYING! I myself am now rather nervous and if it wasn’t for the medicinal value of beer I might have said something sensible. We each take position at a door and watch as the poles whizz past us in a blur. Past the crossing to Swiss Valley where Nick (whose leg was in plaster so he was chosen to drive the getaway car – just like in any good gangster movie) was going to meet us. The railway crossing whizzes past and it feels like we’re accelerating!
Suddenly a decrease in speed and, peering forward, some lights in the dark. Get ready to jump. Arse over kettle each one of us hits the ground and tumbles. I almost stayed on my feet but then had to duck for the big sign RIVIERDRAAISTASIE one word. But one man didn’t fall: He who held the case of beers kept it together! We ran back up the track into the dark as a man came stumbling out of the stasie kantoor, lantern held aloft (just like in any good Orient Express movie).
When we gathered, a sober head prevailed. “Boys, we can’t go! We can’t ‘drop’ the train driver. The stasiemeester will have to put in a report and our man will get into trouble. We have to go and talk to the stasiemeester.”
So a delegation is sent back to the stasie and some of us sit in the veld awaiting their return. And we wait and await.
Eventually – just when we think maybe they’ve gone to jail – they return, much merrier and cleverer than when they left. Apparently as they started to say Naand Meneer the oke said: “That’s the BEST thing that’s happened to me in all my years at Rivierdraai Stasie!” and insisted they sit and join him for a dop, pulling a bottle of brandy from his desk drawer (just like in any good cowboy movie).
A sequel: Is nothing a secret in a small dorp?: I get home before sunrise, and later that same morning my Mom peeps her head into my bedroom in my garden cottage, The Country Mansion: “Were you on that train?” asks Mary Methodist in her woe-unto-us voice.
1973, on my way back from the States, I fly to New York on a Monday in December and ask for a flight to Johannesburg via London.
‘Sorry you can’t. Your ticket is non-transferable, and the next SAA flight is via Rio on Friday’. The old man had paid for my ticket on his shiny new Barclaycard and had put it over 12 months, so one last payment was still outstanding.
Ooh shit, four days in NY with no money. Well, about $25. I got $25 a month ‘allowance’ in Apache from the Rotary club. Seventeen South African Diederiks Ront it was back then. And sixty cents. (R1 = $1.42)
I put my suitcase – see pic below – in a locker, put a quarter in the slot and take the key.
Hop on a bus to Grand Central Station in Manhattan to look for the SAA office / kantoor. ‘That’ll be $2’.
At the SAA office / kantoor I get, ‘Sorry, can’t help’. Hey asseblief man! ‘OK, we’ll try’.
Back to JFK airport and sleep on the floor. The damn benches spitefully have armrests for each seat so you can’t lie down on them. Fitful sleep on the hard floor broken by a huge sit-on vacuum and polish machine that roars up to me at 3am. ‘Move along there’, says the cleaner driving the vengeful beast.
Tuesday I do the same locker-bus-SAA office run, but now I’m rather peckish so I stroll around Manhattan looking for something cheap to eat. I find a burger for $3. Not cheap in ’73, but that includes as much beer as you can drink, so I think OK. Big glasses, though, so I could only drink two. Then I wander the Manhattan streets with a nice beer buzz going. Going up the Empire State building was an amazing experience.
Wednesday I do the same locker-bus-SAA-hamburger-with-beers run but this time when I go into SAA at the end of the day they tell me ‘Good News, you’re free to go!’ To celebrate I book into the YMCA without my suitcase so I can have a shower. ‘That’ll be $11’ for the smallest room I have ever slept in: Just barely bigger than a small single bed.
Thursday I’m squeaky clean on the bus back to JFK. My ticket is now ‘transferable’ and I take the first plane to London: Air India. I grab a discarded newspaper lying on a bench on my way to board. It’s a jumbo jet – my first!
Settling into my seat I read: “Air India has just been voted ‘Worst Airline in the World’. Again”. Their cabin crew is on strike so admin staff are ‘standing in for them’ – by doing nothing. A delightful Irish lass is sitting next to me. Much older – she was probably all of thirty – she feels sorry for me so buys me a Pommy cold pork pie on the way out of Heathrow. Tastiest pie ever.
I’m on my way to meet a connection Don Inglis who once lived in Harrismith and is now in London for a year, so he knows the place. Turns out he has a rugby match playing for some Saffer team against the London Irish, so we scurry around Buck House circle and somewhere else where someone lived or died or married someone, and head off to Wimbledon for the game.
Five rugby okes are squeezed into his little Austin something. At the ground the players huddle in a cold shed to change and notice they’re a couple of boerkies short can I play? Sure, I say, but only half the first half, then I have to catch a tube to Heathrow. Thank goodness (it’s sleeting outside) Don says rather don’t risk missing your flight. So they run out onto the mud with one blade of grass every ten yards without me and start puffing out steam and shoving some fat Irish blokes around.
Between scrums Don shouts out which tubes and buses I should catch and I leave before the halftime whistle to head south after a year in foreign climes. I’m very much looking forward to getting home now.
Once in the air the SAA koffie poppie gives me lip when I order a third beer so I’m feeling at home while still thousands of kays away.
Diederiks Ront – SA currency; Our finance minister’s name was Diederiks
office / kantoor – office / office
asseblief – puh-leez!
Saffer – South African
boerkies – South Africans
koffie poppie – SAA air hostess
The old man’s Barclaycard was brand new. Maybe he was persuaded to get one by a glass of sherry and a blonde?
I recently (2019) packed some clothes for my 90yr-old Mom as she was going to stay in a home for the aged for a while. Get my suitcase down from on top of my cupboard, she said. It was the suitcase I had parked in the JFK locker 46 years ago!
1971: Rugby in Bloemfontein, first test Springboks vs the Frogs, the French. We drove over in Tabs’ car to watch. Apparently:
. . . this test is remembered for a famous tackle by Bourgarel on a charging Frik du Preez. If I remember correctly Frik was charging all cylinders firing down the touchline; on his way to what look like certain try. Bourgarel, however, had other plans the French wing came from the side fly tackling Frik; dumping him unceremoniously over the touchline to the disgust of the crowd, who even came-up with a chant for Bourgarel as a consequence. I won’t repeat the chant here but it rhymed with his name.
After the game, Tabs, Des, Raz, Stervis and I are driving back when the kroeg – no way you could call it a pub – in Senekal beckoned.
By the time the barman threw us out Des had bonded deeply with one of Senekal’s left-behinds and when we suggested we leave for home rather than go home with Deliverance for a braai, Des told us in no uncertain terms that WE could go but HE was not leaving his lifelong mate, of three hours, in the lurch.
ONE fing we must NOT do, we were told, also in no uncertain terms, when we got to the small house on the wrong side of Senekal, is wake his wife. Lemme tell you carefully, you must not, no marrer whut you do, wake my wahf, you hear?
Wooden floors, five drunk ous stumbling around, I started to think this goon doesn’t actually have a wife. Conan meanwhile, is scratching around in the chest deep freeze. He hauls out what looks like a roundish, rock-hard lump of blood in a plastic checkers packet, and suddenly I get a clear image: He DOES have a wife and she IS in the house! In that deep freeze! In fact, he’s offering us a piece of her for a braai!
Des, I urge, we should go, this is going to take forever. But it’s like Des told us: WE can go, but HE’s not leaving his lifelong mate.
It’s midnight in June in Senekal, Vrystaat. It’s not hot. Eventually a fire gets going – sort of – and the icy red lump piece of deceased wife sits on it, refusing to melt. An alternative hazy recollection is the oven was turned on and the lump placed in there. Exact facts are in dispute among us hostages decades later.
Meantime, Jack Nicholson has found some dop and we have to drink, and luckily this puts him to sleep and mellows the Glutz so we’re able to persuade him to make a bolt for it, hitting the Senekal dirt roads till we find the tar to Harrismith. Stervis has a better hazy recollection of the Wildman pulling out a gun and taking potshots at us as the getaway car spins madly down the driveway. Luckily the resulting dust plume obscures us from view and saves our lives.
To this day I can experience that weird, out-of-body sensation of “WTF are we DOING here? Am I in a bad movie or in a bad dream?!
Rotary had a few strict rules for exchange students. I can remember one: Definitely No Driving. So I didn’t. Except when really drunk.
Off we went one night into the sticks for beer and loud music. After a few hours we needed more beer to be fetched from town and I shouted “I’ll Drive!”
Amazingly (also a beer effect?) Jay said OK!
His beautiful, prize Camaro looked a lot like this one.
So off we went with this foreigner driving on the wrong (left) side of the car and the wrong (right) side of the road. Driving perfectly and safely until we got to a right turn on the country dirt road. Most bends around Apache are right-angle bends – the roads mostly run north-south or east-west.
And then the wheels came off. Quite literally. Jay’s prize 15-inch back slicks on his beautiful hot dark green ’69 Camaro popped off the rims as I blacked out momentarily and gunned too fast around the bend, off the left-hand side into a ditch.
Jay crapped all over me but let me off amazingly lightly. This poor – guilty – foreigner was allowed to get away with it.