My four-stage 1973 road trip started in Apache Oklahoma. Katie Patterson drove us down in her Ford LTD in Stage One to stay with her folks, Mama and Papa Hays, in Shreveport Louisiana. There we ‘visited’, were spoiled (I was a third, honorary grandchild!), played golf – I recall smacking the ball under big old trees draped in lichen, or old man’s beard – and ate superbly.
Larry and his sister Ginny joined us, having driven down from Cobleskill NY and we got ready for Stage Two of my Great North American Road Trip: Heading north-east in a light greenish-grey Volkswagen Bug.
Larry and Ginny had packed their camping kit on the back seat; One more passenger meant we now needed a U-Haul carrier on the roof.
I remember surprisingly little about this trip north-east! We left the Red River and crossed the Arkansas River near Little Rock; I remember camping:
I remember crossing the mighty Mississippi River in or near St Louis, where the Missouri joins it;
The only thing I remember clearly is hoping my ID would be checked at the door when we went for my very first legal beer at a TGIF bar in Missouri. I held my SA passport ready . . I now know it was a Sunday; Richard Nixon was the President; We were listening to Killing Me Softly With His Song, and Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree; and the man at the door just waved me through. ** sigh ** why have I always looked much older than I am? Nowadays people think I’m a hundred in the shade. Next they’ll be wanting to take away my drivers licence . .
Oh, well, at least there some other world-firsts happened that week: The first cellphone call; The World Trade Center twin towers opened; the first international rugby sevens tournament took place; the last American soldier ignominiously left Vietnam; and Pablo Picasso died.
I also remember getting to Larry’s hometown Cobleskill, a beautiful little town in upstate New York, and meeting his parents. I’d heard about Cobleskill since 1969 when Larry breezed into Harrismith and we spent a fun year making memories and amok; early experiments mixing beer and petrol – which he called gas. Well, we had a gas! Fun times!
That’s a really vague and sketchy recollection of a magic route! Larry doesn’t remember much more. In fact he confidently remembered the VW Bug as being red! ‘Tis not only my memory glands that are dodgy, I’m relieved to tell.
He’s going to ask his sister Virginia. She’ll know more. I know we went here, cos my trust Olympus trip 35 camera recorded it, but where is it?
A few days later, another VW Bug arrived, full of gorgeous Oklahomans; and one less-than-glamorous Aussie . . and this Bug was red.
Great friend Larry Wingert is out from the USA and we hop on a flight to Maun in Botswana. It’s 1985 and we’re bachelors on the loose with time and money!
From Maun we fly into the Delta (Tjou Island camp) in a Cessna 206. After many beers and wines a resident auntie starts looking enticing at around midnight but the moment passes.
The next morning a pair of tropical boubou fly into the open-air pub under a tree right above where we’re sitting and belt out a startling loud duet. Stunning! That’s a lifer!
After a short mokoro ride it’s back to the plane and a short flip back to Maun where we all squeeze into an old Land Rover, fill up at Riley’s Garage . .
. . and head off for Moremi, stopping just outside Maun to buy some meat hanging from a thorn tree. Goat? Supper. Our outfit is called – I think – Afro Ventures.
We’re a Motley Crew from all over. We get to know two Aussie ladies, a Kiwi lady, a Pom fella – 6 foot 7 inches of Ralph; AND the gorgeous Zimbabwean Angel Breasts (Engelbrecht her actual surname)! Unfortunately, she’s the Long Pom’s girlfriend (sigh). Weird how the only first name I can think of now is Ralph, the undeserving Pom.
Our long-haired laid-back hippy Saffer – no, he was probably a Zim, see his letter – safari guide Steve at the wheel is super-cool, a great guide. So off we go, heading north-east, eight people in a Series 2 Landie – “The Tightest-Squeeze-Four-By-Four-By-Far”.
Long Legs in a Landie to the rescue!
Anyone who has driven in a Landie will know there’s lots of room inside – except for your shoulders and your knees. Besides that – roomy. Land Rover’s theory is that three people can fit on the front seat, three on the middle seat and two on those postage stamp seats in back. Right! See that metal bar that your knees keep bumping against? That’s what Land Rover used as their prototype airbag. It didn’t work so they only kept it for the next fifty years, then changed it. By using milder steel?
Previously a critic of Landrover design, in a flash I’m a keen supporter! Unable to endure the cramped space on the middle seat, the lengthy Pom gets out at the very first stop and sits on the spare wheel on the roofrack. I sit with my thigh firmly against Angel Breasts’ thigh (sigh).
More clever Landrover design features:
He stays up there for the rest of the week – whenever we’re driving, he sits on the roofrack! When we stop he has to pick the insects out of his teeth, like a radiator. I’m in seventh heaven. Mine and Angel Breasts’ thighs were made for each other.
Birding: Problem Solved!
I’m mad keen on birding but I don’t know how these guys feel about it. What if they get pissed off? What if they only want to stop for large furry creatures? After all, five of the seven of us are fureigners. But the problem gets solved like this: The first time we get stuck in the deep sand, a little white-browed scrub robin comes to the rescue! He hops out onto the road in full view, cocks his tail and charms them. From then on I have six spotters who don’t let anything feathered flit past without demanding,“What’s that, Pete? What’s that? And that one?” I become the birding guide! Steve is happy – it’s not his forte, but he’s keen to learn.
Moremi – and True Love
At Khwai River camp a splendid, enchanted evening vision befalls me – my best wild life sighting of the whole trip: I’m walking in the early evening to supper and bump into Angel Breasts outside her bungalow – she’s in her bra n panties in the moonlight. Bachelor dreams. Oops, she says and runs inside. Don’t worry, I’ve averted my eyes, I lie (*sigh*). That’s another lifer!
At Savuti camp the eles have wrecked the water tank.
At Nogatsaa camp a truck stops outside the ranger’s hut, a dead buffalo on the back. The ranger’s wife comes to the truck and is given a hindquarter. Meat rations. They also drop the skin there and advise us to carry a torch if we shower at night as lions are sure to come when they smell the skin.
Another Lifer! Later I head for the tiny little shower building – a single shower – to shower while it’s still light. Discretion being the better part of valour! A sudden cacophony makes me look out of the broken shower window: The lady-in-residence is chasing an ele away from her hut by banging her pots & pans together! We travel thousands of k’s to see elephant and she says Footsack Wena! Tsamaya! The ele duly footsacks away from that awful noise. While looking out, I spot what I think could be a honeyguide in a tree, so I have to rush back to our puptent wrapped in a towel with one eye on the ele to fetch my binocs. It is a Greater Honeyguide, the one with the lovely Latin name Indicator indicator, and that’s another lifer for me! Moral of the story: Always carry your binocs no matter where you go!
That night the elephants graze and browse quietly right next to the tent, tummies rumbling. Peeping out of the puptent door I look at their tree stump legs, can’t even see up high enough to see their heads. Gentle giants.
As we approached the Chobe river the landscape looked like Hiroshima! Elephant damage of the trees was quite unbelievable. That did NOT look like good reserve management! Botswana doesn’t believe in culling, but it sure looks like they should!
The Chobe river, however, was unbelievable despite the devastation on its banks – especially after the dry country we’d been in. What a river! What wildlife sightings!
On to Zimbabwe, the mighty Zambesi river and Victoria Falls. We stayed at AZambezi Lodge. Here we bid a sad goodbye to our perfect safari companions. Me still deeply in love. Angel Breasts holding the Long Pom’s hand, totally unaware of my devotion (*sigh*).
At the end, our new friend and safari guide Steve gave me and Larry a letter. We read it on the flight out of Vic Falls.
Hopeful note: Larry had a camera on the trip, I didn’t, so I have asked him (hello Larry) to scratch around for his colour slides in his attic or his secret wall storage space in Akron Ohio. He will one day. As a dedicated procrastinator he is bent on never putting off till tomorrow what he can put off till the next day. Meantime, thanks to Rob & Jane Wilkinson of wilkinsonsworld.com, xeno-canto.org and others on the interwebs for these borrowed pics and sounds!
Edit: There’s hope! Larry wrote 16 December 2017: P.S. I will renew my efforts to locate some photos of our Botswana trip. If you saw the interior of my house, you’d understand the challenge. . . . OK, but if you saw the exterior of his old house you’d fall in love with it:
Terrible note: Update November 2019: Larry has since had a bad fire in the basement of his lovely home. Much of his stuff is ruined by the fire, the smoke and then the firemen’s water! He may not repair his home! This is so sad! Dammit! Pictures suddenly aren’t important any more.
Saffer – Suffefrickin; South African
Zim – a Zimbabwean
lifer – first time you’ve seen that bird ever – or anyway in lingerie
Footsack Wena!Tsamaya! – Go away! Be off with you! Eff Oh!
pamberi ‘n chimurenga – forward the liberation struggle! in Shona
How brave was that!? The longer I have teenagers of my own the more I admire my Mom and her quiet courage and fortitude back in the ’70’s! The thought of giving my teenage son my car and allowing him to disappear (it would be in a cloud of dust and tyre smoke) on a three week jaunt fills me with querulous whimpering. (I’ll do it, I’ll do it, but only ‘cos Mom did it for me).
Larry Wingert was an ex-Rotary exchange student to SA from Cobleskill, New York. He and I had been on a previous Road Trip USA in 1973; now he was teaching English in Athens and had flown to Nairobi, then traveled overland down to Joburg where we joined up and hitch-hiked to Harrismith. There, Mom parted with the Cortina keys and we drove to PMB then on to Cape Town. We took ten lazy days in going nowhereslowly style back in 1976.
Wherever we found a spot – preferably free – we camped in my little orange pup tent. In the Weza Forest we camped for free; In the Tsitsikamma we paid.
Driving through the Knysna Forest we saw a sign Beware of the Effilumps.
So we took the little track that turned off nearby and camped – for free – out of sight of the road in the undergrowth. Maybe we’d see a very rare Kynsna elephant? Not.
In Cape Town we stayed with Lynne Wade from Vryheid, lovely lass who’d been a Rotary exchange student too. She played the piano for us and I fell deeply in love, then disappeared on yet another beer-fueled mission. Coward. We also visited the delightful Dottie Moffett in her UCT res. She had also been a Rotary exchange student to SA from Ardmore, Oklahoma and was now back in SA doing her undergraduate degree. I was in love with her, too.
We headed for Malmesbury to visit Uncle Boet and Tannie Anna. Oom Boet was on top form, telling jokes and stories and laughing non-stop. That evening he had to milk the cow, so we accompanied him to the shed. Laughing and talking he would rest his forehead against the cow’s flank every now and then and shake with helpless mirth at yet another tale. Meantime, this was not what the cow was used to. It had finished the grain and usually he was finished milking when she had finished eating. So the cow backed out and knocked him off the stool, flat on his back, bucket and milking stool upturned. He took a kick at the cow, missed and put his back out. Larry and I were hosing ourselves as we helped him up and tried to restore a semblance of order and dignity.
Back at the house we gave Oom Boet and Aunt Anna a bottle of imported liqueur to say thanks for a lovely stay. It was a rather delicious chocolate-tasting liqueur and it said haselnuss mit ei. It was only a 500ml bottle, so we soon flattened it. It looked something like this:
“Ja lekker, maar ag, dis bokkerol, Kosie – Ons kan dit self maak!”
Larry and I decide to call his bluff. In the village the next day we looked for dark chocolate and hazelnuts, but hey, it’s Malmesbury – we got two slabs of Cadbury’s milk chocolate with nuts.
Oom Boet is bok for the challenge. He dives under the kitchen sink and starts hauling things out. He’s on his hands and knees and his huge bum protrudes like a plumber’s as he yells “Vrou! Waar’s die masjien?” Anna has to step in and find things and do things as he ‘organises’. She finds a vintage blender and – acting under a string of unnecessary instructions – Aunt Anna breaks eggs and separates the yolks, breaks chocolate into small pieces. Boet then bliksems it all into the blender and adds a fat dollop of a clear liquid from a label-less bottle. “Witblits, Kosie!” he says triumphantly. He looks and goois more in, then more. Then a last splash.
It looked like this, but the goo inside was yellowy-brown, not green. And it had a layer of clear liquid overlaying it nearly to the top.
He switches the blender to ‘flat-out’ with a flourish and a fine blend of egg yolk, chocolate and powerful-smelling hooch splatters all over the kitchen ceiling, walls and sink. He hadn’t put the lid on! And it was like a V8 blender, that thing.
Vroulief starts afresh, patient and good-humoured as ever. We mop, we add, he blends, and then it’s ready for tasting at last.
And undrinkable. That aeroplane fuel strength home-distilled liquor was just too violent. We take tiny little sips, but even Oom Boet has to grudgingly admit his is perhaps not quite as good or as smooth as the imported stuff. We add sugar, more chocolate and more egg yolk, but its only very slightly better, and still undrinkable.
Ten years later I still had the bottle and despite offering it to many people to sip as a party trick, it was still three-quarters full!
If we had marketed it we’d have called it Oom Boet se Bokkerol Haselnuss mit Eish!
A decision to make a park on the banks of the Wilge River on the south-west edge of Harrismith town was made by the newly-established town council in 1877 (the council having been established just two years earlier). Mainly thanks to the efforts of the Landdrost Mr. Warden who came to Harrismith in 1884, and Harrismith’s first Town Clerk Mr. A. Milne, the area was laid out with winding roads, walking paths, a “lovers lane of poplar trees” and a variety of other trees (up to 38 species) in what park enthusiasts described as “a bare, crude piece of ground” but which was probably really open highveld grassland.
The troops stationed in the town around the time of the Anglo-Boer War erected the suspension bridge seen above, near where the Hamilton sandstone and iron bridge is today (named after Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams, Lieutenant-Governor of the then Orange River Colony):
Tree planting commences on that bare piece of ground:
The river was narrow and shallow at the time and so an attractive little lake with a central island was added and used for boating. Swans were introduced from London ‘for beauty’ (as for trees, so all local life was regarded as inferior to things imported from “home”!). The swans did quite well, cygnets being sold for £15 a pair, but they met their end at the hand of ‘some unidentified vandal with a .22 gun.’ As the trees grew, so more and more birds roosted in them, large heronries eventually being established. Predictably people complained and as predictably, the council ‘did something about it,’ shooting the birds and causing a big stink when their carcasses dropped into the lake!
In 1887 the lake was named Victoria Lake in honour of the Queen of England’s silver jubilee (along with thousands of other things named ‘Victoria’ that year around the world in a mass-hysterical colonial spate of arse-creeping!). The park itself was called the President Brand Park (when?), similarly to curry favour, no doubt – this time local favour, not far away ‘little island called home’ favour.
More & more trees would be planted over the years by schoolkids and enthusiasts:
At ‘a colourful ceremony with troops on parade and a military band in attendance,’ the park was officially opened in 1906 by Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams, Lieutenant-Governor of the Orange River Colony.
In 1907 the river was dammed by a weir just downstream of the park, thus creating a wider and deeper river for the full length of the park, greatly adding to its charm and allowing for swimming, more boating and bigger boats – even the first motorboat in 1918, owned by Mr E.H Friday. Later a boat house and a landing stage were erected by the Boating Syndicate who advertised ‘Boats for Two and boats for Four and boats for All’ in 1922. The Syndicate graduated to a motor launch capable of taking 14 passengers slowly along the river, including full-moon evenings where people would sing the songs of the day accompanied by ‘the plaintive sounds of the ukelele.’
On the edge of the park nearest town sportsfields were laid out, starting with a cricket oval and an athletic track, then rugby, soccer, softball and hockey fields, and jukskei lanes.
The park was extended across the river and a new suspension bridge about 300 yards downstream replaced the one the military had erected. The thrifty town council using some of the metal from the original in the replacement. Jolly good. In time, a caravan park was started, but this was soon moved to the town side of the park.
An impressive entrance gate of wrought iron between sandstone pillars was erected and named the Warden-Milne gate in honour of those who had done so much to get the park established.
Personal memories of the park were about cars – cars before we were actually allowed to drive! On the town side in Steph de Witt’s black Saab. Actually Gerrie Pretorius’ Saab but ours for the night – ‘borrowed!’ We would hurtle around the atletiekbaan at speed , drifting sideways left then sideways right long before ‘drifting’ had a name. One night we hugged the final bend coming into the home straight and there was a moerse big bloekom stump in the headlights right in front of us! Someone must have seen our tracks and thought ‘I’ll put a stop to this!’ or ‘Ek sal hierdie bliksems wys!‘ How Steph missed that huge log I do not know, but we hosed ourselves and roared off. Instead of Yee Ha! we’d say Arrie-ee! (from a joke about camels . . )
On the other side of the river it was in Tim Venning’s light blue Triumph 2000. Actually Dr Dick Venning’s Triumph, but ours for the night – ‘borrowed!’ Tim behind the wheel, laughing his head off as we roared around in a cloud of dust late at night, drifting sideways most of the time.
We were good kids all in all though, of course. Nostalgia makes it ‘naughtiness,’ ‘mischief.’ Nowadays people would slate the ‘Hooliganism Of The Youth Of Today!’ Maybe adults did then? Tut tut, how wrong they were . . and are.
atletiekbaan – 440 yard athletic track – a cinder track
moerse big bloekom stump – huge ‘blue gum’ eucalyptus log or stump – about half a metre to a metre in diameter and three to five metres long. If we’d hit it, the SAAB would have been moertoe
moertoe – varktap
varktap – damaged
Ek sal hierdie bliksems wys! – I’ll show them! Ha! You missed!
. . . to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
Maybe Steph was thinking of Masefield’s poem when he suggested we’d done enough short jaunts with our parents’ cars late at night while the dorp was sleeping and good kids were in bed dreaming of homework well done.
Been to Kestell? Tick;
Been to Swinburne? Tick;
Been to Queen’s Hill? Tick;
Had a head-on collision with a hill on Queen’s Hill? Tick;
Drifting laps around the atletiekbaan in Pres Brand Park? Tick;
Donuts on the high school netball courts? Tick;
What was there left to do? Maybe this was the first sign of his lifelong love of the sea (sailing his huge ocean-going catamaran and fishing on his skiboat off Sordwana)? In those far-off days, that was yet to come.
Whatever – (let’s face it, more likely Steph was just thinking ADVENTURE! REBELLION! ADRENALIN!) – he started us plotting a biggie.
It was most probably he who came up with the bold idea: I know. Let’s go to Durbs, dip our toes in the Indian Ocean and bring back a bottle of sea water, and – as always – be back before sonop. RIGHT!!
We must plan:
– We need the white Corsair, not the black Saab; It’s faster.
Here’s what it looked like except Gerrie’s was white. And four-door. Otherwise like this.
– We must leave much earlier. We can’t wait for our parents to fall asleep; We need longer.
But not too much planning – I don’t remember discussing fuel or mileage or consumption. Those weren’t really fashionable topics in those days.
So Steph strolls into his Mom Alet’s bedroom, the one nearest the long getaway driveway, to talk to her as she lies reading in bed. At a given signal we start wheeling the Corsair out of the open garage and down the long driveway to Stuart Street. The driveway is downhill – that helps – and made of two long concrete strips – that doesn’t help: the wheels fall off the edge GghgGghgGghg! SHHH! shhh!
And they’re off!
There’s no beer this trip. This is more serious. It’s a journey, not a jaunt. We have a mission.
We roar past Swinburne; We roar past van Reenen; Down van Reenen’s Pass; Past Ladysmith and on into unknown territory.
Suddenly: Blue lights! Oh Shit! They’re after us. We slow down a little bit. Just to the speed limit. We sit straight in the car, no slouching. We rehearse our story: Ja Meneer. Nee Meneer. The flashing blue light fills the car – then overtakes us and whizzes past and shrinks into the distance.
We slow down. We think. We reconsider. Wordlessly, we make a U-turn and head back to the big HY.
Oh well, it was a good idea while it lasted.
And anyway, that story about the bottled sea water is just a myth.
I must go down to the sea again, to the vagrant gypsy life, To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife; And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
R.I.P Steph, our histories are forever entwined. You are part of who I am. My sense of self would be poorer without those mad crazy daze!
I can’t believe it. Steph. Died in a car accident today. Near Frankfort.
I’ll write later.
Here’s how we’ll always remember you, Steph. Us who knew you in the 60’s and 1970 – your matric year.
His more recent friends and family remember him like this: Mad keen fisherman, yachtsman, can-do builder, taker-on of major projects. Big-hearted friend, builder of schools for underprivileged people, generous to a fault, though he would dispute the ‘fault’ part.
Later: JP, his boet, his family, his workers and his colleagues put on an amazing memorial service and wake for Steph at The Pines this Saturday. Entertained and feted us royally. His daughter tells me he has seen to it that each of them are set up with something to do to keep going. ‘Kom ons organise dit,’ was his saying. There were grandkids running around and the day was just as if he had organised it himself. It typified Steph de Witt, as it was Generous and Inclusive. The family did him proud.
We were a gang of five that came of age together. Really fun days. Beer, wit, song, wisdom, ‘borrowed’ cars, adventures and escapades * and um, extra homework (some of these things may be disputed by some) . . . Pierre du Plessis and Steph and Larry Wingert, our American Rotary exchange student, were 1970 matrics, me and Tuffy Joubert were 1972 matrics. I phoned Larry in Ohio to let him know the sad news last night.
One of the things I am most grateful for (I’m in awe, really) and I try hard to apply some of it in a balanced way to my Jess & Tom, is just how tolerant and patient our 1960’s and ’70’s Vrystaat parents were! I’m sure Steph’s Mom Alet and my Mom Mary, Pierre’s Mom Joan, Tuffy’s Mom Joyce often knew we were out and about but they would just check we were OK in the morning. ** Larry’s Mom would have been blissfully unaware of her son’s shenanigans in Africa!
Steph’s Dad the legendary Koos de Witt died when Steph was in Std 6. He was a prominent builder: Built many Much Deformed churches all over SA. Steph did civil engineering at varsity then started building. Made and lost fortunes. Owned a huge ocean-going catamaran, house in Cape Town, ‘cottage’ in Kommetjie, game farm in Limpopo. Then he was back – bought the biggest stone house in Kestell while he had big contracts to build roads and a shopping centre in Qwa Qwa. I looked him up there on our way to Lesotho once. He was driving a huge imported Ford F250 pickup truck. When I told him which road we were taking into Lesotho in my kombi he said “You can’t go that way, Koos! I built the road to the border and that’s fine, but after that you’ll never make it!” Well, we did, but Aitch veto’d that route thereafter.
He always kept The Pines – or Shady Pines – their big old house in Harrismith and ran it as a B&B. He wanted to start a museum and had bought and restored his Dad’s big old Dodge and his Mom’s old Karmann Ghia.
Next month Steph was going to take another exchange student from my year who they hosted to his game farm – Greg Seibert’s first visit back to SA since 1972. We’ll have to fill in that part of his itinerary.
His year had their 45th matric reunion last week. Older sister Barbara was in his class and was involved in organising it. But Steph didn’t go. Getting together with the hele klas wasn’t his style. A few beers with the boys would have done it. Although: For their 40th reunion he and Pierre organised, hosted and paid for the whole thing. Wouldn’t take any money from the rest of the class! Generous people. His funeral was organised by his brother JP, his kids and his wife and ex-wife just as he’d have wanted it. All his workers invited, all his friends and more. LOTS of food and drink and lasting the whole day. At The Pines.
Now he’s gone. Well, none of us would have predicted Steph dying of old age in bed, that’s for sure. But this soon? No, no, no!
Our last reunion was in 1996 when Larry visited from Ohio:
*I told you how we stood innocently in assembly while the headmaster promised threateningly that he would catch the blighters who had left tyre-mark donuts on the netball courts – “Ons sal hulle vang!” – and we thought “No you won’t”.
** The other day I was about to growl “Turn down that noise!” to Tom when I thought to myself I don’t remember my folks ever doing that to my full-blast Jethro Tull or Led Zeppelin! Amazing!
Pierre at Steph’s funeral:
I pulled over to catch this moonrise over Bobbejaanskop, Platberg as I left Harrismith that sad day:
“The great pleasure in a schoolboy’s life is doing what people say he cannot – may not – do.”
paraphrasing Walter Bagehot, British journalist, businessman, and essayist
The black Saab is packed to capacity as we roar off in the dead of night to Kestell, that mecca of silence and stillness and, uh peace, I guess. Or was that Vrede? We aimed to fix that in our 1961 black two-door Saab 93. Riiing! ding ding ding ding Riiiiing! – that’s the two-stroke engine you can hear.
Steph, Larry, Pierre, Tuffy and Me. Warmly dressed against the Harrismith winter chill, we’re packed shoulder-to-shoulder, hardly able to lift our elbows to down the 455ml can of beer we each have. The sixth one of the carry-pack we’ll share. Tuffy’s empty can goes clanking along the tarmac before Steph has even hit third gear. Glugged.
When the Saab goes quiet we stop briefly to tap the fuel pump with the half brick kept under the bonnet for that purpose and we’re off again. Riiing! ding ding ding ding Riiiiing!
After cavorting on the gravel main street of Kestell and losing a tyre off the rim on one of our laps drifting – did I mention we invented drifting? – around the biggest thing in Kestell, the Groot Klip Kerk, we pick up the car to change the wheel as there’s no jack. Come to think of it, the word ‘domkrag’ might have been invented that night!
The guys at Jakes Grove’s garage kindly fix things for us and we’re away, heading for Jan van Wyk’s place on the way home.
Jan’s farm is a turn-off to the left on the way back home. He’s the sitting hoofseun at Harrismith se Hoer, 1970 edition. It’s 3am and there’s something we need to tell him.
Tuffy tackles an ox en-route.
Driving down the farm road with its middel-mannetjie the passenger-side door suddenly flies open as we drive past a few cattle blinded by our headlights. Next thing we know there’s a dust cloud and some concerned moo-ing. Tuffy has launched himself into a flying tackle of one of the cows / bulls / oxen. We stop and Tuffy gets back into the car dusting off his khaki grootjas with a smug look of “that’ll teach them” on his dial. Long toms always went straight to the clever-witty-and-brave lobe of his brain, especially when he downed them in seconds flat.
Arriving at the homestead all is in darkness. The dogs sniff us as we tiptoe into Jan’s room and wake him. Maybe we aren’t quite as stealthy as we think, as a voice comes from down the passage ‘Jan, maak tog vir hulle tee.’ His Ma. Ma’s. They always know what’s going on.
As we leave we spy pa Hertzog’s big Chev Commando parked in the open garage with a few big sacks next to it. Mielies, probably. Takes a bit of effort but we manage to raise it and push the sacks under it, leaving the rear wheels just off the ground. The beer is obviously still circulating, making us innovative, witty and irresistible.
Larry left for home – Cobleskill, New York – soon after, missing the school photo session. We sent him this:
Groot Klip Kerk – see the action picture of us drifting; It’s the building in the background;
middel-mannetjie – hump between the tracks in a rustic road to tickle the undercarriage;
domkrag – car jack; literally ‘stupid strength’; Us;
hoofseun – head boy;
Harrismith se Hoerskool – Place of learning; but without an umlaut: place of ill repute; place where you could learn some tricks;
grootjas – greatcoat issued by the army or bought 2nd-hand from army surplus stores;
‘Jan, maak tog vir hulle tee’ – Give these drunks something to sober them up, would you?;
Mielies – maize, corn;
drifting – right foot flat; steering wheel turned full lock; hold till you cannot see a thing from all the dust; turn the steering wheel to opposite lock; rinse and repeat; any passengers present should be yelling advice at the driver, telling him they should be driving;
R.I.P – Jan van Wyk died in a car accident ca.2010
It was the Eastern Free State athletics championships and we were three kranige athletes, in our prime. Well, so far . . we would get better at some things as time went on.
Here’s the line-up!!
In the triple jump we have Steph de Witt, matric. Long legs, big springs. In with a chance of a medal.
In the pole vault we have Rutger Hoender Kok, Std 9. Feisty competitor, but probably not a contender as his short aluminium pole looks ancient next to the long, whippy fibreglass poles the boys from Bethlehem Voortrekker school are sporting. Fullback for the rugby team, he was nicknamed “HO Ender” after HO de Villiers, the Springbok fullback (hoender, geddit?).
In the javelin we have Me, Std 8. New to javelin, just discovered it that year and loved it. Unknown factor, only thrown once before – at the Harrismith Hoerskool Atletiekbyeenkoms.
The school bus was naturally available for us to get to the metropolis of Senekal. That was the usual and expected way, so we naturally declined, Steph organising that we drove ourselves to Senekal in Gerrie Pretorius’ white Ford Corsair. Actually we weren’t licenced – to drink OR drive – so one of the guys who worked for his Mom Alet at JN de Witt Hardware drove us.
Accompanying us was Larry Wingert, Rotary exchange student from Cobleskill New York.
The white Ford Corsair’s engine roared off in the pre-dawn heading west, the rising sun behind us, to Senekal, city of song and laughter – well song anyway. Tiekiedraai songs. As we pulled in to the dusty dorp Steph had us pull over outside the only cafe in town, where he asked the Greek owner, who became his mate in two seconds flat – Steph is like that – if he’d please keep our beers.
Oh yes, didn’t I tell you: Steph’s gardener had procured a sixpack of Black Label Mansize cans for us from Randolph Stiller’s Central Hotel offsales, Mom & Dad losing the sale at Platberg bottle store because of their unreasonable “No under 18’s” policy. Also known as “the law”.
Now at this juncture, please don’t come with any stimulant or performance-enhancing accusations. Let it be noted that we did not partake in our stimulants until AFTER the athletic meeting was over. During the competition we were clean, nê? And anyway those mansize cans were only conversation stimulants and personality enhancers.
Let the games begin! Steph’s event was first and we watched and moedig’d him aan. He won the driesprong! We had a gold medal in the Corsair! The beer was legitimised: It was celebratory! True it was only a paper certificate, but it said Eerste Plek and to us that = Gold Medal.
A long gap followed before my event after lunch. It didn’t look too good and I was languishing, but then I didn’t have any expectations. My last throw came and the whole thing is etched in my memory. I can still today feel the run, the full-strength launch, the perfect flight of the javelin and my landing, spiked foot digging in one inch behind the wavy, hand-drawn white-wash line on the grass and having to push back to not lurch over it and get disqualified. I just knew it was perfection and it flew on and on, past all the markers of the langgatte from Voortrekker in Bethlehem and pegged perfectly. Another gold medal for the Corsair! Spiesgooi. This one out of the blue.
Hoender’s event was last and we went to cheer. It didn’t look good. One short stiff pole vs a bunch of long whippy poles seemed unfair. He was offered the use of a fibreglass pole but he declined. They take some getting used to. Then it started to drizzle. Suddenly everything changed! The okes with the whippy poles started floundering and slipping. Hoender soldiered on. It made no difference to him what the weather was like. On the last height there were two competitors left. Whippy pole slipped and gly’d and got nowhere. Hoender went over to a roar of applause from all four of us. He’d won! Our third gold medal! Paalspring. A clean sweep!
The music from Chariots of Fire swelled over the once dusty, now damp, dorp, rising to a crescendo. Sure, the movie was 1981 and this was 1970, but WE HEARD IT.
We hastened straight to the white Corsair, parked in the drizzle under the nearby bluegum trees, skipping the official podium pomp.
We had our own unofficial celebration waiting. Off to the cafe to rescue the beer from next to the eskimo pies and away we went “with the windshield wipers slappin’ time, n Larry clappin’ hands”! We roared off in the twilight, heading east, the setting sun behind us, slightly pickled after glugging the 450ml of contraband nectar, conversations stimulated and personalities enhanced.
AND: We got our name up in lights and our handprints pressed in to concrete next to a big star on the pavement.
Well, the Harrismith Hoerskool equivalent: On the Monday morning we were mentioned in dispatches by Johan Steyl at assembly in the skoolsaal. He sounded rather amazed . . .
Years later a nocturnal visit to Senekal involving beer would not be as much fun; more hillbilly horror than athletic fun!
kranige – excellent; and handsome
hoender – his nickname; he looked a bit like a scrawny old rooster, I guess?
Harrismith Hoerskool Atletiekbyeenkoms – renowned school athletics meet, widely known in the district, like famous
tiekiedraai – Like, lame dancing that adults approve of
moedig’d him aan – told him C’mon, Move Your Arse! JUMP!
driesprong – triple jump; hop, skip, jump
langgatte – long arses, tall chaps
spiesgooi – spear chuck, javelin
gly’d – slipped
paalspring – pole vault; see how we pole-vaulted in the tough old days, with stiff poles and the ground ploughed over and a sprinkling of wood shavings and sawdust to act as a “soft” landing;
There were two reasons we ‘borrowed’ Gerrie’s 1961 black Saab 93 late one night: (1.) If you don’t give a car a run the battery can go flat, and (2.) We had Larry the American Rotary Exchange student with us, who might have heard that the Free State can be a very boring place with “nothing to do”. Especially at night. And also (3.) a moving car is a safe place to drink beer in.
Quietly wheeling it down the driveway we held our breath until we’d pushed it far enough, then quickly started it and we were OFF! Freedom! Beer! Speed! Steph was multi-tasking, driving and handing out the ‘longtom’ cans of Black Label beer his family’s obliging gardener had bought for us from Randolph Stiller’s Central Hotel offsales. My folks lost the sale because of their silly and pedantic “over-18’s” policy.
Tuffy finished his before we hit third gear . . .
A quick routine stop to tap the fuel pump with the half brick kept under the bonnet for just that purpose, and we headed for new terrain.
We had already done the town athletic track and the school netball fields on other occasions, leaving our trademark donuts and figure-of-eights in the gravel. This time our destination was the National Botanic Gardens on top of Queen’s Hill, stopping only once more to tap the fuel pump with the half-brick kept under the bonnet for just that purpose.
In the dark we met Kolhaas Lindstrom in his car. He was legit: He’d already left school and was a licenced driver. “Dice?” he challenged, and the game was on! Whizzing through the veld Rring-ding-ding-ding-RRriiing! It’s a two-stroke, remember?
Don’t believe the Minister of Transport, speed doesn’t kill you. Speed exhilarates. It’s the sudden stops that kill you. And the sudden stop and loud bang came as a surprise to us. Dead silence reigned until in an awed American upstate New York accent Larry exclaimed from the back seat, “We’ve had a head-on collision with a hill!” .
A committee undercarriage inspection revealed all four wheels suspended in mid-air. Trying to gun it out left the front wheels whizzing around uselessly. Well, that is why there were five of us, so we man-handled it over the ditch and away we went, cleverer than before.
Forty five years later I flew in to inspect the scene of the mystery. Which was still unsolved and now a very cold case. The mystery was this: How could it be that such great and experienced drivers crashed? I mean some of us had been driving for . . well, months! And in not too many years’ time, we’d be licenced drivers.
I flew in via google earth. And there it was: A fault!! It was Queen’s Hill’s fault, not ours!
A great big fault – or ditch? – runs North-South across the whole hill. THAT was what caught us by surprise in the long grass.
I have little doubt that if one were to measure its width you’ll find it just a bit greater than the wheelbase of a 1961 Saab93!