Long before Zimbali became an over-priced gated estate for the rich to hide in, Manfred Bacher, augenoptikermeister from Austria aus, built a yacht in his Umhlanga backyard and called it Zimbali. Or SMS Zimbali, I’d say. He said Zimbali meant ‘forever young,’ which is what he wished for himself and might have been if it wasn’t for the beer and the cigarettes. In isiZulu izimbali means flowers or blossoms, but Manfred always did cruise and sail to the beat of his own drum.
The boat was a beauty. I hope someone has pictures of it. (update: Yes! Steve Reed had these pics). Beautifully finished in carved and highly-polished dark wood. My part in its construction consisted of visiting Umhlanga after work with big buddy Steve Reed, Manfred’s protégé oogkundige. We’d sit in its cabin in the Umhlanga backyard drinking quarts of beer and listen to Manfred wax lyrical. If I remember right, it was built in two locations: it was moved to the Umhlanga new home from somewhere else?
I missed the actual launch day when it was ferried to the harbour and lifted off a trailer and lowered into the salty water, but I then visited it again to sit in the cabin drinking quarts of beer and listen to Manfred wax lyrical while it bobbed up and down and the sheets and cables clanked in the wind. Once after enough beer I climbed right up to the top of the mast and enjoyed the swaying to and fro high above all the other boats in the yacht mole. Wonderful view at night with a million lights reflecting off the oily water. I made it down safely, sanks goodness, as Manfred would have said.
Roomerazzit Zimbali only ever made one trip out of the mouth – never again were the sails hoisted till Manfred sold it. It remained moored as a convenient boys gathering place. Again, some may know better and I’d love to hear.
augenoptikermeister – optician
oogkundige – augenoptikermeister
The kaiserliche und konigliche kriegsmarine, sometimes shortened to k.u.k. kriegsmarine, was the naval force of Austria-Hungary. Ships of the k.u.k. kriegsmarine were designated SMS, for Seiner Majestat Schiff (His Majesty’s Ship).
One day I went for a drive with Dad out to a farm in the Swinburne district, Rensburgs Kop in the background. We stopped outside a big tin shed and walked inside. To my amazement there was a huge skeleton iron structure in there. I knew immediately what it was: It was an aviary. I grew up with aviaries, I knew aviaries. It would be just like Dad to visit a farmer with an aviary.
Except this one was in the graceful shape of an ocean-going yacht! It was a yacht. An ocean-going yacht. Or so Ronnie Mostert told us. He and his wife Mel were building it with the help of their farmworkers! But it would sink, I said. Made of steel and full of holes, it would definitely sink. No, said Ronnie. He told us he was going to fill all the holes with cement. Then he would take it to Durban and then sail around the world.
Now I knew he was mad. It would sink. Cement also sinks. The mafia use this fact to their advantage when they give a guy cement boots. Cement full of hidden steel will sink even faster. Everybody knows that. Also, Ronnie was a character, maybe he was pulling our legs? Maybe it actually was an aviary and he was going to put an aasvoël in it? I listened carefully, but it seemed he was serious and it seemed Dad believed him. Bliksem!
And that was the last I saw of it. I heard tell later that he actually had schlepped it to Durban and plonked it in the salty water of that big dam that you-cannot-see-the-other-side-of. And it floated! This seemed a real case where one could say, Wonderlik wat die blerrie Engelse kan doen!
Now it’s years later – I mean 47 years later if that was 1972 – and I’m reading all about Ronnie Mostert’s yacht in Leon Strachan’s wonderful book ‘Bergburgers’. Ronnie and Mel welded miles of vertical and horizontal steel bars in a shape according to a New Zealand plan they got in a magazine. Talk about faith that could move concrete! Imagine trusting your life to an unseen person – and a Kiwi nogal – sending his plans to you in a book!
Then they plastered it with cement, with Harrismith builders Koos van Graan and Ben Crawley, both of whom I think I have personally seen drinking beer, just like Ronnie, gooi’ing plaster on it and wiping it with the trowels they usually built solid houses with – and they expected it to float!?
And blow me down, it did.
How amazing to see pictures of that remembered glimpse from all those years ago and to reinforce my conviction that I’m not imagining all these things running round in my head. I tell my friends: Hey! I’m the sane one around here, but will they listen? Hmph.
They christened it Mossie, trucked it down to Durbs in 1983, launched it and sailed and lived on it with their son Gary for eleven years.
Cape Town, St Helena, Brasil, the Caribbean, the USA, the Azores and back down south. They didn’t truck it back up to the Free State, though, they settled in Cape Town-on-sea. Isn’t that just a stunning achievement! Hats off!
Leon’s book tells of another – even crazier – saga of fools building a boat on the Harrismith vlaktes and thinking that it would float. I’ll post that next.
vlaktes – not a place you’d sail a yacht; flats; veld; savannah
bliksem – blow me down!
aasvoël – vulture
Wonderlik wat die blerrie Engelse kan doen! – blow me down!
nogal – would you believe it
gooi’ing – slapping
blow me down – bliksem!
‘Bergburgers’ – ‘citizens of the mountain’, meaning Platberg, thus: Harrismithians; us; also a book by Leon Strachan, Harrismithian extraordinaire!
Mossie – sparrow; many Mosterts are called Mossie but I never heard Ronnie called that; Lovely name for the boat!
Bergburgers by Leon Strachan; Tartan Boeke 2017 – ISBN 978-0-620-75393-7
Before the Kiwis start calling themselves the Ferrocement All Blacks, note that Les Bleus invented the stuff and built the first ferrocement boat back in 1848.
In 2020 Gary Mostert found my blog and could tell me that Ronnie and Mel are alive and well – and building a second yacht on their farm outside Cape Town! (see the comments)
Just heard Ben Crawley died, aged 80. I’ll try and get some detail on his life. What I know is athlete (held the school mile record for decades), sportsman, Mountain Race stalwart, builder, carpenter, MOTH leader, and (this was news to me – found out today): Anglican church man! (his cousins were Methodists with us).