This is the story of my life and the jobs and work my wife Judith and I did and all the travelling through the length and breadth of Australia. There is no reason to publish personal details and accounts of our lives as this is only a narrative of me being restless and the adventures we had. Some of the tales I have written to this website are included. If you see a mistake please send me an email or message me via Facebook
I was born in Victoria West, Great Karoo, South Africa, during World War Two. My parents were late starters
with my mother being the youngest at 27 and my father at 35. Three boys were born and I am the eldest and was named after my Grandfather, Willem Hendrik, whom I never knew. Next came Julian Lochner (named after my Mother’s Family) and last Bernie Johannes named after our father.
When I was six months of age, I contracted Diptheria, which is a serious disease caused by a toxin made by bacteria. It causes a thick coating in the back of the nose or throat that makes it hard to breathe or swallow. It can be deadly. I was rushed to Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town by car. In those days the first 340 kilometres from our town to Laingsburg was unsealed. My dad drove and his friend, Piet Marais, was co-driver. My Mother and a nurse, dear old Sister Viljoen, sat in the back of the Chrysler holding me in turns as we sped through the starry night to the city. Sister Viljoen told me many years later that when they shone a lamp to see how I was doing all they could that I was still alive was my nostrils moving. I was given some sort of Epidural injection in to my back and I have had the scar for that to this day.
My school friends and I grew up in an idyllic era where respect was shown to older people and teachers, and the community spirit was instilled in us. My home town had a population of about 10,000 made up of 20% white, 70% mixed race and 9.99% black people and 4 Indians. It was in a period of white dominance and colonial development of the southern tip of Africa. In 1948 there had been political change and those incumbent politicians brought in the hated Apartheid era and social change that was to affect everyone.
Victoria West. Place of my childhood
Coming out of the dark Middle Ages the Europeans started on voyages of discovery sailing the great seas of the world in little boats. Needless to say, many boats were lost at sea and many more lives as well before the technology of building better boats improved.
First the Portuguese navigators, then the Spaniards, sailed the vast oceans discovering ‘new’ lands and claiming them for their country of origin. Spices, slaves and gold were the mainstay of these discoveries. And so, a group of wealthy businessmen from the Netherlands, commenced a business called The Dutch East India Company which operated its business all over the world, trading from 1602 until 1800. The company moved 2.5 million tons of goods between the trade route to Asia in 4,785 ships. The company established in Indonesia, the capital port city of Batavia (now Jakarta), and continued their trade for nigh on 200 years paying an 18% dividend to their investors each year. In 1652 the company established a re-supply station at the Cape of Good Hope (now Cape Town, South Africa) and from there a fully- fledged colony and later a country of peoples emerged.
Migration came to Southern African from the sea over a period of 360 years by Dutch, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish and English peoples and from the north by the Bantu peoples. The original inhabitants of the south, the Strandlopers, the Khoi and the San were decimated by diseases brought in by the Europeans. The Dutch and their descendants, lusting for the naked natives and imported Asian slaves, created what was known for many years, as the Coloured Peoples of South Africa. Much of the mix of peoples in Southern Africa has been lost over time but careful research by dedicated historians has unveiled a truth that many would rather hide from. My ancestry comes out of this mix.
Willem Kempen (christened Wilhelmus Kemper in 1765), came to the Cape of Good Hope working as a soldier for the Dutch East India Company on the vessel Hoornweg. He set foot on Southern African soil for the first time in April of 1790. He was born, the 10th child of 11 children to Gerhardus Kemper and Helena Dresen in the town of Norf in Southern Germany. He married Anna Catharina Nel, a descendant of the French immigrant Guilleaume Neel (who later changed his name to Willem Nel), and Jeanne de la Batte.
My Grandfather Willem Hendrik Marthinus Abraham Kempen married Jacoba Magdalena Claassens. Jacoba was 7th generation descendant of Claasz Gerritsz and Sara Solor, both Asian slaves at the Cape of Good Hope. Claasz Gerritsz, from the Jentiven Tribe of peoples in Bengal (now Bangladesh), was so named by the Dutch East India Company, his real name being lost forever. Sara Solor was a native of the Island of Solor in Indonesia. After they both were emancipated and given their freedom in 1685 she married Claasz in Cape Town on the 13th of March 1686. They had 4 children together from 1686 to 1697 when he suddenly died at the age of 41.
I suppose I enjoyed an idyllic youth in the dusty regions of the Upper Karoo, the semi-arid region in the Cape Province of South Africa. My town of Victoria West, originally named Zeekoegat, was renamed after Queen Victoria in 1859. It was established in 1843 after the land was bought from the estate of the late Johannes Hendrik Claassens for the establishment of a township. The town grew steadily over the years. In 1871 there was a terrible flood through the valley. Rainclouds were about, and thunder and lightning in the west, was seen by Saturday night revellers at a dance. A cloudburst saw a rush of water come through the narrow gorge where the two hills meet, sweeping away the low retaining wall before it. A wall of water crushed the hall where the party-goers were and more than 60 people lost their lives.
In 1921 the opening of the Victoria West Dam Wall took place. It was a concrete concave dam wall which had been built with the intention of developing irrigation lands to the east of the town as well as holding back any flood-waters and to bolster the underground water supply. The dam came at a great cost to the community and in future years the debt owed to the investors of the project had to be written off as the irrigation scheme had been a failure due to the lack of rain. During some years good rains fell but more than often there were droughts. According to Eric Rosthenthal’s Book’ ‘One Hundred Years of Victoria West’, a great miscalculation had been made as to the amount of water that would be stored in the dam as rains were inconsistent in later years. When I was a young boy, we children used to play in the side streets where an array of concrete water furrows ran through the town so that gardeners could water their gardens from the supply of water in the dam. There were many tadpoles and frogs to catch and play with in the cool waters of the furrows.
My family lived in this area from 1798, from when the progenitor of this family, Willem Kempen, went to teach at the JH Hattingh School in Graaff-Reinet, to 1999, the year my mother, Frieda Kempen, passed away at Victoria West. Now all that remains of the memory is the Kempen name on facades of buildings or street signs. The attorneys firm name of Kempen and Kempen was sold off in the year 2000 and changed to another name but has recently been reinstated due to public demand.
The name of our town appeared on the hillside one morning. Perfectly lettered and aligned iron stone rocks daubed with a whitewash mix. A local merchant and town councillor, Mr James Easton, used to while away his time on a Sunday afternoon on the slopes of the Victoria West koppie (small hill) and some locals wondered what he was up to but did not take too much notice of his activities. That was until that day when they awoke on a Monday morning to find the slope of the hill emblazoned with the words.
This event caused a bit of a stir in town, and, after much anxiety, by members of the public, Mr Easton was advised by his fellow councillors that he had to remove his name and his business name but that the name of the town could stay. It took quite an effort to get those rocks cleaned up again as the whitewash had set and was difficult to remove.
I started school in 1948 but became ill soon after and spent several months recuperating and so I restarted my schooling years in 1949. Like those before me, I served the normal 12 years of learning plus one more, on account of my lack of study through one senior year.
Hot summers saw us walk barefoot to school and in winter we were rugged up against the cold. On good days we white kids would meet up with the black kids and we would play in the hills looking for creatures underneath the billions of ironstone rocks which made up the surface of the hills. We used to roll rocks down the side of the hills oblivious to any potential source of danger. Some days we would take an old tyre up a hill and roll it down with great enthusiasm and joy as it careened and bounced its way to the dry riverbed below.
In 1948 the Nationalist Party won power in parliament and by 1950 had entrenched the system of segregation in laws such as the Group Areas Act, Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, and so on. To make matters worse the Nationalists gave these policies a name, Apartheid. This was a very strange concept to a seven-year-old kid. Then we were indoctrinated and brainwashed by our Teachers who promoted the Apartheid line. I stood apart from this indoctrination and was severely chastised on occasions for my ideas of co-existence.
The years passed and eventually I became of age and moved elsewhere and then overseas. Then as luck would have it my wife and I came home to live in Victoria West for a short period of time. Once again, I put some energy into helping out where I could with the dwellers on the north side of the Seekoei River. This too was met with severe opposition from the white community. Life moved on and in the 1980’s one last chance came along to stay in Victoria West for about 18 months.
During our first sojourn in Victoria West Judith and I were involved, amongst other businesses with the local Apollo Movie Theatre. Here we showed films every Friday night, Saturday Matinee and Saturday night movies. We had leased the operations of the 1930’s Art Deco cinema and ran the showing of movies for our own account. These were in the days of segregation. White folk sat in the stalls downstairs where the seats were of padded leather. Upstairs to the left, the Mixed- Race folks were admitted and to the right those who were Black. On both sides of the Gallery there were hard wooden bench seats. As I recall we charged less for the Gallery seats and used to pack them in. In those days the operating equipment was Gaumont-Kalee projectors which burned magnesium rods to create the light for the showing of the films. At one stage of our operation the transformer burnt out and a local mechanic came up with the idea to run two Direct Current Welders in tandem to keep it going. It worked.
We left Victoria West for the last time in 1984.
The Town below the Written Mountain
This story was written by Sandile Dikeni circa 1993, the year before the International Community forced the white South African Government to give the running of the country to the Black South African Majority. Since then the country has been in a steady decline.
This story is about how the Black Community lived prior to emancipation
Sandile is the youngest child of the Late Magdalena Dikeni. Magdalena was employed by my mother, as our family cook, for nigh on twenty years. Magdalena lost her husband when Sandile was quite young. Her eldest child aged 16 left school and went to work and stayed with his employer so that he would be able to fund all of his siblings to achieve a tertiary education. Sandile has become a well-known and respected South African Poet, Columnist and Social Commentator. Magda passed away in 2015.
“For those who lived on the wrong side of the Seekoei River, home sometimes was ‘Vicky Wes, Ma Vive’ and sometimes ‘Victoria West, the dogs nest’.
If one day the road to the Golden City should beckon, be careful to leave the Mother City in the early hours of the morning. Yes, leave in the morning so that the break of dawn meets you on the road. Then a nothing ness will embrace you and fill you with an emotion so good that it will leave you dumb. Because out of nothingness the Karoo sun will rise as a soft golden ball of fire painted on the wall of a distant horizon, and it whisper a sweet good morning to you on the breath of the awakening skaapbossies and herbs that decorate the koppies and hills.
Sometimes dark clouds will greet you, hanging above the Karoo plains. But soon they will break into silver crystals that change colour with every downpour. From orange to green and then to all sorts of colours in the prism of a sun that never tires of playing. In moments like these, the sun will paint a thin layer of gold on the ysterklip and the koffieklip which the rain will polish to a glitter that will amaze anyone with a heart for the beautiful things in life.
When all these things happen to you, open your window a wee bit and take a deep breath……you have entered the heart of the country. And somewhere here lie the fractions of my heart, between the prickly pear bushes, the aloe and the thorn bushes. But before you exclaim ‘Ah, but your land is beautiful!’ let me lead you into town
Somewhere amongst these bushes, this beauty and solemnity lies Victoria West. It’s not hard to find as it beckons to you in twelve whitewashed letters from the hillside facing the southeast. Oh! How many times have I said that name without a tear threatening to flood my eyes. How many times have I uttered that word without laughter cramping in the muscles of my belly in the memory of that place. And now here, with seas and mountains and time dividing us, I let my mind travel back to where the umbilical cord lies buried.
Sweet and sour times they were (never bitter) under ‘the written mountain’ as those of my hue and tongue used to call Victoria West. Sometimes when the poetry was not there in the soul because of a job lost or a lover eloped, they would call it simply, ‘iFitoli’. And many times, after a few gulps of cheap wine, they would sing it’s praises ‘Vicky Wes, Ma Vive’. But just as the wine helped them praise ‘their’ town, the babalaas blues woke them up penniless and foul tempered. Woe if you asked them the following day, ‘How’s life in Victoria West?’ The answer would often be a snap borrowed from Bantu-education English: ‘Victoria West, the dogs’ nest.’
Dogs’ nest indeed it was, except for the whites with their sheep and their wide landscapes. It’s amazing how the white folks never noticed us who lived and toiled with them under that Karoo sun. How they lived among themselves and only for themselves, in total oblivion of other creatures except the sheep and sometimes horses and cattle. The late Brah Mthunzi (Shadow was his name) used to say, ‘The white people of this town don’t know us, but we know them,’ and then he would burst out laughing.
And it is true-we knew them all. We knew their names. We knew their birthdays because our mothers hugged their kids when they were young. We even knew their lust as they committed adultery on the open veld where we used to walk home from circumcision school in the secret of the night. Not that they really cared. Making love in front of a black man and under the stars was a secret. But we knew them and they did not know us.
They only knew us on Boontjieshoek. Ja, Boontjieshoek. This was where the town came together for the birthday of Baas Henry ‘Boontjie’ Grobbelaar. Some townsfolk would say that his father was a better man, but I know different. I remember as a kid how I walked into Grobbelaars’ Spar, and the kleinbaas called me and asked if I was Magdalena’s child. I said ‘Ja, Baas’ and he asked someone to give me a sweet right under the disapproving scrutiny of Oumiesies Grobbelaar. Baas Boontjie that was, with the bleskop and tall and fresh from Stellenbosch or somewhere.
At Boontjieshoek we did the Zulu dance in the morning and had to leave when the boeredans took over with ‘fijool and trekklavier’. Sometimes we wanted to stay but were chased away by the police who regarded themselves as sole guardians of the occasion. Sad times.
Go home times. But what is home? The false serenity of drunkenness and the forgetfulness of slavery on the other side of the stream called the Seekoei River that insisted on remaining dry as far as my memory goes. The river, when it had water, would flow from God-knows where towards the east and separated the blacks from the whites, and still further east, the blacks from the coloureds. I cannot recall the border between coloured and white but God knows there was one. We went home to these divisions.
But no river can divide the soul. No river can dictate to the heart. The crossing of the line was one of the favourite pastimes in my hungry days in Victoria West. Hunger forced the township dwellers across the barbed wire fences to borrow some sheep that grazed on the hill just above them. Why anybody would graze sheep just a few metres away from a hungry town, beats me. But somebody did. And the predictable happened.
Not a single inhabitant of Skema, Die Witblokke or New Bright will come out to testify what happened next. After the township dwellers had helped themselves to the sheep, the white gods of the Karoo threw poisoned meat at us, and our starvation. Those who were there that morning said, ‘Last night meat rained from the sky’. Meat fell out of the sky and those who ate it, and those who fought the dogs for it, were rescued from death with milk and were made to throw up the meat with wolwegif.
My dog Rex died. I saw him in front of the city hall. There was foam on his mouth, but his coat still shone a silvery black and where the golden touches of his Alsatian ancestry showed I could see the labour of the day before when I had washed him and spoken to him (‘You are a decent dog, you can’t go to the mountain, you eat at home, hear, Rekie, Rekie.’) He whimpered something and I was satisfied. But then my king of friends died the death of a township dog.
Victoria West, the dogs’ nest, where dogs and people died because we insisted on being apart. We even prayed apart, except in the Anglican Church ~ but it was probably because the town had so few English people that they rattled around in the church. Then we were invited to fill the pews on the left. I preferred the Presbyterian Church in the township. There we sang loudly in Xhosa and danced so hard that the wooden floor creaked under our joy for the Lord, and the birds of the Karoo sky joined us through the cracks of the crumbling church. Sometimes I imagined Jesus was smiling at us and for once his slumped head was lifted towards us and he was smiling through the pain, I could read his eyes. In those moments Jesus was black.
Baas Boetie Kempen was also black. The son of the Mayor, he used to come into the township with a tractor and make us clean up the streets for 5 cents a bag that we took to him. They say that the white people of the town did not like Baas Boetie: for them he was too weird. He had an Australian wife, Judy, a frail woman my mother loved, and they ran the local newspaper, The Victoria West Messenger, and the only movie house in town. I wanted to work for the Messenger but I was still too small when his father died and soon afterwards they moved, I don’t know where. I lost my appetite for the movies and the movie house lost its appeal. Soon it also disappeared from town.
What remained were stories from the period ‘when we used to go to the fliek’ . They were told by Solly ‘die Glydier’, master story-teller of all time. It was he who recreated for us Bruce Lee, Sidney Poitier or Peter Sellers, with no understanding of English but animating better than Hollywood. What remained was memory.
Sweet and sour recollections of times when the innocence of childhood combined with the venom of the Karoo sun forced us to the windmill on the outskirts of the town. All of us went there because the swimming pool in town was for whites only. Our names are Varkie die Taaibos, who died on a wine plantation in the Boland, with no autopsy; Skaai ‘the Doctor’ who ran around the rugby field in a white coat as a self-employed first-aid person, but died in his teens pf TB; Arnoldus alias ‘Harrie Harrie maak rou pap’, who dived from the windmills wing, hit the bottom of the shallow dam with his head and went mad; Tin Tin who burnt himself on the open field, and various others whom memory refuses to recollect for the sadness of the exercise.
Yes, when you go past Victoria West one day, stop at that windmill, and before the owner comes charging with a salt or pellet gun, take some water, if there is any, and let it drip slowly on the hard, dry soil as a tribute to these guys……. In doing so you might irrigate my thirsty soul”.
(Below is a Copy and Paste from Centre of Creative Arts, University of Kwa-Zulu Natal)
Sandile Dikeni was born in Victoria West, North Cape Province in 1966 and studied Law at the University of the Western Cape and Journalism at Peninsula Technikon.
Dikeni was active in the student parliament and served on the SRC at the University of Western Cape. Avidly drawn into the vortex of violent conflict during the mid 1980s, it was during his detention in 1986, that Dikeni discovered the power of poetry as a means to achieve political ends.
Readings in prison and at political and cultural events after his release, such as a public performance in London in 1990, made Dikeni an important poet of freedom.
At the turn of a democratic South Africa, Dikeni worked as a journalist and press spokesman, turning to broader human themes, which he would express in a distinctive style.
Dikeni’s articles have featured in newspapers such as the Cape Times and he has also published collections of poetry, including Guava Juice (1992) and Telegraph to the Sky (2002). Dikeni’s viewpoint on what it is to be human in South Africa has underpinned all his reflections on the society he yearns for. This perspective is reflected in the thought-provoking collection of Dikeni’s prose, Soul Fire: Writing the Transition (2002). With the launch of his latest collection of poetry, Planting Water (2007), Dikeni announced his recovery and return to his craft, after suffering an accident two years prior.
When Dikeni recites his poems in public, he always does it from memory, spontaneously, and with variations on the printed texts.
Rocks and Tyres Don’t Mix
Someone found a car tyre casing.
At the top of our side street which ended in a hill climb there was a flat area which had been carved out by a bulldozer some years before. It was put there so that one could turn ones car around in case you wanted to go down the same way that you had come up, again.
Here we played with our tricycles and bicycles and even later on, we played cricket and rugby and all the other silly games that we as country kids invented. There was always something to do. Nevertheless, we got bored from time to time and looked for things that would amuse us.
One sleepy afternoon was such an occasion arose when boredom took over again and the eldest of our group, Koekoe, a broad faced naughty kid with smiling eyes, suggested that we could roll that old tyre down the hill for fun.
“Which hill?”, someone ventured.
“The one right behind us!”, he said.
“How are we going to stop the tyre going further down the street?”
“Oh, that’s easy. We will build a wall of rocks up above the playground and run the tyre against them. Then the tyre will lose momentum and fall over and settle down on to the playground”.
“Mmmmm, do you really think it will work?”
“Of course, trust me”, said Koekoe
Those last words should have been ignored and we should have gone on to something else but the sense that adventure lay ahead was too great and we were all captivated in our mission to accomplish something.
As a child I lived in an area of South Africa known as the Great Karoo. The area was semi-desert with stunted shrub foliage and pointy knolls and flat-topped mountains which were strewn with ironstone rocks and boulders. There is an old saying ‘That when God made the Earth, he sent an angel to deliver and spread rocks around the world. The angel left Heaven with two huge bags of rocks and dutifully spread them across the globe. But the bags were overloaded and one bag broke over Israel and the other bag broke over the Great Karoo’. Rocks! We had plenty of them, from small sizes to some weighing tons, spread over hundreds of kilometres.
So, we set about collecting rocks and piling them up against each other to form a retaining wall above our playground. As there were eight of us this did not take too long although we were distracted from time to time by what was living under those rocks. We found black spiders, centipedes, scorpions and more and had to be careful not to receive a nasty sting. Soon we were looking at our handiwork as Koekoe declared the project completed.
“If we go up this footpath we can roll the tyre down and see how it crashes against the rocks”, Koekoe said with some authority. We agreed and off we marched up the hill in single file for our first experiment.
Steadying the tyre and then giving it a gentle nudge Koekoe set the wheel in motion. We waited with bated breath. The tyre rolled down the hill gathering momentum and crashed into our makeshift wall, scattering rocks in all directions. The tyre bounced back from the impact and then dropped to our playground below where we retrieved it.
The experiment worked! This was exciting stuff. Let’s do it again!!! And we feverishly repacked the rock wall and set off up the hill with the tyre in hand. This time we went a bit further up the footpath and gently nudged the tyre down the hill. CRASH !!!! and the same thing happened. Gee, this was fun. LET’S DO IT AGAIN !!!
We laboriously set about our task and soon we were climbing the hill again. But here the crucial ‘ACCIDENT WAITING TO HAPPEN’ factor stepped in. Someone suggested taking the tyre even further up the hill.
When we got to our suggested point the question undoubtedly was. Will it work?
Ah well, yes, but, oh what the hell!, let’s give it a go.
Koekoe steadied the tyre and it started down the footpath gathering momentum. Before it had reached the rock wall it was bouncing quite high from hitting smaller rocks and then suddenly it veered off the pathway, hit a larger rock and started bouncing with force. It bounced right over the retaining wall and on to our playground below and then carried on as straight as a dye down the road and headed for a retaining wall in the street below gathering speed beyond our comprehension!!!
Mrs van Doorn was an elderly lady who lived in the house immediately below that street. My guess is that she would have been in her late seventies, making her a child of the previous century being born around eighteen hundred and eighty. Mrs van Doorn was a rather plumpish woman who always wore a long dress and an apron together with khaki coloured stockings and slippers. Her hair was normally tied up in a bun. Having brought up her children and having lost her husband some years before, she lived quietly in her cottage. Outside in her back yard there was a fruit orchard and right up against the road retaining wall was the PK, or little house, or shit house for the want of a better explanation. PK was the Xhosa language derivative for little house and it stood for Piccaninny Kaiah. The PK was still on the bucket system which was cleared on a weekly basis by a council employee who drove a night cart powered by two horses.
On this fateful day, in the mid-afternoon, Mrs van Doorn had a call of nature and was contemplating life, the universe and everything whilst sitting in the PK. Unbeknownst to her and as far away from her thoughts as the next constellation, a group of youngish boys were defying the laws of gravity and physics with a car tyre and some rocks!
The tyre sped down the incline and across the street at the bottom of the hill, hitting the road retaining wall with force. It now leapt in to the air and was catapulted with a forward spinning motion towards Mrs van Doorn’s house.
We watched in mild horror and anticipation of what was to come next. The whole world and the universe, for that matter, slowed down in time as the tyre floated through the still afternoon air. As the tyre started to drop from its pinnacle of flight, we realised that it was going to land somewhere near the PK. From our view on the hill, it seemed that a crash was inevitable.
The tyre came down right in the centre of the corrugated iron roof of the PK. An almighty crash emanated from the bottom of the street and the soundwaves echoed up the incline as we were making our way down the hill. The roof of the PK caved in and bricks and mortar dust went flying in all directions. As this noise was dying down a large human wail could be heard. Mrs van Doorn stumbled out of the front of the PK screaming at the top of her voice, covered in dust and desperately trying to pull up her white bloomers as she fell over in to a flower bed.
At this stage of the event we were descending the hill and saw Mrs van Doorn stumble from her predicament. Choices had to be made and with a loud oath emanating from someone, we fled the scene to individually go and hide in our favourite hidey-hole somewhere.
It did not take a mathematician to figure out just who was to blame for this event. We all got the strap. I thought that I got the most strap as my father was the Mayor of the town and I was supposed to be a goody-goody. Eight fathers had to contribute to a fund to rebuild the PK and to placate Mrs van Doorn my father organised for a whole side of lamb to be delivered to her for her suffering, and also to keep the matter out of the hands of the Police
I was grounded for a month and the others received similar punishment. The town was quiet during that time and the citizens were lulled in to a false sense of security.
There was more naughtiness to come!
The late summer afternoon was fading with the sun dipping below the ridge of the Karoo koppie. The twittering of finches high up in the willow trees and the creak of a bicycle chain being pedalled hard, broke the absolute quietness of our street in that space of time.
Brinkman Street had a slight rise at each end and to cycle up the modest rise a bit of effort had to be put into pedalling. The creaking chain could only mean one thing, as it was a sound that our ears were accustomed to. It was the cream deliveryman on his back-to-front dairy vending tricycle.
My cousin Garth aged seven, well, he is actually my second- cousin, on account that our grandmothers were sisters, and myself, aged eight, were sitting quietly beneath the old pomegranate tree at the front of their house pondering our life and thinking up things which could make a difference to our slight boredom.
Why were we bored? Who knows?
On the south side of our street, against the rise of the koppie stood the houses where we all lived. At the start and east end of the street stood the Jewish Synagogue followed by nine fairly large houses with steps and driveways leading up the side of the hill to their entrances. Most of the houses were built around the
beginning of the twentieth century and were made of sandstone and bricks.
There were eight kids on our street. Garth had an elder brother John, aged nine and a younger brother Barry, aged five. Then I had a younger brother, Julian aged one. Then there was Gerhard aged seven, and his sister Louise aged three, whose house separated our houses. Gerhard’s nickname was Bakkelwiel, an Afrikaans expressionist name for ‘Buckled Wheel’. This was due to the fact that he had had polio as a young child and had a gammy leg. When he ran, his right leg used to contort in such a fashion that it almost represented a buckled wheel on a car or cart. Kids can be cruel. Further down the street was Sophia aged six with whom I fell in and out of love with many times before I reached puberty.
Our afternoon boredom set the scene for a degree of mischief that could take place at any given moment.
It is not that we were deliberate about it. It just happened by accident or as one may put it, an accident waiting to happen.
Joseph, the deliveryman, was a young African man of about twenty years of age. We knew him well. He had a friendly disposition and would always greet us with a smile of perfect white teeth and to say “And how are my little ones today ?”
Joseph parked his tricycle delivery bin at an angle just a few metres away from us. He applied the handbrake and trundled, with a glass bottle of cream in each hand, up the long path to the front door of the house.
As he laboured up the pathway in true unhurried African style, Garth jumped from his perch on the wall and climbed on to the tricycle. “Vroommm, vroommmm”, he said.
Said I mischievously “Bet you can’t ride that thing!”
“Bet you I can”, said Garth defiantly.
“No, you can’t, you’re too little!”
“Yes I can. You just watch me!”
Garth turned the bin along the downhill slope and fiddled with the handbrake. Using both hands he prised it loose and then the bin started to move at a gentle pace. But his feet could not reach the pedals and the weight of the cream bottles in the bin made the cycle too heavy for him to steer. Suddenly he was at the mercy of the tricycle, which was now starting to gather speed. Down the gentle slope the cycle went and as it would happen it started to take it’s path down the steeper gradient to the street below.
A wail of anxiety pierced the quiet afternoon. “Heeeeeeeelp!” cried Garth.
Alas, it was too late and Garth’s destiny was in the hands of fate. Had there not been this small rock lying innocently on the gravel surface of the road things might have turned out for the better. But as fate would have it Murphy’s Law came in to effect. The left hand front wheel of the tricycle hit the rock, the bin rose up in the air, the weight of the remaining bottles shifted and all in slow motion the whole crash happened it a dramatic display of dust, arms, legs and breaking glass.
Garth did not stop for long. In fact he did not stop to look at the damage at all. With weepy gravel rashes on his forearm and knee he scampered down the road and out of sight, whimpering, as if the whole the world had collapsed in on him.
Joseph came charging down the pathway giving me a wide-eyed look as he passed. In disbelief he surveyed the mess. The upturned tricycle, glass everywhere and the white cream and sour milk slowly oozing into the gravel road. He righted the tricycle, put the unbroken bottles back in the bin and sped off to the dairy in haste.
At this point of time I decided that I had better go home and play with my toys. Later, maybe an hour or so later, my Mom remarked that I was being a very good boy playing so quietly with my toys. She was soon to find out that what was on my mind was to stay clear of all trouble which was due to arrive.
Garth stayed away from home until just before dark. By now his arm and knee were hurting a bit and the healing skin was tight but the surface blood had dried up and the damage could soon be repaired with a good dose of Dettol. With great anxiety Garth approached the front door of his house. His Dad must be home from work by now. He was right !!
His Dad was talking on the telephone. The telephone was situated next to the front door. Garth tried to walk by without being noticed. At that moment his Dad exclaimed , “WHAT ?? !!! 42 bottles!!!” and made a lunge for Garth whilst not letting go of the telephone receiver. Garth ducked but his Dad was too quick and got him by the collar of his shirt.
“I have the culprit here and I will call you soon”, he said to the Dairyman on the phone and put down the receiver.
“You little shit!” his Dad exclaimed, “where is my strap!”, Garth started wailing in earnest.
What followed I was not privy to, but Garth got the strap. In and between sobs blamed me for instigating his misfortune.
At my house all was quiet. Too quiet for my parents liking. A gentle grilling of what I did that day ensued but I carefully negotiated my way out of the interrogation without giving anything away. We had supper and I thought that the coast was clear.
Then the phone rang.
There was nowhere to hide!!!
My Dad said, “I thought it was too quiet”, and grabbed the strap.
“But!” ‘smack’, “I”..’smack’, “didn’t”..’smack’, “do”..’smack’, “anything”..’smack’.
“YOU WERE THERE!!!!!”
Garth wasn’t at school the next day and I had to answer questions from the other kids as the news of the ‘accident’ had spread like wildfire in our community. I wasn’t too impressed with Garth for dobbing me in. After all I was the innocent party!!
Or was I ???
The Leaning Bucket
Old Uncle Koos van der Plank lived in Main Street of town. His wife had predeceased him some years before and his children had moved away to other towns to seek their fortunes.
His house must have been built in the days of horse and cart as the veranda fronted on to the sidewalk of Main Street. Uncle Koos tended a much-loved vegetable garden, together with a small orchard of fruit trees. The property pushed quite a way back past the old Anglican Church building and into a laneway at the back. The outside toilet was still there with its bucket system backing on to the laneway so that the night cart driver could attend to his business.
Uncle Koos used to sit on the veranda of an afternoon smoking his pipe and having a yarn to passers-by. We as children used to be wary of him, as he seemed to have a nasty demeanour towards us. His demeanour was the most likely result from our ritual of stealing fruit from trees when they were fruiting. Yes, it was dishonest in the strictest sense of the word, but it was a dare or be damned pastime amongst us, and usually spurred on by a dominant older boy who delighted in seeing us prove our worth as soldiers of fortune. Uncle Koos used to see us and feign to rise out of his chair, shaking his walking stick at us and yelling “Begone ye varmints!” or something like that. He had good cause to do so as in fruiting season fruit would ‘mysteriously’ disappear from the orchard. Stealing fruit was just a naughtiness we as country kids enjoyed to do and there was no malicious intent. It was a game that was played with the sole purpose of enjoying a ripe peach or apple without paying for it, and getting away with it. Unless the ‘thief’ was trapped by the property owner and ‘dealt’ with, the game was one of high excitement. Normally these ‘thieving’ matters would not be attended by the local police, as the owner of the fruit usually contacted the father of the apprehended child, and punishment would be meted out in due course, normally in the form of a severe thrashing!
Although we may have been guilty of various ‘offences’ in the past, this particular time we were totally innocent. As we were walking by Uncle Koos’ house he sprang up from his chair, waving his stick and stated “It was YOU!”. We were duly reported to our parents and as much as I protested that I was innocent of this heinous crime I was guilty by association. I was meted out a heavy duty thrashing by my father. My bum hurt for days afterwards and my father growled at me for a week after that, making sure I kept on the straight and narrow.
It was summer and we kids were allowed out until after dark and up to 9pm on weekends. The parents would take refuge from the heat after a busy working day by sitting on their verandas drinking their favourite mixes. There used to be a social crowd, who, would either walk over to one another’s houses for a chat and a drink. Great merriment could be heard from various places in the quietness of the evenings. We kids would be in the way as adults needed to do adult things and so we soon learned that if we asked for permission to be elsewhere it was usually granted with the last word being, 9 o’clock!
Our revenge on Uncle Koos was brewing in the back of our minds. Although the welts on our bums had healed, our egos and pride had taken a severe battering, and we had to exact justice on Uncle Koos in our own manner.
One night, just before 9pm we slipped around the back of Uncle Koos’ house into the laneway. We all wore dark clothing so as to disguise ourselves in the shadows of the night. We extracted the ‘bucket’ from the outside toilet ever so gently and tipped it over just spilling the liquid contents out on to the ground. Then we carried the bucket around to the front of his house and laid it at an angle against his front door.
Now, all of this was possible, because after dark, there was very little traffic movement up or down the Main Street. Streetlights illuminated some corners, but they could be extinguished, with a well-aimed stone projected from our home-made catapults, also known as ‘ketties’.
With the bucket in place at an angle against the door, we rapped on the brass doorknocker a few times and one of us shouted in muted voice, “Uncle Koos, Uncle Koos, come quick!” The old man usually went to bed not long after dark but may have read for a while by a dim table light or candle. It wasn’t long however before a light in the hallway went on. We scattered to the dark shadows across the road and waited.
Uncle Koos fiddled with the doorknob and then yanked the door open. The bucket spilled its contents over his feet and into his hallway. Being a deeply religious man Uncle Koos was not prone to uttering profane language but this night the words of blasphemy echoed loudly down the street.
We melted into the dark ever so quietly. Having burnt our bridge with Uncle Koos, we left him in peace after that, and targeted some other unlucky fruit grower instead.
A Fruit Growers Revenge
Piet and Andries were two of the naughtiest kids in our town, and their families were at their wits end as to what to do with them. If they weren’t getting into mischief at school they were getting into mischief elsewhere. They did some classic naughty things at school and drove one teacher to distraction.
One balmy night, and well after 9pm, they slipped out of their bedroom windows and met for a rendezvous at their preferred place near the Kruidkoppie. This landscape feature was a very small rise of shale rock in the centre of town. At one stage around the time of the Boer War, a strong room was built on the top of this hill to store explosives in. The building however had long been abandoned by our time although the room still remained locked. At a later stage it was renovated and is still there today.
Piet and Andries jumped the fence of a well-known gardener named Oom Jan, in the dead of night, to help themselves to some ripe bunches of grapes. Knives in hand for cutting the stems, they started their access at the furthest point of the yard and had to make their way up the garden pathway to where the small vineyard flourished in the hard soils of this dry place.
Now Oom Jan was wise-up to the antics of some of us. We, however, were not the only perpetrators of stealing good fruit. The good old African Porcupine could smell fresh produce from a long way off and having armour to suit their foraging they would venture out of the wilds right into town to help themselves to the best fresh fruit and vegetables. Porcupines are so tough they can virtually walk through a chicken wire fence. At times special porcupine traps are made out of chicken wire in a tapering formation. The Porcupine enters a rounded entrance of chicken wire and then as the tunnel tapers the porcupine becomes stuck and if they try to retreat their quills get tangled in the chicken wire rendering them trapped. That was one method. The other method was far more severe. This method resulted in the decommissioning a single barrel shotgun. The barrel would be sawn off making the total length including the breech, about 30cm long. The barrel would then be moulded into a block of wood and fastened to it. Shotgun cartridges were procured, opened up at the front and the pellets removed and sometimes half of the gunpowder was taken out so as to reduce the force of the explosion. Grains of coarse salt were then loaded into the cartridge cavity and the front closed. Once the cartridge is loaded into the breech of the miniature cannon, the hammer is cocked and then, with a trip-wire set up across a perceived route, the wire is connected to the trigger mechanism. The hammer can then be cocked in anticipation of an event happening. When fired the coarse salt would be projected at speed into the object which could either be the flank of the Porcupine or the leg of a would-be fruit thief.
Piet and Andries were just about done when they perceived a noise emanating from the back veranda of Oom Jan’s house. Thinking that it may be Oom Jan himself in his nightgown and shotgun in hand, they took off at speed right into the path of the trip-wire…… BANG!
The small cannon exploded its contents from the short barrel. As luck would have it, Piet was at the front of the escaping duo. His skinny leg tripped the wire and the force of this action tilted the small cannon backwards. The exploding contents poured out of the end of the barrel and hit Piet on his left buttock and into the seat of his shorts, which, it would seem, saved him from sustaining any real skin damage. They both made haste over the perimeter fence and disappeared into the night. Now there was nowhere to go. Andries could go home but Piet was in a bit of discomfort with some salt burns to his bum and needed Andries to get him back through his own bedroom window. He spent a miserable night lying on his bed not even being able to whimper least his parents heard him. The next day was a Saturday so the two got together and made their way to the Outpatients Ward of the Hospital where they explained the injury as gravel rash from falling off a bicycle. When Piet was asked at school the following week as to why he was limping he evaded the question. The truth only came to the fore many years later. Much later Piet became the Police Chief for our town. I wonder if he ever mentioned this episode of his life on his CV? Andries became a respected businessman. Sadly, both of them did not make Old Age and I miss them dearly.
GUY FAWKES NIGHT
“Please to remember / The 5th November:
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
We know no reason / Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.”
I sometimes wondered if Guy Fawkes Night was meant for us kids or for the grown ups. After all, the grown ups went and bought all the firecrackers, organised the meat and salads for the barbecue, And they lit all the crackers and rockets after placing them in strategic places. So what were we meant to do? Squeal with delight when a rocket flew off into the darkness leaving a trail of rapidly fading sparklers?
Who was this Guy Fawkes anyway? Well, he was, I was told, the person who tried to blow up the House of Parliament in England. Where is England??
When I first heard the name I thought his name was Guy Fox. Was he as cunning as a fox or did he wear a fox outfit?
Then I was shown a picture of the Houses of Parliament and also saw the correct spelling of the infamous character.
It was years later when I found out what the real event was all about.
But in this small country town, during the 1940’s and 1950’s, in the middle of semi-desert South Africa, we celebrated Guy Fawkes Night on 5th November each year.
As always, a cloudless night prevailed and we gathered after dusk at the back yard of Uncle Jacks’ home. Jack was my dad’s cousin and we all lived in the same street. They had the biggest back yard, which also bordered on to the side of the hill and presented an ideal place to launch rockets from.
The adult men usually cooked the meat whilst enjoying a glass or two of whiskey and the ladies surged around in the kitchen and the outside tables preparing and presenting food and sipping their own brew of alcoholic mix.
If ten families were invited then there were at least 30 kids of all ages ranging up from babies to teenagers. I was somewhere in the middle of the age group. Six, seven eight or nine years of age. Too young to play with the teenagers and too old to make any sense out of the younger kids. But there were five or six of us of the same age and so we stuck together. While the adults were not taking any notice of the kids, the teenagers were usually plotting some devilish trick on my generation.
On one particular night the older boys somehow got hold of three large bottles of beer and despatched of them in no time at all. Then as the brew bubbled up into their heads they became rowdy and started playing silly games. The adults did not notice anything for they too were telling lewd jokes around the fire whilst happily burning the meat.
The first kid to run foul of the older boys was my cousin Garth. Someone attached a live string of happy crackers to his short pants and he ran off screaming as the crackers went bang so close to his posterior. Amidst great admonishment by the elders the teenagers faded into the darkness only to plot some other naughty party trick.
After food came the “real’ fireworks when the adults lit their roman candles and sent rockets soaring into the sky. Whilst all were “ooing” and “aahing” at the bright display of sparkles and falling stars, someone stuck a double-bunger into my hand and ran off. Before I could release my grip it went off with a loud bang. The force of this mini explosion caused a great blister to well up in the palm of my hand and along my fingers and left a pitch-black mark from the exploded cordite. I stood there too stunned to say anything except to offer a weak whimper.
Then all hell broke loose, inebriated adults fanning out in all directions, in a desperate but fruitless search for the culprits. Stumbling in the dark and falling over logs and rocks which had always been there. Someone in the confusion suggested a possible suspect and then our fathers started arguing amongst themselves, quite loudly, I might add, as to whose child had been so irresponsible.
It took a great deal of self-control by some to take control of the situation and to calm things down. The teenagers had disappeared for the rest of the night, no doubt giggling somewhere in the dark, out of the perimeter of the light of the fire.
I was taken down to the hospital to be examined and it turned out that there was no permanent damage. Yes, my ego was dented but the next day at school I could relay with great aplomb on just how my hand was bandaged up like it had been severed at the wrist.
To this day no one has owned up to that dastardly deed.
THE CHILD HUNTER
In the time frame of fifty years so many things have changed.
Although this period from the 1950’s to the new millennium and beyond in which there has not been a world war, we have seen, by the default of isolated world events, a shift in attitude and political opportunism, which has given to a change in the perception of what is good for us as persons.
When I was a kid, guns were part of our lives. We used to hunt antelope for recreation (and utilise the meat), vermin such as rock rabbits, jackals and lynx to destroy and target shooting for skill and training. We were taught from an early age, by our fathers, and they in turn by their fathers and forefathers, how to safely handle guns and ammunition
At the end of the Second World War many households had acquired an armoury of weapons. These weapons had been accumulated, just in case, of an invasion by an enemy. The weapons were locked away in cupboards and strongrooms.
It was no big deal. But sadly today there is paranoia about gun ownership and the use of firearms.
My dad was a gun enthusiast. Pitting his reflexes and skills in target shooting and hunting. He was very good at hunting and had a knack of shooting antelope that were on the run. He represented South Africa in target shooting and went to Biseley in England to take part in a competition.
Our type of hunting took place in large acreage paddocks on sheep farms where antelope, especially springbuck were managed as a resource. The countryside was made up of undulating hills, shale ridges, conical shaped hills and flat top mountains. Numerous dry gullies and small creeks transverse the open spaces. The vegetation is made up of thorny Acacia, Karoo bush, Saltbush and a variety of succulents. Very few plants grew more than one metre in height. Trees, especially Australian eucalypts and pepper tree, are only found near watercourses and where they have either been planted or seed has been deposited by means of bird droppings.
The general idea was for the landowner to invite selected guests for a hunt during the day and always in winter. He would then place the various hunters in strategic positions in a paddock of around 2000 acres so that the shooters could not see one another. Then the farmers’ family or workers would ride out on horseback and get the antelope moving. Springbuck can run at 70 kilometres per hour. The antelope would then be chased in the direction of the hunter who would then proceed to shoot from behind a bush. Normally the farmer would stipulate that he wanted only rams to be culled that day and so one had to make sure that the animal was a ram by detecting the size of its horns through the binoculars. He would also stipulate to the hunter how many animals he would allow the hunter to shoot. As the antelope approached a hidden hunter and a shot was fired they would run off again in a different direction. The men on horseback would keep out of sight but will still be there to chase the animals on, hopefully in the direction of a hunter. If a hunter shot an animal he would then proceed to cut the animal open and remove the stomach and entrails. Then he would place the dead animal over a bush or in the shade. At around midday all hunters and their kill would be collected by truck and an engaging braaivleis would ensue and sometimes copious amount of alcohol would be consumed. A dangerous practise and against all hunting rules but to my knowledge no one was ever injured out in the veld as a result of some hunters over indulging. During this time the workers would clean up the animals killed in the morning hunt. The hunters would compare their skills at how clean a kill they had performed. This means if the animal was shot cleanly it was a head shot. Anywhere else apart from the neck was a bad shot as the meat would then not be good for consumption. In the afternoon the hunting would continue, more than likely in another paddock and with a fresh herd of antelope. By late afternoon the same procedure would eventuate and then hunters and workers alike would travel back to the homestead. The farmer would then donate a number of buck to each hunter and after a few pleasantries and a few more drinks everyone would disperse and return home. This could be between one and two hours drive.
In later years the farmers began value adding the antelope to their income and overseas markets were procured for venison. Professional hunters would then come and shoot at night and the socialised hunt became something of the past. Only on a special occasion would the farmer invite friends or business acquaintances over for a social hunt.
I started going out hunting with my dad when I was five years of age. Even though I was a sickly child my dad persuaded my mother that it would be a good for me to go with him and so my mother reluctantly agreed. We would leave home around 5 am when the air was still and the ground was frosty. Always in winter and I can recall a temperature of minus 12 degrees centigrade. My dad was self – employed and organised his work so that he could get away from the office for a day.
Somehow, we always had a vehicle that did not have a heater fitted and extra rugs had to be taken along to keep our legs and feet from freezing. We would arrive at our destination around daybreak and after greetings a hot cup of coffee would emerge for all from the bowels of the kitchen. Soon we would be on our way out into the veld and into our hunting positions. I would get rugged up in my blanket, with a beanie pulled over my ears, a warm woollen scarf around my neck and another old blanket wrapped around my feet.
Then we would wait for the antelope to come. I had watched very closely what my dad did. Most of all, I had to be quiet and if I had to speak, then only speak in a whisper.
There were days when it was bitterly cold with the wind howling around our ears. I would try to amuse myself by looking out for ants and other ground dwellers that live beneath the multitude of rocks.
Sometimes on a quiet day you could hear the herd of antelope approaching. Their hooves clattering over the stones and hard ground. Then I had to sit as quiet as a mouse whilst dad got into a position to shoot.
BANG…and the BANG again…and maybe BANG once more. In the confusion of the noise the antelope may mill around in a daze. This would of course be fatal for that animal which was within range. My ears would be ringing from the noise that the old .303 made as it spurted out its sluggish projectile towards the unsuspecting animal. “ Come on son,” dad would say, “ I think we have got ourselves one or two.” Dad very seldom missed a shot. He was so good at hunting. Everything was done with precision and each kill was invariably a clean shot.
We would walk over to where the antelope was lying dead or dying. If it was not dead then its throat had to be cut quickly so as to put it out of its misery. Then dad would slit the stomach open and remove all the innards and then shake the body free of inner blood and then lay the animal over a bush so as to keep it away from ants. When springbuck die the fur on their lower back opens up and the most sweetly smell emanates from there. Just for a minute or so and then the fur lies down again after the animal has died. Quite mystifying for a child who was then 5 years of age. Later in life I could not fathom why man could be so inhumane towards his fellow planet dwellers.
I went on many hunting trips over the ensuing years until the day when I was 9 years of age. Dad said that I knew how to handle a rifle and that I may take my .22 and go and sit on my own. I barely slept as wink that night. The excitement was building up. When we arrived at our destination the next day dad took Uncle Bertie, the farm owner, aside and asked if I could have a go on my own. He was agreeable and the these two adults concocted it so that I would be kept out of harms way and also that I would be out of the way in the event that I fire in the wrong direction. I must confess that there was not much chance of that because my dad had drilled the safety rules into my head so that I knew them off by heart.
I sat out there in the veld on that bitterly cold day where temperatures have been known to drop below minus 10 Centigrade and watched with excitement for the antelope to come. I checked my .22 rim fire rifle and the magazine. Dad had only allowed me 4 bullets and so I had to be certain if I was going to shoot.
Suddenly I heard what sounded like a thunder of hooves on the iron stone terrain. The antelope were coming !! I crouched lower behind the bush trying to be inconspicuous.
But the antelope were running and they passed at speed left and right of me. There was no time to get an accurate shot off and I had to let them go. I sat down disappointed. All was quiet again, just the cold breeze rustling through the bushes.
Within a few minutes I heard another sound of hooves. They were slower and soon a Springbuck ram appeared, trotting at a steady pace. I sat down and took aim at the moving target. It was still trotting. I gave a low whistle and the buck stopped to look for where the noise was coming from. I aimed for the base of the skull at about 100 yards and squeezed the trigger. The buck dropped in its’ tracks. It was dead before it hit the ground. My heart was thumping and I had a rush of blood. I looked around for signs of any other antelope but there were none. I made sure my rifle was unloaded and walked over to where the springbuck lay. It was dead all right!! Now I had to do what I had been taught so many times. I had to slit the stomach open and get rid of the intestines and lay the buck over a bush to drain any blood that may accumulate inside the carcass. This I did with all the clumsiness of my youth with a pocketknife, which I had forgotten to sharpen before leaving home. But in the end the job was done.
I returned to my hideout and sat down behind the bushes again just bursting to show someone and to tell the tale of my conquest. The morning dragged on, and although I heard gunshots in the distance, no more antelope came my way.
Eventually a farm worker on horseback came by and praised my talent at being so young and achieving so much. My pride swelled to bursting point. Soon after the hunts utility vehicle came by with my dad riding in the back. My kill was loaded on the back. Praises were heaped upon me for my achievement and in the end I became embarrassed by it. But another young boy, whose dad was also a farmer, came along and told me that he had shot his first buck when he was eight!!! I came back down to earth.
It certainly was one of the best days in my youth.
MY FIRST DRIVE
I learned my driving skills at an early age. It was as if my dad could not wait for me to grow up. I was eight years of age when I drove my dad’s Chrysler for the first time.
My dad and his good friend Oom Andries, used to drive around in the veld on weekends, looking and discussing various aspects of the availability and procurement of water for our town. We lived in an area that did not get much more than 250mm of rain per year and the availability of drinking water for the town was of vital importance. My dad was at that stage. and for around thirty years, the Mayor of our town and Oom Andries was a Drilling Contractor with a vast knowledge of searching for underground water.
This one morning we were out and about again and my dad and his pal had wandered off about a kilometre from the car. My brother, Julian and I were left sitting in the car. Always eager to take a chance and test my skill, I decided to drive along a bush track, to an area close to where dad was standing. I had watched dad manipulate the clutch and the gears many times and set out to do what I had seen him do.
I managed to start the old car and change gear from first to second with a slight lurch. There I stayed and drove along the track at about 20 kilometres per hour. It was an exhilarating experience. My heart was pumping faster as I got an adrenalin rush, mainly due to the excitement of being successful in getting the car mobile so smoothly and also wondering what in the world my dad would make of this.
My first drive was as short lived as Orville and Wilbur Wrights first flight. But it was a start !!!
My Grandfather, my Dad, and two of my Uncles, all attended the private school of St Andrews College, in Grahamstown, South Africa, over the decades, to complete their schooling before attending universities and going out in to the big wide world to earn a living and to support a family.
And so, it came to pass, in 1956, that I was told, of my impending departure from my country education and idyllic bush surroundings, that I would be transported, to a place far away, on a regular basis. I do not recall being enthused about it all but to my adventurous spirit it was to be something new.
South Africa at that time, was in the early stages of the Nationalist Party Government’s ideology of Apartheid, and political issues were being hotly debated all over the country. I was very much in the dark about these things and took scant notice of the issues. My bent was going to school and playing kids games with my large circle of friends. My family spoke both South African official languages of English and Afrikaans. We spoke English in our family of parents and three boys, and Afrikaans to the servants. WE spoke a mix of English and Afrikaans in one sentence to friends, at times. It was the way it was. My Public School education was in Afrikaans. I was soon to learn that my English was very basic as I was being sent to an Anglican Church, English Speaking school to get a good education.
As 1957 dawned, I was kitted out with my new school uniform of short pants, shirts, trousers, jerseys, underpants, socks, black shoes a school blazer and school cap. All this and more was packed into a tin trunk. There were to be three school terms and we would get a month’s holidays in April/May and August/September and two months from mid-December to mid-February. I was allowed to have five pounds of pocket money per term. This money was to be lodged with the Housemaster and could be drawn on a Saturday morning.
My Dad and my Uncle drove me to Grahamstown in the old ’48 Chrysler. It was a long trip on unsealed roads and we had to overnight at a hotel somewhere. We all three slept in a room and the old blokes snored and kept me awake for most of the night.
We arrived in Grahamstown at around midday and I was taken to the front of my dormitory, Upper House. There my Dad instructed me what to do. My trunk was unloaded from the car and deposited on the sidewalk, my Dad pointed towards a door just below a terraced lawn and said I should make my way there. Then he and my Uncle climbed back into the car and with waves and laughter drove off and left me there to fend for myself. I was thirteen years of age unaware of my impending future that would be entrusted upon me.
I dragged my heavy trunk through the gate, along a stone pathway and around the side of a wall to the door. Not sure of what to do I knocked on the heavy wooden door.
The door swung open.
A huge male person stood before me. I did not know whether he was a Teacher or a Student. and
He said, “What’s your name?”
I said, “Willem Kempen”
He said, “Why?”
I had no answer and stared blankly at him
He said “Where are you from”
I said “ Victoria West”
He said “ Are you a Hairyback?”
I had never heard of this term before and had no idea what he was talking about.
He said “Well, are you?”
I said “What’s a Hairyback?”
He said “Oh Gawd, you must be!”
He was name Grey Holmes, a Matric student of that year and he was from Upington to the north of where I had grown up and also in the Gamadoolas. He took me under his wing and taught me some things about what I was about to experience. He was my first Fagmaster. All newboys were Fags.
The fagging system, under which junior boys acted as unpaid servants/slaves to seniors, was once an inherent part of the English public school, system. This system was passed on from Britain to Private Schools in South Africa and remained so for many years.
All first and second form boys had to act as ‘fags’ or unpaid servants to senior boys. The duties included cleaning the Fagmaster’s study, cooking and serving study teas, running errands into the nearby town etc. For a young boy who was already kept very busy by the demands of his academic studies and the endless hours devoted to games, fagging was a disagreeable imposition. If a Newboy’s Fag-master was especially demanding, a boy might find nearly all his spare time taken up on menial duties and would go to bed each evening quite exhausted. And you could be punished for not attending to your Fag-masters’ needs as he may have expected it and corporal punishment was still the order of the day in the 1950’s. One may wonder why boys put up with such a regime. It has to be understood that in those days it would not have occurred to any of us to question the system. You generally did as you were told and obeyed the rules, however unjust or ridiculous, and at the same time you were aware of the salutary punishments, which could be meted out to those who stepped out of line. Although a fag-master was not officially empowered to inflict corporal punishment, he usually kept an old slipper somewhere in his study to chastise his fag when he deemed it necessary, and the powers that be generally turned a blind eye to this age-old custom. In my years at College seniors were not allowed to cane juniors. That remained the domain of the Housemaster but a system of corporal punishment in the form of hitting a junior on the arm with your fist was supported by the hierarchy of the school. Unfortunately, this method of punishment was not isolated to fag-masters only, as all seniors were at liberty to strike you on your shoulder at any given time as systematic bullying.
My first few moments at Boarding School would have been like landing on Mars and meeting the inhabitants for the first time. My head was spinning. I was taken to see the Housemaster, Mr S.F. Gascoigne-Smith. He was affectionately known by a number of names as ‘Smithy’, or ‘Gassy’, or ‘Blitz’. He had a pre-sentence stutter and always started speaking, commencing with “Errrrr”.
The year I arrived I was surprised to learn that the school had overbooked its annual intake of new students and that the overflow of bodies were to be moved to a dormitory by the name of The Grange, a little way up a side street. Luckily a trolley was made available for some of us and we were able to take our trunks to our new place of abode with all of us pushing it along the sloping sidewalk.
Now one has to bear in mind that I found myself thrown in at the deep end into South African English society at this stage. Yes, I spoke English but it was with a heavy Afrikaans accent. In 1957 the swearword of year was SHIT. All the boys were say ‘Shit’ this and ‘Shit’ that. I had never heard of the word before. To say the least I was feeling very uncomfortable. I ventured to ask someone what it meant and was met with howls of derision. Little boys can be so unkind. I got my answer, however. But I was labelled a Hairyback for a good while until later in my education when I acquired an unwarranted nickname that would stick with me for quite a while.
But, back to Mars. My first day at St Andrews was like stepping off into a minefield. I was totally flummoxed. I didn’t know what to do. We had to go to church in the Chapel and kneel on little cushions on the floor and pray. This was also pretty strange to me as I grew up in a Dutch Reformed Church society and going to church was nothing like this. At age thirteen I was unsure about religion and just followed along with what everyone else was doing. As time went by going to Chapel was a good time to catch up on some homework. Some of us made a bee-line for a seat behind an interior pillar but those reading or giving the sermon became wise to this and used to call us out to sit in full sight of them.
After a few days however, I started to gather my wits and very soon made some friends who would remain there for life. I teamed up with the country kids. There was the initial learning where to go and what to do. Where the classrooms were, where the notice boards were, where to leave our dirty washing and when to collect it, which clothes to wear for which occasion and so on. It all fell into place after a while. I was shown to the House Masters office where he explained that he kept a book of monies deposited to my account and that I was allowed to draw money to buy necessary things like toothpaste and soap from the House Shop. He also explained that if I was found guilty of improper behaviour or got extremely bad marks in class I could be subject to corporal punishment and was shown the lariat whip made of rhino hide. He explained that if I gave no trouble I would be spared a hiding and that would be good. I nodded in agreement but the upshot of it was that I spent many mornings before school being whipped for various misdeeds perpetrated after being dobbed in by my Fag-master, School Monitor, Prefect or Teacher. Whereas it did not damage my ego at that age, I still wonder, if any student who went through that phase of school induction, were not affected by this brutality, in later life. I now I wonder too, if the Housemaster took his frustrations out on us kids as a legitimate kind of stress relief for him, or did he do so because it was legally condoned and he was sadistic? Or did he really believe that hurting a young child would make the child take on a form of submission. In my case it worked just the opposite!
We slept in dormitories of 20 beds. Next to your bed you had a small cupboard to hang your clothes in and some space to put shirts, shorts, jerseys and underwear. At the entrance to the dormitory there was a cubicle occupied by a Prefect. The latter was in charge of the dormitory and made sure that lights went out on time and that there was no talking until late. It was pretty much regimented stuff but as young people we had no worries and slept soundly at night.
Early mornings and it was down to the shower room. No privacy there. You stood in the queue to have your shower. I do recall there being at least 10 shower roses. Senior boys took great delight in flicking a wet tipped towel at your nakedness, which could sting if it connected. There was no animosity in this practice just mild maliciousness. Once you had progressed past your second year you were allowed to take revenge on those who flicked towels at you by participating in the game.
By 8am you had to be seated at your table at the large dining room, the school’s main eating-house for Upper House and Merriman House. There were three rows of six long tables for each House. The Houses were divided by a large sliding door. At each end of the Hall there was a raised platform where the Prefects and Housemaster sat. Housemaster Gascoigne-Smith would be the last to walk in. Even of we were seated we would all stand up and he would say…with his stutter….” Errrrrr…for what we are about to receive….Errrrr…may the Lord make us thankful” and the whole house would sit down and eating may begin. Our food was served by African Waiters as I recall. I simple can’t remember the food. It was different to home cooking though and I stayed fed while at College. Sometimes we were naughty though. If you stuck a knife in between the top of the table and the table frame, you could project a piece of butter up into the air at speed so that it may splatter on to the ceiling and sit there for a while until one day the rancid remains drop down on to some unlucky person directly underneath at the time. You could only do this act if there was a lot of talking going on and no one was watching until the knife went djrrrrrrrrrrr against the tabletop! Towards the end of the meal announcements were made about upcoming events. If a boy had excelled in sport and had received his Colours for his chosen sport he had to walk up to the Platform and tell a joke. I had to do that in my fourth year when I attained my School Colours for Shooting. One was then allowed to wear a special coloured school badge on your school blazer. We were served three meals a day.
In 1957 my father paid the equivalent of 700Rands per year for my education at St Andrews College. In 2010 the sum is 130,000Rands basic.
And so, four years of education commenced at St Andrews College.
Guns are not dangerous
I relate this tale from my youth in South Africa.
There was me and Tienie, and Martin. The latter two were cousins. I was not related to them. We would either spend the weekend on Tienie’s farm on the plains or my Aunt’s farm in the mountains.
We were Audie Murphy, Alan Ladd and John Wayne all wrapped in one. The three of us were all fourteen years of age and invincible. Cowboys and Indians on the farm every weekend, and we had guns…..real ones! We had been trained by our parents from an early age to handle guns and to be very careful with them. Weekends on the farm meant days out in the veld, scouring the conical hills for rock rabbits(hyrax) and shooting some so that the native farm workers could have some extra meat and the skins could be salted.
Tienie’s dad, had a Steyer-Pugh Haflinger 4×4, and we would cavort across the plains and in and out of gullies looking for anything legal to shoot. Invariably we would come up with nothing, as the little creatures got wise of our movements and figured out that it was better to hide when the noisy humans came into view.
Martin was a raucous character. He was a joker, always laughing and thinking up diabolical scenarios. I suppose it was his way of compensating for his diabetes, which he had had from birth. Daily injections were part of his life. Tienie, Martin’s first cousin, was a dreamer like me, and we would be dreaming up all kinds of things and silly ideas. Sometime we would go to Tienie’s dad, who was an engineer by profession, and come up with ways and means for a variety of applications. T’s dad was an affable bloke with a kindly nature and he had the gift to be able to train animals to do things out of their normal scope. He had a small plains turkey, which he had hatched from an egg, and he taught this young bird to lay on its back to have its tummy scratched. But I digress.
On this day we three decided, whilst out on a hunt, that we should stage a shoot-out like in the days of the wild-west. So, we discussed the parameters of our actions and decided that we would take turns to be the ‘hunted’. So, fully armed with our .22 rifles and plenty of ammo, we spent a couple of hours shooting at one another. Of course, we did not show our faces or body bits from behind the rocks but rather shot at the crest of the rock where each one was hiding. Bullets whistled overhead. Someone put their hat above the rock with a stick and it copped a bullet hole. When we got sick of that we walked home. Upon arriving back at the homestead we each went to our rooms and I cleaned my rifle and put it away and I presumed that the others had individually done so as well.
The following morning, we were up and about after breakfast and looking for a day in another part of the veld. I had taken my rifle from its case and was walking down the passageway to the front of the house. I caught up with T just before he entered M’s bedroom. He too was carrying his rifle. As he walked in through the door of the bedroom, M was busy sighting his rifle at an obscure object in the room.
Tienie said “Stick ‘em up. Cowboy!!”
Martin yelled “No way!!” and dropped down on to the bed with his rifle at ready, aimed and pulled the trigger.
Tienie crumpled to the floor, his rifle clattered as it was being discarded into the corner of the room.
“Oh Shit !! You have shot me!!!””
Somehow it hadn’t dawned on me yet that a bullet had been fired.
I said “ C’mon Tienie, stop playing the fool!”
But then his blood started pumping out on to the floor. Tienie lay there in a dazed state.
I rushed back to the kitchen called Tienie’s mum, who, luckily enough, was a nurse, and she had things under control in no time. From there things seemed to blurr. Tienie’s Uncle Christo rushed from his farm about 10 kilometres away and then rushed Tienie, and Martin, who was beside himself and hyperventilating, the 45 kilometres into town to the local hospital in his Packard Straight Eight. In the mean time, an aircraft had been organised and Tienie was flown to the city and by the late afternoon he had been operated on by a specialist, in the big city hospital. The bullet had entered his upper right leg, gone straight through the middle section of his body, missing all vital organs, and had lodged itself against the left femur. He recovered and lived to tell the tale. The bullet had missed me by about 12 inches.
It transpired, as I recall, that Martin had a self-loading .22 and when we walked back into the homestead the afternoon before, he had leaned the rifle against the wall and then went on to other pursuits and did not attend to his weapon.
We all had to relate our tale to the police. Martin’s dad had to pay for the costs involved, Tienie’s dad, banned our hunting parties forever, and I got told off severely by my dad for not checking on the others. No action was taken against anyone as it was deemed an accident. There were no counsellors around in those days but we all recovered in due course. I lost touch with Tienie about 25 years ago. Martin passed away at a very young age after becoming a professional golfer.
Guns aren’t dangerous. People are!!!!!
He was my younger brother by six years. He had blonde hair, a soft face, blue eyes and his features were similar to his mothers and those of her family. Of all three brothers he was the most gentle and placid and had a brilliant grasp of mathematics for such a young mind. He was clever at school, was always the best student in his class and never got in to trouble. Whereas I and the youngest of us three, were sick with all types of ailments and local sicknesses like flu, measles or coughs asthma and eczema, Julian was never sick a day in his short life.
Mom and Dad, my Uncle Lex and Aunt Vera, decided to go for an extended overseas holiday in the European Spring. They flew out from our local airport to Johannesburg and then made their way to the Middle East and beyond. The year was 1958.
My Mom’s Aunt Babs had been invited to baby-sit us children. I was home for a month for my first term break from boarding school, which was outside the public school holidays. The travellers had left by the time I got home from school and Aunt Babs collected me at Hutchinson Railway Station as I stepped off the train.
One Saturday afternoon I decided to ride my bicycle to Biesjesfontein Farm, where our friends, the Conroy family, lived. Julian said that he wanted to come along on his bike. I said that his bike was too small and that the thirteen kilometres to the farm would be too much for him. But he insisted, saying that I always left him out of everything and he was coming, anyway. So, we set off in the morning with my Aunts blessing and rode along the tarred road that lead to Hutchinson Railway Station. The farm was just adjacent to the railway station. At first there is a level stretch of road for a few kilometres and then two small hills. After that it was down the hill all the way.
It was a cold day and a biting wind was blowing from the southeast in to our faces. I had to wait for Julian most of the time as his bicycle had smaller wheels and he had top pedal harder and longer. But to the 9 year olds’ credit he made it all the way to the farm. We spent a lovely afternoon there amongst friends and then just before dusk they offered us a ride home in their utility truck, which we accepted gladly.
On Monday when Julian came home from school he complained of having a slightly sore throat. We gave him some throat lozenges to suck. Tuesday and Wednesday passed with Julian holding in there with his sore throat. On Thursday the School Principal sent him home and we put him to bed and doctored him with a throat mixture medicine. He stabilised for a while. Friday came and went. On Saturday afternoon, one week after our bicycle adventure, his throat became inflamed and we gave him some more soothing medicines.
It was a bitterly cold day with an icy wind blowing from the plains. Unfortunately, our Aunt was not a decision maker and left a lot of things up to me, a fourteen year old. I decided to call our doctor. In those days we had manual telephone exchange and I rang the telephonist and asked him to find our doctor. He replied that the doctor was at a party on a farm some miles away. I asked him to contact that farm and the doctor as I thought that it was urgent. After some twenty minutes I was speaking to the doctor and related what I knew and what we had been giving Julian and that he was now having trouble breathing. Doctor said that he would come right away.
An hour passed before the doctor arrived. He assessed the situation carefully and decided on not moving Julian to the hospital at that time of night as it was below zero outside. Julian had laryngitis. His condition deteriorated within another half an hour his face colour turned to blue and the doctor decided to do a tracheotomy, which a surgical incision into the trachea or wind pipe. First he gave Julian an injection to stabilise him. Getting a good position to do this operation was difficult and leaning over Julian the doctor made the incision. Tragically he was off the mark with the incision and he cut through a main blood artery. Blood squirted up from the incision like fountain, and on to the ceiling of the room. I got drenched as was my aunt, and the doctor. Dabbing at the wound with a towel and some cotton wool the doctor tried to stem the flow of the blood. He put a swab in and with no other surgical equipment with him tried in vain to rectify his mistake. While I held my fingers on the vein next to the incision the doctor rang the hospital for assistance. Soon a nurse arrived . Doctor also rang the neighbouring town for blood supplies, which were dispatched immediately by road a 140km away.
The doctor seemed to be at a loss at what to do next even with the nurse there. He thought that he had stemmed the flow of blood but within half an hour Julian started losing colour and you could hear the blood interfered with his breathing. inside his lungs.
Then a peaceful look came over his face. He closed his eyes and the said the words “ Mama” and passed away.
In their hotel in Rome my mother suddenly sat bolt upright in bed and waking my father, told him that one of her children was calling her.
I rang my father’s business partner and he and his wife came over immediately. We were all stunned beyond belief. The doctor was in shock. He had to issue a death certificate as well. Time of death was 11.14pm, Saturday night, 10th day of May 1958. He was 8 years 7 months and 27 days of age.
Later that evening the blood that the doctor had ordered arrived. The blokes said that they were sorry that it took so long but the ambulance had a new engine and they were running it in. It did not really matter then. It was too late anyway. We gave them a cup of coffee each and they returned the way they had come.
Uncle Gert, my father’s business partner, and I made the phone call to Rome and other calls to other family members
My parents cancelled their overseas holiday and came home immediately. It took them about 5 days to get home after getting consular help with airline connections. It even made the national newspaper’s front page.
My parents were devastated. Our great aunt was inconsolable and Julian’s death is considered to have contributed to her early death. Life changed and our family never returned to normality, ever. The doctor sold his practice and moved away to a place as far away as one could go within South Africa. Three years later he committed suicide.
The last photograph taken of Julian was by my father. There he is standing looking pleasant and smiling dressed in his school blazer and matching cap. In the background of the photograph is the doctor.
This event in my life still haunts me.
My Uncle Lex and Aunt Vera
My Uncle Lex was a real character. He was an unknown quantity and I never got to the bottom of all his stories of his escapades through life which he so fondly let me have snippets of throughout the years that I knew him.
Christened Dan Alexander, he was my uncle, as he was married to my father’s sister, Johanna Batavera (Vera), fondly known to all of us kids as Auntie Va.
They were a lovely couple who farmed up in the mountains of the Praamberg in the Karoo just 25 kilometres out from our town of Victoria West, on their fifteen thousand acre, sheep grazing property, called Montana. There were lots of farm activities to get in to and there were cats and dogs and chickens and of course rock rabbits. Dassie is the Afrikaans name for the Hyrax Rock Rabbit, whose closest relative is the elephant.
Lex and Vera, had no children, but delighted in having their nephews and nieces come to stay on the farm whenever this was possible. My aunt was a kindly person who loved all of us kids dearly and took great care of us. Uncle Lex was a great teaser and went to great pains to tease us in a humoristic way.
Uncle Lex was born in 1903 into a legal family and attended school at St Andrews College in Grahamstown. He was interested in farming however and as far as I know he attended an agricultural college at Grootfontein near Middleburg in the Cape Province. Somewhere in the late 1930’s he met my Aunt Vera and they were married in Rondebosch. He then bought the farm Gedierteshoek (translation: Creatures Corner) and renamed it Montana. Lex had a sister and a brother as far as I can remember.
I spent a happy childhood on Montana.
My parents were a very loving couple, although they never showed this outwardly. I think that they were uncomfortable with us children and needed time and space for themselves. A result of this phenomenon was that we kids used to be sent to the farm almost every weekend. Lex and Vera used to come into town every second week on a Friday, to buy supplies or to bring their workers in for shopping and then we would all cram in front of the utility and head for the mountains. Then Dad and Mum would drive out on Sunday for lunch, a siesta and late evening drinks before taking us all home again. Quite a cosy arrangement this was. Our parents would get their free time and our Uncle and Aunt would get company and a diversion from routine jobs. We sometimes got a ride out to the farm with a neighbour and would be met at the road gate between the two farms. On other weekends our uncle and aunt would come in top play tennis and then they would stay over at our house and entertain us with their many antics.
On the farm we used to go out with the workers to muster sheep, mend fences, mend windmills or hunt rock rabbits. The latter were shot using .22 calibre rifles which we were taught to use from a very young age. Dassies lived up in the rock shelters and would come out the crevasses to sun themselves or to forage down on the plain. Being herbivores, they ate the karoo bush and were in direct competition with the sheep. If my uncle or aunt noticed deterioration in the condition of the flora around the hills they would instruct us to go out and hunt as many Dassies as we could. Rifles and ammunition were supplied The meat was considered a delicacy by the native workers and they in turn salted, dried and tanned the pelts so that a kaross (doona) could be made out of them.
The terrain of Montana was quite rough, with gullies and washouts and numerous small hillocks called ‘koppies’. Ironstone rocks made up the bulk of the earth’s crust and in between the hills the plains were covered with karoo bush and thorny acacia. As a youngster I was given free reign to walk these hills and plains and to take my rifle with me to shoot Dassies. I had to be wary of sheep in the area of course and I was given strict instructions not to scare the sheep. The farm ran about two thousand five hundred sheep in a good season and with careful management my Uncle and Aunt made a comfortable living out of it. They employed four male workers and their families which increased the population of the farm to about thirty. The wives of the workers normally were employed by my Aunt at the farmhouse in the kitchen and in the laundry. Employment conditions pay and housing was very frugal in the 1950’s but the African workers seemed quite happy at Montana and many of them stayed on for ten years or more.
Uncle Lex was a hard worker and used to be out and about by sun-up and only come back to the homestead at nightfall. After supper we would sit in the lounge and listen to stories while the grown-ups indulged in a glass of whiskey or two or three or more. There was never a shortage of whiskey in that house. Uncle Lex had a bunch of keys which locked all facets of farm implements and food away at night so that idle hands could not be put to use. There must have been at least ten keys on the bunch and they were set on a round clip and then attached to a long leather thong to another clip which fitted on to my uncle’s waistband. The keys were kept in his trouser pocket and hung on his waistband when not in use. Every evening Uncle Lex would come back to the house, unclip the leather thong, hold the clip in his hand and remove the keys from his trousers. Every evening he would then throw the bunch of keys at me pulling back on the thong so that the keys stopped just inches from my face. Every evening my aunt would yell “Lex!!!….don’t do that”! My Uncle Lex would just laugh and walk off to his office to do his daily books. Or we would be sitting on the front veranda of the house gazing over the lovely garden which they had cultivated over the years. In the distance, some twenty kilometres away a flat topped mesa rose out from the surrounding small hills. It was named Tafelkop and Uncle Lex reckoned that a giant lived behind that mountain. Lex would wait until he saw that I was not looking that direction and would “Look! The Giant of Tafelkop”! Then as I looked up he would say “Too late! You have to be quick because he just peeps out for a few seconds”. I would stare at the mountain but to no avail. Uncle Lex would laugh softly under his breath and as a child I was none the wiser always hoping that one day I would se that elusive giant. As I grew up and my brothers came along they too were teased with sightings of the giant. By then I was aware that the whole episode was all make-believe and would play along.
Uncle Lex and Aunt Vera had a pretty set way of living. They rose early and set about the days tasks and then came in for breakfast around 8am. After breakfast it was back to work down at the Old Farm House where he had his workshop and farm implements. If he and his workers were working out in the veld for the whole day then a packed lunch would be arranged for all the men. Normally they finished work at 5pm and then would make their way back to the homestead. As the property was only fifteen thousand acres in size there would be no need to stay out overnight or come in very late in the evening unless there were some farm related problems. Then when Uncle Lex had had a quick wash, then a housemaid would bring out a fresh bottle of Whiskey, cold water and ice and some glasses, on to the veranda and then Uncle Les and Aunt Vera would watch the sun set over the late afternoon stillness of the Karoo whilst imbibing copious amounts of Whiskey. The house staff would be sent off early and supper would have been prepared before and only needed some heating. In winter there would be a fire roaring in the lounge before the staff went home. In later life, after Uncle Lex’s illness, he and Vera could drink two bottles of Whiskey in an evening especially if there were some visitors.
Every year Lex and Vera would take off on a well-earned holiday somewhere. They delighted in travelling over the length and breadth of Southern Africa and in to countries such as they were then known, Bechuanaland(now Botswana), Basutoland(now Lesotho), Southern Rhodesia(now Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia(now Zambia), Mocambique, Tanganyika(now Tanzania), Nyasaland(now Malawi), Kenya and South West Africa(now Namibia). They drove at first their Hupmobile, then their 1945 Chevrolet, and then later in their 1948 Buick to all these places taking many rolls of 16mm film which they showed us at endless film parties. Now in retrospect, I think that that is where the wanderlust was instilled in to me.
In 1955 they were in Tanganyika and got the Buick stuck in a sandy creek crossing. While trying to heave and push the car out of the sand Uncle Lex stubbed his foot against a rock submerged in the sand. He developed a callous over some months and this growth became painful. He then visited a podiatry specialist who suggested that the cist be removed by a new method of burning with a high intensity flame. This treatment would remove the cist and quarterage the wound, thus fending off a risk of infection. Lex reluctantly agreed to this procedure. The operation was a success but after a few months the wound became infected and as my uncle was a very active person and not prone to complaining about this lot he let things slide a bit. The wound became gangrenous. He was rushed to hospital where the leg was amputated just above the knee. This happened when my uncle was 52 years of age. It was a terrible blow to him and it broke his spirit. He was now on crutches and in a wheelchair at times and he could not get around his beloved Montana as he used to. This had a debilitating effect on his life and with his spirit broken he began a slide towards disability and dependence on drugs and other people and in 1965 he died an agonising death. I was a witness to his death as I did a mercy dash to the farm with a canister of oxygen and arrived there in his room at his moment of death. This scene haunted me for many years.
One of my uncle’s favourite stories was the night he had to arrest the ‘droster’. A ‘droster’ was a vagrant who had no fixed address and wandered out in the bush and on to properties, stealing supplies and slaughtering sheep to survive. One evening my uncle’s neighbour, Piet, rang him to say that he saw what he thought was a small fire high up on the Praamberg. The Praamberg mountains are two, high, conical mountains, almost identical in size, and resembling a pair of breasts. My uncle referred to them as “Your aunt’s tits”. But I digress. Lex decided that he had better see to the culprit and while Vera made contact with the police in the village, he, armed with his rifle, a torch and some rope, set off to the peaks in his truck. He had to drive in the darkness with the lights off for about five kilometres but knowing every inch of his property this was not too difficult. The moon was also in its waxing cycle and shed some light for his journey. He then approached the lee side of the peaks and began a long arduous climb along the fence line until he came to where the climb became a serious affair. The landscape of this part of the world was strewn with rounded iron-stone rocks and stunted prickly acacia flora and derivatives. Walking in the darkness over the loose stones without making too much noise was quite difficult but Lex approached the highest part of the cone on the blind side and edged his way around until the offender came in to view. He managed to creep up to within twenty metres and shouted “Do not move!” The ‘droster’, a black African man, got such a fright, he fell over and scrambled away in the dark. My uncle fired a shot from his .22 rifle in the air and shouted “Stop, or I will shoot!” to which the ‘droster’ stopped dead in his tracks trembling in fear. “Don’t shoot, boss, don’t shoot!”, he yelled. Lex commanded him to lie face down on the stones and to put his hands behind his back and then proceeded to tie his wrists together and also tied a loop around his waist and tied his bound wrists by a rope to the waist rope. He doused the fire and put a raw bone from the freshly killed sheep in his jacket pocket. Then they walked down the difficult slope in to the night, where their footsteps were precariously lit by a faint moon and the light of my uncle’s torch. Luckily by then my Aunt and two policemen were making their way up the fence line and it wasn’t long before the culprit was in the custody of the police. He received a jail sentence of six months only to be released and to re-offend again. My uncle thought that for some of those vagrants, life was better inside prison than outside.
An occasion arose during the school holidays once when I was visiting on the farm, to go to a livestock sale. Uncle Lex had difficulty driving his Ford utility truck but managed somehow to come in to town. My Dad, who was an auctioneer at some of these events, drove us out to the auction where we spent the day.
That night I was told that I should accompany Uncle Lex on the journey back to the farm as it was Friday and the weekend lay before me. I agreed with glee and soon we on our way to Montana. The minute we drove on to the unsealed gravel road Uncle Lex said “You drive, me lad” to which I agreed whole heartedly. I was honing my driving skills at the age of 13 now and had been driving since I was 8. I was at the stage however not mechanically minded and was unaware that the battery on the Ford was about to demise. There were three gates to open on the way to the farm. I had to open them all as Uncle Lex was incapacitated due to his disability. By now it was dark and when we got to the second gate I left the lights on with the engine idling whilst swinging the gate open. Then the engine stopped running and by the time I got back in to the truck the lights had dimmed considerably. I switched lights off and cranked the engine. The engine turned over slower and slower until it stopped. Flat battery! Now what!
“You will have to walk to the farm house to get your Aunt to come and rescue us,” said Uncle Lex dryly.
Now, I did not think that I was afraid of the dark. Just cautious. I had no choice but to walk the last 8 kilometres to the homestead.
“Keep an eye out for the spooks” said my Uncle mischievously.
That comment I did not need as I started up the hill of the ‘hoogte’. The hoogte was the track cut out of the mountain side in a left-handed L-shape with a rather sharp incline at the top of the gradient which swung away to the right and on to the third gate. Some times the gravel would become a bit loose on the top slope of the track and this could induce a bit of wheel spin from the vehicle. Sometimes a second or third attempt had to be made to crest the track. In those days four-wheel drive vehicles were unheard of.
I climbed the hoogte and made my way through the gate. I decided that as the track followed through a very densely vegetated valley, I would follow the fence through the veld which was the shortest route to the homestead. The Uncle Lex’s words started mulling around in my head. What if I saw the headless dog? This fable was from the writings of a well-known Afrikaans horror writer. What if I saw something I didn’t recognise? My goose bumps became active again. I stared humming a tune to myself to keep my confidence up and to warn animals or things lurking in the bush that I was approaching. On my walk through the first paddock I had to climb down and through a number of dry creek beds. In one of them I must have scared a hare as it took off in fright. Who got the biggest fright I do not know as I managed to leap across a number of washouts, eventually falling into one in my haste. I lay there panting but unhurt. This was silly; I told myself, regained my composure and set off with confidence into the night.
Climbing over the saddle of the last hill near the homestead I was suddenly confronted by a white animal like apparition with no head blocking the pathway. “Aaarrrgghhghgh” was all I could say, and froze.
Then from the throat of my spook came a sharp “Baaaaaa!” It was Lamby, the pet Karakul ram, with a white body and a black head.
“Oh hello, Lamby” I said with relief. Lamby let me pass but followed close behind. Then it started head-butting me from behind as all young rams do and I had to climb the fence to get out of harm’s way.
As I rounded the hill and the lights of the homestead began twinkling in the distance the farm dogs started barking. So, I set about whistling as load as I could and started calling the dog’s names in between. My Aunt Vera came out of the house with a very worried expression calling out “Is that you, Willie?” After replying to the affirmative the dogs came up and jumped all over me being ever so friendly.
Soon we were on our way back down to the bottom of the ‘ hoogte ‘ in the car with jumper leads and a spare battery. I fell into bed well after midnight after retelling my night’s adventure with little prompts from my uncle, who, despite being very tired and worn out, still had enough in him to tease me. I must say though, that after that the night held no more secrets for me and I was able to go out in the dark without fear of mysterious things happening to me.
Uncle Lex’s favourite saying was “It is not what you make on a farm, but what you save on a farm”. And so, it happened that whilst his neighbour bought machinery, tools and accessories for their new farming methods my uncle still ploughed, repaired washouts and made contours with donkeys and old style implements. They worked very well and he managed to get all his work done, albeit at a slower pace. His neighbours often wondered how he and Aunt Vera could afford an annual jaunt overseas.
The time had come when Uncle Lex had lost all interest in farming and Aunt Vera was not only burdened with the day to day running of the business but also had to look after Uncle Lex every moment of the day. A decision was made to hire a Farm Manager and they advertised for one in the rural press. A man and his family, a Dutch immigrant to South Africa, were appointed to the job. It wasn’t a good choice but the best available at the time and Uncle and “The Bobbin” as he used to call the manager, had a love hate relationship. The new manager had a fiery temper and was also totally useless with anything mechanical. So it also came to pass, that the farm acquired a tractor for ploughing and general duties around the farm such as towing a farm trailer around the property, carting various materials. A second-hand tractor was purchased and that was mistake number two as this tractor spent more time in the mechanical workshop in the village than anywhere else. No one on the farm had mechanical skills and therefore the tractor became neglected due to poor servicing and incorrect usage. Nevertheless, everyone persisted with their folly.
Uncle Lex died an agonising death in 1965 after renal failure at the age of 61 years and 5 months. He smoked numerous cigarettes a day and drank a bottle of whiskey a night and on top of that took many antibiotics and pain killers and in the end his system could not take all the variables. He rests in the Victoria West cemetery.
The manager left the farm soon after Uncles’ death as he could not envisage being given orders by a woman and another Manager was hired. This gentleman with a vast knowledge of farming settled on Montana and stayed there until the farm was sold in 1977 when Aunt Vera retired to Cape Town. She passed away in February 1981 at the age of 76 years and two months.
Having failed my year at university,I was busy contemplating what I would do next, when my father came in to my room, gave me some pocket money, a one-way train ticket to Cape Town and the name and address of a person I had to see in the city with regards to a job. I was on the train the next day and once there I caught a taxi to my lodgings which my father had organised as well.
I was sharing a room with the son of a Regional MP and we got up to lots of mischief. Work was at the Department of Coloured Affairs on the foreshore of Cape Town. Dead boring stuff pushing pen and paper around but I still didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do so I plodded along. A new recruit from the far reaches of the north-west of the country changed the boredom into a sex feast by more than one state employee. She was young, well apportioned and a nymphomaniac.
There was a room where all the completed files were stored and this youngster worked there. She used to have a sign on the door which read “Back in 10 minutes” and this was false trail to send others away while she preyed on the boys behind the filing cabinets. I was privy to sex at least three times a week and there were others too.
Things were getting hot and office gossip was on the rise when I was summoned to a manager’s off at a certain time for an obscure reason which was forgotten in the ensuing hours. I knocked and then walked in through the half open door to find our collective sex-bomb sitting on the manager’s lap going up and down up and down. He opened one eye and saw me staring at him. I quickly slipped back behind the door. A couple of minutes later she came out, gave me a peck on my cheek and walked off swinging her hips. I was called in to the office and the embarrassed manager had nothing to say. However, I broke the silence by asking for a transfer to a country town as this would get me and him and her off the hook. I also promised not to mention this to anyone.
Four days later and I was on the train to the large regional town of Beaufort West which was also a neighbouring town to my hometown. I knew a number of people in this town and it was good to get to know them better I spent the next six months working there until it was time for my annual holidays.
In the mean time, my 21st Birthday party came and went in Victoria West. I had a number of friends come over from Beaufort West and by midnight we moved from our house to a cousin’s house which was a large, rambling place, where you could make a reasonable noise in the lounge and not be heard on the sleeping quarters.
It was at about 3am, we were very drunk, and just a group of blokes who were all old friends and who decided to become BLOOD BROTHERS like the Native American Indians.
Owen Nel had a sharp Pen Knife and started cutting us and himself and so we mixed our bleeding cuts to each and everyone’s arm or hand and spilled blood on Aunt Paddy’s plush white carpet in the lounge which we hastily had to clean up with cold water.
My Cousin Garth went and dug out some elastoplast band aids for us and we then sat drinking on the front veranda until the sun came up
My BLOOD BROTHERS scar is still visible 55 years later. I think that at least two of the brothers have passed on.
My Father had promised to buy me a car if I passed my Matriculation exam so that I could move around more freely. That one slipped by when I went to Uni. Now, more than 2 years later I was still without wheels. Once I got to Beaufort West I started nagging about his commitment to buy me a car. I had saved over my 21 years, fifteen hundred Rands in my Post Office Savings account. This was from Birthday presents and other happening and some work done on the farm. From buying me a car to saying that he would pay half of a new car was the downside to this car episode. Anyway, I found this Austin Healy 3000/6 for three thousand Rands and took the sales pamphlets home one weekend. My Mother put a flat and stern NO WAY voiced opinion. You will kill yourself in that!
To say I was disappointed would be an understatement when my father agreed with her and I went back to work on Sunday afternoon with still yet no car. Around Wednesday that week my father rang me at work stating that he had found a car for me and I was to come home that weekend. I could not find a lift so I hitch-hiked home.
So, there it was, a Ford Anglia 100E with a 4 speed gearbox and a top speed of about 100kmh. It was dark blue. It cost 90 Rands and you are paying for it my father said.
Even though I was 21 years of age I had to learn a lot about cars. Three months after buying my car I had an accident with it and dented the side. The panel beating and respraying cost more than what the car cost and my father lectured me about being a Youth without cause. It was about the same time as that classic movie Rebel without a cause. About five months later the car developed a growl in the differential and I decided to upgrade and bough a Simca 1000 for R800 and sold the Anglia for R100. This car had a rear mounted engine. It was a neat little car and I managed to not put any dents in it even after hitting a cow which left a yellow streak of manure on the bonnet when it slid off.
I loved the little Simca and it was to be the catalyst to my life-long search for Nirvana. I did find it but in another form. We‘ll go there later.
My time came around to take my holidays, and camping in my Simca, I drove around the Cape Coast visiting friends and acquaintances. On my return to work I popped in the office the day before just to say Hello and the Office Manager said “ I hope that you will knuckle down to your job” and I said “ What does that mean?” and he said “Just what it means” and I said “ So you are telling me now that I didn’t do my work before” and he said “Something like that” and I said “Why didn’t you tell me then? And he said…….well, we could go on I said He said and so. The conversation unravelled very loudly and I eventually said “ You can stick your job up your arse” and left the building with the Manager yelling after me “ Don’t you speak to me like that”
Back at my lodgings I took all my worldly belongings and packed them into the Simca whilst my Landlady was haranguing me about what I was up to. I eventually said that I was fucking off and she said “You can’t speak to me like that “.
South West Africa
I drove past my ancestral home in the dead of night heading north not wanting to front up to my father and mother to explain what I was up to. At Britstown I took the road to Prieska, then to Upington and finally across the border to South West Africa (Namibia). There was no Border Control in those days as South Africa had Annexed South West Africa after the Second World War and movement between the two countries was unrestricted.
Now I was on a search for adventure. My life as a wanderer had begun!
I had not gone very far on the gravel road to Keetmanshoop, the first town in the south of the country, when I split a tyre on a rock along the very rough surface. While I was fitting the spare tyre, a man stopped to help me. He was barefoot, had a beard and had a revolver slug to his waist. I asked if he had expected trouble and he replied that there were lions about and one could not be too careful. Lions! I had read about desert lions in a book about Frederick Selous, the famous Great White Hunter of the Nineteenth Century. Whether this chap was winding me up I would never know but in the not too distant future I would meet a desert lion face to face!
The man who sold a new spare tyre to me scoffed at the lion tale stating that Keetmanshoop, was too far into the dry country for lions to exist. Nevertheless, I kept my eyes peeled from then on as a travelled across the vast dry plains where only goats and donkeys could exist. By the time I had reached Marienthal, the last town on my way to Windhoek, the road was sealed and I could enjoy a better ride with no more dust ingress.
The countryside had changed from desert type plains to rugged hills covered in aloes and acacia of the savanna lands, a watershed between the dry desert air and the southern sub tropics. Now I was in an area where antelope roam such as Impala and Springbuck but also the magnificent Kudu antelope. Weighing in at 300 kg and with a propensity of jumping across the path of an oncoming vehicle they had caused a number of road deaths over the years.
Windhoek, at the end of 1964 had a fresh smell about it. I found a boarding house in the suburb of Auspanplatz and the following day I went looking for a job. At Stewarts and Lloyds, suppliers of windmills and associated farming equipment, they asked me what I knew about windmills and I said not much and so they hired me for the next three weeks up to the Xmas break to work in the store room. I had to learn fast. The pay was good.
I wrote a letter to my parents saying that I would most likely come home after New Year and asked my father if I could start as an articled clerk in his firm thinking that if I appeased my parents for a while, things would settle down. I had a vague notion of studying again but for the mean time I could see if the legal business would suit me.
I had made a whole lot of new friends my age and the partying carried on non-stop. Christmas was spent drunk as a skunk in Swakopmund and some-how we ended up at a party in the far northern town of Uis. On the way back in the general direction of Windhoek, the little Simca stopped dead after we had crossed a cattlegrid. The rear engine car had taken in quite a bit of dust and the air-cleaner was blocked. I spent some time trying to get all the dust out of it. A passer-by also stopped and offered advice but I now forget what it was. I managed to get the engine going again. We made for Swakopmund but the little car was running sick. I didn’t have enough money to afford a mechanic but I knew what I needed and managed to buy a new filter and we were once more on our way.
On our way through Okahanja I saw this green Cortina car and called in to have a look at it. I didn’t have a job but I owned the little Simca outright. So, for the time being I had to find work and save up the balance of the money if I wanted that car. Back at Windhoek I landed a job with FCU. Farmer’s Co-operative Union. They dealt in the buying and selling of karakul lamb pelts(skins) for use in the manufacture of evening downs for the rich and famous people. I was to be a pelt collector and general dog’s body. I was sent out to small village of Kalkveld. A married couple were working there. She was an unsavoury character and took a dislike in me from day one. I got given all the horrible jobs around the shed. I went off with her husband so that he could show me in ins and outs of pelt collecting. We camped 4 nights on rural properties as that was a way of saving money. So, after a week, I was on my own with a local map of the area and a list of farms to visit. I was given a Peugeot utility vehicle to drive and a coloured helper, as indigenous people were called in those days, to help with the opening and closing of gates and load and unloading the Peugeot.
In the mean time I had traded my Simca car in on a Ford Cortina Super in Okahandja and was now officially in debt for the first time of my life having made my first Hire Purchase agreement. Wasn’t for much though and I was able to later borrow some money from my Father to clear that debt owing him instead at 10%per annum! He was livid at me for borrowing money from an HP company.
Having a newer car made my lady-boss even more grumpy but I carried on with the job. I rented a room in the Kalkveld Hotel but was hardly ever there. One of my favourite places was a farm called Otjihaenamaparero. ‘Place where the big elephants drink’ as explained to me by a Herero farm worker. The farm is still working to this day and is also a Game Farm for the custody of wild animals and their protection
One weekend I was off to Windhoek to see my friends. About halfway in to Okahandja I heard a grinding noise coming from the back of my car and soon afterwards the left wheel, together with the axle started moving out of the differential housing. A broken wheel-bearing and so I decided to walk to the nearest farm, about 1o kilometres in distance, to use their phone and try to get a Tow Truck to come and collect me. I was on a back road to the town of Okandja. It became a habit of mine, over the years to come, to take backroads. I had a bottle of water with me, 30 years before it became fashionable to bring plastic bottled water into our lives. About half way to where I thought the farm was I sat down to rest under a tree. I took a swig of water and just listened to the ambience of the bushland. Small bids were chattering. Then I heard what sounded like panting. I looked up. There, in the shade of the upper branches of the tree, lay a Cheetah, with the remains of a recent kill. I got up quietly and kept on walking with the hair on my body standing on end. After another kilometre with nothing following me, I started to relax again. I eventually reached the farm. An old man farmed there. He had a heavy German accent and let me use his phone to ring a Tow Truck operator who eventually came quite late in the afternoon. Both of these hardy country workers, the famer and the driver reckoned I was lucky with the cheetah not coming at me. At Okahandja the fix was an easy one with the wheel bearing replaced and I was off again heading for the north, looking for my friend, Tienie who was working up north, somewhere.
Life trundled on and the work environment stayed the same. I spent most of the week collecting pelts and on week-ends I usually drove back to Windhoek or the coast or north. One week-end I spent in Otjiwarongo with a girl who I met in Windhoek. The Circus had come to town and we went along with the family. When the act came on to shoot balloons of a person’s head I volunteered trying to impress the girl. The shooter put a ring on my head with a number balloons on it and at ten paces sot every balloon without hitting me. I won the girl and life went on. Bu Easter I was sick of the negativity by the managers who I was working for and I quit, packed my car and drove home to Victoria West in South Africa
It came about that my father had a vacancy in his office for a Clerk and I took that job up. I was allowed to live at home but had to pay my way and my father deducted my rent from my pay and gave it to my mother. I worked for my Father in a boring clerical job and also was the sales writer at various auctions that my Father or his employees held
After about ten months in the job I could see that this not going to work and went back to the city to look for a job. In the mean time I had rolled my Cortina it the junction of the Vosburg Road and National Highway One. I was trying to get to the station to see my girlfriend off and was driving too fast when I realised I was upon the junction. The brakes were seemingly not working and I yanked the hand brake on. The car skidded across the sealed road, hit a warning sign and rolled over the boundary fence of a farm. The roof was flattened but I managed to squeeze out of the back window and made a small cut to my leg. Otherwise I was OK. This happened in 1965, long before seatbelts were installed in cars
I walked in to our house to tell my Father of my accident. He looked up at me, folding his Sunday Paper down and said that it didn’t surprise him one little bit. My Mother came in and fussed over me and bathed my wound and put a band-aid on. I had to report the accident to the Police and used the phone. They came and got me to show them what had happened. I also had to ring the farmer whose land it was on. He was grumpy too. A tow truck was called and it had to drive through two paddocks to get to my car which was towable. I rang my insurance company the following day and they decided to repair the whole car. So, for the next 6 weeks I was riding Shank’s Pony. It certainly curtailed my activities.
Towards the end of the year I started getting bored with the job and mentioned this to my Father as there was another 30 months to go before I could take up legal studies. I said that maybe I was not cut out for this kind of work. I could see the look of disappointment in his eyes. He just could not figure out why I would give up the chance of qualifying as an attorney and a good life afterwards. He let me go whilst looking at the ceiling
On the way to the city, and not too far from the coast, an ear-piercing noise emanated from around the gearbox area. The wheels locked up and we skidded to a halt on the side o the road. Something was amiss. I could not find the problem and eventually walked into town. I found a car-yard open on a Saturday afternoon and negotiations started there. The gearbox had locked up. I found a car yard in Paarl and traded the Cortina in on an early model Auto Union. This was a two-cylinder two stroke, petrol engine model with a disengaging flywheel. A four-speed gearbox and column shift. It was quite some car.
I thought that the city would be good for me and so found a job with an allied bank and was settling in to my job when the shirt incident happened. Being a bachelor, my washing got done once a week but being a messy eater (I still am) I had run out of white shirts on a Friday morning and chanced a pale blue one. I had not been at work for 5 minutes when I got pulled in to the Assistant Manager’s Office. I was told to go home and change my shirt. I explained that I lived out at The Strand which was a 72kmm return journey and would take forever and he said; Do it! So, I did, but spent the rest of the day at the beach. Saturday was a half day and the big boss wasn’t in and so there were no repercussions. However, come Monday I was dragged in to the Big Boss’s Office. I said that I did not expect to collect the days wages as I was not there but that I had used my head and decided that a return journey would put me back in office an hour before knock off time and so there was no point in the exercise.
Well, I got told that I wasn’t paid to think and they sacked me on the spot and gave me two months pay and virtually kicked me out of the door. So, there I was. Unemployed.
I walked back to the station, which is in the central part of Cape Town and caught the train back to the Strand. Once back home I got into my car and started gathering my thoughts with a walk down on the beach.
Later in the following week I spent some time with my Uncle Henry and Aunt Joan in Somerset West and also with my cousins Michael, Jean and Cheryl.
I was never called up to do my National Service as most young South Africans were in the 1960’s and 70’s. Somehow, I missed the draft. It never really interested me. My Uncle Henry, who was a Colonel in the Defence Force, started chewing my ear about joining up. It was a good career move and I could go far in the Army and the Army was good for fitness, health and wellbeing. Blah, blah, blah.
I was out of work.
I got fired from my last job for insubordination. Yeah, I went to work wearing a blue shirt and company policy stated that I had to wear a white shirt. The result was that I was carpeted in front of the General Manager who said that he took a dim view of such insubordination and that I was to go home immediately and change my clothes. I said that I thought that he was being petty and if he really insisted then he could shove his job.
Within twenty minutes I was out on the street with a severance cheque in my hand and unemployed.
Being unqualified to do anything really apart from selling cars, insurance or encyclopaedias neither of which interested me, I drove home and wondered about my next move. No, the army was definitely not an option!!
My girlfriend of the time, Nicky, who was studying commerce, thought that an Army career may be a good move and a secure income, should our relationship grow and meet other expectations. Being totally infatuated by this woman, whose sex appeal drove me nuts, I slowly but surely had my head turned around, and one day, as my finances started to wane and job prospects looked dim, I wandered in to the Army HQ and put my name down for inclusion into the ranks.
What a bloody mistake that was!
My posting was to the infantry at the South African Infantry Division 1 at Oudtshoorn. I arrived at the gates at the given time and leaving my car outside walked up with my gear to the main office. Everyone was very friendly until, that is, I signed in. Then I was standing outside the office, saluting a telegraph pole for ten minutes non-stop, with a belligerent little sergeant standing beside me, shouting insults. Why is it that all NCO’s in the army are people who are small in stature? When the sergeant grew tired of this he pointed me in the right direction and I was marched to my dormitory where I joined twenty other recruits.
The initiation, which was six months basic training, was extreme to my way of thinking and I soon realised that I was a person of self-discipline and not one that takes too kindly in having discipline forcibly thrust upon me. But I was not in a position to challenge any authority at that stage and had to abide by the rules however unpleasant they were. Having fellow humans hurl abuse at one only for the sake of getting a point across was not the way I was brought up and invariably some of this stuck in later life when I had to give orders to my staff. I may have said things I’d regret at a later stage.
After a month of intense physical training we were then allowed out of the barracks until midnight on Wednesday and Saturday nights. One evening we decided to go to the movies. It was a late show and the movie only ended at a quarter to twelve. If we had walked we would have been late and most likely would have received some sort of punishment. Our sergeants saw us at the movies and were rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of punishing us for being out beyond the time limit. As the movie goers came out of the theatre they ran flat out in the direction of the barracks which would have taken them fifteen minutes. They arrived at our dormitory completely out of breath and then became very angry when they saw us sitting there preparing to go to bed. Up to this stage they were not aware that I had a car and their frustration at finding this out boiled over and they upturned all the dormitory beds, even those with sleeping occupants in them leaving the place in chaos. Later in the week word got out of this event and both sergeants were reprimanded which made matters worse.
The few good things I remember about those early days were the field trips where we were taught how to camouflage in the bush. The driving lessons were good and my first 4×4 experience was with a Landrover which I mastered with ease. Next came a 6×6 Unimog which was an awesome vehicle to drive. I was shown how to drive down and through gullies where even animals would fear to tread. Then there was the inevitable marching. But we became very fit. Once in full kit and running in a squad of ten, our time for a mile was just over six minutes. On the rifle range I excelled as I was a marksman from school days and took part in Inter-provincial target shooting competitions. Learning how to dispose of hand grenades over a wall was exciting until we had to throw them in real life in an open field. The resonating blast was something else and one had to make sure that one was well protected behind a tree or mound. One young recruit froze with a grenade in his hand whilst in the practise area behind the wall. The quick-thinking instructor banged his arm down on the top of the wall so that the grenade dropped to the opposite side as it came out of the recruits hand. He yelled in pain and was nursing a bruised arm for a week but we were thankful that the blast had not happened on the wrong side of the wall.
The most boring job was guard duty in the four corner turrets of the barracks. Four-hour shifts in a cold and dark cubicle overlooking an open plain. Invariably, we as recruits, got the nightshift. It was not something we looked forward to.
After three months training we were allowed weekend passes. On one of my weekends away my old Auto Union car cracked its head and I had to buy a car in a hurry. In Malmesbury I found a cute little Mini Cooper S and did a deal on the spot. I was supposed to drive to Cape Town, not far away, to sign the papers. When I got there however the office was closed and I went on to enjoy the weekend and drove back to Oudtshoorn on the Sunday night. We always had to be in camp by 23.59 or one minute to midnight. During that week my father contacted me saying that the Hire Purchase Company I had bought the Mini off were very angry about me not signing the papers and that they were going to take legal action. He explained that he had paid for the car and that I was to bring it home when on my next weekend pass.
I went home to Victoria West on the first weekend pass available and my dad took possession of the mini with glee, admonishing me along the way for being irresponsible. When I asked how I was supposed to get back to the barracks he explained that he would give me his company vehicle fondly known as the ‘Office furniture’. It was a 1954 Ford Customline V8. I was sad to lose the Mini but had no choice in the matter. Instead now, I had a roomy, all powerful, petrol guzzling car!
The Ford was a boon to my social life in the army. On weekend passes I would gather up those less fortunate without cars and we would have six or seven in the car and I would charge them a fee. As we were paid a pitiful allowance in the army the extra cash came in handy. Even with V8 economy I was earning a few dollars extra. I was having a good time. Then it all came unstuck when one passenger mentioned it to his father who mentioned it to his boss who was high up in the department of transport. Next thing I know my dad is blowing in my ear again telling me to desist from taking money for fuel.
One day we were doing exercises to dismount from a moving vehicle with a full 30 kilogram army rations kit and a 7.62mm rifle in hand. The truck would drive at 15 kmh and we would run off land on our feet and try not to fall over. On one of my jumps I felt a sharp pain in my knee but survived the exercises and thought no more about it. A couple of days later whilst marching in drill formation my knee gave way and the pain was excruciating. What followed was lots of yelling and verbal abuse by sergeants and accusations by officers of ‘swinging lead’ until a specialist report said that my cartilage was irreparably damaged and I had to go on to light duties. It was suggested that I have an operation but I declined that offer. The specialist said that by age 40 I would not be able to walk. I did not want to believe him. Well, in a sense he was right as the crunch came at age 58 when I was diagnosed with acute osteo-arthritis in both knees and other joints of my body.
The army transferred me immediately to Head Office in Pretoria where I was to be assigned to a desk job. So, I packed up my meagre belongings and drove to Pretoria via Cape Town, mind you, to have just to catch up with my girlfriend of that time. I even received a fuel allowance from the army which covered some of the costs.
I was based at Voortrekkerhoogte, Army HQ in South Africa and was assigned a desk job. We had minimal drill routines to do as long as it was done and you were allowed to march with a limp. There was also some night training and on more than one occasion we were to be the infiltrators in an army exercise. On one occasion I managed to steal a truck out of a camp whilst the manoeuvres were on but was severely manhandled when caught. I gave up on being too clever and stuck to my boring desk job.
I set about building up my social life again and contacted various school pals who lived in nearby Johannesburg. My Uncle Ewald, my Mother’s brother, and his family lived in Pretoria and I would visit them as often as allowed. My Uncle was a lovable alcoholic and lead me quite happily down that same path although I never let the booze take control of my life.
My Ford developed engine trouble one day whilst visiting my uncle and would not start after that. I left it there and commuted by bus for a while. Months later my uncle complained that his lawn was growing up through the car and wanted it moved. I endeavoured to trade it in. I managed to do so without going into debt but the catch was that I had to trade down to a Fiat 500 Bambino!!! How the mighty had fallen. Nevertheless, I pressed on with my hectic social life. By this time my girlfriend had moved up to Johannesburg to start a job in a computer firm and we got together as often as we could. But the bright lights of the city dimmed our enthusiasm for each other and after a big argument one night we called it quits. I was a bit devastated as I was still very insecure in my life.
When my twelve months service came up I was allowed to apply to be discharged by paying a fee of R200. This was money I did not have and so I approached my friend, old school pal, Tony, who lived in the upper bracket of society in Johannesburg. We had been in the same class at school at St Andrews College at Grahamstown and were close friends. He did not hesitate and before long I had shaken the shackles of army discipline off and was standing out in civvy street wondering what to do next!!
The day I stood outside the army barracks having bought myself out of my contract with the Defence Force, I wondered where my adventure would take me to next. I got into my Fiat Bambino and drove to my uncle’s place where I spent a couple of days relaxing around the pool. The weekend came up and uncle and I got stuck into the booze. My guitar came out and by late Sunday night my uncle wanted to send me to a recording studio to have a voice test. I was not so sure, knowing that the booze made everyone sound wonderful, except for those who were sober.
I ended up getting a job at the Kempton Park City Council as the Town Clerk had once worked in my hometown of Victoria West. I was to be employed in the accounts department. This was even more boring than the army! But a job was a job and I needed the money. I managed to get shared accommodation with a couple of other blokes in a second story warehouse on the main thoroughfare. It was cheap and spartan but we had some wild parties there. One bloke was an artist and in a mad moment he encouraged me to do a mural in the hallway. Can’t quire remember what the drawing and artwork was but many commented that it was quite impressive. I did weekly excursions to Johannesburg to visit my friends and we got in to lots of adventures in the Hillbrow nightlife. At one stage Hillbrow was the most heavily populated city block in the world. We desperately tried to increase the population by chatting up chicks and buying them drinks on the sidewalks. Bloody Mary’s were the flavour of the year in 1966 I recall. More often than not we were lucky and ended up screwing a chick in an elevator or the back seat of a car or even in a park. How I never contracted a sexually transmitted disease is beyond me. We were reckless.
I had car troubles with the Bambino. The starter motor was at the top of the engine and fixed on to a cast alloy mould. This mould snapped off and there was no one around who could weld aluminium in those days. So I removed the starter and pushed the car in third gear with the ignition on and with the hood down until it fired and then I would hastily climb over the back and over the seats and start driving. It was a risky way to do things, and even more hazardous in the rain. But the Fiat fired every time and I was mobile.
In the early hours of a Sunday morning I was winding my way home after another drunken party. It was summer and a warm night. I had the roof down on the Bambino and coming around the bend at Modderfontein I lost control and rolled the car. Just a slow motion roll as I was not driving too fast. As the car rolled over I fell out on to the tarmac with a thud. The car did another roll and landed on its side. A half empty bottle of Scotch rolled out with me, unbroken. I had cut my arm and it was bleeding. So I took some of the Scotch and poured it on the wound. It stung like hell but probably saved me from infection. Then I took a swig and at that moment a vehicle approached and slowed down. It was the Police. Seeing me having a drink they could not arrest me for being under the influence. They helped me right the car and told me to drive home. I said that I had just had a drink but they said that it was OK and that they would drive behind me until I got to my destination. They even push-started the Bambino for me. They were good to their word and saw me home. How lucky can you be!
The following day I surveyed the mess. A mate of a mate of a mate came to the rescue. He offered me his old Fiat 1500 which was standing behind his house in the back yard in exchange for the Bambino and some Rands. He was going to repair and restore the Bambino. I agreed and not long after I had the Fiat 1500 Left Hand Drive cabriolet running and on the road. I took the registration stickers and papers from the Bambino and put them on the 1500. Who would know? They were both Fiats, weren’t they? I only had one number plate which I fitted to the rear bumper. As luck would have it this was to save my bacon soon.
This was a chick pulling car, or so I thought at the time. The paint was a tad faded and there were obvious rust spots but it was a convertible, after all. I was hooning around the streets of Johannesburg with my mates having a good time. I moved into a penthouse apartment with some friends in Johannesburg for short while and enjoyed the life in the fast lane. Doing this on a meagre salary took some working out. But I was always doing favours for friends and they reciprocated by helping out.
Late one Saturday afternoon I had dropped a friend off at her place and was heading back to mine pad in the penthouse. I stopped at a traffic light and a MG pulled up next to me. He started revving his engine and I responded and it looked like a drag was on. The lights changed and we floored it. Somehow and for no known explanation to this day, I had selected reverse gear.
The old 1500 lifted its rear end and slammed hard in to a brand-new Cortina driven by a young chick. The cars were locked in tight and the girl was hysterical. The Ambulance arrived, the Police arrived and the Tow trucks arrived all seemingly out of nowhere. I gave my name and address and showed them my licence. I was told that I would hear more from the Public Prosecutor. In the confusion and the worry about a possible fire as the old 1500’s fuel tank had sprung a leak, I managed to salvage the licence disc off the windscreen. The rear number plate had remained wedged in the grille of the Cortina as it was towed away and from that moment on for all intent and purposes, my car was unregistered and untraceable, or at least it would take a fair amount of time for the Police to sort it out. The car was towed away to the wrecking yard. I caught a taxi home, packed my gear and moved out leaving a note. I found my way to my mate, Tony’s place in Hillbrow, and asked for a night’s asylum, which I got. I was a bit cagey about my movements but Tony’s parents were such gentle and polite people they did not push for answers.
I stayed with Tony for a week before finding digs again closer to work. Commuting by bus and train wasn’t fun and as soon as I got my pay at the end of the month I was off looking for a car. This time a found a Vauxhall VX490 with triple carburettors. Live and learn. Being only vaguely mechanically minded at that stage in life the Vauxhall proved a handful but I did get the triple carbs tuned properly and the car ran well. The only drawback was that now I had bought the car on Hire Purchase and had to make monthly payments. Then I bumped in to a friend who was acquainted with my friends who lived in the penthouse and she said that the Police had been round asking questions. It was time to move.
Having to give a month’s notice to resign from my job, I sweated it out. Nothing happened and the day I received my severance pay I filled the fuel tank of the Vauxhall, said goodbye to my friends, and drove away with no destination in mind.
Go West Young Man
Who coined that phrase?
Somehow, whenever I had worked myself in to a situation from which there seemed to be no escape or no future, I wanted to get as far away from it as possible. I had had a failed romance, a mediocre job and now I was being sought after, by the Police. Nothing serious though. It was just a little insurance matter that had to be cleared up especially as I had been driving around in an un-registered vehicle.
I looked at the contents of my wallet and wondered just how far I would get with that. I decided to head for South West Africa, a place as far away as I could imagine from my troubles in the Transvaal. After all, I had been there before on a previous occasion and liked the place very much. I drove out into the setting sun.
My journey took me to Mafeking and down along the Molopo River to Tweefontein at the southern ends of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park. I slept in the car for one night and continued on my journey at first light. Not having been to the National Perk before I decided that I would do that journey and see some wildlife along the way.
I met an old man who was sitting under a tree on the side of the road and feeling like having a bit of company I stopped and asked.
“What’s the road like from here to Tweefontein?”
“Oh, it is reasonable, Boss”, he said, “Just got to watch out for the corrugationers, they get really bad sometimes, you know. You wouldnt have a smoke, Boss?”
I gave him a couple of cigarettes.
Those were the days when smoking was the pastime of the rich and famous or so the advertorials said.
I started smoking at the age of 11 and smoked for 20 years before realising what it was doing to my wellbeing. One day at age 31, I crunched up my cigarette packet and declared that I would never smoke again. And I never did!!
I pushed on and arrived at Tweefontein in the late afternoon. The National Park camp had bungalow accommodation and I slept well under the thatched roof. The next morning I was up and in to the park at dawn savouring the cool still air of the early hours. I had advised the staff of the park that I would be exiting on the way to Aranos. They told me to take care as there had been some heavy rain and washaways along the road.
My journey took me along the Aoub River through thorny acacia plains and in the dune corridors. I saw a variety of animals and had quite a close encounter with a group of hyenas. I had stopped for lunch under the shade of a Mopani tree and had the windows of the car open. When in African game reserves you may not get out of your vehicle as there is a distinct possibility that you may become a food source for carnivorous predators. The hyenas must have smelt my meat sandwiches because they appeared out of nowhere. Next thing I knew they were sniffing around the car. Hyenas are real chance takers in life and will exploit any opportune moment to further their interests. I decided to try a ploy and balanced a piece of meat on the open window sill whilst sitting with my back to the passenger door with my camera in hand. Sure enough, before long a great muzzle appeared at the window and snatched the meat away. I took a reasonably good photo considering that I only had a box type camera at my disposal.
I moved on to the next waterhole and saw more game including lions which was a great thrill. The Kalahari Desert lions are quite different to those which inhabit the eastern areas of Africa.
By mid afternoon I drove through the exit point and enquired about the road to the north. There had been some rain, the park rangers said, but by now the roads should be dry. I drove on through a landscape which was becoming more desolate as I moved north. There were several salt pans to cross and the road had become quite slippery in places due to the rains. I came to a section that was very chopped up by large tyre tracks and in manoeuvring my way through this maze the car became stuck on a mud ridge. I looked at my predicament and decided that in order to extricate the car it would require jacking up and some soil excavation underneath. I set to work and whilst working towards my goal I heard a vehicle approaching. A large Jeep four wheel drive vehicle loomed into view. It had tinted windows which obscured the driver. The electric window slipped down with a whine. “Got a bit of trouble, eh?” said the face behind the dark glasses. The voice sounded familiar. I was peering out from halfway beneath the car and got up off the ground to talk to the driver. :”I dont believe it!” I exclaimed. It was my classmate Tienie, from schooldays five years prior.
Tienie used the power of his four wheel drive to pull my car out of the mud and we drove our vehicles to a safer vantage and sat down for a chat to catch up on what had been happening in the past five years in our lives. Tienie was working for an earthmoving company up in the north of South West Africa where he was the site manager in charge of earthworks to a new dam. He was on his way to Upington to get new parts for an earthmoving machine. He gave me a mud map on how to get to his construction site and told me to wait for him as he would only be a day or so before he got back and that I was to give a message to his foreman by the name of Spanner.
I set off for the town of Gobabis and beyond. Spanner was quite a character of Namibian indigenous extraction and a flippant sense of humour. We got on well and passed the days working on the machinery and telling tales from the bush. On the second night of my stay at the camp Tienie arrived back with the parts for the machinery and also a spare alternator for his truck. We set about repairing the vehicles and then Tienie and his sidekick had to get back to work and I had to make my way north to Windhoek to find work. We promised to stay in touch.
I soon found work in Windhoek with a farmer’s co-operative company, BSB, and started immediately driving out to isolated and remote properties to collect Karakul lamb pelts. The farmers slaughter a percentage of day-old lambs during the lambing season and then the pelts are cured and dried and eventually exported overseas for use in the production of evening wear for ladies. I often wondered if whether those fashionable ladies ever knew of the circumstances of the manufacture of their gowns and stoles. They would probably have been thoroughly disgusted. Anyway, my job was to go out to the farms and vie for their business as there were other firms in the marketplace doing the same. Normally I would ring the various farms to see if the owners wanted any items or produce from town which our company would supply on a credit basis. I was given a Ford F100 utility vehicle and an assistant to help with loading and unloading. Most nights we were guests of one or other farmer but some nights we camped out in the scrub in our swags. On the fringe of the Kalahari Desert areas we normally lit a large fire at night so as to ward off possible predators such as lions and hyenas. On one very memorable trip we were motoring down along the highway to the south of Windhoek when I heard a clicking noise coming from the front of the vehicle. The utility had just had four new tyres fitted and the tyre company had neglected to tighten all the wheel nuts. At a 120 kilometres per hour the left hand, front wheel came off and headed for the bush. The nose of the truck dipped and soon we were running on the wheel hub with sparks flying in the air. I hung on to the steering wheel as I would not dare to touch the brakes and we skidded on the tarmac for a couple of hundred metres. My assistant, Klaas, a Damara tribesman, who was very religious, started praying aloud with his hands clasped in front of his face. Maybe that is what saved us as we came to a grinding halt a few metres off the side of the road pushing a bow-wave of sand with the front bumper bar. As we stopped, Klaas said Amen! We inspected the damage and I sent Klaas off to look for the wheel. It is amazing just how far a speeding wheel can travel and Klaas took a full half hour to retrieve the wheel which had bounced its way through the scrub for almost one kilometre. There was only one thing to do. I would hitch a lift back in to town and get another truck. Then we would have to shift the load over which included two drums of diesel fuel and some heavy bags of stockfeed. This took almost half of the day and we had to wait for the tow truck to arrive to remove our damaged truck as it was un-driveable and one could not abandon the vehicle as parts may be pilfered by passers-by.
We continued our journey into the desert region in the afternoon and, not knowing the road ahead, was surprised by a windrow of sand which grabbed hold of the front wheel and spun the steering wheel out pf my hand. Luckily we were travelling slowly and the truck just lurched into the bush and came to a halt, rocking from side to side.
“Oh! Good Heavens, Boss” exclaimed Klaas, “the Lord is rightly on our side today. Our time has not come yet, thankyou Lord!”
I smiled, as Klaas was to repeat this phenomenon over and over again. Darkness caught us still 100 kilometres from our first customer. We camped on the lee side of a sand dune and after lighting a fire and eating from our supplies of tinned food we slept soundly until first light when the Lourie bird woke us from our slumbers.
My route took me out on the border extremities of South West Africa and Botswana where many wild animals were competing for survival with domesticated breeds.
The desert areas of Botswana were still the ancestral home of the Bushmen people and wildlife was prolific in these desert regions. Desert elephants as well as desert lions roamed the sand dune corridors and eked a living from the bush and the infrequent waterholes. In good seasons when a greater share of rain fell the wildlife would flourish, but when drought conditions set in, their numbers declined and the carnivores especially would venture towards the farms across the border to look for easy prey such as goats, sheep and cattle. Elephants would be so brazen that they would come right up to cropping areas to feed, causing havoc in well maintained vegetable gardens. Farmers had very little recourse but to set raps or to fire shots over the heads of these behemoths to drive them away. Once elephants came to the areas lions would follow. They would get easy pickings if the sheep or cattle had been penned in kraals.
One day a deputation of villagers from a nearby village in Botswana came to the farm to ask the owner if he could assist with methods to get rid of a pride of troublesome lions. He agreed after speaking with neighbouring farms and the following day a number of them drove out to the village in their four wheel drive vehicles. They scouted around for a while and then spotted what they thought might be the pride of troublesome lions. The trucks were loaded with villagers and beating drums and sounding horns they managed to chase the lions along for about five kilometres, by which time the lions were exhausted. At this stage they thought that they had done enough to scare the lions off for the time being and returned to the village.
On the way back someone noticed a male lion cub cowering under some bushes. The villagers caught it and later presented it to the farmers as their appreciation for their help. The farm owners, Willie and Renee, whom I was about to visit, had taken the cub into their household and it was bottle fed by all the family members. By the time the lion was of adolescent age they took him to a veterinary surgeon to have his claws and teeth removed so that he could not injure any human. Up to this stage he had been fed on maize porridge and bread and vegetables only, with a bit of cooked meat thrown in on occasions. Various permits had to be procured from the wildlife and the primary industries departments, and when this was in order, ‘Oubaas’ shared his lot with the dogs and cats which lived on the farm. He was given a separate room in an outbuilding and sometimes, on very cold nights, most of the other free ranging farm animals shared his den. By the time of my first visit to this farm he was ten years of age and fully grown.
Needless to say, I was not privy to all this aforesaid information on my visit. I arrived at around three o’clock in the afternoon and was cordially met by the farmer’s wife who sent a farm worker off to call her husband, who was a short distance away. He arrived in a short while and they both introduced themselves and we sat down for a chat. Then I was offered a cup of tea and upon acceptance, the wife got up to make it. A few minutes later the farmer made an excuse and left the room. I was left there to my own devices and was busy noticing very long hairs scattered about the floor and was wondering what on earth they could belong. My puzzlement became a reality when a fully grown male lion walked through the swing doors of the kitchen and into the lounge. It was Oubaas’s of course, but we had not been introduced and I had only seen lions from the comfort of my car or when the circus came to town. I froze and my heart raced. A snapshot of my face would have been something to treasure for many years to come. Oubaas sauntered in with that lion way of walking and came right up to me. I dropped my teacup and saucer on the floor and they shattered into a multitude of pieces. Oubaas came closer, looking at me with those large yellow eyes and nestled his head on my lap. I leant as far back as I could into the lounge settee as I could and held my breath. Oubaas made a noise like a small roar but I suppose it was meant to be a purring sound. I have heard of people crapping in their pants from fright and believe me I got close to that situation on this particular day. Muffled laughter could be heard from the kitchen and soon after Willie and Renee came out with serious looks on their faces and ordered Oubaas to go and lie down. But he refused and would only obey my command after I had scratched his head and had ordered him to go and lie down. I felt the flush of relief well over my face when the lion went and lay down in a corner of the room with a sigh.
Then Willie and Renee started laughing again and said that I had been a good sport and a lot braver than most visitors they had played this practical joke on. I apologised about the broken tea set but they brushed that aside with a wave of the hand. I was invited to stay the night and we became firm friends after that little caper!!!!..And yes! I did get their business.
My weekends were taken up going down to Marienthal where Tienie met up with his fianc. She had won a beauty competition the previous year and had been crowned Miss South West Africa. She was indeed a very good looking girl. She had two sisters as well of equal good looks and I cottoned on to the elder one. The girls’ family, had a speedboat and we would frequently go skiing on the Marienthal Dam, a vast expanse of water, in this desperately dry country. We had some good times there. But I blotted my copy book by getting a little drunk one day and driving my car into ditch close to the girls’ home and was told that I need not darken their doorstep again. So ended a time of great fun, and loving.
So many people in the world have similar names. In different countries of the world the name changes in its pronunciation but the tone stays the same. How many males named Peter, John, Michael, Andrew, William do you know? They could also be Petrus, Johan, Michiel, Andries or Willem or Piedro, Giovanni, Michello, Andreas or Guillaume. Well, seeing as I was christened Willem and that there were umpteen thousands of Willem’s in South Africa I let it be known that I would prefer my name to be Willie. Now I had narrowed the field down to a few thousand only and in my time travelling around in South West Africa a met a few more Willie blokes, including German Willie.
I had taken it upon myself to travel north over a long weekend to see if I could flush out my mate, Tienie. He was working on a construction site somewhere near Tsumeb and had dropped me a note some months before letting me know what he was up to and that the contract in the north was for a limited time only. I set off in my Ford Cortina on the Thursday evening after getting leave for the Friday and including the Monday Public Holiday for my weekend. I got as far as Grootfontein on the first night and stayed over in a Hotel. The next day was a pleasant drive to Tsumeb arriving in this tropical place. Then I needed directions to Aroab before setting off to that destination and arriving there in the late afternoon. After only one enquiry I found out that Tienie and his crew had finished the job and that the company had moved their camp and no one was sure as to where. I didn’t envisage staying overnight at Aroab and after refuelling my car, I decided to head back to Tsumeb in to the setting sun.
It was just on dark when my lights picked up a huge shape moving across the road. I pumped the brakes, which weren’t all that good on the Cortina and skidded to sudden stop as a small herd of elephants trundled over the road in front of me, not even giving me a glance. Or so I imagined. Further down the road more wildlife was to be seen including small antelope and two hyenas.
I arrived in Tsumeb at about 9pm and found a room in the hotel. It was too late for dinner but I managed to get a sandwich made at a café and then I went back to the hotel. Feeling bored I decided to check out the bar downstairs. There was much merriment going on and I struck up a conversation with a few blokes.
“Gutenabend meneer” said one, “Veghets? Ich bin Willie en du?”
“Hey, my name is Willie too, but sorry, I cannot speak German, but I do understand a few words, O.K.?”
“Ag, so!” said German Willie, “You must be from the Republic. No matter. Just as well I can speak English too. We accept all here in Tsumeb, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!”
German Willie was a jovial bloke, about the same age as me, early twenties, and he ordered me a beer. Expecting a large glass I was stunned when a tumbler, the size of a four pint jug, arrived.
“Now, to be become one of us here in Tsumeb, you have to drink that in one go, yes?”
I must admit that I did partake in the occasional beer, sometimes two occasionally, but this monster was something else. I had only just had a sandwich all day plus some water and a few cigarettes and I eyed my new friends as I started gulping down the amber liquid.
“C’mon, c’mon” they chanted. At one stage I could feel the beer welling up the passages of my nose but I kept on at it and before long, with some dribbles down the front of my shirt, I had devoured the lot.
“Hooray for Willie, Hooray at last, Hooray for Willie, he’s the horses arse! Well done, friend” they exclaimed, “You are now one of us” and they all shook my hand and introduced themselves. I wanted to buy them a beer but they said, “No, you are our guest, tonight” and another four pint jug arrived.
The smoke hung in the bar like a morning mist and the conversation grew louder and louder. We played a few games of snooker and when I was half way through my second tumbler the next one arrived. After that things became a blur and I woke the next morning in my bed fully clothed with a splitting headache. I immediately drank a couple of pints of water, changed my clothes and struggled down to the breakfast room.
Lots of hearty food, more glasses of water and by midday I started to recover. I was just about to go for a walk when the cheerful face of German Willie popped up in front of me.
“Hey my friend” he said cheerfully, “How are you feeling today?” I replied that I wasn’t feeling too hot. He suggested we go down to the pool for a swim and when I agreed we walked over to my car. When he saw I was driving a Cortina his eyes lit up and he said, “I drive one too, but it is the GT!”
So after our swim we spent a couple of hours climbing in and over his GT and going for a spin. His car was very impressive and kept in immaculate condition. Then we decamped back to the pub for a few more beers.
We were sitting around chatting to some girls when one of them invited us out to a party that night on a nearby farm. We said OK and what time etc then they left the pub and we carried on with our beers.
Evening came and dark clouds started to appear and not long after that the rain came pouring down. This was the start of the rainy season and tropical down pours were sometimes fierce. We settled down to more beers however and around 8pm German Willie said that it was time to go out to the farm. I suggested that we take my car but he insisted that we drive in his. It was still raining hard and we got wet getting to the car.
We soon got off the sealed road and were speeding along a very wet and slushy dirt road. German Willie was speeding along the road and I ventured to say “Hey Willie, better slow down a bit”.
His reply was “Nah, I know these roads very well and have been driving them for years in all kinds of weather” The speedo was now reading 75 miles per hour and the road was slippery!
I was becoming increasingly nervous about the speed and the slippery road and was about to say more on the subject when the Cortina lost its grip and we started a long sideways slide. The back of the car came around and our momentum propelled us down an embankment and hard into a sloping earth retaining wall. The force of this impact catapulted the Cortina in to the air and we did a complete somersault. In the rollover our heads came together with a thud which was quite painful and momentarily dulled our senses. There were no seat belts in cars in those days but I had braced myself against the seat when I saw what was about to happen and sustained only the head butt.
The car landed with a thud and a splash into a large pool of water which has accumulated behind the retaining wall. The water cushioned the impact and we were lucky not to be hurt. We sat there for a few minutes, stunned. “You OK?” we both ventured at the same time. Surprisingly we had no other injuries except our head butts and egos and surprisingly also, the car’s engine was still running. I suggested that we try to get going again and to get the car out of the water. Even more surprising we had landed on a gravelly surface underneath the water and got some grip from the tyres. The car struggled along the retaining wall and then we found a place where we were able to drive up and over and the gully and back on to the road. There we discovered that the car had three flat tyres. This was most likely why we were able to drive out of the mud and slush. I suggested we change the spare on to the rear together with the front wheel which was still hard. The rain had stopped but we were getting muddier and muddier. Eventually we were mobile again albeit very slowly with the front wheels both flat. Our process was halted when one of the tyres came off the rim. Then, because we had been running the lights to see what we were doing and a very low charge had been going in to the battery, it lost all its power and we were going nowhere. Darkness encircled us.
After a while another vehicle came along and gave Willie ride in to town while I stayed with the car. Luckily there were a few beers left and it was a mild night. I waited and waited. No other traffic came past and I fell asleep on the backseat of the car. I awoke with the sun beaming in to my face and the sound of a vehicle approaching. German Willie had rounded up some of his mates and arrived with two fresh wheels and a new battery. They were very cheerful but I was feeling seedy and not in the mood for banter. We got back to Tsumeb by mid-morning and I slept for the rest of the day. By evening I was down in the bar again with German Willie and his mates but the mood was more sombre this time and we were drinking slower this time around. Before the pub closed I bid farewell to German Willie and his mates as I was going back to Kalkveld in the morning and made a timely retreat back to my room.
The return journey was long and boring but I kept reliving the events of the past three days and that kept my spirits up until I arrived back at the pub, where I was living.
Some months later Tienie sent me a letter to say that he was now working even further north in the vicinity of Tsumeb. I decided to go up to visit him there and set off from Windhoek on a Friday afternoon. About 50 kilometres out of Grootfontein my Vauxhall developed engine trouble and the big end bearing collapsed, spilling oil out on to the road and seizing the engine so that I was going nowhere, fast. There I sat stranded in the dark until a kindly soul towed me in to town. My car was diagnosed with an expensive engine rebuild and that was that! I hitch-hiked back to Windhoek,. The parts would have to be sourced from Johannesburg, in South Africa, so it would be a month or before I would have the car running again.
Leaving my car in the hands of the mechanic, I hitch-hiked back to Windhoek on the Sunday, and managed to get back to the hostel where I was staying in time for a sleep before taking to the road on the Monday morning again. Weeks passed into months and I worked and played and got in to all the things a young bloke would.
Jaco and the Diamond Differential
At first I had thought, that Tienie and Jaco, were casual acquaintances but as it turned out, they had known one another for some years and had met up in Windhoek by accident. Jaco and his elder brother Martin, were the directors of an import and export company dealing in foodstuffs. They were based in Johannesburg in South Africa and at that point in time they were dealing with a company in Luanda, the capital of Angola, with the view of importing fresh prawns into South West Africa and South Africa. Martin and his family, together with Jaco’s wife and child as well as his father-in-law were all visiting Angola as part of a holiday as well as looking for business opportunities. Or so they said!
Jaco was a smooth talker. Tall, about my height of six feet three inches, square cut face, smartly dressed in casual clothes, he cut a fine figure of a well to do businessman. As I said, he was a smooth talker, letting us know of his various successful business dealings whilst plying us with alcohol. We were seemingly impressed. The upshot of this meeting was that Jaco offered Tienie and me a job in his company where we would be the intermediaries overseeing the export of the prawns to South West Africa and beyond. The pay was good and we were both offered an advance to take care of incidentals but the catch was that we were to start immediately and were to fly to Angola within three days or as soon as our visas were approved. For Tienie it wasn’t a problem as his job with the earthmoving company had finished and he had been laid off for three months until the next contract was due to begin. I had a problem that I had to give a months notice but in the end I said that I was going anyway as this opportunity had arrived and the pay was three times that of what my employer could offer me. They weren’t happy with my decision but accepted the fact. Within four days Tienie and I were on our way to Luanda with high hopes and high expectations for our futures. Little did we know!?
I still had my car with the mechanic in Grootfontein and he had been unable to find the right bearings for the crankcase in South Africa and they had to be ordered from England. This was going to take months. I told him of what I was up to and sent him a little money to tide him over and to keep him happy. I had now been without the car for two months and was getting used to it. Anyway, I would not need a car for a while.
We arrived at Luanda airport and stepped off on to the tarmac into stifling heat as it was now October and the build up to the monsoon season was starting. I had not spent too much time in the tropics before and this heat took some getting used to. Jaco and his family had rented a villa in the hills near Luanda. Tienie and I had to share a hotel room in a run-down boarding place in the middle of the city.
Luanda was a culture shock to me. The Portuguese overlords who were in control of the country ran the society with an iron fist and did not tolerate any deviance from the norm from the African native population. At this point in time the Portuguese authorities were still well in control of the country but simmering resentment from the Africans would come to the fore in the years to come and plunge the country into civil war for a long time. The Portuguese Police would walk down the street in pairs, side by side, step by step, and swaggering and each with a machine gun slung across their shoulders. They were polite and friendly towards people with European features but towards blacks they were cool and remote if not uncaring. The blacks knew to stay out of their way. On the whole, however, the society moved along at a steady pace. Shops opened for business at 6am in the morning but closed down at 11am in the morning and did not re-open till late in the afternoon. Then they would trade once again until late in to the night. This was done so as to combat the tropical heat in the middle of the day.
Tienie and I soon got to know the Luanda layout. We also became aware, quite early in the proceedings that there were spies everywhere. This was gleamed from an inebriated barman in our hotel one morning. He told us that just about everyone who worked where there were foreigners around, also worked on the side informing the police of matters which may require their attention. We had been alerted.
As things worked out, the business dealings with the view to buying and exporting prawns was quite genuine and we were soon to meet various businessmen and view their factory and processing plants. It was going to be a long job however as there were language difficulties and we were slightly out of our league when dealing with smart businessmen. We pressed on however working through the miles of red tape and government officials. About two months into our stay we were visiting a nightclub down on the ocean front precinct and we were having a good time dancing and having fun with the locals. On leaving the nightclub we noticed a vehicle following us, or so we thought. I was driving Jaco’s Land Rover. And I noticed the Peugeot car following us. I mentioned this to Tienie and started driving up and down unknown streets seeing if this car was really following us, it was! Soon we were getting lost and drove up a dead end street with no way out. I brought the Land Rover to a halt. Two men got out of the car and approached the truck and spoke to me in Portuguese. I responded in English saying that I did not understand Portuguese, which was then the official language of Angola. In flawless English one of them replied. They identified themselves as Detectives and asked us a whole lot of questions including our names, where we were staying, whose vehicle it was, who we were employed by and so on. Then we were asked to get out of the car and told to lock it. We were then asked to accompany them to the Police Station. We didn’t have much choice. My apprehension turned out to be unfounded as we were taken to a Police Station and treated very well. In a room full of Policemen we were asked hundreds of questions and after about two hours the Police must have decided that we were just innocent bystanders and told us that we would be returned to our vehicle. They also said that we would probably receive a follow-up visit from them at a later date.
We made it back to our hotel and fell in to a disturbed sleep. The following morning our desk reception smiled at us wryly and said that he knew what was happening. We were non-plussed as we made our way down to Jaco’s villa. What the hell was going on. We had hardly set foot in the villa when a Police car pulled up outside as well. A policeman in plain clothes asked to see Jaco and spoke with him out of earshot.
After the Police had left, Jaco came storming up the stairs of the house in a foul mood stating that they had been given 24 hours to get their affairs in order in Angola and a further 24 hours to leave the country. On top of that the Angolan Government would keep Jaco’s car as security against him leaving the country and he could then make application to have it shipped south at a later date.
Jaco turned to us saying “What the hell have you two been up to?”
“What!.? Us? Nothing!. Why?”
Jaco would not elaborate. We told him about the previous night but that there was nothing that we could have told the Police that would have had any significance to anything. We were still in the dark.
Then we found out that no one had any money. Jaco took his wife’s diamond ring. She started crying and asking in between sobs, about what had happened to their money. Jaco fobbed her off by saying he would tell her later. He left the house and drove down to the business district with the ring. He reappeared about an hour later and told everyone to start packing. Soon after that Immigration Officials arrived at the villa and stamped ‘Cancelled’ on all visas. We were at our hotel getting ready to move out and our visas weren’t cancelled but we had no choice in the matter. We paid our hotel bill, got into the LandRover and drove down to the villa.
Later that afternoon we piled in to the LandRover and set off on our journey south. There was Jaco and his wife and their infant child, Jaco’s father-in-law and Jaco’s brother, Martin and Tienie and myself. Not much was being said and it was soon apparent that we were being followed. Our ‘escort’ stayed with us for about a hundred kilometres and then, when pretty much sure that we were out of the city and built up areas, they did a u-turn and left us to our own devices.
It was the beginning of December and the monsoon season had started early. As we progressed south the tarred roads became worse as poor maintenance had left them in a bad state. We pushed on into the night driving in turns. I was behind the wheel just before daylight when I saw some fuel drums lying in the road. I slowed down to a crawl and then came the sound of a firecracker going off.
“Shit!!!!!!….someone’s shooting at us!!!!!!!!” Tienie yelled. I floored the accelerator, bumped some of the drums out of the way and we kept on going. Then the rear window shattered but did not implode leaving a hole where a bullet had entered. The bullet then imbedded itself in the hood lining. We had been hit. I kept the accelerator down and we picked up speed. I kept going for what seemed hours with nobody saying anything. We reached the town of Villa da Ponte and stopped at the Police Station. While we were trying to show the two policemen on duty at the damage to our vehicle and that we had had a near death experience they were more interested in seeing our passports. Once they saw the cancelled visas they shooed us off on our way and would not listen to anything. All they did was to point south and gesture “Go! Go!” We managed to refuel the Land Rover and have a bite to eat at a meagre fruit stall in this small town. A local asked where we were going and we pointed south and he shook his head. In broken English he said that there had been lots of rain and the roads may be flooded.
We pressed on. The road had now changed to dirt ruts with wet patches and mud holes. We were in four wheel drive mode all the way now. We were following a river bed that meandered across a floodplain. Now we were in wild country with the possibility of lions and crocodiles being about. We passed the town of Evale and by the time we reached Pereira de Eqa we were driving in water. The town had been abandoned some years before and there were ruins only.
It was nightfall and but Jaco decided that we should push on. I questioned this move but he told me to shut up and that he knew what he was doing. I shut up.
By ten o’clock at night driving was becoming precarious and even Jaco realised this and as soon as we found a dry spot we pulled up for the night. The ground was wet and we sat in the LandRover making the best of what sleeping position we could muster. The mosquitoes would not leave us alone either despite us spraying copious amounts of insect spray in the cabin.
Daylight saw us moving again and the terrain became undulating with sections of dry track and others where we drove for kilometres through half a metre of water just aiming at the hole in the trees as an indicator to where the road may be. Tienie and I sat on the roof rack for a while directing the driver where to go in this small sea. Progress was slow but eventually in the late afternoon we cleared the low lying areas and came to the border bridge at Vila Perez. Here the bridge spans the mighty Kunene River which divides South West Africa from Angola. The border guards stamped our passports and we drove across the river with obvious relief. We were smiling and laughing again making little jokes and saying how we would easily deprive ourselves of something for a cold beer. The immigration officials at the border post, Oshikango, stamped our passports and told us to drive over to the building in the shade of the trees for Customs. We drove over.
Six burly Policemen stepped out of the building as we arrived. We were instructed to leave the vehicle, to touch nothing and to go in to an air conditioned room to wait.
“We have been waiting for you.” they said wryly and proceeded to pull the LandRover to pieces.
There were enough beds in the room for us to lie down on and after downing a few cold beers which we were able to buy from a makeshift store at an exorbitant price we fell in to a deep sleep. Even protestations from Jaco’s young son could not wake us and we slept through till the morning.
Customs officials and Police had virtually pulled the Land Rover apart during the night but they could not find whatever they were looking for. What were they looking for? Jaco and Martin appeared to be just as dumbfounded as the rest of us. Then we were ordered in to separate rooms and a full body search was conducted on all of us. I had never been searched like this in my life and was very angry at first but was told in no uncertain terms that the alternative was 90 days jail in Tsumeb, a town about 300 kilometres to the south. I conceded defeat and the search went ahead. Nothing was found but by this time Tienie and I had an idea that the authorities were searching for illicit diamonds. Reluctantly the customs officials gave us clearance to leave. We were flabbergasted to say the least and Jaco and Martin feigned outrage at our treatment. There were recriminations and mutterings as we made our way further south. The track was still wet in places but the further south we moved the drier it became and we were starting to see lots of antelope, warthogs, wildebeest and zebras as we were now approaching the northern boundary of the Etosha Game Reserve.
That night we camped near the game reserve boundary and lit a big fire as there was lots of dried wood at hand. Even though we had had a good sleep the night before we were quite exhausted and our spirits were low again. Tini and I were broke and were wondering what the future held in store for us. The discussion went that way and Jaco piped up to say that he would look after us once we got to Windhoek. We had both funded our own stay in Angola and had even paid for some of the fuel for the journey south.
The night suddenly went quiet but we did not notice it until there was a might roar from a lion. It sounded so close and we were startled out of our reverie and all of us rushed to get back into the Land-Rover where we stayed for the rest of the night.
After that incident it was an easy if uncomfortable run in to Windhoek and both Tini and myself were feeling uneasy and we were pretty skint too boot. On arrival Jaco told us to meet him at the hotel the following day which we duly did. When we met up he thanked us for our contribution to the venture in Angola and said that the prawn business was still a goer and that we were to come and see him in three month’s time. He gave both Tini and myself a cheque for five thousand rands each and bid us goodbye for the time being. I was pretty happy with this outcome and went to the bank and deposited the proceeds. I was smart enough to obtain a special bank clearance for the cheque and within one hour the bank confirmed that my cheque had been cleared. I rang the mechanic in Grootfontein who told me that my car was ready to be picked up. All I had to do was get there and bring some money with me. I drew the cash and started hitchhiking to Grootfontein some two hundred kilometres away.
Two days later I was back in Windhoek. Tini had flown to Johannesburg to see the company he worked for prior to our adventure about a new contract and I decided that I had had enough excitement for a while and headed for home to spend Christmas with my parents.
It was a long drive home and I tried to do as much as possible at night taking care not to hit small steenbuck, which could dart in front of the lights. Once back in South Africa I called in at Wolmeransstad where Jaco’s father-in-law lived. There I saw Jaco’s wife and son as well and they relayed to me that Jaco and Martin had gone to Johannesburg on urgent business. I bid them goodbye and continued on my way south.
Christmas was a family affair and we all had a good time. I was busy organising myself another job in Cape Town and everything seemed to be falling in to place when my dad summonsed me to his office.
“What the hell have you been up to this time?” he yelled at me. I was taken by surprise not knowing what had happened. Then the story came to light.
The cheque that I had cleared by the bank did not have the authorised signatures on it and was not valid. “But”, said I, “the bank cleared the cheque and I have the paper work to prove it” My dad, being a lawyer, was very pleased about that, but in the end the bank demanded the money back. So as to avoid a court case and legal argument that could have run in to thousands of rands my dad demanded that I repay the money. Luckily I had not spent much of it and handed it over to my dad. Then, of course, there was a shortfall. So, my dad, who was a very imposing person, and whom I held in awe, took my car from me and sold it. After the balance of my debt to the hire purchase company was paid there was just enough left to make up the shortfall of the five thousand rands I owed. I was left with ten rands to my name. Back to where I started out some years before.
No wheels, no girl, no job, no money, no prospects.
Dad announced a day later that the insurance company, in which our family had a major share portfolio, was looking for a clerk and I was to be it and that I was leaving for Cape Town the following Sunday by train. Just like that! What choice did I have?
I went to work at the insurance company and lasted for six months at a dreary desk and a dreary job. The only highlight of my stay there was the company secretary who was three years my senior and who was sex crazy. She was engaged to be married to a bloke who was doing National Service and was away for months at a time.
After departing from my desk job I drove hire cars for a tour company for three months and in that time saved up my money and booked my passage to Australia.
It was some time later that I had a letter from Tienie telling me that Jaco and Martin had indeed smuggled diamonds out of Angola and that had been the whole purpose of the visit there. Our employment in Angola had only been a smoke screen. Apparantly the diamonds had been hidden in a specially made compartment in the front differential housing of the Land Rover. Customs never thought of looking there. The Land Rover was found abandoned at the wharf in Cape Town and word had it that both Jaco and Martin had ’emigrated’ to Argentina. Later he had sent for his wife and son but they refused to leave South Africa.
A New Adventure
I had met this older lady, on one of our tours, when working for Springbok Atlas Safaris in Cape Town, and she offered me a job in her travel business in Wisconsin, United States of America. I agreed to come but stated that I would drop in to Australia along the way for three months, just to get a brief glimpse of the place. I started planning my trip, saving my money and booked my passage on an ocean-going liner.
After nine days across the Indian Ocean from Cape Town to Perth on the good ship MV Ellinis with some thousand English immigrants on board (they used to call them Ten Pound Tourists), I arrived in Australia on the evening of 11 September 1968. I stepped off the ship at Fremantle and was thoroughly searched by quarantine inspectors after stating on my arrival form that I had been on a farm, two weeks prior to my departure from South Africa. Lesson number one….do not speak of farms on arrival forms! I asked how long I could stay as there were no visa requirements in those days. The blokes at immigration said no longer than 24 months. I asked if I was allowed to work, and they said Yes and ticked that off on my immigration form and that was that. I walked into Australia
I had written an old school friend who now lived in Perth on meeting me when I arrived in Australia and as I did not want to impose on him I asked that he could find some economical accommodation in the city. I finally cleared customs and was met and after a meal and a catch up on school related news I was dropped of at this boarding house. Bloody Hell! Were there bed bugs in that place? Luckily, I had only booked in for one night. Having had a sleepless night, I woke in the morning and peered out of the window to look across a sea of red tiled roofs. Everything looked the same. My heart sank in dismay. What on earth was I doing here? I showered and dressed and went down for breakfast where the lodge owner asked if I was staying another night and when I replied in the negative she called me a “Bloody wog”. I had never heard of the expression and expected it to be something nasty so took no notice. Grabbed my large suitcase and guitar and struggled down the street looking for a car and something to eat.
First days in Australia.
At least they spoke English here and I could understand to some degree what they were saying through their nasal strains. Some words were beyond me. It wasn’t long before I found a shonky car dealer and procured a FJ Holden from him for $50. But the radiator had a hole in it and that had to be repaired first. Then I bought spare belts and hoses and engine oil and a drum for water and a jerry can for extra petrol and by the end of the day and $150 I was mobile. While I was waiting for repairs to the car I had been looking through the paper for other lodgings and found some in Claremont, a western suburb of Perth. With a street map in hand I made my way along the streets keeping my eyes wide open to GIVE WAY TO THE RIGHT rules as the friendly car shonk had warned me. What a bloody experience! Cars could fly out from the right, even if you were on a major road and you had to give way to them, sometimes in haste, so as to avoid a collision.
I found my new lodgings after a while and booked in for a week. It was a much nicer place with gardens and lawns out the front. I had decided to go and look for job and would take the train in to the city each day. I was also set on getting an Australian Drivers Licence.
The following morning a bloke at my breakfast table said ‘Ow yer going’ to me and I said “By train” and he looked at me quizzically. Someone at the table twigged amongst all the laughter and explained my second lot of Australian slang to me. I soon found out what ‘wog’ and other vernacular meant. I dressed up in a suit and went to the city doorknocking on Travel Agents looking for a job whilst presenting good references. It was not to be. The Australian psyche in 1968 was to make you start at the bottom if you were new from overseas. After two weeks of doing this I gave up and went to the labour exchange or Commonwealth Employment Service. I had managed to pass the questionnaire needed to get my drivers licence by this time.
My first day at CES and I got sent to a job. What sort of job was it? “Dogman’s offsider’ came the reply. What the hell is a dogman, I wondered? Anyway, I caught the bus to this place and presented myself. It was a steel manufacturing yard and I soon found out what a dogman was. I had never used a chain in my life but had to learn really fast. Words like “You fuckin dickhead” or “You fuckin wog” encouraged me to work without questioning. I got the drift very quickly. Seven thirty start, Smoko at nine thirty….and nothing is more important than Smoko. lunch at twelve and smoko at two thirty and knock-off at four thirty. I managed two weeks at this place but left as it was monotonous work and the quality of the conversation was below average plus, I had blisters on my hands. “Can’t fuckin’ hack it, mate?” said the foreman, “You fuckin’ wogs are all the same. I nodded my head, took my pay packet, and left. In fact, after a month in Australia, I was getting ideas of moving on and took to the road to the north.
I drove up as far as Geraldton and had a look around. I got talking to some locals as I was keen to go up to Darwin and found out that there was at least three thousand kilometres of gravel road. What??? Yes, three thousand, mate. I decided to give it a miss and turned south again. Back in Perth I visited my friend and his wife for a couple of days and then said my farewells and continued driving south.
My journey took me south of Perth and in to the big forests. I veered to the left and drove out on and through the salt lakes of Lake King and Lake Grace. Then down to Ravensthorpe, Esperance and up to Norseman before tackling the big trip to the east. The sealed road only continued on for a short distance from Norsemen before reverting to a corrugated carriageway. I plodded along from road house to roadhouse topping up oil to the engine every now and then as by now I realised that the main bearing oil seal of the engine was leaking. The longer distances I travelled at a time the hotter the engine became and the more the oil would leak past the seal. Eventually I realised that the old car was using too much oil and that something would have to be done about it. I had arrived at Madura Roadhouse and started talking to the mechanic there, who incidentally, owned all the businesses. Of course it was to his advantage to paint a gloomy picture of my predicament and as I was not in the mood to fiddle with engines out on the Nullarbor I swapped the car for dinner, bed and breakfast at the Motel. The following morning I lugged my suitcase and guitar out to the road and waited for a ride. I got a lift in a truck and the driver and I conversed on many subjects on the long haul to Eucla. That is where the sealed road started and we sped on to Ceduna, the kilometres clicking by one by one. I drove the semi-trailer for a couple of hundred kilometres to give the driver some relief. Eventually we arrived in Ceduna where the truck was to unload and then stay over for the night. I wandered over to the Shell Roadhouse and had a long hot shower, a change of clothes and a good feed. As there was still some time left in the day I decided to get out on the road again to see if I could score another ride. I had only been standing for about 5 minutes by the side of the road when a Police car turned up with two policemen in it. “Get in”, one said as they pulled up next to me. I complied. They drove me back to the Police Station and told me quite forcefully go in to the front waiting room. I was quite taken aback by this turn of events but decided to keep a cool head and to offer as little information as possible. While I was being questioned the District Commander walked in through the door and enquired as to what was going on. It appeared that a tall blonde male had stolen a car somewhere to the west and the police were following their line of enquiries. I told the DC who I was, showed him my passport and told him of my misfortunes with my car and a copy of the receipt I had given the mechanic at Madura for my car. Figuring that I was telling the truth he accepted my story and then wanted to know all about South Africa as he had an Aunt who was living in Johannesburg. In the end he invited me out for an evening meal at his place and then dropped me back at the station later where I was given an open cell to sleep in for the night.
The next morning a truckie picked me up about 9am. He was on his way to Adelaide with a load of furniture. Irish born he had such a bad accent that I could barely understand him. But we got on well and covered many subjects. I recollect the long road once again to the east, the mining town of Iron Knob and thousands of Galahs flying around eating the fallen wheat seeds on the side of the road. I remember Port Augusta at night vaguely and then we slept on the side of the road for a few hours at Mambray Creek where there was an area to pull off the road. In the early morning we passed the smallholdings outside of Adelaide where produce is grown. I said goodbye to the Irishman and gave him my guitar which had by now become a burden to me. I was learning fast that one must travel light. My home made back pack was still too cumbersome but I was unsure of what to do with it. I had bought it in Cape Town. It was a fold-up type suitcase and the one good thing about it was that I could sleep on top of it when I needed to.
I caught a number of buses to the outskirts of Adelaide and had just set myself down to wait for a ride when a new Toyota Crown car pulled up. The driver was a young woman aged in her mid thirties and heading for Portland in Victoria. I was unsure of where it was but it was in the general direction of Melbourne so I got in. Noami was quite a talker and very good looking. She and her husband were in the fishing business and she had come to Adelaide to visit relatives while her husband was out at sea. We stopped for lunch at Bordertown and sped on past Horsham and then down south towards Portland. I slept for a short while in the car and then apologised for being so rude. Then Naomi got tired and I said that I could drive and showed her my International Drivers Licence. We arrived in Portland in the early evening. Their house was on a smallholding and away from any other houses. I helped her unpack the car and was about to say goodbye when she asked if I would like to stay for tea. I was hungry and tired and said yes immediately. She contacted her husband by radio and found out that he would only be home in two day’s time. We sat down for a nice tea and a bottle of wine. Then another bottle of wine appeared and halfway through the third bottle of wine we were quite merry. Suddenly Naomi stood up and walked around to my side of the table and took me by the hand. She pulled me on to my feet and led me to her bedroom where she stripped naked in front of me. She was better looking naked than with her clothes on. We fell in to a heap on the bed and made passionate love all through the night. Just before sunrise she said that I had better have a shower and that she would take me out to the road so that prying eyes from neighbouring properties would not see what need not be seen. An hour later I was once again standing by the side of the road again waiting for the next ride. Both Naomi and I understood that we would never meet again and just kissed a fond farewell. There was no passion in it as both our passions had been spent.
The day dragged on for a while and another hitchhiker joined me. First, we stood at a distance from one another but later came closer and started chatting. Then around lunch time lime green Valiant Regal stopped and a man with a soft voice and with lots of rings on his fingers invited us both to join him. I climbed in the front and John in to the back seat. We had not gone too far when I realised that the driver, Pauly, was an effeminate person. He put his hand on my leg and I pushed it away. Soon after he found an excuse to stop at a Café and bought some cigarettes. Then he invited John to sit in the front with him. Very soon they were holding hands and sitting close together. It was a slow journey with frequent stops and eventually I offered to drive. Pauly and John got in to the back seat while I took up the driving position. I turned the inside rear-view mirror askew so that I could not witness what was going on and turned the radio volume up loud. I could not believe that two persons of the same sexual persuasion could meet like that, forgetting of course, my tryst with the housewife the night before. The Valiant sped along until we reached the outskirts of Melbourne where I bade farewell to the boys and hopped on a late afternoon train which took me in to Flinders Street Station. I still remember the train. The doors were left open while the train rambled from station to station. I could never figure out why.
At Flinders Street Station I found a phone box and rang Brian, a mate of my mate Ian. About twenty minutes later I was picked up from the sidewalk and met Brian for the first time. We went to a pub for a feed and numerous drinks. Ian had met Brian in London when both of them were on a working holiday. Then Brian had spent some time in South Africa before returning to Australia. Brian lived in a flat with his mother. I am not sure if she lived with him or he lived with her but by the second day she called me a ‘Bludger’. Not knowing what this meant I asked Brian who became very incensed with his mom. I found out what the meaning was and went down to the local shops and bought some food and a bottle of wine. This seemed to placate the old girl. I had found out very early that due to a heavy migration program after the Second World War, some sections of the Australian Community took a dim view, if not a bigoted one, of new arrivals in the country. The hospitality that we had all enjoyed in the country where I had grown up was not forthcoming here in Australia. Socially you were accepted when in a crowd you would shout a round of beers but that seemed to be where the line was drawn.
On the weekend Brian was invited to a party and took me along. I went dressed in my African Safari suit which I had thought at that time was really cool but totally unknown in Australia. An English immigrant cottoned on to me and gave me a real earbashing about the way the white South Africans treated the black populace by decree of their separate development policies know as apartheid. I simply did not have an answer to this as politics was as far away from my mind as could be. I tried to get out of the conversation but to no avail and after a while told the other bloke to fuck off. This caused a stir and soon afterwards we left the party. Brian understood the situation but he warned me that Australians viewed the world differently to what I was used to. I was to find out at a later date that many Australians had a very bigoted approach when it came to the indigenous population of this country and preached double standards.
After the weekend I took leave of Brian and his mother and hitch-hiked to Sydney. I paid a for a week’s rent in Bondi in a clapped-out motel and hung around for that time moving around the city and visiting the famous Kings Cross and other dubious places. The city irked me and was dirty. I grabbed my swag and head for the railway station when my rent ran out. I was perusing the train schedules and platform locations when I was approached by a bloke who recognised a safari suit. We started chatting and he gave me an address of some Rhodesians who were living up on the Gold Coast who were friends of his. I caught a train to Newcastle and then hitched the rest of the way to Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast. The last lift was a young bloke in an old FJ Holden just like the one I had bought in Perth. I remember driving past a sign which showed the way to a beach side hamlet. The sign read ‘We have everything except sand-flies’ This I thought was very amusing but was unaware of what sand-flies were. I found out in due course!
Surfers Paradise was a bustling joint with lots of tourists flocking to the golden beaches. Beer flowed freely from all the pubs and there was a general consensus of merriment. Beer drinking and sex was the order of the day amongst the young people and I had my fill in my time there. I spent my first night sleeping on the beach and the following day got up to Main Beach where I met up with Rob and his gang of Rhodesians. It was one of those raised tropical houses which they rented and I was shown a room downstairs and told to stay as long as I liked. I had to contribute some food from time to time. These blokes all had jobs and very soon I was working too in their gardening business. Rob advanced in to the corporate world some years later and became a name around the area. I stayed two weeks and hitchhiked north to Brisbane, Rockhampton, Townsville and finally Cairns. By this time, I had shed my large fold-up case and only had minimal clothing in a backpack. I was running short of money and started working in pubs washing dishes and cleaning bars. I wrote to my mother that I had seen some of Australia and was now thinking of coming home again. Two weeks later I started hitch hiking again heading south back to Main Beach. Here I spent Christmas and New Year and it was a hilarious time. News Years even got a tad out of hand when thousands of revellers took to the streets of Surfers and the cops arrived. I remember standing on the sidewalk with a bottle of scotch in my hand when a cop walked up to me with his baton raised and said “Move”. I did just that. After the festivities and parties had died down I left Surfers and started hitch hiking again. This time I took the New England Highway down to Dubbo and then headed west and in one week managed to get back to Perth. I rang my mother from Perth but got hold of my father instead. He said that he was not going to pay for my ticket back home and that I had better get a job and pay my own way back if I was so inclined. I said “Fuck you, dad” and he hung up on me. Suddenly I did not know what to do. I had completely forgotten about my intentions of going to America. I rented a room in a boarding house and started looking for work in the tourist industry. But it was slow going. I was a foreigner and those jobs just were not available. I was reduced to digging ditches on construction sites. It didn’t hurt me and the pay was probably better as long as you towed the Union line.
A couple of weeks went by and I had enough money again and so I set off to the east coast. I hitch-hiked across the Nullarbor, after once again, having a run in with Police, at Norseman. They picked me up for vagrancy. What was vagrancy? No means of visible support and being idle in a public place. But all I was doing was waiting for a ride! I protested and told them I had money and showed them my bankbook and demanded to get access to the South African Ambassador in Canberra. After a lot of swearing they let me go but I had to make my own way back to where I was standing in the first place.
Just on dusk a jolly bloke in a Valiant utility without a windscreen picked me up. He reckoned it was going to be a long night. I suggested we go back to the bottle shop and I would buy some beers, which we did. The beer kept us from going insane with all the bugs flying in to the cabin. After a while we agreed to fasten the beer carton to the bull bar just so that we may get some deflection from the flying things and it worked as long as we kept the speed down to about 80kmh.
A number of rides got me as far as Mildura in Victoria and there I got picked up by a truckie late at night after he spotted me sleeping at the side of the road. That is also the night I had an encounter with a bull-ant which bit me on the lip causing it to swell up dramatically. Luckily the poison dissipated just as fast. I got to drive the truck as well as the truckie had a deadline to meet and he was very tired. I drove quite a distance until we reached the Southern Tablelands where the roads had more twists and turns. I took leave of my lift at the Sydney Markets and made my way to a boarding house at Bondi.
In Sydney I did a course on Olivetti Typewriters and how to service and sell them and got paid at the same time. But the prospect of a job selling typewriters did not appeal to me. I had started working in the service department of Olivetti after doing the course and was looking for a way out of it. Then one night a cupboard door in my room at the boarding house broke. I went to the owner and asked for a screwdriver to repair it and when the owner saw the broken door he lost his temper with me and told me pack my bags and to leave immediately. I had just paid a week’s rent in advance but that was not refunded. I was reluctant to go but eventually got pushed out in to the street by two of the owner’s sons. I had sorely been ripped off again. Then an Englishman, who had witnessed the affair and who had also been staying in the boarding house came over and said that I could sleep in his Holden Station wagon and that he was heading to Queensland in the morning and if I shared some of the costs I could get a ride. So, I agreed.
Jack was a shearer and he had a job lined up in Western Queensland. I went along for the ride. At night I slept on the front passenger seat and Jack slept in the back of the car. But Jack’s feet stank that much that I eventually opted to sleep outside with the mosquitoes. The tales that Englishmen do not bath seemed to ring true. On the third morning we were driving along the Diamantina development road and the car stopped and the bloke said that he was turning off on a station where he had a job and that was as far as my ride went. There I stood in the middle of no-where with my swag and a bottle of water. A couple of hours passed and then a Landcruiser utility came along driven by a local pastoralist who was going to Bedourie and gave me a ride. He was astounded that I was standing out there in the middle of summer. At Bedourie I was lucky to find the Mailman and get a lift as far as Dajarra. As I sat down on the stone steps of the Dajarra Pub contemplating my lot, the publican, Mrs Johnston, came out and asked if I would like to do some work. I was very pleased with this offer as my kitty was severely depleted as I had just about paid for all the petrol for the ride in the shearers car. I did some painting, washed dishes and worked in the bar for week and got a bed and meals. During that time I got an opportunity to go kangaroo shooting with Mrs Johnston’s son and that was an experience in itself. At the end of my week stay there, when the work ran out, word came from the north that the road construction company was looking for labourers and on the Monday morning I got a lift in on the road to Mt Isa and very soon was working for P C Zaanen and Co building the road between Dajarra and Mount Isa. At the end of the first day I was shown my quarters at the construction camp site. There were the ATCO demountable buildings with rooms and beds but no roof and no windows. I slept under the stars like that for 6 weeks before taking my leave from the harsh rigours of road works. I was given a cheque for my labours and managed to cash it at one of the pubs. I spent the evening there drinking beers with the locals and slept the night in a decent room. The following day I decided to head back to Darwin and took my swag out on to the road.
I stood on the other side of the creek to the west of Mt Isa all day and no ride as forthcoming. In the evening I boiled the Billy and cooked some tinned food I had with me and settled down for the night. Around 9pm a car stopped as the driver had seen the embers of my fire. Jump in he said, the more the merrier. Now we were 6 up in an HD Holden wagon. These blokes had all been at the pub and were pretty drunk. We drove off into the darkness and I was given a beer. I was not sure of what was going to happen here but evening wore on uneventfully until the driver started getting bored and would drive on the wrong side of the road when other cars were approaching. Luckily for all of us his best mate talked him out of it and very soon was behind the wheel himself. We drove on into the night and camped by the side of the road somewhere near Avon Downs. The next day the drive continued until we reached Three Ways where everyone went in to the pub for a beer. I bought the car owners a few beers and when the crowd I was with started to pick a fight with the locals I said goodbye, grabbed my gear from the car and walked down the road to where the Barkley Highway met the Stuart Highway. I wasn’t there long before an old Land Rover stopped with a very fat American called Michael at the wheel. He had a fellow hitch-hiker with the name of Mati who was a Latvian. Mati was later to take photos at my wedding. The old Land Rover was slow and we plodded along, talking about what the north would be like as none of us had been there. We had only gone a relatively short distance when my ride of the previous night passed us and then spotted me at the same time. They stopped their car on the road in front of us so that we had to stop. Everyone got out. The driver of the Holden turned out to be a Croatian immigrant and very aggressive. He was most upset that I had left his party and had insulted him by doing that. At this point in time Michael went and hid behind the Land Rover and Mati stood away at a distance. Frank, the Croatian, had his mates and fellow travellers flanking him but they showed no interest in aggression. However, Frank wanted to make an example of me and I could see that a fight was about to ensue. So, I egged him on as I could see that he was well under the weather and incapable of doing anything. I was standing with my back to the Land Rover and as Frank lunged at me with his fist I side-stepped him and banged him behind the head with my open hand in the scuffle. His closed fist hit the panel of the Land Rover and his head hit the side mirror cutting it open and letting blood gush out.
“Oh God, Oh God, Oh Fuck, I have broken my hand,” he yelped and collapsed into a heap, blood dripping down his face and grimacing at his seemingly broken hand. His mates picked him up with one smiling and another saying sorry about this and they bundled him in to the car and took off. I was to meet Frank again in Darwin but that is another story. Our journey continued on uneventfully and we camped out a night near the Fergusson River. The dingoes started howling and Michael became very restless. Long before sunrise Michael woke us to say that he wanted to move on. By the time got to Adelaide River it was hot and we got an inkling of what is was going to be like. It was February and in the middle of the ‘Wet’ season with storm clouds building up already. We arrived in Darwin around midday and the heat was stifling but the ‘Hot and Cold Bar’ at the Hotel Darwin provided cool relief and I spent most of the afternoon there getting to know people.
I had arrived at my destination!
I spent my first night in Darwin on Mindil Beach. It was a warm, balmy night and after having something to eat at Rocky’s Place Eatery, next to the Kerry Manolas Pharmacy in Mitchell Street, I caught a cab down to the beach area. There had been a tropical downpour during the day while we were all in the pub and I watched as the water fell in sheets and then stopped abruptly. An hour later the streets were dry again. So, figuring that it should not rain again and seeing that there was no accommodation to be had, except hotels (for which I had no money), I had made for Mindil Beach. A very warm breeze wafted along the foreshore and the small tropical waves of the outer edges of Darwin Harbour broke gently on the beach. Lighting flashed around in the distance but I went to sleep on a blanket as I snuggled a position into the sand.
Just behind where I slept that night was to be the site of the final Darwin Casino, built over a run down caravan park.
At around four in the morning I was awakened by a droning sound and puzzled as to what it was. I was soon to find out! The rain hit me with such force that I was wet right through instantly. The droning sound had been the rain on roofs of houses at Myilli Point. The rain drops were so hard that they were stinging and I sought relief from them in the sea. The sea was warm, probably close on 30 degrees, as I waded out to get on to deeper water. In the illumination of a remote lightning flash I saw a huge Manta Ray take off in front of me, leaping out of the water and diving again with a splash. Thinking of sharks and things that swim around in the night I beat a hasty retreat to my soggy bedding and sat the rain out. The storm passed and suddenly I was cold. But there was nowhere to go. By the time daylight broke I had dried out and once the sun was up I was soon warm again.
I made my way back up to Darwin town centre and had a cup of coffee at Rocky’s Place where all the international travellers met. It soon occurred to me that my ‘swag’ was too cumbersome to lug around and I sold it to a French tourist who was going south. This included some winter clothes, which were of no value in the tropics as by now I was going to stay here for a while. I bought a small case at the Salvation Army store and kept minimal clothes in it. A pair of socks, some underpants, a couple of singlets, a shirt, two pairs of shorts, a pair of jeans and a jumper for when the temperature dropped at night. Footwear was a pair of rubber thongs. I went down to the ANZ Bank and opened a passbook bank account and deposited nine hundred dollars in it. That was the balance of what was left after costs incurred for fuel to Darwin. Later that morning I met Michael, the American, who had given me the ride from Three Ways. He could not stand the humidity and was selling his Landrover and was flying out back to Sydney the following day.
Life in Darwin in 1968 was busy. The theme of the day was to get in to the ‘Hot and Cold’ Bar of the Darwin Hotel as soon as it opened. This was the general meeting place but if one stayed too long one started getting the shivers as the airconditioning units, were running at maximum coolness. Those who stayed on for hours were always checked by the bouncer, Eddie Cubillo, who meted out rough justice to those who did not comply with ‘regulations’. There wasn’t much work to be had as we all queued at the CES office in Mitchell Street for day work. Married men got preference over single men and bush work was minimal. Many European immigrants with little English just wanted ‘bush’ work. This was mainly centred at Gove Peninsula where the Bauxite Mine was operating. Once there you were obliged to work for three months at a time and then have two weeks off in Darwin on a fly in fly out basis. Work was in 12-hour shifts around the clock. If you didn’t get caught up in gambling or excessive drinking you could save a small fortune as the wages were pretty good.
Unemployment benefits were virtually unheard of and it only paid $16 per week if you were entitled to it. As I was not an Australian Citizen I was not entitled to any benefits and had to rely on my own resources. I still had some money in the bank and was not worried about the future. Talking to various travellers I got the impression that one could live like royalty on the Island of Bali in Indonesia. I made some enquiries but soon found out that bearers of South African passports were not welcome in Indonesia. I made further discreet enquiries and found a bloke who could do quite good forgeries of passports. With this avenue in mind I set about to find someone who was prepared to sell their passport. I found an Australian passport for $100. This was top dollar in 1969. I then had passport photos taken and handed all to the forger together with $25 down payment and $25 payment on completion. After a few days I got the passport back . It was not a good copy but would have sufficed. Now that I had a way out of Darwin leaving became less important and I was soon to get a job.
I worked as a Plaster Caster’s assistant for a builder by the name of Roy Graetz. We would mix the plaster up in cement mixers and then pour it on to tables which looked like converted billiard tables. It would be given time to set and then picked up with clamps and put outside to dry in the sun. My next job was unloading cement from the railway yard and that was hard yakka. Then I did a few labouring jobs around the place. In the mean time I slept on Lameroo Beach with all the other hippies and some blackfellas. Everyone except me was smoking hashish. If you stood at the top of the pindan cliffs which rose above the beach, you could smell the aroma of dope wafting up on the air currents. I couldn’t stand the smell of it. I stuck to Benson and Hedges or Marlboro with an occasional Camel thrown in. Some days when there was no work I would be down on the beach playing cards 21 or Vantoon or Pontoon as the blackfellas called it. They were great card players and didn’t mind losing now and then. In the afternoons we would all traipse up to the ‘Hot and Cold’ to have a few beers. Some nights the Police would come down to the beach to harass us. We would all get up and walk down to the water’s edge with our bedding. This was and as far as I know still is No Man’s Land between the High water and Low water mark. Then the cops would just laugh and go back up the steps to their vehicle. One night they shone a torch in my face and asked me for identification. I showed them my passport and also told them I had a job. They wanted to know why I was staying on the beach. I asked “Where is the accommodation?” There was no accommodation to be had except isolated boarding houses, which were full. After a while we were left in peace. When it rained we all sat under a tarpaulin that some one had knocked off from the railway yards. This tarp was heavy duty and completely waterproof. We eventually rigged up a lean-to which we could prop up when the skies opened up.
Then as the dry season approached the beach campers moved off as they were either wending their way north through Asia or flying home to wherever. I was left to my own devices and decided to try and take the mesh screen off the old bathing cubicle which stood on a concrete block at the bottom of the walkway. To my surprise it came off easily. I then managed to open the door as was able to make use of the space inside. I could sleep fully stretched out on the floor and there were still some old steel pegs where I could hang my clothes on. One night I met a young aboriginal girl from out of town who had nowhere to stay and I invited her down to share my pad. She brought her swag roll with her and it was a lot softer than my meagre blankets.
One Saturday afternoon in the public bar of the Smith Street Hotel I bumped in to Croatian Frank, my protagonist of the Stuart Highway. He and his mates were drunk again and he grabbed me by the arm as I walked past his table. “Hey man” he said, “I am gonna fight you this time”. And with that he and his mates got up. At that precise moment Frank suddenly rose up above me as if he was floating upwards. He tried to wriggle and his eyes grew wider as he kept on rising off the ground. Perplexed he shouted, “What the fuck!” It was my mate Petro Kowalski, the Pole. He was six foot eight inches in height, and muscular. I had done him a favour one day, explaining some details he couldn’t understand at the CES and he was for ever grateful towards me. He knew Frank from another incident. He had been drinking by the bar when he saw me walk past Frank’s table and the saga unfold. He strolled over and picked Frank up by the scruff of his neck and with one hand lifted him off the ground. “You leave my mate alone, OK?” said Kowalski. Frank said nothing except trying to wriggle free. So Kowalski lifted him higher. “Understand?” he said again softly. Frank nodded. Kowalski let him down. “Now you shake hands” he told Frank. Very reluctantly Frank shook hands with me. “Good,” said Kowalski, “Now you leave my friend alone or I will fix you.” Frank nodded again. Every time after that when I bumped in to Frank he would say “Hello, you’re Kolwalski’s mate, hey?” and leave it at that.
I landed a job with a construction and shipping company down at Stokes Hill wharf doing a variety of jobs. The owner was a bloke of Yugoslav descent and had quite friendly disposition and I was given lots of little jobs to do. Then he won a large contract to build three Tallow Tanks which were to be situated behind the RAOB Club and assigned me to work there. These tanks came in sections and it was a pretty simple procedure to bolt them all together but it needed another three blokes. Here I met a Pom, a Brazilian and an Irishman. This also led to all of us renting a 36foot caravan down at Joe’s Place together with two Americans. Joe was a diminutive Greek bloke who had a block of land next to the railway yards. Here he installed some very roughshod and basic toilets and showers and brought in six large caravans. It cost ten dollars a week to rent a bed per person and so Joe had around 24 blokes living on the premises at any given time. So, he was coining it by 1969 standards but also provided much needed accommodation. Girls were not allowed to live with anyone or in any of the vans but there were a constant stream of females from caravans especially late at night or early mornings.
The tank job took us a month to complete. The down side of the job was that we got severely sunburned in the process due to the highly reflective nature of the metal sheeting. I went and bought a lightweight long sleeved shirt and a similar pair of trousers to beat off the reflective rays. The Brazilian bloke wore a sarong which was something that he would wear in his country. I had never seen sarongs and wasn’t keen to try one out anyway. Later I was to learn that they were and essential piece of garment in Indonesia and the rest of Asia.
We completed the job at the end of May and I was told by the boss that my services were no longer needed. He gave me a cheque and sent me on my way. I had been paid in cash up till then but did not worry about it. When I went to cash the cheque however I was in for a surprise. The bank said that there were no funds in the account. So, I went back to the company and then suddenly I couldn’t get to see the boss. His secretary told me that I would have to come back the following week to sort the cheque out. It was Friday after lunch and I needed the money to pay my rent. There was no getting past the secretary who became a trifle aggravated at my persistence. Seeing as I was getting nowhere I left and walked up the hill to the Police Station in Mitchell Street. A very sympathetic Sergeant said that he would sort this bloke out for me and so we got in a Police car and went down to the wharf. Seeing a policeman with me the secretary quivered and promptly let us in to the boss’s office. The sergeant explained that it was against the law to issue a wages cheque if there were no funds available. The Yugoslav bloke looked frightened and quickly rummaged in his safe and found the money. The Sergeant and I left and laughed at the incident and I offered to shout him a couple of beers after work, but he refused, saying that he was only too glad that he could help.
The following evening, Bruce, one of the Americans who lived in the caravan, invited us all to come along to a dance. All the others had something to do and as I was at a loose end, I accepted. We walked up town and caught a cab. Bruce had a date with a girl, whom he had met somewhere, and we picked her up along the way. Down to the pub we went for copious amounts of beer and later in the evening we had meal at a restaurant. Then it was down to the Fannie Bay Hotel for Late Night dance. Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings certain pubs were allowed to extend their trading beyond the official 10pm closing time until 11.30pm. We danced and generally enjoyed ourselves at the Fannie Bay Hotel and I met a friendly girl with whom I made a date for the following Sunday. Bruce’s date, Judith, was a bit unimpressed with both of us, and let us know that fact when we dropped her off at her boarding house.
The week wore on and I picked up a bit of labouring work down at the wharf. Come Sunday morning and I met up with my mate Danny at Rocky’s Place for a morning cuppa. He was a drug addict and was in a bad way shivering from withdrawal symptoms and needing a fix. He was broke, however, and so I helped him out. He needed twenty dollars and would pay me back later. I said that I would give him the money for him to keep as long as he lent me his car for the day. He agreed. I gave him the money and he went off to buy his drugs. Danny returned about an hour later quite calm and talkative and handed me the keys to his 1958 Morris Isis.
I set off in the old car down to the boarding house where I was to meet my date, which I had arranged the previous weekend. My date however had developed cold feet and was nowhere to be found. Fellow boarders said that she had gone away for the weekend. I had been stood up. Now what was I to do? I had the car for the day, money in my pocket. Then I remembered Bruce’s date of the Saturday night before. Now where did she live again? I wracked my brain and finally decided the house was somewhere in Packard Street. So I drove there and asked a local who was mowing his lawns if there was a boarding house nearby. He pointed me in the right direction.
I knocked on the door and when a smallish girl answered I hesitantly asked if Judith lived there. She said yes and went to fetch Judith who was still asleep at ten o’clock in the morning. I said, “Hi, remember me? I was wondering if you would like to come out for a drive down to the beach?’” Judith said ‘Yes, OK, but only after I have had a shower and breakfast.”
We got away on the drive by eleven thirty and drove all around Darwin looking at the sights and finally driving down on to Casuarina Beach across a small sand bar. The beach was firm and hard and we drove down for quite a distance. We seemed to get on very well and talked about many things. On the way back, I drove back from the water’s edge a bit and hit soft sand patch and bogged the old Morris. Then we had a good laugh and let some air out of the tyres. We also had to dig some sand away and just as we thought that we had one enough another car came along and gave us a tow out of our predicament. We made it back across the sandbar and on to firm ground again. Then we drove around to East Point and looked at the World War Two, gun emplacements. We ended our drive down at Doctors Gully where we sat on the rocks discussing the virtues of hermit crabs. The two of us seemed to have a lot in common and were liking each other’s company and by that evening I had asked Judith if she would marry me. She agreed and we were married on the 28th day of June 1969 in Darwin. The wedding feast was something else, but that is another story.
Not that I had marriage in mind, mind you, but this thing sort of just came along. I was 26 and she was 22 and we met at a ‘late night session’ at the old Fannie Bay Hotel along the foreshore of Fannie Bay. It blew away in the cyclone, you know. Our first encounter was offish but a week later I sought her out on the off-chance and asked her to come for a drive with me. We had known each other about eight hours and got on very well and seemed to have a lot in common and when I popped the question, she accepted. We were both stunned by this turn of events. Nevertheless, three weeks later we were married in a garden setting of a NT Policeman’s house at Parap. The house also blew away in the cyclone.
I was working as a ‘Parts Interpreter’ or counter jockey, at Chin Ford which situated at Salonika Crossing, and which was then owned by Cedric and Barbara Chin, long-time residents of Darwin. Judith was a Shipping Clerk at Bunnings. We had quite a lot to organise for a wedding as I was still living down at Joe’s Place Caravans at the Railway Yards at Stokes Hill and Judith was living in a girl’s only boarding house in Packard Street, Larrakeyah. Cedric Chin upon being told of my intended wedding immediately made a flat available for me and Judith at his Staff Quarters in Peel Street directly opposite St Mary’s Cathedral. A week later we moved in together and set up house. I found an engagement ring for $33 at the jewellers in Knuckey Street and that sort of made things official.
Judith’s school friend, Annette and her husband Roy were living in Darwin at that time and they offered us their house as a setting for our marriage. Roy was a Constable in the NT Police Force and so we were married in a Police House. Judith and Annette arranged the food and I supplied six slabs of beer for the cost of $36! Judith had a special dress flown up from Melbourne and I had to go buy some appropriate clothes to get married in such as a white shirt, a tie, a pair of black trousers, black shoes and socks. Thongs and shorts were not the order of the day!
I went to the Office of the Registrar of Births Deaths and Marriages, paid $6 for a Marriage Licence and $20 for a public service celebrant to marry us officially. At that time all marriage ceremonies were being conducted at the office of the Registrar but we got special dispensation as it was to be John Flynn’s first time as a Marriage Celebrant and he was only too happy do to it outside of the office.
The Friday night before the wedding my mates were determined to give me a Last Hurrah bucks night out. Roy, and his police mates, were determined to catch us at it and to lock me up for the night as joke. But I got a snuff in the nose about it and we ducked into back-lanes and side-alleys which ran through the old Darwin. We started off and the ‘Hot and Cold’ of the Darwin Hotel, then on to the Vic Hotel and then, having had nothing to eat and a skinful of beer, we decamped to the Don Hotel. In those days the bar-room floor was still dirt and I seem to recall that the walls were made of hessian. The scene there reminded me later of the Bar Scene on one of the Star Wars movies. The things that went on there were outrageous.
The time for the wedding was 11am on Saturday 28th June 1969. My mate Don was to come and wake me and see that I got to the wedding on time. Don arrived, bleared eyed at 10.30am and shook me vigorously. I flew out bed, had a very quick shower and got dressed. We caught cab and arrived at our destination on time. It was then that I noticed that I had white socks on under black trousers and black shoes. Too late to change! I am constantly reminded of this when our wedding photos come to light every now and then
The wedding ceremony went off without a hitch and was a happy affair after the celebrant had to be given two white cans of Carlton beer to give him Dutch courage to stop him from being nervous. I had invited a whole lot of layabouts, my mates mainly from Lameroo Beach but most of them didn’t front when they heard of the Police presence at the wedding. Judith’s friends were all there and half of the Darwin Police Force who were Roy and Annette’s friends. Suffice to say I only knew a handful wedding guests.
I had been loaned a company car by Cedric Chin for our wedding but something happened at the last minute and all I got was an old Ford XM Station wagon that was still under repair in the panel shop and was only partly resprayed. Wheels are wheels however!
At around 4pm Judith and I departed the wedding scene for home in our borrowed wagon with the back filled with enough gear to set up house. We were both exhausted and fell asleep immediately after arriving home. At 6pm there was a very loud banging on the door. It was Alan Schultz, Parts Manager of Chin Ford, who told us that we were going to continue our celebration at the German Club out at Howard Springs. No sooner were we showered and dressed, we were whisked away in to the bush. Alan had organised many of our other wedding guests to be there too. At the club every table bought the Bridal Pair a bottle of champagne and Judith had to dance with all the men and Willem had to dance with all the Aunties. The night wore on.
Sometime around 2am it was time to go home. Alan had disappeared by then and we walked over to our mate, Johnny Wheeler’s Avis hire-car. Johnny was First Mate on a prawn trawler and could afford such things. Six of us piled into the Holden and found another body lying passed out on the back seat. Don recognised him as someone he had seen at their boarding house and so we manhandled him into the boot of the car. Johnny handed me the keys and said, ”You drive”. All went well until we were approaching the Airport Gates intersection. There were road-works, as the Shell Airport Gates Servo was under construction. An old spoon drain was being reconstructed to make access for vehicles to the servo and to keep the wet-season floodwaters flowing down to the creek below. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of light as this green Ford Falcon came charging out from the airport. How we missed one another was anyone’s guess. A couple Greek blokes with limited English insisted that they were in the right and that I should have given way to the right. There was no time to explain the intricacies of Australian Road Rules let alone Darwin Road Rules at that time of day and so I let the argument go. We dropped the sleeper and a couple of others off at their places of abode and made our way back to our Peel Street flat. Once there Johnny declared that we should have a nightcap as he still had a carton of beer in the car. So Judith went to bed and Johnny and I drank beer till the sun came up. Then Johnny climbed, very unsteadily in to his car, and drove off narrowly missing the steps of St Mary’s Cathedral. I went to bed.
At 9am on the Sunday morning there was some noise outside in the street. Two of my mates arrived from Wells Creek Mines with a pallet load of beer packed into their Landrover. The old 4×4 had played up along the way and so they had missed the wedding. Nevertheless, they started to unload the beer into a corner of our kitchen and the party kicked. Another old mate John Conroy, Skipper of the Tipperary Fleet of Prawn Trawlers, arrived around lunchtime with a carton of Scotch. He stayed for a week. He brought with him so much fish that we couldn’t fit it all into our freezer and had to cook them straight away. By now there was quite a noisy party going and the tenants below us called the police. In fact the police were called on several occasions during the day. They would arrive, have a beer with us, tell us to quiet things down and then leave again. We took some fish to our neighbours as a peace offering. The party kicked on until about 10pm on the Sunday and then took off again on Monday morning. Luckily,
we both had the day off from work. People came and went at regular intervals but the beer still remained a sizeable quantity whilst John Conroy drank a bottle of whiskey a day (John did not make old bones). By 4pm on the Monday arvo the party came to an end and all guests departed apart from John Conroy who stayed on until the following weekend.
On Tuesday morning we both went back to our respective jobs almost relieved that the party had finally come to an end. Over the ensuing weeks we drank beer till it flowed out of our eyelids and it still seemed that the supply was never ending.
Nah’ we never went on a honeymoon but a ships cruise three years later made up for it. And in one of life’s mysteries we had no children. But the attraction and friendship is still there 50 years on…………………
We were like two sheep in a wide, open paddock, not knowing which way to go. We were definitely attracted to one another. After less than a month, Judith decided that she must go and show me off to her parents. In hindsight, that was a mistake, nevertheless we went and endured the constant investigation by Mother in Law.
First of all, we took our battered old Volkswagen V-dub, packed our meagre possessions in the back, got hold of a 1967 Shell Roadmap and off we went. The owner of the Cape Heartbreak station was annoyed that the Shell Roadmap showed him as a supplier of fuel but seeing looking like lost souls relented and sent a station worker to refuel our V-dub and a couple of jerrycans which we managed to pack in the front boot of the car. We continued on our journey down south along the strip road Table Lands Highway. The strip roads, which offer a single lane sealed road were first put in during and shortly after World War 2. It was built for quicker and smoother transport of cattle to markets in the eastern and southern states.
Eventually we got to the Barkly Highway again, turned left and aimed for Mount Isa. Along the way we stopped at Frewina Roadhouse, which was a pretty rough place with a number of drunken locals hurling abuse at each other. The next roadhouse was Barry Caves which was slightly better and we and something to eat there as I recall.
We made it to Camooweal which lies just inside the border of Queensland and the Northern Territory
Approaching Mount Isa we saw a lonely figure walking along the side of the road. We stopped and asked him if he was OK. He assured us that he was showed us lots of little pockets in the coat he was wearing with small bottles of one or two mouthfuls of water. He was an elderly man and he stated that he was enjoying the walk across the Barkly Tableland. We asked if we could top up one or two of his bottles and he acquiesced.
Leaving Cloncurry we were on a gravel road and it was pretty chewed up by the road trains carrying freight from Brisbane to Darwin. We stopped for a beer at the Kynuna Pub as there was a gathering of vehicles and horses tied up to the railing out the front of the pub. The Americans had landed on the Moon and were stepping out of the space capsule. What an experience to have in the Kynuna Pub. After a number of drinks, we took to the road again. Crossing over one of Queensland’s famous outback cattle grids the old V-Dub took off into the air and when landed crashed and thrashed over the road. The whole front floor on the driver’s side fell out as it had been bogged sometime before and now we could see the road beneath our feet. Judith was in tears stating that we will never reach Melbourne now. I said that you don’t know me yet and she relaxed a bit.
A funny thing happened on the way south. We were driving out of Longreach and I could not find the right street to take and so I stopped and asked a local with my still fresh South African accent, how to get to Bar-cal-deen (Barcaldine) and he looked at me perplexed and I stated ‘the next town to the east and he said “ Oh! Ya mean Ba-call-din “. We all had a good laugh and we got the right directions.
That night we slept in the car outside the town of Augathella, and we froze as the temp went well below zero. Judith was wearing long sided boots and her feet froze while the rest was warm. The V-Dub refused to start even though the battery was fully charged. We were running up and down the highway trying to warm up. A Farmer, driving a 3-ton truck stopped and asked us if there was something wrong. He then towed the old V-Dub about 3 kilometres before it would fire. Judith sat in the front of the truck with the farmer getting warmth from the heater whist I battled out in the cold. The old car fired and ran OK for the rest of the time during the day, as long as we did not stop for too long. From Surfers we made our way down the east coast to Sydney. There we called in and looked up friends of Judith’s Grandfather. They were lovely old people but doubting our marriage put us up in separate bedrooms until I produced our marriage certificate. It was smiles all around. They rang Judith’s Grand-Uncle Billy and he came over for dinner as well. They were all people of small stature and I towered over them.
Crossing the border into Victoria we had to go through the Fruit Fly Gate on the Hume Highway. We declared that we had no fruit but the gateman did not believe us and told us to unpack our, which by this time was full of stuff we had collected along the way. Judith said to the man that he would have to repack the car if this was to happen and he hesitated and eventually waved us through. Each night we slept by the side of the road at the top of a steep rise so that we could get a run up down the other side to start the old V-Dub
And so, we managed to get to Melbourne on a wing and a bush prayer. My Mother-in-law took one look at me and decided that I was bad news and that she wasn’t going to like me and never said a kind word to me thereafter until she got dementia and we had to look after her well-being. She forgot who I was as long as Judith called me William! Then she was very friendly towards both of us. My Father in law was a nice bloke who managed to keep the peace with everyone. It is not necessary to go into daily family events weddings, funerals and so on
Our first house together was a place we rented in Eltham. It was weatherboard and perched on a hill. Judith went back into fashion buying at a place she worked before and I managed to get a job driving a big delivery utility vehicle around town.
We became friends with our neighbours across the road from us and at the writing of this tale we still friends having caught up with them again at a later date in New South Wales.
The most significant happening during the next 6 months was my acceptance as a Citizen of Australia. My Passport was due to expire at the end of the year and so I wrote to the South African High Commissioner’s office in Canberra to send me the necessary forms, which they did. I filled them in and added that I had married some months before. I got a letter back to say that it was up to me to prove that my wife was ‘white’ and that I had not married a ‘coloured or black’ person. I was incensed. I asked for an hour extra for my lunch and went to immigration and asked if I may apply for citizenship. I explained my situation that I was married in Darwin and show the bloke the letter. He too became incensed and gave me some forms, showed me a table and asked me to fill in all my details. This I did. He told me to come back the next day at 3pm. It was a Friday, I recall. So I had to ask for more time off promising to work through some lunch hours to catch up. I was granted the time. So the next day I turned up at the allotted time and the bloke was ready to see me. Good news he said, the chief immigration officer had allowed me to become and Australian Citizen. He I could either lay my hand on the Bible or swear my allegiance to the Queen, and that I did, and he shook my hand and said “Welcome to Australia”. Judith was thrilled to bits that night and we figured we could afford to go to a restaurant that evening for a celebration. They changed the Immigration Act on 1st of January 1970 to make entry harder once again. I received my Citizenship Document signed by B.M.Snedden, Minister for Immigration, on
11th November 1969.
As all Casual Labourers with the company I was working for, were laid off at Christmas and we told to reapply for the job in the New Year