*Fuzzy Photos and Unreliable Tasting Notes; ** Road Trip
Immediately after Christmas in 1969 three of us set off on what, for me, was to be the first in a long chain of road trips. Three young blokes in a Vauxhall Viva about to traverse the 1,000-mile journey from Durban to Cape Town.
Did I say mollycoddled young blokes? Well, we were all students. One of us, Marshall, was a little more world-wise being, I think, a year older. Gorgs and I were freshly-turned 18 and pretty wet behind the ears. I seem to recall Gorgs had been much further afield on family tours to Europe but the furthest I had been was Gqeberha. It wasn't called that, then, having gone by the far more pedestrian name of Port Elizabeth and only rightly returned to its Xhosa roots in 2021.
Personally, I had never covered much of the ground between Durban and Gqeberha. We had sailed there once or twice on a Union Castle liner in the 1950s to visit our grandparents, who were burghers of the colloquially known Pee Ee.
Now Gorgs was inviting Marshall and me to accompany him on this road trip in his brand new Viva GT. Earlier iterations of the Viva had been somewhat optimistically hailed in local radio advertising as "the sports car for the family man". This refrain had drawn some derision from car aficionados of the time, with its 54 bhp 1057 cc engine in a dated, boxy body with laughable American-styled fins.
So, when Gorgs announced to his mates that he was getting a Viva GT for his 18th birthday, we were a little dubious to say the least.
Little did we know that our friend had done his homework and discovered that, not only did the new Viva have a svelte new "coke bottle" body, but the GT version he was getting came equipped with twin-carbed, 112 bhp 2-litre power.
The younger two of us had barely owned drivers' licences for more than a few months and now we were to be let loose in this beast for a 2,000 mile round trip, provided we could stump up a third each for fuel. We would sleep on beaches at our overnight stops. What a question!
The svelte new Viva in GT form.
I have already described how I was a bit of a greenhorn at this travel malarkey but it turns out that Gorgs' Mum and mine had clandestinely conspired to pin down contacts on our intended route and had provided letters of introduction to ensure we had safe sleeping arrangements. My gran, Molla, was also in on the secret and presented me with a monster torch, something the intrepid trio had overlooked. Mollycoddled? Us? Quelle Horreur?
Marshall had a bit more street cred than his two 18-year-old companions and had come equipped with an entree to a hippy cabin on the outskirts of Cape Town and a knowledge of bleeding-edge music, an important quality seeing as our Gran Tourismo had an actual radio on which we first heard Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac's Oh Well.
It had also been our understanding that Mike Hailwood had crashed his Iso Grifo into a cow in the Transkei and our eyes were constantly on the lookout for evidence. This tended to sharpen our synapses in our vigilance for hazards, particularly for cattle-at-large, on the unfenced roads. The first day of our journey was consequently quite a trek and ended at Port Alfred. But we were young and intrepid and wired with adrenalin.
The original attraction of Port Alfred had been the fact that we'd had an introduction to Paula, one of my Mum's uni friends from Rhodes who had a holiday house there. Sadly for us and happily for this story, Paula and her two attractive daughters weren't in Port Alfred at the time but, hey, we'd come equipped with brand new sleeping bags and Molla's torch ...
Our first night was spent on West Beach at the mouth of the Kowie River. Aware that this wasn't strictly legal, we pulled the bright red Viva well away from the road and made our camp. It was dark after the long journey and the torch came in handy while we were laying out our sleeping bags. The torch was highly commended by my travelling companions and (I suspect it was Marshall who suggested it) we decided to test just how far it would shine out to sea.
The answer was: a long way. Just to finish off the evening we agreed to test its morse code capabilities.
"SOS is dit-dit-dit, da-da-da, dit-dit-dit," one of the jokers suggested. In other words, three shorts followed by three longs and and three more shorts.
The light show looked impressive. We were satisfied but tired and climbed into our sleeping bags.
No sooner had we got ourselves comfortable and were drifting off than all hell broke loose. Awakened by the commotion I opened my eyes to a sound and light show way beyond the capabilities of grandma's torch. It must've been after 9PM.
"Bly stil," a commanding voice commanded. Technically speaking this meant "keep quiet" but to the discerning ear it could also be loosely translated as "move one muscle and you're dead". One thing we did know was when to be humble and compliant.
"Is julle Engels? Jou registrasie is ND vanaf," the voice continued, basically stating that we were English-speaking ne'er-do-wells from Durban. He'd seen our car's number plate, which was prima-facie evidence that we were, at best, drug runners or, at worst, Commie terrorists.
One of us had the nouse to respond in a supplicant manner. We weren't carrying too many cards. We opted for the truth: "Yes lieutenant (he was probably a sergeant at best but never let the facts get in the way of a good arse-creep), we are from Durban. We were very tired and we couldn't find anywhere else to sleep." Maybe we could go for vagrancy on a lesser plea?
"Ja, but you were signalling out to sea," our interlocutor switched to English.
None of us voiced "Oh Fuck" but all of us thought it. Instantly. It was my turn to speak:
"My ouma gave me that torch along with some koeksusters," I pleaded. "She was concerned for our safety," I continued, "and we hadn't tried it so we thought we'd test it before going to sleep," adding shamelessly, "ons is baie jammer luitenant."
"Just show me the torch," he demanded. I retrieved it from my kitbag and handed it to him. He and his deputy inspected it cursorily.
"Ag, I believe you ous," our policeman conceded, the deputy nodding affirmatively behind him. "You look too innocent. Nat agter die ore. Nice torch for camping but not for signalling Russian submarines onto Port Alfred beach ... "
"Do you want us to move," we chorused, "maybe you could recommend somewhere for us to go Luitenant?" we chorused.
"Ag no man, just make sure you're gone early tomorrow morning, we don't want the tourists finding a bunch of skollies when they come down to sunbathe on our beach ... and it's Sersant ... nou ja, did someone mention koeksusters ..."
Left: Yours truly looking uber cool and not in the least hippyish at the turn of the decade - perhaps a bit of a poser in the Ray Bans. Right: I don't have my own picture of Smits but it hasn't changed very much since, due to strict planning restrictions. This one from the early 2000s lifted with the owner's permission
The next night we were happy to spread our sleeping bags on the sitting room floor of Paula's PE family home, before hastening on our journey to Cape Town. We would return via more or less the same route but Marshall had arranged our next digs in Smitswinkelbaai (Smits) and they were expecting us.
Another 500 miles passed in a blur. Once again the resilience of youth meant we arrived that evening. I have to confess I hadn't been aware that Smits was quite so far out of Cape Town, my Shangri-La. Tried to conceal my disappointment. The setting was spectacular, the company stimulating (for that, read challenging with half the brainpower of Durban concentrated in the dozen or so intellectual heavyweights gathered there). The cabin was more of a rustic, sprawling bungalow with a lorra bunk beds. I seem to remember it was owned by the Keane family from Westville, friends of Mum's that I had met tangentially. Simon Draper was also there - he went on to achieve great things in the UK music industry but, at the time, was (or had recently been) a DJ on Radio Port Natal. There was a lot of kelp on the beach and 13 eggs for an omelette. I remember all the eggs being cracked into a bowl and the penultimate egg being so vrot the yolk was black and the albumen green. Most of us went hungry that night and a shopping trip to Simonstown was planned for the next day. In the mean time the incumbents had assembled a bunch of musical instruments including some artfully dried kelp for the horn section, an old-fashioned broom handle and tea chest bass, a kazoo or two, a washboard and a battered guitar. We had a discordant concert before retiring. There was one female member of the cast named Louise, whose Dad was a lecturer at our university. Louise had her own quarters (maybe the Keanes did, too?) and the rest of us dossed down in the bunk area.
The next morning I was all excited to be visiting the metropolis at last. A particular attraction for me was Table Mountain whose summit rose more than 1,000 metres from the sea and which could be accessed by what now seems a particularly rickety cable car. Turns out I could hitch a ride for the shopping expedition as far as Simonstown but there was no room for me in the Viva for the onward journey. I should make make my own way on the train if I wanted to visit the legislative capital of our country - check out the parliament, that kind of thing. I love trains and engaging like minded people and met a guy on the platform who told me I should listen to Iron Butterfly.
I can't remember where I met up with Louise and Simon in the city centre but am pretty sure we ended up in the cablecar together, "did" the summit of Table Mountain and ended up at Louise's aunt's apartment somewhere near the city. She was the Portuguese consul to Cape Town and fed us wine. After that I must've ended up back on the train because I definitely remember walking back to Smits from Simonstown. In the dark. On my own. I remember that because the journey took two hours and I was terrified, mostly because I was followed and being taunted by a troupe of baboons led by a fearsome cove much like the fella below.
Left: Probably wouldn't pass today's safety standards but the 1970 cablecar certainly gave one a sense of being "up there". Right: This dominant male baboon was not to be trifled with, especially after dark in his own territory.
All too soon we left the surrounds of Cape Town. A follow up visit was definitely on the cards.
Next stop was to follow up an introduction Gorgs had been given to a family friend who bred racehorses somewhere near Oudtshoorn. We arrived in the mid-afternoon and were taken out to watch the foals racing each other, riderless, in a paddock. Evolutionary instinct at play. Unfortunately our host wasn't expecting us to sleep the night. After an awkward moment for Gorgs we were offered two single beds in an outside room. We could push them together and roll out our sleeping bags. I drew the short straw and got the middle slot ...
And then to Plettenberg Bay where we slept on the beach again, a little out of town. It was pretty quiet then and during the day we sunned ourselves on the central Beacon Island Beach, no doubt because there was a gorgeous young blonde divorcée who inhabited some of that space with her toddler. It took us a while to pluck up the courage to talk to her and we were rewarded with an invitation to drinks with her parents in a posh gaff overlooking the sea. Our appearance was decidedly bohemian by that stage and we attempted to spruce ourselves up a bit. We didn't really succeed but our hosts were most charming and didn't let on.
Last stop was back in Gqeberha where we were welcomed by the MacEwan family, Dr Ian, Mrs Zia and Deane and Angela. They were old friends of my family and Deane ended up becoming my brother-in-law a few years later. Deane took us surfing at a reef break, which was scary for Durban lads used to a sandy beach break to soften any mishaps.
And then back to Durban, tanned and with significantly longer hair. Gorgs and Marshall's was enviably sun-bleached, too. I had dark hair. When we got back my Dad took one look at me and remarked on my appearance. I can't remember what he said but I do recall that it was not flattering.
Coming soon: If it's a road trip it must be Cape Town RT#2. Subjects include curried milkshakes in Cape Town, the effects of a fried egg on styrofoam, a famous golfer's daughter and Simonstown again, this time staying locally at Boulders Beach ...
see About tab for more detail about the author