*Fuzzy Photos and Unreliable Tasting Notes
Above: collage expanded in text below
I'm not particularly proud of it now but, on my return from secondment in the UK in 1976, all I wanted to be was a petrol head. My last few years at The Daily News in Durban were spent reaping the benefits of being the Motoring Editor.
Actually, that's not 100% true. I really wanted to be a Political Correspondent but that post was soon to be occupied by Ivor Wilkins, the splendid fellow who was best man at Shelley-ann's and my wedding a few years later. Cars and politics, what could possibly go wrong? Well, not much actually but I always felt as if I was living on borrowed time without a proper job.
So I had a fairly brief sojourn as understudy to the incumbent Motoring Editor, Ian Grossert, before he departed for greener pastures. But not before transporting me as pillion passenger through the air cresting a brow on Durban's Western Freeway somewhere in excess of 100 mph. Our steed was a Benelli Sei (yes it had 6 [sei] cylinders) and the exhaust howl of a banshee. Happily it also had the poise to set us down gently after our airborne adventure.
Being motoring editor was pretty much an extended holiday, figuratively and literally (as we shall find out in the concluding paragraphs of this story). Basically it consisted of driving a host of different cars, the occasional motor bike and frolicking on mini-breaks, which were essentially what manufacturers' launches of their latest offerings were. Mini breaks with wine, food and accommodation way beyond the reach of a 1977 reporter's salary.
The banner collage above provides a little flavour of what the motoring editor's job involved: (l to r) the business end was writing motor-industry related stories, the most pleasurable of which were road tests, particularly those that featured cars of the ilk of a Mini Cooper S; a dawn patrol was often the best time to snap rally cars in action; we also participated in economy tests and I am seen here removing my boots to have a more sensitive foot on the accelerator pedal of a gas-guzzling Valiant.
A little more on motor sport later but first an insight into the crossover between road tests and car launches where we were taken off somewhere allegedly appropriate for the vehicles being introduced.
Above: these two frames reflect the diversity of the entertainments afforded to a bunch of journos and feature Rory Brown.
Rory Brown. Reporters of the day tended to partner up on car launches and I soon found that the most enjoyable partner was Rory. On this occasion part of the event's entertainment was to travel from one stopover to another on an historic train dubbed the Apple Express. In order to get from Port Elizabeth to Avontuur (near Uniondale) this narrow gauge train had to cross the Van Staden's River railway bridge which, at 78 metres high, is reputedly the tallest narrow gauge bridge in the world. This was too enticing a challenge for Rory, who determined to cross the bridge on the roof of the train. Today there is a "safe" platform on either side of the railway with proper railings but this was not always the case! I thought he was having a laugh. I should've known better. He disappeared on to the top of the carriage and reappeared after we'd crossed the bridge, lit a cigarette and stretched out to read his book, as can be seen in my pictures.
Still on the subject of Rory, our "car launch" went on to involve a tour of multiple wine farms. The final stop was for a posh dinner at Boschendal. We'd been drinking wine all day and needed something more thirst quenching. Our winery hostess for the evening asked us on our arrival which wine we'd like to start with. Rory and I asked for a beer. Horrified, our hostess said something to the effect of, "don't you know this is Boschendal!" We assured her that we did and that we'd be very pleased to try the estate's wine but first could we have something to quench our thirst. Evidently the best she could do was water. So we had water to accompany a splendid meal. Not a drop of Boschendal passed our lips.
We were sharing a room in a hotel in the centre of Stellenbosch. When our transport finally dropped us off after midnight we shed our outer clothing and got into bed. After about 5 minutes Rory leapt up and wrapped the counterpane around himself:
"I'm going to find a beer," he pronounced.
"But it's after midnight and this is Stellenbosch," I protested. Ignoring me, he disappeared off into the night. It must have been coming up for half-an-hour later that my companion reappeared with a quart of Castle Lager in each hand. Being the generous fellow that he was, the second quart was for my own consumption ...
There were many of these outings over the couple of years I occupied the motoring beat on the Daily News. A few stand out.
Bikey and Banjo pick up the spoor of a hippy chick
Above: A story in Afrikaans that riveted many South Africans at the time - translations in a comment more than welcome, as well as any more recent theories.
It was a long time ago,1977, but back then the memories of Rosalind Balingall's disappearance a few years before remained fresh in the minds of South Africans, especially those that might have dabbled around the edges of the hippy culture less than a decade earlier. Essentially, where Daryl (Bikey) Balfour and I came in was from the periphery of the the motor-trade hedonism that was hosting us in the super-luxury Beacon Island Hotel in Plettenburg Bay. I can't remember what the particular car was but Bikey suggested that he and I follow a lead he'd been given to some forest dweller in the "Knysnabos" who might be able to shed yet unshed light on the disappearance of Ms Balingall. I was totally up for it and we set off that evening to find the missing link. We found the bloke in a not-quite-as-run-down-cottage-as-we'd-expected and the lead went nowhere. But not before we both felt pretty spooked by the experience and being in the forest at nightfall. We shot back to the safety of Plettenburg Bay a lot more quickly than we'd accomplished on the outward journey. The link above has a pretty comprehensive account of the unsuccessful hunt for Rosalind over the years and of South African hippiedom in general.
Motorbike and caravan tackle the Wild Coast
A friend and fellow journalist, Tony Day, approached me and suggested a ruse whereby we would use a Renault 5 (R5 - he had the franchise in Durban) to tow a caravan to the Wild Coast. I discussed this with my partner-in-crime, Andy Newby, who majored on the two-wheeled side of things. As it turned out, he could get a Kawasaki KE175 scrambler on test and would be happy to incorporate a ride down to the Wild Coast as part of the proceedings. But first Tony had to get a tow hitch fitted to R5 so we could tow the van.
Then we were to head for Msikaba, at the time an exceedingly unspoiled spot on the Transkei's Wild Coast. Actually, I am 96.74% sure it was Msikaba but I'm sure if a real fundi identifies a different location from the picture, that person will let me know with a comment on this blog (where are Andy and Tony when I need them?).
Above (l to r): Motorbike at Msikaba; Caravette sans wheel; trusty custodians lived nearby.
The plan was to leave fairly early one morning, fetch the caravan (which may or may not have been a Gypsy Caravette) from Pinetown and travel the relatively smooth 340-odd km to Lusikisiki before hitting the rough stuff for the last 40 km to the coast. Andy on the Kawasaki (or Kwacker as they were affectionately known then) and Tony and me in the diminutive Renault towing the van. The journey would take around 6 hours, depending on the state of the last 40 kms. The objective was to prove the R5 could do the job.
Actually, the outward journey went without a hiccough. Parts of the road were pretty challenging but doable. We arrived in daylight, had a lekker braai and settled down for the night, tired and content. We had a day's furlough to enjoy the sand and sea before our return journey. The enjoyment was surmounted by an obscene number of fresh oysters acquired for next to nothing from the local oyster pickers. Andy, being Andy and well versed in Larousse and the necessary condiments for oysters, which he brought along, ensured that the feast was memorable.
On our third day, once again we left early. We hadn't got too far from Msikaba and there was a nasty noise from behind the Renault which started to slew around on the dirt road. Coming to a halt as gradually as we could, we leapt out to be confronted with a fairly momentous disaster. The axle of the caravan had snapped and it was going nowhere. Combined with a generous local donation to the inhabitants of some huts beside to road, we abandoned the van with a view to sending its purveyors back to the Transkei to retrieve it. Half of our mission had failed, although our R5 had come through unscathed.
Our route home was to take in some spectacular country, including the pass through the Umkomaas river valley. Perhaps without the little Gypsy we'd be able to enjoy the scenery a little more. Because of delays and stuff, we were quite far short of our destination when the light began to fade. We hadn't quite reached the treacherous pass down to the Umkomaas River. It was at this point that the sun's wasn't the only light to fade. The Kwacker's lights capitulated, too. Andy, still astride it, was pretty fearless but riding in the pitch dark was beyond the pale. Three blokes contemplated the bike and then the Renault and quickly realised the former wasn't going to fit inside the latter. We tried various strategies before settling on Tony and me driving behind the bike with the Renault's lights on full beam. I remember this being terrifying and even Andy was a tad wide-eyed as we negotiated the Umkomaas Valley before we could find somewhere secure to ditch the bike.
I can't remember much about the remainder of the escapade apart from the fact that Tony took some flack from its suppliers for abandoning the caravan. We had the last laugh after it was eventually retrieved no more scathed than it had been when it failed us on the Msikaba Road.
Motor Sport, including rallying and economy tests
Venturing out in the dead of night to report on a motor rally was always an adventure. South Africa was well represented on the world calendar in those days and there were top international stars out in the Highveld for the 1977 Total Rally. As usual the attrition on the Transvaal dirt was high and top drivers such as Ove Andersson and Roger Clark failed to make the finish line. The event was eventually won by Sandro Munari in the much-hyped exotic Lancia Stratos.
Above: this one would have been a dawn backlit shoot-out between the works Ford Escorts and Datsuns (Nissans) ... do not be deceived by the bland exterior, these things were all finely-tuned muscle under the bodywork.
The final anecdote for this episode took place at Kyalami, South Africa's Grand Prix circuit back in the day. Mercedes had assembled most of the motoring journos from around SA to introduce a new diesel car which they had hooked up to a tiny flask that bypassed the fuel tank. When we arrived they announced that the reporter who could drive the furthest around Kyalami on the contents of the flask would win a prize. It was a big prize: a trip at Mercedes' expense to the Frankfurt Motor Show. There had always been cliques within the South African motoring journo community and our little group of "Banana Boys" was regarded with condescension by the "Main Manne" from the hinterland. They were at the front of the queue to fight for the prize. This gave me the opportunity to observe a little.
The thing about the 1977 layout of Kyalami was that the start line was on a slope that drifted gradually downwards all the way around the track with a short sharp hill, Leeukop, providing a high point just before the finish. My competitors set off one by one and every one of them petered out before getting to the summit of Leeukop.
I figured that if I could just get over the hill I would be able to freewheel for almost another lap. As I had been pushed out into last slot it was make or break ... I tiptoed around most of the track and then floored it a bit before the hill gaining enough speed to creep over the top and around once more.
"Its not fair," I heard one of the Manne squeal when the result was announced.
"He cheated," another cried to the man from Mercedes.
"Mark won fair and square," grinned the man from Mercedes.
#2 of Might as well be a petrol head plots my exploits in Germany with a side trip to the UK
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