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 Caspar's Stories

This is a collection of some of the stories that Caspar Greeff has written, all of them, except one or two (eg, Old Guy), for the Sunday Times Magazine, Cape Town.

 
A F
amily Affair
There's a skeleton in every family cupboard. Caspar Greeff dusts off his and goes to jail to visit a cousin and a namesake

I met Cousin Caz one summery Sunday inside Baviaanspoort Prison, where he is serving a life sentence for murdering his wife. His grey hair was neatly combed, his black shoes had been painstakingly polished and his handsome face was smooth; but he was a ruined man, one who had fallen a long, long way.
Before his fall Cousin Caz was a dentist in Kempton Park. He had a beautiful wife and a thriving p
ractice and a big house with an indoor/outdoor swimming pool and three Mercedes-Benzes in the garage.
Now he shares a cell with 15 other men. When I met him he wore an orange jumpsuit with the word "PRISONER" written on it in bold black circles. He ate slap chips out of a Tupperware container, and he sucked XXX mints, which made his breath sweet as he told me of the terrible hand that fate had dealt him - he was, he said, an innocent man incarcerated for a crime he never committed.
Cousin Caz is my second cousin, Casper Greeff. He is family with everything that the word implies - handwritten names in the front of a big Bible, a twisted tree, the voices in your dreams, the DNA in your cells. Blood. Family is reminiscences on Christmas day, fading photos in a shoebox, all those stories about all those characters.
And boy, we had some characters in our family. Aunty Lorraine wore a negligee in the daytime and had the names of her 10 husbands tattooed above her pubic hair. She borrowed my mother's wedding dress for each of her marriages and was buried in it too. My grandfather invented a preparation called Wonderlike Groen Salf" ("Wonderful Green Ointment"), which was a mixture of Vaseline and wintergreen. He invented another preparation called Wonderlike Geel Salf ("Wonderful Yellow Ointment"), a mixture of petroleum jelly and sulphur.
Oupa Sakkie was a bus conductor who sunbathed naked at Graaff's Pool in Sea Point, where jockeys told him which races would be rigged. Ouma wore brown slippers and kept beribboned Maltese poodles and was a nurse at an asylum.
Uncle Paul held the South African pole-sitting record, Uncle Louis is a womaniser who once owned the southernmost fish-and-chips shop in Africa. Cousin Francois lived rough on the pavements of London and wrote a book on how to solve cryptic crossword puzzles.
And then there was Cousin Caz (full name Casparus Johannes Greeff, the same handed-down family name as my father's) who had - four judges concurred - hired a handyman to murder his wife. He then employed the famous detective Slang van Zyl to solve the crime. And solve it Slang did, leading police to the dentist.
Cousin Caz hired Van Zyl barely a year after the tough-guy sleuth had solved a similar case, that of the psychiatrist Omar Sabadia, who paid one of his former patients to murder his wife.
Hiring Slang van Zyl was, I thought, either utterly audacious, criminally stupid, or a measure taken by a desperate and innocent man.
I wanted to meet my second cousin and namesake, find out a bit about him, see whether there was anything of him in me, and that's why I was in Pretoria recently, speaking to Casper Greeff's sister Marie about family matters.
Marie is plump with a lived-in face and a halo of grey hair. She has the voice of a life-long smoker and suffers from asthma. "I've got this little pump that I use for my asthma," she said. "I'm lucky - I get five pompies every day." She laughed.
She was drinking Autumn Harvest crackling wine and on the table next to her glass was a pile of thrillers from the library and some filled-in crossword puzzles.
I told Marie that my father was addicted to crossword puzzles, and that my cousin had written a book on how to solve them. "I do love my crosswords," she said. "And Casper has become quite good at them too."
"I've never met Casper," I said, "but my father visited him in Kempton Park a few times. He told me that Casper had a parrot which used to mimic the sound of the phone ringing. Apparently it was so good you never knew whether it was the phone ringing or the parrot."
"Oh, that was Coco," said Marie. "Later he went to my father - your great-uncle Willie - who taught him to say 'Heil Hitler, jou stuk stront' [you piece of shit]. He also greeted the maid, Nomsa. ' Sawubon a,' he said whenever he saw her. ' Sawubona. '
"I remember your father's father," she went on. "He used to have a teapot under the table, so that he could carry on drinking and didn't have to get up to go to the loo." (When I told my father about this, he said, "No, it wasn't a teapot, it was a bucket. And he used to make me empty it.")
But Marie really wanted to talk about her younger brother - he is 56, she is 65 - in whose innocence she passionately believes. "Casper was such a gentle person," she said. "He's not a killer. He's more a lover."
Casper Greeff was "an excellent, excellent dentist" and an extremely handsome man, said Marie. One of his woman patients told her, she laughed, "that when Casper said, 'open wide', she didn't know whether to open her mouth or her legs!"
These days Greeff is not allowed to practise dentistry, but he is studying for his MA in Biblical Archaeology at Baviaanspoort Prison, where he is the " star pupil".
We talked about the trial and discussed Greeff's late wife Estelle, whose throat was hacked open with an Okapi knife so blunt that she begged the killer, " maak gou, maak gou [hurry up, hurry up]".
I said I was going to visit Slang van Zyl the next day. " Die bliksem [The bastard]!" Marie exclaimed. She gave me some documents relating to her brother's court case - Judge Johan Els's 131-page judgment, the grounds for leave to appeal, and the Appeal Court judgment. We agreed to meet at 7.45 that Sunday morning, when she would take me to visit Casper Greeff, my grandfather's brother's son.
That night I read the documents.
The murder was pretty straightforward, but Greeff's involvement was not cut and dried.
On Monday, November 8 1999, Estelle Greeff let two men into her home - the handyman Elliot Masango and his young accomplice Christopher Njeje. Masango, who had worked for Casper Greeff for several years, strangled Estelle. Thinking she was dead, he and Njeje put her body in the boot of her champagne-coloured Mercedes-Benz and drove to the veld near Cullinan, where they opened the boot.
Estelle was still alive. They hauled her out of the boot and Njeje slit her throat. They dumped the body and drove off.
Two days later Greeff hired Slang van Zyl to investigate what was then still the disappearance of his wife. It took Van Zyl just two days to figure out that Masango and Njeje had murdered Estelle Greeff, and the two were arrested on Sunday November 14. Masango took police to the body and said Greeff had hired him to murder his wife, with whom he had been having marital problems. Greeff was then arrested - but only after he insisted on getting "quiet time" to say a prayer and read the Bible.
Greeff denied hiring Masango - who had been sentenced to life imprisonment at a separate trial - to kill his wife, or in any way discussing her murder with him. However, Judge Els convicted the dentist and Njeje of murder. On February 23 2001, he sentenced them both to life imprisonment.
The day after reading the documents, I drove down Ontdekkers Road to a Roodepoort house where Slang van Zyl has his detective agency, Incom.
The private eye spent some time in the Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB), the apartheid-era "dirty tricks" department of the defence force. The CCB has been implicated in a number of murders. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, "the objective of the CCB was 'the maximal disruption of the enemy'." A CCB planning document described disruption as having five dimensions - "death, infiltration, bribery, compromise or blackmail, and destruction".
But when I met Slang van Zyl he showed no signs of being an agent of "disruption" - he seemed more like a Hollywood detective. Tall and well-groomed, with a moustache, dark hair and perfect teeth, he shook my hand and said: "You almost look the same [as Casper Greeff]."
His impenetrable brown eyes held mine as he told me about the case.
"Casper is," he said, "not a criminal. He's a gentle, educated and I would say hardworking, ordinary South African citizen. It's obvious that he and his belated wife had marital problems... and I think that what his wife had done to him he couldn't make peace with. And in a moment of weakness he approached a worker and between the two of them they conspired to have her kidnapped and killed.
"H e's not the first guy and he's not going to be the last guy to think that the only and best solution will be actually to get rid of [his wife]."
"Did Casper Greeff pay you for catching him?"
"No. He never paid me and I don't expect him to pay me. My fee at that moment in time would have amounted to about R4 000. But it would have been to a certain extent unprofessional of me to have presented him with an invoice."
Van Zyl talked about his first meeting with Greeff. "The body language was wrong and he was to a certain extent uneasy, but he was quite confident.
"We sat down in his little pub in the house and he poured himself a whisky or a brandy and he wanted to know if I wanted one. I said to him, 'a glass of Coke'. He said to me: 'Listen, I've had lots of problems with my wife in the past. If it was like five years ago somebody could have blamed me.' But he said, 'Now we've sorted things out, we're happy and I just want to tell you I was not involved.' To me that rang an alarm bell immediately.
"You do get a lot of family murders in South Africa. Perhaps it's because they think it's the easy way out, it's perhaps from a financial point of view the cheaper way out. But at the end of the day it's a lot more expensive."
I told Van Zyl I was visiting Greeff in prison that Sunday and he said: "When you see him tell him I give my regards - not from a sympathetic point of view, I'm not arrogant - but I think that people make mistakes in life. I've made mistakes in my life and I'm just glad that I was given a second chance. Casper Greeff is not one of the fortunate ones, but I do hope that he will be given an opportunity at some stage to show to himself and prove to whoever still believes in him that he can be of value to his family and society."
That Sunday I woke up at six and drove along empty highways to Marie's flat. We picked up her friend Amanda, who was also visiting someone in Baviaanspoort - a boyfriend she met as a penpal while he was in jail.
"What's Amanda's boyfriend in for?" I asked Marie, when we stopped at a shop so Amanda could buy a You magazine.
"He's accused of killing his wife."
"And what's he convicted of?"
"Killing his wife. But he's innocent. Everyone is innocent there."
Baviaanspoort Prison is opposite a lush green mealie field, on the way to Cullinan, not far from where Estelle Greeff's body was dumped.
At the prison entrance, next to a trickling water feature, we waited to be searched. Ahead of us in the queue was another of Marie's friends, a pretty young woman with a pixie-like face.
"That's Manya. She's here to see Janu," said Marie.
"Who?"
"Janu Nortjé. He killed an old Dutchman and chopped his body up, then put the parts in suitcases and threw them out of a train.
"Janu is very charming and very good-looking, but he's a psychopath. He's one of the few guilty ones - he admitted the murder and he's got absolutely no remorse."
"How did Manya meet him?"
"Janu injured his knee, and she was his physiotherapist in the prison hospital."
We were searched, then we climbed in a minibus which took us through the prison grounds. We drove past brick buildings which were enclosed behind rolls of barbed wire and electric fences. Clothing hung from iron bars. We stopped near a red, H-shaped building - the maximum security section.
All the brown-uniformed Correctional Services personnel I saw were sucking lollipops. We sat on metal benches in a waiting room with a slasto floor. There was the rustling of plastic bags - everyone had brought something for the prisoner they were visiting. Keys jingled and a door opened.
"Casper Greeff." The warder summoned me and Marie and we entered the visitors' section. The iron door clanged shut.
In the room were many prisoners wearing orange jumpsuits. One of them approached me and Marie. It was Casper Greeff - a middle-aged, grey-haired man with rosy cheeks and hairless arms.
He smiled and shook my hand. We sat down and he said, "I want to bring back some honour to my name and to the Greeff name."
He spent an hour and a half trying to convince me of his innocence, taking me through the court case, attempting to refute the evidence against him.
"The stuff that happened to me is so unreal and so untrue," he said. "There's absolutely no proof of my involvement in Estelle's murder. No! No! There's one single witness [Elliot Masango] against me, and we've got at least 93 points where he was untruthful."
The room was filled with the sound of prisoners and visitors talking. Some of the prisoners were passionately embracing their girlfriends.
Marie was talking to Janu Nortjé, and she pointed at me. The killer, who looked like a rockabilly star, with his tall slender frame and little beard and sparkling teeth, winked at me.
I took a bite of the sausage roll that Marie had bought me, and turned back to Greeff.
"What about the appeal? You lost your appeal."
"My leave to appeal was granted in record time. Then it went back to the same building where the trial was, where all the judges are, where they all drink tea together. I'm not saying they're crooked, but hell!
"The Scorpions set me up," said Greeff. "I was their very first case ever, and they would look bad if I was acquitted."
"Why did you hire Slang?"
"A woman called me. She was supposed to be at my partner Dr Strauss at the time he heard of my wife's disappearance. This woman phoned me and told me how wonderful Slang was and that he would find my wife.
"Dr Strauss later told me he knew nothing about this woman."
My second cousin sat close to me, his blue eyes peering steadily into mine, and he touched my knee whenever he wanted to emphasise a point.
"There's not one fact in this whole thing. Whatever Elliot said was accepted. But he's the liar, he was the lying bastard all along. He ran to the Scorpions trying to get everything he could."
Greeff made various allegations about the judge, about his wife, about the legal system. He talked about points of evidence.
"Do you know about the pubic hair they found in Estelle's panties? They know it's not my hair, it's not her hair, it's not the other two guys' hair. Why did the police not investigate this further? Why was it never mentioned in court?
"People win appeals on one point, like the colour of the shirt they were wearing. I've got a thousand things, but they're keeping me here. If they now let me go they will look like fools."
Our time was nearly up, and Greeff gave me some papers, 31 handwritten pages. Most dealt with the trial and attempted to prove his innocence.
A few pages dealt with his state of mind: "There's never a single day that I lose hope that I will get out of jail. The day I lose hope, I will lose my purpose in life."
He told me again that he wanted me to help "restore some honour to my name and to our family name. It's a great family and it's a great name.
"I'm not guilty - understand. Not, never have been, never will be."
I looked hard then at Casper Greeff, my second cousin, whom I had met in such strange circumstances. I realised that I was a straw at which he was clutching. Is he innocent? Is he guilty? I don't know.
I said goodbye, and walked out into the sunlight. The grass was a brilliant green, and birds were singing. A breeze blew in the smell of pigshit from the prison farm. Someone was playing a saxophone; it sounded flat and off-key.
"What did you say to Janu when he winked at me?" I asked Marie.
"I said you're Casper's cousin from Cape Town."
"Is Janu friends with Casper?"
"Oh ja. They do crossword puzzles together."
Marie's friend Amanda was beaming when we met her at the prison entrance.
"Look," she said, and showed us a Valentine's Day card that her boyfriend had given her. It was the biggest Valentine's Day card I had ever seen - the size of a small child.
A few days later I was back in Cape Town and told my father about my experiences in Pretoria.
"Oh well," he said. "I'm glad you met some of the family." 

 

SOURCE: The Sunday Times Magazine, Cape Town, Sunday 14 Mar 2004

 

 

A series of Sunday Times Special Reports by Caspar Greeff.

Our forefathers knew a thing or two: Maputo rocks!

 

25 October 2005

Tuesday October 25, 2005

Its Day 1 and were in Maputo, Mozambique: The Coast-to-Coast road-trippers haggle with a hawker, bribe a policeman, find some history and visit the Red Light district

Caspar Greeffs anecdotes about Day One:

IF youre going to write a diary youre going to need a pen. And if youre going to write a diary about a road trip from Maputo to Swakopmund, youre going to need a pen that will do justice to the journey; a pen with style and class and gravitas. At least, that is what I thought whilst haggling with the street vendor in downtown Maputo. Not just any street vendor, mind you, but a purveyor of the finest French pens imaginable.

I was sitting at an outdoor caf with Sim, the dreadlocked sports writer. It was Morning One, and we were drinking Cappucino One of the mission.

We had already dispatched the cashew nut vendor and the cowboy hat salesman. (You cant wear one of those with a hairstyle like this, I said to Sim.) The Rolex salesman was slightly more persistent, and even when I told him, Im so not into time, he kept on trying to foist his bulky watches on us. But he gave up, as did the Rayban salesman.


I dont need a Dupont from Paris. I have a Bic from Umtata


The next guy to approach us took a box out of his rucksack and presented it to me. A Louis Vutton pen, my friend, he said. I took the pen out of its box. Weighed it in my hand. Clicked it. Scribbled a sentence with it. It was undeniably a very fine pen. I shook my head and handed it back to the vendor. He reached into his rucksack and fished out another little box. Mont Blanc my friend. There are two pens in this box. And there were. Two little silver and black numbers. Very stylish. Very elegant.

I replaced them in their box and gave it back. The vendor hauled out yet another box. A Dupont. The burgundy-coloured cardboard box had silver writing on it. S J Dupont, it said in a fancy cursive script. Underneath that was one word. Paris.

I opened the cardboard box, and took out the box that was inside it. It was a lighter shade of burgundy, and was made of plastic. The top section was padded, and this box, too had the silver cursive writing on it. I opened it. Nestled on white satin was a beautiful silver pen. I picked it up. The heft was perfect. The pen sparkled in the Mozambican sunshine. The persistent pen vendor indicated I should remove the satin padding from the box. I did so. To reveal the pens own little Bible. A 92-page manual in seven languages including Arabic and Chinese.

Seriously impressed, I removed the pens silver top and wrote something in my notebook. The beautifully balanced instrument seemed to glide across the page. I imagined a lieutenant governor in a far-flung colony carelessly signing some poor wretchs execution warrant with a pen like this. How much? I asked the guy.

Two point five million Meticais.

How much is that?

One hundred US dollars.

One hundred US for a pen!, I spluttered. Youre crazy, I told him, putting the pen back on its satin plinth, and clicking the plastic box shut, then replacing it in the cardboard box and handing it to the street vendor.

How much you give me? he asked.

Ten rand.

He looked at me in disgust. This is a Dupont from Paree my friend. A genuine Dupont. Its real and its from Paree. I ask you again, how much you give me?

Nothing. I dont need a Dupont from Paris. I have a Bic from Umtata, I told him, brandishing my Bic pen.

But the truth was, I badly wanted that Dupont. And the vendor knew it.

We engaged in a protracted haggle, while I drank another Cappucino and then a Two M draught beer because it was nearly noon and hot and the haggling made a man parched.

The Dupont is not for sale after 12 o clock, the vendor announced.

Alright. Heres my final offer. One hundred rand. Thats about 370,000 Meticais, a fortune in anybodys language.

One hundred rand plus 50,000 Meticais.

OK.

And so I was the proud owner of a Dupont from Paree, a beautiful writing implement with which to write this diary.


The Voortrekkers harnessed the Wilds of Africa


I am using the Dupont to record the fact that in the afternoon we went to the Louis Trichardt Trek Memorial Garden. Its just off Karl Marx Avenue, nestling in between some grimy tenement buildings in downtown Maputo. Apparently the Voortrekker leader died of malaria at the site of the gardens, and his epic trek from the Cape to Maputo is commemorated on a stone map in the gardens. There is also a large stone frieze of heroic trekkers with their oxen and wagons, and words etched in marble which tell how THEY HARNESSED THE WILDS.

At the beginning of 1835, the story in stone continues, two parties of Voortrekkers left the Eastern Cape Colony to seek freedom and a new home in the wild and untamed interior of Southern Africa. The story continues in a similar vein.

The well-tended garden commemorating long-dead Afrikaner heroes seemed anomalous to say the least, but sometimes small pockets of the past are overlooked and escape revisionism.


We can go to the police station. Or. . .


Then Jason, the Internet guy and our team leader, drove us back to the Costa Do Sol, the art deco hotel where we were staying. He made a little driving error, and was stopped by a policeman.

You have made a mistake, said the policeman.

I know. Im sorry, said Jason. What happens now?

We can go to the police station. Or. . .

The bribe was fixed at a million Meticais.

Haggle, I whispered to Jason.

Seven hundred thousand? he asked the cop, who just smiled and shook his head.

Eight hundred thousand?

Same response. So Jason forked over the mill.

You could have bought two and a half Duponts from Paree with that, I gently mocked him.

That afternoon we swam in the warm Indian Ocean. (The plan is to dip our toes in the icy Atlantic at Swakopmund in 10 days time.) The sea was shallow for ages, and it seemed that you could walk all the way to Madagascar.

Revitalised by our swim, we managed to tuck into huge plates of prawns, washed down by several cold draught beers, and then we headed for Sin Street. (Tebogo, the young photographer was our designated driver - he never drinks more than one beer in a day.)

Sin Street is the part of Maputo that used to be the Red Light district in the days when Maputo was Lourenco Marques and South Africans crossed the border for prawns, cashew nuts and sex with black women. Not much has changed, although these days there are fewer South Africans.

We watched a show that had some fairly racy bits in it, and Sim had to cover Tebogos eyes at one stage, because the photographer was far too young to see that kind of thing.

He drove us back at an unrespectable hour, and the big 5-litre Land Cruiser seemed to leap through the night like a beast of prey.

Trapped in the past, but making an effort to escape into the present

 

27 October 2005

Monday October 11, 2004

Day Two: The Mozambique/SA border at Komatipoort

The seductive tempo of Maputo gives way to the harsher climes of small-town South Africa as our roadtrippers cross over the Komatipoort border between Mozambique and good old SA.

Caspar Greeff

COUNTRY music played inside the Land Cruiser as the powerful vehicle chewed up the road "Why dont we get drunk and screw?" asked one singer. "Help me scrape the mucus off my brain," pleaded another. I could sympathise with that sentiment, my brain felt like it needed some serious mucus-scraping, the result of an excessive night in Sin Street.

But we were leaving all that behind us, we were leaving town, leaving Sin Street with its sleazy characters and easy women; leaving the bustling market where they sold peri-peri sauce so hot it made smoke come out of your ears; leaving the veranda at the Art Deco hotel where we feasted on prawns and knocked back capharinas; we were leaving Maputo, a city with a languid tropical feel, a city with potholed roads and broken pavements, a poor city still rebuilding after a catastrophic war.

The country music CD came to and end and someone put on Tupac, hardcore gangsta rap, that filled our heads with violent images until we made the border. We cleared Mozambican Customs and Irritation quickly, then drove through to the South African side, where they made us walk on matting soaked with a dip to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease.


Bugger the garden, Im watching the rugby!


Back in the RSA, and Komatipoort was our destination. On the outskirts of town a bar beckoned. The Lapa Sports Bar. Come inside, it said. Come inside and drink beers and Jack Daniels. So we went in, and stepped into a shrine to rugby in general and Naas Botha in particular.

A pair of Naass bronzed boots were on the wall, as was one of his signed Blue Bull jerseys and several photographs and paintings of him. There was even a painting of Naas sporting a mullet hairstyle. A little sign on the wall said, Bugger the garden! Im watching the rugby! There were about five big ous sitting around the bar, all wearing khaki shirts and shorts, and all discussing the Currie Cup final as if it had happened minutes ago and not three days.

An old South African flag hung from the ceiling, but so did a new South African flag; it was as if the pub was trapped in the past, but making an effort to escape into the present.

We got talking to Quintin, the young barman. He told us the main activities in town were fighting, drinking and watching rugby. We must avoid this one hotel, he told us, because there was a lot of fighting there. Did they fight over women, I asked him?

No they dont fight over chicks, thats the problem. They just sommer fight over anything. Last week some oke asked me to push his car because the battery was flat, and when I said no he moered me. Thats the sort of place it is.


They dont fight there. Well, not in the week, anyway


The bar we were in, however, was a good place, and theres only been one fight here in 10 years.

When was that?

Last week. The fight started because of an argument over hunting concessions. Theyre big on hunting over here.

He told us we should go and stay at Shunters, a caravan park with chalets, a bar and they dont fight there. Well, not in the week anyway. If there is fighting at Shunters it only happens at the weekends.

We checked into Shunters, the four of us squeezed into a tiny wooden chalet, because Jason suddenly panicked about our extravagant and profligate behaviour in Maputo and started getting all budget-conscious.

That night we went to look for the hotel where all the fighting happens. I wanted to test out my new Dupont pen in a fight, I wanted to see whether it could gouge out an eye in a fight (I was feeling a bit grumpy about sharing a tiny chalet with three other ous.)

Luckily, the hotel was closed, and as we made a U-turn to get back to Shunters, a carload of border police stopped. We explained the situation, and everything was perfectly legitimate, they agreed. They said we could go, but one of them, a big guy, tried to intimidate us.

Give me something to remember you by, he said menacingly.

Tell him a joke, I said to Jason.

So Jason told the border cop a joke, and he laughed, and they let us drive off, and the big Land Cruiser surged into the night.

Is anyone Black Like Me?

 

27 October 2005

Tuesday October 25, 2005

Our roadtrippers find a spooky monument to mark the spot where Samora Machel died in a plane crash, but theyre not PC enough to think about it for too long. They may be due for lessons in PC-speak, them, and the people theyre meeting. Or dont you agree?... See what you think of their escapades

Caspar Greeff

Two members of the expedition have been immortalised at Shunters, the caravan park in Komatipoort where we spent a night.

Sim, the dreadlocked sports writer, and Jason, the Internet guy, got to write their names on a stone wall in the bar after each downing a tot of witblitz and chili sauce.

Sim wrote out his full name, Simnikiwe Xabanisa, and it took up nearly an entire stone.

He told the owners he was convinced hes the only black oke whos ever written his name there. They told him they thought another black guy had written his name there, but werent sure where on the wall it was.

Sim and Jason had silver writing on their left hands, where a young woman of Komatipoort had scrawled something in silver.

I too met this young woman, and she told us about a nearby place where you could wrestle buffalo. Later she changed her story, and it turned out you didnt wrestle the buffalo - you hugged them.

Can we go there and hug the buffalo? I asked her. She said yes, we could go to the farm and give the buffalo some love.

We met the guy who ran the buffalo farm. His name was Peter Duranty. He was the manager of a disease-free buffalo breeding programme. When we asked him whether we could hug a buffalo he said, Ja you can, but it will throw you 30 metres.

He did say that some of the buffalo bulls liked their heads scratched, and we were welcome to come to the farm and get touch-feely with the animals at two o clock in the afternoon.

We had quite a bit of time to kill, so we went to the Border Country Inn, where we had been told there was lot of action, and that on occasion the floors of the place were red with blood.

It was noon, and the bar was deserted except for the barman, playing a slot machine.

I went back to the Land Cruiser, where the other members of the expedition were.

Bars empty except for the barman, I said. No niggas or bitches in sight, (We had been listening to a lot of rap music in the car.)

Man, we would have provided the nigga quotient, laughed Sim.


Death on the horizon


We decided to drive to the Samora Machel Monument, and Sim had his first stint behind the wheel of the Land Cruiser.

These automatics are great, he noted. You can grab your balls while youre driving.

There were banana plantations to our right and sugar cane fields to our left. Trucks laden with sugar cane rumbled down the road. Towns and villages flashed by. Tonga. Naas. Choc City. Hoyi. Goba. We drove for 70km and came to the foothills of the Lebombo mountains.

We drove along a strip of concrete road up into the hills.

We stopped at the monument. A big cement slab said, The aeroplane carrying President Samora Moises Machel of the Republic of Mozambique and 34 of his compatriots and colleagues crashed here in Mbuzini in unexpected circumstances on 19 October, 1985.

In a boulder-strewn pit were pieces of the death plane. An engine. A bit of fuselage.

Next to that were 35 tall steel poles, one for every person who died in the crash. They were notched on top, and moaned and shrieked eerily in the wind.


Oh, trouble. Bugger. Got to chill out


We left the spooky place and drove into trouble.

Police stopped us, and asked to see Sims licence. Turned out it had expired. Offer them a million meticais, I said. Its the standard bribe around here. (We still had a sizeable wad of the currency left over from Mozambique.)

But Sim failed to bribe the cops, and was taken to their van, where much paperwork occurred.

I walked over.

Whats the penalty? I asked Sim

Fifteen hundred bucks.

Jeez. Quite a whack. Why dont you ask them if you can do community service?

What, you mean herd sheep and goats at weekends? I dont think so.

Cant you at least make these cops hurry up? Theres some buffalo that need loving, and theyre eagerly awaiting our arrival.

Yeah. Whatever.

Paperwork complete and summons accepted, we hit the road again, a different driver at the wheel, and the rap music replaced by some ambient chill-out tunes.

We drove to the buffalo farm on the outskirts of Komatipoort. The buffalo were in dusty wooden stockades, and when Peter Duranty walked past, the bulls would run up, and lower their heads for a scratching.

For the first time in my life I scratched a buffalos head. The hair was very scratchy, its nose was very wet, its horns were enormous.

Theyve got fascinating eyes, these buffalo, said Peter. He told us there were 300 buffalo at the farm and they sell for R134,000 a head.

You could hunt diseased buffalo at a farm across the road.

A licence cost R45,000.

Do you think the Sunday Times will fork out 45k for me to shoot a buffalo? I asked Jason. He felt they probably wouldnt, and so we left, having given some of the beasts a little bit of love, unable to pay what it cost to kill them.


A brew you have to recover from, and were not talking about a hangover


We hit the N4 and drove to White River, where we hooked up with a big dude called Lou Arthur and his girlfriend, Lesley.

They took us to a microbrewery called Bru. Thats Bru, my bru.

We knocked back some pale ales, and went to Lous place on the way to Hazyview.

A white guard with a shotgun patrolled the place, and seven white puppies snuffled sweetly when they saw us.

Louis brought out the takbok, which is what they call Scottish Leader whisky in these parts - the reindeer on the label is a takbok in Afrikaans.

Louis regaled us with his stories. He told us about the old hippies in nearby Kaapsehoop. About the Hysterical Hornbill bar and a horse whisperer in Hazyview, about the Green Venus bar in Kaapsehoop, about dagga farmers in the area.

He told us that he went to the scene of the Samora Machel plane crash on the day it happened. There were bottles of Stolichnaya [vodka] strewn everywhere. Some were still unbroken. I paid a cop 10 bucks ad he let me take one. I loved Stolichnaya and you couldnt get it then.

An avid birder, Louis told us, the Karo Korhans call is very simple. It goes Hotnot krompoort. Hotnot krompoort.

He said we had got off lightly on the N4 highway. The Nelspruit to Komatipoort stretch has the highest accident rate in the country Theres all sort of crime that happens on that highway. Between Nelspruit and Komatipoort, 60% of South Africas dagga is transported. And then theres the N4 cannibals.

Cannibals?

He told the story of the N4 cannibals, and I was glad we had got through that stretch of road so easily, that we had escaped with our hides intact.

The bottle of Takbok was almost finished when Lou said, Well heres your punchline for tonight. Its the shortest fairy tale in the world:

A guy asks a girl to marry him. She says no. He lives happily ever after.

 

 

Feeling wistful in a beautiful village from a dream

 

28 October 2005

Tuesday October 25, 2005

Breaking out of the Lowveld, the team (recklessly) drives 200km to find a Hobbit village and Stroh rum hospitality in Bronkhorstspruit

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Caspar Greeff

THE figures didnt look good. We had covered only 200km in three days. Two hundred kilometres and about 900 beers. Still another 2,200 kilometres or so left to drive. And not that much time. There was only one thing to do. Ask the Sunday Times to give us an extra two months to complete the trip. But first a beer.

In the twinkling of an eye we were at the Hysterical Hornbill. Its a bar (duh) in Hazyview, and according to our new friend, Lesley, its a brawling bar. Thats why they make the chairs so heavy.

The day was still young when we got there, so there was no brawling, just a few vrotters drinking. Behind the bar was a well-weathered Scotsman named Ian.

He plonked down a couple of photo albums to show us what went on at the Hysterical Hornbill. The pictures told the story of the sort of bar you expect to find in heaven after you cross the great divide. Beautiful babes looking half-hammered, smiling cutely and crookedly. Women kissing one another, thong-flashing, dancing, partying, drinking. Pictures of guys dancing with a blow-up doll. A picture of two big shaven-headed farmers named Jakes and Piesang kissing each other. Me and Piesang used to play doubles at pool, said Ian. But they had to split us up because nobody could beat us.

There was a picture of a huge bearded guy, casually leaning against the bar, stark naked. Thats Niels, said Ian. He looks as rough as shit but hes actually a very nice guy. You can sit down and have a very intelligent conversation with him.

Party party party. Thats what the pictures said. I guess they call this place Hazyview because everybody s permanently pissed and it always looks hazy, I said to Ian. Thats right.

We left before our vision got too hazy, and the Big Fella took the wheel. We call Tebogo the Big Fella because he weighs in at a mighty 48kg. Near Hazyview we passed a sports bar treehouse. A sports bar in a tree. First time I ever saw one of those. Thats just guys who dont want to grow up, said Sim.

We headed back to Nelspruit, and the N4, the highway that was going to take us to Swakopmund. Some guy called Hip Hop Pantsula was singing hip hop pantsula music on the Land Cruisers sound system.

If youre gonna be a pantsula gangsta you gotta have a toothpick or a piece of chewing gum in your mouth, said Jason, opening a packet of Stimorol.

Can I have a piece of your gum? asked Sim.

Sure. Its for the car.

I didnt know the car ate chewing gum.

Oh yeah. You feed it into that little slot underneath the CD player.

We passed a sign for the Emnotweni Casino. In these parts they call the casino Im not winning.

Flamboyants flashed by. We drove along the N4, through the rolling hills of Mpumalanga. We were going to a village called Kaapse Hoop, to a bar called the Green Venus. We passed a Sappi forest, next weeks Sunday Times waiting to happen.

The highway got all serpentine on us, crazy corners everywhere, and the Big Fella took the corners like he was behind the wheel of a Mini Cooper. Easy Big Fella. Easy, or words to that effect were conveyed from the pale-faced passengers in the back seat to our driver.

We turned off the N4, and drove into a spectacular view. The patchwork countryside was splayed out below us, green and luscious. We passed a sign warning of wild horses, and then arrived at Kaapse Hoop.

It looked like the kind of village to which Bilbo Baggins would retire. A pretty little Hobbit village with pretty little Hobbit houses. A sign said Welcome to blue swallow country. Another sign said Celestial Jewel. Beads galore.

We had a beer at the Green Venus. A shaft of sunlight came through the pane of a blackened window and illuminated my shoulder. I thought of John Denver. Sunlight on my shoulder make me happy. Sunlight on my shoulder make me high. It was that kind of town. It was a town with 60 houses and 162 people and four bars. Once it was a gold fever town. Then there were 130 tents and 50 taverns.

There were wild horses in the area. A horse whisperer lived nearby. There was no crime in the town. People left their houses unlocked at night. It was like a fantasy town in a Tim Burton movie.

Dont you sometimes think were doing it all wrong, and these people have got it right, said Sim. Were all chasing the American dream, were all chasing a dream thats not even our own. These people have found their dream.

Next to the Green Venus was a shop called Bohemia. Wind chimes hung outside it and they tinkled gaily. Inside were dreamcatchers and ionic crystal lights and old Matchbox cars, pictures of beautiful waves, and Indian warriors with feathers in their hair. There were Buddhas. A porcelain Buddha lay back opulently, grinning hugely, looking like the luckiest man in the world. Its the Buddha that helps drunkards, said the owner of the shop, Ingrid was her name. The Buddha cost R785 and I couldnt afford it, but I could afford another one that cost R398. It was the Buddha of Prosperity, and I figured that this Buddha would make me rich enough to one day come back to Kaapse Hoop and be able to afford the Drunkards Buddha.

But that was in the future. We had a lot of road to get through and not that much time.

I felt wistful as we drove out of Kaapse Hoop, the beautiful village from a dream. We rejoined the N4. Drove out of the Lowveld and into the Highveld. At Witbank flames shot out of the chimney of a refinery. We drove west, into a sunset rendered pastel perfect by the air pollution. Veld fires blazed in the distance. We passed a few hijacking hotspot roadsigns. We were definitely back in the RSA.

We checked into a lodge at Bronkhorstspruit. Then hit a restaurant slash bar slash entertainment venue called Die Stoep. The place rocked.

The owner, Fritz told us we had to get initiated. He made us drink Stroh rum. He made us drink black bitches (Stroh rum and black Sambuca). Every time we saw him he made us drink. He said I can tell you stories about false teeth and drunk guys. They kotch them out then come back the next day thinking theyve handed them in at the bar. Once there was a new bank manager in this town, a coloured guy. I came here one afternoon, and one of my staff members said A strange gentleman was here looking for his credentials. It turned out that it was the bank manager and he was looking for his dentures. Ja, the oke had to face the public on his first day at work with no teeth in his head.

Sim got talking to a guy who called himself The White Kaffir.

I dont remember much after that.

 

Baby Buddhas in Bronkhorstspruit

 

29 October 2005

Tuesday October 25, 2005

After a narrow escape from the infamous Oom Fritz and the Stroh rum, the team put things into perspective at the Nan Hua Buddhist temple in Bronkhorstspruit, get in touch with their inner "mangina" and head towards the Groot Marico.

Caspar Greeff

Now I know why Bronkhorstspruit is known as "Dronkwordspruit". It felt like someone had kicked a mirror to pieces inside my head, the result of all those Stroh rums and black bitches that Fritz made us drink at Die Stoep last night.

A breakfast of boerewors, bacon, eggs and several cups of coffee helped rearrange some of the shattered shards.

"So Oom Fritz got hold of you," laughed Ricardo, the young man who had sent us to Die Stoep.

"Youre lucky it wasnt your birthday, else youd really be in a state today."

I remembered a story Fritz told us last night, about a Dutch tourist who got seriously hammered at Die Stoep after being "initiated". He managed to leave and wasnt on the road for long before the cops pulled him over for drunken driving. Apparently they debated whether to jail him instantly, or issue him with a summons and drive him back to his hotel. "You can do anything to me," the Dutchman slurred. "So long as I never have to see Die Stoep again." So as punishment they took him back there, and he had to drink more Strohs and black bitches.


Another day, another Buddha


After breakfast we headed for Nan Hua, the Buddhist temple in Bronkhorstspruit. At the temples shop I bought a porcelain Baby Buddha to go with the Buddha of Prosperity I had acquired in Kaapsehoop. Little Baby Buddha. At this rate my Buddha count would keep pace with the hangovers. Another day, another Buddha. Another day, another babelaas.

Sim got chatting to a guy called Jupiter.

"Nice dreads," said Jupiter.

"Yours arent bad either," said Sim.

"What product do you use?" asked Jupiter.

"I sometimes use moulding cream."


Monk wannabe


Jupiter Ngaiza was a novice monk for three years then he decided he couldnt become a monk; now hes a volunteer worker at the temple.

I asked him why he gave up the idea of becoming a monk.

"Dreams," he said. "I couldnt let go of my dreams."

When you become a Buddhist monk youve got to let go of everything, all your worldly attachments, youve got to lose all your aspirations, youve got to let go of everything youve ever desired, and Jupiter wasnt ready for that.

Jupiter gave us both a book called "The Buddha and His Teachings", and Sim and I went upstairs, to the temples restaurant, where we ordered tea.


Bar talk


"You know," said Sim, "Ive learned on this trip that South Africa has changed in many ways, and yet in other parts people just cant let go of the past. I mean, you remember in that bar which bar was it now?

"The Green Venus?"

"No."

"The Hysterical Hornbill?"

"No, before that."

"Bru? Shunters?"

"Nah, the one before that."

"The Lapa Sportsbar?"


The whole bar went quiet, everybody stopped talking.


"Yes, the Lapa Sportsbar. When me and Tebogo walked in there, the whole bar went quiet, everybody stopped talking. Then they started talking amongst themselves, about rugby, the one thing I really wanted to talk about. They just couldnt realise that I might have something insightful to say about that." (Sim is the Sunday Times rugby writer, and had written a 950-word report about the game that the guys in the bar were discussing.)

"Its never easy to leave an old country behind," I said. "At least in the bar there was a new South African flag to balance the old one they had. Its like they were clinging to the past while acknowledging that there was a completely different present out there."

We drank our tea, and headed for town. Back to Die Stoep. Suckers for punishment.

Over lunch I mentioned to Jason that someone in Joburg said our stories werent quite politically correct enough.

"Youve got to get in touch with your inner mangina, bra" he said.

"I didnt know I had an inner mangina," I chuckled.

"Sure bru. Weve all got one."

"Mangina is such a cool word. Where did you get it?"

"Deuce Bigelow, Male Gigolo. A movie."


My inner mangina


"Well from now on Ill certainly make a huge effort to get in touch with my inner mangina," I said. "Not only that, but Ill try and tickle it pink, so that everything I say is 100 percent politically correct."

"Thats the spirit."

We walked back to the Land Cruiser. On the way there we passed the Sukses shopping centre. It had a sign for "21st Century Funerals." Next to it was a sign that made me grin.

"Check out that sign," I said to Jason.

The sign read, "Dr Mama Ngina. A herbalist and healer. Try her."

"Dr Mama Ngina. Now if her second name was, say, Aunty, then she would be Dr MA Ngina," I said.

"Dr Mangina!"

Laughing like schoolboys we climbed into the off-gold 4x4 and drove out of Bronkhorstspruit.

I started reading the Buddha book, "About the Five Precepts. The Four Sublime States, the Ten Transcendental Virtues and the Noble Eightfold Path".


Traffic jam


Near Pretoria the N4 started becoming the Platinum Highway. We got stuck in a traffic jam at Pretoria. It seemed so mundane, to be stuck in traffic, part of another life far in the past.

We headed west along the Platinum Highway. Past suburbs of fenced-in cluster houses. Settlements of shacks. Turnoffs to towns I would never see.

"Dude this new road to Rustenburg rocks," said Jason. "The old road was vomitous."

Brown hills, thorn trees, abandoned caravans, power pylons, thunderheads in the sky.

We checked into a guesthouse at Groot Marico, and then headed for the Groot Marico Hotel.


Is that the local version of John Travolta?


There were about a dozen people in the bar. It had a weird feel; like everybody was a zombie and they were going to sink their teeth in our flesh. A guy was playing tunes, and the towns Dancer did his thing. He was a skinny guy with jet black hair, wearing stone-washed jeans and a yellow T-shirt. He bust some serious moves on the dance floor.

"Is that the local version of John Travolta?" asked Sim.

The dancing dude then did an awesome move, involving the splits and his thighs on the floor.

"Wow. The J-splits," said Jason. "I havent seen that move for quite a few years."

"My mangina took a pounding just looking at that," said Sim.

Pink elephants in Groot Marico

 

31 October 2005

Tuesday October 25, 2005

Groot Marico is jam-packed with pink elephants, gnomes and crazy characters that could have stumbled out of a Herman Charles Bosman story. And thats not even the mampoer talking

Caspar Greeff

Yes, there are pink elephants in Groot Marico. I saw them with my own eyes. I also saw gnomes and dwarves of many hues and naked ladies of the brightest blue. This was before I drank any mampoer. Or rather, before I drank mampoer in quantities that mattered.

The elephants, gnomes, dwarves and naked ladies are all on the farm, Kleinfontein, which is where Oom Piet Schwan lives. Oom Piet is a wiry old fellow who smokes strong cigarettes in a cigarette holder. He grows big vetplante and makes things. Some of the things he makes are pink elephants, gnomes and dwarves of many hues, and naked ladies of the brightest blue.

He makes them by the hundred in his workshop at Kleinfontein in Groot Marico, just off the N4. He makes them out of cement and paints them all by hand. Some of the gnomes weigh a great deal, and it takes a very strong man to lift one up. It certainly takes more than one man to pick up a pink elephant or one of the larger dwarves.

Oom Piet says that people keep coming back to his gnome factory at Kleinfontein. "Ag, you buy one dwarf and you take it home to your wife, and she says, no, there were more dwarves, so you have to come back a number of times until you have all seven."


Bosman country


Groot Marico was immortalised by the writer Herman Charles Bosman, who taught at a school 100km away and set many of his short stories in the area. Theres an extract of his writing on one of the walls of the towns little museum.

"Africa is pure art," it says, "The continent itself is the expression of a complete fantasy. It seems better to me that Africa should express her art in magic - in dancing and in music, in painting and in blood, and in nothing

"Africa is the genius among the continents, untamed and old in civilisation as is all genius."

The museum is run by a woman named Santa van Bart. She poured us shot glasses of mampoer and honey, sat us down and told us a bit about the area. She told us about the eye of the Groot Marico, which was once believed to be the source of the Nile. These days you can scuba dive there. She told us about the local mampoer farmers, and arranged for us to visit one.

"But you mustnt identify him in the newspaper, you must call him n donkie boer van die Groot Marico [a donkey farmer from the Groot Marico] because he makes mampoer illegally."

Santa told about the work she does with the local community, encouraging them to create art that she sells at the museum.

She told us about the water snake named Noga, which some people believe needs a human sacrifice every year to bring rain to the area. There is also a creature, half-man, half-ape, called Die Waterbobbejaan which comes out of the river at night, causing all sorts of mischief.

She told us about an artist called Kalahari Bridges, who lives in the area and paints enormous pictures of, among other things, large naked women.


"I love unskinny women


We went to pay Kalahari Bridges a visit. He lives in a house painted Ndebele-style near the Rietvaly not many kilometres away from Groot Marico. He and his wife, whom he calls Cloud, welcomed us, and Kalahari Bridges showed us some of his paintings. They are indeed very large, about 2.3m x I.3m. The three women in one of the paintings were also very large, generously curved, and as bountiful as the earth. "I love unskinny women," confessed Kalahari.

Their phone rang. It actually rang. It didnt chirp or cheep or make a strange electronic sound. A hammer hit a bell and the phone rang. It is a black Bakelite phone with a handle. The Big Fella photographed Cloud while she spoke on this strange phone, a relic from a time long gone.

"Its a party line," said Kalahari. "Fourteen families share the line were on. Our number is 4113 - 41 is the mainline and 13 is the branch were on. Weve all got our own ring, ours is one short and three long rings, because were number 13."

"We call speaking on the phone broadcasting on Radio Groot Marico," said Cloud when she had finished her call. We were sitting outside and she had made us a delicious date and pine nut pudding, drizzled with mampoer. "I was talking to someone once when I heard a voice saying, "Sarie, luister jy? [Sarie are you listening?] There were at least two people listening in to my call. "

Kalahari and Cloud moved to Groot Marico from Johannesburg five years ago, but they dont miss the bright lights.


Its a magical place


"This is a very healing place," said Kalahari. "Its a magical place. If youre physically or mentally or spiritually wounded"

"Like everyone is," interjected Cloud.

"Then this place will heal you. Things happen here that are quite amazing. Once I was walking along a nearby koppie, when I suddenly heard an Elvis song. There was nobody about, but I distinctly heard Elvis singing Blue Suede Shoes. I went back home and phoned someone in Joburg.

Has something happened with Elvis? I asked him.

You see, I didnt know because were cut off from the outside world here. My friend said yes, it was the 25th anniversary of Elviss death, and that there was a huge Elvis revival and there were two of his songs in the top 10.

"There are very powerful forces here," said Cloud. "Whatever happens here, it happens in concentrated form."


She poured us a shot of peach mampoer


She poured us a shot of peach mampoer. It went down smoothly, the essence of sunshine, distilled madness.

We left Kalahari and Cloud, and drove a little way in the Bushveld, until we came to a farm near the N4. We phoned the owner, and he came to open the gate. He drove a beat-up old vehicle and there were about a dozen people crammed on and in it. One of the passengers was wearing a samurai sword. He jumped off the vehicle and opened the gate for us.

The driver was a mampoer farmer. He was dressed all in khaki right down to his floppy hat. A big knife dangled next to his shorts. "How many borrels of mampoer you want?" he asked us. "I cant help you if you want less than free."

"We want four bottles," said Jason.

The mampoer farmer indicated that we should drive on to the farmhouse. He sat us down and his wife poured us shots of mampoer to taste. Naartjie mampoer. Orange mampoer. Lemon mampoer.


Wassa matter. Are you moffies?


Sim and the Big Fella said they didnt want any mampoer. "Wassa matter. Are you moffies?" bellowed the farmer. The farmer had a knack for telling stories. He told us many stories, and they were some of the funniest stories I have ever heard, but I cant remember them now.

When we left he said, "There are three people who make really good mampoer in this area. The other side of Groot Marico, is the Mampoer King. Then in Groot Marico theres the Pro. But me, I am the Mampoer Maaaaster."

Jason and I lurched towards the off-gold Land Cruiser, Sim and the Big Fella walked there.

"When you get back to Joburg," said the farmer. "Give all you chommies R10. Ja, give each and every one of your chommies R10 and tell them its from me."


Being in Groot Marico had been like stepping into the pages of a book


We assured him we would do so, and headed off, the Big Fella at the wheel. Being in Groot Marico had been like stepping into the pages of a book, a place filled with stories and characters.

We drove along the N4 to Skilpadshoek, where we completed our border formalities and crossed into Botswana. At a little town called Lobatsi we checked into the Cumberland Hotel, apparently the oldest hotel in Botswana.

We met two local guys, Nick and Daver, who told us they wanted to exchange ideas, but it turned out they just wanted us to buy them drinks. Nick was very drunk and kept on telling us the same story, about some friend of his who worked in Joburg "at the corner of Pritchard and Troye streets."

Nick asked me to buy him a packet of cigarettes and I said, "Look, Im all in favour of people killing themselves, but I am not going to pay for them to do it."

"Ah you are a Christian," said Nick in delight. "I knew you were a Christian."


Reds lights and broken glass


The next day was our seventh on the road. Sunday. We drove to Gaborone and went to the Bull and Bush for lunch. After big steaks we hit the road again. We hadnt gone very far in town when a taxi jumped a red light and smashed into an oncoming vehicle. The taxi rolled over, glass spraying everywhere. It then slowly righted itself and immediately people squeezed out of the broken windows. It was all very surreal, because we had been playing music in the Land Cruiser and the crash seemed to happen in silence. It brought home how easily you can lose everything in one moment of stupidity.

We drove west. The N4 had become the A2. The Platinum Highway had become the Sir Seretse Khama Highway. There were maniac drivers, who overtook three cars on a blind rise, seemingly without batting an eyelid.

But the biggest hazard was the donkeys. Positively suicidal, they wandered on the road whenever the fancy took them, and the sight of a Land Cruiser approaching at 120km/h didnt bother them in the slightest. They dared you to kill them, but of course you couldnt.

We drove past cemeteries where the graves were protected by green shade-cloth. Drove past a field where a big white zeppelin was moored. The Debswana zeppelin, looking for diamonds. We drove along that highway, a highway from a country song, a highway that went through ever-sparser countryside, a highway that was taking us through four countries.

We drove until we reached a village called Kang. The Kang Ultra Stop petrol station had rooms, so we checked in. Our room didnt have a Gideons Bible, but there were pamphlets on the pillow, advising you "what to do when you are infected with HIV."

I had two beers and called it a night.

On the road again

 

01 November 2005

Tuesday October 25, 2005

The super-highway linking Maputo to Swakopmund is new, smooth and pitch black but it lacks barrier lines. The team leaves the dusty village of Kang in Botswana behind and heads west

Caspar Greeff

Hazy clouds smudged a pale blue sky as we drove out of Kang.

The village was designated on the map by a little empty circle, and thats very much how it had felt - like being in a little empty circle. Not much had happened there, except that Sim had talked to a truck driver.

"He said it was his first time using that road," Sim told me later. "He was on his way from Cape Town to Mamuno, and was carrying mattress components."

"Wow!" I said.

It had cost the equivalent of R1,200 to fill up the Land Cruiser at the Kang Ultra, and we were ready for the next stretch of the Trans-Kalahari Highway. Sim was at the wheel. We were sitting in "quota system formation": a black guy and a white guy in front, a white guy and a black guy in the back.


The road still looked new and it felt smooth


Sometimes we sat according to the "kwaito system", which was the two black guys in front, and sometimes we practised the "white-ou" system, which was the two white guys in front. Usually we never noticed who sat where. The road still looked new and it felt smooth.

"Hows the car handling?" I asked Sim.

"The Beast she powerful but she fighting the man," Sim replied. He meant that the Toyota Land Cruiser Prado had plenty of power, but you had to treat it with immense respect when going round corners. It was a smooth car, almost too smooth, and sometimes you forgot you were in an enormous gas-guzzler that weighed a huge amount and was not designed to be flung around corners.

"I wonder what extras you get in the BMW X5," Sim said.

"You probably get two sunglasses holders," I said.


Special extras


"As well as leather from younger calves, heated seats, a voice that tells you how to get to where you want to go, a GPS, windscreen wipers and headlights that turn on automatically, and"

"And its probably got its own cock," he said.

The Land Cruiser had not come equipped with a mascot, and we had bought a wooden rooster for it at the side of the road in Bronkhorstspruit. We had named the cars cock "Mangina".

"Probably," I agreed.


No barrier lines


"It feels almost like were cheating by driving through the desert with air con," said Jason, but we were all pretty happy to be cheating in this way. The road was new, the road was smooth, the road was pitch black, but the road did have one fault, and that was the lack of barrier lines.

A white dotted line went on forever in the middle of the road, indicating that you could overtake wherever you wanted, be it a blind rise, or a sharp corner, whatever, dont worry, just overtake. However, there werent that many cars to overtake. In the hour after we left Kang I counted seven cars and two trucks on the highway - and that includes the vehicles coming from the other direction.

A sign indicated that there may be a Bushman crafts store somewhere in the area, so we turned off the highway and onto a white dirt road. The Prado was starting to look like an authentic off-roader, and there was a chance we wouldnt have to buy the spray-on mud. Sim drove for about 10km and then we arrived at a small settlement. All the inhabitants were Bushmen, and many of them were drunk, although it was barely 11.30 in the morning.


Drunk bushmen


They clustered around the big luxury car, yelling and demanding money to be photographed, and after a while we sped off, back the way we had come, back onto the A2, the highway that goes through four countries, the strip of tar that links two African coasts. We passed a tiny settlement called Palamakaloi, another called Lokolane. They were nothing more than collections of huts. Ostriches stood at the side of the road and flapped their wings at us as we shot past. We saw a dead donkey in the road and stopped to photograph it. Dragonflies circled above the big bloated dead animal.

"Its not a donkey, its a horse," said the Big Fella. "A wild horse."

"I guess its wild days are over," I remarked.

African roots

 

02 November 2005

Tuesday October 25, 2005

The Bushmen in Ghanzi teach us about the healing powers of the roots hidden under the hot sands of the Kalahari before we cross the Namibian border and roll into Windhoek

Caspar Greeff

Weve reached that stage in the mission where things are starting to fall apart.

My Dupont - the pen from Paris that I bought in Maputo on Day One at great expense and after considerable haggling - has stopped writing. The cars cock is broken. And the Big Fella has maxed out on his cellphone contract, which means he can no longer phone his girlfriend in South Africa.

On reflection, though, things arent that bad. I can always buy another cartridge for the Dupont (may have to go to Paris to do that). Mangina, the wooden rooster that we bought as the Prados mascot, isnt broken too badly - he lost a bit of his beak, thats all.

And the Big Fellas girlfriend can - and does - still phone him. So I guess the centre is holding. Just. In and around Ghanzi, the Botswana town where we spent last night, things are falling apart in a serious fashion.


Things fall apart


Theres been an international outcry about the resettlement of the Kalahari Bushmen in this part of the world. Well-meaning outsiders have delivered shrill polemics and fingers have been pointed at the Botswana government. Some people we talked to here seem to think the government is doing the right thing and that most of the Bushmen want to be resettled in villages with schools and clinics; but what is apparent is that an entire way of life and of relating to the Earth - a trove of human knowledge - is disappearing.

This morning we got a glimpse of that way of life, albeit it a glimpse sanitised and distilled for tourists. At a bush camp called Trail Blazers we went for a walk with seven San Bushmen. They are tiny people with yellowish skin, slanted eyes and wizened faces. They wore animal skins - duiker skin, goatskin, steenbok skin, kudu skin - all carried sticks, and the men had bows and arrows. They walked barefoot through the bush. We hadnt gone very far when one of the women squatted down and dug up a root with her sharpened stick. She told us all about the root, speaking in strange clicks and clacks and clucks.

"This is called kwa," said our guide and translator, Robert Camm, a Tswana who speaks three Bushman languages. "This is what gives them the power to run the long distance."

I took a bite of the root. It tasted bitter.

"You gonna take some of that root home for when you see your girlfriend," jested Sim.


Root power


We walked on, through what looked to me like an arid landscape with thorn trees, but to the Bushmen was a world crammed with information, meaning and power. We stopped many times, and roots were dug up and shown to us. This root prevented pregnancies and nosebleeds, that root made women fertile; the devils claw they showed us was used to treat aching joints, ailing kidneys and backache.

"We are walking on top of medicine here," said Robert. Another root prevented bad dreams.

"You just tie it around your neck, then you take another piece of it and rub the tip of it in fat. You set it alight, and it smokes for a long time. You put it next to your bed when you sleep and the bad dreams will stop."


The magic of fire

The men showed us how they make fire by rubbing a hard sharpened stick in a hole in a soft stick. They took turns rubbing the hard stick so that its point twirled in the soft stick. Soon there was smoke, and the grass they had put next to the hole caught alight. It seemed almost magical, this labour intensive way of making fire, much more impressive than creating a flame by striking a match or clicking a cigarette lighter, which, when you think about it, are also pretty magical acts.

It was barely nine in the morning, but the heat was fierce. One of the women dug up a tuber, and scraped it with a small stick. She squeezed the pulp in her hands, and liquid gushed out. She put back her head and drank the liquid, passed the tuber around, and all the Bushmen scraped the tuber, squeezed the pulp and drank the liquid. The two babies closed their eyes, put their heads back and waited for the liquid to be squeezed into their mouths. It was too hot to continue, so we walked back to the camp. Robert told us that when the Bushmen are resettled the government gives them five head of cattle or 15 goats, and that sometimes unscrupulous Tswanas give them a crate of chibuku (local beer) in exchange for the cattle.


Alcoholism


Drinking is a big problem in the San settlements: when a nomadic people become sedentary they also turn to alcohol. We bade Robert and the Bushmen farewell and hit the road again. Drove a couple of hundred kilometres on the Trans-Kalahari Highway, past a little village called Mamuno and arrived at the Buitepos border post.

It was quiet there, besides us there were two other vehicles. The woman at the customs desk told us that not many trucks came through this border post, and that they dealt mainly with foreign tourists. I filled in the necessary forms, squinting as I did so, wondering why the hell they had to make the spaces to fill in the information so tiny.

There were dispensers, which gave free condoms as well as free femidoms. None of us had ever seen a femidom in the flesh, so we took one for later inspection. It took us a mere nine minutes to get through the border post, and the formalities at the Namibian side - the Trans-Kalahari border post - were equally swift. We had to pay a road tax of R120, the stiffest of the journey. Then we were in Namibia. The donkeys at the side of the road disappeared, replaced by warthogs. The scenery got more interesting, more vast, with blue mountains in the distance, and the highway taking us ever closer to our destination.

The Land Cruiser chomped up the road, and we soon reached Windhoek, where we had gemsbok fillets and springbok kebabs at one of my favourite restaurants in the world - Joes Beerhouse.

Final destination

 

03 November 2005

Tuesday October 25, 2005

On the final leg of the road trip - from Windhoek to Walvis Bay - the Coast to Coast team spots their first "zonkey", a cross between a zebra and a donkey, and discovers the best biltong in the world

Caspar Greeff

Woke up with a whiff of journeys end in my nostrils - only 385km of highway left to travel.

Maputo seemed so far away and long ago. All those kilometres we drove, all those places we went, all those people we metall were now just decaying memories. We said goodbye to the owner of the Alexander Hotel in Windhoek, where we had spent the night. His name is Alexander, and hes one of those slightly weird Germans who always wears a sleeveless leather jacket, come rain or shine.

We kick-started the day with cappuccinos at a German bakery in Independence Avenue. A white hearse drove past. It was a 4x4 hearse - Namibias a tough country, and you sometimes need a rugged ride to fetch a corpse. The day unsmudged into a semblance of order.

We hit the highway, and the landscape was strangely familiar, you could have been somewhere slightly north of Pretoria. We drove north for 71km and reached the town of Okahandja. Its the home of the Closwa biltong factory and a stop here is essential if you have even the slightest carnivorous tendency.


The best biltong in the world


Quite simply, they make the best biltong in the world, and I picked up a couple of hefty slabs to take back to South Africa. A little way past the biltong factory were thousands upon thousands of wooden carvings next to the roadside. San people, impala, locusts, tortoises, crocodiles, skinny guys, demonic faces, hyenas, elephants and hippos, the carvings were all stories of Africa, memory given shape.

We soon wilted in the heat, and climbed back into the big Prado. I put on a CD by an outfit called Asleep At The Wheel. Guitars twanged and fiddles wailed. A woman sang plaintively, "Please Johnny, please Johnny please come home. I need your love and the kids need to be fed." It was boogie-woogie country music, redneck in an ironic way, but then they do say that irony is the refuge of cowards. We made a left turn and headed west, towards the Atlantic Ocean.

This section of the Trans-Kalahari Highway was called the B2. The lB2 made me think of Sylvester Stallone playing Rocky playing Hamlet: "To be - or what?" The road was in extremely good condition, and there were a fair amount of trucks on it, most of them with Walvis Bay or Windhoek registration plates. The veld was tawny like a lion, the sky was big and bold, like the sky in a John Wayne movie. The scenery unfolded and we stopped at a town called Karibib, 112km west of Okahandja. At the filling station, slick vegetable ivory scamsters approached us. "What is your name?" they asked, while carving away at a vegetable ivory ball. You told them your name and quick as a flash your name was carved into the vegetable ivory and you felt compelled to buy it, price before haggling: R30.


The worlds driest desert


On we drove, and the landscape became more and more yellow. We went through the tiny railway town of Usakos, with its cute German architecture, cute in an Eidelweiss kind of way. It was apparent that we were nearing the desert, the veld turned to gravel, which became finer and finer, and soon after the little village of Arandis we were in the Namib, the worlds oldest and driest desert. The vastness and emptiness of it gave your mind that unfettered feeling; there was so much space for it to roam.

As we approached Swakopmund, coastal fog started rolling onto the desert. We stopped at an old German fort called Nonidas, 1km from Swakopmund. It was built in the 19th century and used to be a German police station. More recently it was converted into a hotel, and when we visited it, the fort was undergoing another transition. It was being turned into broadcasting centre for a Christian company called TBC. We spoke to an electrician rewiring the place. His name was Nico le Roux, and it turned out that he was the first guy to drive a coach along the Trans-Kalahari Highway in Botswana.

"Ja, it was in 1994, on the day the highway officially opened," said Le Roux.

"I was a coach-driver then, and I was driving the Intercape from Windhoek to Joburg. That highway shaved about 450km off the route. I would leave Windhoek at five in the morning and get to Joburg at half past nine that evening."

Le Roux said that the coaches stopped using the highway because the border fees became prohibitively expensive. That explained why we had seen so few trucks on the Botswana section: it was too expensive.


Full circle


It seemed fitting that 41km from our destination we would met the man who drove a coach along the Trans-Kalahari Highway on the day it opened, it was a form of closure. But not quite. We still had a stretch of highway to travel, people to meet, places to go.

We drove to a camel farm near the old fort, and met Erica, the German woman who runs it. I saw my first zonkey, a cross between a zebra and a donkey. It was munching on the grass in her garden. She kitted us out in Arab-style headdresses, and I looked like Elvis of Arabia (in my dreams). The four of us trotted off on our camels, high above the desert, laughing in delight as the camels picked up speed, delighted at the things this highway made us do.


Final destination


Then we drove into Swakopmund, the beautiful seaside town on the west coast of Namibia. The mist was thick, as thick as the mist in a Humphrey Bogard movie, as thick as the mist in the airport scene in Casablanca. It was strange to be cold in the desert during daylight, stranger still to be misted in the desert.

Namibia has become a rest stop for Africa over Landers and assorted adventurers. You can ride quad bikes over desert dunes, go dune boarding, parasailing, fishing, or just chill out at the Lighthouse restaurant, which is what we did.

Did I mention that the Namibian draught beer is the best in the word? We drank a couple of them at the Lighthouse, savouring the coldness and the bitterness of the golden liquid. We walked along the mole (the seaside wall) to the rocks were the Atlantic was dashing itself in white explosions.

Ten days ago we were in Maputo, walking in the warm Indian Ocean. The highway had taken us from African coast to African coast, east to west, through four countries, and more than 3,400km. We had met strange people, funny people, crazy people, but all the people we had met had seemed good people. We had been through parts of South Africa that seemed stuck in the middle of the twentieth century, and we had been to other places that were a step or two ahead of the times. That night we celebrated our journey. I had crocodile and chips for dinner, then we went to the township, and danced at a number of shebeens, then came to town and went to a number of bars, ending up at the Cool Banana. Got up at six this morning and drove 30km through the desert to Walvis Bay, which is where the highway and our journey ended.

 

END OF SPECIAL REPORT SERIES.

 

 

 

A Tale Of Paradise - Casper Greeff and Ruvan Boshoff

 Sunday Times:  November 24, 2002

 

Travel: Baviaanskloof Eastern Cape

 

   River mermaids in a remote wilderness . . . it sounded almost too good to be true, which is why Caspar Greeff and photographer Ruvan Boshoff went to the Baviaanskloof to investigate

 

   If this story were a tapestry, a tawny snake would wind through its centre and on the sides beautiful mermaids would be combing their hair next to mountain pools.

The tawny snake is a road. Encompassing five hair-raising passes, it was constructed in the 1880s by the road-building genius Thomas Bain.

 

   The mermaids (I was told) live in the rivers that run alongside and over and under this road. The tawny snake that is a road stretches for more than 140km and is found between the Eastern Cape towns of Patensie and Willowmore. It is among the last and is the longest of the 24 roads built by Bain. It is the road that goes through the Baviaanskloof. The mermaids have long black hair and white skin and shapely breasts and if you give them the wrong answer to a question they will kill you.

  

   Photographer Ruvan Boshoff told me about the mermaids. Until then I had imagined mermaids as being solely creatures of the sea, and I had no idea where the Baviaanskloof was. Boshoff assured me that the mermaids of the Baviaanskloof live in rivers; he had spoken to people who had seen the beings.

  

   I found out that the Baviaanskloof is a wilderness area, a twisting ravine situated between two parallel mountain ranges northwest of Port Elizabeth. Some say it is an unspoilt paradise. It sounded like a story worth investigating, and so the photographer and I flew to PE and hired a white Microbus and drove off to the Baviaanskloof in search of mermaids.

 

   We stopped at the town of Hankey to look at South Africa's largest sundial, which is 34.6m in diameter and has a gnomon that weighs a ton. The sundial is next to a green hill, and we walked up this hill, and found ourselves at a grave enclosed in a cage made of metal pickets. The grave was strewn with gravel, and on the burial mound were rocks, thistles, bunches of dead proteas and a plastic bottle. It is the grave of Sarah Baartman; her remains were buried here on August 9 .

 

   Patensie, on the border of the Baviaanskloof was 13km away, but we made one more detour - a visit to a place called Shumba Safari Lodge. Two stone lions guarded its gateway, a high electric fence protected the property and signs warned that dangerous lions were about.

 

   At the main lapa, with its hunting pictures, stuffed hippo head and stuffed lion, we met khaki-clad co-owner Adolf Kleinhans, who greeted us with bone-crushing handshakes. He poured us Cokes and told us about game drives and photo safaris and he told us about the lions.

 

   There are 40 lions at Shumba, and some are there to be hunted, mainly by wealthy Americans.

 

   "It costs 18 000 to hunt a lion," said Adolf. "And we're speaking dollars."

   " Do the lions ever win?" I asked.

 

   Adolf looked at me. "Ja . . . they killed my father a few years ago. And they put me in hospital once," he said, fingering a scar on his forehead where his scalp had been ripped off and sewn back on.

 

   I decided to change the subject.

"We're on our way to the Baviaanskloof. We're hunting for mermaids."

 

   He laughed. "Do you have a lot of time?"

"Oh, a few days. Do you know where to find the mermaids?"

"No. I've never heard of mermaids in the Baviaanskloof. But if you do find any, please bring me one."

  

   "No ways," I said, imagining the enormous sum a rich American would pay to kill a mermaid. "If we find any we'll keep them for ourselves. "

  

   We bid farewell to Adolf, and checked in at the Ripple Hill hotel in Patensie. The bar was full of barefoot men wearing very short pants and peaked caps. None of them knew of mermaids and the trail seemed to be growing cold.

 

   We decided to approach the Baviaanskloof from the other side - from Willowmore - because Boshoff said that's where the mermaids had been seen.

 

   Willowmore. It sounded like the name of a verdant village where hobbits hung out, but it was actually a dusty Karoo town where sheep farmers lived, and we reached it by a roundabout route, through the Elands River Valley, and via Steytlerville.

Outside a house on the outskirts of town was a sign which said, in Afrikaans: "Dr George. Herbalist. Fortune teller. Talk to me - I help with any problem."

 

   If anyone knew about mermaids I suspected it would be Dr George.

I entered his house and in a room where twilight was trapped came face to face with the man himself. He had short dreadlocks and a gap where his front teeth used to be. He was eating chicken and rice out of an enamel bowl, and looked at me with eyes as deep as mountain pools

 

   "We're looking for mermaids . . ." I began.

   "You're looking for what?"

   "Mermaids. They're half women, half fish . . . The top half is that of a woman, and . ."

   "Yes, yes, I know. Carry on."

   "We have heard that there are mermaids in the Baviaanskloof."

   "But there's no sea there."

   "I know. These mermaids live in the rivers. Do you know where we will find them?"

   He considered the question.

 

   "There are no mermaids in the Baviaanskloof. You will find what you are looking for where the river flows into the sea."

 

   We left town, turning left on to the R397, or the T1 as it is now called. A sign on the white dust road warned of "DANGEROUS MOUNTAIN PASSES AHEAD". We drove past Karoo scrub, past sheep and cacti. Then we were going through ravines, past towering red rocks daubed with yellow lichen. Pink flowers grew everywhere. The tyres made a satisfying swooshing sound as we drove through a stretch of river. "Looks like mermaid country," said Boshoff .

  

   We stopped at a house called Makkedaatcave. The actual cave, further down the road, has been enclosed with timber and rock, and fitted to sleep 10 people. The owner, Henritte Terblanche, offered us tea and old-fashioned hospitality and said yes, she had heard of the mermaids.

 

   Now we were getting somewhere.

"One of the women who works here, Annie, told me about the mermaids. How she saw mermaids, or mermaids' toys. I couldn't believe it. Something about a doll and some rocks and a mirror . . ."

 

   We found Annie Baartman in a simple cottage next to a kloof. Years ago, she told us, she went to a rock pool in the kloof, when suddenly, "the water started swirling, swirling, swirling. It went around and around like it was boiling in a kettle. I saw big green fish swimming round the pool.  

 

   Then I saw three pretty dolls swimming round and round. The dolls had no clothes on. They had coppery hair. Then a big brown snake with a white stripe on its head came out of the pool and chased me.

 

   "I went back there with some friends another time, and the water spurted up like a fountain. I saw the fish and the dolls and the water shot all over me. I've never gone back there."

We left the little white cottage with its wooden shutters, and drove on down that dusty road. The river crossed the road many times. It babbled and chuckled and sang secret songs.

 

   Boshoff knew of a mermaid painting in the area. It was at a commune founded by the folk singer Steve Newman. Newman's house, made of clay, stone and reeds was locked up when we got there. A sparrow was trapped inside, and it kept on flying into a window. There was a metaphor there somewhere, but I couldn't find it.

 

   We went to the house where the mermaid painting was, and a pretty young woman named Gaelin opened the door. She gave me one of those Black Power handshakes that I thought had gone out of fashion, and bade us enter. Alas! The wall where the mermaid had once languished was now painted over, so we asked Gaelin to pose like a mermaid in a chair next to the wall.

 

   She was reticent at first, but after a bit of persuasion agreed to lounge on the chair, which she called the "queen chair". She told us that the commune was called Tchnuganoo, "which means Place of Little Water", but we should rename it "the Place of Dreams".  It was going to be an eco-village and there were "two finished hand-built houses. There are another three or four half-finished hand-built houses, but people find it difficult to make money here, and they leave."

 

   A couple of kids were running about holding big ostrich bones, and it all started looking a bit Quest for Fire-ish.

  

   "Ag shame boys," said Gaelin to us as we left. "Such a pity you didn't get the real thing," referring to the painting of the mermaid.

 

   But we soon got very close to the real thing. On the dusty sinuous road,  (on Zandvlakte) next to a weeping pepper tree heavy with goldfinch nests was a house which Boshoff recognised.

 

  "That's where Oom Klaas lives. He's a medicine man, and he's seen the mermaids." We unlatched the gate, pulled in and waited for Oom Klaas. He arrived in a brightly painted donkey cart - a 72-year-old man who wore a hat and walked with two crutches because he had arthritis.

 

   We met him at the river that runs past his house. Patches of light and dark rippled on his face, reflections from the water. The finches were going crazy, the shadows lengthened as the sun sank behind the mountain, and we went inside Oom Klaas Swartz's house, with its pictures of Jesus and the Last Supper and the Sacred Heart. He told us about the mermaids.

 

   "I saw the mermaids twice. The first time was years ago, in a pool near here. She had pitch black hair - long hair - and pure white skin and breasts like a woman. The bottom half of her body was in the water. She was combing her hair with a black comb, and when she saw me, she went underwater and disappeared. As she went under her hair spread out on top of the water. It was beautiful.

 

   "I saw another mermaid two years ago in the same pool. Her breasts were bigger, she looked like she had had a baby, but she was very beautiful. She looked at me - she had grey-green eyes - and then she also disappeared under the water."

Oom Klaas had been warned about the mermaids by his father, also a herbalist and medicine-man.

 

   "They ask you one question. They ask, 'Do you eat fish?' If you say 'yes' they will kill you - they are half-fish.

 

   "My father saw many mermaids. One Sunday he went to the pool and sat on the rocks and they took him down to where they live under the water, and taught him about herbs. They live in houses like we do, only under the water. If you ever kill a legavaan you will see that there is cow dung under its limbs. The mermaids send the legavaans up to get cow dung which they use to make floors.

 

   "Sometimes they will pull a child under the water. If that happens to your child, you mustn't cry and carry on, because then they will kill the child and throw her out. No, you must get a cow, and slaughter it next to the river, and cook it. Then send down the haunches. When you go home your child will be back.

 

   "There are two lots of mermaids here and sometimes, deep in the night when I sit here, I can hear the top ones going to the ones below. They murmur, 'na-ni-ni-ni'. What they say to each other I don't know, but they are very clever."

 

   Oom Klaas told us that "the whole of [nearby] Zaaiman's Hoek knows of these [mermaids]. They have seen them."

 

   When we told him we were heading into the wilderness area he warned us to be careful. "The Kouga [River] - that's a dangerous place. There are many mermaids there."

We spent that night at Zandvlakte, a historic farm where a South African Prime Minister, J G Strijdom, was born in 1893. The farm used to have a baboon-skin tannery when baboon-leather accessories were the height of chic in certain circles.

 

   Our charming hosts Piet and Griet Kruger were a repository of knowledge about the Baviaanskloof, but Piet knew nothing about mermaids.

 

   His wife Griet said she had heard stories of mermaids, and that she was aware of "a mermaid myth" in the Baviaanskloof.

 

   There are, in fact, myths about mermaids throughout the Karoo, where water and the acquisition of it is such an important part of life. Nieu Bethesda artist Helen Martins used to dream about mermaids, and she - and later her apprentice Koos Malgas - sculpted many mermaids from cement and glass at the now famous Owl House.

 

   The following morning Boshoff and I entered the Baviaanskloof wilderness area, and at the beautiful Geelhoutbos camp, with its tall yellowwood trees, spoke to two women, Ivy and Minnie, who had heard that "by the big river on a sunny day the mermaids sit on the rocks and comb their hair".

 

   "What will you do if you see one?" asked Minnie.

 

   "Catch it."

 

   "No!" she said. "You mustn't do that. They say that if you catch one of those mermaids there will be a big flood."

 

   At a nearby mountain store we met the owners Johan and his wife Baby, an elderly lady whose hair was in curlers.

 

   "The road ahead is very, very bad," Johan told us. "I found a whole back bumper on the road a while ago."

 

   But the tawny road which snaked through the ravines was beautiful, a work of elegance and artistry. It wound and wended its way through the warp and weft of the Baviaanskloof. It looked like it belonged there in those mountains, the master-thread which completed the tapestry. The narrow road took us to dramatic heights, and sometimes there would be a sheer drop on the side - no safety barriers.

 

   We stopped for a midday swim at the Rooihoek camp site. The Kouga River, which flowed alongside the red rocks, was silver in the sun, and the deep pools which it formed were Bible-black. The sand was white, and shimmering dragonflies mated in midair.

 

   I dreamed about that place the next night, that as I swam through the warm water electric currents passed through me, and then hands were dragging me down and I was drowning. But in real life it was a place of beauty and tranquillity.

 

   Reluctantly, we left the river at Rooihoek, and continued along the road which Bain built. At Bergplaas, which is 674m high and has a long hut for hikers, and where there are old stone walls which used to be cattle kraals, we surveyed the kloof in all its grandeur; at Poortjies the road crossed the Witrivier a dozen times.

 

    When we got out of the wilderness area I wanted to turn around and do it again from the opposite direction. It had been an exhilarating journey.

 

But no sightings of mermaids. Not until Port Elizabeth, where we stopped at the neon sign of a place called the Mermaid Club. I went into the cavernous interior and asked a pretty young woman: "What's the story?"

  

   "The story is," she said, "it's R250 for half an hour, R350 for one hour, R450 for two hours, R660 for four hours and . . .", she smiled, ". . . R1 000 for six hours. The bar opens at eight and all the other girls will be here then."

  

   "And are there any mermaids?"

 

   "Oh yes. We're all mermaids. Pay us and the towel comes off."

 

 

 

All at sea

An ocean voyage on a luxury liner turns into something of a style quandary - and a rather weighty matter - for Caspar Greeff

When I asked a friend what to wear while cruising, I was told that a short, powder-blue, terry-towel all-in-one with a half-belt and square pockets would be appropriate. Down the front a novelty zip with large gold teeth and a big ring. "Leave the zip halfway down, exposing your hairy pelt and chunky gold medallion."

No, not that kind of cruising, I said. It's a cruise on a ship. I know, said my friend. Oh yes, and watch that movie with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau to get an idea of how to behave on board, she added. And pack one of those white, peaked puffy caps, and a double-breasted blue blazer with shiny buttons, as well as light-coloured trousers and Docksiders.

Feeling inadequately equipped because I didn't have any of the above, not even the chest pelt, I boarded the MS Prinsendam at Cape Town's Waterfront with my cruising companion - who I'll call Valerie, because discretion is the better part of Valerie.

The liner's huge bow seemed to penetrate the Bay Hotel, outside which she was docked. Her white superstructure reared up, high and proud. She was 673 feet long and 94 feet wide .

Up the gangplank we went, into a lift whose carpet told us what day it was: THURSDAY. Inside the lift was a fellow-cruiser, a still attractive American woman who appeared to be in her 60s and on her third drink of the day. She greeted us and started chatting, occasionally losing the thread and giggling as cocktail-drenched neurons bliss-fired.

We checked in, got security cards and were shown to our cabin; it was called a stateroom, and was like a suite in a five-star hotel, and had sliding glass doors and a private verandah and immediately outside was . . .

"A Jacuzzi!" said Valerie. "We've got our own Jacuzzi!"

We unpacked, and then, because all the alcohol aboard was priced in dollars at New York City rates, went shopping at the Waterfront for something to go with the bottle of absinthe I had brought along.

At Woolworths we purchased some wine, and I bought a charcoal suit , and also a pair of khaki chinos. Unfortunately, the store didn't have any short, powder-blue, terry-towel all-in-ones. Or chest pelts, for that matter.

We explored the ship. There were elderly Americans everywhere. We could have been on the set of a reality TV show called America's Favourite Grandparents . They were lounging on deckchairs, reading in the library, looking at Dali lithographs in the art gallery, snoozing in the Crow's Nest cocktail bar, swopping life stories in the Explorer's Lounge, pacing the jogging track on the Sports Deck, drinking cappuccinos in the Java Bar. "Are you ennertainment?" one of them asked Valerie as she walked by.

Rich old Americans. The aging rulers of the world, cruising the high seas. Flashing you friendly smiles and "how-ya-doin's?" Gregory Peck and Lee Marvin and Lucille Ball lookalikes. There's Walter Matthau's ghost. Most were bound for Mombassa, 15 sailing days away. Valerie and I were disembarking in Durban. We would be there when the carpet in the lift said SUNDAY.

The Americans wore pink pants suits, purple jerseys, khaki shorts, white trousers, Hawaiian shirts, baseball caps - but there was not a single powder-blue, terry-towel all-in-one in sight. Funny that . . .

The decor was elegant, opulent, retro, deco, cruise-ship chic. There were plenty of pianos awaiting suave ivory-ticklers. The Indonesian waiters had gold epaulettes on their jackets. The captain was a steely-haired Dutchman.

Our daily programme informed us that "TONIGHT'S DRESS" was "Casual. No shorts or tank tops. Please observe the dress code for the entire evening."

A couple of quick outfit changes and we were in the La Fontaine Dining Room, gorging ourselves on a fabulous four-course meal, and sipping chardonnay and merlot from California.

Afterwards Valerie watched the evening show, while I reeled off the ship (still hadn't found my sea-legs) and met a friend at a Waterfront jazz joint.

A beautiful and exotic woman came up to us and made conversation. Her name was Nina, she loved jazz, she came from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"And what do you do?" I asked her.

"Everything," she said. "Come with me to my flat in Sea Point and I'll show you."

"Wow. That's very tempting, but I can't make it. I'm cruising," I told her.

"Cruising?"

"On a ship. That big one docked over there, with all the lights and the wisps of smoke coming out the funnels."

"Where are you from?" she asked .

"Fort Lauderdale," I lied.

This seemed to impress Nina, and she hugged me, and then the barman called a security lady who evicted her.

"The hooking's one thing," said the barman, when I raised a pair of quizzical eyebrows. "But they'll slip a knock-out drug in your mouth when they kiss you and then rob you. I've had five tourists come back here and tell me the same story, and it's bad for our business."

Oh.

Time to return to the ship.

Slipped into sleep and I was woken up at some ungodly hour by an amplified female VOICE.

"Good morning ladies and gentlemen," the VOICE enthused. "It's 7:30 and it's another beautiful day. It's 16 degrees outside . . ."

I muttered something unprintable and went back to sleep. When I woke up again Valerie was on her third outfit change. She had had a jacuzzi, and been to gym and had eaten smoked salmon and strawberries for breakfast.

"What a divine way to start the day," she smiled.

"Mmmmmff," I mumbled, then got up and had an enormous breakfast, orange juice, smoked salmon, fried eggs, a Spanish fritatta, hickory smoked ham, turkey sausages, bacon, French toast with cinnamon sugar, a chocolate croissant and cup after cup of coffee.

"I'm starting to feel vaguely human," I said to Valerie, when she joined me in the Lido restaurant for coffee.

Shrill blasts on the ship's whistle signified a lifeboat drill, and we cracked Titanic jokes with our fellow-cruisers, the amiable Americans, then the Prinsendam left town, backwards, the tugs Merlot and Shiraz pulling her out of the narrow harbour entrance in a dramatic D-shaped manoeuvre.

Tiny figures waved from the quayside far below. The two tugs detached and we were cruising.

By now it was lunchtime, and we went back to the Lido. A gargantuan Dutch buffet had been laid out, but I wasn't all that hungry after the big breakfast, and dined frugally: smoked eel, haddock, baked ham, Dutch fried potatoes, asparagus, cold meat, rollmops, poffertjies, and coffee. Followed by delicious, smelly, runny cheese.

Then it was time to sip sparkling wine on our private verandah and watch the white wake merge with the Homeric wine-dark sea while the Cape coast slid slowly by.

"I could get used to this," said Valerie.

"I don't want to rush you," I said, "but in 10 minutes they're serving Royal Dutch High Tea in the La Fontaine."

"Oh relax," she said. "Please pour me another glass. We'll go later."

The VOICE came enthusing out of the ship's speakers again. There was to be a session of bingo in the Queen's Lounge, cards were obtainable 15 minutes in advance, "and remember, if you're not in, you can't win!"

But the high tea won over the bingo and we took the lift down one floor to the La Fontaine Dining Room, and the carpet confirmed that it was FRIDAY.

The most gorgeous spread of food awaited us, savouries and sweet things. I restrained myself and had only a few crackers with caviar and one or two slices of bread with the pinkest of shrimps, and some salmon, a trio of tartlets filled with chicken a la king, a few other snacky things, and then a second plate with, on it, three plump chocolate-covered strawberries .

I waddled back to the stateroom, deciding not to take the lift because some exercise was probably in order.

The afternoon passed in an effervescence of bubbles, tiny bubbles in champagne glasses, big bubbles in the Jacuzzi. All the while the ship ploughed through the huge dark heaving field that was the sea, white horses cantering in the distance.

Pretty soon it was time for the Captain's Gala Dinner, and the dress code was "Formal. Tuxedo or business suit suggested. Jacket and tie required. Please observe the dress code for the entire evening."

I detached the labels from my brand-new suit, and unpacked a crisp white shirt from its cellophane wrapping. The Americans would no doubt be tuxedo-ed and ballgowned to the nines, but I wouldn't look too shabby in my new suit. The only problem was that the suit seemed a lot . . . tighter . . . than it had the previous day when I bought it. The sea air must have shrunk it.

  Caspar Greeff was a guest of Cruise Masters. They organise cruises to various destinations for all ages. Telephone: (011) 789-1915/6/7/8/9.

 

 

 

Back to the Bronx

One-time Joburg joller CASPAR GREEFF returns to some of his old haunts and finds that Hillbrow - like the past - is another country

Word was that Johannesburg had become a dangerous, edgy place. However, if you hung out only in Rosebank you would never have guessed it.

Rosebank, in the northern suburbs, is one big mall, a sanitised slice of Joburg apparently free of beggars, vendors, vagrants, streetkids, parking attendants, muggers, hijackers.

Roaming Rosebank are well-groomed urban professionals, armed to the teeth with a dazzling array of credit cards. The suburb seems surprisingly integrated, even by Rainbow Nation standards - almost as if it had been staged for a beer advert.

It was like being in another country and when I mentioned this to some-one they said if I really wanted to go to another country I should check out Hillbrow.

I had, in fact, spent a lot of time in Hillbrow in the 1970s and 1980s when I lived in Joburg.

I had played pinball at the Time Machine, watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Mini-Cine, bought Grand Funk LPs at the Hillbrow Record Library, drunk coffee at the Cafe Zurich. I got tattooed at Alain Raymonds, and played cards with some of Joburg's biggest sharks at the International Poker Club where they told me: "It'll cost you R10 000 to learn this game," and they weren't far wrong.

Hillbrow - I knew it well, and I asked the taxi driver to drop me off in Abel Road, outside the Crest Hotel, where I had spent many teenage Saturday nights, golden nights.

"You mustn't let them see your cellphone," the driver advised me as I got out of the cab and walked into another country.

I saw cops in bulletproof jackets searching some guy outside the Crest.

Turned left into Catherine Street and there was the Chelsea Hotel, where James Phillips and the Cherry-Faced Lurchers used to play. Nowadays it's a gutted shell, barbed wire coiled around it.

The pavements were strewn with fliers, banana peels, cigarette stompies, mealie leaves, and human hair. They were thronged with people, some strolling, some sniffing glue, some lolling on mattresses, some selling stuff, some playing card games, some braiding hair, some braaing mealies, some making phone calls, some just looking tough, and I started to feel self-conscious.

Could it be the loud orange shirt I was wearing? Uh-uh, many of the shirts on that pavement were blaring out at a much higher volume than mine.

No, my feeling of panicky self-consciousness had nothing to do with my orange shirt and everything to do with my white skin, which seemed to illuminate me like a searchlight as I scurried down Kotze Street. A song by a Congolese singer named Papa Wemba wafted down the street, the accompaniment to my thumping heart.

I had started off as a tourist, now I felt like an impala in a lion park, and I kept moving, hoofed it up some stairs and into the Harlequin Sports Bar. Many years ago it used to be Mi Vami, and I had eaten my first shwarma there.

No shwarmas today, no sir. A bunch of guys sitting around a bar, in front of every one a quart of beer. On the TV the Leopards were playing Rangers, on the wall there was a hand-drawn picture of a penis on legs running after a vagina on legs. "It's just one fucking thing after another," read the caption.

A bunch of girls - 15, maybe 20 of them - wearing plaid miniskirts, white blouses, white knee-length socks, takkies, came into the bar, started circulating among the early afternoon quart-drinkers.

One came to me and held out a photostat: "We as teenagers of the Love Club, we are asking for help. As orphons (sic) we expect a donation of R1/R2."

Slipped her a buck.

By now I'd had a couple of Amstels and felt relaxed enough to open the security gate and leave the Harlequin.

Sunlight streamed down Edith Cavell Street. An ancient lady, an original Hillbrovnik unable to escape, stopped and flung handfuls of popcorn onto the pavement. Suddenly every pigeon in Hillbrow seemed to be there, and I remembered a theory I once had: that when Joburg hobos died they were reincarnated as Hillbrow pigeons.

The pigeons fed and flew off, their wings making a noise like a deck of cards being shuffled.

I walked down Pretoria Street; occasionally the Hillbrow Tower would peer phallically through the gaps between the shabby flats. Most of the shops seemed to trade in either hairstyles or telephones. Some combined both: "Manela's Hair Design & Telephones". Some sold hair: "Tommy Cosmetics - The Retailers & Wholesalers In All Kinds Of Human Hair And Products".

An ice-cream man came riding down the street on his three-wheeler, ringing his bell. A copcar siren wailed. Minibuses hooted. A Sowetan poster said: DOG THAT HATES BLACKS ONLY. Braaivleis smoke curled up from outside the many butcheries.

A sign above a door said Jungle Inn. I never dared go inside that door.

I did, however, venture inside the Summit Club, on the outskirts of the Bronx (as we called it all those years ago), where the entry fee was R40, "lunch included".

The place was wall-to-wall women. Some of them winked at me, others blew me kisses and I felt even more like an impala in a lion park.

 

 

 

 

Dream village

Oude Molen

Oude Molen is a haven for hippies in urban Cape Town. Caspar Greeff gets caught up in their lives

A psychedelic car was parked next to a zebra-striped building. In front of an 18th-century farmhouse, dreamcatchers and sandals were for sale, and a sign promised "FREE PSYCHIC DEMONSTRATIONS".

Carthorses clip-clopped down tarred roads. Lolling doggies panted and dozens of kids were having sack races in a paddock. Some of the guys strolling about had plaited beards, and I knew the long buildings used to be the wings of a madhouse.

Welcome to Oude Molen.

It's a farm; it's a village; it's a community. It's on the banks of the Black River near Pinelands in Cape Town, and it's an anomaly because you don't expect to find a farm or a village that close to the towers of the CBD. It is, in fact, the last remaining farm in the city.

There are some who dismiss Oude Molen as a haven for the strange and the deranged. Certainly there is a peculiarity about the place, a residue of madness that remains from the days when it was part of Valkenberg mental hospital. But in the precinct are also some 60 small businesses , and living here are environmentalists, farmers, craftsmen, teachers, travellers, filmmakers, artists, nurses, hippies and yuppies: the representatives of many modern urban tribes.

It is in many ways a community living a dream.

Every Saturday, "come rain or shine" a fair is held at Oude Molen. The first person I met was John Holmes, who told me he was once a Joburg multi-millionaire before he found himself down and out in Los Angeles, where he slept in a car and met a "true living master".

"They say that the master appears only when the disciple is ready," and Holmes was ready, ready to see inner realms that he didn't know existed, "ready to hear the inner holy sounds, ready to be saturated with light and love and joy and to be connected to the source".

Now Holmes lives in Oude Molen village, in a yellow house with thick walls and wooden floors that used to belong to a psychiatrist .

Together with his partner, Helen, he runs the Lighthouse Meditation Centre, as well as a backpackers' lodge (one of two in the village), a vegetarian restaurant and a health food outlet, called Bottled Angels.

Holmes bent down and showed me his red wrigglers - his worms content in the mulch of the organic garden. He showed me his artichokes, beans, figs, herbs, maize, beehives, and pointed out the corner of the garden where he plans to install a methane generator that will run gas lamps. He talked about his plans to erect bird-hides in the wetlands across the way.

He calls Devil's Peak "Angels Peak". No irony was intended , I think. He says there are no devils, "only fallen angels, and when the light comes through there'll be only angels". Sounds like Tom Waits, who sang , There ain't no devil, there's just God when he's drunk.

Holmes is also a permaculture teacher . He told me there is a lot of interaction with the neighbouring Maitland settlement, and that the children come to Oude Molen to learn farming, beekeeping, art, and to help with the horses.

The couple was hosting a children's birthday party, and a few of the balloons in his garden exploded in the afternoon heat as we discussed devils and angels. I took my cue and headed on . . . towards a building from which fluttered a huge black flag, on it two cutlasses bracketing a skull. Bits and pieces from the sets of scores of TV and movie commercials were strewn about.

It all belonged to Herbert Lotz, a swashbuckling character who is a set-builder for the film industry, one of about 150 people who live permanently in Oude Molen village. He pays "four grand a month" for his space - about 150m. Upstairs is his working and living area - huge rooms with high ceilings, and the invariable dreamcatchers swaying above his PC .

Next I happened upon the kitchen of the 18th-century farmhouse, where one of the "tribal leaders" was kneading a great ball of dough. A gummed strip peppered with flies swayed above his head like a g houlish nightmare -catcher, or raisins for the bread.

Gary Glass looks like a classical Jesus (as opposed to the revised Christ, who, we are told in a new Vatican-sanctioned book, was short, bald, fat and swarthy).

Glass came to Oude Molen in 1995, "when it was a filthy shell. I came and grew vegetables. I started the whole project. The hospital asked me to do farming for the mental patients as part of their occupational therapy. The doctor was over the moon about the farm-village concept".

But the relationship between Glass and the hospital soured. "White butterflies were stealing our produce and we had a fight with the hospital because they wanted us to use chemicals and we refused. The hospital revoked its support and slowly the oneness we had attained became more sparse."

Glass continued: "I have grown since I've been here. I've learned what makes people tick."

Another Oude Molen resident whose tick is in tune with his tock is Howard Miller, manager of the farm project.

From an earlier era than Glass ("they say if you can remember the '60s , you weren't there. I can't remember the '60s") he used to be a medical officer for mining company Namco.

His passion is occupational therapy, and Oude Molen "has been an OT project since day one. A lot of the farming work here is done by forensic patients. We feed them and pay them and educate them and give them a sense of belonging".

Miller pointed to a smiling guy, who is in charge of the farm's timber. "That's Henry. He was a long-term forensic patient. He was inside for 25 years. He's blossomed here."

We walked to the barn where the farm produce is sold.

"Gary built this structure with his own hands. He's a purist, and he refuses to use a drill or cement or anything like that. He used traditional tools - like an adze, and he made the nails out of wood, and the cement out of lime."

Inside the perfectly crafted building with its tree-of-life mosaic, a couple of the obligatory dreamcatchers hung above the produce.

We strolled to the outskirts of Oude Molen, to what is called the Rainbow Village: a collection of Wendy houses that are home to "Rastas and odds and sods", said Miller, wrinkling his moustache somewhat disapprovingly. Past the wooden huts were a few ramshackle wooden structures; they looked like they'd been cobbled together for the set of a Mad Max movie.

"Lester lives in that one, he's a bit of a sculptor. Lawrence lives in that one, he builds Viking tables," said Miller, who knows everything about everyone at Oude Molen.

On the very outskirts were a few tents, one an intricate low-slung affair in the shade of a palm tree and another that looked like it had been erected by a drunk in a gale in the dark.

"The dropouts don't last long here, we move them on," said the no-nonsense Miller. "We're tightening up quite radically now."

We walked past the pens where Vietnamese potbellied pigs live, past the meadows and the horses, past the Robin Trust buildings, which house patients with Alzheimer's and where nurses learn how to give home care to patients with chronic ailments. We walked past some rotting hulls that once were Citrons.

We met Dan Neeser, a civil engineer, who is head of the Oude Molen Village Association.

Oude Molen is owned by the provincial government and comes under the aegis of the Department of Property Management, a Section 21 offshoot of the Department of Economic Affairs and Public Works.

"We're trying to build a relationship with government," said Neeser.

"We're looking for tenure. A meeting of minds is still to happen, but we are building a positive relationship. This place is very much a new experiment as far as the authorities are concerned."

I remembered the arty car on the way in. It had struck me as pretty experimental, and I went to meet its creator, Bruno Brincat. His studio was a kaleidoscope of colour; it was like falling into the vision of a shaman on acid .

Brincat's dreamcatcher was the biggest I had seen all day. He said he was a bit burnt out and didn't want to pose next to his art car, but kindly agreed to be photographed poring over computer manuals on a couch in his wonderful studio, his incontinent spaniel sitting next to him.

By then it was time for a cool beer, so we went to PJ's Blues Bar. An old pre-Cream Clapton tune was playing as proprietor PJ van der Walt told us he "was the first person to do shark-cage diving in South Africa".

Now he runs the blues bar, a backpackers, and is head of a NGO called Far Out, which is devoted to transferring skills to, among others, single mothers and street children. "We teach first aid, adrenaline sports, jewellery-making, and administrative and entrepreneurial skills. We do motivational courses and give people the knowledge, confidence and ability to generate their own income."

Then the blues band - Top Dollar - started playing in the garden outside; the devil's own music in the shadow of Devil's Peak. Sorry, Angels Peak. A couple of sightseers arrived, each driving a BMW 330CL cabriolet. One of the cars was black, the other white: Yin and Yang symbols in a city-dweller's dream.

 

 

 

 

Let's do Kili

 

Kilimanjaro

It sounded like it could be a swell adventure with a view to kill for, but, as CASPAR GREEFF finds out, climbing Africa's highest mountain is no walk in the park

It was my father's idea. When I asked him afterwards why he had wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro he said: "Because I was programmed to do it, because I had no choice. It was the same reason I do anything. I do it because I have to, because it's the only thing I can do, because there are no other options. . ."

He'd had a couple of glasses of red wine by then, but what he said constituted the core of his philosophy: free will does not exist, human beings are merely machines made of meat whose every action is biologically and genetically determined.

"Why did you come along?" my father asked me.

Because he'd invited me: "Climb Kilimanjaro with you? Sure. Why not." Because it was something to do, because I thought it would be a welcome break from sitting behind a computer terminal in a fluorescent-lit office, because it sounded like fun.

Fun. I didn't realise that climbing a big mountain was a serious business, involving preparation, pain and perseverance, and the fun part was after you managed - if you managed - to climb to the top of the damn pile of rocks. Mountain-climbing, I was to discover, is an activity that is savoured in retrospect.

My father, a silver-haired professor of 67, had recently completed his 29th Comrades Marathon, his 19th Two Oceans, his second London to Brighton. He ran at least four ultras a year, a marathon a month, 80km a week.

Me, I'd been around the block a few times, but not once had I actually run around it. I resolved to put in some training, and practised giving up alcohol. I went entire days without a drink, but the nights were another story. I walked along the Sea Point promenade twice a week. "Shouldn't you be walking up a mountain?" someone asked when I told them I was training for Kilimanjaro. So I climbed Table Mountain (1 086m), up the arduous Platteklip Gorge, and hoped that Kilimanjaro (5 895m) wasn't that steep. I climbed Table Mountain again the following day, and was so stiff for the whole of the following week that I could hardly walk, and that was the end of my training.

My friend Barry Tyson, who'd climbed Kilimanjaro with his father (the writer and former editor Harvey Tyson, 70 at the time) told me it was easy and there was nothing to worry about.

"My father breezed through it, he did the whole thing on whisky, and in fact there's a photo of him standing at Uhuru Peak with an empty whisky bottle balanced on his head. The last day's a bit rough, but you'll be fine, as long as you don't get mountain sickness."

Uh. . . mountain sickness?

I did some research and found that Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is caused by a lack of oxygen at high altitudes. Above 3 000 metres, 75% of people get mild symptoms. These include headache, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, nausea, disturbed sleep, and a feeling of malaise. Sounded like my average Sunday morning hangover, but it got worse: severe AMS sometimes led to High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (fluid buildup in the lungs) or High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (brain tissue swelling from fluid leakage), and every year a few Kilimanjaro climbers died from it.

As if that wasn't enough, a knowledgeable friend told me that men who failed in their Kilimanjaro attempt suffered from permanent erectile dysfunction afterwards; apparently if you couldn't get up it then you wouldn't be able to get it up.

The time to climb Kilimanjaro drew near, and my father advised me to get some equipment; the temperature on top dropped to 30C and it was not a climb one did in jeans, T-shirt and takkies.

I went to a camping gear firm and spent a small fortune getting kitted out for Kili (as those in the know call Mount Kilimanjaro). The underwear alone cost nearly a thousand bucks: two pairs of thermal longjohns at R225 a pop, and two thermal vests, also R225 per pop. Then there were the thermal socks, the waterproof hiking boots, the fleece pants, the waterproof outer pants, the fleece jacket, the outer jacket, the inner gloves, the outer gloves, the thermal scarf, the thermal beanie. . .

The Kili thing was to be something of a family affair: my sister Karen, at 42 a year younger than I, was to be the third member of our party. She had been training hard: for years a daily gymgoer, she had upped her tempo, and was spending about four hours a day in the gym.

However, there were many theories about how to train for the climb, and I'd heard of one person who prepared for the ordeal by dancing in smoky nightclubs until the sun rose, every Friday night and Saturday night .

WE ARRIVED at Kilimanjaro International Airport late on a Saturday afternoon. We looked around for our tour guide, who would be holding a sign saying "GREEFF X 3", but we never saw him. When night fell and the placard-bearing guide still hadn't arrived, we took a taxi to the hotel where, according to our itinerary, we were staying - Babylon Lodge in Marangu, 80km away. The taxi was a battered Peugeot with a cracked windscreen, and we sped through the warm Tanzanian night, the fuzzy outlines of a foreign landscape flashing past.

We had to cough up $80 (about R840) for the taxi, and I sat in the lounge at Babylon while my father and sister went and spoke with the owner, Stephen Lyamuya.

My sister came back. "We've been ripped off," she said. "They've never heard of our tour operator, there's no booking for us at this hotel, and if we want to do Kili we'll have to pay again."

Reluctantly, I handed over most of my US dollars, and I signed travellers' cheques. (My plans were to go to Zanzibar for 10 days after Kilimanjaro).

We had enough for the park fees (1 268) - about R 13 000) and my dad would pay Lyamuya the balance of what we owed him (682 - about R7 000) when we came back. The idea was that when we descended at 11am the following Friday (the day before my father and sister were due to leave Tanzania), a waiting minibus would rush my father to a bank in Moshi 70km away, where he would be able to use his credit card to draw the cash . My father was worried.

"What if we're too late to make the bank, and I can't get the money and they throw me in jail. I'm sure a Tanzanian prison isn't pleasant," he fretted.

The next morning a minibus took us to Marangu Gate (1 980m), the starting point of our climb.

On the slopes above the gate were platoons of guides and assistant guides, phalanxes of porters and cooks. Climbing Kilimanjaro retains a colonial flavour. Every party has to have a guide, and very few of the 15 000 who attempt it every year do so without porters and cooks. The porters each carry 18kg of luggage on their head, carefully weighed at the beginning of every day's climbing.

We met our guide, Morgan Minja, a short guy of 58, and after signing endless forms we began our day's walk, to Mandara Huts, 7.2km away and 2 720m high.

I raced off, through the rainforest, leaden skies above, squishy mud underfoot, my father and sister and Morgan behind, the porters and cooks out of sight on another path .

We were on a well-trodden path, churned up to the consistency of melted chocolate, and we started seeing people coming down. Some of them looked shell-shocked, like they had time-travelled to the Marne in September 1914.

"How was it?" I asked.

"Very difficult," was the reply, in French, German, British, Italian, Spanish accents.

An American I asked was more optimistic.

"It's do-able," he said.

The rainforest started getting oppressive, the slippery path became steeper, and my dad powered past me, looking strong in his bright K-way jacket. After three hours we arrived at Mandara Huts, and the notes I made there indicate that it was, "cold. Feel nauseous".

We had supper in a big, communal hut, which was packed with climbers and their cooks. Our cook was named "Happy" and he wore a perpetual scowl. He was, however fascinated by the way my sister ate her boiled eggs. She peeled off the shell, then the white and discarded the yolk. She then ate the whites, and the round yolks seemed to glow in their saucer like the radioactive hearts of a couple of suitcase nukes.

I rounded off my meal with a Kilimanjaro beer (slogan: "It's Kili time!") and headed for our hut.

We hit the trail at eight the next morning. After about 50m of mud, the path hardened, and meandered through moorland, which is very similar to the fynbos of the Western Cape. It was a pleasant walk, and although we had been advised to go slowly to avoid getting mountain sickness, we were the first of the many who set out that day to arrive at Horombo Huts - 3 785m high. The camp was dusty and windswept. Mice scurried about, and in the distance, Kilimanjaro's glacier glistened in the sun. Crows cawed and perched everywhere, looking like harbingers of death. Actually they were there to scavenge our garbage.

I had my usual Kilimanjaro beer to round off that night's supper, but, to my astonishment couldn't finish it. Each sip made me feel more nauseous, and although I tried manfully to force the beer down, I had to admit defeat. Never once had I been unable to finish a beer; something was obviously wrong.

My father - who often says: "I've never had a headache in my life. It's all in the mind," - confided that his brain had expanded in his skull. No, no, definitely not a headache, but for some reason "my skull feels too small for my brain".

My sister seemed her normal self, it must have been all those egg whites.

The next day, our third on the mountain, was spent at Horombo, acclimatising to high altitude, and on the fourth day we set out in the chilly drizzle for Kibo Hut, 4 700m high. At one stage we had to make way for five porters who were wheeling a stretcher down at high speed. A pale face peeked out of a sleeping bag strapped onto the stretcher, eyes closed, deathly still.

"What happened there, Morgan?" my sister asked.

"It's a failure," replied the little guide.

"I hope we don't become failures," said my sister.

I also hoped so, but as we plodded in slo-mo through the brown, barren mountainscape I started feeling sick. Dizzy. My head buzzed. Much to my irritation, my father grew more cheerful and yelled out: "Jambo!'" [pidgen Swahili for "hello"] to every single porter passing us on their way down.

We saw another stretcher case being wheeled down. "Is that your partner?" Karen asked the woman rushing along behind the stretcher. "My student," she sobbed.

The crows of Kilimanjaro cawed at Kibo Hut, which nestled below a big brown, snow-capped peak with a path zig-zagging steeply up to the top. The target was in sight, and at midnight we would set off for the summit.

Snow fell. It was beautiful and I stood outside, watching it with a stupid grin on my face.

Inside the hut quite a few people were suffering from mountain sickness. A pretty young Italian woman lay in her sleeping bag, pale and sweating. Every now and again she would go outside to vomit. A French Canadian woman in her 50s whom we had befriended was also sick. She lay in her bag, groaning.

An American holistic healer named Marcus Daniels was in our communal room. He had all sorts of preparations and potions with him: gingko biloba tablets, Tibetan roots in little red silk sachets, acupuncture needles, effervescent Vitamin C tablets (1 000mg) that gushed and fizzed all over the table when he placed them in water.

A big, strapping South African man named Wynand was also at Kibo Hut. He looked like the archetypal boer, with his brown slouch hat, and his powerful torso. He, together with two older, golden earring-wearing women had been sent by God to Kilimanjaro to pray for all the prisoners in the world, (he told us). They were members of the Sendings Kerk. But their faith was not enough, and none of them made it to the summit.

At six that night we tried to snatch a few hours' sleep . Getting into my sleeping bag was a huge effort that left me tired and breathless; Lord knew how I was going to get up that big brown mountain. . .

Sleep was impossible. There was the constant sound of sleeping bags zipping and unzipping. The Italian woman kept going outside to vomit. Someone burped incessantly. My head felt like a pulsating velvet ball.

At 11.30pm there was a knock on our door. Kili time!

The burper turned out to be Marcus the holistic healer. He was red-faced and feverish, and asked: "Does anyone have an Aspirin?"

It was a beautiful, clear, starry night. We donned our head torches, and ski poles in hand, headed up the slope, Morgan in front and a new member, Humphrey the assistant guide, at the back.

We plodded up and up, and after about an hour my father noted: "Surprising how easy it is to climb such a big mountain."

But he had spoken too soon.

The climb became agonising, and every step was an ordeal. I felt nauseous, and just when I was about to feebly murmur: "Stop. I can't go on", the zig became a zag, and it was almost endurable.

Below and above us were processions of little lights, our fellow climbers, and each light was at the centre of a circle of condensation. The sweating climbers in their many layers of clothing stank to high heaven. A rank, rotten smell.

"Only another four hours of this," I thought. "Four hours, that's nothing in a lifetime, nothing, nothing. . ."

I stumbled and started crawling. My water had frozen, and I couldn't pull my beanie over my icy ears because of my gloves. Humphrey saw my distress and took my camera and my torch, which he shone ahead of me. I plodded on, step by agonising step. Humphrey started singing in Swahili, something about Kilimanjaro. It was the most beautiful song I had ever heard and it brought tears to my eyes. I pushed on through the stroboscopic dreamscape, up the dreadful scree.

My father fell. "These sticks. My sticks have shrunk," he said after Morgan helped him up.

I switched off my mind, and ignored the pain, the outraged messages from my oxygen-starved lungs, my pounding thighs, my thudding heart, my pulsating brain, and then we were above the scree slope, we had reached Gilman's Point (5 681m) - only two hours to Uhuru Peak.

After a minute at Gilman's we went on, and my father kept on falling, and at some stage the sun rose and the whole of Africa lay below us.

There was a beautiful glacier to our left, and in the distance cameras flashed and people whooped: the summit.

I had to sit down and rest after every few steps, and got there after my father and sister. It was 6.45am.

"Howzit," I said.

"I feel buggered," said my father.

"I feel stuffed," said my sister.

"I feel broken," I concurred. "But we've done Kili. You can tick it off the list."

"Along with three hundred-milers and 29 Comrades. . ." said my father.

We took a few photos, savoured the feeling of being the highest people in Africa, and then Morgan said: "We go now. Is get cold."

We had been at the top for. . . probably three minutes. All that effort for three minutes. It wasn't much time, certainly not enough to pray for all the prisoners in the world.

 

SOURCE: http://www.suntimes.co.za/2002/09/15/lifestyle/travel/travel01.asp

 

 

 

 

Lost in the dust

Namibia

Time and space get warped in the desert: you can take a wrong turn and die, or you can mislay something precious along the road, writes Caspar Greeff

 

'SLEEPING bag?"

"Check."

"Girlfriend?"

"Check."

"Girlfriend's tent?"

"Check."

"Anything else?"

"Money, passport and clothing, which includes 21 Hawaiian shirts - one for every day. Oh, and some tools - a mini Maglite and a little Swiss Army knife."

That was it. A dozen of us were going on safari - in three 4x4s - to Namibia and I was travelling light, unlike certain other members of the expedition. For instance, the Lawyer's list went something like this:

"GPS?"

"Check."

"Compressor?"

"Check."

"Car fridge?"

"Check."

"Axe?"

"Check."

"Julio Iglesias love-child sunglasses?"

"Check."

"Ceremonial swords?"

"Check."

"Hair products?"

"Check."

"Calvin Klein underpants in which to parade about camping sites?"

"Check."

The Lawyer was to be mercilessly reviled, and mocked for using what became known as "the Patsy Defence". I was to return with even less than I had set out with. But that's the nature of the Namibian safari - it's a gruelling testing ground, where weaknesses are revealed, eccentricities are accentuated and relationships are often mangled.

I knew this from experience: I'd already been on three Namibian safaris, all of them in the company of the Colonel.

The Colonel was one of my oldest friends. He seemed to me a man from a Joseph Conrad novel, a man living on the edge, one who had navigated many a strange and dangerous river. He loved travelling in Namibia: he loved the huge spaces and the fact that it was one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world.

He also loved elephants, their size, their power, their stealth, their intelligence, the space they occupied. Elephants were the Colonel's totem animal, and he would drive thousands of kilometres to be in their presence.

On this safari our destination was the Kaokoveld in the far northwest of Namibia. The Colonel wanted to get to a place called Purros, a remote region where desert elephants roamed.

Day One dawned and the Colonel came to fetch me and the Princess (as I thought of my girlfriend). The Colonel was in a quiet mood, so I focused my attention on the Princess. I had known her for only three months and was sure she would be impressed by this safari. And by my friends: the Moviemaker, his wife the Film Producer, the Sculptor, and his girlfriend the Artist. And the Lawyer and, of course, the Colonel. Four children aged between eight and 14 - none mine - were also coming along.

Well-groomed and looking like city slickers, we crossed the border at Noordoewer and checked into the nearby Camel Lodge. The next day, it took endless hours to get going. Repacking the vehicles seemed a Sisyphean task. A dozen people had to be fed.

The Lawyer had to flounce about the lawn with his ceremonial swords, putting in serious Tai Chi time while others were packing. He received a solid bollocking, which he took with a sheepish smile. "You guys are just looking for a patsy," he said.

Then we hit the winding road, heading west, following the Orange River through the awe-inspiring Richtersveld. We left enormous plumes of dust in our wake, and dust devils danced around us. When an oncoming vehicle passed us, we'd enter a dust white-out, which rendered the road invisible. Dust was infiltrating our vehicles, our hair, our clothes, our lungs, our minds.

"Nobody mentioned all this dust before we left," said the Princess. "I've got a big problem with dust. In fact I'm dustphobic."

Uh-oh, I thought.

Behind us, a miniature Elvis Presley danced on the dashboard of the Movie-maker's Land Cruiser. Trance music played inside the Lawyer's Terrano. The Lawyer stopped frequently because the Sculptor was fascinated by the billions of stones strewn about, and had to listen to the stones speaking to him. This is what the stones told the Sculptor: "I am a unique stone. Please pick me up, rub me, hold me, feel me, admire me, and place me in the Lawyer's Terrano. And do the same with my brother stones. You can never have too many stones."

Thereafter the Sculptor became known as "the Kliptomaniac".

The Colonel was irritated by all the stopping to look at stones. He wanted to push on to Purros, he wanted his elephants. He became known as "the Gynaecologist", because he always said: "We must push. We must push."

We drove and drove and the dust flew behind us. At night we camped, which involved offloading and unpacking boxes, cartons, trunks, crates, cylinders, ca nisters, heart-shaped bags, sausage-shaped sacks. So much baggage. There seemed to be enough containers, equipment and food to sustain an army.

The Lawyer unpacked a 50-litre cylinder and a nozzle, which he proudly announced he was going to hook up to his compressor and use as a shower. With a flourish, he unpacked his saxophone. The Moviemaker produced a guitar. The Colonel was not impressed. He called all unnecessary baggage "hairdryers".

"That shower's a hairdryer. That saxophone's a hairdryer. That guitar's a hairdryer.

"Look, we're going to one of the remotest and most inaccessible places on the planet. We are going to live there for five or six days. We need equipment to get us there. Everything you bring displaces something else. And. We. Do. Not. Need. Hairdryers."

Camping also involved setting up a kitchen, pumping up mattresses, putting up tents, making a fire, cooking food, washing dishes, and swearing at the Lawyer first thing in the morning. We sneered at him for using "the Patsy Defence".

There was bickering, most of which centred on controlling the camp kitchen. Epithets were bandied about: "Food fascist." "Kitchen Fhrer." "Snack Nazi." Washing the dishes became known as "washing the issues", following a furious row. Why do people do this, I wondered.

But when I looked up at the star-peppered sky I knew. And when we drove through the immense landscape I knew. We saw the magnificent orange, saffron and pink dunes at Sossusvlei. Immaculately sculpted by the wind, they came to life in the late afternoon.

At Sesriem we met a stout Canadian schoolteacher who was cycling around the world. He was clutching a cocktail-size can of Coke and said to us: "Is this some kind of cruel joke they're playing on me? I cycle 15 000 miles to this friggin' place and they don't sell Coca-Cola in regular-size cans."

At Solitaire there was a dead tree and cactuses and a harsh wind blew. The Princess was tearful, she said she was feeling strange, as if she had left her body behind.

At Swakopmund we stayed in a backpackers' lodge. I awoke one morning and heard the Lawyer yell: "Say G-spot." He was photographing a large group of grinning Italian tourists. "Did they understand what you were saying?" I asked him.

"Nah, but they're so religious some of them said 'Jesus'," he chuckled.

The Colonel was staying at a guesthouse next door. He was disgruntled because his room "smelt like the last breath of a dead man".

Swakopmund was 4x4 Central, full of khaki-clad adventurers driving Drifters, Raiders, Defenders, Explorers, Cherokees and Colts. The new Wild West where cowboys mosey along inside air-conditioned petrol-guzzlers.

Swakopmund was a beautiful town between the desert and the dark grey sea. It offered activities galore: quad-biking, dune-surfing, sandboarding, skydiving, abseiling, microlighting, hot-air ballooning, deep-sea fishing, and draught-quaffing. Quaffing an ice-cold Hansa draught and eating oysters while watching the blood-red sun sink into the sea at Swakopmund is a highly recommended activity.

At every corner in town thin men in shabby clothes leapt out and tried to sell fake Oakley sunglasses to the tourists. Dust from the desert was piled high in the streets.

On the day we left town a cold mist came off the sea. The Princess was not speaking to me. But the Colonel was cheerful, having spent a day wandering around on his own. The Lawyer was shouted at for time-wasting - his biggest bollocking yet - and then we drove down the Skeleton Coast.

The 4x4s on the road bristled with upright fishing rods. We drove past the fishing town of Henties Bay and then headed northeast. There were salt mines in the desert and old rusting vehicles - it could have been a scene from Mad Max. Sprawled on the gravel plains were creepy plants that looked like big green spiders from a 1950s science fiction novel. They were welwitschias, botanical curiosities that exist only in the northern Namib desert. Some were more than 2 000 years old.

By a bullet-riddled car wreck near the Ugab River, the Moviemaker got a puncture. Actually, it wasn't a puncture. His tyre was ripped to shreds. The Lawyer turned round to help us and his tyre also got ripped to shreds.

"This road eats cars," I said, looking around at the piles of rusty wrecks scattered on the plains. The Brandberg mountain glowed in the distance and one of the children started crying.

We changed the tyres and reached the Save the Rhino camp in the Ugab River Valley. The Moviemaker unveiled "the ultimate hairdryer" - a large striped canvas gazebo sort of affair that had been made in Russia. It became known as the "Russian sauna" and served as a kitchen.

We camped under a camelthorn tree and in the mornings were woken by an explosion of birdsong. On the ground were hundreds of beetles that seemed to have one aim in life: to mate. They were christened "Horny Humpers" by the children. At night we drank wine and the Sculptor pulled a few more hairdryers out of the bag: fluorescent sticks that glowed in the dark, and an ultra-violet light. The Princess went to her sleeping bag early at night, but we were speaking again.

One day we drove down the Ugab River Canyon, through a cubist landscape, looking for a herd of desert elephants that had recently been sighted. We never found them and decided to move on.

There had been tension in the Ugab River, and the Film Producer was threatening to bail out. "I've got a platinum card, a gold card and a silver card," she said. "My friend [she named him] has a helicopter. I just give him the co-ordinates and the money and he'll chopper me out."

After packing for three hours we were ready to leave. A photostatted hand-drawn map was taped to the Colonel's dashboard. It detailed concrete dams and broken signs and tricky turns. A Dutch couple had recently taken this same road, got lost, run out of petrol and water and died. The Colonel seemed to be in his element as he told us that "in all probability we're on the right road". White grass seeds floated like souls in the wind and we drove along a stony road and turned near a concrete dam.

The Colonel told us how once on the Congo River he had come within inches of death and how he had never felt more alive than at that moment.

The Princess spoke of her days as a trainee Mossad agent. She also told the Colonel he was going to be disappointed when we reached Purros.

We drove past the black Burnt Mountain and the 12 of us in our three vehicles met up outside Twyfelfontein, where we decided to spend the night at a luxury lodge. It was in an awesome setting, thatched roofs fitting into huge red rocks, and had a cool swimming pool. It wasn't the Colonel's sort of place, and he muttered darkly about "geriatric Germans with walking sticks".

Admittedly, it was the sort of place where the kitchen staff and waiters sang five or six songs to their captive audience after dinner, but it was dust-free and you didn't have to pump up your mattress.

The following day we went to one of the most astonishing outdoor art galleries in the world - the hills with the red rocks on which the Twyfelfontein petroglyphs - more than 2 500 of them - were engraved.

"This place rocks," said the Moviemaker, as we clambered over the hills in the heat, looking at the lions, elephants, rhinos, penguins, ostriches and oryxes that had been engraved into the sandstone by San hunters more than 2 000 years ago.

Then we climbed back into the 4x4s and were once again the precursors of plumes of dust. At this stage in our safari, time and distance were warping: distances were magnified, time shrank, and I didn't know how long we had been gone, or where we were.

"We're near Ongongo," said the Colonel, just as some goats ran into the road and right into the path of our vehicle. One of them, a kid, seemed to disappear under our wheels. There was nothing the Colonel could do. The Princess started crying. "Oh my God you hit it. Stop the car. Stop. We must see if it's all right," she sobbed.

"No, the kid's fine. We missed it - I saw it running away," I lied, wanting to placate the Princess, to end the tears.

"The kid is toast," announced the Colonel. "I felt the steering wheel shudder as we hit it."

"He's just kidding," I told the Princess, and we drove on in silence. In the days that followed there was more dust, more shredded tires, more packing and unpacking, more delays, and then at some stage we were in Purros.

It was not quite as isolated as the Colonel had imagined, and to his horror there were cows and goats and invasive casuarina plants.

But he saw his elephants. One morning we drove down to the junction of two dry rivers, got out of his Raider and walked through the casuarina. We followed a trail of fresh elephant dung and big round footprints in the dust and there, in the distance, were three brown desert elephants. We watched them and the Colonel said: "In my next life I'm going to come back as the last wild elephant on the planet."

Near our camp, at the foot of a mountain, was a Himba village, enclosed in a circular stockade of wooden stakes. We walked there in the afternoon, across a plain where springboks leapt and ran free. At the tiny village we paid our guide an admission fee, because it was a sort of living diorama: a real village, but also a display for tourists. The bare-breasted, dreadlocked women inside the village were red with ochre. One of them was pregnant, and she glanced at us with big eyes.

The Colonel announced that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He dabbed ochre on his cheeks and then had to sit down, so overcome was he.

We were to see many more Himba maidens in the days ahead, especially once we arrived at Opuwo, the capital of the Kaokoveld.

Opuwo was a strange town. There was a bar called Business From People To People, which stayed open until about 4am. Himba men with one thick dreadlock in their hair handed in their traditional sticks when they drank there and many of the women standing at the bar were bare-breasted and ochre-red.

The town was full of strangely clad people from various tribes: Himba, Dhimba, Herero, Hakaone, Ngambwe, Overlander, Backpacker, Four-By-Fourer. We met the Frenchman who ran the restaurant in Opuwo. He was a big guy who drove a battered pick-up and his name was Jacquie. We asked him about getting a tyre for the Lawyer, but he told us we were out of luck because the man who ran Opuwo was visiting a woman.

Apparently the man we needed was a short Portuguese guy named Russo, and "when Russo is out of town Opuwo closes down. He can get you anysing you want: tires, carburetor, batteries, ze injections if you are sick. If you want ze woman 'ere you 'ave to get ze stamp of approval from Russo."

So a tyre had to be procured from another town, and then we arrived at what for us was Journey's End: the Kunene River Lodge. It was an oasis in the harsh desert, wooded, beautiful, dust-free, and there were sunset booze cruises and white-water rafting on the river that divided Namibia from Angola.

("We drive all this way to come to a picnic spot," the Colonel muttered.)

When we got back to Cape Town we had driven 7 900km. I went through my list again.

"Sleeping bag?"

"Check."

"Girlfriend?"

"-"

Damn. I had lost the Princess somewhere in the dust.

 

 

 

'Old guy' finds liquid nirvana

CASPAR GREEF took to the surf aged 37. Now he feels like a spring-chicken of 35.

"I stuffed my paunchy body into a wetsuit and emerged, dripping with sweat."


I started bodyboarding at the age of 37, because at that age you need some exercise and bodyboarding was the only sport you could do lying down. The only outdoor sport, that is ...

My previous excursion into the world of surfing had occurred many years before, when, living in Johannesburg, my friend Andre and I dyed our hair blond and took the train down to Durban to pose as surfers and pull chicks.

Unfortunately, after the first day in the sun we both turned red as boiled kreef (
crayfish), and looked like sunburnt Vaalies with badly dyed hair.

We didn't pull any chicks. But at the age of 37 I didn't need to pull chicks; I had a girlfriend who, on a hot summer's day dragged me off to a surf centre, where we got kitted out.

I stuffed my paunchy body into a wetsuit and emerged, dripping with sweat, from the changeroom. Of course I'd put it on back to front, so had to peel it off, and go through the whole performance again.

Why have a zipper at the back, surely that's only for ladies' evening dresses I thought at the time. The wetsuit turned out to be too small, so I had to try on a second which fitted, but by that time I was as sweaty as a jockey in a steambath.

The wetsuit was duly purchased, as was a fairly ancient Wave Warrior bodyboard and a pair of Trax fins. I was ready to rip some curl!

That weekend my girlfriend and I drove out to Yzerfontein, where the waves were onshore and about one foot, and we rode the white water into the beach and were completely stoked, although we didn't know the word then.

For the next few months we'd go surfing at weekends at Muizenberg, at Big Bay, at Long Beach, riding the waves, harnessing the power of the ocean. I told my boss, Ray Jay from Jay Bay, a veteran surfer that I was now an accomplished body- boarder and he said; "I hope you don't just ride the white water into the beach."

I said nothing, I thought that was what you were meant to do. So I realised that waves were learning curves in motion, and started going sideways, digging my rail in, learning words like "offshore" and "gnarly" and "glassy" and hanging out with surfing philosophers who could rhapsodise for hours about the "feathery texture" of waves and knew where all 47 of Cape Town's breaks were, and we spent a lot of time driving around the peninsula, looking at waves, bullshitting about them, and sometimes even surfing them.

Now, pushing 40, I haven't yet pulled off an aerial reverse spin, but still reckon that bodyboarding's the best form of therapy there is.

The only drawback is that you can't smoke cigarettes when you're in the line-up, but hey, you can't have everything ...

Caspar Greef works at the Sunday Times Cape Metro as Chief Sub-editor. He remains a keen bodyboarder and is apparently working on perfecting the double barrel-role aerial reverse glide.

 

 

SOURCE: http://www.wavescape.co.za/bot_bar/surf_story/Caspar1_bodyboard.htm

 

 

 

Showdown in the city of sin

The biggest poker game around is played once a year in Las Vegas. Caspar Greeff packed his lucky sunglasses and went to win $1.5-million

These old dudes in stetsons, string-ties, snakeskin boots. They look like ageing gunslingers. And these guys in baseball caps, loud Hawaiian shirts, soft sneakers, wearing sunglasses indoors.

This clicking. It sounds like swarms of mutant locusts on a feeding frenzy. What gives?

Poker.

The characters are some of the greatest players in the world. The locust-like clicking is made by them obsessively fingering their chips.

They are competing in the World Series of Poker at Binions Horseshoe. The hotel is in the unfashionable Downtown area of Las Vegas, a far cry and a few kilometres from the outrageous excess of the Strip.

Theres not much to do Downtown, except gamble or play poker, which isnt gambling but a microcosm of the macrocosm. Poker is a game of skill, involving a certain degree of bullshit, braggadocio and, above all, balls.

The final event at the World Series of Poker is a five-day-long game of no-limit Texas holdem. The winner gets $1.5-million - one of the richest purses on the planet. Anyone can enter - it costs $10000. If you dont have 10k or a wealthy backer, you can play at subsidiary games - satellites and super-satellites - where the prize is a seat at the big tournament. Satellites are single-table 10-player elimination games, which cost $1020 to enter. Super-satellites are multi-table elimination games, they cost $220 to enter.

On the day I arrive in Las Vegas, the temperature is a May record of 38C, and Im hoping my cards are this hot.

I catch a bus downtown, check into Binions Horseshoe. Buy a few things. My third purchase comes to $13.13 - an omen, but what does it mean? I walk into the room where the World Series of Poker is being held. It looks like an office. It has grubby red carpets, is foggy with cigarette smoke, and on one wall ticks that Vegas rarity - a clock.

Seated at the 45 oval poker tables are septuagenarians, yuppies, pretty young women, somebodys grandmother, tough guys, wise guys, smart guys. The bald and the beautiful, the fresh and the faded.

Accents out of a cowboy movie: "Drawl, pardner!" Accoutrements: huge diamond rings, ornate gold adornments. Talismans: a jade frog, a clockwork mouse, a wooden buddha. Little, handheld fans whirr in front of poker-faces. Waitresses patrol the aisles murmuring, "Cocktails. Cocktails? Anyone for a drink?" The players drink ... copiously ... and by the end of the tournament 70000 bottles of water will have been consumed. Not much call for alcohol here.

In addition to the World Series, a number of high-stakes side-games are being played. Theres B-I-G action at these games, where rich rollers compete against the worlds greatest pros. Cash as well as chips plays, and its commonplace to see a player haul out an embarrassingly thick wad of $100 bills, peel off a sheaf, and toss it on the table. "Five," shell say, meaning $5000. "Raise you 10," says the player to the left of her.

Wish I could talk that kind of talk, but my wad is pretty puny, and my IOUs dont carry much weight in this town.

The plan is to win $220 at a game in the casinos poker room, use that to enter a super-satellite, win that, then win the World Series of Poker and John Travolta plays me in the movie.

Maybe Steve Martin.

I go to my room on the ninth floor and read The Winners Guide to Casino Poker by Edwin Silberstang, concentrating on Chapter IV: "Bankroll Considerations".

With trepidation I scan "How Much You Should Lose in One Session", and fall asleep halfway through the next chapter: "Essential Winning Strategies".

Next morning I swim 10 lengths in the Horseshoes tiny, rooftop pool then get in the lift and hit the "C" button which takes me down to the casino. There, amid the bedlam of kerchinging slot machines, yelling craps players, clattering roulette balls, flashing lights, is the public poker room.

I put my name down for a game of $4-$8 Omaha, a variant of Texas hold em where the bets range between $4 and $8. Doesnt sound like much, but multiply that by eight ...

The floor manager calls my name. Its time to play poker with a bunch of strangers in the wild West of America, in a city thats called "the graveyard of home-town champions".

I sit down and put two $100 bills on the table, like I know what Im doing. Get my chips.

The players are taciturn, laconic: theres very little chit-chat. Who the hell are these people?

That guy at the end of the table studying a horseracing sheet, this bald man next to me with pink flamingos preening on his shirt, that Italian inscrutable behind his sunglasses, this lady with the lacquered hair.

A couple of them are Vegas casino employees who prey on unsuspecting tourists, all play well except for an elderly woman who has difficulty seeing the cards through her thick glasses. I play tight, share two pots with a Chinese man, then go head to head with the old lady. I raise her. She reraises. We duel. At the showdown I put down an ace-high flush and she wins with nines full.

The other players exchange glances, which seem to say: "Fresh meat, boys. We got us a Vegas virgin." Time to regroup. I sit tight, toss in hand after hand. Good cards start coming my way. I win a few pots. Pull off a bluff. Sharpen my image. My chip towers grow. I leave the table two hours later: up $220. Now for the super-satellite.

Before entering one of those I am going to need a manual about Texas holdem, a game which I dont play very often and never at this level. I head for the Gamblers General Store up Main Street.

A hot, desert wind blows; little leaf storms twirl, pics of naked women ripped from a porno mag skitter down the street. I walk past shabby motels, bail bonds offices, the Red-Eyed Jack 24-hour bar, past derelicts slouched against walls, broken men snoozing on benches, past the Greyhound bus station where a battered Cadillac from 15 years ago drops off a loser from today.

I reach 800 Main Street - THE WORLDS LARGEST GAMBLING SUPERSTORE! says a neon sign.

Inside is everything you need to start your very own casino: from slot machines to dealers aprons. Crap tables, crates of cards. Translucent dice gleam like precious stones in a corsairs cave. Theres a gallery of chips from dead casinos including the Mint, the Money Tree, the Thunderbird, the Jolly Trolley. Lucky slot gloves: $3 for a black one, $1 for a white one. A vast library: literature about lotto, books on chips, tomes devoted to greyhound racing, magic, scams. A huge poker section. I contemplate buyingPlay Poker, Quit Work and Sleep Till Noon; instead grab Holdem Poker For Advanced Players by former actuary turned poker-theorist/pro David Sklansky with Mason Malmuth.

Back to the Horseshoe, where I start reading the book, a 42-year-old schoolboy cramming for his exams.

In Texas holdem you have to make a hand using two cards which are dealt to you (the pocket) and five community cards. These are turned up three at once (the flop), then another card (fourth street) and a fifth card (the river), with betting between each turn. There are two, compulsory, rotating antes, called the little blind and the big blind.

Position is crucial, its a very technical game, and heres two complicated tables you have to memorise to avoid what Sklansky and Malmuth call "a mathematical catastrophe".

Sheesh. Think I need a beer.

I stand in the super-satellite line with hundreds of other hopefuls, poker players on a quest for the games holy grail. Queuing next to me is a Hollywood scriptwriter named Bill who made a tidy little packet today betting on horses. He reckons this is a real long shot, but, "Hey, gotta give it a go".

The queue snakes around slot machines, shuffles towards the cashiers window, where we pay our $220 and get our seat and table numbers. Out of the 400-plus aspirants, eight will win $10000 seats at the final game of the World Series of Poker.

The blinds start off at $5-$10, and increase rapidly , which means you have to win early to stay competitive.

I finger my chips and get into the rhythm of the game in a room where the ceiling has a thousand eyes in the form of surveillance cameras, where overhead fans whirl and cigarette smoke makes your eyes red.

I sit tight for a while, then get magic cards from a dream. With my hands trembling, my heart hammering, adrenaline squirting, I push piles of chips into the pot, pull out bigger piles.

Other players run out of chips and make $200 rebuys, my stack keeps on growing and after the first hour I have a sizeable stash without any rebuys.

Gaps appear at tables as players are eliminated. Entire tables empty, and every now and again we get a new player - a survivor of the carnage around the green baize.

A flushed middle-aged man at an adjacent table grins as he rakes in a pot and tells his opponent: "I can read you. I can read you so well I can tell you your cards and what suit they are. Yessir." A voice pipes up from another table: "We can read him from here, pardner. Thats coz hes thinkin too loud."

Then my cards go cold, my inexperience shows, my chips dwindle and the blinds begin to eat me up.

The exhilaration of the first hour is gone as I am relentlessly ground down by men who have been playing this game at this level for many years. Its agony as a procession of no-hope cards comes my way. Unsuited, unconnected, unpaired. A two taunts me, a seven sneers, a jack leers. I make mistakes, play over-cautiously, and twice throw away winning hands.

My chips reach a critical mass beyond which there is no chance of redemption, and when I get dealt a pair of 10s I go all-in - push all my chips into the pot. Everyone folds, except the big, ponytailed guy at the other end of the table. He shows me his pair of queens. The flop comes - rags. Fourth street is turned and theres still nothing on the table. Only a 10 can save me, but the river card is another nonentity and for me the party is over.

But, boy, was it fun, what a wonderful rollercoaster ride - the most bang for 220 (US) bucks Ill ever get in Las Vegas.

Its now 20 minutes to midnight on the eve of the final game. I go to the first floor, where there is frantic eleventh-hour satellite action. Spectators - they call them railbirds here - crowd around the brown, leatherette barriers, peering at the poker.

At one of the tables Scotty Nguyen - the big winner in 1998 and this years winner of the Omaha Hi-lo and Pot-limit Omaha competitions - is putting on a performance. Wearing dark sunglasses, a black T-shirt, white jeans, black boots, and dripping with gold jewellery, he plays standing up, with one leg rested on a chair. Skinny, with a greasy, mullet hairstyle, he swaggers, sways, chainsmokes, laughs madly, flicks ash on the floor, swigs a Michelob beer, verbally abuses his opponents: "Cmon white boy. Why dontcha fuckin see me?" He spills beer on the green baize, he handles an opponents chips.

His tactics - his table image - together with his incredible skill see him victorious, and he yells out: "Pay me, baby."

At 3am, satellites are still under way. Last years winner, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, walks into the room. Hes all in black, from his boots to his stetson. A professional poker player with a PhD in computer programming, "Jesus" got the nickname because of his long, black hair, beard and gentle demeanour. "Shouldnt you be resting before tomorrows big game?" I ask. "Oh no, theres plenny time," he says in his good-guy California drawl.

"Its what - only 2 oclock?"

"Three."

"Mmmm ... think I will go and get some sleep - unlike some of my compatriots," he says, nodding in Scottys direction.

I get some shut-eye, wake up at the crack of noon. The tournament room is a circus, with railbirds gawping, TV crews traipsing, photographers shooting, journalists jotting notes and players wandering around.

Theres Scotty Nguyen, who reckons: "No limit Texas holdem is like cat and mouse. The mouse make the wrong move, baby, and the cat swallow it. No limit is very, very dangerous game."

He fancies his chances: "Im hungry. Im gonna win another title." Theres the worlds most famous poker player, Amarillo Slim Preston, wearing his trademark stetson with the stuffed rattlesnake coiled around the brim, its fangs agape. His cowboy shirt has gold buttons, his cufflinks are monogrammed, his lizardskin boots have his name - Slim - emblazoned on them. Grey-haired, his blue eyes two cool surprises, he looks like a gunslinger whos stepped out of a Louis LAmour novel.

Heres a familiar accent - it belongs to Neville Eber who lives in Johannesburg. Bald, bespectacled, gently-spoken, Neville has 20 times been South African bridge champion and holds the rank of Grand Life Master. He has also won a world backgammon title.

Neville, 64, plays poker once a week at a club in Houghton, Johannesburg in "a fairly big game where you can win up to 20-grand, and if youre unlucky you can go down by 20-grand."

To win the World Series of Poker, he reckons you need "experience, stamina, psychology and some luck, especially to see you through the first day. Youve got to dominate and be seen as aggressive, otherwise youre going to get bullied out of the game."

Our conversation is cut short by the voice of tournament director Bob Thompson over the public address system. "Players take your seats please," he says.

The 613 players - 601 men and 12 women - head for their allotted seats.

They are competing for $6.13-million in chips. After five days one player will be left. (S)he will have won every single chip. Bob Thompsons rich, baritone voice booms out again: "Dealers, shuffle up and deal." The Greatest Poker Show on Earth has begun.

The games superstars are scattered throughout the many tables, but heres one thats lopsided with heavyweights: Annie Duke, dark-haired and vivacious, the woman who has won the most money at the World Series of Poker; TJ Cloutier who came second last year and is the all-time leading money-winner at the World Series; and Scotty Nguyen, together with six other players.

A former professional football player in Canada as well as the author of a couple of books about poker, TJ is big, formidable, scary. He passes the time between hands by chatting to Annie Duke: "Golfs got four majors, pokers got just this one. This tournaments the Masters and the PGA and the Open all rolled into one. And the thing about it is that it doesnt really begin until the end. You only really start playing on the last day - if you last that long."

TJ recognises the man sitting at the top of the table. "I used to play poker in Shreveport, Louisana, in one of the toughest games in America," he tells Duke.Annie. "That guy was one of the players. His names Charles Glorioso and hes a priest - a poker-playin, smokin priest."

"Catholic or Episcopalian?" Annie Duke asks Glorioso.

"Catholic," he says, and tosses his priest ID card across the table to her.

"Wow! I"m playing poker with a priest!" Glorioso survives Day One, but Annie, TJ and Scotty are all eliminated. "Jesus" is also taken out.

Neville Eber survives and starts the second day with a healthy chip balance of around $26000. He goes all-in when hes down to $15000 and is beaten by a player with a full house.

"I wish I was still in the game, but its also a release to be out," he tells me. "Theres a helluva lot of pressure. Theres an ambush around every corner and you cant lose your concentration for a second. One mistake and youre dead. As the game gets on it heats up and if you dont win a pot every now and again the blinds will kill you.

"But it was very stimulating and Ill enter again next year - weather permitting."

I speak to Tom Schmit, 71, from Lake Oswego, Oregon who says: "Its a madhouse in there. All that smoke is awful and its easy to lose concentration. I sat for three hours yesterday without playing a hand - and the temptation is there to play when youve got nothing. You get bored."

Chris Kenik, alias the Cincinatti Pirhana, tells me: "There are some truly great players here, but theres also a lotta rich morons. This mornin I get a pair of aces in the pocket, I go all-in, this asshole sees me with a deuce, three. It flops 4,5,7, theres nothing on fourth street, he draws the 6 on the river and Im fuckin out!"

Im also outta here - the Horseshoe with its cast of cowboys, its hard-bitten characters, and enormous poker game, is starting to seem slightly unreal, somewhat surreal.

I go to a gentlemens club called Spearmint Rhino where the girls have cartoonishly and impossibly perfect breasts and $100 gets you a five-minute lap dance. Las Vegas is definitely the Big Breast Capital of America - Silicone Valley - and its said the resorts pay for their female employees to get "surgical enhancements".

It adds to the feeling that nothing in this city is real - just the extravagant imaginings of an 18-year-old whos dropped far too many caps of acid.

At the beginning of play on the third day the room has shrunk to 12 tables and 108 players remain. In front of them are black $100 chips, yellow $500s, blue $1000s and the occasional orange $5000. Bob Thompson, as always stetsoned, string-tied, suited, makes an important announcement: "Anyone chewin gum, wed appreciate it if you didnt stick it under the table."

The pots are getting big - up to $250000 - and power flows from player to player, made manifest by the height of chip-towers. At 11:55pm 46 players remain and theres an explosion of energy because the next player to be eliminated will be "on the bubble" - the last one out just before the money. Players who end up in positions 45-37 will all win $37000, after that the prize money increases big-time.

At 12:50am theres still 46 players, and theres a plaintive cry: "Nobodys going broke here ever. Were gonna be here forever." But at 12:55am Diego Cordovez goes on the bubble, and play is over for the day.

On the next day - the fourth of the tournament - three rows of bleachers have appeared around the five remaining tables. Play begins at 12:35pm, and its intense - there is a compulsory $1000 ante per hand, the little blind is $2000 and the big blind $4000. "We stay at this level for two hours," announces Thompson.

Gaps appear as players are eliminated. Willie Strothers is first to go, followed by David Pham, Harry Tomas, Bill Gazes, Dan Alspach ... The priest Glorioso is playing a good, solid game. He smokes Basic kingsize, destroys opponents with panache, seems imbued with a golden aura of invincibility.

But even the bubbles of poker-playin, smokin priests burst, and at 8:25 that evening he goes all-in with a pair of sixes. A player with a pair of aces sees Glorioso, who must have been praying for that third six to fall. "Please God, give me 6-6-6! A trip six. God. Please?"

Sadly, this was not to be and Glorioso goes out in 12th place. He wins $63940 which he says will go to the poor. When asked about his stake for next year he replies: "God will take care of it".

With the priests departure 11 players - out of the original 613 - remain. One of them is Phil Gordon, 31 years old and at six foot nine inches, the tallest player in the tournament.

Five years ago the company he started with some friends, Netsys Technologies, was sold to Cisco Systems for $95-million. Phil retired and reinvented himself.

He adventured around the world, and has cage-dived with great white sharks in South Africa, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, taught English in Morocco, hiked in the mountains of Nepal, danced in the streets of Rio de Janerio ...

Now he is playing poker at the very highest level and the games holy grail is within his grasp.

He has a couple of fortune cookie slips from dinnertime next to his pile of chips. He reads some aloud: "Dont make any ill-advised financial decisions on Frantic Friday [tomorrow, the final day of the World Series of Poker].

"Given enough time your personal life will be exciting." The railbirds have a good chuckle at this, because right now Gordons personal life seems plenty exciting.

Hes been involved in several skirmishes with the arrogant Phil Hellmuth, who is probably the greatest tournament player in the world, and the air at their table crackles with sparks of antagonism.

At one stage Hellmuth bets big then stares Gordon down and sneers: "I know youre afraid of me. You have to be insane not to be afraid of me." At 9:45pm a young player named Arturo Diaz is eliminated and nine remain. "Please do not leave the table till I verify your chips," says Thompson, and play is over for the day.

In need of a diversion I catch a #301 bus up the strip to the Mirage. Outside, a multimillion-dollar fake volcano erupts.

Theres a white tiger pacing behind glass in the foyer and then you reach the madness of the casino, and the relative calm of the poker-room, where I play a $4-$8 game of Omaha hi-lo.

Four elderly, wise-cracking Las Vegans are at my table and they take me to the cleaners.

After a few hours I find myself $260 down and push my last $40 into a pot (including, foolishly, my carefully hoarded $2 busfare). I lose.

Fuck!

Ive gotta walk home at two in the morning, through some really rough neighbourhoods. Oh well, at least Ive found a Las Vegas experience that seem real. This feeling of pain and despair cant be bogus. (Can it?) The walks fine up till the tall tower-hotel, the Stratosphere, where the Strip starts getting sleazy and scary. I pass a toothless beggar, brandishing a cardboard sign that reads: "Why lie? Need a drink!" A pimp and his fat ho have set up shop in deckchairs on the sidewalk.

Heres the "adult-movie" Oasis Motel, where the worlds greatest poker player, Stu Ungar, was found dead three years ago. Just $800 in his pocket.

Neon-lit wedding chapels, a striptease joint where the parking lot is cluttered with coffin-black stretch limos, a 24-hour pawn shop where wedding rings twinkle in the window. Some knuckle-dragging Neanderthal crosses the street and makes a beeline for me. He yells out: "Young man [the Vegas equivalent of oubaas ] do you have a cigarette for me?"

Thats what all the thugs say, and I dont need to answer, just accelerate to a pace thats very-nearly-but-not-quite-a-run. (Dignity and all that). The footsteps behind me fade. I see the lights of Downtown and - yipee! - the big, neon cowboy at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street.

Safe.

A few hours later theres a long queue outside the tournament room, which has been converted into a small television studio.

In the centre of a pool of light is a single, oval table - a shrine to the holy game of poker. On the table are nine name-cards, next to each name-card are towers of chips. A deck of cards is fanned out in an arc, faces up.

Once the players entourages, railbirds, members of the media, and Horseshoe officials are in the room, Thompson announces: "Without further ado Ill bring the players in".

The nine survivors take their seats, and silver-haired Don Joe Kennedy - who dealt at the final game in 1971 - shuffles into the room. He is todays first dealer.

"Well boys, just another day at the office," says Phil Hellmuth, and the game is on.

Everyone is cautious, feinting, feeling one another out, getting into the rhythm. Flops are rare, theres usually one big, scary $40000 bet and everyone else folds.

After one round the blinds increase to $5000-$15000 with a $2000 ante. This means that every round costs the players $47000 - and thats without any betting.

Hellmuth, as always dressed in black, with an ultimatebet.com baseball cap shading his eyes, tries to dominate physically. He stands up, walk, talks, glides, grins, jokes with railbirds. Gordon, dark and elegant, straddles a chair, occasionally glaring at his shorter namesake.

Hands are dealt, bets are made. Occasionally there are two-player skirmishes where towers of chips start off as instruments of negotiation, and become weapons of war which terrify and overpower. Sometimes these weapons backfire on their owners.

Power moves to the 29-year-old Spanish player Carlos Mortensen. His face is unreadable under his brown, floppy hat. He plays a good, solid game. No talk. No showbiz. No mistakes.

His chips form a colourful four-storey impregnable fortress. After 39 hands there is a break, and Carlos leads with $1.2-million worth of chips.

After the break Hellmuth challenges Mortensen. He pops in a $55000 bet pre-flop, which Mortensen sees. Post-flop, Hellmuth zaps in another $40000, which the Spaniard sees. Fourth street opens and Hellmuth fires a $120000 salvo.

He stares Mortensen full in the face, unblinking, arms folded. The Spaniard fingers his chips. Pushes a pile forward, pulls it back. Hellmuth holds the stare. Holds it for a full three minutes. Still hasnt blinked. Absolutely motionless.

Mortensen considers.

Mortensen folds.

Helmuth grins.

A bright splash of colour appears in front of him. The chips. "I dont blame him for thinking there," he tells the spectators as a current of energy flows through him.

It takes 58 hands for the first player - John Inashima - to be eliminated. Six hands later, a second man goes, Steve "Country" Riehle, an electrician from Lompoc, California.

A part-time player who got into the tournament via a super-satellite victory, Riehle wins $119885. When asked whether he plans to become a full-time poker pro he replies: "Nah. My wife wont let me. Anyway I dont have the money. Just to play one year of tournaments youve got to have at least a million dollars."

Poker great Mike Sexton, who is doing a live Internet broadcast of the game, tells Riehle: "I think youre an inspiration to poker players all over the world. You came here an unknown, won a super-satellite and made the final table. Just like James McManus last year, who came to write about the tournament and ended up finishing fifth."

Next to be eliminated is the plump German Henry Nowakowski, then Mortensen sucker-punches Mike "The Mouth" Matusow with a monster bluff and wins a $560000 pot. Mortensen leaps up and double-punches the air, does a jig as the railbirds go crazy.

Matusow - a high-stakes poker pro - never recovers, and a few hands later hes out the game. He rushes from the room and returns about half an hour later. "I cried for a while, and Ill probably cry more later," he says. "I can play great poker for the next 20 years, and I might still never get back to the final table of this tournament. Its that hard to get here. This might have been my chance for my lifetime and I couldnt get it." Fourteen hands later Mortensen wins all Hellmuths chips, and Hellmuth leaves The Show, thunder on his face.

Then Gordon falls, followed by Schrier, and now theres only two players left - Mortensen and Dewey Tomko.

Mortensen is 29 years old. Tomko is 54, he came second at this tournament in 1982.

"Jesus" sums it up for a TV interviewer.

"Dewey has the age and the experience. Carlos has the youth and the chips." (Carlos has just over $4-million, Dewey $2-million)." They take a 15-minute break before the final showdown. Mike Sexton tells his Internet listeners: "This is the World Series of Poker - and its a tradition that they bring the money out in a cardboard box. Here comes the cash, folks - $1.5-million in a cardboard box. Here comes the box - a battered cardboard box."

A phalanx of burly security guards arrives, one plonks the battered cardboard box down on the poker table and unpacks the $1.5-million in cold cash.

The money has the presence of a moviestar, it has the pulling power of a bare-breasted babe at Cannes, Every photographer in the room is drawn like iron filings to a magnet and they shoot the money for all theyre worth. Tomko returns to the table and munches a banana.

Mortensen comes back and battle commences. Amarillo Slim has taken over microphone duties from Thompson. He tells Mortensen: "You can judge a woodcutter by his chips. A woodcutter with a tall pile of chips has been cutting a lot of timber, and so have you son, so have you."

"Slim, we love you!" shouts a pretty, young railbird. "Its a tie - I love you too!" he shoots back.

At the table Mortensen and Tomko fire $100000 bullets at one another. Back and forth it goes, a big raise followed by a fold. Both players are silent, utterly absorbed in the struggle for power, dominance and of course the $1.5-million which is on the table between them, a very potent energy field.

On hand #206 Mortensen raises to $100000 preflop and Tomko calls. The flop comes - 3 , 10 , and J . Mortensen bets another $100000. Tomko raises him $400000 and Mortensen pushes all his money in. Tomko calls. Flashlights pop. Excitement is palpable. This is it.

They show their cards. Tomko has two aces - the best starting hand in Texas holdem. Mortensen shows K , Q , which means an ace or a nine will give him a straight, while a club will give him a flush.

Fourth street comes - the 3. No help.

The river card is turned and theres pandemonium. Its a 9 , which gives Mortensen a straight and victory in the World Series of Poker.

He leaps up. He kisses his wife and grins. He picks up two fat fistfuls of $100 bills and brandishes them in the air.

"I feel unbelievable," he says.

"Jesus" hugs Mortensen. Reporters ask him about the winning hand.

"I have to do it. I have open-ended straight. I didnt care if he had the aces - I had to call. Its not good idea only to call. I had to go all-in."

And Tomko? "I played as well as I could have," he says. "Fate is fate."

 

 

 

Smells like team spirit

 

David Beckham is striking out into the perfume market. Caspar Greeff got a whiff of his debut scent

THEY flew me to France on a hush-hush mission. I wasnt allowed to know where I was staying, wasnt allowed to know where I was going. They made me sign documents swearing secrecy. Pain of death, that sort of thing.

But Ill tell you where I went. To the Cte dAzur. St Paul de Vence, to be precise. For the launch of David Beckhams fragrance. Why anyone (besides a soccer player) would want to smell like a soccer player was beyond me. But there you have it.

The PR bumf said it was the Real Madrid midfielders first fragrance. It said that the location of the event as well as the location of the hotel are strictly confidential... so as to avoid disturbance of paparazzi during event.

Those dreadful paparazzi, always queering the pitch for everyone. Especially David Beckham.

The footballers fragrance was launched at a villa perched on a hilltop in St Paul de Vence. There were 50 journalists at the event, but the security measures seemed to have worked it was paparazzi-free. There were no Hello! photographers hovering above in helicopters. No lens-bedecked scumbags leopard-crawling across the lawn.

There was, however, Mumm. Mumm as in Champagne, the same Champagne that Formula One drivers spray on the victory podium, the Champagne with a scent of rose petals, and a fragrance of vanilla and melon.

Mumms the word, I thought as I knocked back my third or fourth flute of the stuff. It seemed easy to become attached to Mumm, in an Oedipal kind of way.

Which is probably why there was a hint of separation anxiety when we had to put our flutes down and file into a room for The Event.

They showed us a commercial starring David Beckham. In the ad, Beckham stood indomitable in the face of an incredible storm. Closed his eyes and repelled it with the force of his will. The ad was for the midfielders fragrance. Its called Instinct.

A couple of big deals from Coty spoke. (Bernd Beetz, the CEO and Steve Mormoris, the senior vice president, international marketing.)

Then the Man Himself walked into the room. David Beckham. More a brand than a man. Brand it like Beckham.

He earns 15-million a year from endorsing products which include, or have included, Marks & Spencer, Adidas, Vodafone, Pepsi, Police, Castrol, and Brylcreem.

The one-man brand sat down, his hair tousled and his chin stubbly. He wore a white linen suit, a white shirt with several of the buttons undone, and two-tone shoes. He had forgotten to put on his socks.

Beckham, renowned for the power, accuracy and beauty of his free kicks, spoke about the fragrance: For me this is an amazing smell, he said.

Obviously Im biased, [who wouldnt be for several million euros?] but youve never smelt anything like this before.

He said he had been given a number of fragrances to smell by Coty and admitted it gives you a headache after a certain time, smelling fragrance after fragrance after fragrance.

He enthralled us with his grooming habits. I like to have manicures. I like to have pedicures. I like to have facials and I like to smell good. I use moisturiser, eye cream, facial wash and lip balm.

Presumably thats enough to get him through the 90 minutes that a soccer match lasts.

The well-groomed Galactico melted certain hearts when he said his favourite smell of all time is a newborn baby thats just got up from sleeping. Just a newborn baby the smell of their bodies, even their breath the smell of a newborn baby is just incredible.

He balanced that by saying, I like the natural smell of a woman. I like the smell of my wife of course, but the natural smell of a woman.. . theyve just got out the shower and theyre freshly washed and conditioned and theyve got all their creams on.

A short, well-built woman in a tarty party dress sat down next to him. His wife Victoria, aka Posh. She looked like she was washed and conditioned and had all her creams on. She, too, spoke of her belief in the fragrance.

Then the hack pack lined up to be photographed with the Beckhams in groups of five. When it was our turn I shook his hand and sniffed the air around the footballer.

I would have liked to have said that I detected a whiff of scandal, some notes of opportunism, and the aroma of money, all wrapped up in spice. But, to be honest, David Beckham didnt smell of anything, not to me at that villa in the south of France.

Maybe the Mumm neutralised my olfactory capability.

How did he smell? people asked me when I got back home.

With his nose, I replied

 

 

 

The junk junkies

Milnerton

An open-air market in Cape Town attracts treasure hunters, antique dealers, and characters who would look more at home in a Tom Waits song. Caspar Greeff goes there to find out why

Two rainbows straddled Table Mountain in glorious Technicolor. It was a beautiful sight, almost kitsch, and nearly reason enough to be away from the comfort of one's duvet on a wintry Sunday morning. The rest of the reason was the Milnerton Market.

The Miller-Tin, as it is often pronounced, is a time machine that has Hoovered up gewgaws and artefacts from the past and disgorged them into this setting on Otto du Plessis Drive, next to the Atlantic Ocean.

If you're there at 5am on a market day, you'll see cars queuing to get in. These are the "casuals", one-off traders. Some of them want to get rid of junk, others have fallen on hard times. About 50 "casuals" and 200 "regulars" trade every week.

If you get there at about 6.30am you'll see a dozen people walking about with torches, going from car boot to car boot, looking at the contents before they are put on display. They are the dealers: they own antique shops in the Church Street mall, in Kalk Bay and in Simon's Town.

One member of the Torch Brigade isn't a dealer. He's the Collector, and he doesn't want his name made public: "I don't want the traders to know who I am and I don't want my neighbours to know that I've got lots of valuable stuff in my house."

The Collector is the ultimate Milnerton Market customer - a hyper-consumer - and his house is a shrine to the market.

Inside it, crystals bounce light about, and everywhere there are shapes, textures, objects: a few dozen bronze binoculars, many telescopes, a shelf of transistor radios from the 1960s and 1970s. One of them, a Bush radio, cost R30 at the Milnerton Market- its catalogue price is about R1 300. There are collections of walking sticks, kites, ships in bottles, coral, ashtrays, ice-cream scoops, tea strainers . . . 17 watering cans in the garden.

"I am unashamedly a maximalist," the Collector says . "I like things. For instance I've got a weakness for blankets." (Dozens of them lie folded in his bedroom.) He also has "a weakness for snake-skins, umbrellas" - python and boa constrictor skins snake down his bathroom walls while umbrellas pop up everywhere - "and Oxo cube tins . . .

"I go to the boot sale every weekend. I never pay what they ask, even if it's ridiculously cheap. But I'm never rude . I'll just say, 'No, I can't afford to pay R4 for that, it's way out of my league', and then we'll bargain.

"The traders can't figure me out because I buy everything, I don't specialise like the dealers."

The Collector tells me about some of the traders. "There's one guy who arrives with nothing - just a bit of money. Then he'll go from trader to trader, from trader to dealer, buying and selling stuff they want and he'll make a grand in a weekend. There's a rich Portuguese guy with a holiday home in Betty's Bay and a mansion in town who trades at the boot sale every weekend. He doesn't pay anything for his stuff - he gets it all at the dump."

As I leave his house he points to a huge plastic bag containing hundreds of corks. "Do you want some?" he asks. "I couldn't resist them."

When I see him at the market on the two-rainbow Sunday, he tells me: "I had to come here. I couldn't just lie in bed - I might have missed something."

There wasn't much to miss . A handful of stalls had been set up, and most of the traders were sitting in their rusted cars, their cluttered station wagons, their lived-in kombis, their battered bakkies, and staring sullenly at the two rainbows. It was about to pour with rain.

I went back the following Sunday with my friend Glen, a Milnerton Market aficionado. He had told me stories about the place, like the time he saw a trader, "some guy out of a Tom Waits song, sitting next to a rusted blue Golf, and he had a two-bar heater, a pair of shoes and the Golf mats on display next to him. That was his stall - the remnants of his life, and it was all for sale. Even the Golf was for sale, and there was a kid in the back, but he wasn't for sale."

That day we see another Tom Waits guy. He's leaning on an orange Sierra, and he's selling two children's books (Treasure Island and Snow White), a dog's bowl, three ashtrays and a squashed teddy bear that looks like it's been run over by a car.

We see a grey-bearded man wearing a leather cap, limping with a crutch and dragging a yellow object on a dog's leash through the dust. He's Keith the Magnet Man, and he's trolling for money with his homemade metal detector. He claims to make "between R120 and R150 a day. I've been through three magnets already and I'm going to throw this yellow one out soon."

He rummages in his bag and fishes out a red, plastic object - part of a magnetic window-cleaning device. "This baby's going to pay for my Christmas present."

Further on we see a man, wearing a sleeveless pullover, rifling through a box of ancient prescription glasses. He tries on a pair, their lenses as thick as Coke bottle bottoms, and puts one hand about half a metre in front of his face.

"Can you see through them, my love?" asks the woman who runs the stall. Apparently he can, because he buys this pair, as well as another two, all for R10.

There's so much stuff to see here . Second-hand toilet brushes, an old snorkel, fossilised sharks' teeth, "cigarette nippers 3 for R10", purple-haired trolls, a used toothbrush, Trini Lopez LPs, paint-by-numbers Mona Lisas, wooden Spur menus, Buddhas, Barbie dolls with their heads peeking out of paper packets ("Well it is Sunday and they are kaalgat", says the trader), scrunchies, an anti-snore device, electric curlers, a stuffed squirrel, James Hadley Chase novels, cricket bats, musical boxes. . .

So much stuff, travelling from one life to another, this market the conduit. All these objects ooze stories: this groovy red hat from the 1960s, this plate with a painting of downtown Loureno Marques, this chemistry set with "AIDAN'S SCI DO NOT TOUCH" scrawled on it.

A blackboard with a message on it leans on a trader's caravan home. It reads: "MALTESE LOST ON SATURDAY 13.4 PLEASE HELP!!! REWARD". The lost Maltese, Nancy, belongs to a trader named Erma. A tear trickles down her cheek as she says, "It's been hell, absolute hell since Nancy went. I was given her 14 years ago, she was my Christmas present. Somebody probably thought Nancy was lost and picked her up and took her home. Nancy is my shadow. I must have her back."

We wish her luck and move on to a stall owned by a man named Noel who has suntan lotion smeared thickly over his face.

He says: "I stood at Oudekraal for 15 years selling seashells - I sold seashells every day until I got skin cancer three years ago and then I started trading here." Among other things, Noel sells porcelain balls that "I dive out of the Lavranos, which was wrecked in 1929. I dive only at spring tide , and I pull a hundred bucks a week from my balls."

An antique store dealer stops at Noel's stall and bargains with him.

"How much for the lot?"

"R80."

"R60."

"R70."

"OK."

One of the antique store dealers who is a regular here is Bruce Tait.

Glen tells me Tait once bought a translucent, inflatable pillow with a feather inside it at the market.

"I wanted to buy it from him, but Bruce wanted 80 bucks. He said the trader who sold it to him had bought it from a deceased estate, and that the pillow had a dead man's breath inside it, and that's why it was so expensive."

Tait, who owns three shops in trendy Kloof Street, started off selling clothes from the boot of his Mazda at the original Milnerton Market, 12 years ago.

"There used to be 15 to 20 traders then, selling out of their boots," says Tait . "One Saturday I made 700 bucks and thought, this is an excellent way to make a living. I traded at weekends for seven years, and made enough money to open my first shop, dealing in kitsch.

"I do go back [to the market], but as a buyer. I love going there, it becomes an addiction. It's an incurable disease."

Some think it can be cured. As I left the crazy and beautiful clutter of The Collector's house, he had told me: "One day I'll get rid of everything and become a minimalist again. I'll live in a white flat in Sea Point with just the necessities."

 

 

 

The laugh and times of a perpetual victim

Caspar Greeff


MY INITIATION into the world of crime began many years ago on a hungover morning, when I stumbled out of the house and climbed into my Peugeot 404 station wagon. The engine started, but the car wouldn't move, even though I pumped the accelerator furiously.

There was obviously a major mechanical fault: the universal joint, or the big end, something like that. When I got out to investigate, the problem became apparent. The 404 was up on bricks, and all four wheels were gone - they'd been nicked during the night.

The message was clear: welcome to South Africa, pal.

Up till then I had been living in a fool's paradise where crime happened in newspapers, and the villains left me alone because I was a nice guy. Dream on.

I had become a victim in the second sense of the word: "victim n. 2. a person who is tricked or swindled." In the course of my career as a victim several other verbs came to nestle next to "tricked or swindled". Words like mugged, robbed, burgled, gagged, bound, shot.

The shooting was fairly dramatic. It happened when a gang of motorcycle thugs pulled me and some friends off the road and beat us all up, and then one of them shot me in the leg while I was lying on the ground.

The bikers left with bleeding knuckles, simpering girlfriends and a smoking revolver, and were later acquitted in court on the grounds of self-defence.

But the shooting didn't leave such a bad taste in my mouth as did the bondage incident.

This began early one afternoon while I was snoozing after a heavy night playing poker.

I was awakened by two youths rummaging in the next room. One of them said: "We are looking for work." "Sorry, I don't have any," I mumbled, then nodded off, vaguely wondering why they hadn't knocked on the door in the manner of other unemployed folk.

When I woke up again a few seconds later the adolescent job-seekers were in my room. One of them was rifling through my cupboard, and the other had a kitchen knife at my throat. They stole all my poker winnings - a pretty substantial amount - and one of them told me, smugly: "We have to do this. It is our job."

Before leaving, they drew the curtains, then tied my hands and feet with shoelaces and - the distasteful part - gagged me with a tennis sock that my housemate had been wearing for a week. "So that's why they call it a gag," I thought, before freeing myself and chasing the miscreants down the street, clad only in underpants, with the sock dangling round my neck.

I had an epiphany, and realised that life is a hunt with two kinds of protagonists: perpetrators and victims - perps and vics. Sometimes you'll see vics fruitlessly pursuing perps, but it's usually the perps who hunt the vics, and with a high success rate.

Anyway, my career as a vic continued very nicely, thank you, with all the vicissitudes that being a victim entails.

I underwent many straightforward burglaries and robberies and some muggings.

And then last week I had a breakthrough.

My mother phoned me at work: "You must go home at once. The police are waiting for you. Oh, and take a photographer with you, you've had the most amazing robbery . . ."

I grabbed a photographer and went home, where seven detectives awaited me.

The burglary had astonished and even amused them, and when they showed me what had happened I had to laugh, although with a certain note of hysteria.

The perps had come in through the floor. They'd used a hammer and scissors to pry open the Oregon pine floorboards which form the ceiling of my cellar, and had popped up under my bed in what must have been a "Eureka!" moment.

They took the usual stuff - the VCR, the Snackwich machine, selected CDs and clothing.

Unfortunately for the two cunning young men, patrolling policemen had spotted them leaping over the gate into my back yard.

A stakeout ensued, and the ingenious perps were caught with my goods in their possession.

I signed a sworn statement that I had not given them the right to enter my house through the floor, nor had I given them permission to remove the items listed in the aforementioned schedule.

It had been a true breakthrough, a burglary where the victim's goods are returned, a felony where innovative perpetrators are arrested, a crime that makes detectives chuckle.

It was also the initial breakthrough.

Yep.

They came back.

My fault. I didn't expect them back so soon, and didn't secure the area until four days later.

It happened like they all do, in broad daylight. It happened while I was at the hardware store purchasing a padlock and bolt for the cellar door.

They came in through the floor again, and made the customary mess, and took all the usual stuff, only this time they didn't take the Snackwich machine, but stole the hi-fi set instead, and drank four of my beers, and I'm pretty sure they had a good laugh at their host, who had so obligingly left a hole in the floor for them.

 

 

 

To hell and back

 

Al Lovejoy, ex burglar, soldier, musician, IT expert and international drug smuggler, has cleaned up his act and written a book. Caspar Greeff splits a vindaloo with him

02 October 2005

HE HAS been known by many names: Bitch-Born Bastard. Alex Goulding. Asterix. Yster. Lix. Skollie. Acid Alex. Three years ago he changed his handle to Al Lovejoy. Legally.

The new name goes with his new life. Ask him what he does now and he says, Im a professional writer. Gee, I love saying that.

The many names went with the many parts hes played in his time.
He was an orphan. An abused kid. A boy burglar. A daggaroeker. Reform-school inmate. Gangster. Soldier. Psychotic nutter. Deserter. Bandiet.

He graduated from Pretoria Central prison to become a fireman, a missionary, an acidhead, a rave bunny, a buttonkop, a musician, an IT expert, the head of a Cape crime syndicate. He was an international drug smuggler taking zol into Europe, bringing ecstasy pills back into SA. Did two and a half years in a Belgian prison.

When he was a musician and drug dealer in Stellenbosch, a completely mal writer ou lived in Lovejoys kitchen. The writer ou, Woke up one morning and announced brightly that he needed to piss off to the nearest Wimpy, bum lots of coffee and start writing furiously, because he needed to pull off a cultural revolution but only after he had shaved his head and changed his cultural name to Koos Kombuis.

Koos Kombuis has written the foreword to Lovejoys book Acid Alex. He says, In your hands you are holding a book which is about to turn South African literature on its head.

Quite a claim. But then Acid Alex is quite a book. Some of it is evocative of the writing of the hard-core US crime writer James Ellroy. Some passages are reminiscent of Edward Bunker, the youngest ever inmate of San Quentin prison at the age of 17, and the author of No Beast So Fierce, regarded by many as the finest crime novel ever written.

There are elements of Hunter S Thompson, Herman Charles Bosman, William Burroughs and William Wharton. But in the end it is an
amazing story told in a unique voice. A voice moulded by pain, a voice honed by a government reformatory (Uncle Guvvies poesplaas), whetted by the SADF, and sharpened by Pretoria Central.

Its the story of a man who went to hell and came back, a morality tale, a Bildungsroman, the narrative of a fuckup who found redemption, and the anthem of a lost generation.

The book is written in a South African vernacular, with smatterings
of Afrikaans and skollietaal. Theres a glossary which explains phrases like spookgerook (stoned to the point of paranoia), spiritsuiper (vagrant methylated spirits addict), nongalosh (homosexual) and O fok nou kom daar kak (Fuck,
now the shits going to hit the fan).

I meet Lovejoy in the Cape Town suburb of Gardens, where he spent some time in his youth, as a skollie and a member of the Mongrels gang.

He looks just like the ou on the cover of his book, in the drawing by the trendy comic artist Joe Dog, aka Anton Kannemeyer. Hes a hard man with hooded eyes and a nose that looks like it was once moered stukkend. (It was.)

He takes off his jacket and hes wearing a vest that reveals the tattoos he got at Wildfire, tattoos that cover the gang tjappies he had as a teenager.

We go to a curry joint, and order the hottest vindaloo, ignoring the waiters pleas to choose some-
thing milder.

I ask Lovejoy the obvious question how did an ex-bandiet and a former international drug smuggler become a writer?

Man, Ill tell you how it started. At the end of the book I talk about sitting there wanting to kill my partner and I reckoned that was a really sick place to be, and I reckoned, OK, I need help.

The doctor I spoke to tuned me, Al, nobody in this world can fucking help you because of the pain and shit youve been through in your life... you make out?

He said, the only way you can dig your way out of the hole youre in is by writing it all down as therapy.

I said, OK, cool, and I thought Ill do this as therapy, but Im also gonna take my joy, my love of reading and Im gonna write a book.

I took my zol, I took my pills from the last run I did, I decided, fuck it, Im tired of this running and running and running. I went to Jeffreys Bay and checked into a rehab. I spent a lot of my drug money it was fucking expensive and I started writing while fighting off a bad case of alcoholism that came from the flip side of heroin addiction.

I read the book now and its almost like it happened to a character.

And what a character. This is Al Lovejoy in the prologue to Acid Alex: Im a fucking drug makwera. We run the whole eastern seaboard between Cape Town and PE. PAGAD is hunting us. They already shot Chad and the other ou on our payroll. The various flavours of the so-called Cape Town mafia want to know who the fuck we are and when they can break our legs. And, Oh Yes, Boys and Girls, just for shits and giggles, the happy little pitbulls from Sanab visited us for a chat the other morning.

How much of the book is fiction, I ask Lovejoy as the vindaloo arrives.

He sips his red wine and laughs. Ja, if I say nothing I can actually get back into court. Ag, here and there I had to dramatise things.

We changed names here and there, more because I wanted to protect peoples privacy. Here and there, there were people that have straightened themselves out, theyve got families and kids and all sorts of things so I dont want to go in and fuck up their lives.

We tuck into the vindaloo and its seriously hot. Lovejoy starts sweating, something he trained himself not to do when he smuggled dope into Europe in his suitcase.

Dont sweat, he writes in the book. Whatever you do, dont sweat. The airport drug enforcement officer looks for sweat in the cool static air-conditioned environment like gold. That is his bread and butter. Sweat.

I ask him about drug smuggling.

I saw myself as an opportunistic dope-smoking hippie and [the Belgian] law enforcement wanted to throw me in jail for life.

When I read those charges in Belgium I just went white. I thought, Oh God this is it, Im fucked hey. Im fucked. These people take this very, very seriously.

(He was charged with Drug Smuggling with the alternative charge of attempting to commit Chemical Poisoning upon the Sovereign Subjects of the Kingdom of Belgium, and Conspiracy to commit International Organised Crime.)

He tells me about the time these Irish hard boys offered us pills straight from Tanzania. They had a legal [ecstasy] factory running there. But I know what these fuckers are financing with this. Theyre buying guns and bombs and things to blow up children in fucking supermarkets... Are you crazy Im not gonna buy E from you.

Were both sweating from the vindaloo, our mouths burning, noses running, eyes watering. We finish the fiery food, and when the waiter takes the plates away, Lovejoy chirps him, Thanks, that was lekker. Nowhere nearly as hot as you made out.

I nod in agreement and ask him if he ever misses the criminal life.

No.

No?

I get an occasional thrill every once in a while thinking about like ... you know... like a little fantasy about landing like 500 kilos of something somewhere ... but I think about it for all of five minutes and I think, Do you want to go back to jail? Fuck that.

Look, its a kick to have a shitload of money. Its a kick to walk around with R150000 in gilder in your top pocket. A kick, but it wears off very quickly because what sustains that kick is all the other shit. Being chased. Internecine fighting going on with the other gangsters you know, cops after you, vigilantes after you, youre fucking scared of your own goddamn shadow most of the time.

Uh huh. You get crazy man. Get crazy. Youre completely fucking excessive. When you come out of a blackout you dont know where the hell you are. You dont even know what town youre in.

Lovejoy wrote about this excessive behaviour in Acid Alex:

Ive smashed bottles over my head and then cut an anarchy symbol in my chest with the broken ends. Slashed open my wrists and drunk the blood chased down with vodka and codeine then painted crimson graffiti on walls with it. Ive lain fighting on the floor for possession of a button pipe in the middle of a pitched firefight between gattas and gangsters, with bullets flying and richocheting above our heads.

But now, he tells me, Ive turned my back on it and just started walking, hey. Im a completely different person now. I made myself a new life. A completely new fucking life. It was one of the most amazing things. A few months ago I sat up one night and said, You know Al, you can credibly call yourself a writer now.

Hes busy writing a novel. Its a terrible, terrible story. Ive got about 20000 words.

Hes also writing the screenplay for Acid Alex. Hes in the process of clinching a major movie deal for his book, and expects filming to start in the middle of next year.

Whos going to play Al Lovejoy?

Ed Norton would be first prize. Dye his hair and give him a prosthetic so it looks like hes got a lekker broken nose.

Our interview is over and I settle the bill. We shake hands and Al Lovejoy says, Now dont go write something thats going to make a bullet get put through my head.

Hes not joking.

 

 

 

Wild figments

Food

There is a touch of madness in the air at Cape Town's Wild Fig restaurant. CASPAR GREEFF commits himself for dinner

I have happy memories of the times I spent in Valkenburg, the mental hospital on the banks of the Liesbeeck River in Cape Town. I remember balloons and streamers, devilled eggs and little tarts, unco-ordinated dancing and strange tunes. I was four or five then, and my grandmother was a nurse at the hospital. She would take me and my sisters to the asylum's Christmas parties, and we would have a grand time with the inmates, who, to us, seemed perfectly normal.

We were lunatics ourselves; like all children we had licence to be completely crazy. Burst into song at the top of your voice during a solemn ceremony - "aw, cute", grown-up grins all round. You could zoom about with your arms outstretched pretending to be an aeroplane, say the silliest things, make stupid sound effects, ask absurd questions, have tea parties with invisible friends, and it was considered appropriate behaviour.

Sadly, one's licence to be crazy expired at a certain age, and if you still had tea parties with invisible friends when you were 43 then it was off to Valkenburg with you.

Like all nurses at Valkenburg, my grandmother had a Magic Whistle around her neck, a silver talisman with great power and once I saw her use it.

We were strolling around the grounds, autumn leaves crunched underfoot, and the Gothic buildings were dark shapes from a scary dream. I saw a man in pyjamas sprinting across the grass, and nudged my grandmother.

"Gee, Gran, look at that man run!"

She blew the Magic Whistle, a mighty blast, a piercing clarion call which instantly summoned three burly men , who appeared from nowhere and, to my delight, dashed across the grounds in pursuit of the pyjama-ed man. He was caught, subdued and led back inside.

I knew that whistle was the coolest thing in the world, and I had to have one. I would swagger around Valkenburg with the Magic Whistle ; I would blow it at whim, and burly attendants would materialise and dash about . Unfortunately, I never did get a silver Magic Whistle, but I have acquired a blue Nokia 3210, which I used to call some friends to arrange a meeting at Valkenburg.

To be more specific, at the Wild Fig, the restaurant in the grounds of the historic estate, electrically fenced off from the hospital.

A great, big, full moon hung low on the horizon as I parked my car, with its nodding dashboard Buddha, on an autumnal Sunday.

My date and I managed to get a little lost despite an illuminated sign saying "ENTRANCE" right in front of us, and the parking attendant had to extricate us from the shadows and put us back on the right path.

We headed for the beautiful bar, which used to be a barn in the 1700s, and met up with our fellow diners - there were eight "grown-ups" and a 12-year-old girl named Zo.

My pre-prandial drink was a draught of Boston lager, made by a micro-brewery in Paarden Eiland, and refreshingly different from the standard SAB beers - it was crisp and spicy with a whisper of honey.

Zo caught me chewing gum and drinking beer at the same time and made me dispose of the gum, but I wasn't allowed to stick it to the underside of the bar.

We entered the dining room with its reed ceiling and friendly fire; sat down at a round table and the talk turned to nuts.

Apparently that afternoon there had been a programme on the Reality TV channel about a woman who is nuts about nuts, and has an enormous collection of every kind of nut in the world and writes poems about nuts and sings songs to her nuts, but has never eaten a nut.

We dipped our bread into balsamic vinegar and olive oil which we mixed together on side plates. At some stage these mixtures transformed into Rorschach tests: one of our party commented that his culinary blot looked "like the negative of a fried egg", someone else found a "dwarf riding a dragonfly".

We chose our wine and chose well: a Joubert Tradauw R62 Merlot/Cabernet 1999 (R74) which had a nice nutty nose and undertones of liquid velvet, the red curtains which opened up the cinema of the mind.

It was time for starters and I opted for the Pacific Ceviche (R26) but not before asking Learned Members at the table how to pronounce it. Was it Sir Vitchy or Kevitch or did one say Cervix?

"Don't say cervix," said a knowledgeable diner. "I have taken Spanish lesions, and it's pronounced 'servaysh.'"

"Spanish lesions?"

"Sure. I got the scars to prove it."

The 'tron arrived.

"I'll have the servaysh, please."

"Curvish," she corrected me.

However it's pronounced, it was amazingly tasty. Described as "fresh fish cured in citrus juice then marinated with coconut milk, some chilli & diced cucumber", it was a visual treat. The diced cucumber was twirled in eccentric circles around a white mound topped with bright red chilli. It was a wonderful melange of tastes and textures, a beautiful blend of cool and hot.

One of the women at our table had the roasted feta (R24), and wasn't quite satisfied: "I could have done with something a bit stronger," she said.

"Darling, wait till we get home," promised her boyfriend.

The four who had the skewers of duck livers (R25) - "in a ginger & sweet chilli sauce with shredded spinach & crispy noodles" - were all crazy about their starters , and when they had finished, their plates were clean as whistles.

For a main course I had the linefish special (R64). It was grilled swordfish, served in a Neapolitan sauce with calamari, olives, and mussels - and drizzled with Bulgarian yoghurt. Once again, beautiful to look at, excellent to eat.

My date had the roast quail with sage and onion stuffing (R52). The quail arrived, a plump pair, looking for all the world like two big skinned toads, about to jump off their plate into the full-moon Valkenburg night.

"Ooh, look, aren't they gorgeous," she said. "It's my first quail. They're delicious. I want to farm them. I'm sure you can do it in a shoebox on your balcony. You'll hear them, all going: 'tjoep, tjoep, tjoep,' and then you'll just put your hand in the box and take a couple out and wring their necks and cook them and eat them."

For dessert I had the chocolate torte (R23), which I pronounced with a Mayan accent:"xjoxjolator", but the 'tron was quick to correct me: "Choc tort".

After dessert ("I thought Mango Brulee was the editor of Wallpaper magazine," said some joker) and once we had all sung The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum (Fun Boy Three, 1981), the chef, Stephen Woodall, popped out of the kitchen, sweating slightly, wearing a white jacket with 10 black buttons and a Parker pen peeking out.

He told us that ceviche was pronounced "sirvish" and that some chefs had 12 black buttons on their jackets.

Then one of the women said I had to accompany her to the ladies' toilets, she wanted me to listen to a door.

She opened the door to a stall, and the door didn't creak, it groaned: a cry of anguish from a tormented soul, a sonorous sound brimming with despair.

We went to the bar for post-prandial drinks, and a couple of people started drinking Stroh rum and blowing flames, and I could see it was time to leave.

"We're going to make like schizophrenics and split," I said.

And we were out of there.