It was the Rally de Portugal in 1984. Sarel van der Merwe was part of the Audi factory team, and 12 South African motoring journalists were there to record his triumphs – among them Jannie Herbst. But Van der Merwe was forced to retire on the first day. So what to do – go home or stay? Jannie’s decision created quite a few interesting twists and turns.
We were guests of the Audi group to cover the 1984 Portuguese rally. The excitement was high, and on a very cold morning in Estoril we gave Sarel van der Merwe and navigator Franz Boshoff our best wishes and set off in four Audi Quattros to a special stage where we could see the South Africans in action.
There were thousands of people. About 35 000 of them slept on the roadside of the first special stage in the freezing cold, to get the best possible view of all the action the next day.
We got a glimpse of our heroes before we had to rush back to our cars and leapfrog to another stage for another view of the action.
How naive we were! Upon reaching our vehicles, we found them stripped of all the official PRESS identification! We were now just normal spectators with no privileges, while someone else swanned around with our press labels.
So we progressed (slowly) for as far as we could and joined the throngs of fans walking for miles to a spectator point. We waited patiently for Sarel to make a showing. He was 12th on the road, but when his turn came there was just a gap in the field.
We were wearing Audi gear, so were mistaken by a spectator for being part of the Audi team. He chatted in poor English while listening to his portable radio, and we gathered that our man had been involved in an accident. On the way back to our cars, other people told us the same thing. Sarel was out of the rally. His Quattro had hit a bank on the fifth stage.
That evening our host, Ronnie Kruger, gave us the option of staying on to enjoy the remaining four days of the rally, without a South African angle to write home about, or return home. I had deadlines to meet so decided to return to SA. Geoff Dalglish and I were the only two to do so.
Our flight was scheduled for the following evening, leaving us with a free day in Lisbon. During the night, I started having second thoughts about being so ungrateful in declining our host’s offer to entertain us for the rest of the rally. By morning, I’d changed my mind. I would stay, and Geoff had to head home alone. But the group had already departed on the next stage of the rally, so I had some serious catching up to do.
I knew they would spend the night at Visue in the north of Portugal, so I thought it wouldn’t be that difficult to find them. There would be lots of activity around the rally and somebody was sure to know where the Audi team was staying.
This was my first mistake. I took a train to Visue (it took five hours) and then a taxi to hunt down my amigos.
The taxi man, Leandro, knew nothing about the rally. We stopped and asked around, but the local folk were unaware of any such event. There were a few posters on lamp posts, but these did not appear to have stirred anyone’s interest.
We eventually stopped at a taxi rank and all the drivers had a different opinion about where the rally would be passing through. We visited all the main hotels in the area. Nothing.
Eventually we came upon a Lancia service vehicle parked next to the road, and the driver explained where we should go. We drove towards a gate where we could see the rally cars, stopped and got out. Leandro was getting excited. Fortunately I still had my personal press accreditation card hanging around my neck but the officials did not want to let Leandro through.
After a lengthy Portuguese conversation (I have no idea what story he spun them) the officials opened the gate for the taxi.
We made our way through the area where the rally cars were being serviced, but the Quattro team had already left. I tried to establish where the team would spend the next night, but every mechanic had a different answer and it was clear that no one really knew. We were back to square one.
Leandro took me to a local hotel and agreed to come and fetch me again early the next morning to continue the search for my amigos. It began dawning on me that this little exercise was going to cost me a fortune.
The Bella Vista was more of a boarding house than a hotel. The reception man knew nothing about the rally. I was at an all-time low. Lying on the bed, I could touch the walls on either side if I shifted slightly – it was tiny. I don’t recall ever feeling quite so morbid. I cursed myself for being so indecisive. I should just have gone home. In the gloomy room, all sorts of scenarios started playing on my mind. What if I didn’t find the team? What if I eventually had to buy a plane ticket to get myself back home?
To lift my mood, I decided to sample the local fare, and strolled to the dining room. As I always do in a foreign country, I asked the waiter to bring me something special from the local area as well as a local wine. He returned with potatoes and sardines… with their heads still attached. My gloom increased, despite the palatable vinho verde that I enjoyed… too much.
To escape the subdued mood of the hotel, I ventured out into the streets. The only entertainment was a pinball machine at the corner café. The neighbourhood was dead quiet, apart from the incessant barking of a hotel resident’s dog.
Back in my matchbox room, I tried to sleep but the unremitting barking cut through the silence, working on my every nerve. I phoned reception to complain, but the man couldn’t understand my basic English. I resorted to making barking noises down the phone. The penny dropped!
The receiver was put down in my ear. I heard doors slamming, and what I imagined to be Portuguese swearing. There was a desperate yelp or two from the dog… and then silence. Bliss!
Leandro was there early. He seemed to be enjoying this rally hunting business. I was upgraded to the front seat and we were now a team… scouting for my ever elusive amigos.
Leandro had done a bit of homework overnight, and even had a map and information on the rally. We were ready to go.
We drove straight to one of the rally points. Leandro was getting jollier as we entered the gates (thanks to his now honed negotiating skills). There were masses of people everywhere. How on earth was I going to find my South African buddies?
It was still early in the stage and everyone was waiting for the cars to arrive, including Leandro. There were make-shift bars selling food, wine, beer and some stronger drinks as well. Leandro bought us some bread and a few beers before we hit the road to another stage of the rally.
We were driving further and further away from his home town. He kept assuring me that I shouldn’t worry about the cost. I think he saw me gauging the kilometres from the corner of my eye.
The day got very long – to the extent that Leandro had to stop at a pay phone to call his wife and assure her that everything was OK.
It was late afternoon when we stopped and got out at yet another food stall. And there, lo and behold, I saw Geoff Mortimer and Andre van der Watt from Sarel’s service team.
“We thought you’d gone home,” they said, before warmly welcoming me back into the fold. The rest of the journos were apparently back at the hotel. I also discovered that the resort they had stayed in the previous night was about 80km outside of Visue and not in the town itself.
Leandro was very disappointed that our adventure had come to an end. Fearfully, I asked him what I owed him. “No problem,” he said. “You help me see rally. No pay, thank you.”
I could not believe it and promptly bought him a bottle of wine from the stall. We said our goodbyes, and I scored a seat with Geoff Mortimer in one of the rally practice cars. Back home he drove the second Quattro in the official SA Audi rally team, so I was in safe hands.
Travelling by road in Portugal is a real pain. You just cannot go fast. The roads are narrow and winding and there is little room to overtake. We were going as fast as possible but every now and then we’d get stuck in slow moving traffic.
Geoff overtook one of the vehicles at speed. An oncoming car approached at a deadly pace. With a loud crash, both the Quattro’s side mirrors were taken off.
Geoff didn’t flinch. He just looked at me, asked if I was OK and drove on as if nothing had happened. How he had managed to squeeze between those two cars and avoid one helluva accident I just don’t know. But I’m sure it must have worried him afterwards as we could very easily have been history.
We had a great evening at the hotel and followed the rest of the rally to the final day. I also had a room to myself for the remainder of the trip.
We were due to fly home in the evening after a memorable six days, but our flight was delayed until the following morning at 07:00. This meant we had to be at the airport by 05:00 – after another (extra) evening in Lisbon.
Being the wonderful host he is, Ronnie Kruger arranged a feast of crayfish and wine at a fancy restaurant in the city. It was a jolly affair, and I could see we were going to have problems making the flight the next morning if we kept going at the pace we were. I mentioned my worries to André de Kok, who was seated next to me, but my warning fell on deaf ears and no one wanted to leave the party.
Not wanting to get myself into any more trouble (or be lost in Portugal again!) I took a taxi back to the hotel to get some sleep so that I would be on time the next morning, like a good, responsible journo should. I arranged a wake-up call for 03:00 and duly went to bed.
By 04:00 I had done the three “S’s” which usually include a shave and shower, and was ready and waiting in the foyer. After 10 minutes, I was still the only one there.
I called Andre’s room from reception. The phone just kept ringing. I started doubting whether I’d got the time right. Maybe the flight had been even earlier, and they had left without me? What if – after all this – I would actually have to pay for my own ticket home?
Frantically, I called Andre again. After the phone had rung for what seemed an age, a very deur die kak Andre answered.
“Oh Jannie? Oh yes, you left early last night. When we got back to the hotel there was a message for us. The flight is further delayed and will now leave tonight only.” 🙁