Many amazing things happen on motoring trips and product launches that readers don’t get to hear about. This is mainly because the vehicles are the focus of such outings and not the people. Leisure Wheels editor Jannie Herbst has more than 42 years’ worth of stories behind the stories to tell. Here is one of them.
It was 1983. We found ourselves on an island in the Okavango Delta as part of a Wiel magazine initiative, along with Caravan and Outdoor Life, Toyota and Datsun/Nissan. I was owner of Wiel at the time.
We started off with 24 men as part of a gruelling 4000km trip on the roads less travelled from Johannesburg to Maun, with ten 4x4s and six CI Sprite caravans. Yes, indeed — crazy for those times, I know. The expedition was officially known as the Okavango Endurance Test.
Once inside Botswana we left the tarmac at Serowe (after one night’s camping) and started in a westerly direction on a track of thick sand which was supposed to take us to the Orapa Mines. Or rather, that is what our guide led us to believe. We got hopelessly lost and eventually were confronted by a very wide river, where we had no choice but to set up camp. We later learned that it was the Boteti River.
The following day we reached Maun. By then the caravans had suffered severely and incurred serious damage. The shock absorbers kept packing up, and two of the vehicles’ tow bars also gave in. We stopped counting the number of flat tyres.
The guys were tired… and demotivated. Six members of the group (all from CI Caravans) decided to go home. This was when Toyota arranged a surprise visit to the rather expensive Delta Lodge for their exhausted friends from the media.
The six guys from Datsun decided to chill out at a hotel in Maun. The remaining 12 of us were to leave the vehicles and caravans in Maun and fly to the lodge. We were divided into small groups because the light aircraft could accommodate only five passengers at a time. The lodge was about 20 minutes from Maun. My colleague, the late Johann van Loggerenberg, and I had to stay behind and catch a “lift” in another aircraft that was due to take tourists to another island, from where we would go to Delta Lodge by mokoro dugout canoe. What an added adventure, we thought!
At last Loggies and I were swish-swishing our way through the reeds in a narrow channel in the Okavango Delta. Long before we could see any island or other sign of life we heard the laughter and loud chatter of our group.
On reaching the shore, we were greeted by Toyota’s Willem van Rooyen. “Thank goodness you are here,” he said. “One of the planes crash landed. They nearly didn’t make it.”
At first we thought Willem was exaggerating and that the hours of “relaxing” preceeding our arrival had caught up with him. But then we saw it for ourselves: on the narrow, sandy landing strip was the little aircraft, nose first in the ground.
Apparently this was quite a regular occurrence in the Delta at the time. Some of the pilots were not good enough for America or elsewhere in the world and ended up with nice, relaxing jobs, with a tad more room for error, out in Africa, flying tourists to and from little islands in the Delta. And then we saw it — a piece of airplane nestled in the top fringes of a palm tree – the leftovers of an accident the year before. I swallowed. Flying was the only way back to Maun.
The rest of our group were partying away. They had reason to celebrate. They were alive, weren’t they? While some of the guys had been in the plane that crash landed, the others had witnessed the spectacle. And we all know there is only one true cure for shock on an African safari: ‘n stywe ou doppie…
The German owner of the lodge (let’s call him Herr Sauertopf) was noticeably annoyed by the bunch of men behaving like children at his peaceful establishment. By the look of things, Herr Sauertopf had forgotten how to celebrate life.
By dinner time (in a beautiful diningroom with antique furniture that looked quite out of place here in deep, darkest Africa) Herr Sauertopf started to chill. Unmarried and living very much an African game ranger life, he had a keen interest in antiques and was quite sentimental about them. He shared with us the heart-warming story of his prized antique sideboard that was shipped all the way from Germany. Not only was it beautiful, it also housed the diningroom crockery.
We pretended to be really interested in his stories, to win his favour and make up a little for the noise and misdemeanours of our colleagues earlier the day. So Herr Sauertopf opened up and invited us on a special outing after dinner. But, he said, we had to be very quiet. This in itself was a challenge for the 12 men who were now in a spirited mood and ready for another adventure.
We ventured out into the darkness and got into Herr Sauertopf’s flat bottomed boat with a couple of staff members armed with spotlights. We were each handed a long stick with a nail lodged into one end, converting it into a crude spear. It seemed that we were off on a harpooning expedition.
We travelled quite some way and then stopped. When the spotlights were switched on, we were amazed by the schools of fish swimming around the boat. The guys literally dug in and began spearing fish as though they were little boys at a church tombola stall! It was great fun.
When the excitement wore off, Herr Sauertopf called us together and, in a hushed tone, asked if we would like to see something we would never see again — something incredibly special. But this time we would have to be dead quiet, or he would not take us there. We all pledged not to make a peep.
Herr Sauertopf started the engine, and we ventured deep into the reeds in a very small channel. The reeds screeched against the sides of the boat. We looked at each other, frowning, but Herr Sauertopf kept going. No one made a sound.
Then we stopped. Herr Sauertopf put his forefinger to his lips, and signalled that we should look in the direction he would point the spotlight. There, right next to the boat in the reeds, sat two malachite kingfishers snuggled up against each other, sleeping. Their blue and orange feathers glistened in the bright light, and the gentle breeze ruffled the little feathers just enough to show us that they were real. At 10cm in size from beak to tail, they are the world’s tiniest water birds.
We huddled together in silence on one side of the boat, admiring this rare sight, drawing ever closer to the shimmering birds. Then, all of a sudden, the boat tipped over, unable to withstand the uneven distribution of weight. With screams of shock, half the passengers fell off into the water and reeds, knocking the little lovebirds somewhere into the deep darkness of the Okavango Delta.
Some of the staff members still on board stabilised the boat while Herr Sauertopf grew in size before our eyes. He bellowed, and his face turned red in the spotlight while his arms flapped up and down in anger. He spat out what we believed to be German swear words in grunts, huffs and puffs, and his left foot stomped to the rhythm of his flapping arms. Herr Sauertopf was kwaad!
With everyone back on board, he throttled the engine and steered off into the darkness at high speed, still berating us from a dizzy height.
Skoon nugter geskrik, we silently crawled back to the diningroom at the lodge. We sat down at the bar without a word, reflecting on what we had just done.
Francois Rossouw was the first to speak. “Nou het ons regtig drooggemaak, ouens,” he said, leaning his arm against Herr Sauertopf’s prized antique sideboard. As he breathed in and took his hand away to say something more, the sideboard followed him and came crashing down in an explosion of fine china.
Francois was speechless. We were all speechless. As one man, we dashed to the sideboard to help put it back up again, picking up the carnage and packing what was left into the sideboard.
Without a further word, we slunk off to bed.
We have no idea where Herr Sauertopf disappeared to or how Toyota sorted out the damages, but next morning we were on our way back to Maun in those cursed little airplanes.
We huddled together and silently said our prayers as the first group took off. We watched with bated (and beer’ed) breath and could hardly believe what we saw. The plane started swaying as it took off, and with a loud thud, a wing sliced into a palm tree branch. But it stayed in the air, and disappeared from view. Later, it returned for the rest of us.
Back in Maun, we were again in serious need of a sterk enetjie!
Loggies and I were lucky enough to catch a flight back to Johannesburg with two of Datsun’s senior staff members while the rest had to eat the dust on the then unpaved road to Francistown.
But still, this was not the end of Murphy’s masterpiece. Our pilot got lost on the way back to Lanseria Airport, and we had to guide him by following the roads we knew.
Back in the big city, we heard the last chapter in the story of the doomed trip to the Delta. One of the caravans had rolled on the way home. It was a write-off and was left behind somewhere on a dusty road – somewhat less travelled – between Maun and Johannesburg.