The realm of real men

With a passion for old American trucks and a fearless attitude towards life in general, a group of Jeep owners headed into Zululand to experience adventure… and an unexpected brush with divinity. Roger Gaisford tells the amusing tale.

The New Main Street, Automobile, Horseless Carriage, Wagon and Wheel Works, was a joint of goingson orchestrated by a gentleman with the surname of Swarts. The patrons of this establishment regarded themselves as being of ‘The Realm of Real Men’, those scared of nothing… not a hard bed, hooch, spitting snakes, nor evil eye. They loved old American trucks, Fords and Jeeps and such. Land Rovers were regarded with disdain. Swarts was a prospector who wore old hats and scratched about for gold in little known parts of Zululand. While working in the remote Bulls Run area of the uMlathuze River Valley, he came across a series of low waterfalls, pools, and sandy beaches, known as the Ngotshe. It is here that he found gold.

Being an adventurer at heart, the Ngotshe area gave Swarts some food for thought. Nobody had ever driven a motor vehicle there, and to do so would be a great challenge, a proper never-beendone- before for those ‘real men’ who frequented his establishment. They would do it in their Jeeps. Thus, one Friday evening, the patrons of the Wagon and Wheel Works gathered over a beer to discuss their venture to the Ngotshe. It was nearing midnight by the time they set off into the dark, headed for the hills and river beyond. The route took them into the wilds of the uMlathuze River Valley, their headlights accentuating the rocks and ledges of what was little more than a donkey track. Their Jeeps – classic 1948 CJ2As bought on South African Defence Force disposal sales – bumped and banged their way down to the riverbank, where they spent the night.

Swarts had coffee brewing as the first birds chirped and light brought form to the mistshrouded river. A tot of brandy – Klipdrift it was – stiffened the brew. Shortly thereafter they set off upstream, their vehicles moaning as they pulled through soft river sand and bumped across boulder beds as they made their way westward. In other places their vehicles floundered in deep water and sank to their chassis in porridge-like sand, leaving them jacking and packing rocks and pushing for all their worth. High banks and low cliffs forced the vehicles into the water to a boulder-covered island as they waded upstream to dry ground. Zulu maidens bathing and washing clothes cheered them on. That evening they stopped on a deserted beach below a bank of great trees with the river chortling over rock ledges below. They grilled some sausages and drank beer around the fire as they discussed the doings of the day and slept beneath the stars on a tarpaulin spread on the sand, lullabied by the river’s voice and distant drums as local people partied.

The waterfall lay but 6km ahead, but it was 6km of sand, boulders and black water of uncertain depth and bottom, with the river braided into deep, narrow channels flowing through thick reed beds. Large rocks had them cross axled, wheels spraying sand and mud as pushing, digging, packing rocks and jacking became the order of the day. But they all came through. Then, following a cattle path over a ridge, there was the waterfall: a low granite dyke over which the river tumbled and swept. A beautiful place of low cliffs, rocky outcrops and boulders. Sparkling water gushed into deep pools with sandy beaches shaded by great trees. A fairly successful day of exploring, with only one of the Jeeps’ oil pressure running low…

They swam and fished before three Zulu men arrived. One of them, by the name of Mpondo, carried a guitar. He had but one eye and a single fang decorating his gums, and his hair had been braided into fantastic shapes. His guitar was tuned in his own manner. He was asked to shaya isiginci (play his guitar), to which he readily agreed, and taking up a stance on a large rock in the river, began playing. He had an astonishing ability, howling and wailing as he played. Without missing a note, he raised the guitar above his head, playing on with it behind his back.

Seated on a rock in the river his companions tapped the time by smacking their palms on the surface of the water. One of them produced an isitweletwe (Jew’s harp) and an imfiliji (mouth organ), and proceeded to accompany the guitarist, playing one instrument then the other, while his friend kept time with sharp little smacks on the water surface with his flat hands. It was a performance more wonderful than the telling of it.

A little later, a young Zulu woman dressed as a Zulu warrior – complete with sticks and shield – approached and invited them to drink beer at the home of Mpondo, which was just a short distance away by footpath through bush. She was one of his wives. Mpondo, it seemed, was a somebody: a famous

diviner, an isangoma, a person known by the ignorant as a witchdoctor who used snakes in his divinations. His homestead consisted of seven or eight beehive-shaped huts built around a cattle enclosure. Dogs regarded them suspiciously and fowls scratched in the dust as they entered to be seated in the indlunkhulu or rather the principal hut… men on the right on goat skins, women, and girls on the left on grass mats. They were presented with a great clay pot of utshwala, traditional beer brewed from sorghum and maize, as the hut filled with Mpondo’s family, wives, children, grandmothers, grandfathers, and curious neighbours. A girl placed the dried leaves of the fragrant imphepo herb on a hot coal carried in a potsherd and went around wafting fragrant smoke at each of them.

Mpondo’s wife began beating a drum of cowskin stretched over a 20-litre oil can as he made his entrance. Attired in the skins of leopard, wild cat and jackal, a huge python was draped around his neck. Clasped in his mouth was Africa’s most potently poisonous snake, a boomslang. A most imposing presence was Mpondo. Using a length of black plastic water pipe as a drum stick, the girl began beating the drum, something like a six-eleven rhythm while singing a plaintive song. All the while Mpondo stood, eyes closed, swaying slightly. He then began his prophecy: “Oh, oh, that white man who wears the old hat, watch out, you will get a big trouble.” Then he began to wail:

“Write the numbers, write the numbers… six, one, eighteen, twenty-two, thirty-seven, nine.” So, they did. Mpondo left the hut, and they returned to their camp on the river. They camped in the open on the beach below the waterfall and sat on the sand around a fire of driftwood, cooking stew and drinking beer and brandy as they marvelled at the doings of the day. They were loud in their praise of their Jeeps, built in 1948 by the Willys Overland Motor Inc of Toledo Ohio, which had brought upon them the distinction of being the first to ever drive a motor vehicle to the Ngotshe Waterfall. They discussed the numbers called by Mpondo and wondered if they were not for the lottery jackpot. Having been divined by a sangoma, they must have meaning, and the lotto had six numbers. They also wondered about the Jeep’s oil pressure…

They slept on the sand by their Jeeps and headed home the next day. Humming back to Eshowe, the worrisome Jeep hesitated, and then began a rattling which became an infernal banging from beneath the bonnet. A connecting rod bearing had seized, the rod had broken and punched a hole through the crank case. Towed home, Swarts made enquiries, and found he could get a crated engine from a military surplus dealer in Pretoria. Its price and the cost of getting there were, however, beyond him. Discussing his misfortune with friends, Mpondo’s words came to mind. It was suggested that as Mpondo had been right in his warning to Swarts, he should buy a lottery ticket, using the six numbers called by Mpondo. He did so and some days later the winning numbers were announced. Swarts missed the jackpot by one number. His pay-out on five numbers came to exactly the cost of hiring a friend’s truck, driving the 700km to Pretoria, buying a crated engine and treating himself to a beer on the way home.

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