Harold Strachan's Last Word

Eighty plus

When I hit 80 years of age I thought, Well, now, I reckon I can call myself mature and settle down comfortably with quiet old folks and drink cups of tea and smile a lot. Except there weren’t any other old folks around where I lived, for some reason or another there were only people’s grandchildren, who didn’t drink tea, plus their friends who played guitars just all the time, man, I mean there wasn’t a moment’s silence, day or night. Restless youth, people called them, though being now mature I saw them as plain fidgety. All this I explained to my grandson.

Jamie, said I, I yearn for the remote silence of the wilderness, the comfort of Mother Nature, to sit in peace and hear the grass rustling and small birds cosily chatting to each other in small chirps, that sort of thing. Privacy in the vastness of the Universe. I understand, said he. Perfectly. Therefore you should come with me and my mates of the University Mountain Club to scale Champagne Castle next week, you can’t beat the top of the escarpment for all those comforts of the human spirit you talk of. Three days, easy, says he. One up, one down and one in between meditating at the top. Are you bloody mad or what? say I, I can walk only as far as the Pick n Pay these days. Two blocks away. Flat. Ah! said he, this is no problem, we will catch a lift with the Mountain Club to the Monk’s Cowl campsite and there take leave of them and hike about the flattish part of the wilderness and play nature-music on this my guitar and hitch-hike home when we feel like it.

You are indeed bloody mad, say I, I haven’t done any hitch-hiking since I was 20, when I hitched from Pietermaritzburg to London in eight months, and all I dreamed of all the way was nice comfortable train journeys the length of Africa, as envisioned by Cecil Rhodes, and Istanbul to Paris on the Orient Express.

But we go. I haul out from somewhere my old mountain boots with sporty red laces and rub them down with a bit of dubbin and we’re OFF with a couple of 4x4s full of yodelling youth. Tyrol, Tyrol, Tyrol, they sing, du bist mein Heimatland! By midday they are halfway to the top, Holdrioholdrioholdrioholdrio-kuku! whilst down here below, the small birds of the Gondwanaland wilderness emerge and cosily chirp to each other. Nunus rustle about in the African grass. Lovely, sporty, I feel but half my age sleeping on a piece of foam plastic on a whole lot of rocks, feeding on dehydrated food, boiled, no gravy.

I’m about ready for the hitch-hiking adventure on day three. Jamie, my boy, say I, I am ready for the h/h adventure but filled with foreboding, indeed I foresee our bones ground up as Chinese medicine on a shelf in Hong Kong and our organs dried up on wire hooks in a sangoma’s surgery. I mean hitch-hiking is not the romantic thing it used to be.

It is in your own aged mind that romance has shrivelled up on a wire hook, he replies. Your normal motorist is enchanted at the sight of roadside folks playing peaceful guitar music and maybe singing small personal songs. You’ll see. Come along now. So we’re off, and catch our first lift to Nottingham Road with a couple from the campsite, and there we sit hour after hour on the old road across KZN, a good thing because hitching on a freeway is unlawful, but a bad thing because there is no traffic to speak of. Getting on in the afternoon with Jamie patiently twanging away, myself seeing us sleeping rough in a donga, suddenly there’s one hell of a blast on an air horn across the landscape behind us and there, of all things, stands a train, with the driver beckoning us across. A full-on goods train, bloody nigh a kilometre long, I reckon, and two great throbbing electric locomotives noisily roaring their impatience as we struggle through a barbed wire fence and pound across the veld. Getting aboard from ground level is not easy. A huge hand reaches down and heaves me up, more or less bodily. I seen your guitar, says the owner. Me, I play the konsertina. This ou here is Zondi, he’s the driver. Me, I am Viljoen, but they call me Biltong. I am the fireman. There isn’t a fire any more, hey, that is from old steam days, it really mean I am the second driver in case ou Zondi drop dead, laaik.

Good musicians fall easily into companionship. Well, compatibility I suppose I should say. In two twos, three at the most, Jamie and Biltong have got the Boeremusiek going; this is a waltz in the key of e-minor, the sentimental one. Zondi smiles, he and Biltong have spent the long lonely hours together. I am once again 20, hitching as the sun went down in the Northern Transvaal, hearing the far-off nostalgic voice of the concertina, wistful and a little bit sad in that key, and going off-road to the distant house lit by paraffin lamps, where always there is a handshake and an easy smile for the lonely traveller, and a bed, for that is our history and our heritage.

We arrive in Durban in the middle of the night, way out in some remote shunting yard. En toe? What now? How to get eight kays across Durbs to our home? There are two bunks in the second loco, says Zondi. You can sleep there if you like.

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