As if it were yesterday
By Trevor Friend ------ 18 August 2011 (updated August 2017)
I was born in Cape Town in July 1951 and my family moved briefly to Vanderbijlpark in April 1954 and then on to Durban in April 1956. I still have a handful of memories from those early years but most of my memories are of Durban. We lived in Montclair in Durban between 1956 and 1973 when my Parents moved back to Cape Town. I then rented a flat on the Esplanade in the centre of Durban until April 1975. I had decided to leave SA to go and live the UK and so in July 1975, after spending the previous few months with my parent in Cape Town, I emigrated to the UK aged 24. Some of my memories of growing up in Durban in the late 1950's and through the 1960's are just as vivid as if they were yesterday, so here are a few reminiscences.
I can still remember when all the streets were two way and many of them still had 45 degree angled, instead of in-line, parking bays. Gardiner Street, outside the Post Office and opposite outside the Milky Way was like this in the late 1950's. Many of the buses started or terminated alongside the Post Office and around the Gardens/Cenotaph. Trees grew between some of the parking bays and in the evenings, when we were waiting for buses at the bus stops, the birds used to nest in these trees and make a lot of noise and mess.
In the late 1950's there was still evidence of the trams that used to run in Durban as the Corporation had left the tracks in the road and just tarred over them. Some of the tar had worn away and for many years there was a gleaming piece of track that swung around from Gardiner into West Street. This also happened on the intersection of Gardiner and Pine Streets where, outside the station, there was the only diagonal pedestrian crossing in town; all the traffic had to stop for pedestrians.
When we first moved to Montclair in Durban in 1956 we tried out various shops in our area. We used to walk down Blamey Road crossing the bridge over the South Coast railway line from Montclair to Clairwood. There were several shops on the corner of Blamey and South Coast Roads where my mother would buy bread and a few other groceries from the corner Café and fresh meat from the butcher. In those days the butcher shops smelt of blood and had sawdust on the floor and a blue light on the wall that attracted and zapped the flies and other insects. Later we tried having home deliveries of meat from the butcher in Wood Road and bread from Bakers Bread in Umbilo. Unfortunately the meat that was delivered was often not of a very good quality and the bread tended to get stale within just a few hours. After years of trying out various shops we eventually settled with a butcher and a baker that could deliver reasonably good quality meat and bread.
We had our milk delivered from Clover Dairy every morning and as has already been mentioned by somebody else, there was an inch or so of cream at the top of the bottle. The greengrocer used to arrive in our road in a pickup truck stacked full of fruit and vegetables and my mother would either go to the truck or the driver or one of his assistants would bring a selection to the house or come to the house and take an order and then return with the goods. The building of a fruit and vegetable market in the mid 60’s in Clairwood between Blamey Road and the Clairmont Hotel brought much of this to an end. Many people preferred the greater choice that was now available by going to the new market.
Several months after arriving in Montclair we moved from the flat we were renting in Montclair Road into a new house in Southwold Avenue. In the suburbs during the 50’s there were many old houses situated on quite large pieces of ground. Often the owners were either very old or had died and the properties had fallen into disrepair and the gardens reverted to jungle. The Property developers would buy up these old houses, knock them down, clear the land and build several new houses on the same piece of land. Our house was one of these and when we moved into the house in 1956, we found that there was a lot of work to be done on the garden. Trees had to be cut down, land had to be filled in and terraced and grass and flower beds established. My father did all this hiring labour where necessary but most of the work done was his own and he had to work in a factory with no air conditioning. During this time our garden was full of interesting insects and birds. It was not unusual to see chameleons, large praying mantis and a variety of grasshoppers and locusts. Sometimes a Kingfisher would visit and a few budgies and parakeets (probably escaped) also appeared.
However there is always a down side and there were some of the biggest spiders I had ever seen. They looked to be about the size of the palm of my hand. Before my father cleared the worst of the jungle in our garden these spiders would make huge webs between the branches of the trees. The webs looked big and strong enough to trap small birds and I was terrified of the spiders. One day after most of these spiders had gone away; we saw another one hanging in its web in the property next door; which was being cleared before building work started there. My father asked one of the Zulu’s, who was clearing the land with a panga, to kill the spider. He swung the panga cutting the web and the spider fell onto the ground. He then stomped on the spider with his bare foot, all the while laughing because we were so scared. Looking back I’m sure we must have appeared quite amusing huddled together wide eyed and fearful of this large spider. Strangely enough there weren’t many snakes, only two that we saw in our garden in the seventeen plus years we were in this house.
Durban was still a very English speaking city in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s with a lot of British expat’s living and working there and it felt quite different to the rest of SA. Many of my fellow school kids had a British parent or two or British Grandparents and the link with the UK was still strong. When SA became a Republic there was considerable concern amongst some of these families as many of them felt as if a safety net had been removed. Within a few years some of them had sold up and left SA. My own parents felt a bit like this as my father was a British expat and my mother’s family all originated from the UK, but we stayed on.
We lived in Montclair and in 1957 I went to school at the Assumption Convent in Kenyon Howden Road as my parents thought I would get a better education there rather than at a government school. After I spent two years in class 1 my parents learnt their lesson and moved me to Montclair Primary (now Montclair Senior Primary) government school. In those days we were taught imperial measurements and the currency was still pounds, shillings and pence. As an aside I remember that the cash prize on the radio show “Pick a Box” was £100 which was a lot of money back then. After decimalisation it became R100 and no one seemed to notice that the prize had been devalued 50 % overnight.
When you are very young death is something that is hard to comprehend especially if no one close to you dies. My first experience of seeing anyone dead came early in my life when I was about 5 or 6 years old. During the school holidays my mother and my granny used to take me for bus rides and on one occasion we were travelling from town along Sarnia Road towards Rossborough. Just outside the Union Flour building a worker had tried to run across Sarnia Road, perhaps on his way to Umbilo station. A large tipper truck had knocked him down and he lay in the road behind the truck with his head in a pool of blood and one leg twisted up against his body at an impossible angle. I had only a fleeting glimpse as the bus drove past but it was obvious to me that he was dead. My mother and granny had tried to stop me from looking but children are always inquisitive and I still managed to see what I should not have seen. Some time later when the bus returned to town along the same road, I saw there was just a patch of Umgeni/sea sand in the road where the blood had been, all that was left of somebody’s life.
As there was no TV in the 50’s and 60’s Springbok radio was a major source of entertainment for children and when I was very young I listened to some of the programs for housewives in the mornings and to “Children’s Hour” and “Tea with Mr Green” in the afternoons. When I was a bit older I started listening to serials like “Superman” and “No Place To Hide” which were two of the most popular serials during weekdays. I can remember being glued to the radio at 7:15pm straight after the evening news, listening to the adventures of Mark Saxon and Sergé Gromiko (who had a gun called Petruschka). The program was a victim of its own popularity and in the late 60’s “No place to Hide” was replaced by another serial called “Squad Cars”, in which I soon lost interest. If you liked scary stories then on a Saturday night there was the “Creaking Door” but on a Sunday there was nothing of any interest on Springbok radio so we listened to music on LM radio. For a while on a Sunday, after LM radio went off-air in the mid 70’s, I used to listen to the American Top 40 on Swazi Music Radio.
The content of the news programs gradually changed during the late 50’s and early 60’s and gradually they seemed to become more introspective. There had always been a lot of news about the whole of Africa but by the late 60’s the news seemed to be mainly about SA with just a little American/European/Australian news. Before this I can remember listening to all the news broadcast about the Mau Mau uprisings in Kenya, nuns/priests being murdered in the Belgian Congo and the death of Dag Hammarskjöld (UN Secretary General) in an aircraft crash near Ndola. Some of the names of the African leaders at that time also stick in the mind, such as Patrice Lumumba, Moise Tshombe, Joseph Mobutu, Kwame Nkrumah, Abubakar Balewa and many others.
Another very popular daily event especially in the middle of summer was the arrival of the ice cream seller. He was usually a young “Umfaan” who sold ice creams from a large ice box strapped to the front of a bicycle that he pushed/rode around the area, while ringing a small bell and sometimes shouting “Ice Cream”. When he opened the ice box the dry ice appeared to be steaming as it evaporated in the hot and humid Durban heat. He sold various ice lollies like Popsicle, cone or wafer ice creams and of course Eskimo Pie (chocolate covered ice cream). In the mid 60’s Walls Ice Cream became available in Durban and because it was yellow and tasted creamier it was very popular.
Some of the more popular sweets were Chocolate Log, Flake, Peppermint Crisp, Bar One, Tex Bar, TV Bar and at Easter the Chocolate Marshmallow Eggs. We also ate lots of Simba potatoe chips and drank gallons of cool drinks like Coke, Pepsi, Fanta and Sparletta Crème Soda. The Beach front and the Bioscope had there own attractions like Rock Candy, Popcorn and Candy Floss; somehow I always managed to get my hands and face sticky. The Tea Room Bioscopes (Bug Houses) were also very popular in the 50’s and 60’s. The Oxford and the Roxy were the oldest and the Capri was built later around the mid 60’s. They showed movies all day long and there was often a double feature. The advantage of these cinemas was that, if you had nothing else to do, you could stay and watch the same films all day long.
The other advantage was, if you were late, you could enter the cinema after the movie had started, watch it to the end, then start watching it from the beginning and only leave when you reached the point where you had come in. Together with your ticket you got one free cool drink and you could also purchase the usual sweets, ice creams etc. as well as hamburgers or hot dogs. It was always a good idea to inspect food like hamburgers or hot dogs as you never new if some extra protein had crept in during the journey from the kitchen to your mouth. One of the cinemas, the Oxford, was near a fish and chip shop in Pine Street and we often bought a bag of chips to share while standing in the queue on a Saturday evening waiting to buy a ticket. By the mid 60’s the “bug houses” had begun to fall out of favour, possibly because of the increased affluence and expectations of the majority of cinema goers.
In the early 60’s Eskimo Pie along with several other items/events that were fashionable at the time, were immortalised in song by the English folk song writer Jeremy Taylor. He lived much of his younger life in SA and was obviously very perceptive of how the majority of South Africans behaved and what they enjoyed. He called his song the “Ballad of the Southern Suburbs (Ag Pleez Deddy)” but Springbok radio refused to play it. This was possibly because the song made fun of South African pronunciation and what could be considered, the South African way of life in the early 60’s. Nevertheless, despite the best efforts of the SABC, it struck a chord with most South Africans and was played frequently by LM radio and became one of the biggest selling records in SA.
Another significant event in the 50’s and 60’s was the weekly arrival of the Union Castle mail ship bringing all the newspapers and periodicals from abroad. Some of the biggest selling daily newspapers from the UK such as the Mirror were bound together to form a weekly edition. Although they had been edited, by the time they reached SA they were already two weeks out of date. For children the most important items to arrive on the mail ship were the comics such as Lion, Tiger, Eagle, Valiant, Superman, Batman, Spiderman etc. Dan Dare and Roy of the Rovers were two of the most avidly read adventures in these comics. Some of the comics featured favourite cartoon characters like Road Runner, Buggs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Sylvester the Cat and Tweety Bird (just writing that makes me smile) and I used to read many these in Vic Smith’s Barber shop in Wood Road while waiting for a haircut (giggling all the time). It was always a great disappointment if the weekly mail ship arrival was delayed by bad weather or cancelled because of a seamen’s strike in the UK. By the late 60’s I was reading science fiction magazines such as If and Galaxy and aviation magazines like Air Pictorial, Flying Review, Flight and The Aeroplane.
My father worked at the Metal Box factory in Mobeni which was only about a mile from home and he used to walk to and from work every day. His route was down to the bottom of Southwold Avenue then along Roland Chapman Drive to Montclair railway station. Here he crossed over the railway line via the footbridge and then walked along the South Coast Road/Barrier Lane before turning into Quality Street and then on to the factory in Richard Carte Road. After he bought a car in 1965 he said he would continue walking to and from work everyday. This resolution lasted all of two weeks when, during a particularly heavy downpour of rain, he decided to drive to work. After that the temptation to drive was too great and he never walked to work again; unless the car had broken down.
One of the many things we got up to as kids was collecting any discarded cool drink bottles that we could find which we would then take to a local Café to exchange for the deposit money on the bottle. This would usually earn you a few cents which could then be used to buy sweets. Some of the bottles were a bit the worse for ware as they had been discarded on building sites or on waste land and needed a good washing out.
As the 50’s gave way to the 60’s many of the older houses disappeared under the developer’s digger and I still recall that at the bottom of Southwold Avenue, were a couple of these houses just before the police station and Wood Road. In one of these houses was an old man who always sat in a chair on the verandah facing the road and smoking a pipe. He had a long flowing white beard and always wore dungarees with straps over the shoulders and he looked as if he had just stepped out of the nineteenth century. Then after a few years he wasn’t there any more and after a while the house and the one next door to it were knocked down. Strangely the land was never built on and is still open ground to this day and I still don’t know why this is. A similar situation exists in Montclair Road where Mr Parsons, one of my High School teachers, used to live. He died a few years ago and the old house was knocked down but the land is still vacant and rapidly turning to jungle. I don’t understand why it hasn’t been built on as it’s got to be prime development land.
There were many properties like this in Montclair and Woodlands where time seemed to have stood still while the rest of the world moved on. We used to call these houses “wood and iron houses” as they appeared to be made out of corrugated iron on a wooden framework, standing about one to two feet off the ground on brick piers several feet apart. Some kids who were brave/foolish enough would crawl underneath between the piers from one side of the house to the other just for the hell of it. Not a good idea as there was no knowing what creature might be lurking beneath the house, especially when the weather was hot and humid. Where the Mowat Part Girls High School stands today there used to be an old “wood and iron house” all on it’s own in a jungle that was on this entire block of land. I used to walk past this jungle every day on my way to Montclair Primary in the late 50’s and early 60’s. In the mid 60’s just before I left Montclair Primary to go to New Forest High, work started on clearing the ground and building the new girl’s school.
In the early 1960's traffic islands with barriers (to stop pedestrians crossing) were built in West and Smith Streets all the way from Gardiner to Broad Street. While this was going on the traffic jams were terrible and within ten years the traffic islands were removed and both streets were made one way only. The only Belisha Beacon in Durban was situated in Umbilo Road and was at the intersection of Umbilo and Queen Mary Avenue.
In the school holidays I sometimes used to ride the buses as you could get an all day ticket that allowed you to ride anywhere in Durban. The trolley buses still operated then and even went out as far as Umbilo and up François Road and the double decker buses, some with side entrances just behind the driver, were also on some routes. But by the mid 1960's the single decker buses were taking over most of the routes and the trolley buses and double decker buses soon disappeared together with the bus conductors.
Quite often when turning a corner and going through a set of points the trolley buses outer arm would come adrift and flap about wildly. The conductor would have to get out and go to the back of the trolley bus and extract a long pole with a shepherds crook on the end of it. This was stored in a compartment running along the driver’s side of the trolley bus. He would then corral the flapping arm and put it back on the overhead track. This was not as easy as it sounds, as the connector on the end of the arm was free to rotate through 360 degrees and sometimes could behave with a mind of its own (just like shopping trolley wheels often do). If this happened when turning the corner from Church into West Street (as it often did) then a bit of a traffic jam could develop.
A railway line ran down the middle of point road from the docks across Smith, West and Pine Streets and on through Durban station. Quite often a “goods” steam train would move at walking pace along this line to or from the docks with men holding red flags to stop the traffic/pedestrians and another sitting above the “cow catcher” also with a red flag. A similar event also took place at the other end of town (but very rarely) along Alexandra Street crossing back over Pine, West and Smith Streets towards Maydon Road and the bay where the Sugar Terminal was later built.
In the late 1950's and early 1960's the department stores did not have “point of sale” cash tills. The sales staff wrote out a sales ticket, took your money/cheque, put the whole lot into a small cylinder, opened a hatch in the wall, placed the cylinder inside and closed the hatch. The cylinder was then sucked along a network of pipes upstairs to the accounts department where it was removed and processed by the accounts clerk who then returned the receipt and any change using the same method (there were separate up and down pipes). The pace of life was a bit slower in those days and no one seemed to mind the delay, although the system actually worked quite quickly. In some department stores the accounts department was on a mezzanine floor and observant/curious children could watch from below the whole fascinating process of retrieving the cylinder, completing the receipt and returning it with the change.
The department stores were wonderful, Payne Brothers reopened a modernized and extended shop (Thursday 28/02/1957) that had a big chandelier at the foot of the staircase and a small library upstairs where you could borrow books and even a small cinema/theatre on the same floor as the library where they showed special interest films (no! not those kind of films; I mean natural history, travelogues, etc.). A few months later, in July, O.K. Bazaars also declared their newly reconstructed shop “open”, which they advertised as “Durban’s Most Modern Store!” with the latest air conditioning, lifts and escalators.
In the late 1950's the old Woolworths was still at the top of West Street and was an L shaped building that ran around the back of the Trust building which was located on the corner of West & Gardiner Streets; that old Woolworths had an entrance/exit in both West and Gardiner Streets . It had big fans in the ceiling and the floor was made with wooden floorboards on joists, it made a lot of noise when everyone walked on it and there were low level shop counters in the middle of the shop as well as on the sides; it was all a bit chaotic. A few years after a new Woolworths was opened (Friday 12/04/1957), further down West Street (tranquil with wonderfully cool air conditioning) and the old Woolworths closed and was knocked down and replaced with the L shaped Trust arcade. Some years ago on a visit to SA I felt really old when I saw that the "new" Trust arcade was now also being knocked down together with the Trust building (Reed & Champion was on the corner) to be replaced with a new building. Sadly we seldom notice our past being stolen from us and all too soon we are left with only photographs and memories.
Kings in West Street was another popular shop selling all kinds of sports equipment as well as pellet guns, Scalextric racing car sets, Hornby train sets and self assembly Airfix, Frog and Revell model kits. Nearby was the CNA and Adams bookshop from which we could buy or order just about any magazine or book. Another shop that sold amongst other things, books, magazines and plastic model kits was Tennison Burrows on the corner of Gardiner and Pine Streets. I also remember all the arcades and passages; they were all different and had a unique atmosphere about them. The arcade where 320 West Street now stands had a large model of a Union Castle ship in a glass case that small children would gather around and stare at for ages. Another arcade had a model of a Central African Airways Viscount in the window of a travel agent. I always found these arcades and passages quite fascinating.
In the days before instant coffee, further down West Street beyond The Hub and before Broad Street, was a place called the Colombo Tea & Coffee shop that sold just about every conceivable type of ground coffee. The sign hanging outside the shop had neon tubes that were shaped like an elephant and a monkey. The neon tubes switched on and off in such a way that the monkey appeared to be jumping as the elephant stood on its tail. The aroma that drifted from this shop up West Street was amazing. When the entire corner between West and Smith Streets was knocked down and redeveloped in the late 60’s, this was the only shop that defied the developers and remained there. Before instant coffee everyone used either ground coffee or coffee essence; Camp Coffee Essence was a very popular brand.
As we didn’t have a car in the late 50’s and early 60’s we did a lot of travelling on the buses and a lot of walking. When you’re quite small your legs are short and you have to do a lot more walking than your parents. I often found myself running to keep up or trailing behind them after getting off the bus at the Post Office and then having to walk down West Street to the beach front. Walking back into town was even worse after an exhausting day at the beach and I was often carried until I grew to big and heavy (money was tight so saving on bus fares helped). I hated walking back then but when I grew older something in me changed and I started to enjoy it. Once when I was in my early teens, for no particular reason, I walked from the centre of Durban all the way home to Montclair, a distance of about five miles and saved the five cents bus fare (I must have inherited the thrift gene from my parents).
Sometimes my mother would walk me to the park in Montclair to play on the swings and roundabout. In those days the park and its facilities had an attendant to look after them and inevitably he was referred to as the “lavatory man”. He seemed quite an old man and was a veteran of the Great War who had fought at Delville Wood and always wore his service medals on his uniform. After some years he was gone and then there was no one to look after the park facilities. As I’ve already mentioned my first two years of schooling were at the Assumption Convent on the corner of Montclair and Kenyon Howden Roads and my Mother and my maternal Grandmother would walk me to and from school every day. When I started school at Montclair Primary the same arrangement continued, but by now I was a bit older and wanted to walk to and from school on my own. After another year or two they let me walk on my own and I was able to explore some of the other roads on my way home.
During the Christmas school holidays Greenacres department store would drive someone dressed as Father Christmas around the streets of Durban on a vehicle modified/decorated to look like a slay pulled by reindeer. Most department stores also had a Santa’s Grotto where the kids could go and see Santa and tell him what they wanted for Christmas. Strange how I never seemed to get any of the long list of things that I told him I wanted. I also found it difficult to understand how Santa had managed to sprint from one department store to the next, especially as he was so fat and became shorter/taller as well. The Christmas school holidays was also the time for going to the Circus which used to be set up opposite the Amphitheatre at the Beach Front on vacant land between the flats and hotels.
Pantomime was also very popular at Christmas and by the mid 60’s several panto’s like Cinderella, Mother Goose and Puss in Boots had been staged on ice at the Durban Icedrome. Sometimes the standard of ice skating left much to be desired and occasionally resulted in howls of derision from some of the audience. However, there was one really good ice show in Durban in 1965 when “Chu Chin Chow on Ice” was brought to SA and staged at the Alhambra theatre in Durban; the show was on for just over three weeks from the 8th to the 31st of July. Many large businesses (especially factories) had a Works Christmas party for their employee’s children and there was always lots of food and cold drinks followed by a Punch and Judy show before Santa handed out the presents.
Montclair Primary School consisted of a separate old (1925) and new (post WW2) school building and a number of Prefab buildings built on brick piers. Although I didn’t realise it at the time the school building program had not kept pace with the increase in population; possibly because of austerity measures during WW2. From the mid 50’s new school buildings had started to be built at existing schools in Montclair and Woodlands as well as new schools on new ground. The new school building at Montclair Primary had reached capacity almost as soon as it was completed and by the early 60’s work had started to extend the new building to nearly double its capacity. After completion the old school building was no longer used but this was short lived.
Further complicating matters was the fact that more boys were expected to stay and do their Matric rather than leave after the JC exams. Also, girls were now encouraged to do the same, whereas in the past career women were something of a rarity. New Forest High School (opened 1955) initially served as a Primary School until Southlands Primary (now Woodlands Primary) was built. The government then decided to separate boys and girls once they went to high school so this meant more high schools had to be built. While Mowat Park Girls High was being built, New Forest High had to start separating the girls from the boys. By 1964 the girls who would have gone from Montclair Primary to New Forest High after Standard 5, found themselves staying on at Montclair Primary and doing Standard 6 in the old school building. Once Mowat Park Girls High was finished a couple of years later these girls moved there and those few girls still at New Forest High then also moved. When I was in Standard 6 at New Forest High there were still some girls in the higher Standards but they were all gone by the following year.
My maternal grandmother stayed with us until 1962 when she left to go and stay with one of my mother’s half brothers in Brakpan. She was an old style English South African (pre WW2) with firm views on right and wrong and a keen sense of humanity in her. One day the young “Umfaan” who delivered the meat from the local butcher arrived with blood pouring down his leg. He had been bitten by a dog when delivering meat to another house nearby and whoever lived there had done nothing to help him. My Granny made him sit on a kitchen chair and she washed his wound with water and Detol and then bandaged it up. I think he was quite embarrassed that my Granny had done this and even a little afraid but he went off with a smile on his face. South Africans growing up post WW2 seemed to lack this sort of humanity and I believe this was due to the Apartheid laws that really started to have an impact on daily life in the late 50’s and early 60’s.
Before the Southern Freeway was built there were only two ways of getting between Montclair and central Durban, either via the Umbilo or Maydon Warf side of the main railway line. The Maydon Warf route was often the quickest unless there was train shunting going on, between the main railway line and the docks, when all the traffic then had to stop. In the late 50’s there had been a bridge, known as the Umbilo Road Bridge (not to be confused with the Umbilo River Bridge), over the main railway line between Sarnia Road and the South Coast Road; adjacent Union Flour and south of Umbilo station and the old Electricity Power Station. The traffic jams at the junctions on either side of this bridge were a nightmare until the Edwin Swales VC Drive railway line underpass was built and the Umbilo Road Bridge closed and demolished in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s. However the congestion on either route was still bad especially around the South Coast Road and Edwin Swales VC Drive junction as this was where the main railway line swung inland and the traffic going north/south had to cross under the railway line and split/merge. The traffic problem wasn’t really addressed until the opening of the Southern Freeway in the late 60’s.
In Sarnia Road nearly opposite the Outspan hotel and close to the Congella Fire Station was a small theatre that seemed to have “The King and I” playing there almost indefinitely (or so it seemed). In July every year the Daily News “Ideal Home Exhibition” was held in the Woolbrokers’ Federation Hall in Sydney Road close to the Bakers Bread factory in Umbilo/Congella. All the latest “mod cons” could be seen and tried and brochures describing them collected, even though there was no money available to buy these items. But the financial situation gradually improved and by the mid 60’s we were modernizing and my father had bought a second hand car from the company where he worked (ex staff car). In early January 1965 we had our first trip to Cape Town by car via the Garden Route. It was a leisurely trip and we stopped overnight in East London, then Port Elizabeth (where we went to the Aquarium to see the Dolphins perform) and Knysna.
Previous trips to Cape Town in the late 50’s and early 60’s had been on the Orange Express (which was neither orange nor express). I can still remember the wonderful smell of the coffee that was made on these trains. It left Durban station somewhere around five or six on a Friday evening and arrived in Cape Town late Sunday morning. Shortly after leaving Durban the sun set and there was nothing to see until the following day when you woke up to find yourself in the OFS being pulled by two steam engines. The journey through Natal the night before was relatively civilised with the train being pulled by two electric “units” (as they were referred to). However, the line was only electrified in Natal and during the night the “units” were replaced by steam engines. Saturday was usually a hot boring day with occasional visits to the “lounge/dining car” which was air conditioned.
As we were a family we always booked a coupe which meant we had a compartment to ourselves but there was no air conditioning in any of the passenger compartments. We had to open the window to try and keep cool but doing so was always a mixed blessing as a very fine layer of soot from the steam engines quickly covered the cabin interior as well as us. Trying to clean this off was always a problem but the coupes did have a fold down basin to wash in. Of course the basin also served in a secondary role for small children which I’ll leave to your imagination. The highlight of Saturday was seeing the big hole at Kimberley as the train travelled by at walking pace as the wheel tappers checked the wheels. By Sunday morning the train was making its way down the Hex River Mountains towards Cape Town and the adventure/ordeal was nearly over.
In 1962 when I was 10 years old my parents decided that maybe I should go to boarding school to try and widen my outlook on life. I spent Standard 3 at Bulwer Boarding School and didn’t like it one little bit, so back I went to Montclair Primary the following year. During the time I spent at Bulwer it snowed during the winter which was the first time I had seen snow. A lot of Wattle trees were grown around the Bulwer area in the early 1960’s and the not unpleasant Wattle smell was always in the air. During my year at Bulwer I felt as if I was a prisoner in an institution and some years later at High School I was reminded of my experiences at Bulwer when I read the first sentence of one of Evelyn Waugh’s quotes ‘Anyone who has been to an English Public School will always feel comparatively at home in prison.’. Well boarding school although similar wasn’t quite the same as ‘an English Public School’ but paraphrasing Evelyn Waugh’s quote and substituting ‘a boarding school’ conveys pretty much the same sentiment. After that my parents gave up trying out different schools and I finished matric in 1969 at New Forest High up the road in Woodlands. For some strange reason I seem to remember more about what I was taught at Montclair Primary than what I was taught at High School.
In the 1950’s and 60’s it was quite common place for businesses to allow employees to accumulate leave from one year to the next for the purpose of an overseas holiday. This practice may have had something to do with the number of expats living and working in SA but with family abroad, although it didn’t seem to be restricted to just that group of people. By 1963 our financial situation had improved sufficiently for my parents to plan another holiday to the UK so that we could visit my father’s family in Cornwall. We had made only one previous trip to the UK in 1955 when we were still living in Vanderbijlpark and I had just turned 4 years old. On that occasion we had travelled by sea on the Union Castle ship Pretoria Castle from Cape Town to Southampton and returned two months later to Cape Town on the Edinburgh Castle. This time my parents decided to travel by air as, with the advent of charter flights, air fares had become more affordable. Also, the quicker journey time would allow us to spend a longer period in the UK and also go on a coach trip around Europe.
So my father started to accumulate his leave in 1962 and by 1964 we were ready to begin our expedition to the UK. Finally on Friday the 17th of April the great day arrived and early in the morning we made our way to Louis Botha airport to catch the first flight of the day, a SAA Viscount to Johannesburg. After a couple of hours wait in Johannesburg we boarded another SAA Viscount and flew to Salisbury in what was then Southern Rhodesia. By now it was early afternoon and after a few more hours we boarded yet another aircraft, this time a CAA DC6 (leased from Alitalia) that was used for charter flights to Gatwick airport in the UK. There were two refuelling/refreshment stops en route; the first was at Entebbe in Uganda later that evening and then again at sunrise the following morning at Benghazi in Libya. We finally landed at Gatwick airport in the early afternoon having set out at daybreak the previous day; that’s what charter flights on propeller driven aircraft were like in those days.
All too soon the holiday was over with everything having gone well including several days in London at the Overseas Visitors Club in Earls Court, as well as a coach trip around Europe. It was now time to retrace our journey back to Durban and this was when things didn’t go quite according to plan. We departed Gatwick on a Sunday afternoon and arrived at Benghazi later that evening where we had something to eat in the cafeteria while the aircraft was refuelled. While we were there, in the darkness, an EAA Comet 4 aircraft started up its jet engines and departed for Nairobi. Like many airports of that era there was only a low wall/fence between the spectators and the aircraft and the sound of the engines was quite notable.
A little while later we set off in our slow CAA DC6 propeller driven aircraft for the long overnight flight to Entebbe. A couple of hours before we were due to land I decided to go to the toilet and as there was a window in the cubicle (unlike modern aircraft) I decided to lean over and take a look through it. I was surprised to see that the starboard inner propeller was stationary and so I went back to tell my parents and my father also went to have a look. He then asked a stewardess what had happened and she told him that because of a temperature related problem the engine had been shut down and the propeller had been feathered which stopped it turning. So at daybreak we landed at Entebbe on three engines just in time for breakfast in the cafeteria while the resident maintenance men attempted to try and resolve the engine problem. Well they toiled and they struggled to try and solve the temperature issue and the engine was repeatedly started and run up to full power only to be shut down again.
At lunch time we again ate in the cafeteria and then continued to watch the valiant efforts of the maintenance men as they tried to tame the beast. By mid afternoon the maintenance men gave up and we were told that our aircraft would have to be flown on three engines, carrying only our luggage, to Salisbury for repairs and we would have to wait at Entebbe airport until a couple of CAA Viscounts could be sent from Salisbury to collect us after they had completed their normal days work. So the afternoon wore on starting with the somewhat disconcerting sight of our aircraft departing for Salisbury with our baggage but without us. The boredom was unending and was made worse by the fact that it was now my 13th birthday, which we should have been celebrating with some old friends of my parents who lived at what was then called Marandellas near Salisbury. By the end of the day the airport, including the cafeteria with the only source of nourishment, started to close down.
By nightfall we had been told that we would be taken by coach to the nearby Lake Victoria Hotel for dinner. This duly happened and we were suitably fed and watered in the fine surroundings of this old colonial style establishment before being returned to the airport to await our aircraft. After another lengthy wait and sometime around midnight, the two CAA Viscounts finally arrived and we recommenced our journey to Salisbury arriving sometime before daybreak. We were then taken into Salisbury to a hotel where we managed to get a few hours sleep before we were once again returned to the airport for the last leg of our journey home. We had always intended to stay overnight with the friends of my parents in Marandellas and although the delay in Entebbe precluded this, we were by now back on schedule. Our last flight was on a CAA Viscount which was flown direct to Durban just once a week on a Tuesday and we arrived back at our house in Montclair early in the afternoon.
On a Saturday at lunch time all the shops closed and the centre of Durban died except for the cinemas. Sunday was the most awful day of the week as nothing opened anywhere and the radio had none of the serials or entertainment programmes that were broadcast during the week. The only saviour was LM radio that broadcast pop music on short wave. Eventually my father bought a car and from 1965 onwards we could go for drives. Sometimes we drove down the South Coast to Roy Cartwright’s shop near Umzinto/Bazley which really wasn’t supposed to be open on a Sunday. He sold quite a lot of household and electrical goods cheaper than the big shops in the days before Game etc. In the late 1960’s Roy Cartwright opened another shop in Chatsworth and we started going there instead of driving down the south coast.
In the early 60’s jet aircraft were a rarity in Durban as SAA had yet to start operating Boeing 727’s on the domestic routes. The only time jet airliners would come to Durban was when they had been diverted from Jo’burg because of bad weather. Incidentally, the first jet airliner to land at Durban was a De Havilland Comet 2, piloted by John Cunningham, which was in SA for “hot and high” trials based at Jo’burg/Jan Smuts airport. After leaving Jan Smuts airport at 4:46pm (Monday 01/02/1954) the aircraft landed at 5:31pm on the new concrete runway at Durban’s Reunion airport (later named Louis Botha airport) and stayed overnight; the landing fee was £8 17s 6d. The following day it took-off at 7:10am and after making low flypasts over Pietermaritzburg, East London & Port Elizabeth, it flew on to Cape Town where it made a further flypast over that city before landing at 9:44am at SAAF Langebaanweg; the old Wingfield aerodrome runways were unsuitable and the new Belville airport (later named D F Malan airport) was still under development. A few years later (Sunday 13/01/1957) a Bristol Britannia turboprop airliner, also at Jo’burg for “hot and high” trials, paid a daytime goodwill visit to Durban.
By the mid 60’s I had developed an interest in aviation and shortly after returning from our Cape Town holiday we heard that the BAC (Vickers) Super VC10 was going to visit Durban. The aircraft had come to SA in January 1965 also for “hot and high” trials based at Jo’burg/Jan Smuts airport. A visit to Durban (Sunday 31/01/1965) for a few additional tests had been arranged and once news of the visit had been published in the newspapers, Louis Botha airport at Reunion became packed with cars and people. The Super had left Jan Smuts airport at 8:27am and it landed at 9am at Louis Botha airport after approaching from the Toti end of the runway. The aircraft then taxied onto the apron and all those BAC personnel as well as press and publicity people that were not required for the tests were allowed to spend the next several hours in Durban visiting the city, the beachfront and a golf course. Because the tests involved keeping one engine running constantly, to reduce the noise and the smell of jet fuel, the aircraft was then parked on the taxiway towards the Toti end of the airfield.
We arrived at the airport sometime after the Super had landed but still managed to get parking and a place on the observation balcony. We then waited for something to happen, but as the Super was positioned some distance away on the taxiway, there was not much to see. A few SAA Viscount & Skymaster aircraft came and went and then finally the Super taxied back to the apron to board the returning BAC personnel, press and publicity people. A short time later at 5:22pm it taxied out to the runway and took-off from the Toti end of the runway towards Durban. Thanks to Maurice Ungless, who was one of the engineering personnel on the aircraft, I’ve recently discovered that the BAC test pilot on this occasion was Bill Cairns. The take-off was very dramatic as he had decided to give the crowd a brief demonstration of the aircraft’s agility by flying a figure eight over the airfield. He climbed very steeply for a few hundred feet before levelling off and then banking sharply around the airfield boundaries over the oil refinery back towards Toti and then back over the middle of the airfield in front of the terminal before completing the figure eight and heading off to the beachfront for a low flypast and then on to Jo’burg. My father took several pictures and I still have these to remind me of an unusually exciting Sunday afternoon. Several months after this event (Sunday 01/08/1965) SAA began scheduled jet airliner services using new Boeing 727 aircraft on domestic routes including Louis Botha airport.
*** Added 11 September 2012: See this page on the site for more on the VC10 visit and a
Boarding a plane at Louis Botha airport was much simpler in the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s with only a few minutes spent checking in and just a short walk from the terminal building to the aircraft. There was only a low level brick wall with a steel railing on top separating the public from the aircraft. Access to the aircraft was via an opening through the wall. To prevent the public from wandering through this opening and out to the aircraft, a barrier made out of pieces of rolled steel welded together was dragged across this entrance/exit by an airport attendant. When the aircraft boarding started the barrier was pulled out of the way by the airport attendant to allow access to the aircraft; what a contrast with flying today. By the early 70’s the number of flights in and out of Durban had increased and the check-in and baggage collection facilities were taking the strain. A new airport at La Mercy was proposed but it still took over thirty years for it to happen. In the interim new airport buildings were built at Louis Botha airport.
In 1965 I had just started school at New Forest High and as this was near the top of a hill and only a few miles from the airport, it was ideally placed for observing the aircraft take-off and land. Later in 1965 the first Boeing 727’s started doing flight training at Durban airport with lots of touch and go landings and most of the school kids would look out the window every time the aircraft flew past, much to the annoyance of some teachers. Once the Boeing 727’s started regular service every day the novelty soon wore off except for one early morning event. Every day a Boeing 727 would over-night in the hangar at the airport as it would be flying the first early morning service to Jo’burg the next day.
I used to get to New Forest High on the bus shortly before 7:30 in the morning. There was a pathway with benches on it along the top of the bank at the far end of the main playing field, from which there was a clear view of the entire airfield. On a clear morning it was possible to see the aircraft being taken out of the hangar and towed to the terminal buildings where the passengers and baggage were loaded. Then the aircraft would start up and taxi out to the runway before beginning the take-off run; the whole process having taken only about a half an hour. On most days the Boeing 727 would take-off from the Toti end towards Durban and immediately afterwards bank sharply inland and if I was lucky, fly almost directly over the school playing fields. At this time of the morning the sun was still low in the east and the sunlight would illuminate the underside of the Boeing 727 as it banked over the school playing fields only a few hundred feet up and showing every detail of the aircraft underside. It was a sight that I never tired of and I often used to watch it just before the morning assembly at 8:10.
If you liked curries Durban was the right place for them and Sahib Curry Mix was another favourite brand in the home and used in a meat and potato curry, to be eaten with sambles (various salads/banana) and plenty of Mrs Balls Chutney. At The Queens Tavern near Greyville Racecourse, the “British Middle East Indian Sporting and Diners Club” became a very popular curry restaurant in the early 1970’s.
My father loved all kinds of sport especially if it was possible to take a bet on the outcome. Consequently we spent many a Saturday afternoon at the races, either Clairwood or Greyville. Most of these visits were outside the racecourse alongside the racetrack where several “Bookies” would take bets while others kept an eye open for the police as this was illegal (wasn’t everything?). Occasionally we would actually dress up and go into the racecourse and watch the races from the Grand Stand. The restaurants at the Racecourses also served excellent Durban Curries.
Before the big supermarket chains appeared most people living in the suburbs did their weekly grocery shopping either locally or at one of the big department stores in the centre of Durban. In the late 1950’s my mother and my granny would catch the bus into town in the morning and go to the OK Bazaars and do all our weekly shopping downstairs in the basement, where the grocery department was located. They then said goodbye to the groceries which arrived at our home later that day on a delivery van. By the early 1960’s our shopping habits changed slightly and we now did our grocery shopping upstairs (possibly on either the 2nd or 3rd floor) in the new addition to Greenacres on the West Street side of the shop.
In the mid 1960’s one of the first discount store’s to appear in Durban was called Trevenna and was situated in a warehouse type of building (pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap) towards the Point Road end of Smith Street, just beyond the corner of what was Farewell Street and almost opposite Roy Road; that warehouse building is still there today but the adjacent buildings have now been demolished to make way for Shepstone Road, which is now the continuation of Roy Road. Soon after my father bought his first car we started shopping for groceries at Trevenna and this was done on a Friday evening as my father finished work at 4pm and the shop remained open until quite late on that day of the week. At about the same time we also started using the new fruit and vegetable market that had been built in Trent Road in Clairwood, near the intersection of Blamey Road and the South Coast Road. The late Friday afternoon ritual consisted of a trip to the market in Clairwood to get the fruit and vegetables, followed by dinner at home and then a trip to Trevenna to get the groceries. In the 1970’s the advent of the big supermarket chains such as Checkers and Pick n Pay soon marginalised stores like Trevenna and others and it wasn’t long before they disappeared.
Both my parents and I read quite a lot of novels and somehow we managed to do this while listening to the radio serials at the same time - well there was no TV back in the 1960’s. We joined the small library in Kenyon Howden Road as well as the main library in the City Hall building in Durban and also the small library that was on the top floor of the Payne Brothers department store. Book exchange shops also became quite popular through the 1960’s and early 70’s as libraries had limited budgets for new books. The book exchange shops had a steady flow of new novels from people who bought them, read them and then traded them in for something else. So once we had a car another weekly pastime our family indulged in, was visiting a book exchange shop in John Milne Road, near the beach front just off West Street that was run by a Mrs Gordon the mother of one of our younger teachers at New Forest High School.
The teachers at New Forest High School were a mixed bag and I know they thought the same of the pupils. The school kids instinctively liked some teachers but not others. Some teachers gave the school kids the impression of knowing their job really well while others seemed hopeless. Of course the school kids were merciless with the teachers that they thought were no good. Some of the teachers were equally merciless with the school kids and probably would have liked to cull a few of their worst tormentors. Detention and canings were a frequent event for the usual suspects. For many teachers drinking was a temptation that was hard to resist and I remember a few teachers who smelt quite strongly of alcohol early in the morning. Some were seen after school coming out of Off Sales/Bottle Stores clutching a brown paper bag and even going into or staggering out of a bar. On the rare occasion that I met a teacher under these circumstances I always made a point of greeting them just to saviour the furtive expressions on their faces; even after I’d left school and started working.
There were quite a few high school kids that seemed to fade away as they grew older and I’m sure that drink and drugs played a part in this. Some who had been top of the class at primary school ended up near the bottom by Standard 8, failing Standard 9, doing it again and looking like they might not make it to Matric. They were often to be found slouched on the floor in a corridor during school breaks with what appeared to be a hazy expression on their faces. Drugs like LSD were common in the late 60’s and drinking and smoking cigarettes or Dagga (Cannabis) was a regular pastime for a significant number of high school kids. Religion was an alternative “drug” that swept into fashion at this time, with some of the more receptive kids being “saved”. For most these fads lasted only months but for others it was it a lot longer. The majority of high school kids soon grew bored with these distractions and got on with their lives.
I managed to avoid most of these things except the drink, but fortunately I never had enough pocket money to do any serious damage to myself. During school holidays I used to go into town with a school friend of mine and we would go to places like the Cumberland Hotel and sit in the lounge and try to look eighteen; even though we were only sixteen. We drank Cane and Coke until one day we over did it and threw-up while sitting on a bench in the city gardens waiting for the bus home; we caught a later bus (much later). After that low point I couldn’t face Cane and Coke again so I switched to Vodka and sparkling lemon (revolting). Another favourite haunt was the Four Seasons Hotel where you could sit on the verandah next to the Pink Panther nightclub and watch the world go by. The waiters always brought you free bowls of salted peanuts to nibble with your drinks; which was always welcome. Tipping the waiters always ensured a regular top up of peanuts, but eating dinner when I got home after gorging on peanuts was another matter. None of the waiters in these hotels ever said anything but I’m sure they realised we were underage; they‘d seen it all before.
By the end of the 60’s the Ice Drome had been redeveloped into a combined ice rink and cinema complex called Ocean City. The Ocean City complex comprised of two cinemas, Ocean City (large) and O’Connor Intimate (small). I seem to recall that the film “Zulu” was the first film to be shown in the large cinema. I sort of taught myself to ice skate at the ice rink and every Saturday night a few of us would go skating there as they had a DJ playing music. The ice rink was usually packed out and all we could do was skate around and around in a circle while the music played on. I must have developed a liking for cold weather activities as many years later, after immigrating to the UK, I took up snow skiing; initially in Europe and later in North America. The Western Freeway redevelopment of Berea Road finally opened in April 1970 much to the relief of those motorists that had to use this route in and out of the city.
Of course there is always a down side to growing up and in the late 60’s, as I became more aware of the political reality; I began to feel that we were living in rather a fragile society. I had also made the mistake of thinking it would be better to get National Service over and done with as soon as possible. I had expressed a preference for doing National Service in the SAAF and was called up in January 1970 straight after leaving school a few weeks earlier. I should have found an excuse for putting it off, like so many others had managed to do. Those who were really good at putting things off managed to avoid National Service for several years; one I met in the SAAF was 28 years old. The advantage of being older is that by the time you do National Service you are no longer a school boy, perhaps a little wiser and hopefully better able to adapt to military life. By the time I had completed my National Service in the SAAF in December 1970 I felt like the proverbial square peg in a round hole.
I did my basic training at Valhalla Gymnasium in Pretoria which should have been about 6 weeks but it dragged on for about 4 months, as the SAAF didn’t have anywhere to send us after our basic training. Several weeks before the previous intake was due to leave we finally received our marching orders. I had hoped to be sent back to Durban to the Bluff Air Force Station but was instead sent to Voortrekkerhoogte Air Force Station; which was only about a mile down the road from the Valhalla Gymnasium.
There was one highlight to my year in the SAAF as in 1970 there was a drought in the OFS and Northern Cape (wasn’t there one every year?) and the armed forces were called in to help with drought relief by providing transportation for feedstock. I and a few others who had driving licences had to do a short HGV training course on the large Bedford trucks that were used by the armed forces. After this I was sent on a train to Bloemfontein and then taken to Tempe where I was allocated a Bedford truck and told to drive north on the national highway to where a temporary base camp had been set up on a sports field at Ventersburg. Our job was to drive from this camp to a local farm where bales of hay would be loaded onto the Bedford trucks. We then had to drive south on the national highway beyond Bloemfontein to another base camp on a sports field which I think it was at Colesberg, just over the border in the Northern Cape, where we were told to which farms the bales of hay should be delivered.
From end to end the journey was less than 400 kilometres which could easily be done in a day but the facilities in Tempe were far better than at either of the base camps. So I and a few others contrived to be the last to collect our load from the farms and not drive too fast so that we would have to stop overnight at Tempe on the way south. There we had better food, showering facilities and a bed to sleep on and we could slip into Bloemfontein in the evening to see a movie or go to a bar. The next day we would drive south, drop off our load, stay overnight at the base camp before a late start and a slow return journey with another overnight at Tempe. Of course we weren’t supposed to do this as what should have been a 2 day round trip had now become 4 days.
Late one evening we nearly got caught hitch hiking between Bloemfontein and Tempe after going to see a movie. We were dressed in our Civies, which we also weren’t supposed to do and trying to look as if we weren’t in the armed forces. Of course it was obvious that we were as our hair was cut short and anyway no one hitch hiked between Bloemfontein and Tempe unless they were in the armed forces. There wasn’t much traffic as it was late and after walking some distance a car stopped and we were offered a lift. As soon as we got in the car and it started moving the driver began to bombard us with questions about who we were and what we were doing in Bloemfontein. He was obviously in the armed forces himself, may well have been an MP and was one of those people that took delight in making other people’s lives unpleasant.
I had the misfortune to be sitting next to the driver and so I had to answer most of the questions, which I managed to do by lying wildly and not saying that we were National Servicemen. However, from the tone of his questions it was clear that he thought we were and he was determined to try and catch us out and turn us in to the MPs. After directing him away from Tempe we finally managed to get him to drop us off in a residential area and even then we had to hang around pretending to be talking before he finally drove off. Then we had to get back to Tempe which wasn’t the easiest or quickest of tasks as we had decided to try and stay off from the road just in case he had called the MPs to check us out. We wandered through scrubland for an hour or more before finally making it back to barracks long after midnight. Fortunately the guards on the gate turned a blind eye to who came and went at night and they let us in without any comment.
After that experience we were more careful where we hitch hiked or from whom we accepted lifts. After several weeks of doing drought relief we were sent back to Voortrekkerhoogte Air Force Station in Pretoria. I then had an even worse hitch hiking experience back to Durban. We arrived back late on a Friday afternoon and after eating in the Mess I set off with a friend for Durban, a distance of nearly 400 miles. What I hadn’t appreciated was that most of the traffic going from Jo’burg to Durban on the N3 would have already gone by the time we reached Heidelberg. In those days the N3 wasn’t a four lane highway like it is today; the road I was on is now called the R103. So there we stood late at night at Heidelberg and hardly any traffic on the road. After a while we decided to split up believing that we might stand more of a chance on our own. After a while a pickup truck stopped and I was offered a lift to Villiers which I accepted. That was also a mistake as those few cars still on the highway at that time of night were already full of hitch hikers by the time they passed Villiers.
So there I was standing next to the highway near Villiers on a dark night with no moon close to midnight unable to see a thing and very little traffic. I started walking towards Durban and after a while I heard voices (no! not those voices). Two SAAF guys were walking in the opposite direction as they had given up and were trying to get back to their base. After this I felt a bit despondent but I carried on and after a while a VW Beetle pulled up. In the front seat were two men and in the back were two fairly large women. I was offered a lift to Ladysmith and after hesitating for a second I accepted. The women weren’t very pleased about this as there wasn’t much room in the back and I had to sit between them hunched forward over my luggage (dirty washing). Off we went and somehow I managed to drift off to sleep for a while until suddenly we were stopped and lights were shone into the car.
It was a police road block and my first thoughts were that I was going to be arrested for being in a car with black people. But all the police did was ask me who I was and where I was going and then after checking the passes of the other four in the car, they waived us on. I had to get out of the car a few miles before Ladysmith as the driver was turning off the highway and going to a nearby village. So once again I found myself standing in the pitch dark now well after midnight and with very few cars on the highway. After a while I saw car lights coming from the direction of the nearby village. Once again it was the police and now I expected to be arrested for hitch hiking as National Servicemen weren’t supposed to do this either; but my luck was improving and they gave me a lift as far as the turnoff to Ladysmith. The Ladysmith turnoff had street lighting which made it much easier for drivers to see hitch hikers and it gave them time to decide if they wanted to stop.
After another lengthy wait a car pulled up, with an entire family including the maid in the car; they were going to Pinetown. There really wasn’t any room in the car but it was just possible to squeeze three onto the front seat as the car had column shift gears. The wife wasn’t happy but the driver was an ex National Serviceman and understood my problem. Once again I fell asleep and woke up when we reached the Pinetown turnoff at the bottom of Fields Hill. By now it was daylight and there was plenty of Saturday morning traffic. I soon had a lift with someone going to the airport; which was ideal as it was only a short walk home from the corner of Blamey Road where, in those days, the Southern Freeway ended and joined the South Coast Road. What a journey! I never hitch hiked from Heidelberg to Durban after dark again and I never accepted a lift unless it was going all the way to Durban or at least to Pietermaritzburg.
Several of us also used to occasionally hitch hike from Pretoria into Jo’burg during the evening to go and see a movie or go and have a drink in a Beer Keller in Hillbrow; which was very trendy and cosmopolitan in the early 70’s. One night after midnight we were riding back to base on the back of a pick-up truck when we were stopped by MPs at a road block just before reaching the Voortrekkerhoogte Air Force Station. We immediately thought we would be arrested for absconding in civvies but the MPs weren’t interested in us. Apparently by law the military had to set up a road block once a year and read a proclamation to all road users to remind them that this was a military area and that anyone driving on that road did so at the discretion of the military. This had to be done to prevent the road from becoming by default a “right of way”. Doing this in the early hours of the morning avoided delays as there was hardly any traffic and perhaps an example of paying lip service to the law (pun intended). Once again good fortune smiled on us and we had escaped arrest and punishment for our trivial misdemeanours.
Unfortunately during my year in the SAAF I also saw behaviour that shocked and worried me. I couldn’t help remembering all the things that I was taught at home and at school about what was right and wrong. On several occasions I saw Corporals punching National Servicemen to the ground for some misdemeanour in front of other NCOs’ and other ranks. Of course this is not allowed in military law, but no one would have dared to complain and so these events went on unchecked. One such incident that occurred at the Voortrekkerhoogte Air Force Station in Pretoria has stuck in mind to this day. The majority of National Servicemen were really just 18/19 year old school kids and we sometimes fooled around like we did at school. One night towards the end of my time in the SAAF some of us had been chasing one another and I had hidden in some bushes next to the road, along which the majority of people walked when entering or leaving the camp. Suddenly I realised I was not the only person hiding in the bushes and I knew it wasn’t one of the other guys that was chasing me. Just then this other person rushed out of the bushes into the road and punched a little old black man in the stomach knocking him to the ground.
The man who did it was a large heavily built Corporal and his victim was a slight and frail looking man. The punch was so violent it looked to me like it may have caused some internal damage and he lay on the ground writhing in pain and trying to get his breath. The man who had hit him was swearing at him and accusing him of stealing from the Mess kitchens; some of the things he had taken had fallen from under his coat and onto the ground. Also, when he had been punched, the eggs that he had under his coat had smashed and he was in quite a mess. When he could speak he pleaded with the man who had hit him not to hit him again. I gathered from what was said that they both worked in the Mess kitchens and that the man who had hit him had been trying to catch him stealing for some time. A small crowd quickly gathered to watch what was happening but it was soon over and the victim was left lying on the ground. He was still crying in pain but after a while he picked himself up, recovered the items he had dropped and staggered away to wherever he was going.
I and the others who had been fooling around earlier were stunned by all of this and our earlier good humour had vanished. Because we were still just 18/19 year old school kids in a man’s world, we had said and done nothing when this happened. I often wonder if that little old man recovered from the attack or later died of his injuries. If he had died no one would have cared or done anything about it and the family that he was the taking food too would have been left without anyone to look after them. This and many other incidents that I witnessed during my time in the armed forces made me feel that something had gone terribly wrong with the way in which our society had developed. It was as if the country had been taken over by bullies that could do anything they wished without question.
Also, while I was in the SAAF I got to cast my first vote in a general election. On Election Day we had to go to the parade ground where the necessary facilities had been set up. Unlike a civilian polling station there was no secret ballot. Instead there were two tables set up, one for the NP and one for the UP and you queued at the appropriate table to cast your vote. I don’t recall any provision for other parties such as the Progressive Party. At the NP table the queue trailed far away across the parade ground, but at the UP table where I went to cast my vote, there was virtually no queue. I had hoped that people of my age group would have thought more about SA’s future before casting their vote; but it seemed not. I felt that we were heading for disaster and I now realised that there was never going to be enough like minded people to do anything about it; it was time to leave SA.
During my time in the SAAF I had once again felt like a prisoner in an institution and perhaps this also had something to do with my resolve to leave SA and free myself from the control of the state. However some of my fellow National Servicemen decided to make a career of it and signed on with the SAAF. I sometimes wonder what happened to them once it all came to an end and they had to make a life for themselves outside of that state institution. How many of them found themselves, as Evelyn Waugh wrote, ‘comparatively at home in prison’.
After finishing National Service I looked for work in the computer industry and in February 1971 started working for an American company called NCR. Then after working in Durban for over 4 years it was time to say goodbye to SA. In October 1973 my parents had moved back to Cape Town while I continued living for a further eighteen months in Tiber Island, a block of flats on the Esplanade near the centre of Durban. In July 1975 after spending the last 3 months with my parents in Cape Town, I went to live in the UK. My parents followed nine years later after my father had retired. During that time I went back to SA only once, in January 1977, to visit my parents in Cape Town. The next time wasn’t until 1987 when, for the first time since 1975, I returned to Durban with my wife to visit her parents and sisters (and then again in 1990/93/ 95). Since 1997 we have been back to SA on holiday almost once a year as my wife’s mother and sisters still live in the Durban/PMB catchment area.
Visiting SA is now quite a strange experience for me as after all these years and I now feel like a tourist visiting a foreign country. We do all those things we never did when we lived in SA, like going on a boat trip around Durban harbour, visiting the KZN game reserves, driving up the Sani Pass into Lesotho and many other things we just never got around to doing when we lived in the country. I even paid a visit to the school I attended in Bulwer; despite not liking it all those years ago. It’s also very interesting to see all the development work going on in SA and the way in which shopping malls and housing now cover land that was distant countryside in the 1950/60’s. The towns up and down the North/South coast have grown tremendously and are barely recognisable compared to the 1960’s.
Sometimes I look at the old school photos mainly from Montclair Primary and the one thing that stands out, is the happy faces of all the young children in the pictures. From their expressions they seem to have not a care in the world and I often wonder how their lives have turned out. I consider myself to have been fortunate in that I have experienced and done many things that I would never have dreamt of doing when I was a child nor if I had remained in SA. On reflection I find it intriguing that my own family has, in a way, come full circle. Both of my maternal grandmother’s parents emigrated on a sailing ship from Swansea in the UK in the mid 1880’s to East London in SA and my maternal grandfather emigrated from Lancaster in the UK in the mid 1890’s to Cape Town in SA. I, my mother and my maternal grandmother were all born in SA and after nearly 100 years, those of us of a later generation have migrated back to the UK. As a family we are back in the country where our predecessors originated.
Since I started writing this some years ago both of my parents are no longer alive. My father died first a few months short of his 92nd birthday and my mother died a little over two years later and a few months after her 92nd birthday. Both had lived to a very old age and had a happy life together; they were very much a couple and my mother found it very hard to bear the loss of my father. It’s nice to reminisce about the way things were, but I’m always mindful of a quote from a novel - The Go Between ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’.