1. Buying the car
In the fading daylight the jumbled strip of small traders were closing their shops for the night. The local corner cafés and fish and chips vendors were turning on their lights in anticipation of slow but steady business into the night. It was somewhere around my 40th year in the late 1980s and I needed to replace a car that had recently died. As I drove, I mused on the fact that here I was, a mid-life career scientist, looking for a very used car on the wrong side of the tracks. But somehow the scenario of meeting a grey-suited car salesman to finalise a hire-purchase agreement on a two-year old pre-owned medium-sized family sedan made me cringe. So, as instructed, I took a left turn off the Main Road into the dark maw of the disintegrating terraces of single-storey Victorian cottages that were like a set of teeth: discoloured, decaying and missing …
I looked over the car for a general feel of its physical and emotional condition, and requested a test drive. Nervous about my borrowed car being stolen while I was out around the block, I cut the test drive short. I couldn’t find any places where the rust was close to causing collapse, the engine felt smooth and didn’t smoke, and the steering and brakes worked alright. I took the plunge and said I’d take it. I arranged for payment and collection the following day, fairly confident that it would be able to meet the transport challenges I was going to place before it.
The car was an 11-year old blue Datsun 120Y station wagon, a model recognised as reliable, rugged and underpowered. If I were a person who gave cars personal names, I might have been tempted to call this one “Brak”.
Back home I set about doing the ‘too late’ finer inspection. The seller had done a reasonable clean of the car, but there were a few papers in the cubby hole. On shuffling through them, I came across an item that puzzled me by being out of context in this early dialogue with the car. It was a permit for entry into a country hiking area, one which I knew well – the idyllic Witels Kloof in the Hex River mountains that I’d traversed several times over the years. I couldn’t quite reconcile this clue to the car’s provenance with the seemingly embattled community where I had signed and sealed the back-street purchase. I hoped that this wasn’t indicative of an illegal transfer of ownership that might mark me as a receiver of stolen goods. But I chose instead to regard it as a positive sign, and how much joy it had brought to an anonymous hiker.
2. Character of the car.
The car turned out to be functional, economical and quirky. Not my own sort of quirkiness exactly, but rather a mischievous series of actions that you might expect from an intelligent rescue dog. One thing I soon learned was that security was not a strength of this blue Datsun. I discovered that the lock on the driver’s door would yield easily to a completely different range of keys and, that while driving sometimes, the key could be removed from the ignition switch without turning off the motor. It caught me out on a number of occasions. I’d pull up at my destination and reach down to cut the engine only to find the keyhole empty and my bunch of keys lying at my feet.
The issue of key promiscuity worked to my advantage one evening when I had worked late at the university, and had mislaid my full set of keys. Wondering how I might resolve the situation, my mind moved towards the interchangeability of key functions that this car had demonstrated. At which moment a car approached coming up the hill. To my cautious delight it was a Datsun 120Y. I stepped out into the road and waved the driver down. He wound down the window and looked at me quizzically when I asked him if I could borrow his key for a minute, but obliged. Being as calm as I could manage, I stepped over to my car, unlocked the driver’s door (right on!), inserted the same key into the ignition key-hole (a fit!), and gave it a twist. The engine sprang to life. Leaving the switch in the on position and the engine idling smoothly, I withdrew the key and returned it to its flabbergasted owner. I waited until he’d driven on around the corner before I punched the air with a match-point sense of achievement. It was a good moment for solidarity between naïve owner and impish car.
In time the ignition switch failed altogether. Fortunately, I had already learned the trick of hot-wiring, a simple procedure using a short length of electrical wire connecting two points in the fuse-box just under the dash-board at the level of the driver’s knee. After a while, I consolidated that method for ease of use by fixing more permanently to each of the critical points and a household light bulb socket on the other. In this way, insertion of a standard domestic bayonet light bulb brought the car’s electrical system to life. This solution, however, didn’t include activation of the starter motor, so parking on a hill became the norm – usually easy enough, living on the slopes of Tamboerskloof and working at the majestic University of Cape Town campus, blessed with lots of hilly terrain in the shadows of Devil’s Peak.
A less benign mishap occurred one morning when I was in a hurry to get to work and hadn’t tied my shoe laces. Unnoticed by me, the car door closed on the lace of my right shoe. Well, not noticed until I reached the first stop sign of the day. The slack in the shoe lace allowed me to use the accelerator as normal, but when it came to moving my right foot away from the door to the brake, it was pulled to a sudden halt inches away from the pedal. Fortunately, it was a minor intersection and no traffic was present to effect a much more calamitous halt. I learned to check on shoe lace status and the freedom of my right foot before setting off in the car.
3. Back on the rough side of town.
During that period, I was training regularly and rigorously in the art of Karate. Sensei Jack ran a homely dojo in the industrial area close to where I had bought the blue car. The Kushi Do Karate Academy comprised a single large room on the first floor of a functional concrete building whose ground level was occupied by a dubious ‘events organisation’ company. There was sufficient parking inside the gates of the property for both the cars of the cadre of martial artists and the vans of the business. Our vehicles were relatively safe from opportunistic smash and grabs that were common in the neighbourhood. I hadn’t foreseen an enemy from within, however.
One evening, after a tough and sweaty class, I came downstairs to find one of the event vans leaning its rear bumper on the now dented rear hatch door of my blue Datsun. Someone had parked the large delivery van without setting the hand-brake, and it had drifted backwards and come to rest with the help of my car. The building was closed and locked, and cell phones hadn’t yet been invented, so with the help a couple of karateka, we managed to push the offending van back up the slight gradient, and restrained it with a couple of feral bricks. I left a note under the wiper blade. The dent didn’t affect the functionality of the car – it was dented as badly in a couple of other places – but I was incensed in principle that someone should have been so careless.
The next day I got through to someone in a management position at the events company and laid out my grievance. He gave me a sympathetic hearing and said that they would have the dent removed by a local mechanic who did routine maintenance on their company vehicles. So, with some juggling with lifts, borrowed cars and other logistics associated with the busy but off-the-beaten track location, I got the car back to the scene of the crime and left it in the hands of the manager. After more than a couple of query calls, he said that the car would be ready the following evening and that I’d be able to pick it up after my karate class. He gave me an address somewhere in the immediate neighbourhood. When I arrived on foot at the address, I saw my car on the pavement outside a particularly run-down and litter-adorned terrace of houses. When I moved closer to inspect the work done, the single fairly clean dent had been replaced by a pool of jagged ripples, like a restive body of water in a high wind. Probably the tool used was the 4-pound sledge hammer lying on the floor of the car, which I could see through the hole that had previously housed the rear window.
“I’m sorry,” said the panel-beater. “It just shattered when I was nearly finished. But I’ll fix it, no charge.”
Choked with anger and dismay, I wasn’t able to reply immediately. A bit more desperately, he continued, “But I’m a bit broke at the moment, so it may only be next week before I can get one from the scrap-yard.”
I declined the offer and retrieved the low-security ignition key and went home for supper and a stiff whisky. After a few more angry calls to the events manager, who was now saying that the latest damage was not their responsibility, I gave up and resigned myself to my own devices, starting with a couple of months of driving without a rear window.
4. Hitchhikers on Kloof Nek Rd
Not having a rear window presented one with further security concerns. Not only did it make the car impossible to lock, even if that measure was pure placebo, but it also could permit invasion of one’s personal safety. I learned this a matter of days before I had the window replaced and its purpose as a shield restored. That evening I set out to visit a friend in Camps Bay, an up-market coastal enclave on the other side of the mountain. The most direct route from our Tamboerskloof house was up the steep, busy and well-lit Kloof Nek Road, over the Kloof Nek saddle and then down the snaking Camps Bay Drive, through the darkness towards the lights of the suburb. Close to the start of my journey, I stopped for a friendly-looking hitchhiker, a young black guy who said he was on his way to work a shift at one of the Camps Bay restaurants. I opened the passenger door for him and he clambered in. While he was doing this, I suddenly became aware – in the rear-view mirror – of a lithe body sliding gracefully through the missing window space.
“Hey,” I shouted.
“It’s OK,” said my passenger in the front seat. “He’s with me.”
I turned to face the newcomer in the back, and took in a slim young white guy with lanky dark hair in a leather jacket. I didn’t engage with him beyond giving him the most severe up-and-down look I could muster, before restarting up the steep hill towards Kloof Nek. The car was now loaded with three adults, and the small engine struggled a bit. In doing so, it held up a number of cars behind us, which I soon realised had the makings of a self-defence plan. The back-seat passenger remained sitting where I could see his profile in the mirror as a silhouette against the headlights of the car behind me. I awoke to the potentially sticky position I’d created for myself when, in the rear mirror, I saw that the rider behind me was running some long thin object through his long thin hair. I hoped for protection from a witness effect and began to swap lanes unpredictably to prevent the cars behind me from passing. At the summit of the pass, the road split and to my dismay they all turned off onto the alternative route towards the seaside suburb. I lost my silhouette view of the passenger in the back, and any further chance of monitoring his supposed weapon and body language. At this point. I gave up all pretenses that this was a normal drive over the hill. About 100 metres head of me, I could see the tail lights of a car travelling sedately. I sunk my accelerator foot to the floor and was soon tailgating it at close quarters. As soon as I had half a non-suicidal chance of overtaking, I did so at speed. I pulled in front of it and slowed right down so that its headlights once again enabled me to monitor the threat from behind. Within a few minutes we entered the suburb and its street-lamped roads. A measure of relief, but not out of the poorly-populated woods yet, I remarked inwardly. When the guardian angel car behind me turned off, I put my foot down again and was soon on the busy main road where I made a robust stop at the first traffic light that presented itself. Before I could say, “This is as far as I’m going. Have a good evening,” Jack in the back was out of the hole that he’d entered by and was gone. The front man was not quite as quick, but he didn’t stop to make conversation. I’ll never know whether they regarded the event as a failed felony, or just a terrifying ride with a very bad driver.
5. A family car
Its crude functionality and battered condition notwithstanding, the blue Datsun served well as a family car. Its back bumper carried a message for following drivers to stay their distance because ‘This car runs on prune juice” and, of course, there was an appeal to “Save the Whales”. Inside the car, littering the floor and seats, were a miscellany of toys, lost socks, unpaid utility bills and, in the cubby hole, various items including a spare light bulb for activating the ignition. The back seat was almost always folded away, allowing for a level playing field for kids, dogs, toys, frisbees and surfboards.
6. …now you don’t
The last time I saw the blue Datsun alive was when I parked in in front of Claude’s Fast Food trailer on the Grand Parade, not far from the pole that I would climb in order to see Nelson Mandela deliver his freedom speech a couple of years later. On the night in question, however, I was on my way to attend a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It was to be a gala event involving an after-party with fine wines and canapes, and an opportunity to mix and mingle with members of the choir who sang under the baton of Langa’s own Duke Ngcukana. They had received a standing ovation on completion of Ode to Joy and were in high spirits as they socialised, with flashing smiles and heads thrown back in laughter. I enjoyed a half-glass of bubbly white wine and some interchanges of appreciation before I took my leave and strode out onto the Parade vocalizing my joie de vivre: “Ta ta teedum/ ta tatti teedum /ta tee ta/ …”. The soft celebratory sounds in my head faded and were replaced by a rapidly rising crescendo of screeching anxiety as I tried to come to terms with the empty parking bay in front of me. I walked the Parade in an expanding spiral just in case, but in my heart I knew that it was in the hands of callous carnappers.
About 10 days later, I had a telephone call from someone in the municipal cleansing department to tell me that a team of public open space cleaners had discovered a car in the dunes along the Strandfontein coast of False Bay. They had traced the car’s registration to me. He must have heard a rise of optimism in the tone of my voice and was quick to explain that I shouldn’t get my hopes up for the victim’s recovery. He gave me detailed, landmarked instructions as to where the car was in the dune system: off the main tarmac road, onto a gravel road, then onto a sandy track which petered out after 300 metres or so, and then a heart-stopping, isolated five minute walk to the far side of the big dune where the track ended. I wasn’t prepared for the sight that awaited me. The car was like the carcass of a Wildebeest, butchered and stripped bare by a violent squabble of vultures and hyenas: no wheels, no windows, no seats, no engine. Surrounding the mortal remains of the Datsun, amidst the sand and stunted dune vegetation, lay personal items clearly thrown from the car while the plunderers were making sure that nothing of value was being overlooked. Close to the car, next to where the passenger door had previously been, lying face-down in the sand, was a purple knitted cuddly companion belonging to our daughter. I picked it up and brushed off the sand, muttering tunelessly into the muffled wilderness,“…teedum/ ta tatti teedum /…”. Walking away from the crime scene, I stopped and turned round once to bid a last farewell to the blue Datsun who gestured good-bye with a reminder to me of our duty to “Save the Whales”.