Guns, snakes, death, sex, drinking

Sunday Times Travel


TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

THE grudging wheeze of an electric motor punctures what had been the dense silence of an incandescent Karoo morning. We turn to see a boerseun – neck thick as a thigh, Volksie fenders for shoulders, a trunk to go to sea with, legs that could support De Groote Kerk itself – slumped over a battery-powered wheelchair as it oozes, under protest, up Richmond’s main drag.

“More se,” Michael calls out from our side of the street.

“Hallos,” the boerseun responds.

Once he is out of earshot, Michael says, “See the basket on his handlebars? Inside, he has a nine-mill or a snake. Always.”

Nobody blinks. By now we know weirdness this way comes. The previous day’s passing human circus during the seven hours of clickety-clacking from Cape Town to Beaufort West on the Shosholoza Meyl had adjusted us to that reality.

Michael met us in Beaufort West and we drove the 200-odd kilometres to Richmond. The car’s owner, Kallie, sat in the passenger seat chain-smoking and swigging cheap whisky from the bottle.

Kallie is 56 going on 80. His eyes skulk under a darkening life. His skin seems at once damp and desiccated. The tops of his arms resemble poles holding up a tent. He has driver’s licences from Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, each featuring a photograph of a man not much younger but much fuller-faced.

He talks, calmly, of travelling to Thailand and, as he gazes out to sea, slowly sipping two litres of horse tranquiliser and slipping over the horizon of mortality.

Darrel’s hurricane eyes shock with life lived and to be lived. If his stick insect’s body lurched towards you on a bright street you would take refuge in the nearest dark alley. His face is as cragged as a Cango cave. His hair is a storm. His voice is cracked with smoke and drink.

“So I get back to the Carlton at about three-o-clock in the morning from an evening with these two verrrrrry frisky nurses …”

What?!

“ … And there’s Richard Harris and Ann Turkel standing around the lobby. Richard says to me, ‘How do we get drink in this place?’ I say, ‘Everything’s closed, but we could order room service’. So we go up to my room and Richard orders bottles and bottles of Veuve Clicquot and we drink till morning. Of course, he signed everything to his room. Such a nice guy.”

Richard Burton was also “such a nice guy, so down to earth; most famous people are”.

Darrel knows this from his days as a hotel manager, a field he left to become a hot shot executive when KFC arrived in South Africa in the 1970s.

“Never work for Americans,” he warns behind eyes suddenly hard black. “One day they told me I had been booked on that night’s seven-o-clock flight to Cape Town to go and fire someone the next day. When I got there we had a meeting about who would say what. It was like a military operation. The next morning at eight-o-clock sharp we banged on his office door. We did it. He was out of there in half-an-hour.”

And here he is, much life lived later, fashioning outsider art from the detritus of other lives lived here. We buy one of his pieces, a sprawl of sprockets, buttons and coins fixed to a length of wood and entitled “Brass in Pocket”. It is signed by the artist.

No matter what it might be worth one day, it will never be sold.

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