One of the more unusual characters that I met in Kimberley’s diamond mines in the early sixties was a young man called Dennis Knox. Like many of the miners, he had done something else before starting to work underground. He had been a foundry pattern maker. This involved making exact wooden models of a machine part; the model was then pressed into special fine sand, molten metal was poured into the depression left by the model, and the required item was cast.

Why he switched careers I don’t know. But he was one of the few people in the mines whose home language was English. And he was the only person I came across underground who enjoyed reading good books. I told him that I was also a keen book reader, so he gave me the names of some authors I could try: John Steinbeck, Damon Runyon and John O’Hara.

He turned out to be a great raconteur; and told some amazing stories of practical jokes played by work colleagues; and how he and his scruffy friends started off their army training in Bloemfontein by selecting the most distant bungalow, and being discovered only two weeks later.

One story that he didn’t tell me, but one that I heard from others went like this: When acting shiftboss Dennis Knox walked into the shiftbosses’ underground office at Dutoitspan Mine one morning in 1960 there was a strange glint in his eye; there was foam coming out of his mouth, and he was carrying a stick of dynamite.  The fuse protruding from the dynamite was ominously short, and it was burning fiercely – like a child’s Guy Fawkes sparkler.

Dennis saw that he had everyone’s undivided attention.

The shiftbosses’ eyes filled with fear as they did frantic mental arithmetic – they knew from their mine learners’ course that fuse burned at a rate of 90 to 110 seconds a yard.  This particular piece of fuse had a foot to go before a deafening and deadly explosion would tear limb from limb and splatter their flesh against the freshly painted rock and concrete walls.  But their minds were so numbed with dread that they failed to compute that there was a whole 30 seconds left to grab the lightly built Dennis, wrestle the dynamite away from him, and cut the fuse; or at least pull the fuse out and throw it into the tunnel outside where the detonator would explode harmlessly.

Dennis noted with satisfaction that one of the men was attempting to escape by trying to crawl through the one-foot wide drainage channel at the back of the office.  The others cowered under the wooden table while their half-eaten sausages and eggs reposed on thick china plates above their heads.

He placed the smoking bomb on the table and left the scene.

What the terrified officials didn’t know was that the stick of dynamite wasn’t really dynamite – just a stick of tamping wrapped in brown paper.  And he had cut the detonator off the end of the fuse before shoving the fuse into the tamping and lighting it.

As Dennis walked away wiping the foam from the Kolynos toothpaste he had applied to his lips he thought to himself that next time these hairybacks would think twice before giving a soutpiel from Natal such a hard time.  He wondered if mine-captain Brittz, who was built like a brick shithouse, but had a wry sense of humour, would ever ask him to be acting shiftboss again.

In 1993 I saw an article in De Beers News bidding him farewell on his retirement, and I was able to get his address from the journal and write to thank him for introducing me to those writers, especially Steinbeck.

After a couple of letters back and forth from his cottage in beautiful Wilderness next to a lake we lost touch. I wonder if he is still alive, and if he is, maybe by some miracle somebody will put us in touch again . . .

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Now that I’m old nobody phones – except that nice man from India who thinks there’s something wrong with my computer.

He always asks after my health, then tells me that Microsoft have detected something that is slowing my computer down. The first time he phoned, more than a year ago, I did have a very slow computer; and under his direction I did all sorts things that showed a whole page of files that he said were infected. Then he wanted me to download a file that would fix everything free of charge. I was very doubtful about this, but he convinced me that it was safe to do so.

But when I started to do this a warning appeared (they always warn you before you download anything). I asked him if he would mind if I phoned my son before proceeding. He wasn’t happy with this, and said he only had 30 minutes, but said I could go ahead if I wanted to.

So I phoned my son on my cellphone. Within seconds he found out that the proposed file was a scam. When I picked up the handset of my landline the nice man had gone.

But that didn’t put him off. A week later he phoned again and didn’t seem to remember our previous conversation. So he went through the whole story again.

Now when he phones I get him talking, then quietly put the handset in a drawer and carry on with my life. When I check later he’s gone.

I think that leaving him talking to fresh air for as long as possible is cutting into the time that he would spend conning other gullible people like me. But if he persists I may get a loud whistle, and see if blowing it in his ear livens up his chatter somewhat.

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You probably know that today is International Plastic Bag-Free Day; and you probably can’t get yourself too worked up about it.

I’ll tell you how you never need to buy one; but first a few facts about plastic bags:

  1. They take 100-500 years to disintegrate
  2. Eighty percent of marine litter is plastic
  3. They are mostly made of petroleum and natural gas – a finite resource
  4. They get into the food chain
  5. Future generations will suffer from the pollution caused by them without getting any of the benefits

Quite simply plastic bags blowing around look terrible: Rwanda has banned them, and visitors say it looks beautifully clean compared to the rest of Africa. South Africa looked noticeably better soon after Valli Moosa arranged for major supermarkets to charge for them; but we’ve got lazy since then.

How I get by without buying plastic bags or taking free ones given by supermarkets to pack purchases (USA supermarkets give away free bags):

  1. I have two big cloth shopping bags from Woolworths (South Africa) that I keep in the boot of my car, and once I have used them I make sure to put them back in the boot
  2. Quite often I don’t use my car for shopping (I usually use it on the way home from work); when I walk or cycle to the supermarket I put a small backpack on my back
  3. I keep the few plastic bags that I have, and when I want to make a couple of small purchases I shove one or two in my pockets
  4. Some people say they need them to line their kitchen refuse bins; I simply put a folded newspaper at the bottom of my bin, and peel vegetables and oranges onto a bread board with a folded newspaper next to it; the bits I don’t want are scraped onto the newspaper and rolled up into a parcel; I shove these parcels into an empty milk carton and when it is full it goes into the bin; this way nothing mucky touches the sides or bottom of the bin

With a bit of ingenuity you too can free yourself from over-use of plastic bags and help save the planet.

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Winter is here

Today was the first real day of winter in Cape Town. But not all trees agreed.



This one nearRondebosch Common decided that it is now spring.


These ones on the Franschhoek Pass feel that it is autumn.



And this one in Somerset West says it is always winter.








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Sonny was a tall, wiry fellow with an impressive schlong. I know this because a group of miners and learners regularly faced each other in a double bank of showers after work in the Kimberley diamond mines in 1960.

In case you’re wondering, men’s private parts were of no particular interest to me, but I couldn’t help noticing that Sonny’s member was not quite as big as Pielman’s piel; but was a lot bigger than that of the man with the high-pitched voice who had one the size of my little finger.

I recognized Sonny from school (Christian Brothers’ College). He had been a year or two ahead of me, and the first thing people noticed about him was that he had an accent like a Cape Flats gangster, even though he went to a fairly expensive private school. He was a very matter-of-fact sort of chap with no airs and graces, and used to belong to a motorcycle gang in the days when such people were known as “Ducktail Boys” who liked getting into fights with other gangs and short-back-and-sides types who looked down on them. Steel-tipped boots and bicycle chains were reputed to be weapons of choice.


Talking about bicycle chains, the most creative use of one as a weapon apparently happened years later when Steve Viljoen, a tough little cyclist from Kimberley, was on an early morning training ride north of Cape Town when a gang of thugs in a car started hassling him. The car stopped ahead of him and the men in it walked towards him in a threatening manner. Steve just happened to have a tool with him that was used for de-coupling a chain’s link. He quickly used the tool to remove his bike’s chain, and with it firmly clamped in the jaws of the tool he advanced towards the thugs, swinging it. They decided that they didn’t need to confront him after all, and retreated. Steve was able to complete his ride without further incident.

Somehow Sonny and I found ourselves one day on the road between Dutoitspan and Wesselton mines. Miners’ private cars were not allowed in this security area, but apparently Sonny was allowed to bring his Norton 500 into this area, and he offered to give me my first ride on the back of a motorbike. Unfortunately he also offered somebody else a ride at the same time. This meant that I had to squash onto the passenger seat behind this chap while the three of us accelerated along a bumpy road, and quickly reached a speed of 90 mph. Sonny was quite amused at the sight of my ashen face afterwards.

The next time I encountered Sonny and his motorbike was when I was riding my bicycle home after work. He came up behind me and decided to help me by grabbing my right shoulder in a firm grip with his left hand while he got us up to a speed of 60 mph. Just before we reached a bend he let me go. The bend was too tight for me to get round it at a speed of 100 km/h. Somehow I managed to career off the road into the veld and bring my bike to halt without falling or hitting anything. Sonny didn’t stick around to hear my protests.

Why was I not too surprised when, on a subsequent occasion, Sonny told me that he had been to a rock concert where he’d had a bit too much to drink and, rather taken by the band’s skinny electric guitars, decided to make his acoustic guitar skinny by attacking it with a saw? Needless to say that didn’t work out too well.

On another drunken occasion he decided that his Ford Starliner sedan didn’t look sporty enough. So he removed the roof with a hacksaw and acetylene torch. This affected the stability of the car’s body and made it rattle. He eventually had to install roll bars which partly solved the problem.

Ford Starliner

I met him again in the late eighties. He was running a TV repair shop in Fish Hoek with a devil-may-care attitude. But he had settled down: he’d married his Kimberley girlfriend and he invited me to their home in Sun Valley where they lived with their attractive daughter. Needless to say, Sonny did not have the same manicured front lawn that everybody else had. He had an enormous concrete yacht that he was building in his spare time.

The after-hours message on his firm’s answering machine was so laid back that my children used to phone it just to hear his flat Kimberley accent drawl a laconic instruction while they dissolved into giggles.

He’s gone now. We’ll all be gone. But the sunny one’s memory lingers on.

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Everybody must get stoned

When last did you get stoned? I was stoned only last week.

It happened like this. My tourists had been escorted to the Red Table restaurant at Nederburg, and after I had eaten my light packed lunch I decided to go for walk. After once being accosted by an irate security personage on a golf cart while trudging up a steep muddy path on another wine estate I had learned to get permission before wandering off. The man in charge at the Nederburg wine tasting centre assured me that I could walk anywhere.

I strode at a steady pace along a dirt road through the vines away from the buildings, past some rather charming abandoned cottages up to a new, formidable four-metre security fence. On the other side of it was a fairly dense band of bamboo growing along a watercourse.

Old cottages on Nederburg

Old cottages on Nederburg


Suddenly, a gang of youths from a nearby shantytown appeared at the left hand edge of the bamboo. They waved sticks and shouted at me. I kept walking to the right along the path skirting my side of the fence. I heard a loud bang and glanced behind me. I saw a grapefruit-sized rock flying through the air in a beautiful arc over the fence straight at my head.

Did they have a cannon, or some sort of rock-throwing machine? Or a boy with a great hand-grenade bowling technique? (You don’t throw a hand grenade – it’s too heavy and could dislocate your elbow if you try.) The bamboo thicket was too thick for me to see what was happening.

Oh yes; I managed to side-step the missile.

Then another rounded rock came flying over the fence at me as I walked away rapidly. It hit the ground and rolled fast into my right ankle. There was some pain, but I carried on walking. I never run away from a fight – but fast walking is okay.

I don’t know why they wanted to get me; but I must concede that their aim was very good. It reminded me of an incident that happened when I was aged 15, living in Kimberley.

One day while Tommy and I were fishing at Scholtzvlei on a spit of land that extended into the middle of the lake we suddenly saw splashes of water near our rod tips, and then pieces of mud the size and shape of bicycle handlebar grips started hitting us and our possessions. We looked up and saw that the cause of this phenomenon appeared to be a group of boys on the north shore of the vlei about 100 yards away. We ran round to them, but they retreated. We could see from the remaining evidence that they had been scooping up handfuls of clay, compressing them onto the ends of willow wands and flinging these missiles at us, aided by a strong following wind. Tommy spat out one word of explanation, “Kleilatte!”

We went back to our fishing spot, but the barrage started again. Fishing was impossible – we’d have to leave or fight back. As we reeled in our lines and packed up hurriedly I suddenly had a bright idea. Why not try using our fibreglass rods as kleilatte? We scooped up some clay, squeezed it onto the ends of our rods, and using a powerful two-handed swing sent the pieces of clay flying. Our aim was wild at first, but we soon got our range and direction right, and directed a flurry of missiles at our assailants. The superior qualities of fibreglass, and our casting skills, soon began to have an effect. Our enemies were spending more time ducking and jumping than sending missiles our way. Tommy and I began to enjoy ourselves.

Things quickly reached a stage where the enemy signalled to us to cease hostilities, walked round to examine our superior weaponry, and became quite friendly towards us. I don’t think we caught any fish that day, but we cycled home with satisfied smirks on our faces.

If I ever go walking at Nederburg again I’ll try staying right next to that formidable fence. That will enable me to get close to any assailants and assess their weapons, perhaps ask them what their beef is (I am fluent in Afrikaans and can manage a sentence or two in Xhosa), and yet remain in a spot where any missiles will fly over my head.


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Early on in our training to become diamond mining officials in 1960 we had to endure a couple of weeks of hard physical labour doing various jobs underground normally performed by black labourers.

One morning Roger and I found ourselves trying to wrestle a heavy compressed-air-driven rockdrill into position on a pile of broken rock so that we could drill holes in the roof of a blueground chamber. Roger, a big but rather flabby guy, was doing most of the wrestling, but the foot of the airleg started slipping down the sloping pile of rock, so I helpfully put my foot on it to stop it sliding any further.

Roger thought I was trying to hamper his efforts, so he lifted his balled fist above his head, and brought the underside of it down hard on the top of my miner’s helmet. I don’t know about you, but when somebody suddenly makes my brain go wadda-wadda I am not immediately filled with the milk of human kindness. I am inclined to lash out. And in this case my fist connected with his solar plexus so forcibly that he doubled over and whimpered in pain as he struggled to breathe.

In subsequent years, on two occasions, I saw a large tough miner almost crying in pain after he had fought off a gang of muggers by knocking some of them out with punches to the head. In both cases the miners were nursing suspected broken bones in their right hands. I decided that if I had to hit somebody, the place to aim for was the solar plexus.

The next time my brain went wadda-wadda was early one morning going down the shaft in a cage with a bunch of older miners. On the way down, in the darkness, there was quite a bit of horseplay, and as we reached the station one of them did something to Hans Smal. Now Hans was a tall, well-built rugby player, and he decided that I was the culprit. He brought his fist down very hard on the top of my helmet. I saw red and hit him with all my strength in his stomach. He went down, and I turned away to walk down the tunnel. A moment later I felt a flash of pain as the back of Hans’s right fist connected forcibly with my left ear. I was semi conscious for a few seconds, and when I recovered I saw that that Hans had disappeared with the cage down to the next level. At the end of the shift he apologised for the misunderstanding.

My ear hurt for a few months after that, and I resolved that in any future fights I would make sure that my opponent was properly disabled before leaving the scene.

Two years later mild-mannered, bespectacled Neville and I were at a hop, where he was using his charm to chat up various girls. The beauties belonging to some local hoodlums seemed particularly enchanted by his line of chat. I left him to it while I drove down to the Halfway House for a drink. Not long afterwards a woebegone Neville arrived in his Anglia. “As I was leaving a bunch of thugs hit me and broke my glasses and my pipe.”

Just then Roger arrived in his sports car. He had grown in size and confidence since our first encounter, took one look at Neville, asked him where the attack had happened, and said, “Let’s get them.”

He pushed Neville into the passenger seat of his Anglia, and motioned for me to get into the back seat. The three of us drove back to the hop and prowled around in a menacing fashion, while I prayed silently that we wouldn’t actually encounter Neville’s attackers. Luckily my prayers were answered.

But as we drove away we noticed another car next to us, driving erratically, with bunch of tough-looking characters in it. When we stopped at a robot they glared at us and revved their engine. Roger looked at them in a pitying way and shook his head. This seemed to incense them. They pulled away with screaming tyres and cut us off. The four of them leapt out and stalked towards our car. Roger got out to face them, and tried to push me back into the car as I tipped the front seat forward to get out and join him. As he turned away I got out and stood slightly behind him. The leader of the pack put his face fairly close to Roger’s and said, “Why did you shake your head at us?”

With a voice dripping in contempt Roger waved his finger in front of the hoodlum’s face and said, “You were driving like idiots, and I will shake my head at you whenever I feel like it and as often as I please. Now get back in your car and FUCK OFF.”

And that’s exactly what they did. Fortunately for everybody my deadly fighting skills were not required on this occasion.

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