17-Oct-2001 -- Modderfontein (east of Johannesburg), South Africa.
Okay, so I was almost an hour late but the signs on the highway had changed, and I did not know this part of town! I had got horribly lost but eventually met Donald Massyn at the filling station close to his parents house. Don started up his BMW R1150GS motorcycle and led the way to the home of Marc Ginger where I was going to leave the car and pick up Don's second motorcycle - a BMW R80G/S. Don and I originally met on the internet five years ago, and have ridden together on four previous occasions – twice in Africa and twice in Europe. Today we would be endeavouring to do our first Confluence together, and my first in the Southern Hemisphere.
It was about 11h30, the bike's battery was fully charged and the Windhoek Lagers that Marc had graciously offered were hitting the right spot! The fact that it was drizzling wasn't a big issue. The only problem for me was that I had not brought a jacket with me from Prague expecting fine, hot weather at the beginning of the African summer. Hmmm!! Error of judgement - it had been miserable all week and the weather had already put paid to my intentions of doing some glider flying during my week down south. It was cool and wet and I knew that I was soon going to be cold and soaked!
After fuelling up at the local filling station, I tucked in behind Don as he navigated the maze of highways across Jo'burg. I hate riding on highways at the best of times, and the rain certainly didn't make the experience any more pleasurable. By the time we reached the west of the city I was soaked and looking forward to heading onto the secondary roads. We were riding westwards in the general direction of Carltonville, ultimately heading towards Ventersdorp, the town closest to 26S 27E.
After 100 km my bladder had caught up with me! The rain had let up a little and I took the opportunity to heed the call of nature. Don grabbed a quick smoke and I took a few photos of a windmill in the burnt veld that would soon spring to life following these first rains of the season. We were on the R509 heading north from Magaliesburg and had about 75 km to go to our target.
We drove into the Magaliesberg Natural Area, turning left at the T-junction and onto the R30 towards Ventersdorp. It was a little drier here… as was my fuel tank! The R80G/S only has a 19.5 litre tank and I had soon switched over to “reserve” - the last two litres in the tank. Damn! That meant only 30 kilometres if I drove conservatively. Hmmm… and we were tantalisingly close! My GPS showed that the Confluence was about 2 kilometres away in a field to our right. We pressed on and passed the shortest route to the Confluence, but could not find a farm road into the field. Eventually we came to a T-junction (almost exactly on 27°E and at an altitude of approximately 1,650 m above sea level) and pulled over to decide what to do. With my fuel situation critical, we decided to hide my bike in the bushes next to the road. I would then ride pillion with Don as his new GS had a far greater fuel range.
Bike concealed, the road sign at the T-junction caught my eye. It showed the town of Derby in one direction and Ventersdorp in the other… no problem. But the graffiti - in black paint were the letters AWB, flanked by two crude swastikas. The “Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging” or AWB (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) is a fascistic, paramilitary movement, which advocates the creation of a sovereign state for South Africa's Boer nation. It is also registered as a political party. Having been away from South Africa for six years it had slipped my mind - we were in the heartland of the ultra-conservatives. The AWB are neo-Nazis - rabid racists - and Ventersdorp is the home of its (currently imprisoned) leader, Eugene Terre'Blanche. Oops! The last thing we needed was a close encounter with a khaki-clad AWB farmer!
The road towards Rhenosterfontein was a recently graded dirt road and, being on the back of Don's bike, I had the opportunity to look around. Yes, the characteristic ochre-coloured soil, green fields and heavy summer skies! We were in the North-West Province of South Africa and in one of the most beautifully rugged places imaginable. It was good to be home. In a short while we reached another T-junction, and the GPS indicated that we should head to the right and towards Groenfontein. A few kilometres later and we were close to the Confluence - a track to our right led into a farmyard and, seemingly, directly to the Confluence. I relayed the message to Don and, without hesitation, he took the road towards the farmstead.
As the farm buildings came into view the burglar bars on the windows, security lights and two-metre barbed-wire fences topped with razor wire brought home another reality of South Africa - the atrocious crime situation. Farmers in particular have been besieged. As “soft targets” in isolated country areas, many hundreds of them have been brutalised or murdered.
When we rode through the gates of the farmstead I really thought that Don was going to pull up so that we could ask the owners whether we could ride to the confluence of 26S and 27E that was clearly on their property. Instead, he rode past the farm house, around the back of the buildings, between the barns and out into the fields beyond! I was a little worried by this but - hey - we didn't see anyone there otherwise we would have stopped!
We were now on a tractor track, following the farm fence and heading straight for the Confluence. Damn! The fence turned to the right! A few hundred metres later, it turned left again and we were back on course. We passed through a couple of gates and were bearing down on the Confluence which was only a few hundred metres away… and then the road ran out with a fence blocking our route. We pulled up and parked the bike. There was no one around, so we jumped the fence and briskly walked towards the focal point of our attention.
We were about 30 metres from the Confluence when we spotted the pick-up truck on the far side of the field to our right. It was heading in the opposite direction and towards the farm house from where we had just come. And then it slowed down and stopped. Oh dear! Yes - we had been bust. The pick-up u-turned, found the entrance to the field and drove around the perimeter directly towards us. Damn!!
The farmer's name was Tertius (pronounce “TER” as in TERrorist and “SHIS” as in SHIt with an “S”), and he was angry. He wore khakis, was well tanned, and had the muscular build of a young farmer. Through the open door of his pick-up I could see the “sjambok” (an African term for a bull whip) between the two front seats. I have no doubt that he had a gun in there somewhere as well. He had some farm hands with him on the back of the truck who looked on bemused.
Tertius laid into us with a stream of angry questions in Afrikaans. Neither Don nor I are native Afrikaans speakers, but I had the advantage, having spent seven years at an Afrikaans university. One problem - having been out of the country for six years, I had not had a full conversation in Afrikaans for some time! Phew! But I had to be the spokesman and it's amazing how quickly things come back to you when your hide's at stake!
I tried to explain the situation, but found it difficult trying to elucidate the Degree Confluence Project to a furious farmer who seemed to smell blood. Tertius was starting to get abusive… and a little scary. He demanded to see some proof of our identity, indicating that we were trespassing on his property and that he was going to call the police. We both handed over our drivers' licenses and he called the local police (who he obviously knew well), giving them our names and identity numbers. Next he called the farmstead and some of the other farmers in the vicinity asking whether our names rung any bells. Yes, this was definitely getting a little scary.
He hung up the phone and turned back on us saying that he was going to lay charges. As diplomatically as I could I once again explained what we were trying to do, pointed out that I was a psychologist and that Don was a systems engineer and that we were just “geeks” out having some fun. I reiterated that we had no malicious intentions whatsoever! This didn't fly! His phone rang - it was his friend at the police station confirming that our ID documents were legitimate and that we had no criminal records. Overhearing this I suggested to Tertius that we let bygones be bygones… and asked whether he minded if we walked up to the Confluence to shoot a few photos before we left. Oops! Bad idea! He was not impressed! He pointed to a pile of stones about 30 m away, said that this marked the Confluence and made it clear that he was not going to let us go there. So near yet so far!!
This tense situation in the field went on for at least 25 minutes. At one point Tertius bluntly told us that we were lucky to be alive and that if we had trespassed on one of his neighbour's farms, we would almost certainly not have lived to tell the tale. Apparently the crime in the region was so bad that the farmers generally shot first and asked questions later. I empathised saying that we realised what a bad time the farmers were having from what we read on the papers and saw on TV. His quick response was that we definitely would not have seen the previous week's dead bodies on TV. A cold shiver ran down my spine.
The farmer insisted that we go back to the motorcycle and ride back to the farmstead. From there he planned escorting us to the police station where he intended formally laying charges. Damn! As we walked back I pulled out my digital camera and shot off a couple of clandestine pictures of my GPS' data page (without stopping and without Tertius seeing). I at least needed something to show for our pains!
Back in the farmyard Tertius resumed his interrogation. I used the opportunity to emphasise the years I had spent at an Afrikaans university and told him more about the Degree Confluence Project. When he said that he had both a GPS and a computer, I sensed an opportunity, offered him the URL and suggested he take a look some time. He wrote down the address. I felt the ice was breaking. Tertius also wrote down the registration number and details of Don's BMW, and I told him a little about the bike. He also wanted a phone number, and Don offered his mobile. Taking the gap, I asked for his, and he shared it with me. There was a pregnant and uncomfortable silence. Tertius stared at us with flaming eyes and in an aggressive voice emphasised that anyone who wants to come onto his property should first get his permission. I could not argue with this logic but we had no idea that the confluence of 26S 27E was on a farm - it could have been anywhere. How could we have prepared for that in advance? Nevertheless, I held my mouth and humbly agreed with him, apologising profusely.
An hour after first accosting us, Tertius asked us to get off his property. We thanked him for his clemency, made a final, profuse apology and rode back from whence we came. Damn - it had been a menacing afternoon, and we had been lucky to get away as lightly as we did.
Back at the R80G/S we stopped to unwind and talk about our experience. Looking at the GPS, I noticed that we were still close to the Confluence and shot off a few more pictures of the screen for good measure. We then rode back to the town of Derby where we refuelled and bought some biltong (an African dried meat delicacy) and a couple of cold drinks. We were both deeply contemplative on the ride back to Johannesburg. I didn't really notice the cold, and the distance seemed far shorter than our ride there. We stopped at the McDonalds in Sandton where we met with my wife Debra and had a cup of coffee. Don and I then took the R80G/S back to Marc Ginger's house before riding two-up to his flat. We topped the day off with a good seafood platter and lots of beer and wine!
The day had been an “interesting” learning experience. If anyone out there wants to try 26S 27E in the future, I suggest that they get Tertius' permission first. I have his phone number - feel free to e-mail me if you want it as I don't think we will be returning!!
Close but no cigar.