Forty years on – hippies and moon landings
Forty years ago today Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, and I arrived in Namibia for the first time. It was a memorable day for me, and it often makes me think of what the late sixties were like.
I had left Johannesburg at 2:00 pm the previous day with my friend Dave de Beer in my clapped out Peugeot 403 station wagon, which had lost its radiator cap in Ladysmith the day before that, and had an improvised one made of mutton cloth and a piece of plastic tied on with string. We drove west through Schweizer Reineke, and Vryburg, which we reached at sunset, where we bought frikadels (something like a hamburger patty) and chips for supper, and saved a few to eat along the way. And litre bottles of Coke, which were a novelty in those days. They had screw-on caps and could be resealed, so you didn’t have to drink them all at once. We took Coke mainly for the caffeine content, to keep us awake driving through the night.
In Kuruman we saw a small sign saying “SWA”, so we followed the road it pointed to, not realising that it took us in a direction 90 degrees out of our intended course, which was via Upington and Keetmanshoop, where the road was tarred and we could be reasonably sure of getting petrol in the middle of the night. After 30 miles we ended up at a crossroads, and realized we were miles out of our route. To the right was Hotazel, so we took the left-hand one, hoping it would get us back onto the Upington road. It was a gravel road, and the car’s windscreen wipers suddenly started up, and would not stop until we removed a fuse from the fuse box. We came to another crossroads, marked “Deben”, which wasn’t on our map. To the right was Dikhatlong, which seemed to be halfway to the Botswana border. Straight ahead was “Vanzylsrust & SWA”. We could not find Vanzylsrust on our map either, but took that road anyway.
We listened to tapes of records as we went, to keep us awake. Cassette tape recorders were also a novelty in 1969, and we had recorded some of our friends’ records before leaving, different tracks mixed up. Bill Cosby’s “There’s a fellow by the name of Noah, he built an ark”. “Doctor Do Good” and “It’s a long days flight till tomorrow” by the Electric Prunes, and a few other things, like The Byrds and The Beatles, an eclectic mixture. The gravel road was straight, and seemed to be going perpetually downhill as we drove through the endless desert night. It was a long night’s drive to tomorrow. We passed a turnoff to the left, and stopped and reversed to look at the sign to see where it went. It was 11:40 pm, and there were no light, no houses anywhere, and three people suddenly appeared out of the darkness and said “Is julle verdwaal?” (Are you lost?) We said we were, and they said it was straight on to Vanzylsrust. Could we get petrol there in the middle of the night? They weren’t too sure about that. What was the name of this place? “Sonstraal” they said — sunbeam. It was the first time in my life I had ever heard black people speaking Afrikaans, and it sounded very strange indeed. Elliot Mngadi, a friend in Ladysmith, Natal, who was a member of the Liberal Party, once told me he refused to learn or speak Afrikaans. Someone, somewhere, had said that “the language of the oppressor in the mouth of the oppressed is the language of slaves”, and it seemed to me that were passing through, and going to, a land of slavery.
We reached Vanzylsrust at midnight, and there was not a light in the place. We found a petrol station, all in darkness. Suddenly more people emerged from the dark, and someone went to call the petrol station attendant. A generator started, and a few dim lights appeared, growing brighter as the generator picked up speed. We filled up with petrol and went on our way. The next town was Askham, 95 miles way, but the road was no longer straight, but winding and surrounded by trees. We could not go more than 30 miles an hour, with the unpredictable twists and turns. There were also lots of ups and downs. Later I passed that way in daylight, and could then see that the road followed the course of the Kuruman river, and kept dipping down into the riverbed, and crossing to the other side. On this trip it was midwinter, and the river bed was dry, so we had no idea why the road twisted and turned like that.
Somewhere along the way we stopped to piss. All the Coke we were drinking had to go somewhere. We looked up at the frosty stars shining down on the cold winter desert night and thought about the Americans on their way to the moon, and wondered if they would manage to land there. We reached Askham three hours after leaving Vanzylsrust and 13 hours after leaving Johannesburg. To the right was the Kalahari Gemsbok Park, or we could go via Aroab. The former route looked shorter, so we turned that way, and at 4:00 am came to a gate, with a sign on it saying that the park only opened at 7:00. So we ate our cold frikadels, which tasted delicious, and drank some Lion Lager we had bought in Harrismith while waiting for a puncture to be repaired, and then settled down to sleep in the car, which was rapidly cooling now that the engine was no longer running and the heater was not working.
At 6:00 I was so cold I could no longer sleep, and at 7:45 a generator started and lights began to come on. We had to pay R3.00 to enter the park, and at seven thirty went though the gates. There were not many varieties of animals in the park – just buck that looked like impala, but were smaller, with shorter horns, that we thought might be gemsbok, and some bigger ones that, but for their horns, looked and ran like horses. Both were incredibly graceful beasts. City slickers that we were, we failed to realise that the smaller animals were springbok, and the bigger ones were gemsbok, the first time it had ever seen either in the wild. And when one saw the gemsbok from the side, so that their two horns looked like a single one, it seemed that that could have given rise to the legend of the unicorn.
It was seventy-five miles through the park, and we had a speed limit of 25 miles per hour, so it was after ten by the time we reached the other gate, where we again filled up with petrol, and crossed the border into South West. It was the only country that I could then visit without a passport, as it was then ruled by South Africa, which was trying to incorporate it. I had returned from two years of study in the UK a year earlier, on 19 July 1968, and my passport had been confiscated by the Security Police within a month. Seven years later there would be another country I could visit without a passport, when the Transkei became “independent”.
We drove along a dirt road through very barren desert country for ages, at the bottom of a valley most of the time, so there was an oppressive hemmed in feeling. We passed a town called Gochas, built on a hill, away from the crossroads, so we only saw it at a distance, and Stampriet – two garages, a general store, and a police station. If the people on the Vanzylsrust road seemed remote, how much more so were these? And yet it didn’t feel as remote. It was remote in the middle rather than remote at the edge, and that seems different, somehow. About a year later I was working as a proofreader on the Windhoek Advertiser, which published a news item to the effect that a ladies hairdresser in Gochas was going to Stampriet once a fortnight to ply her trade in the hotel there, so that the ladies of Stampriet didn’t have to travel to Gochas to get their hair done.
As we drove, Dave told me about some of the people I would meet in Windhoek. I was going there to see if I could work for the Anglican Church there. I had been fired six weeks earlier by the Anglican bishop of Natal for organising a psychedelic service at a parish church in Durban, and had taken refuge in the Orthodox Church, and might have joined it then had not Dave de Beer brought a message from Colin Winter, the Anglican bishop in Namibia, to go and see him about the possibility of working there. I eventually did join the Orthodox Church about 15 years later, but I think God wanted me to experience more of the variety of southern Africa before I did so.
It was the period of hippies, war protests, and the underground press. A friend in England had sent me a radical Christian magazine, The Catonsville Roadrunner, which was named for the Catonsville Nine, a group of Americans who had been jailed for protesting against the Vietnam War by burning military conscription records. In another blog post I mentioned Jim Forest, the bosser up of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, who, at the very time we were barrelling through the Kalahari, was in jail in Wisconsin for similar activity — he was a member of the Milwaukee 14. I was involved with a youth group of the Christian Institute in Durban, and we decided to produce a similar magazine in South Africa, called Ikon. My cousin Jenny Aitchison and her husband John were also involved in it, though John’s participation had to be kept secret, as he was banned, and forbidden to have anything to do with preparing any material for publication, and could go to jail if the police found out. Ikon proved to be too radical for the Christian Institute, which disowned it, and we had decided to produce it independently. Dave de Beer had just joined the editorial board of Ikon.
We linked Ikon to the Cosmic Circuit — which was described by its organiser, Muz Murray (editor of Gandalf’s Garden), as an exchange of “underground, upground and overground publications”. Ikon was something of all three. As a result of the exchange we received all kinds of publications from all over the world. The Underground Press was flourishing in the USA, with newspapers printed in all colours of the rainbow giving news of the youth counterculture and attempts to create an alternative society, and above all anti-war. The “overground” section was spiritual, some Christian, like The Catonsville Roadrunner and some Jesus Freak publications, some aligned aligned to the New Age movement of the Age of Aquarius, and a few belonged to the newly-emerging neopagan movement. The variety was enormous, and we were to see it all in the rather staid and conservative colonial outpost of Windhoek, where safari-suited South African bureaucrats were to perceive our activities as an extreme danger (“uiterse gevaar”, the words of one secret government report) to the security of the state.
We reached Mariental at about 2:30 pm, 24 hours after leaving Johannesburg, but it seemed like much longer. We bought petrol there, and there were two refrigerators for cold drinks, one marked “blankes” (whites) and the other “nie-blankes” (non-whites). The one for “nie-blankes” was empty. From there we had a tarred road again – the first since Hotazel, 400 miles ago – and the journey seemed to go more quickly. The car flew along until we had just passed Rehoboth, about fifty miles south of Windhoek, where there was an end of the desert, and a beginning of mountains and lowveld scrub. And there, going uphill at 75 miles an hour, the car blew off its plastic radiator cap, which had held for a thousand miles. We made a new cap, and then found the bonnet would not close, as the bar holding the catch had rusted away, and so we had to tie it down with wire. Then we went on to Windhoek, travelling more slowly, and the country became more and more hilly, rather like the Magaliesberg, and then, over the last hill, we came to Windhoek, which itself looked rather like a mini-Pretoria. A very verkramp place, says Dave. It was rumoured that at a confirmation in the Lutheran Church many of the candidates were presented with copies of Mein Kampf, though another version of the story said it was pictures of Adolf Hitler.
I met Colin Winter, the Anglican Bishop of Damaraland, a couple of days later, and decided to go and work there as a self-supporting deacon (though I had no idea what my means of support would be). Colin Winter, Dave de Beer and I were deported from Namibia two and a half years later, but I’ve already told that story elsewhere. So 20 July 1969 was a significant day in my life. It felt a bit like Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl!, driving cross-country for 72 hours to see if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out eternity. And we did learn from the newspapers that the Americans had reached the moon, and a few weeks later pictures of the moon landing appeared in Scope, a magazine that in those days was the would-be arbiter of South African culture. We showed it to another deacon, 90-year-old Petrus Nghandi from Ovamboland, who was also visiting Windhoek for the first time, and for him his first visit was a new experience in a different way. It was the first time in his life he had ever tasted ice cream.