minis and MONSTERS

Many of the younger generation field sports people today can’t imagine a world without capable 4x4s. But when I was young, capable off-road vehicles were scarce, and you either had to do without them or stay at home.
Issue date: 20 April 2007

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The largest operating monster in the world is Pretoria-based “Fat Foot”. It’s powered by a 7,4-litre big block Chevy engine that kicks out 800hp.

Many of the younger generation field sports people today can’t imagine a world without capable 4x4s. But when I was young, capable off-road vehicles were scarce, and you either had to do without them or stay at home.

Let’s face it, an off-road vehicle is always a compromise: the better it is on-road the worse it is off-road and vice versa. That’s why many modern so-called 4x4s are actually dual-purpose road cars. When I was young I was forced to take this concept to the extreme. With the academic year and university exams behind us, my friend and I felt as free as birds as we packed my little blue Mini and hit the open road northwards – destination unknown.

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Our budget was small, but fuel was as cheap as water and we had enough food. My friend knew a farmer north of Haenertsburg who had a farm in the Wolkberg, so we decided to go there and spend some time in the mountains. But to get there we either had to walk or use an off-road vehicle. Walking was not an option for me and the Mini was all had, so like many times before the Mini had to take me where wanted to go.

My friend was Ben van der Waal, later well-known ichthyologist and university professor who now lives on the bank of the Zambezi in Caprivi. We were both interested in reptiles, especially snakes and little did know that this interest would lead to my first job as Nature Conservation’s first herpetologist.

Arriving on the farm we discovered that in our haste we had forgotten our tent, so after sampling the farmer’s home brew, we borrowed a bucksail and set off through the veld with the Mini towards the mountain. It was tough and Ben had to walk in front to guide me and remove the stones in my way. We got quite far, but eventually had to leave the Mini and continue on foot. Climbing with my crutches to the top of an enormous bush-covered granite hill, selected a campsite under a huge broad-leaved coral tree whose gigantic dry leaves would make good fire starters. Meanwhile, Ben laboured to get everything, including the heavy bucksail to where waited, before a storm that was brewing would be upon us. Being too tired to construct a proper shelter, he only managed to drape the bucksail over two huge boulders before the rain came pelting down.
That night the biggest electric storm I’ve ever experienced broke loose around us. It was like being attacked by artillery and it seemed that every second lightning bolt struck our hilltop, while an overwhelming sulphur smell hung in the air. The next morning was up early and while waiting for the coffee water to boil on a smoking fire, heard a slithering noise coming from a wide crack in one of the boulders that formed part of our shelter. climbed onto the rock, looked down the crack and made the startling discovery that it was a huge mamba sliding along the crack on a bed of dry leaves from the coral tree. yelled to Ben to come and look and, jumping up from his slumber he tried to rip open his sleeping bag, but only managed to get his pajamas jammed into the teeth of the zip, forcing him to scramble up the rock like a worm in a cocoon. That mountain literally crawled with mambas and during the next few days we saw more of them than saw the rest of my life.

Whenever we collected firewood, climbed around the mountain to hunt dassies or fetched water from the spring we noticed mambas in trees or on the rocks. Every night before tucking in we checked to see if our 4m-long mamba was safely in its crack next to our beds. That it is dangerous to camp on a hilltop is proven by the fact that we found many “lightning tubes” in the sand around the rocks of our campsite. These are irregular-shaped hollow silica pipes, formed when the sand melts where a lightning bolt strikes the earth.
We made many interesting mamba observations and saw how they waited at aloe flowers to catch sunbirds feeding on nectar and even discovered a mamba nest, from which removed four eggs to hatch at home. Two of them did and within two years the hatchlings grew to over 2m long.

I think I was an outdoors person from birth and if were to grow up in a time when off-road vehicles or bikes were as readily available as today, I would have thought I was born in seventh heaven. But instead I was born during the Second World War. My father was a railway worker and my mother grew flowers to sell door to door. Life was not easy.

’ When I had to go to university transport became an issue and my father helped me buy a car. All we could afford was a second- hand Mini, which we converted to hand controls. Suddenly I had legs. It was a stock standard 850cc but I could now drive where I could not walk and started my lifestyle of going to those remote and secret places my soul yearned for, where there were no roads.

So apart from all its other duties, the little blue Mini became my all-terrain vehicle. A Mini is not built for this but I was forced to use it, and it often added spice to the adventure. Later I acquired a second Mini with which I had even more exciting off-road adventures, but eventually the time came when I could buy my first real 4×4. At the time only five off-road vehicles were available in SA, of which only International was prepared to supply me with a 4×4 fitted with an automatic transmission. So I bought a half-ton International truck, complete with load-box sides modified into cupboards for camping gear. By fitting a removable camper I created a self-contained, go-anywhere vehicle.

This vehicle must have made a lasting impression on my two sons, who made off-road vehicles their bread and butter. Today they own and operate one of the major Land Rover centres in the country and Jaq, the eldest son, went even further. He built a real monster Land Rover named “Fat Foot”. It is the biggest Landy in the country and one of the biggest in the world.

To some extent the adventure days when you really needed a good off-road vehicle to get to places like Sodwana, Kosi Bay and many others are no more. There are now reasonable, although deteriorating, roads to almost every corner of SA. You can get there quickly in that shiny, high-performance 4×4, but once you get there, there’s very little you can do with it but park it on the beach. The adventure I had can never be replaced by driving through mud holes or over obstacles without any desirable destination on the other side. To me a 4×4 was only a means to a goal and somehow I feel sorry for the thousands today who own the means, but to whom it has become the goal. – Abré J Steyn Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 253 4822. |fw