Bull Run | Running with the old bulls
Thirty men, twelve old cars and the open road. Even before the start of the first South African Bull Run you could sense something big was about to happen. Gerrie van Eeden went along on this epic journey to Verneukpan and beyond. And yes, they will do it again.
If you were recently travelling through the Karoo and saw men with gas masks, white overalls and a paint-splashed convoy of cars older than thirty years on the roadside, you weren’t dreaming.
They were competitors in the first South African Bull Run, the unofficial brother of an episode of the British TV programme Top Gear, wherein Jeremy Clarkson and his fellow presenters crossed the Makgadikgadi Pan and the Okavango in wrecks cheaper than R15 000.
Hermie Koen and Rieger van Rooyen hit on the idea. They planned to crisscross the Western and Northern Cape’s gravel roads in four-door sedans older than 30 years that cost no more than R15 000. They challenged their friends to join them.
The group grew from an initial four competitors to the twelve cars that left Cape Town early one winter’s morning.
Each car had a name. Each one had a story too. There was an old hearse, somebody’s mother’s old Chev and a canary yellow Peugeot station wagon with grass on the roof.
The oldest wheels was a 1956 Wolseley of the brothers Michael and Greg Cummings. It was the cheapest car too, and apart from a flat wheel, the only one that gave no problems. They had bought the car, the shocks of which were shot, for less than R3000 and simply fitted new tyres. The corrugated gravel roads shook the dust out of every crack.
Then there were two Mercedes-Benzes (a 1971 280 S and a 1981 200), a 1972 Chev Kommando, a 1976 Chev Constantia, a 1976 Datsun 300C, a 1977 Ford Granada, a 1978 Toyota Cressida station wagon, a 1976 Peugeot 404 station wagon, a 1984 Mitsubishi Tredia and a 1966 Volvo 122S.
I went along in relative comfort in a Land Cruiser bakkie with Rohan Schoeman. We were the support crew and the only vehicle that had some confidence that we wouldn’t run into trouble.
The Cruiser towed a trailer that could carry a car. It also carried boxes of stationery and clothes to be handed out to schools along the way, a spare wheel for each car, jerry cans and tools.
Day 1: Cape Town to Calvinia
Spacemen in the Karoo
The first stop is at the home near Paarl of the rally legend Sarel van der Merwe. He shakes his head in disbelief when Ivan Britz and his co-driver, Dirk Joubert, get out of Dustbin (the Datsun 300C) dressed in safari suits. They look like the government ministers of old, on holiday…
It is something to behold – twelve vehicles covered in colourful stickers, some with themes like Blue Bulls, zef (Zefmobile) and rally (Witwolf had some rally car characteristics). And they all contain everything needed to survive for six days – from fridges, bedrolls and folding tables to a surf board. It’s not something you see every day. Not even if your name is SuperVan.
We continue in the direction of Ceres to our starting point – the R355 Tanqua Karoo road. It is South Africa’s longest uninterrupted gravel road. And the road’s shale is notorious for cutting tyres like butter. Now I understand why the guys insisted on extra spare wheels on the trailer.
Earlier, Rieger van Rooyen, Hermie Koen’s co-driver in Witwolf (the Volvo 122S) laid down the convoy rules. They drive in front and we, the support crew, at the back. And if you want to call someone on the radio, you use the name of the car – Witwolf, Dustbin, Red Barron, The Undertaker; it sounds as if we are going to war…
Pg. 2 | Cape Town to Calvinia
The backside of Sputnik (the Mitsubishi Tredia) is sagging with all the luggage it is carrying. Barely 50 km down the 208 km gravel road a sharp stone slices through the petrol tank and petrol gushes out.
The convoy is already spread out. I radio a message to the front: “Witwolf, Witwolf, come in. Sputnik is leaking petrol like a screen door. We are pulling over to fix it.”
Soon all the cars are parked on the roadside and the competitors are watching the drama unfold. Rohan and the Sputnik team (Jos Hartog, Vernon Parkins and Michael White) – dressed in white overalls and gas masks to look like spacemen – are trying to stop the leak.
Three hours later – after everyone has finished braaiing, a Pretoria family has stopped to watch the spectacle, Sputnik’s leak has been plugged with Pratley Putty and each car has some more colour courtesy of a paintball gun – we hit the road again.
We haven’t gone far before the Gazelle becomes the next victim: the first flat tyre. By the way, this Ford Granada has a cool box instead of a front passenger seat – all passengers enjoy the ride from the back seat.
The wheel is changed in a jiffy and the convoy moves again, only to stutter to a halt 100 m further as Neelsie (the 1956 Wolseley) is hit by another flat tyre. Before Rohan and I can get out of the car to help, the wheel has already been changed. The Cummings brothers don’t waste time and could teach a Formula 1 pit crew a trick or two.
The sun is setting over the Tanqua Karoo on the early winter’s afternoon and soon after we pull into Calvinia Caravan Park, without any more flat tyres.
Fortunately, we don’t have to cook tonight – the men from Hantam Meat in Calvinia are braaiing Karoo lamb and everybody is up late discussing the strengths of the various vehicles. Tomorrow is the big day on Verneukpan where tough questions will be asked of driver and vehicle. Tomorrow is the day you can show that you have backbone.
Pg. 3 | Calvinia to Verneukpan
Day 2: Calvinia to Verneukpan
That was the plan…
From the initial stages of the project the competition between the teams was stiff. Each team had to suggest a challenge, a small competition of sorts, beforehand.
First up on a fresh Calvinia morning is the bokdrolspoeg competition. The victors, Hermie and Rieger from Team Witwolf, walk away with brand-new sunglasses.
But we’re also here on more serious business. As many Northern Cape communities are struggling, the organisers have decided to make a small contribution in the towns we visit. Money was collected beforehand to buy clothes, stationery and sports equipment.
Our first stop is the Hantam Primary School in Calvinia. Hundreds of school kids are waiting when we get there. They are truly grateful and here and there a grown man tries to hide a teary eye. But it is played down as the result of an “inexplicable dust cloud that whipped up over the rugby field”.
Hantam Meat follows up their whopping dinner with a knock-out breakfast and just before 11am we leave Calvinia on the R27 in the direction of Brandvlei. The technical problems a few cars picked up is sorted out and spirits are running high.
At Brandvlei we fill up and get hyped up at the Windpomp Bar before tackling the gravel road to Verneukpan. The plan is to get there just after 3pm to tackle some challenges before sundown.
Pitch black with a white coffin on the roof, The Undertaker of Heinr
ich Siepker (Siepie) and Gideon Pienaar (Giepie) was a hearse in its day. The coffin on top of the Chev Constantia (they made room to sleep in the back) serves as a cool box.
Some 40 km from Verneukpan, The Undertaker has a slight disagreement with a drift and our chances to reach the pan before sundown goes out the window. The steering arm of the left front wheel is kaput and the Chev’s chance of a speedy recovery looks slim.
A sticker on the mudguard above the lame front wheel proclaims, “die een se dood is die ander se brood”, and few in the group miss the opportunity to wonder aloud what it could mean in this instance. Only after they’d recovered from the shock could Giepie and Siepie laugh along.
Rohan and I leave the convoy behind and push on to Verneukpan. It’s a bad road with many farm gates that I have to open and close. On the pan, the crew of The Dustbin, Neelsie and the Red Barron (Craig Sharland’s 1971 Mercedes) who have already arrived, help us unpack the trailer. We return to fetch the crippled Chev.
We stop to watch the beautiful sunset over Verneukpan. It is deep dusk when we struggle to push The Undertaker onto the trailer and creep back to the pan.
Now everyone is relaxing and chatting about tomorrow’s exciting programme on the pan: drag racing, reverse racing, a golf competition, chicane racing, handbrake turns…
Pg. 4 | Verneukpan to Keimoes
Day 3: Verneukpan to Keimoes
Blue Bulls, golf balls and speed on the pan
Verneukpan has been the scene of many a land-speed record attempt. Sir Malcolm Campbell in his Bluebird is probably the most well-known. He failed in his attempt to beat the world record in 1929. Today, cars older than 30 years will also be driving fast – fortunately, a lot slower than the 483 km/h Campbell was aiming for.
As the sun rises over Verneukpan the guys start stirring after a cold night on the plains. To find help, Rohan and Giepie left early with the Cruiser and the kaput Undertaker on the trailer.
A light drizzle wakes us all up – if the rain really comes down we will be stuck here till next summer. Fortunately, it soon clears up and after everyone has had their morning coffee, we start the competitions.
The first challenge is a speed test. The Gazelle, a 1977 Ford Granada, with a V6 under the bonnet and Johan van Rooyen, Martin van Staden and Barend Thompson in the cabin, coasts through the 3 km course in the fastest time.
Next up is the reverse race. Rudi van Rooyen and Jaco Buys in the Zefmobile – a bright yellow Toyota Cressida with fur on the dashboard and more leopard-print than you’ll find in Joan Collins’ wardrobe, are loathe to strain their engine. When it is their turn, they stop halfway. They take their time topping up their drinks and casually drive on in the Cressida with side mirrors sagging like old dust cloths. Once again, Witwolf reigns supreme.
Next up is the golf competition. The rock-hard ground causes a golf ball to keep on rolling once it’s been hit – not the ideal circumstances if you want to be closest to the pin. Team Gazelle also wins this challenge and, brimming with confidence, Johan slides behind the wheel for the chicane race. But the Old Lady (a 1981 Mercedes full of Bulls supporters) has other ideas. This time it’s Pieter Prinsloo, Wihann Laufs and Koster Loggenberg that pose for the winners’ picture in their Blue Bulls jerseys.
The last competition before we hit the road is a drag race with all the cars lining up simultaneously. Courtesy of the Chev Kommando Betta’s speed and momentum, Schalk Laubscher (it was his mother’s car) and Pieter Keyser, cross the line first.
We say goodbye to Verneukpan and leave to start looking for The Undertaker.
Herman Lintvelt owns a general dealer with a big yard in Kenhardt. When Rohan and Giepie arrived at the fuel station with the limping Undertaker and asked who could help them, they were sent here. Herman loves Chevs and will restore with great care any old Chev he can lay his hands on.
After the arrival of The Undertaker, he shows them where they can get parts from a similar Chev that is standing in a field. He opens his workshops so they can use his tools and goes home for lunch.
All he would accept as payment is a bottle of red wine. The Undertaker joins the convoy underway to Keimoes. After dark we arrive at Die Punt Caravan Park in Keimoes and camp for the night.
Pg. 5 | Keimoes to Klein-Pella
Day 4: Keimoes to Klein-Pella
This is a shortcut?
From Keimoes to Klein-Pella we travel mostly on the tar of the N14, past Kakamas to Pofadder.
We spend some time at the well-known Pienk Padstal near Kakamas and at a workshop where a hole or two in some of the vehicles’ exhausts are repaired. Rohan also fiddles with the Red Barron’s carburettor to get it going again.
We make another quick stop at the Augrabies Falls and then push on to the Pofadder Hotel.
After filling up the last couple of tanks, we plan to head to Pella, where we will give more clothes and stationery to the school next to the Catholic church.
From there we will continue to Klein-Pella where we will spend the night. It should be a relatively easy ride and there is a palpable excitement that we will make it to the campsite before sunset. For once.
On the gravel road between the N14 and Pella the guys encourage each other on the radio to put pedal to the metal: “Sputnik, let go of the handbrake!”, “Jannie, Jannie, put foot!”
At Pella, the teachers and some kids are waiting. Once again there’s a teary eye here and there before we head out to Klein-Pella. The guys feel they would like to do even more for the kids next time.
The easy option to Klein-Pella is to follow the gravel road back to the N14 and turn onto a gravel road that leads to this small village just before you reach the tar road.
However, there is a shortcut – a jeep track that eliminates this extra driving and goes straight to Klein-Pella from Pella. The road gets used daily to transport workers to and from the date plantations. But that isn’t done in 30-year-old crocks…
Barely 3 km down this jeep track we start running into some thick sand that slows us down a bit. The Groot-Pella Mountains glows red in the late afternoon sunlight as the old cars doggedly manage to cross the increasingly difficult obstacles.
What started as a shortcut turns into a detour. Not chosen for their exceptional ground clearance, these old cars loose rust and paint as they scrape over rocks. They have to speed uphill to gather enough momentum to reach the top.
It’s pitch dark as a row of lights turn into Klein-Pella. A farmer pulls up next us and says he has to come see for himself that his eyes weren’t deceiving him. “The only things that ever comes through on that road are horses and farm bakkies! How did you do it?”
With difficulty, sir.
We set up camp after dark, yet again.
Pg. 6 | Klein-Pella to Clanwilliam
“One of our bottles of brandy has gone missing!” a wide-eyed Jannie du Toit tells me. He and his partner, Jan Rabe, suspect someone of stealing their liquor. I walk with him to Geletjie, his chockfull bright-yellow Peugeot 404 station wagon. There’s hardly space
for a field mouse, never mind an extra bottle of brandy.
The rest of the group has been watching the packing an unpacking of Geletjie with interest since the first day. Heaven knows how they fit everything in.
A set of kudu and gemsbok horns are mounted on the front of the roof rack, under which there is a patch of synthetic lawn – purpose unknown. On top of the roof rack is a surfboard and other boxes that are tied on. In the load bay there are enough batteries and inverters to power Cape Town’s lights for a week.
You have no idea what could be hidden inside this chaotic system. That was proved on the first day when someone was looking for a bucket and a pipe to stem the leak in Sputnik’s tank. Jan produced a brand-new garden hose and bucket.
But the cherry on top are the security lights that Jannie shows me. It reacts to movement. “If somebody gets close to our fridge, the lights will switch on immediately. That way we will see who the brandy thief is.”
The missing bottle was found underneath one of the seats the next morning…
Day 5: Klein-Pella to Clanwilliam
We will do this again
After handing out the last clothes and colouring crayons to the crèche in Klein-Pella we hit the road back to Pofadder. This time we take the easy road to prevent a repeat of last night’s performance. Dustbin’s broken petrol pump is replaced in Pofadder before, en route to Kliprand, we tackle the straightest piece of gravel road I have ever seen.
The road continues for nearly 150 km before you need to turn for the first time. Near Van Rhynsdorp the road joins the N7 and we continue to Clanwilliam.
Tonight we’ll have a prize-giving ceremony at De Kelder in Clanwilliam. We pull in at the Clanwilliam Damt to camp – the first time we can do it in daylight. The guys pitch their tents and relax for the first time in five days.
The trip was a spectacle, and, even better, it’s a spectacle that will be repeated. Next year’s Bull Run is already being discussed – and Jan and Jannie’s Geletjie “apparently starts itself on the sly at night” – ready for the next time…