The Homeward Trudge - Another Night Shift Ends
Every Picture Tells A Story (Don't it?) 28. Early days - Three months in South Africa, 1975
Photo: From memory, this is near the small town of Breyten, eastern Transvaal, during the first week of a three-month stint in South Africa starting in late September, 1975. In and of itself, the short story behind this picture is that we clambered out of our rented VW hoping to photograph any steam locomotives at work in the dull, pre-dawn light. We did, indeed catch one near a level crossing, and after the train had passed, and the gates opened, I spotted this scene of black miners on their way home after a night shift. Even though it was early in the trip, and I had fears of running out of film (and money to buy more), I thought this scene too poignant to miss.
In this day and age of the internet, with the likes airbnb and tripadviser, it's almost impossible to describe what it was like to take off from London Heathrow and arrive in a land ten thousand miles away the next afternoon with only a sketchy idea of where we would go, what prices were and indeed, whether we had enough money to last our stay. Jake, my photographer pal, and I each carried £300 or so sterling, the legal limit in those days of exchange control, for anyone leaving the UK. Of course, among such uncertainty, we had no idea whatsoever where we would stay.
These were the days of apartheid, of course. We made our way from Jan Smuts airport into central Johannesburg and found ourselves at the Hotel Elizabeth, very near the main station. I think it cost only about £5 each a night, and was quite luxurious by our standards. The next day, in a bank queue, I got talking to someone who, when they heard that we planned to go out into the countryside photographing trains, immediately said: "Get a gun!"
On the Saturday, we moved out of Johannesburg, through the Rand, to the mining town of Springs. The landscape here was peppered not with ugly black slag heaps, as in Durham, Fife, South Wales or the Ruhr, but with huge mounds of golden waste, appropriately enough from gold mines - although, ironically, the golden colour had nothing to do with the precious metal, which was found in narrow strips of black ore thousands of feet below ground.
We were still trying to feel our way around and work out what we could achieve. We found an even cheaper hotel, where for no apparent reason a huge white fellow threatened to beat me up on the stairs. When someone else again advised we get a gun, we really wondered what we had come to. Equally worrying, even though the hotels were cheap, we realised we would run out of money within two months unless we could cut our daily expenses.
Jake and I assessed our finances and decided we would, indeed, become rand-less whatever we did, but to get the best deal, we might as well hire a car and sleep in it, rather than rely on the sparse train service to get around, rather slowly, in what is a pretty vast country.
This way, at least, we would get to many otherwise inaccessible and hopefully photogenic locations. We would, as it were, run out of cash in style, even if that was our own quirky choice of style.
So it was that on the Monday we returned to Johannesburg and rented a VW Beetle, the plan being to drive around the north of the country for a month, before taking a train to the south and hiring a second car there. After that, well, it got a bit vague.
There was one ray of light shining on our plight, however: the price of gold was falling, and with that, the value of the South African currency: the pound in our pockets, for once, was worth more by the day.
Now the deal on the car was that for a fixed price - I forget, but it was probably something like £140 - we got one month's hire with 1,000km free, after which we had to pay 3 rand cents per kilometre on the clock.
The fixed fee, of course, ate into our reserves, but provided us with around 28 nights of 'accommodation', which was a crucial part of our survival equation.
Now as we headed east, past the Springs hotel with the thug on the stairs, we left the mining areas and entered open farmland. The railway line here was single-track, running parallel with the road and with a station and passing loop every 6-8 miles. This meant that there was no great rush: we had time to spy out what we thought were good locations, because once a train had passed, it would usually be at least 20 minutes before another could possibly appear.
Then one of us - I forget who - had a brainwave: as an experiment, let's drive backwards, and see if it wound down the clock? And lo! That is exactly what it did. So from then on, we spent as much time (if not more) driving backwards down the dirt roads towards Swaziland as we did in the more traditional mode. (Actually, Jake did the driving, I was looking for photo locations as I had no licence.)
This caused total bewilderment among the natives, who would stand as if transfixed in their fields and among their huts watching us pass. If we happened to drive (backwards) down a track it would cause even more confusion when we get out, tossed a corn (this was to see who had first choice of photographic location) and stomped off to set up cameras.
Typically, within 20 minutes a train would appear, we would take pics, return to the car, pack our gear and drive off - backwards.
I could see them, through the front windscreen, staring in amazement as we disappeared in the distance. The two in that white Beetle were certainly odd bwanas.
(To be continued)