So one day when I was a journalist at Scope, I realise that due to various family commitments and unforeseen bills I need to generate some extra cash.
I would take a few days’ leave and head off somewhere with photographer Les Bush and we would find some stories and sell them off to various magazines. Maybe even right back to Scope itself, under various pseudonyms.
On a bleak day in November, we pack an igloo tent, pickled fish, notebooks, beer and cameras.
Like Vikings heading off to raid Britain, we greet the women and children of our village and sail off in my tired old electric green Renault Nine.
Driving east with Les Bush, La Grange at full volume, I am dreaming of my share of the proceeds of 10 freelance stories.
What I should be pondering on is a week in a rained-out leaky little tent, smelly socks, dodgy public facilities, cold showers, cheap whisky and campsite tap water.
No PR Hand Maidens Here
Where the heck are my PR hand maidens when I need them? Where’s my fluffy gift, my Irish bed linen, the little chocolate heart on my pillow?
We arrive at Hazyview village north of White River and west of the Kruger National Park and go looking for somewhere to pitch our tent.
Damn, it’s raining out there!
For a Scope fellow like me, rain is normally rather charming. It’s something you gaze at fondly as you order room service and chug on your first mini-bar beer of the day. Like Dave Mullany the Scope editor would say:
“The pay was kak but boy, did we ramble!”
But this, for Les and me, is Freelance Week. The Gravy Train don’t stop at this station.
Everything is for your own account.
“Bush, I can’t get the hang of this bloody tent. The pegs won’t stay put.”
The next day I have to conduct important interviews with, among others, the town clerk of Nelspruit.
Pickled Fish for Breakfast
For the occasion, I am dressed in wet grey socks, damp jeans and a funky shirt that smells like a well-used Rockey Street night club ashtray.
The Renault chugs into life. I try to keep down my pickled fish breakfast. Les Bush is humming happily beside me. He knows this gig. He’s been freelance for ten years now.
Thank God the town clerk has gone fishing for the day. No good for Story Number 1, but good for me right now.
I can splash out on a corner café brunch that does not come out of a tin with the label rained off.
Les Bush says no. Freelancers do not blow their yet-to-be-earned profits on mixed grills from Greek cafes. They eat road vittles.
I hate road vittles.
Our next story venture is about a guy who owns a nuclear bomb shelter near Barberton in the Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga). I’ve met him before, back in my newspaper days with the Rand Daily Mail.
I remember him as a young firebrand, full of ideas for fallout showers, radiation chambers, sensitivity tanks and a whole tract of sweet potato land wired for sound.
No longer. Mr Bomb Shelter now runs a butchery in Barberton.
He shakes my hand. His fingers are dripping with the blood of a slain beast. Then, after shaking, he wipes his hand on his butcher’s apron.
I step outside into the rain for a minute or so, to clean up in my natural, freelance way.
Bad news. This man no longer owns a wonderful nuclear bomb shelter in the mountains. He lost the whole shebang in a recent divorce.
“How about a couple of nice pork chops?” he offers instead.
That initial list of 10 Freelance Stories I had neatly typed out has been eaten up by the rain and the tent.
No matter, because it’s all turned to rubbish anyhow.
The Stunned Monkey
Now we’re heading from White River to Sabie to find and interview its first female mayor.
“I know a shortcut,” I assure Les. “Where I once met a stunned monkey.”
There is silence in the vehicle. Bush is thinking on that.
“OK, I’ll bite. What’s this about a stunned monkey?”
I tell him the story. About how some time back I was driving on this road when a vervet monkey came hurtling out of the fields nearby and right into my front bumper.
“I stopped the car and inspected the monkey. It lay still and I thought it was dead. Just then, a minibus full of passengers stopped next to my car.
“The driver asked me for the monkey. Said he wanted it for muti. I said fine, the monkey’s on me.
“I lit a smoke and watched the minibus pull off. About 500 metres down the road, it began to swerve all over the place.
“Then it stopped, the passengers peeled out and so did the very alive monkey. And it looked really pissed off.”
“Is this the kind of stuff you’re going to write about this trip?” asks Bush.
“Because if it is, then you have to drop me off at the nearest bus stop…”
This is an extract from The Journey Man – A South African Reporter’s Stories by Chris Marais.
“It’s like sitting in a journo bar listening to old hacks tell their funniest, sauciest stories.”
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