Thursday, June 30, 2011

East London Grand Prix

I recently paid a nostalgic visit to the East London Grand Prix circuit on the West Bank, and tried to rekindle the astonishing joys I experienced as a young boy watching the world’s greatest racing drivers in action in the early 1960s.

A rather stylish (ahem) Toyota Yaris is parked on the grid at the East London Grand Prix Circuit during my recent visit there.

The Grand Prix was a huge event, even back, then, with Norman Hickel writing on one website, East London Labyrinth, that the 1962 race attracted 90 000 spectators. I was one of them, aged about 6.

Beacon Bend is the hairpin bend in the distance, with the little hill behind being "Hill Sixty", where my dad took us to watch the Grand Prix in the early 1960s.

But how did little old East London come to host this major event? Well the website tells us that in the early 1930s, the municipality constructed a circular road on the West Bank. The then motoring editor of the Daily Dispatch, Brud Bishop, decided it would make a good race track. As any journalist would do, he wrote about it and the idea grew wings. Having been born in the UK, he used his contacts abroad to attract entries. “The entries from abroad gave the event international status and it became known as The South African Grand Prix,” writes Hickel.

The view down the main straight. Was the track narrower than most F1 circuits today?

He continues: “The date set for the first South African Grand Prix was 27 December 1934. Even the old steel bridge over the Buffalo River played a part, as the bridge had just been completed but not yet officially opened.

“Mr Bishop drove to Pretoria to meet with the Minister of Railways and invited him to be the Master of Ceremonies at the Grand Prix, and officially open the bridge at the same time. Hence it was that the Honorable Mr [Oswald] Pirow officiated and presented the Barnes trophy to the winner of the race, which was attended by 42 000 spectators.

“Further South African Grands Prix took place from 1936 through to 1939, after Potter's Pass had been introduced to avoid racing through the township of West Bank. This shortened the track to 11 miles and 57 yards and it was thereupon named the Prince George Circuit. It is estimated that a crowd of 82 000 attended the 1936 race.

The East London circuit is not far from a rugged coastline. This is a view from around the West Bank Golf Course towards Cove Rock, the promontory visible in the distance - and very reminiscent of the one at Kwaaihoek in my previous posting, where the Dias cross is situated.

“Interest in motor racing was kept alive after the war by racing on the Esplanade at East London, as the old circuit had been affected by the introduction of the new airport.

“The year 1959, however, saw the opening of the new Grand Prix circuit as we know it today, cutting through the old shooting range. It measured 2.4 miles in length.

“The 6th South African Grand Prix took place in January 1960 on the new track and drew a crowd of 50 000. The 7th took place in December 1960, while the 8th happened in December 1961 and drew 67 000 spectators.

“The 9th Grand Prix took place in December 1962 and was to be the decider for the world championship. It drew 90 000 spectators.

“The 10th Grand Prix took place in 1963 and drew a crowd of 40 000, while the 11th in January 1965 drew 50 000 spectators.

“The 12th and last Grand Prix took place January 1966. It thereupon moved to Kyalami in 1967.”

I am indebted to the website,, for this map of the East London circuit. Notice the wonderful simplicity of the track. To my mind it has the ideal mix of long and short straights, tight and gentle corners. If anyone's offended by the old SA flag, they should check out the official F1 website, where the nationality of drivers is denoted by their country's flag at the time.

Our thanks to Mr Hickel for that info. But who was involved in these races and were they official Formula One events? Well another site,, reveals that “the first modern South African GP took place [in East London] in 1960 and was run to Formula Libre regulations - as racing cars were scarce - but in 1962 the South Africans won a place as the finale for the Formula 1 World Championship, and would host the event until 1966 (the final race being a non-championship one).

The distinctive moustache of Graham Hill. Note the very simple safety belt.

"Wikipedia tells us that the first Grand Prix on the new circuit was held in 1960 and that there were two races, with Stirling Moss winning one in a Porsche, and Paul Frere the other in a Cooper-Climax.

The 1961 event was won by Jim Clark in a Lotus Climax. Then came the first official F1 Grand Prix, which took place in East London on December 29, 1962, and was attended by nearly 100 000 people. A huge event, in other words.

Hill was famous for his crash helmet with white lines painted on it. His son, Damon, would replicate these on his helmet.

My dad used to always head for what we knew as “Hill 60”. This was probably an ordnance survey description of a small hillock overlooking Beacon Bend, on the far west end of the circuit.

It commanded views of cars coming out of The Esses on our right, negotiating the hairpin bend and then screaming off down the main straight, past the pits on the right and under Dunlop Bridge, which for us kids was an amazing thing. Shaped like half a tyre, it was a footbridge spanning the main straight. (Check out the layout of the circuit, courtesy of a website,

Anyway, from there the cars would become long, flat shapes as they moved down the far straight and around the gentle Rifle Bend. At Cocabana Corner, another hairpin bend, they’d slow right down before careening back up the Beach Straight and then negotiating The Esses and the Back Straight. It was a miasma of colour, noise and that distinctive smell of high-octane fuel.

So who won that first official SA Grand Prix? Well, the official F1 website tells us it was Graham Hill in a BRM. But Jim Clark would be back on December 28, 1963, to win again in his Lotus. For some reason there was no F1 race in SA in 1964, but the 1965 season kicked off in East London on New Year’s Day, with Clark again victorious. It was a year when he would win six of the 10 races.

Legend. Jim Clark was a hero among us kids growing up in the early 1960s. Tragically, he was killed in a Formula Two racing accident at Hokkenheim in 1968. Wikipedia tells us that at the time he had won more Grand Prix races than any other driver (25) and also had more pole positions (33). From Scotland, he won two world championships, in 1963 and 1965. He also won the Indianapolis 500 in 1965.

The 1966 East London race was again unofficial and was won by Mike Spence, also of Britain, in a Lotus-Climax. That was the year the likes of Jack Brabham in a Brabham, John Surtees in a Cooper-Maserati and also a Ferrari (how did that happen?), along with Jackie Stewart in a BRM, were the main winners. Brabham won four of the nine races.

From 1967, sadly, the race moved to Johannesburg’s Kayalami circuit, with their inaugural event happening on January 2 of that year.

Jim Clark's Lotus, here actually being driven by Martin Brundle. As kids we would race various Dinky cars along our neighbour's lengthy driveway. We'd tie a length of string through the gap for the front axle and pull them along. At one stage the event got so big, the local service station, Els's, donated a metre-long replica of a Ferrari, the one with the side vents, as a prize. Thanks to Google, I discover this was a "Sharknose" and was driven back in 1961 by German driver Wolfgang von Trips (what a name, and his full name is about three times that length!).

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Dias, first European in southern Africa

It has become politically correct in South Africa since 1994 to disparage the European settlement of this country. Given the horrors of apartheid, this is understandable. But the first arrival on these shores of white people over 500 years ago was an inevitable product of the voyages of discovery. And the first of those to “discover” South Africa – or rather a sea route around it to the East – was Portuguese navigator Bartholomew Dias. And the furthest east he came was a point between Port Elizabeth and East London – another historic, nay iconic, first for the province. Earlier this year my family and I visited the site.

We stayed at a beach cottage at Boknes. This was the view west.

A website, South African History Online, gives some background to Dias's journey. It states quite categorically that Bartolomeu (or Barthlolmew) Dias was the “first European known to set foot on South African soil”.

This was the view east, with the promontory on which Dias erected his cross clearly visible.

Born in 1451, the site says the “first mention of his career as ship captain is in an account of an expedition sent by Portuguese King John II to Guinea in December 1481”. Then in December 1487 he sailed down the African coast again, visiting among other places present-day Angola and Walvis Bay, Namibia. “During this voyage, strong winds forced him to sail over a thousand kilometres off-course, and thus he sailed around the southernmost tip of Africa. On 3 February 1488 he landed in Mossel Bay. Dias and his crew sailed further east until they finally turned back in March at, as some historians believe, the mouth of what is today the Great Fish River.

The lagoon at Boknes.

On the return journey, Dias placed three stone crosses on the southern African coast. The first of these, was erected at Kwaaihoek on 12 March 1488. The second was erected at Cape Maclear, west of Cape Point, on 6 June. The third was placed on the Namibian coast on 25 July.

It is a blind river, much like the Bonza Bay River where I grew up, although my mother (aged 85) tells me recent rains have opened it up to the sea.

“It is also believed that on their return journey Dias and his crew saw the Cape Peninsula for the first time. It is generally believed that he called it Cabo Tormentoso, or Cape of Storms, and that King John II then renamed it Cabo de Boa Esperanza, or Cape of Good Hope. Not everybody agrees with this, however, and believes that it was Dias himself who gave the Cape of Good Hope its name.”

The parking lot at Boknesstrand.

Of course such voyages were fraught with danger, and the website tells us this one lasted 16 months and 17 days, but that in 1500 he died when his ship disappeared between Brazil and the east African coast, apparently in a cyclone.

My family set out ahead of me.

So what of the first padrao, or cross, erected by Dias at Kwaaihoek, near the mouth of the Bushmans River? Well, according to this website, it is “seen as South Africa's oldest monument”, no more no less. Of course the politically correct lobby will dismiss this as a Eurocentric view, since there are stone ruins across the country from early African civilisations. But what Dias represents , to me, is the first arrival of Europeans in south Africa, from where our fascinating mixed heritage evolved, with all its attendant ructions and progress.

The view back towards Boknes.

Incredibly, the remains of the cross were only found in 1938 by Professor E Axelson. The website tells us they were collected and sent to the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg for reconstruction and safe-keeping.

Soft, pastel, misty colours. Paradise indeed.

I have found no mention of when the replica was erected on the site, which is a provincial heritage site. Tragically, the marble cross has been badly vandalised and all plaques removed – no doubt for scrap metal. Such is the new South Africa. There is still, I believe, a replica of the cross on the Market Square next to the Port Elizabeth City Hall – donated some time back by the Portuguese government. Of course the new regime is none too happy with this reminder of our colonial past, nor with the statue of Queen Victoria outside the Main Library on the opposite side of the square, which has since been renamed Vuyisile Mini Square, after a struggle figure.

Interesting sand dune and forest formations.

It's about a 4km trek to the promotory, but a lovely walk on a good day.

Getting there.

The headland is a fascinating rock formation.

Mind the gap.

Talk about God's sculptures.

I see the sea.

The view back the way we came.

On the left, as you approach, is this boardwalk, still in good nick, which takes you to the Dias memorial.

The cross, with two visitors already there.

Another view back towards Boknes from atop the promontory.

And looking east, towards Bushmans and Kenton-on-Sea.

Lovely coves dot the coastline at Kwaaihoek.

Bathing beaches on the Bushmans side.

The memorial site, with the cross of the padao conspicuous by its absence.

Vandalised! What creep would do this? Was it out of political malice or pure, unthinking vandalism?

All the plaques have been removed, too, which means there is no information available to visitors.

A last, lingering look back - and then we set out on our return walk.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Jock of the Bushveld, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick and the Sundays River Valley

This picture is one of those happy accidents which sometimes occur. The book resting on the wall above the plaque is not Jock of the Bushveld, but my son Doug happened to have left it lying there when I took this picture in the Sundays River Valley, which is displayed behind. Click on the picture to see the image in large format.

Do yourself a favour and go to Google Earth and "visit" the citrus wonderland along the Sundays River Valley. When I hear politicians like Julius Malema badmouthing white farmers my blood boils. It is thanks to pioneers like Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, who was one of those who organised that Lake Mentz be built to irrigate the area, that this country has a first world commercial farming sector. It is no use owning land unless you know what to do with it. But what of Sir Percy?

The animated movie of Jock of the Bushveld, released in mid-2011, will surely again focus global attention on its author, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick.

The main entrance to The Look Out.

It is a probably not widely known that Sir Percy was a proud product of the Eastern Cape, and that he and his wife are buried in a pristine part of the Sunday River Valley, where Sir Percy played a key role in the establishment of the thriving citrus industry.

A perusal of Wikipedia and other websites reveals that he was one of the major players in the South African political landscape at the turn of the last century.

The plaque on the right hand side of the gate.

Born in King William’s Town on July 24, 1862, to an Irish immigrant couple – his father was a judge of the Supreme Court of the Cape Colony – he was initially named James Peter Fitzpatrick, but later opted for Percy. Indicative of the hard lives these pioneer settler folk endured, Wikipedia tells us that he lost both his brothers in battle, one in the Matabele Rebellion and the other in the second Anglo-Boer War.

Percy was educated in Bath, England, and at St Aidan’s College, Grahamstown, but left college to help his widowed mother. It was the eastern Transvaal goldfields which drew him north in 1884.

Much has been made of late of the Addo thicket, which is said to be such a powerful sequester of carbon dioxide. Aloes stand among dense thicket, much of it spekboom, inside the monument site.

Here, says Wikipedia, he worked as a storeman, prospector’s assistant, journalist and as an ox-wagon transport rider between the then Lourenco Marques and Lydenburg and Barberton.

And it was of course these experiences which led to him writing the famed Jock of the Bushveld, which was published in 1907 – thanks to the encouragement of his friend, another iconic colonial-era author, Rudyard Kipling. Wikipedia tells us that it was Kipling who encouraged him to have the book published. It has since run through 91 editions and impressions.

The graves of Sir Percy Fitzpatrick and his wife, Elizabeth.

After becoming editor of the Gold Field News in Barberton, it seems he got increasingly involved in politics, and especially the plight of the Uitlanders in the then South African Republic of Paul Kruger. He unashamedly campaigned for full political rights for the thousands of people who had arrived in the Boer republic during the great gold rush of the late 19th century.

Working closely with Cecil John Rhodes and Leander Starr Jameson, Fitzpatrick was captured during the abortive Jameson Raid aimed at toppling Kruger in 1895 and, with others, charged with high treason. Incredibly, he was given a two-year jail term and 2000 pound fine, but was freed after just a few months.

Sir Percy's gravestone.

He helped establish the Imperial Light Horse Regiment during the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War, but due to ill health did not serve with them, instead working in Britain as an adviser to the war effort. He was knighted in 1902.

Then he served as one of the eight Transvaal delegates to the Union Convention in 1908 – where he would probably have met up with my great-grandfather, Yorkshireman Colonel Edward Greene (KC CMG), who was one of the Natal delegates. Fitzpatrick was also elected MP for Pretoria in 1906 and 1910. Wikipedia says he and General J B M Hertzog worked out an agreement recognising English and Afrikaans as the official languages.

"Lady Fitz's" gravestone.

Johannesburgers would be interested to know that his hunting trips in the area of what is now Zoo Lake yielded many of the first animals used to stock the Johannesburg Zoo.

Another claim to fame is that it was Sir Percy who recommended to King George V in 1919, after the end of the First World War a year earlier, that a moment of silence should be observed annually at 11.11am on November 11 – Armistice Day.

My son, Douglas, with his latest bit of reading matter, seen at the top of this post. Notice on the left of the stairs leading up to the Look Out post a plaque, which will be revealed below.

There is not much online that I could find about his life in the Sundays River Valley, but Wikipedia tells us he died of unknown causes at the age of 69 at Amanzi near Uitenhage. Amanzi means water in Xhosa and I believe is the name of the farm he and his wife, Elizabeth (Lady Fitz), farmed in the fertile Sundays River Valley near Addo.

This is a plaque in memory to Sir Percy's eldest son, Nugent, who was killed in the First World War. Note the two coats of arms, top left and right. Details of them are shown below.

Having lost his brothers very young, Sir Percy and Elizabeth were to lose all three of their sons, too. Their eldest son, Nugent, was killed fighting in the First World War in 1917 and Alan and Oliver died within a week of each other in 1927, according to the Siyabonga Africa website. Alan died in an accident in Johannesburg and Oliver of typhoid fever in Mexico. That left just his daughter, Cecily, who married Jack Niven in 1923, the same year Sir Percy’s wife died.

A detail from the Nugent plaque, which shows incredible crafsmanship.

After being dealt so many blows, it is probably not surprising that this man, who led such an adventurous life, died just a few years later, in 1931, at Amanzi. Both he and Elizabeth were buried at The Lookout, overlooking the scenic Sundays River Valley, which is where we took these pictures during a visit back in April, 2009.

There is something very South African about that springbok head. I firmly believe all our national sports teams should go back to being Springboks.

The view downriver from The Look Out.

Son Doug heralds the vista.

Classic Eastern Cape vegetation. Note the spekboom in the foreground, alongside euphorbia and aloes.

The view upriver.

A closer view of that virgin vegetation, busily sequestering dangerous carbon dioxide.