This is the tale (tail?) of the hippest hound of the psychedelic seventies. It is an almost entirely true story, told by a remarkable dog that lived in Bonza Bay, near East London, with his owners/mates as they grew up and went through a series of surreal experiences in the 1970s.
Where to start? With my name, I suppose.
I was originally known as “Brak”, an insensitive Afrikaans term for a mixed-breed dog which, I can’t deny, I was.
My life began inauspiciously. One of half a dozen little mutts born to an Alsatian mother following an “oops” pregnancy after a close encounter with a roving Rhodesian ridgeback, I was the runt, a bit like old Jock of the Bushveld. You know, that wonderful story about the tiniest, ugliest Staffie in the litter, who accompanied Percy FitzPatrick on his adventures in the eastern Transvaal in the 1880s.
What a life that must have been – so different to what I had to put up with in my formative years on this earth.
Dogs need just a few things to make them happy. We need a steady supply of nutritious food (and water). And we need plenty of exercise. Throw in some adventure and we’re in our element. We have a very sharp sense of smell, so the more varied and interesting the smells of nature, the better. For some reason, we just love smelling any and everything. It gives us a bit of a rush. I won’t go into that rather unedifying habit we have of getting up close and personal behind the odd – for want of a better word – bitch. That is a side of our nature we won’t be discussing here. It’s personal, man.
No, it is a good, wholesome life that we dogs most aspire to. And key to that, as noted earlier, is plenty of exercise. Curiously, most domesticated mammalian life on this planet seems – like their owners – to have lost the plot in this regard. I mean, we have bodies defined essentially by being comprised of a series of muscles over a bony skeleton. In the case of humans, their skin is covered with a paltry bit of almost invisible hair. But those of us of the canine brigade, like our feline and bovine compatriots, have not skin, but hide – which is rather thick and covered with a coat of, in my case, beautifully shining brown hair.
Ja, despite everything, I grew up as something of a hunk. Just like old Jock and that ugly duckling I’ve heard about, my initial diminutive size and unprepossessing appearance were a clever deceit aimed at ensuring whoever reared me to adulthood fed my better and more plentifully than would normally have been the case. I was, in a sense, mollycoddled as a puppy. And boy did I shoot up.
Very soon the scrap of yard behind our tiny house on the Quigney, a poor, fairly rundown beachfront suburb in East London, got way too small for me.
Look, my first owners had been good to me. A working class Afrikaans couple, with two small kids, they didn’t stint when it came to feeding me. So initially I was a happy chappy. I had two small boys to knock around with as a pup and life was hunky-dory. But as a reached my teens – in dog years that is – I became rebellious. Of course this was the early 1970s and, South Africa being a few years behind the rest of the world, I must have tapped into the turbulent spirit that was permeating parts of a society which even I was aware was being rigidly controlled by a nasty, almost totalitarian, racist regime. How did I know? Because I had witnessed my K9 comrades, co-opted by the SA Police, carrying out some rather nasty arrests of black people who happened to be passing our home. I saw them, teeth bared, snarling and barking like maniacs, tear into this group of seemingly innocent passersby. And I saw the cops chuck the people into the back of a van. So yes, I had a sense of what sort of a place I was living in.
But the worst was, I was stuck on a postage-stamp-sized (that’s a slight exaggeration, but you know what I mean) piece of property. And as I grew, I developed a desperate urge to get out of there. My owners – even the kids – seemed to lose interest in me as I went through dog puberty and became an adult. The much-talked-about walks along the beachfront failed to materialise. I became like so many dogs the world over: trapped within the confines of four fences or walls, and neglected for most of the day and night, apart from when they remembered to feed me. Like all those other dogs around the world I resorted to what all caged animals do: I let off steam. I barked and I barked. I yelped and I howled. Oh how I howled, especially on quiet, still nights when the moon was riding full across a cloud-free sky. It must have been the residual wolf genes in me. I can’t explain how it happened. But as life grew increasingly lonely and desperate, so I took revenge in the only way I knew: I made a noise which was often taken up by my unseen fellow inmates trapped in similar conditions around the neighbourhood. We would kick up a cacophony that often saw the police being called out and our owners chastised and ordered to keep us under control.
Ja, as I looked towards the future, I – Brakkie, as the kids called me, enjoying the diminutive form, despite my ever-increasing size – was faced with a rather depressing scenario. Was this all there was to it, I asked myself. A life confined to a few dozen square metres of the Quigney?
No. I was a grown man (er, dog) and those fences, which once seemed so high when I was a puppy, were now easily scalable. The question was: did I have the guts to take that life-changing leap of faith; to escape this god-forsaken existence and see what waited on the other side?
Was I ready to experience the wind-blown gusts of freedom? You bet I was. And I didn’t care what waited beyond those fences. It had to be better than this.
I resolved to make good my escape.
I leaped to freedom.
And it almost instantaneously cost me my life.
Look, as noted earlier, I was quite aware of what roads were all about. I knew about cars and trucks. But it is one thing being taken for the (very) odd walk on a leash. When you are free it is all too easy to take your safety for granted, to act fast and loose with your very life. So, as I landed outside the yard after that startlingly great jump – in which I had to use my paws to latch onto the top of the fence and my powerful shoulder muscles to pull myself over the top – I made a near-fatal mistake. I ran straight across the tarred road – and a car had to scream to a halt, swerve and nearly crash into a lamppost to avoid me. At least that is what its driver made the car do. I heard loud cursing coming from the figure inside the car’s open window as I fled across an open park, with my tail firmly between my legs. But I was otherwise unscathed. Somewhat psychologically scarred yes, but I still had all my limbs in the right place.
And weren’t they just in the right place. Like Nelson Mandela did in jail (I heard about him much later, which is another story), I had ensured I spent my time in captivity keeping myself fit. So, small though my prison had become, I had used every inch of that space to keep myself in tip-top condition. Yeah, I was now the dog equivalent of Cassius Clay (or Muhammad Ali, as he later called himself). If I had been a human heavyweight boxer, I would not have been a big, cumbersome slugger who used brute strength to pummel his opponents to a pulp. No, like Clay-Ali, I was a finely honed, beautifully muscled specimen of canine manhood, even if I say so myself. My muscles rippled, the sheen as the sun shone on my coat defining their powerful elegance. So, as I ventured further and further from my erstwhile home, I gained in confidence, all the time making sure I stayed as far as possible from the roads. When I did have to cross one – as I smelt each and every lamppost, gate and fence – I looked carefully to ensure no car would knock me over. I was a dog, okay, but I wasn’t thick. In fact, I was pretty damn bright, in a doggy sort of way. But clever is no match for a pack of rottweilers, which I just happened to encounter on that first day of freedom.
Call it cowardice. Call it plain old fear. But when I spotted the three terrors leaping over a garden wall a few houses away, I knew I had only one option, and that was to hightail it for all I was worth. My breeding, thank heavens, had equipped me for just this eventuality. Alsatian-ridgeback versus rottie? There was no contest, man. Sure they would have torn me to shreds in a fight. Even one of them would have been problematic. But when it came to a straight chase I was never going to be caught.
They gave up after two blocks. They may have been strong as oxen, but I think they were a trifle out of condition. Perhaps too many years spent bullying little poodles and fox terriers, spaniels and chihuahuas, had led to the onset of complacency. They had let themselves go, as humans would say. And they had run somewhat to fat. All that working out as youngsters had given them admirably muscular torsos. But a shortage of exercise in recent months and years had seen their girths widen – almost unnoticeably at first. Inexorably, though, they lost what speed and dexterity they originally possessed. End result: they didn’t see me for dust.
After that narrow escape, I found myself in a different-looking part of the Quigney. The buildings were taller. Blocks of flats instead of small houses. Interesting. Shops too. I went into a butchery looking for something to eat (not to mention some water) and was sent flying out the front door by a broom-wielding proprietor. Fortunately, however, as I returned a few minutes later – drawn again by the smell of raw meat – I managed to locate a gap in the fence on the side of the property. I squeezed my frame through it and found a treasure trove of meat waste. Fatty offcuts and gristly bones just chucked into a steel bath, of all things. Well I grabbed as much as I could in my jaws, squeezed back through that hole in the fence, and fled. Having devoured those chunks, and gnawed on the bones for a while, I found I was incredibly thirsty.
It was then, as I languished, somewhat forlornly, outside a tall building, that DJ found me.
Naturally I didn’t know his name at that point. I had lain down, panting, my tongue hanging out as far as it was possible to go. We sweat mainly through our paws, but partially through our tongues, by the way. And it was a scorching summer’s day. I was tired, hot and thirsty. And it was probably this that stirred a compassionate corner of DJ’s heart. I looked up and saw a young man of about 18. He had long, curly black hair, was as thin as a rake, wore a nondescript tie-dyed green T-shirt and long, baggy, blackish-blue bell-bottom jeans. He was barefoot, with the unravelled strands of his jeans where the hem should have been, hanging over long, slender, artist’s toes. If you know what I mean. He started talking to me, patting me. He was clearly eccentric, because he went into a nearby shop and asked the owner – no demanded – that he give him a bowl of water. He put the bowl down for me and I drank like I had never drunk before. He went back into the shop – a Chinese corner shop – and ordered another round of water for me. I had found my first truly good human friend. Dogs need human friends. We don’t do feral existences very well. Cats are better at fending for themselves. They can catch birds, mice, rats, lizards, even cockroaches, and somehow survive on what they get. But dogs? Man, too many generations of domestication have left us pretty well at the mercy of humans. The key is to find a good owner. Just like that Toy Story movie (about which I’d learn much later, in my dotage, but that’s another story), you needed someone who valued you for your intrinsic self. Not someone who would like you as a puppy but then ditch you when you grew up and became your own person – I mean dog. Or, in the case of toys, played with you when you were clean and new, but then abandoned you as the novelty wore off.
Oh, did I mention that this guy, my first human friend, was playing a “skolatol” when he first came upon me? At least that’s how I later heard the word pronounced. Properly known as a Jew’s harp, he was twanging away much better, while at the same time humming a bluesy song, “Hey Joe”, which I was later to discover was by Jimi Hendrix. As our friendship developed, I would go for walks with him along the Esplanade, and he – with massive dark glasses obscuring his face – would yowl away on a kazoo, playing the lead guitar solos of many a Hendrix and Cream song, his fingers playing the notes air-guitar style like Joe Cocker at Woodstock, much to the amazement of the people he passed. But that was some way in the future.
I think DJ realised quite soon that he would have to keep me. I had no collar, thank heavens, or he might have been able to trace my owners and felt obliged to return me to them. Or he could have opted to call the SPCA and have them take me to the pound for an even worse form of captivity – in cages, waiting desperately for someone to adopt you. (I heard about this later – but that, too, is another story). DJ sat in the gutter with me alongside him. He was twanging his skolatol, happy, it seemed, just to have me for company as he let rip with another piece of musical magic, this time Strange Days by The Doors. It was about then that a young Afrikaans boy walked past with his mother, and remarked: “Ma, kyk daardie groot hond!”
And I was big. At that very moment I had got up to stretch and nuzzle DJ’s woolly head with my nose. He didn’t seem to mind. But the moment he heard those words, he seemed to become transformed and a broad smile crossed his face. “Groot hond.” That was Afrikaans for “big dog”. “Ma, look at that big dog!” the boy had said in Afrikaans. But DJ wasn’t Afrikaans-speaking. In fact, he delighted in being English-speaking, and when he heard those words, he repeated them to himself as a pukka Englishman or woman might say them. Like if you were living in England now and knew nothing of Afrikaans and you saw those words written down – “groot hond” – how would you pronounce them? You wouldn’t say them the Afrikaans way, with a guttural “g” and the double-o rhyming with that in the word “boor”. You also wouldn’t pronounce the Afrikaans word for dog – hond – to rhyme with, well I can’t even think of an English word to rhyme with it, it’s THAT Afrikaans. Anyway, to cut a longish story short, DJ instantly saw the humour in saying those words in an English way. And he combined them. So I became Groothond, the “groot” rhyming with boot, and the “hond” with fond. In later years my name would often be shortened to “Groots” or even “Hond”. But when, as often occurred, someone was angry with me, then the full, farcical name would be employed. I mean how can you seriously shout “Groothond!”, in that plummy English way, and not feel embarrassed? Especially given the size of me. But this is what DJ and my other friends, who I’ll introduce shortly, did. And I loved them for it.
So DJ named me Groothond. And, breaking all the rules of the private hotel he stayed in, he smuggled me up to his bedroom, while he plotted how he could hang onto me.
DJ lived with his mom in two adjacent rooms in the Sea Vista Hotel on the Quigney. It was quite a nice place, really, because every meal was provided by the management, so it was pretty much like a hotel, except the people who stayed there were permanent residents. Of course they came and went, but those like DJ and his mom had been there for several years when I arrived on the scene.
But my situation was untenable. It couldn’t last. No animals were allowed in the hotel. So although DJ was able to sneak me in and out via the fire escape, it wasn’t long before the management twigged that he had an “illegal” living with him in his room and they ordered his mom to ensure the dog was gotten rid of as soon as possible.
DJ’s mom understood his love for the dog. She too did not want to see Groothond taken off to the SPCA. But where else could he go?
Well DJ knew one place, one place like none other on the planet, where a dog like Groothond (and there were no other dogs quite like me; that’s just a turn of phrase) would be happy. He told me about Bonza Bay and I knew that if I was to lose DJ as an owner, then the place he proposed taking me to would almost certainly compensate for that loss. It all depended on what humans I got.
DJ had been studying fine art for the past year or two at a high school in Belgravia Crescent, under a famed artist and teacher called Gary Biggs. He had started at the same time as his friend, IB, who just happened to live in Bonza Bay. And, he told me in a way that wasn’t actually in words but more through the sense of delight he exuded, that IB had four siblings. They too only had a mother, no dad, their father having recently passed away. So they would need a surrogate dad around the place and I was to be that presence in this home.
DJ had been visiting IB and his siblings on and off for several months (I learnt all this later). They had met after starting a three-year art course, having opted out of traditional school with all its rules and regs, which, being nascent hippies, they were rebelling against. I would also hear much talk about them rebelling against the National Party, apartheid, old toppies (except their moms), military conscription, the Vietnam War, and plenty more besides. They were human youths in the early 1970s and it was what you did if you had a conscience and a few brain cells, they seemed to suggest. So they sought a sort of freedom similar to that to which I aspired, I thought. But would DJ be able to inveigle me into the hearts, and home, of IB and his sibs?
He had a cunning plan.
DJ visited IB and the rest of the Cooper clan at their home in Bonza Bay, taking a bus from the Quigney after insisting to the rather reluctant driver that his dog would come with him even if (as happened) he had to pay a second fare. Barefoot as usual, DJ arrived with me in tow at the Cooper home with its wall of plate glass and panoramic view, between tall coastal dunes, of a swathe of sea: the Indian Ocean. This was heaven on earth, man. Like DJ, when he sometimes in winter would tie up his takkies with tiny pieces of cotton, so he kept me not on a leash that was one of those strong leather ones. No, it was just a slender piece of string, loosely attached to my powerful neck. I was sensible enough not to succumb to my baser urges and escape this non-leash and attack the handful of dogs we spotted as we walked from the bus stop to the Cooper house, with its lovely large yard out the front.
DJ spent a couple of days with the Coopers, as it was the summer holidays, sleeping on the couch, with me happily snoozing beside him on the floor (or on the couch when I could sneak onto it while no-one was looking – it was far more comfortable!). IB’s mom was smitten with me, and, as DJ had expected, it wasn’t long before she agreed to let me stay there permanently. This then was to be my base for a life that revolved around some rather peculiar goings on, remembering of course that it was the early 1970s, and this family was like no other. Indeed, they had to be odd for the likes of DJ and a dog called Groothond to have fitted in so well.
What we got up to I’ll tell you about in the coming chapters. I hope you don’t get too shocked. But remember this was the early 1970s.
The Cooper kids seemed to be torn between two forces. On the one hand, they had grown up rather healthily in terms of all the time they spent on the beach, which was a few minutes’ walk from their home in Bonza Bay. But as the eldest, IB, fell under the influence of his classmates at the art school, so the inevitable happened. I was plunged, via DJ and my new home, into the strange world of illicit dagga smoking and a devotion, bordering on an obsession, to rock music in all its guises.
But first a bit about my new surroundings. The yard on the Coopers’ corner plot was not fenced in in the conventional sense. There was no front gate for a start, and the front door was in fact the back door. Yes, visitors entered off Lotus Avenue down a short flight of brick steps. There was a nice little entrance hall, even though this was effectively the back of the house. The front, as noted earlier, was a wall of glass, which meant as you entered the lounge you got a superb view of sand dunes and a large segment of Indian Ocean. As a dog, though, this was not the feature that first struck me. No, what I most enjoyed was that there were only a few hedges and token wire fencing around the property, all easily penetrated. So I was free to roam where and when I pleased. And there was no canine competition in my new home. The Coopers had been “between dogs” when DJ foisted me upon them, so the only pets – though I’d hardly call myself that – I had to contend with were two cats, Katinka, a soft, fluffy grey creature, and another older, wiser black-and-white cat called Granny (a tom, he had always looked like an old lady, hence the name). Come supper time, when we received our one meal of the day – a large bowl of dog pellets mixed with some fishy concoction out of a tin – it was usually supplied by one of the younger siblings. Naturally, given my size and strength, I would wolf mine down in a trice and then go raiding the cats’ bowls. Consequently, at supper time, the two of them would have to be on their toes – or paws – to ensure they got to eat an adequate amount before I finished off their portions. It was not unusual to see me pushing a bowl of pet food around the kitchen floor as I tried to lick every last morsel out of it.
But I wasn’t underfed. This was a family which ate to live and not vice versa. Consequently they were all pretty slim. Also, there wasn’t much money around to waste on food treats. But they all believed they lived in a bit of paradise. And that was due to their proximity to the beach. The only problem was that during the high summer season, dogs were banned. But there was no way I was going to let any of them head to the beach without me – hard as they may try to sneak off. Not only was my sense of hearing so acute that I could have heard them slip out from anywhere in the house, I also had that famous doggish sixth sense. I could pick up the vibe of an imminent walk long, long before it took place. Dogs aren’t thick. When I saw the youngest, Presh, assembling his surfboard, towel and wetsuit, I knew full well he was about to hit the strand. Even when CK, the third eldest son, set off on a run, with the aim of taking a dip and quick body surf afterwards, clad only in his baggies, I knew instantly what was on the cards and was at his heel the moment he set off.
But it was usually just a case of passing through the bathing area, rather than spending actual time there – although there were occasions when I did just that. In fact it was on such days, when a whole mob of the Cooper kids and their friends were on the beach, that I developed my famous hip hole.
I would often upset insensitive folk by monopolising the shade under their beach umbrellas. It was the ideal place for me to embark on the construction of a hip hole. What this entailed was ascertaining which direction I wanted to be facing – usually out to sea – and then digging a hip-shaped hole, with the displaced sand forming a slightly raised area on which my forelegs would rest, providing a pillow for my head. The part DJ, in particular, enjoyed, was when, after completing the construction phase, I would circle the hollow earnestly before nestling my fine physiognomy into the perfectly designed and executed hip hole. Then would follow some sensible sleep – though with one eye half open and ear half-cocked, of course, should there be other dogs nearby, which would cause the Cooper kids considerable anxiety. Because I wasn’t shy at showing any visitors to the beach just who was boss. Most of them fled in terror just at the sight of my musclebound form, that Rhodesian ridge raised threateningly, as I moved slowly but purposefully towards them. The problem was the couple of chancers who thought they could take me on. Dog fights are not pleasant for humans. Many was the time the owners of dogs of various breed and size, who attempted to challenge my hegemony, were left ranting and raving as they retrieved their bloodied and beaten losers, large or small. Served them right. It was, after all, my beach. Had I not earned the right to it by covering thousands of metres chasing gulls and plovers whenever they attempted to settle along the shoreline? Had I not ventured through many a hectare of indigenous dune forest, chasing duikers and whatever else I might come across?
Indeed, on one such detour into the dune forest, while walking back home from the beach with a few of my humans, I got into shall we say a spot of bother. There is a breed of person quite willing to torture wild animals to death. That may sound harsh, but that is what a snare does. And it was in a rather dense thicket that I had my first experience of what that felt like. The wire loop attached to a tree trunk, latched itself around my left foreleg as I went sniffing about. Look, dogs are clever, but we don’t have analytical, engineering sort of minds. Neither do we have fingers. So when I felt the wire tighten around my leg, all I thought about was that I should flee. Escape. Get away from whatever it was that was grabbing my leg. I was naturally oblivious of the effect this would have, because the more I tried to pull away, of course, the more the noose tightened around my leg, biting through my hide and into my flesh, sinew, even bone. By now I was howling and yelping like a stuck pig. Which had the desired effect, as three of my humans, AB (the second eldest son), Presh (the youngest) and CK, came to my rescue. First they had to fight their way through that thicket before they finally got to me. I was a mess, in agony and exhausted from my vain and desperate attempts to escape. The first thing they did was grab hold of me – no mean feat since I was still flailing around, despite my state of near collapse – before moving me closer to where the snare was attached to the tree. This enabled one of them to loosen the wire loop and gently extricate my battered leg.
Fortunately, they got to me before any permanent damage was done. Mrs C, happily, was a nursing sister, and she applied some or other ointment which, while it hurt like hell, eventually brought about the healing process. Though it was amazing how foolish I was in this regard, continually licking the injured spot, as if that was going to help.
Those were my tearaway years, when I took full advantage of growing up alongside teenagers who seemed to enjoy the great outdoors as much as I did. There was nothing quite like a walk along the beach towards Gonubie in the east or Nahoon in the west. But we never crossed the Nahoon River. It seemed that, with me in tow, the Cooper kids did not want to risk venturing into alien territory. This was the surfing Mecca of East London. The Nahoon kids were big on one-upmanship when it came to who had the best waves. While the shorebreak at Nahoon (I learnt from Presh’s body language) was probably on a par with that at Bonzies – where I would venture as far out as possible, chesting the waves, while they body-surfed – the Nahoon grommets had a trump card which they were not reluctant to play: Reef. Nahoon Reef hosted such prestige events as the Gunston 500 during this time – and I, as a mere dog, missed it completely. Somehow, I learnt later, they had managed to sneak out (probably driven in someone’s mom’s car) and soaked up a day or two of watching the likes of Shaun Tomson, South Africa’s top surfer at the time. Of course Nahoon boasted one or two who were also right up there as well – thanks to living so near to that huge wedge-like swell that rises off Nahoon’s rocky point.
Ja, I may well have missed out on that event, but I did not miss the 500 when it came to Eastern Beach a few years earlier. This was possibly, as I now recall, before or soon after DJ had found me my new home in Bonza Bay. I had joined him and several of the Coopers, along with another art school student nicknamed Jakkals, watching the event from the top of the few remaining sand dunes near Marina Glen. This was the sort of jol I was going to find myself increasingly embroiled in. I remember this motley mob of would-be hippies in their unwashed jeans and long hair (it was school holidays) later heading back to DJ’s room where they smoked a joint and DJ lit the end of one of his artist’s paintbrushes. With the light off and curtains drawn, he turned this flaming object into a space ship and let it traverse a magical world he had created in one of his more surreal artworks. Remember, although I didn’t smoke dagga, I did get what they called “klank gerook”, which I never really understood. Because I had grown up in an Afrikaans home, I had picked up a smattering of “die taal”, but in my scanty vocabulary “klank” always meant sound. Here, however, the term implied you got “gerook”, or high, by being in a room filled with dagga smoke. So there I was, poor thing, getting stoned along with the rest of them. But that was a once-off.
Once in Bonzies, the lads and their sister, Jess, along with DJ, Jaks, Mads, and several other crazy hippie types, would head off to the milkwood forest abutting the sand dunes and smoke it up, having secured their bail of grass from a friendly black-man pusher who frequented the area.
On one memorable occasion, Jakkals arrived on the bus from his home in Vincent. With him was his friend George, who was about 14 to Jaks’s 18. George was riding one of those old kids’ push scooters, while Jaks, who even looked a bit like Neil Young, had his acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder. In his pocket was a harmonica. I greeted them with wagging tail and much wriggling around and yelping, because Jaks also loved me. I was surprised to see that his friend, George, was a young black lad. While I had been spared the sort of racial prejudice so prevalent among white-owned dogs at the time, it was still a new experience for me to relate to a black person so intimately. But very soon I forgot George was black. He just sort of tagged along. In the Cooper boys’ bedroom (shared by the three eldest lads and their hi-fi set, the amplifier for which a friend had made from valves) Jakkals set the tone by strumming the guitar and then singing a song that really got my tail thumping in time to the beat against the wooden floor: it was Neil Young’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart. He also let rip a wonderful bit of blues on that harmonica. Then, just for laughs, Jaks would put on what he called a “white coloured” accent and belt out Jim Reeves’s Distant Drums.
It was a Friday, and that evening this whole group of young hippies, with me as usually trailing along behind, packed a few items (including blankets) and headed down to the beach. We climbed one of the tall sand dunes and penetrated the thick forest behind – a place I had scoured many a time before in search of small antelope. In a clearing they built a fire (“Blow fire, George,” instructed Jakkals) and settled down for an evening’s “cabaret”. Things seemed to get funnier and funnier for them the more weed they smoked and cheap white wine they consumed. Supper was a bread and cheese fondue. Jakkals entertained us on his guitar and many a bizarre tale was told. “Laggerook” was the term they used. It meant they found even the most trivial thing hilariously funny. I didn’t get it, but if they were happy, so was I. Every so often I would slink off into the bush to smell my way around the ports of call of the various small game which frequented the place. Once, looking down on this crazy jumble of humanity seated or lying around the fire, I felt suddenly like a dog from a book. Was this how Jock felt, in the wild, following Percy Fitzpatrick around? Or even those wolves in the Jungle Books of Rudyard Kipling. It was just so great to be out in the bush, sleeping under the stars (albeit with a canopy of leaves directly above us).
I was even awake and heard when Jakkals uttered his immortal line (in Cooper folk lore) to George. On our arrival, Jakkals had put his scooter down for the night, wrapped in George’s blanket, away from where the rest of the people were assembled around the fire. At one point, I heard Jakkals, dead serious, whisper to George in an African-sounding accent: “George, go see if scooter him sleeping.” Which George duly did, answering that it wasn’t moving so it must be asleep. In dog years, these were still young kids who, at the time thought they were being incredibly rebellious. But from what I witnessed, apart from the dagga, they got up to very little actual mischief. In fact, my experience had shown me (having ventured often into the Bonza Bay pub to see what was going on there) that the older white men who drank in that segregated bar often became quite aggressive under the affluence of incohol. (Sorry, that is just a little spoonerism that one of the Cooper sibs used to use. They were a literary sort of family. They loved playing word games, especially AB.)
For a very good reason, which I can barely remember now, one of the incidents involving me from this period led to much subsequent discussion. It became the stuff of legend, of urban mythology.
Smoking dagga was illegal. The Coopers and their friends ran tremendous risks each time they bought their zol from black guys in Bonzies and, of course, when they went into the dunes to smoke it. This led to paranoia, a word immortalised at the time by a Neil Young song (while still with Buffalo Springfield) called For What It’s Worth: “Paranoia strikes deed / Into your lives it’s going to seep …” Anyway, the Cooper clan were convinced a man with short-cropped hair and even shorter shorts, who often walked his little dog around the beach, was in fact either a security policeman or a member of the drug squad. As a result they were increasingly afraid of being bust and facing charges of possessing dagga. So on one occasion, rather than bring a rather large plastic bag full of dagga back home with them after another smoking session in the dune forest area not far from the stairs which led past what were then the changing rooms, they decided to bury it in the soft, leafy, compost-like soil. Look, I was clever, but I was still only a dog. And I was curious. What was all the fuss about this greenish-grey tobacco that they kept on smoking, either in broken bottle necks, short ceramic pipes or long hand-rolled zols? I decided to find out. As they set off back up to the house in Lotus Avenue, I dug up that bag and ripped it open. And then I started eating. One of them, I think it was AB, must have wondered why I wasn’t following them. Because when he returned he found that I had made a substantial dent in their stash. (I know this sounds a bit like that Cheech ’n Chong sketch, but it’s the honest truth, I promise.)
It was to be a long day. My senses were completely altered. I felt both ill and invigorated at the same time. Mentally, that is. Physically, all I wanted to do was lie down and chase, well, whatever I liked, in my frenetic dreams. When we finally made it home, like the rest of them I basically passed out on the floor and fell into a long, hectically busy slumber. I think it was to the strains of Bob Dylan’s Visions of Johanna that I entered that other, almost fiendish, world, where everything that I took for granted seemed somewhat distorted. I found sleep too terrifying, but being awake even more alarming. The hours passed and gradually, finally, the effect of the drug started wearing off. The more I began to feel myself again, the better I felt. No longer did minor things take on incredible importance, and vice versa. I was on a high not due to the dagga, but due to having recovered from its effects. But I required fresh air and open spaces. Just as on most nights when I needed to get out of the house to go for a leak and would jump up and try to pull down the handle to open the front door (usually getting CK up to unlock it and let me go sniffing around the night-time neighbourhood), so I now attempted to open the bedroom door. But I was still a trifle groggy. Fortunately, CK it was who again opened up for me (he too was still looking somewhat the worse for wear thanks to the zol). Happily the front door itself was open and I headed off down Forward Lane just as the summer sun was setting.
Legend has it that that night I danced on a table at a wedding in Neptune’s Cove, a function room at the Bonza Bay Hotel decorated with an incredibly evocative undersea mural by Penny Abdinor (yes, I’d also picked up a bit of art knowledge). I need to set the record straight. I didn’t “dance” per se, but I did get on a table and devour some snacks. Heck man, I was hungry. I had the munchies in a big way, and the rest of them back home were too slack/stoned to feed me, while their mom was working an evening shift and not around to do so. But I bided my time. Having drunk water from the toilet bowl (luckily recently flushed) I had been able to slake my thirst. And, hungry though I was, I was full of beans, having come down from my “high”. As I’ve said before: I may be a dog, but I’m not thick. I could see that there was a big party going on, what humans call a wedding reception. It was something to do with a man and a woman getting together to share their lives, like till they died. But the place was crowded, man. Big bass guitarist Padda Wilson was playing music there with his band. So I waited and watched through one of the windows, alongside a few of the black hotel staff. We saw white South Africa at play. And we saw them getting increasingly drunk and jovial. I bided more time. I scratched and licked my coat. There were one or two large ticks around my neck and rump which I couldn’t dislodge, but generally I was still looking pretty damn good. As the guests finally started to head home, I snuck into the venue, as I had done so often before when my humans attended various New Year’s Eve parties there, much to their embarrassment. But this time I was alone. And hungry as all hell. Humans are wasteful creatures. When I leapt up on a table (it was where the bride and groom had sat, and had eaten very little, taken up as they were with dancing and speechifying) I found a platter of delightful, if rather stale, cold meats. I ploughed through those in a jiffy, and then started licking and munching at anything and everything else that caught my fancy. Of course it was all over in a matter of minutes. The venue management soon caught on that the dreaded Groothond had once again invaded their premises. Ever alert to their movements, I knew I had to act fast. I leapt off that table and, scurrying between chairs and people’s legs, I managed to again make good my escape.
So there. That’s all there was to that story about me “dancing on the table” at a wedding. Okay, I may have swayed my hips a bit to the rhythm of the music, but that was just me. I had become accustomed to enjoying music and old Padda’s bass provided an infectious beat. But really, I was only there for the food.
My sun- and fun-filled sojourn at the Cooper home could not last. Already I had noticed how every so often one or two of the lads would suddenly be whisked away by something called military conscription. They would be forced to dress in horrendous brown uniforms, cut their hair short and, in a very depressed mood, head off to some unknown destination. Sometimes I wouldn’t see them for months on end. But there were always enough of them left to make life enjoyable, if not as much fun as when they were in school or, later, studying at art school, in their first jobs or embarking on their volunteer work for the Progressive Federal Party.
Indeed, it was on one such occasion, when the eldest, IB, was alone at home having just returned from a three-month stint in some remote military place (“The Border” kept being mentioned, though I had no idea what it meant), that I experienced my first taste of real fear, though I overcame it instantly as my adrenalin-induced bravado kicked in.
Have I mentioned how, unlike most other dogs, I loved Guy Fawkes? You know how dogs, and even cats, get all jittery and start shaking like leaves when crackers explode? How some of my kind, I’m ashamed to say, start running around mindlessly after finally, in utter desperation, breaking out of their homes or yards? Well I was raised on the sound of fireworks. When my young humans walked around setting off anything from lady crackers to big bangs, with a few jumping jacks thrown in for good measure, I was always with them, enjoying the experience. Of course they were never cruel and would not ever allow any of their mates to chuck a cracker anywhere near me or any other animal. But I watched them even hold the odd small cracker in their hands and let it explode, without causing undue harm. I enjoyed the pretty “golden showers” that poured glorious columns of colour into the sky and rockets which burst into umbrellas of bright delight above our heads. I loved the Catherine wheels they set a-whirling and the sparklers they held in their hands while making Picassoesque patterns in the dark. Yep, despite my incredibly strong sense of hearing, I grew accustomed to these things, because I trusted those who were making the noise implicitly. Dogs are intensely sensitive to the emotions and motives of people. We can – or at least I can – detect the mood, can anticipate the intentions, of people who mean no good long before they act.
IB was in the lounge, listening to a Little Feat album on the new music centre he had just bought with his danger pay, having returned from those three months on “The Border” just a few days earlier. It was around noon. It was noisy, and I was quite happy to also enjoy soaking up those sounds, since music was as much a part of my soul as any human living on the planet at that time. But my dog instincts never deserted me. And when I heard a car slow down outside the house, I sensed instantly that something was amiss. My suspicions were confirmed seconds later when a blast resounded. Most dogs would have been terrified, but my Guy Fawkes training – and utmost devotion to my humans – only brought out the best in me. The last thing the man holding the smoking shotgun in his hands as he aimed it out the passenger’s window of the idling car would have expected was to have a large brown dog (me) jumping up at him, aiming to grab that gun and tear it from his hands. His first shot had struck the wall just above the kitchen window on the street side of the house and he was about to unleash the second barrel, no doubt hoping to blow out a window, when I struck, forcing the driver to speed off down the road. By this time, IB had come outside and was inspecting the damage. A 20cm diameter circle of plaster above the window had been blasted away, with some of the buck shot (I think they call it) having also penetrated the glass, but not broken the window fully.
It was at this point I realised that politics was a dirty game played by unscrupulous people. From what I could gather, my humans were campaigning to get black people like our friend George, and Tshawe the barman at the Bonza Bay pub, and Warwick, the young waiter at the hotel, equal rights in the land of their birth. At the moment, as I said earlier, black people were persecuted by the police and the security police, who were acting on behalf of the white National Party apartheid government. At least that’s how I read it, not, as a dog, being fully versed in such matters. But you can pick up a lot from the body language and emotions of your humans. My humans wanted all this to change. They wanted Nelson Mandela, to whom I referred earlier, released from Robben Island, where he and other activists for human rights were being held by the government, much as I was kept in captivity before my escape to freedom in Bonza Bay. And the men who fired the shot were clearly, my humans said in their subsequent conversations, from the security police, who that same day had attacked the homes of other outspoken opponents of apartheid.
So things were starting to unravel as the 1970s wore on. My human mates were being sucked, against their will, into the seemingly unending drag of the army. Often when, for instance, CK returned on a weekend pass from the army, having hitch-hiked from Kimberley 800km away, I was the only one to witness his homecoming. And you know what? He wasn’t always all that keen to see me. The days of the big Cooper jols were coming to an end by then. It was a rare weekend when all four brothers and their sister were still around together. At any given time at least two of them would be away in the military, or have moved out of the house completely. But when they were all in town together it was cause for a major celebration.
And the place that happened was the Hobnob, a “ladies bar” at the Bonza Bay Hotel.
The management of the hotel were almost as peeved with me as they were with AB, the second eldest of my humans (their mom excluded). They really did not enjoy it when I snuck into the Hobnob and found a dark corner near my humans as, for instance on a Sunday at noon, when they held what they called a “debriefing” session, where their drunken exploits of Friday and Saturday night were discussed over a few more beers. Speaking politically, they would sometimes refer to this as proof that they believed in a three-party system. All I knew is that they risked getting into some inevitable clashes with conservative whites who disliked their outspoken commitment to non-racialism. So I hung around in case they needed back-up. (The odd bit of rather foul-smelling wind I sometimes passed also didn’t always go unnoticed.)
But if management was forever chasing me out of the Hobnob, they also weren’t too happy with AB’s sense of humour. He did tend to be rather forthright, and thought nothing of plunging his face into an ice bucket overflowing with creamy foam after having concocted a “black velvet” comprising several Castle stouts and a bottle of sparkling wine. Oh and he loved setting fire to his face. Well he did so once. I cringed as I watched, from among the wooden legs of the bar stools, as he lit a shot of Drambuie and threw it down his throat, only for some of the liquid, still burning, to dribble down the side of his mouth, leaving him with a rather nasty burn. Management also did not really like it when he pulled the mickey out of the more commercial musicians they got to play live music at the venue. Songs by Neil Diamond he particularly frowned upon, for some reason. However, he was more tolerant of the likes of John Denver, who, like John Lennon, he thought looked a bit like him with his glasses and all. Having a somewhat one-track sense of humour, however, he would often sing along rather raucously to the chorus of Country Roads, subverting the first word of the title rather vulgarly. He would similarly turn a song like the Rolling Stones’ Sweet Virginia into something considerably more suggestive. It was all part of the jol – whatever it was my humans, being mainly young white males, had to do with themselves while faced with all this time tied up in playing soldiers, a pastime to which they were vehemently opposed on both moral and political grounds.
But all this jolling, this freedom, couldn’t last. Not for them and not for me. Theirs was a fettered freedom. As noted, they were constrained by the dictates of military conscription and had to try to shape their lives around that. But eventually, increasingly, as the 1980s drew near, there came a time when none of my humans, only their mom, was at the house. But there was still a jol going on down at the Hobnob, and some of their mates would still congregate there. So, being a gregarious sort of chap, I was not averse to joining in their fun on the odd occasion.
One Saturday afternoon, Mitch, a young friend of theirs over the past few years who was renting a granny flat near our home, decided to head off in his bakkie with a few mates (remember there were none of my humans about) to the East London beachfront for the annual waiters’ race. This entailed waiters from the various hotels having to run 100m carrying a tray of drinks and the first one home would receive a prize. Thinking back, it was a de facto bit of racial integration, proving that without the cold hand of apartheid, people were likely to get on just fine no matter their hue. But that is just a retrospective reflection. At the time, tail wagging madly, I was just happy to join in the fun as I hopped on the back of the bakkie in Bonza Bay and set off with a group of about half a dozen young people for the Quigney.
The problem was I was no-one’s dog when I got there. None of my humans was around to look out for me. The other young guys and girls had broken out the beers and were having a jol, along with hundreds of other people, and I was left to wander around, sniffing about in some territory which seemed vaguely familiar.
It was while the first heat of the waiters’ race was under way that a teenage boy, walking with his brother and parents, pointed animatedly in my direction and called: “Brakkie! Brakkie! Kom hier Brakkie!” (“Comer here, Brakkie!”)
And like a fool I pricked up my ears, wagged my tail and headed over to him for a pat.
Certain names have been altered to protect innocent parties. The cover drawing I did at Bonza Bay around 1980. It is of a Great Dane, which was seen trespassing on Groothond's turf (if sand can be deemed turf). There are apparently no extant photographs, or even drawings, of Groothond, although we cannot vouch for what may be on his police file.