Fish River: The scooter in the Canyon
In 1968, six members of the Cape Town Vespa Club took up a challenge that led to an arduous adventure. Aubrey Jackson gives us his account of what happened.
“Why not take your scooters through the canyon!” This was the challenge taken up by members of the Cape Town Vespa Club. No vehicle had ever been driven through the formidable Fish River Canyon in South West Africa and they were determined to show that it could be done.
I got to hear about the proposed expedition and expressed the desire to join in, not realising that it was to be no holiday but a foolhardy attempt to accomplish what was deemed an impossible journey. However, once I had committed myself, there was no backing out.
The six members of the club, Johnny Johnson, Graham Nell, Tony Beckley, Terri Davidson, Peter Dericks and myself had to undertake a vigorous course of training to get ourselves fit for the task. This included pushing our scooters up Kloof Nek Road to the top and part of my training was walking up the 11 flights of stairs to work every morning.
We also took our scooters into the Fish Hoek sand dunes and practised taking them across Zeekoeivlei in an inflatable raft.
Several firms helped sponsor the trip. BP Southern Africa gave R200 to cover the cost of petrol and equipment. Three scooters were presented by Grosvenor Motors. These were painted in the colours of a zebra, leopard and giraffe and named Veni, Vidi and Vici.
A serious obstacle would be the descent into the canyon and for this we acquired a winch and steel cable, which we tested in the old quarry off De Waal Drive. Our last planned exercise was to take the scooters up Table Mountain, but permission was refused.
Equipment was assembled, including clothing, sleeping bags, dehydrated foods, medicine, cooking and eating utensils, cameras, a cine camera and a tape recorder.
A permit was necessary to enter the canyon and just before our departure we received this telegram: “Permission for scooter expedition granted by Secretary for South West Africa to descend Fish River Canyon and proceed to Ai-Ais between period 11th and 18th July 1968, provided that copy of film is made available to S.W.A Administration and that no help can be expected in case of misfortune and risk is borne by expedition alone. Suggest take along medical practitioner for emergencies. Strongly advise against expedition due to rough terrain”.
Finally we left from the Cape Argus Building, Cape Town, on 9 July, drove the three scooters to the Forshore and loaded them on a jeep driven by Louis Greef and his brother Peter. The six of us travelled by Land Rover.
That same afternoon we tackled our task with resolute determination, beginning to lower our scooter over the lip of the canyon, two men operating the winch and the others manhandling the scooters down the rocky stairs.
The initial stage of the descent proved easier than we had anticipated. Where the stairs ended, the terrain change to a steep slope, which we practically slid down over loose shale. That first afternoon we took two scooters down about 300 ft. and the third about 150 ft.
We were up early the next morning to continue the seemingly never-ending journey down to the base of the canyon, taking our equipment first and setting up camp there. We returned for the scooters the next day. We used a rope tied to a rock to lower the scooters. Due to a bad knot, one of the scooters slipped and fell about 100 ft. This was our fist mishap. It was too badly damaged to take further, so we hoisted it on to a cliff-edge to be left as a monument. That was the end of Veni.
We then removed the engines of the remaining scooters and Louis, who had accompanied us thus far, took them down, while the rest of us carried the scooters, wheelbarrow-style, three to a scooter. This was very tiring work as the scooter had to be lifted over rocks and boulders and down narrow pathways at an angle of about 45 degrees. Late that night the engines were fitted to the scooters and successfully started at the base camp and history was made when the first tyre tracks were imprinted in the sand of the canyon.
The next morning, Saturday, we began the journey down the canyon with one scooter on the raft and the other being pulled and pushed over rocks and soft sand as fine as powder. Even with two men pulling in harness in front, two men assisting at the back and the scooter in first gear, it was a battle. The engine cut continually due to the fine sand getting into it.
Meanwhile the raft reached the end of the river and we found that our sleeping bags and equipment had got wet and there was water in the scooter engine.
The next stage was to leave the scooter while we took our equipment a mile further and set up camp.
On Sunday morning four of us went back to fetch the scooters; I stayed behind with Johnny, who prepared the food. Our boots were still wet from slipping in the water. When we also went back to the scooters we saw fresh leopard spoor following the tracks of the previous party. We also saw spoor of baboon and other animals, but didn’t encounter anything.
On reaching the others, we found they had not moved much further. Then came our second mishap. While we were pushing the scooter Vidi across the stream, it leaned over and, with a slow leaking puncture in the raft, slowly submerged. I dived into the cold water to try to save it but was too late. We managed to salvage some of the equipment.
That day was a most unhappy day: We not only lost a scooter, but also made little progress. Sadly, we had to walk back to the camp, as it was getting late. We were hoping to move the one remaining scooter to Ai-Ais but we had another 60-odd miles to go. The last 40 miles would have been rideable, but as we could not repair the scooter, we were forced to abandon it.
The following morning, we half buried it under rocks, deciding to return the following year and carry on where we had left off.
We continued with our equipment, using the spare tyres for straps to convert the pannier bags into rucksacks. It was a tiring journey to the Palm Trees about 10 miles further. At one of our numerous rest-halts, a lone figure with a rucksack approached us. He was a Swiss man on holiday in South Africa, named Goddfried Gabi. He was only too pleased to accompany us.
That afternoon we spent in the hot sulphur springs to relieve our aching bodies. Peter and Louis went for another dip in the moonlight at 4 a.m. In the morning we followed the path out of the canyon, taking three hours for the steep ascent. At the top we met Louis, who had left us to walk back seven miles to fetch the Jeep.
After a last look at the canyon, we made for Grünau, collected the Land Rover, left by Louis’s brother Peter at Vioolsdrif, and on Friday morning ended our eventful journey at the Argus Building in Cape Town.
Although we had not succeeded in bringing any of the scooters back, we did at last succeed in getting two shooters down the Fish River Canyon, leaving the first tyre tracks.
A journalist who had been down the canyon described our journey as impossible and said that it would be a “miracle” to get a scooter through. But for the limited time, we might have achieved that miracle.
Though extremely tired on reaching home, we were pleased that we had attempted this arduous journey and accepted the challenge when everything was against us.