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Book Excerpt: On the Back Roads by Dana Snyman

On the Back RoadsOp die agterpaaieAuthor Dana Snyman Rarely has a book of travel writing been as highly anticipated as Dana Snyman’s On the Back Roads / Op die agterpaaie. It was launched last night at the Book Lounge, where Mike Nicol spoke so highly of the writing that we requisitioned an excerpt right then and there.

Earlier this month, Snyman won the prestigious Pica Award for Travel Writer of the Year – and much of the material that got him that gong, which originally appeared in Weg! magazine, is included in On the Back Roads.

According to the publisher, translating Snyman’s Afrikaans wasn’t easy: the English version of the book went through several drafts before it was felt that the correct flavour and mood had been achieved. BOOK SA is pleased to bring you a sample:

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from Deap Heat and deserted fields

It’s a dismal picture: the pavilion’s paint is flaking and the scoreboard is rusty. Even the rugby posts are missing from the field. The change-room windows are broken, and inside it smells of Jeyes Fluid and dust. And lost dreams.

It’s been a long time since a rugby match was played here on the municipal field of Ventersdorp, in the old Western Transvaal. Or so it seems.

I get back into the car and drive further into the town. I stop at the Madeira café because the oom at the Caltex filling station had told me earlier that the Madeira’s owner, Rian Visser, is a rugby player.

Indeed: Rian is a flank – a flank without a team. ‘Earlier this year we still jolled,’ he says, ‘but we can’t get enough guys together any more.’

They’d played three matches, against Leeudoringstad, Koster and Potchefstroom’s second team – and lost all three. Then the guys started with their excuses: knees that suddenly played up, necks that became stiff overnight, asthma, you name it.

He shakes his head. ‘Some guys are pretty slapgat, if you ask me.’

Is this the situation too in other platteland towns nowadays, I wonder. Is adult rugby still being played, not just school rugby? Real, proper rugby.

Do some spectators still park their cars next to the field on Saturday afternoons and hoot when the teams run onto the field, or a player scores?

Do tannies still bake pancakes and jaffles on small gas stoves behind the pavilion? Does the change room still smell of Deep Heat before the match, and of Old Spice afterwards? Do platteland players still pray in a little circle before and after the game?

Whether in the north, west or south, almost every South African town once had a rugby team – even dorpies such as Marydale, Daniëlskuil and Tarkastad. Velddrif. Pofadder. Clocolan.

Here in Coligny, about 50 km from Ventersdorp, there was once more than one team. Right until the late 1980s, this town was an important railway link, with a bustling railway station. There were lots of guys here who loved rugby.

Nowadays, hardly any trains shunt at night, and turkeys scratch for food in the goal area of the municipal rugby field.

I stop near the posts. The local racing-pigeon club has taken over the clubhouse. A man approaches, accompanied by a yapping dog: Phillip Botha and Lassie (a dachshund, not a collie as in the movies).

Suddenly, I remember another distinctive feature of a platteland rugby match: an exuberant mutt would usually run a few circles on the field during the game. It generally belonged to one of the players, which often meant quite a struggle to remove the animal from the field.

Oom Phillip believes what many rugby fans do: there’s a connection between the decline of platteland rugby and the constant bungling of the Springboks and our Super 14 teams during the past decade.

This might be a simplification, but one thing is certainly true: the platteland used to be – and to a degree still is – the breeding ground of Springboks, dozens of them. Legends such as Mannetjies Roux (Victoria West), Piet Visagie (Beeshoek) and Danie Gerber (Despatch) carried on playing for town teams even when they were Springboks.

Once upon a time there was also an SA Platteland Team that regularly played against overseas teams and in’81 even toured South America, beating Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile.

Coligny, however, hasn’t produced any Springboks. (Though the town did present Hestrie Cloete as a gift both to the world of high jump – and to Jurie Els.) I walk across the field, turkeys scuttling off ahead of me. Was it perhaps here in Coligny that a referee one Saturday afternoon awarded a penalty before kick-off?

One of the teams ran onto the field, the story goes, and a player had the ball in his hand. Then he passed it – but too forcefully – and hit the referee against the head. The referee summarily awarded a penalty kick on the centre spot to the other team, without the game having been kicked off.

But oom Phillip knows nothing of this incident. Many platteland rugby stories have become legends, but it’s hard to establish where the events took place, and whether the tales are in fact true.

Johan van der Walt is seated on a low wall in front of the Nice liquor store in Biesiesvlei, some 30 km from Coligny, sucking on a cigarette as if it holds all the solutions to his town’s rugby problems.

Biesiesvlei’s rugby field has reverted to veld.

‘I think they took the posts to Lichtenburg ,’ says Johan through a cloud of smoke, and shrugs his shoulders. ‘Or maybe they’re in Sannieshof.’

The distance to Sannieshof is about 20 km. I drive to the town, but no one I ask knows anything about Biesievlei’s posts. It also doesn’t seem as if rugby is played here at all any longer. Someone directs me to the local mill, but the people there don’t know anything about a rugby team either.

I press on to the next town, Delareyville, where, to all outward appearances, the rugby situation is similar. The Dries Venter stadium is on the edge of the town, and signs of decay are clearly visible. ‘Shitsvally Stadium’ has been spray-painted against the pavilion by someone with a slight spelling problem.

As I drive further into Delareyville, I wonder who this Dries Venter might be.

Small-town rugby fields often have names like this: the Dries Venter stadium, the Boetie Posthumus stadium (Colesberg), the Fanie de Bruyn stadium (Kroonstad).

In the main street, one name jumps out at me: Bokkie’s Cylinder Heads. The name has a bit of a rugby sound to it. But Bokkie shakes his head when I question him. ‘You should talk to Klein-Munro at North West Tractor Services,’ he says. ‘He plays rugby. He’ll probably know who Dries Venter is.’

On the pavement, a certain Clint informs me that the town used to have a rugby team, but they had too much trouble trying to get players. Many tales about platteland rugby involve unending struggles to scrape together the full complement of players for teams.

It is said that Christie Hammond, secretary of the Robertson rugby club, once even stopped next to two hitch-hikers before a match against Montagu.

‘Okay, guys,’ he is said to have told them, ‘you can get a ride, but first you have to play for us.’ In the end, the hitch-hikers turned out for one of Robertson’s teams.

I drive to North West Tractor Services. Klein-Munro Swanepoel is the son of Munro Swanepoel, a businessman from Delareyville, and yes, he plays rugby, but for Ottosdal, a neighbouring town, because Delareyville no longer has a team.

The biggest problem of platteland rugby, says Klein-Munro, is money. Jerseys and other equipment aren’t cheap. And if you’re injured, you have to pay your own doctor’s bills. A knee operation can easily cost you R15 000.

He walks into a small, empty office. A bag filled with white-and-green rugby jerseys lies in the corner. These were the jerseys of the Delareyville XV in the days when they still played; now they just lie there in the dust, a forlorn monument to platteland rugby.

I am still in Delareyville. Klein-Munro has given me directions to Louis Venter – he’s the son of oom Dries Venter, after whom the town stadium is named.

Louis, who works at Karoo-Osche Auctioneers, himself played for Delareyville in his day. ‘We were a rugby family,’ he says. ‘My dad was also one of the founders of Delareyville’s rugby club and Stellaland Rugby Union. He now lives in Lichtenburg.’

He goes off to rummage in the drawers of his desk and returns with a ‘remembrance’ his sister Elize once wrote about their dad. With this in hand, I drive back to the Dries Venter stadium. Again I park next to the field, and get out of the car. Behind the northern try line is a row of bluegums, and in the open space between something that looks like meerkat holes. This is the place where oom Dries Venter had once put in so much effort.

I remember how my dad used to go and open the sprayers to water the field in the mornings before going to Western Ford (he was the manager there), wrote Elize in the ‘remembrance’. My sister, brother or I – or whoever was wandering about nearby – always had to help him move the pipes. It was a blessed nuisance.

I walk across the withered field and stop on the centre spot. An empty beer can lies near the ten-metre line.

Bonzo, our lion-coloured ridgeback, always knew immediately when my dad got into his white Ford Fairlane and drove to the rugby field. Taking a shortcut past the tennis courts, Bonzo would follow my dad’s car at breakneck speed. Sometimes he wandered off and first chased a few meerkats.

Here, like in Coligny, the clubhouse has been taken over by the racing-pigeon club.

When my dad had finished, Bonzo would get into the Fairlane with him (back seat) and my dad would drop him at home. One Saturday afternoon, Ferdie Strauss of Schweizer-Reneke and his cronies stole Bonzo after a match. Delareyville and Schweizer had played against each other. My dad was very upset, and drove all the way to Schweizer to fetch Bonzo.

Not all platteland rugby clubs have their own clubhouse, which is why the lounge or ladies’ bar of the local hotel often serves as the clubhouse. Here in Vryburg, which still has a town team, the guys often hang out at the Elgro Hotel.

Many platteland rugby stories are hotel stories. Like those involving Toy Dannhauser, former Transvaal lock, who was the manager of the hotel in Clocolan in the Free State in the 1980s. On more than one occasion, it’s reported, he allowed male guests, some with minimal rugby skills, to sleep in the hotel for free in exchange for playing for the town team.

Clocolan once turned out on the field without a lock, and oom Toy apparently persuaded the referee to scrum for them at lock while still reffing the match – oom Toy told me this himself one evening in Pretoria.

Here in the Elgro, Basie Groenewald has just related how Polla Fourie, the former Springbok flanker, allegedly once asked the referee during a club match at Middelburg in the Transvaal to stop the game for a while. Old Polla then ran off the field to go and sort out someone in the crowd who had shouted a derogatory comment at him.

Basie Groenewald is talkative. ‘The Blue Bulls and Griquas are my teams,’ he says, and gestures towards the small blue plaster figure of a bull next to the Johnny Walker statuette on the counter.

This is something I often hear nowadays: on the platteland a guy will tell you: ‘I support the Blue Bulls and Griquas.’ Or: ‘I support the Sharks and the Pumas.’

Once upon a time, when platteland rugby was still strong, they wouldn’t have said that at all. They would simply have said: ‘I support Griquas.’

‘Ja-a-a,’ old Basie sighs later. ‘Rugby isn’t the same any more.’ It’s as if the plattelanders’ rugby loyalty is also moving to the cities these days.

And then Basie does something that any true Griquas supporter does frequently: ‘How about it,’ he asks, ‘can you tell me all the names of the 1970 Griquas team?’

Without waiting for a response, Basie rattles off the names of that 1970 team as if reciting a magic formula with which he wants to call back a lost era.

    Full back: Tos Smith

    Wings: Buddy Swartz and Loekie van der Merwe

    Centres: Mannetjies Roux and Koos Waldeck

    Fly half: Piet Visagie

    Scrum half: Joggie Viljoen

    Eighth man: Dennys Vorster

    Flanks: Piet van Deventer and Peet Smith

    Locks: Jannie van Aswegen and Johan Scheepers

    Hooker: James Combrinck

    Props: Soon Nel and Popeye Joubert.

Over the years this team has become a symbol of what platteland rugby can achieve. Nearly all the players came from small towns: De Aar, Victoria West, and especially the Ammosal mine near Postmasburg. They were a valiant lot who on 18 September 1970 defeated the mighty Northern Transvaal – packed with defence force, police and Tukkies players – with a score of 11–9 at the De Beers stadium in Kimberley to win the Currie Cup.

Basie and other guys in these parts still talk about this victory as if it had happened yesterday.

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  • On the Back Roads / Op die agterpaaie is published by Tafelberg, an imprint of NB
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  • NB @ BOOK SA

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