In this segment of the interview, Grant de Graf speaks about (1) his life-threatening account of fighting bush fires in Australia, (2) growing up in the Durban Point, and (3) how he was able to incorporate some of his personal experiences into his historical novel, Cavalier's Call.
Q. Do you have any impressionable memories, working as a jackeroo on a sheep station in Australia?
One incident that is difficult to forget, is the bushfire that the region experienced during my term. It was the most brutal fire to sweep the country in the decade. We received the call mid-morning. All hands rushed over to try and rescue sheep from the inferno and create breaks, so that we could contain spread of the fire. There were ‘roos everywhere, running in sheer panic and the poignant smell of mutton filled the air, a result of the casualties that the bushfire had claimed. A group of us had penetrated some dense bush with a ute (utility vehicle), in an attempt to create a break at the frontline. Suddenly, we realized that we were trapped. We were encircled with flames and there was no exit point. The pilot of a small plane hovered overhead and tried to direct us out the death-trap, through radio communication. I was knocked unconscious from smoke inhalation. Fortunately, one of our rangers managed to break through a field of low flying flames and rescue us from certain tragedy. It left me with a very high level of respect for fire and the potential damage that it can achieve. We were lucky to be alive.
Q. Were you able to see any parts of the Barrier Reef?
Yes. In fact I had a gig as a water sports instructor on one of the islands within the Whitsunday cluster near the mainland, given my experience in the navy as a diver. The Barrier Reef is actually much further out, at that point. The coastal waters near the mainland can be quite dangerous, as during certain periods of the year, the area is home to the box jellyfish, a venomous creature that can kill a man in a few seconds. However, within the cluster of islands there is greater level of protection and the dangers are not as prevalent. During my stay in Australia, I also covered as a bartender in several pubs in Queensland and Sydney, pulling beer. In Queensland it was make it a XXXX mate, and in New South Wales the call was Tooheys New served in a pony, midi or schooner.
"Wherever you have men with a little alcohol under the belt, you are bound to find a few loose steer on the top paddock."
Q. Did you have to deal with situations when the patrons of a pub became a little frisky?
Wherever you have men with a little alcohol under the belt, you are bound to find a few loose steer on the top paddock. But I had seen action before. When my father came to Durban from Johannesburg, as a qualified pharmacist and second generation hotelier, he was offered a lease on a derelict pub in the harbor in the Point, called the Criterion Hotel. My parents signed the lease and called the establishment the Smuggler’s Inn, because it was the only tavern in the world that boasted a custom’s gate in its courtyard. I can’t vouch for the sobrietry of the custom’s officers, but everyone had a good time. It attracted a very animated and vibrant clientele. In Durban you had the Point, which extended perpendicular from the Bluff on the opposite side of the bay. My father always used to joke that Durban was all bluff, until you got to the point. In about 1965, the tavern was considered a security risk and the property expropriated, due to the lack of control that was being exercised at the custom’s gate. My parents acquired the Alexandra Hotel, located at 124 Point Road, a few hundred yards away from the original tavern and on New Year’s Eve, to the beat of a lively band and much fanfare, hundreds of patrons marched from the old Smuggies, as it was nicknamed, to the new Smuggies. The Alexandra Hotel had also been the location at which President Paul Kruger resided, during one of his visits to Durban during the nineteenth century.
"Every sailor who had weathered the seven seas was my friend, with whom I had sparred in a bout of arm-wrestling."In the harbor there was a lot of shunting – the trains. They were all steam driven. In those days, the docks was my playground, and I was on first name terms with every train driver on the block. I would hitch a ride on the old steam locomotives, from the bottom end of the Point across to Maydon Wharf, which was where the sugar containers were located, on the other side of the bay. The most enthralling part of the trip was when the driver would allow me to ring the train’s bell and whistle, as it expelled jubilant hissing sounds. Every sailor who had weathered the seven seas was my friend, with whom I had sparred in a bout of arm-wrestling. Of course they would always let me win, which made me think that I was the strongest man alive.
Q. Did you attend a nursery school or kindergarten?
Yes. It was called the Claire Ellis Brown Nursery School and situated on Point Road. I remember one incident that occurred when I was about four years old. A friend at the kindergarten enticed me to bunk and come to his home to view his toys. During the middle of break, we both secured our bags and hurtled down Point Road at full throttle. Fortunately for the teachers and us, a young student caught up with our trail. We were spanked, placed in a corner and prohibited from participating in the scheduled entertainment, a showman who made animal shapes with balloons. The principal, a Ms. Meinjies, sent us home with a note to our parents urging them not to punish us, as we had already been scolded. That was very graceful of her. Years later when I was at high school attending DHS, I paged through some old photos and immediately recognized the boy with whom I had participated in the foiled escape of my toddler days. He was a very bright student and we shared a place in the high school’s swimming team, under the guidance of Springbok lifesaver Alan Burt. His name was David Curry. When I recalled the incident to David who remembered the experience well, he claimed that I had attempted to solicit him to watch a show at the Smuggler’s Inn, which of course was not true.
Q. Did Smuggies attract mainly seamen?
In 1967, after the six day war and the closure of the Suez Canal, all shipping was diverted around the Cape of Good Hope. Business boomed, as the hotel’s clientele was principally seamen and stevedores. It was as if the old silk and spice route had been re-opened. There were literally hundreds of ships that were anchored off the coastline on a daily basis, waiting to enter the harbor for fresh supplies and to re-fuel. We could always tell how good business was, by counting the number of ships anchored offshore.
When our family was not hosting the famous Sunday braai (barbeque), we would venture down to Noddys, next to the paddling pool on the beachfront. This was the location where I had experienced my first swimming lessons, provided by a veteran coach who would wear a safari-style peaked cap, and who would ask me whether I had eaten my jungle oats that morning. Noddys was famous for its waffles and in between ice-cream, I would accost visiting seamen from the navies of the world with my friendly greeting. I had been instructed by my father that they were our friends. Every seaman that walked passed was a potential candidate to an arm-wrestling challenge.
"Of course there was Hellcat Margaret who was reputed to deal with ill-behaved customers by seizing their ear between her teeth and dragging them outside."
I could keep you busy for a month of Sundays. Of course there was Hellcat Margaret (other versions of the story describe her as Hellcat Peggy) who was reputed to deal with ill-behaved customers by seizing their ear between her teeth and dragging them outside. It was rumored that as a warning to others she kept a jar of preserved ears, within close range. I knew Hellcat Margaret and was witness to her dealing with ill-behaved customers, but I never saw the infamous ears that had been kept in a jar of preservatives. Truthfully, I was too afraid to ask, because I didn’t have any doubt that she would produce the evidence on request.
In the early seventies, we had the John Rothman years. He was a male dancer-singer, who took the city by storm and later became a choreographer for South African Television. John performed to a packed house for nearly two years. Smuggies came into its own as a venue that was considered hip, frequented by a cross-spectrum of people from all walks of life, from seamen to professionals. It was attractive for three reasons: (1) the atmosphere was considered authentic and unpretentious, (2) it was a dare, and (3) there was always good entertainment. Certainly, not the place that you would take the new girl on the block, but it was fun.
Then my parents hit the restaurant industry with a bombshell. They started selling giant T-bone steaks for fifty cents, which by today’s standards would be like selling steak in a Manhattan restaurant for ten dollars. People came from everywhere and at times the lines extended to lengths of over a quarter of mile down Point Road. Smugglers was also know for its famous Xmas lunch. I have very fond memories of the lady patrons, sifting through Christmas pudding and helping me to find the hidden tickies (nickels) buried within. They said that it was like trying to find their men.
"Certainly, not the place that you would take the new girl on the block, but it was fun."
When my father passed away, my whole world was turned upside down. I was now ostensibly the man of the house and had to take my stand by my mother and sister. As a relatively young widow, my mother shouldered the responsibility of managing the hotel and entertainment operation, but I was given significant powers of command. The staff referred to me as Boss Grant and they were quick to act on my wishes. During the days that school closed early, I would take my friends to Smuggies for steak, chips and cabaret.
View of Durban Point today.
Q. Have you used the benefit of these experiences in your novel, Cavalier’s Call?
Yes, in a peripheral way. I have several scenes that unfold in a vibrant tavern atmosphere. Action follows and expresses itself in a manner, which I believe is authentic and entertaining. In fact in one incident Joao, the lead character and Ines Peres, a woman for which he has strong aspirations, enter a tavern disguised as French cavaliers. When Joao is attacked, Ines Peres draws a sword and comes to his defense.
"She promptly pulled out a baby Beretta and tried to shoot me."
Q. Are your characters based on real life experiences?
I can’t say specifically. I have had the odd encounter. In one incident, I suggested to a friend that I had been dating that we terminate the relationship. She promptly pulled out a baby Beretta and tried to shoot me. “If I can’t have you, then no one else can,” she protested. Fortunately, I succeeded in wrestling the weapon from her grip. Of course, I did the noble thing and confiscated the gun. After the experience my friends called her six-gun Kelly.*
The Durban July
"It is reputed that on days that they would fire the flame, the poignant aroma of curry would waft across the entire Durban Berea."
Q. It seems that you have an appreciation for entertainment?
In the right context, yes. I can recall in later years, a friend and I hit on an idea to host a marquee at the Durban July, South Africa’s premier racehorse event. I don’t know if it’s the same today, but then, everyone who was anyone attended. My friend was Ian Rout, or Trouty as we knew him. The Rout family was known to have access to a closely guarded and secret recipe in curry. It is reputed that on days that they would fire the flame, the poignant aroma of curry would waft across the entire Durban Berea. For the Durban July event, Trouty and I had a very low budget so the marquee that we hired was second grade and the cheapest obtainable. After workmen had hoisted the tent, it looked a poor and sorry sight, poised to collapse on the hint of a slight breeze. “You need to pray hard,” I suggested. “If anyone sneezes, she will probably go.” I secured the services of the famed singer and guitarist Josh Sithole, who was playing at the Umhlanga Sands. The event was an incredible hit. No one sneezed and there was a buzz that carried on late into the night. This was the springboard for other such events that were hosted in the years that followed.
TO CONTINUE TO PART III CLICK HERE
1) Interview with Grant de Graf [Part I]
2) Cavalier's Call, a historical novel celebrating the dawn to Portugal's Age of Discovery
3) 5 Facts About the Age of Discovery
4) Sparks that Ignited the Advent to the Age of Discovery
5) A Review of Cavalier's Call
6) Read an Excerpt of Cavalier's Call
7) Watch the Book Trailer
8) Cavalier's Call Untold Secrets video
* Not her real name