Text & Pix by Chris Marais
Ben Dekker, all two metres of him, has been part of my South African experience since I can remember. He’s been just about everything but a fireman and a cowboy in his life: politician, actor, lumberman, Masters student, Demon Surf Lover, castaway and local character.
But I mostly remember Ben as being a loveable outlaw from The System we mere mortals are trapped in.
The first time we encountered him was back in 2002, when we were on an Eastern Cape assignment in Port St Johns.
“Vast Expanse of Muscular Thigh”
Dressed in traditional headscarf, beaded waistcoat, leather flap over short-shorts that displayed, in Jules’ words, “a vast expanse of muscular thigh”, he strode past us on the porch of Lily’s Lodge at Second Beach like a gaudy ship in full sail.
We sat outside quaffing beer and cider, watching the circling frenzies of black bats. I went into the pub called Ben’s Bar to get more drinks. The legend turned to me and said:
“Take your lady and look at the full moon tonight.”
I did, and it was quite magnificent, that perfect ring of cratered blue cheese with its rainbow ring.
The next morning we ran into Ben on our way to town. He was dragging a piece of firewood. We formally introduced ourselves and made arrangements for later in the day. At exactly five o’clock we arrived at his cave just off Second Beach.
Ben was working on a sneezewood sculpture. He made some tom off finding the ‘inner shape’ in a piece of driftwood and settling it on a plinth and selling it as sea sculpture. I’d seen far worse in the northern suburbs galleries of Jo’burg.
Ben was busy turning driftwood into the creatures of local myth and superstition: the snake, the one-legged lightning bird, the baboon (witchdoctor’s familiar) that is ridden backwards and the strange three-legged tree hyrax.
He gave us each a goblet of Tassenberg Red and we discussed his latest river romp, which had landed Ben and one Loretta Toon in court on charges of public indecency. He smiled like the old rogue he really was.
“I was trying to save her from drowning.”
We continued our encounter up at Lily’s at dinner time. We had juicy filletted kob. Ben wandered through from the kitchen bearing a large plate loaded with umgqusho, laced with calamari and crayfish sauce.
We admired his magnificent beaded waistcoat. The hippie in me shoved my inner yuppie out of the way and really wanted one as well.
“Gail at Pondo People (a local craft shop) gives me a new waistcoat every year on my birthday,” he said.
“And what happens to the old one?”
“They go to a current lovely lady,” was all he’d say. How could the magistrate fine such a discreet gent R200 for public indecency? It didn’t seem right.
Cellphones for Crayfish
Jules asked him if he had a cell number, so we could occasionally contact him from Jo’burg with a matter for discussion.
“I had one once,” he said. “But I threw it into the sea and told the crayfish to phone when they were ready for me.”
That was all back in 2002. Now we were at his door (so to speak) again on the epic Shorelines trip of 2005. But he wasn’t home. Instead, there was a note on the window of his shack that read:
“Sergeant Naidoo – I waited until 11.30. Now what?”
We drove back to Port St Johns to look for Ben. We didn’t have to go far. There, on the dirt road, was the incredibly tall, loping figure of Mr Dekker.
We stopped, re-introduced ourselves and offered him a lift to town. He said he remembered us and was happy for the ride.
Jules opened the back door of the Isuzu for him.
I thought Ben Dekker had climbed into the bakkie, so I drove off. Jules yelled at me to stop. Ben was just starting to fold his massive frame into the small crawlspace (which is all the backseat of a 2003 Isuzu bakkie really amounts to) as I pulled off in first gear, nearly damaging the man seriously. I was very sorry. Ben was very gracious.
“Good grief,” I later gasped at Jules. “I nearly killed the icon of Port St Johns.”
“The Accessibility of a Big Bath”
The big news of this visit was that Ben had just turned 65 and was eligible for a State pension.
“Which is great,” he enthused. “Now, once a month, I can go stand in a queue with all my friends and get some money.”
We asked him why he liked to live next to the sea.
“The accessibility of a huge bath. The rhythm of it. And all that seafood…”
Ben Dekker also turned out to be a writer of hand-crafted wisdoms in a digital age. Shortly after our seaside book journey, he sent us this:
Chris & Julienne,
About this coastal travel book you are busy with. I’m a slow thinker and it takes me a while to work out the thinking of listeners when I am doing most of the talking.
I have always been attracted to the people that travellers bounce off and describe – after having revealed enough of themselves to make the reader interested in their opinions.
The places are secondary and only get real meaning from the people who inhabit them.
Does one not really travel from person to person, rather than from place to place? Even when you have found such in-tune travel companions as the two of you have?
Think about it. Might give a nice new angle to your book.
On The Road Tripper
Indeed, Mr Dekker, indeed. And then, more than a dozen years later after we had given him our latest book, Road Tripper – Eastern Cape Karoo, he sent us another letter:
Julie & Chris,
What makes it special for me is the placement in space of the towns and villages and then bringing them home to the reader via a local character, e.g. Nieu-Bethesda and not just the Owl House, but Mermaids of the Karoo. Not just Athol Fugard but a sculptor with a bust of Athol. Great.
Ben also told us that his sister Anna lives in Bathurst and had really enjoyed reading another of our books, The Journey Man – A South African Reporter’s Stories.
“I will pass the Road Tripper on to her when I fetch The Journey Man…
- Visit the Karoo Space Print Bookshop HERE
- Visit our Ebookshop HERE
- Ben Dekker would love it if you sent him a postcard or a letter to PO Box 81, Port St Johns, 5120, Eastern Cape, South Africa.