What’s the relevance of the title: Journey Man?
‘Journey Man’ comes from a French word (journee) which either means a day’s work or a day’s travel.
That just about describes my professional life as a guy who learned his trade and took it on the road. I first trained as a reporter and ended up, decades later, as a travel writer.
The term has other meanings as well. It also describes someone who has learned a craft, taken pride in working his craft and defines himself by his craft.
What’s in your book?
A selection of the assignments – complete with backgrounder outtakes – I went on during my newspaper years (mainly with the anti-Apartheid Rand Daily Mail), a rousing sabbatical journey through the American Heartland and my magazine period, mainly with the anti-Establishment Scope.
So it’s not the autobiography of Chris Marais?
No. The lumpy bits, the sad parts that strike most of us during our lives, are not included. They’re not relevant, in this context. And, quite frankly, they’re just too painful to write about.
It is as a story teller that I feel really in my element. So The Journey Man is a collection of my stories, gathered over the first 15 years of a 40-year career.
What kinds of stories?
They begin in 1976, the year of South African television and the Soweto Uprising. You find me as a young reporter with the Pretoria News, completely out of my depth, a bit like “Mr Bean meets Inspector Clouseau”. There’s a lot of klutziness going on. Also a couple of lucky breaks.
I morphed from TV Editor to lowly Court Reporter to finding myself teargassed and ripped out of the office car in an angry township outside Pretoria – all in the space of ten days.
I soon moved across to the Rand Daily Mail, and from there the story really gets interesting.
Over the years, I worked and played with a succession of partners-in-crime – news photographers who love adventure, the open road and a drink down at the local pub.
I was always interested in long-form journalism, so the Mail indulged me as a features writer. I also worked the night shift on the RDM, and learned all about the grit and the grime of Johannesburg.
Strangely enough, I came to love that grit and grime – it always felt like the real thing. And the RDM night staff became like brothers and sisters to me. There was a great sense of camaraderie.
I wrote about hookers and hustlers and grannies who brewed mampoer out in their backyards. Bikers and buskers and that delicious brown chicken we used to devour at 4am deep in Hillbrow at a place called Fontana. And I did a lot of open road stories that had very funny twists and turns.
I loved it all.
The Rand Daily Mail stories in the book are like the newsroom tales we would be recounting in the infamous Federal Hotel, just up the road from our offices at the corner of Mooi and Main in downtown Jo’burg.
This is definitely not an executive take on the rise and fall of the Mail – I am simply not qualified to do that and it’s been done by others who worked at a much higher level.
But, I felt, there were still not enough RDM boiler room tales being recorded. And each of us who worked in the editorial offices of this great newspaper has such stories. I would like to see them all published in some format one day.
So you weren’t a political animal?
No. They say you must write about what you know. I couldn’t really get a sense of what was going on behind the talking heads of South African politics, so I had little interest besides the fact that I detested the closed minds of the Apartheid state.
I wanted to work at street level, and tell the extraordinary stories of ordinary people. I think this has always been my inclination.
Then how did you fit in at the famously liberal Rand Daily Mail?
You can be liberal without being rabidly political. And besides, the Mail was home to all kinds of people: sports writers, crazy photographers, grammar Nazis, music experts, local government fundi’s, food writers, crime reporters, adventurers and story-tellers like me. We even indulged the occasional police spy in our midst.
And then you left the Mail. Why?
Well, I actually left the Mail a number of times. Once, I was burnt out from night shift work and found myself a soft job with the Sunday Tribune in Durban. But I lasted only five months before being lured back to the Mail – exciting things were happening and I didn’t want to miss out.
In 1981 I left again and went travelling, mainly to the USA. An old school buddy and I bought a van and drove across America, living a dream we’d had since childhood. It was one of the best things I have ever done for myself. A great adventure.
And then I came back to the Mail. It had become my home. People there hardly knew I’d gone away. They thought I’d been on one of my platteland walkabouts.
By now, I had developed a deep love for taking an office car, a good photographer (for that, read guys like Noel Watson, Etienne Rothbart, the late Juhann Kuus, Raymond Preston, Robbie Botha, Dave Pughe-Parry, Trevor Samson, Greg English and David Sandison) and hitting the open road in search of a good story. And because we always came back with something decent, the news desk indulged me.
Were you there when the Mail closed down in 1985?
No. By then I was working across town at Scope Magazine – and more about that later. When the Mail closed, it was like the words of that famous song. It was the day the music died.
Not enough of us realised it at the time, but it was a massive loss to South African civil society. The Mail was an authentic, classical newspaper that cared deeply about all the citizens of this country.
It was the first South African newspaper to stand against the Apartheid government. Most of its senior staff had great hearts. These were men and women you would follow into battle.
Back then, if you were an editor, past or present, of the Rand Daily Mail, you were welcomed in all the Press Clubs of the world.
There were many theories about why the Mail closed. At the end of the day, the Nationalists rejoiced and the country went into a State of Emergency. That was the beginning of five very dark years for South Africa.
But by now you were at Scope. Doing what?
Yeah. Everyone still teases me about being the guy who stuck stars on the nipples of the naked cover girls. I get that a lot.
I was the Johannesburg Editor of Scope. My chief editor (and there were quite a few, including the feisty Chris Backeberg and the famous Dave Mullany) was always in Durban. It was my job to provide the bulk of the home-grown South African stories for the magazine.
Scope Magazine has been described as “brave, irreverent and, occasionally, ethically dubious”. Where did you fit in?
Right in the middle of all that, I guess. At Scope, I had found my true home. Here, I could tell stories. I was given time, expenses and the freedom to choose my subject matter. This, you understand, is pure heaven for a journalist. This is when we thrive.
So what did you do with all that freedom?
I began with a couple of adventure stories: deep sea fishing, flying over the Okavango in Tiger Moth biplanes, 4X4 stuff, a lot of bush trips. There was also a fair amount of time spent with the diamond divers of Port Nolloth – in real cowboy country.
I moved on to Deep Crime, spending day after day, running hours and hours of interview tape, on crooks, murderers, con men and their victims.
I looked out for irony and humour and human interest: the auntie who could powerlift anyone in town, the man who wrote the words in the Hallmark greeting cards – and bike gangs, oh, plenty of bike gangs.
I worked with the best magazine photographers at the time, guys like Peter Whitfield, Herman Potgieter and Les Bush. I would later collaborate and travel with Brent Stirton, who has now gone stellar and is a regular in National Geographic, but back then Brent was in our Durban office.
My first big story with Scope was a series on a teenage boy who had stowed away to all points of the globe, literally in planes, trains and automobiles. I spent six weeks on that story.
My last big story for Scope was an eight-month assignment, working with Les Bush and a couple of Drug Squad cops every day in Hillbrow, covering the abuse of Wellconal. I think all the junkies I interviewed died within five years of the series running in the magazine.
Did these stories affect your personal life?
Yes, they do rub off on you. I took a lot of strain during that time. What partially saved me from going crazy was my night job as a singer with the Silver Creek Mountain Band.
That gig, like my long American journey, was a personal indulgence, another Bucket List tick for me. And it was a privilege to be a member, even though I was there for less than a year.
What was so special about the Silver Creek Mountain Band?
You probably had to be there. This band was great in its heyday. It was full of fiddles, banjos, fast-paced bluegrass songs, great harmonies and character. It was beer drinking music of the highest quality.
By the time I joined them, the fiddles had gone but we still had Rod Dry on his big old double bass, and a crazy-special guitarist called Syd Wagner who could “cut heads” with the best of them.
When it’s been a rousing evening at The Prohibition Club in Main Road, Melville, you’re full of whisky and singing Sweet Home Alabama and Syd is smoking hot with that lead break tonight and the crowd is going bezonkers, you can briefly forget all about those shivering addicts walking the streets of Hillbrow, looking for those little pink Wellconal pills that are killing them like flies.
But the music stopped and you moved on from Scope, right?
Yes. The Pinks Series brought me a couple of journalism awards and a certain amount of local credibility. I was hired by a publishing house to be the editor of two magazines at once: Living (a northern suburbs lifestyle monthly) and Excellence, the in-room magazine for the Sun International hotel group.
Why did you leave Scope?
For the money, boys. For the money. And I wanted to feel how my bum fitted in the Editor’s Chair. Also, Jeez, the streets were getting a little mean for the likes of me.
And how did it fit?
OK, I guess. Excellence was a short gig, but the Living job lasted eight years. I took the mag from being a mild knock & drop Sandton Mama monthly to Living Africa, a little more kick-ass and relevant to the time.
We were in the 1990s and South Africa was going through great change. Recording that change was a posse of fantastic media people. I tried to buy as much of their freelance work as my budget allowed. Living Africa became a journo hangout, and we won bucket-loads of awards and had a world of fun.
I had the privilege of spending time with and promoting journalists who were specialists at all kinds of things. There was the Bang Bang Club, there were adventure writers, columnists, fashionistas, environmentalists, satirists and a quality group of travel writers.
As a veteran journalist (Percy Banishek) once told me:
“My boy, you will never become a millionaire as a reporter. But you will always have a season ticket to the Grandstand of Life.”
A note of caution: These are lessons I know now, at the age of 61. And I would do it all over again – I would just take it one degree easier this time around.
So what are you up to now? Enjoying your retirement down in the Karoo?
OK, so one of the first rules or inevitabilities of freelancing is you never retire. You work until the day you fall off your proverbial horse.
Having said that, I can tell you my wife Julienne du Toit and I are on the adventure of our lives. It’s all about the Karoo region of South Africa and it has been a 10-year trip so far.
Our prime print partner, the magazine we love to work for, is SA Country Life. This is an iconic publication that reflects and promotes thousands of positive aspects of country living. I personally feel that Country Life is more than a magazine. It’s a massive support system for the growing network of people semi-grating out of the cities and into the platteland.
So Country Life shares the same ideals, values and sense of mission that we do.
We also run Karoo Central, a personalised Classifieds section where Karoo people can advertise their offerings (all sorts) to other Karoo people and the world at large.
We have a free-to-read Karoo Features section which is massive, covering everything from lifestyle to people, food to festivals.
And Julie keeps a watching brief on the gathering issue of proposed shale gas fracking and destructive mining in the region.
You could say our mission these days is to promote and protect the 101 towns and districts and estimated 1-million people of the Karoo.
Don Quixote would have been proud…