Ben Dekker – A South African Legend

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.

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Big Ben enjoying his backyard – the Indian Ocean.

“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.

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On the way to Ben Dekker’s shack at Second Beach.

The Sculptor

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 umngqusho, 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.

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How about trading that office space for this?

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.”

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Ben’s shack at Second Beach.

“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.


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The slow pace of Pondoland.

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.


16 thoughts on “Ben Dekker – A South African Legend

  1. paul fanner says:

    I picked Ben up by the side of the N3, sometime in the 80’s. He was standing next to his broken-down Kombi, dressed in leather, then as now, and waving a part above his head. I had already passed him when I decided he did not look threatening, so I backed up. The part was the fuel pump, and we then called in at every dorp in search of a spare, without success, until eventually I dropped him off in Harrismaith. He kept me chatting all that way, and it was from him I heard that kwashiorkor was called the ‘new disease’ because it had been unknown before maize became the main crop , replacing millet. It seems millet has much more protein than maize. However , because the latter has a much higher yield per hectare than millet, it had displaced the millet. But then the children became malnourished. More food but less value.

  2. B A Potgieter says:

    My name is Barry Potgieter and in during 1965 I was stationed as a Constable at the Three Anchorbay S A Police Station, Seapoint when some Fishery Department members came into the Charge Office with Ben Dekker in possession of a few “Illegal” Crayfish to be charged for fishing Crayfish in the reserve. After a few questions from me, I released Ben Dekker and no charge could be brought against him and he drove off happily with his catch. I Wonder if he is still alive and if so, does he still remember the episode. A few years after that he went to live with the Bushmen of the Kalahari to do a thesis or whatever and a small documentary was made.

  3. Graham Seale says:

    Clearly Ben has hitched so many rides I do not expect he will remember me. I came across him striding along the road North from Cape Town towards Picketberg.

    I was in a Company panel van, and not supposed to pick up hikers, but I had been driving for some time, and not seen another human. Also, there was not much ahead to survive on for the next 400 miles. I felt some concern for him, and he had something about him, with his big staff that made me curious, so I stopped. It turned out we were both recently ex-UCT, he in somewhat controversial circumstances following some upsets he caused in running against the United Party leader Sir DeVilliers Graaf. For various reasons, we were both interesting to the authorities.

    He was making hi way to Windhoek in Namibia, carrying with him a present for a friend. It was a rather special knife he had made, kept in a rolled up cloth. The conversation began slowly, but I knew I was getting great stuff from a born naturalist. He explained how the entire West road was constructed mainly for military swift access purposes, and there would be places where the road would have large exit slip roads that would end suddenly, only to serve a lonly path wending off to somewhere that might one day justfy a road. One was called “Moetveloor” (did I spell that right? I can’t even find it now. I asked what the name meant, and he said “It means – you absolutely have to lose”! The journey was getting interesting!

    Many miles later, the hot Karoo was getting to me, and I needed fuel, so I I took a left exit to a small place on a short road parallel to the N7. A filling station plaza with a flat top high over-roof, and one of those Coca-Cola + Fanta + 7-UP refrigerated boxes with built-in bottle opener. While the fuel was being put in, I walked around the place, and there on the side of the wall was a water tap. Clear cool water! I cupped my hands, and took some to wash the dust off my face. Then I did what comes naturally when one is thirsty. I tried to drink some, and had to splutter it out immediately. Cool and clear it may have been, but it was the worst tasting mineral-infused stuff I had ever come aross. At the corner of the building was Ben, in fits of laughter, holding the bottle of whatever he had taken from the Coca Cola box. “Ja boetie” he says, “They don’t call this place Bitterfontein for nothing”!

    He travelled with me past Garies, and Kamieskroon, finally stopping at Springbok in the late afternoon. At the time, there was a main hotel by a small triangular patch of and where three roads met. I was booked in to the hotel, but I had no idea where he might sleep. On that little patch, he made a small fire and brewed some tea in a tin can he had “converted”. It was a long time ago, so I cannot remember all the detail, but I came away knowing all about why that part of Namaqualand can explode into various colours under little daisies, and what it takes make stuff with your own hands.

    I don’t know if Ben is still around, but if he is, I do hope he is OK.

  4. Wimpie Pieterse says:

    I loved his films like Wildtemmer and was at that stage still in primary school at Christiana. My parent’s stayed in Makwassie and some part of the film was shoot there. I hope you’re well mr Dekker and maybe we will meet one day at your place.

  5. Kerstin Fluegge says:

    Before I traveled for nine months through South Africa in 1996, I had visited a photo exhibition in Munich, Germany, portraying the most diverse People reflecting life in South Africa. During my stay in Port St Johns, I was hiking a lonely coastal trail. At a narrow path, I unexpectedly met a hiking party of three. Being focused on every step, I looked up into a friendly face with piercing blue eyes and received an encouraging smile. This nod stuck with me for quite a while, and only months later, looking through my South Africa material, I found in the catalog of the exhibition Dekker’s portrait titled as the picture of a philosopher. Port St. Johns is still in my heart as a place of refuge and connected with that very moment. It is funny that today, looking for a picture of this Paradise, I again stumble over this article about Ben Dekker.

  6. Andrew Jefferies says:

    I watched a documentary last night on Kyknet called Karakter which was an interview with Big Ben Dekker who is currently living in a caravan in the yard of a panelbeating business in Sea Point Cape Town.. Looking fit for 82 and still walking around in his hippy fashion clothes and barefoot drinking his red wine out of a cow’s horn. I gave him a lift once about 25 years ago whe hiking from East London to Port St John’s.. Very interesting person even though the journey was shot as I had to turn off at Mooiplaas to Kei Mouth.

  7. Andrew Jefferies says:

    I watched a documentary last night on Kyknet called Karakter which was an interview with Big Ben Dekker who is currently living in a caravan in the yard of a panelbeating business in Sea Point Cape Town.. Looking fit for 82 and still walking around in his hippy fashion clothes and barefoot drinking his red wine out of a cow’s horn. I gave him a lift once about 25 years ago whe hiking from East London to Port St John’s.. Very interesting person even though the journey was shot as I had to turn off at Mooiplaas to Kei Mouth….23rd March 2022

  8. Pingback: Ben Dekker – A South African Legend | Miscellany

  9. Mike Newell says:

    Well, well, well… I’m 91 and often recall fond memories of Ben , he and I back in1956 both played leads at the Hofmeyer theatre in Cape Town and ALL over the Cape in “Die Laste van die Takhare” ( The Last of the twig hairs!)I had to learn Afrikaans for it, but fortunately I was playing an Englishman struggling to learn the language! Ben played a friendly giant (type casting!) My actress wife (of 58 years) and I built a beach cottage at Bakoven and Ben regularly came by to row his way to a hut he built on a tiny island off the Sentinel, Hout Bay. He would offer us Crayfish and Octopuses! He and I also went canoeing and camping on some Cape river. Ben I see has traveled widely in Africa…me too. My wife and I met in Kenya 61 years ago…in 1961! and drove down to Cape Town in a battered old World War II JEEP! My travels have taken me throughout Europe, the Middle East, the length and breadth of Africa, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Australia, Rio, Canada and the US where we are retired in Virginia, in the Bible Belt (for my sins!) Best wishes to you BEN I trust you’re still alive and kicking! Pretty sure you are! Mike.

  10. Sandra Moore says:

    Watching the amazing 2019 film “Toorbos” with Elani Dekker (not sure if she is related to Ben) in it, made me immediately think of Ben Dekker and his parents. I grew up round the corner from his parents in Vincent, East London, in the early 1970’s and remember seeing Ben Dekker there and walking about Vincent from time to time. His parents were wonderful to all the neighbourhood children, as they had a swimming pool and all the children would arrive at their home every Saturday afternoon, where they taught us to swim and when it was Christmas time, they would arrange all sorts of games for the children to participate in with prizes and sweets as rewards/winnings. I will always be grateful to Mr and Mrs Dekker, for their wonderful kind hospitality and generosity towards my brothers, I and the neighbourhood children.

  11. Glenn Baard Swakopmund says:

    My brother was studying Medicine at Rhodes Uni in the early sixties, when I met Ben at his flat in Grahamstown. What an amazing character. We gave him a lift in my brother”s VW Beetle, and I remember he hardly fitted into the front seat. My bro always talked fondly of Ben and his escapades, and I always wondered what happened to him. He lives life to the full and “skrik vir niks”

  12. Mervyn Galansky says:

    I was attending Rhodes University in Grahamstown studying Pharmacy in 1963 and 1964, and stayed at Thomas Pringle Residence, as did Ben Dekker. Was always fascinated by this gentle giant of a man, with so many stories to tell. Part of my life that I will remember fondly forever.

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