Remember Bruce Barichievy, from a visit to the Transkei Wild Coast? I spotted him crossing Church Street, Pretoria in late November 1970, and followed him to his room in the Eureka private hotel where I surprised him. That has to be one of the most significant coincidences of my life, as it opened a gate to wild Africa. Somehow, I never thought of South Africa as real Africa, although parts were untouched and wild.
He said he was working for a natural resources survey company, Loxton, Hunting & Associates. He had just returned from a survey in Gokwe, Rhodesia where the company had a contract to map soils and vegetation there to facilitate land utilization planning. He said they also had a team in Mozambique. How I envied him! But Bruce had an agricultural diploma and I had nothing that might land me a job with his company.
In December, I was working for Fowler Tarspraying at the international Jan Smuts Airport, laying stormwater pipes under the to-be car-parks, but I resigned before the Christmas break. I turned down an offer of an increase in salary and position, but had no job securely in my sights.
I was honoured to be best man at my friend, Ian Pringle’s wedding to Pikkie, in Pretoria. Then, after Christmas, I drove to Swakopmund, South West Africa, to spend New Year’s Eve with the Burhoven-Jaspers family and help Ian and Pikkie move into their new home, there, as he, now a geologist for Rio Tinto, had been transferred to the nearby Rössing uranium mine. Nico Burhoven-Jaspers got a lift with me to Cape Town, where he was then working. From there I went to Welkom in the Free State, to visit the van Hees family, old family friends. When I phoned home, I got an ear-full from my father to tell me that Bruce had phoned to say that I should have contacted his company about a job. News to me, but I got their number and asked for an interview with Dr R. F. Loxton, citing Bruce as my introduction.
Dr Reg Loxton was in his forties, a commanding figure, slim and neat with a handsome angular face and direct eyes. I liked him right away. He described the firm. It had started life as the Technical Services branch of Aircraft Operating Company, which did aerial surveys, flying grids all over Africa to provide photographic coverage. Loxton’s company used these to map land-use potential on the ground.
He offered me the chance to join them, and to this day, I have no clue why, but I grabbed it with both hands. For training, I was to join team leader Hugo Maaren, surveying the South African Shangaan “homeland” in the northern and eastern Transvaal. Bruce was part of this team.
From the head office in Wynberg, Sandton, Johannesburg, after a couple of days tracing maps of Mozambique and preparing for my trip, I took a diesel Land Rover up to Shangaanland in the company of Derek Tawse, one of the team. We surprised Bruce working off a dirt track near the village of Giyani, the district centre. He was thrilled that I had landed the job.
Team Leader, Hugo Maaren, was a very likeable Hollander; a patient teacher with a sharp sense of humour. The work involved deciding, by interpretation of the aerial photos, the boundaries of soil units; where to dig pits to sample for analysis and to describe the included soil types. Defined by these would be vegetation and grasses for timber or grazing potential. A certain amount of simple geology had to be taken into account, as well as water availability and terrain for irrigation and cropping designation. It was hugely interesting and I loved it. I began to learn to differentiate combretum-veld, mopane-veld and acacia-veld. The identification and botanical names of trees, shrubs and grasses began to become second nature.
Each man surveyed his own area, but the areas required co-ordination to standardise the results. After the areas were sampled, a crew of experts visited the region as a whole. We traipsed around from one area to the next, each man showing examples of his soil-types so that the experts could advise which designations were similar. Doc Loxton, as we called him, and Frank Merryweather, director of field operations, would challenge our soil interpretation at the pits. Sometimes this would stir up fierce argument; all in a good cause to keep uniformity intact.
After Co-ordination, members of the team would return to their areas to change or confirm their decisions and finalise the type boundaries, using a soil auger to clear up any mysteries.
A lot of the time, as well as weekends, Bruce, Derek and I would stay at Base Camp; an old house at the redundant Klein Letaba Gold Mine. I am unable to think of that house without remembering a particular incident with shame.
It was not because I learned a new and interesting career there. It was not because I wrote out my first cheque, ever, to Bruce Barichievy – payment of a poker debt for R58-00!
It was because, as a newbie, I said nothing when Bruce fired the eighty-year-old cook, Charlie, for refusing to cut and cook yet more French fries after midnight. We were well-oiled; playing poker.
“More chippies, Charlie!”
“No more chippies, Boss!”
“No more job, Charlie!”