A group of children stood admiring the sailing dinghies tied up on the jetty of the Tandjung Priok Yacht Club in Djakarta. The open boats were of the Dutch BM class, broad, sturdy and very comfortable. The skippers and crew were boarding their boats and preparing them to sail to the small islands off the Java coast. Boat covers were removed, sail bags appeared and the sails were unpacked. A mainsail and jib were hoisted and the sheets were put in place. All un-used gear was stowed away under the foredeck. At last one of the skippers called the children. “Are you all wearing a life belt?” he shouted. “Yes, yes” was the excited reply. “Than you can board the boats.” he answered. The children ran across the jetty, eager to find the boat allocated to them. Those early sailing memories I will treasure forever. My boat was blue and had a white deck. The sail number was BM 315. The sea was calm and there was a nice breeze. Once we left port, we were making about 3 knots. We could see a motor launch ahead of us. After a 3 hour sail we saw a small coral island ahead of us. The island was flat and bare. We soon touched ground and dragged the boats on shore. Coral is very sharp and we all wore old tennis shoes for protection. Native servants had arrived before us in the motor launch we had seen earlier. Tables and chairs were set out and a lovely spread of food was being prepared. Spicy dishes made with fish and prawns, curried meats with vegetables and exotic fruits. There was a fire in a cut-down 44 gallon drum, on which they made “saté kambing”, goats’ meat on sticks with a spicy peanut butter sauce. The women made Nasi Goreng, a fried-rice dish made with pork and scrimps. There were huge prawn crackers called kroepoek and fried bananas called piesang goreng. We all sat down and enjoyed a tasty lunch. I noticed that the island had grown bigger. My father explained that the tide had gone out. After lunch we played on the coral beach. We found a starfish and large beautiful shells. We were told not to swim due to the jellyfish. A sting can hurt badly for up to an hour and, if you are allergic, can make you very ill. The boys played a ball game and the girls watched excitedly. The older people took their afternoon nap under the beach umbrellas. A few hours later the tide started coming in. The motor launch was packed and the skipper took a seat on the bridge, waiting for enough water below the keel to return to port. We pulled our sailing boats to the waters edge and boarded the boats. The wind had increased in strength, making the sail very exciting and we rushed back towards Tandjong Priok harbour. Looking behind me, I noticed that our island had disappeared below the waves.
Growing up in Indonesia was wonderful. The war was over and the Dutch people were enjoying life again. We had a large colonial style home in Djakarta with high ceilings and windows with mosquito netting. My parents employed Indonesian servants. There was Babu Anak the nanni, Babu Boen the cleaning woman, Babu Cuci the washer woman and Babu Kookie the cook who went daily to the market to get fresh produce. We also employed a driver named Atjah, a night watchman and a gardener called Amat. Atjah took my father to work at 7 o’clock in the morning. He then returned to take my brother and me to school and drove back to the office to take my father to see clients. Every week Atjah took my mother shopping at Passar Baru in the Kota. That is where she bought the basic food supplies. There was no pasteurised milk, so she bought milk powder. There were still shortages of supplies, due to the war, like in Europe. Potatoes were not available, but she did get rice and noodles called bami, bread, butter, nuts and spices. My mother also bought materials and she made her own dresses and our children’s clothes.
When I was 5 years old I went to the CAS Nassau primary school in Jalan Busuki. I had not attended a pre-school and I could not get used to sitting down for all those hours. I did exactly what I felt like and was impossible to discipline. After a week I was send home and my parents were told to bring me back the following year. The school’s main languages were Dutch and Bahassa. This was not a problem as they were the main languages at home. The servants spoke passar Malay, a local dialect. Bahassa was high Indonesian, but similar to the language of the natives. When the Dutch left Indonesia, the school became an Indonesian school and the Dutch language was replaced with English. At one stage the school was attended by a young boy from Hawaii. His name was Barack Obama. He became the President of America. Amazing. Perhaps he sat at the same desk, where I once scratched my name.
On the weekends we went to the hills where it was cooler. We stayed at a bungalow on the Puntjak, the mountainous interior of Java. There was a huge pool and the house had spare bedrooms for guests. We played badminton and water polo. Indonesian boys’ most popular pastime was kite flying. Some of the kites were huge, all hand-made by the owners and of lovely shapes and colours. Some kites were used for kite fighting. They soaked the string in ka, a sort of glue made from the sap of trees, mixed with ground down glass. This made the string stronger and very sharp. Once the kite was in the air, they navigated it close to other kites. By crossing the string, one kite’s string would break and the owner lost his kite. I lost many a kite to those Indonesian boys who were very good at kite fighting. The bungalow was on a hill, with a swimming pool at the lower part. Furter down the hill was a river. The Indonesians did their washing in the fast flowing water and also had their baths. I used to watch the lovely shaped bodies of the girls, but my mother was not impressed and called me in the house at bathing time.
On the way to the Puntjak near a town called Bogor was the palace of President Sukarno with the most beautiful gardens. My father took us to see the flora and fauna. There were plants and trees from all over the world. I was fascinated with a cactus which was over 4 meter tall and full of poisonous spikes. The water lilies had a diameter of over a meter and there was a selection of Proteas from South Africa. My father made colour photographs, which I still have in my possession. There were not many visitors, but we saw a group of Balinese dancers who gave a performance to the president later that evening.
Bandung is a city high up in the mountains of Java. The road winds its way through the hills and speed has to be reduced to cope with the hundreds of hairpin bends. There were mountain peaks and ravines hundreds of meters below the road. In the dry river bed we could see young shepherds sitting on oxen. In Bandung we stayed in the Preanger Hotel, a lovely Art Deco style building with a huge fountain in front. The town is surrounded by volcanoes and craters spew out lava when active. We made a visit to the Tangkuban Perahu and walked through the volcano on a guided tour. The guide carried a life chicken. “We go on as long as the chicken is alive”, he said.” If it dies, we must turn back”. The smell of lava was very strong, a phosphorus smell I will never forget.
Djakarta was hot and everybody enjoyed a siesta in the afternoon. Sometimes, when my parents were asleep, I left my room and with Eddie, who lived over the road, went exploring the kampong, the native village near us. There was a lake surrounded by bamboo houses and a little shop which sold home made sweets and watery ice lollies. We were forbidden by our parents to go there, but as long as we returned before they woke up, got away with it. One day I became ill and was diagnosed with appendicitis. I underwent an emergency operation and there were complications. I had contracted Amoeba Dysentery. I spent 3 months in hospital flat on my back. I was very ill, but survived it. When the treatment had finished, I was so weak, that I could not walk. I remember two nurses holding me as my knees caved in when I was allowed up for the first time. The cause of the illness was the ice lollies. They shop owner had used contaminated water from the lake and a few people in the kampong had died.
Atjah took me twice a month to the Dutch barber shop, for a haircut. When I was older, I asked my father if I could cycle to the barber. He said that it would be fine and gave me 10 Rupiah. I decided to be economical and had a 1 Rupiah haircut done by a native, who runs his little business from under a nearby bridge. The plan would have been very profitable, had not Atjah recognised me when he drove under the bridge and gave the game away. I got a stern talking to when I got home. “Dutch boys do not have haircuts under a bridge”, I was told.
A witch doctor in Java is called a Dukan. I do not believe in their supernatural powers, but I do know this story to be true. A man employed several servants, like we all did those days. One of the servants was a middle aged woman who did the housework and the cooking for him. She was a good woman, who did her job well, but he treated her badly and one day accused her of stealing his wallet. When she denied the theft, he beat her and eventually she left his employment. A few days later he found the missing wallet under the seat of his car, where he had dropped it. Soon after that the man became ill. He got a rash on his body and it itched terribly. He consulted various doctors, but they could not find the cause nor heal him. He really suffered and was at his wits end. One day he was told about a local Dukan, who he decided to consult. The witch doctor looked at his terrible rash and told him that there was a spell put on him. He was told to go and find the woman servant who he treated so badly and bring her to the witch doctor. When he found the servant and the witch doctor told him to go on his knees, apologise, and offer her compensation and her job back. After the whole procedure, the Dukan gave him some herbal medicine and he improved quickly. Two weeks later he was completely cured. I do not believe in witchcraft, but those witch doctors do know a lot more about herbal medicines than we do. It was obvious that the man was poisoned, but the mystery how it was done remains with the Dukan.
In the evenings in Djakarta we used to sit on the terrace in front of the house enjoying the cool air. Babu Kookie used to bring us a light supper of sandwiches,
drinks and fruit. Huge birds called Kalongs flew over the house. Sometimes there were mosquitoes, but we put Kaju Puti Oil on our face, arms and legs. Mosquitos hate the smell of it and would not get near us. One day in October 1957 my father read that the Russian Sputnik would fly over Djakarta. That evening just after sundown we saw a bright shining silver body in the cloudless sky. It was clearly the Sputnik and it was moving very fast. Within a few minutes it disappeared into the darkness.
Christmas time in Djakarta was magic. The Indonesians from the nearby kampong had formed a brass band. They marched through our street and played Christmas songs and Dutch folk songs. They would give us a private performance until we put some cash in the collection box and than they would move on to the next house. We had a Pine Christmas tree with real wax candles. My mother had made most of the decorations. On Christmas evening my father lit the candles and we switched all the lights off to admire the tree. Suddenly the tree caught fire. My father was very quick. He grabbed the tree by the base and threw it through the open patio doors into the garden. There was no harm done, but all the lovely decorations were burned and smashed.
All sorts of traders used to walk down the street in the evening, selling their ware. There was the saté man, who carried a yoke with a coal fire on one side and a container with saté sticks on the other side. He would call out, "Saté, Saté Kambing". Sometimes when my parents had visitors, they would call the saté man and he would sit on our terrace and fry the sticks with goats’ meat on his fire and add a delicious spicy peanut butter sauce to it. It made a lovely late night snack.
Indian antique traders also walked down the street in the evening and carried their goods wrapped in a sheet on their head. When it became difficult to exchange Indonesian currency for Guilders, my father bought antiques from the traders with the intention to sell them in Holland with a profit. There were beautiful statues carved of Jade and Ivory. Silver and gold jewellery, huge brass candle sticks with colourful candles from Buddhist temples and Chinese plates and vases. My father bought 3 magnificent antique Chinese statues carved from Ivory. I loved those statues and did inherited them when my parents passed away. Unfortunately many people brought antiques in Indonesia. The Dutch market was flooded and prices were down.
Indonesian people are humble and the most non-violent people I have ever met. We had a gardener called Amat, who was a religious man. Amat often looked after me when my parents went out in the evening. He used to tell me stories and afterwards he would unroll his prayer mat and started praying facing Mecca. I used to sit there watching him and when he finished he would roll up his mat and play a game of drafts with me before I had to go to bed. I could not have been looked after better. Amat took me into the Kampong once and proudly introduced his wife and children, who all lived in a small house made of bamboo. There was no electricity and no running water. There was one door without a lock, but than they had no possessions worth stealing. The cooking was done outside. The crime rate was low and I was perfectly safe. I have never heard of any harm done to European children.
One Saturday my dad hired a fishing boat and that morning we left from Tandjung Priok on a fishing trip. It was a wooden boat with a canvas stretched over the top to protect us from the sun. The small diesel engine was hand started and we left port. We were a few miles out at sea when suddenly a rat jumped out from under the ropes. I got the fright of my life as he jumped over my legs and balanced on the gunwale for a second. My scream must have scared him, as he jumped overboard. I wonder if he ever made it to the shore. We passed islands with white beaches and Palm trees. Some islands were habited and small bamboo houses could be seen between the trees. Fishing between the coral islands is great and we had a successful days fishing. I caught a puffer fish, one of those strange fish which blows itself up like a balloon. The skipper told me not to touch it. The puffer fish is poisonous and can leave you with a painful rash. That afternoon we returned to port with a boatfull of very edible fish.
During the 2nd world war, before I was born, my parents were separated and they were transported to Japanese prisoners of war camps. They spent 4 years in camps in Java. My father never spoke about the camps, but I knew that he had a bad time. He was deaf as a result of interrogations. The Japanese officers hit him on the ears and burst his eardrums. My mother and brother Jos stayed in a camp together. She would sometimes talk about life in the camp. The Japanese soldiers had selected an area of houses and surrounded it with barbed wire fencing. Nobody was allowed to leave the area. The women and children slept on mattresses on the floor, some without mosquito nets. They could hear the rats scratching all around them. The conditions were bad. There was always a shortage of food. They were given bread and rice from the central kitchen. Sometimes my mother would go to the Japanese bins to look for food and one day found eggshells. The shells are high in calcium. She crushed the shells to a powder which she put in my brother's food. Jos had never seen an egg before and asked, “When the war is over, can I have a real egg?”
My mother told me what happened at the end of the war. She had been in the same camp for 4 years with my brother. One day the Japanese soldiers left, without telling anybody. They left the gates open for the prisoners to go, but there was no transport, so everybody waited. A few days later some American soldiers arrived in trucks and started transporting all the Dutch people who had survived the war to Tandjung Priok. The scenes were very dramatic. Women were looking for their husbands and men were looking for their wifes and children. Some people were told that their husband or wife had died, sometimes years before. My brother had a piece of cardboard with a string around his neck. It said, “Ik ben Jos Van Aken”, I am Jos Van Aken”. One day my father arrived at the camp. He was terribly thin, but he had survived. The reunion must have been tremendous. I was born a year after the war.
It was custom for a Dutch family to return to Holland for a long holiday once every 4 years. In 1954 we boarded a freighter named the Raki with accommodation for 12 passengers. The trip took 6 weeks and there were several stopovers. The unloading and loading of cargo usually took 2 days. It was a wonderful opportunity to visit the towns. Our first port was Singapore. The town was full of Indian traders and prices of goods were most competitive. In Hong Kong we visited the famous Tiger Balm Gardens and admired the huge statues of Buddha. In Aden we travelled on a boat with a glass bottom and we saw the most wonderful variety of coloured fish. Young boys dived into the sea at considerable depth for just a Penny. The town was full of Muslim traders who sold just about anything you could wish for. There was cloth of exquisite quality and patterns, clothing, shoes, furniture, spices and jewellery. When we travelled through the Suez Canal there was a delay. The British navy was removing a 2nd world war wreck and we had to wait for 2 days. The ship’s crew were allowed to swim and dived overboard. I was lowered down dangling from a rope wearing a life belt. The water was lovely cool and we could see the sandy bottom. Later we were told that sharks had been seen that day. When we arrived in Holland we lived in a hotel for 2 month and I spent a month in a foster home when my parents travelled Europe. We returned to Indonesia on the freighter Riouw, using the same route through the Suez Canal. There were 6 large railway carridges lashed to the deck and the boat rolled badly in the Gulf of Biscay. Most passengers were seasick, but I thought is was fun and let myself roll from from one side to the other side of the room.
Our bungalow was near an active volcano on the mountain Gunung Gede. I witnessed an eruption of the volcano on the 13th of March 1957. There was a sudden roar and the ash was blown 3km into the air. The wind blew the ash in the direction of our house. It suddenly went dark and we could not see the sun at all. The air smelled strongly of lava. We were a safe distance from the mountain, but it was still a frightening experience. My mother called me into the house as inhaling the ash was unhealthy.
It was those weekends in the hills where my parents relaxed. I remember the great parties they had. Old fashioned parties where the women played piano and accordion. Everybody drank a lot and than they had late night swims in the pool to sober up. Those Dutch knew how to have fun. Perhaps it was their way to forget the war and the horrible time they had in the Japanese prisoner of war camps.
One day we went to see an Indonesian gentleman who had been a business acquaintance of my father for many years. His name was Hashim Ningh, to me Tuan Hashim. Before the war he sold motor cars and my father bought a Chevrolet Convertible from him in 1936. After the war he imported military vehicles and supplied the newly formed Indonesian Army with surplus American army vehicles. By that time he owned General Motors and Tuan Hashim was a wealthy man. He showed me his car which had a build in 7 single record player and electric windows. When we lived in Holland he came to visit us in our little flat and offered to take us back to Indonesia. My father declined as Indonesia was not safe for the Dutch those days.
The electricity supply in Djakarta was terrible. About 3 evenings a week the lights went off, sometimes for hours. My father always had a Butterfly light on standby. They work on paraffin and are very bright and efficient. The water supply was also bad and during the day there was no pressure at all. We filled up bottles in the evening when the pressure improved and used the water the next day. We had a 44 gallon drum in the bathroom and our bath consisted of throwing water over ourselves with an aluminium pan called a gajung. The drum was filled daily from a well in the back garden. We had 3 baths a day, in the morning, after the siesta and in the evening before supper.
The official independence of Indonesia was in 1949 and Sukarno became the president. The take-over was relatively peaceful and the Dutch were welcome to stay and run their businesses. During the mid 50’s pressure groups and communists wanted full financial independence and by 1958 the Dutch were forced to return to Holland. The riots scared my mother. She had never seen riots before. Indonesian extremists drove through our streets carrying the new red and white flag and wrote slogans in red paint on the walls of our prety white houses. “Usir Blanda”, it said on our house, “Whites get out”. Businesses were burned down and the Dutch language was scrapped as a subject at schools. It was time to go. We left from Kemajoran Airport on January the 8th on a Garuda Indonesia flight to Singapore. I remember the last glance I had over Djakarta and realised that the good time had come to an end. We changed over to an Air France 4 propeller Super Constellation. Flying was only done during the day. That night we slept in a comfortable hotel in Karachi and the next morning after breakfast we continued our journey. In Paris we changed to a smaller KLM plane which took us to Amsterdam.
The welcome we received in Amsterdam made us feel like refugees. It was bitterly cold and we were taken in a bus to a huge hangar with the other passengers who came from Indonesia. There we were given long trousers, coats and blankets. I was suffering from an ear infection and was taken to hospital where I stayed for 2 weeks. There were not enough homes in Holland for all the people returning from the colonies and we were forced to live in a hostel. My parents had a single room where they lived, slept and had their meals. My brother and I shared a very small room without windows. Finally after a year in the hostel, a flat was allocated, just outside Amsterdam. It was a small 2nd floor flat with 2 bedrooms, a lounge and a tiny dining room. We had to cut down our dining room table to make it fit. Some of the furniture we had transported from Indonesia was disposed off. It was like living in a different world compared to the huge colonial homes with high ceilings we were used to. There was central heating and there were glass windows rather than the mosquito netting windows we had in Indonesia. My father found employment at an institute for deaf children and bought an ten year old ex fire brigade car, a Hillman Minx. I did not like Holland and hated the cold weather. School was a struggle. I learned Bahassa in Djakarta, a language now obsolete in Holland. I was 2 years behind with French and 1 year with German and to add to my problems, my father suddenly died. Many years later I found out that I was dyslectic, but at that time not much was known about dyslexia.
The good part of living in Holland was sailing the many lakes in summer with my friends Frans, Tony and Pim. We could not afford a boat of our own, but there were many old wooden BM class open yachts one could rent. The lakes in Holland are superb and connected by rivers and canals. Those were the days before large marinas and at night we slept on board, somewhere hidden by the reeds. When it rained we had a canvas covering the hull, but they were old, rotten and full of holes. We imagined being on the African Queen, somewhere in the African jungle, hiding from the enemy. Along the route were draw bridges. The bridge keeper would open the bridge even for a small boat like ours and the fee of a few coins was put in a little clog, hanging from a fishing pole.
The nightclubs in Amsterdam were another great form of entertainment. Amsterdam had hundreds of live bands like in English towns. They all had English names like “The Jupiter Stars” and “The Blue Diamonds”. English music ruled the world. On Friday nights we would see a movie. Afterwards we would go to a club and meet up with friends. Girls used to go to the clubs on their own and would sit there waiting to be asked to dance. Holland was very safe those days, even for girls to go out in the evening alone.
One day an American war ship moored in Amsterdam. The officers organised a few open days to show off their technology. I learned from a sailor that they were dry ships, in other words no alcohol was allowed on board for the ratings. If I would smuggle a bottle of whisky on board for him, they would pay me well, he promised. We were ferried onto the ship and were welcomed on board by the officers. By that time I was a ball of nerves and wished I had never accepted his bottle of Scotch. Suddenly I got pulled into a cabin. I recognised the sailor who gave me the bottle earlier. He offered me some money. I regained my confidence and asked him to pay me in American cigarettes, which I knew they got virtually free. That afternoon I returned on shore with a rug sack full of cartons of Camels and Luck Strikes. A profitable day, I thought, so the next day I was back. I repeated the smuggling the second day, but on the third day I got caught and was escorted off the ship with a warning from an officer not to come back. No harm done. “It was good while it lasted”, I thought and I sold my booty for a good price.
I did have fun in Amsterdam, but it was spoiled by an unsympathetic and rigid educational system, which would have a huge effect on my later life. I decided that if I stayed in Holland, I would be stuck in a dull job for ever, so I could not wait to go. At 18 I did my compulsory army training and soon after left for South Africa, never to return to Holland other than an occasional visit to my mother and brother.
Johannesburg in the late 60’s was the place to be. Employers were crying out for young European workers and I soon found excellent employment in the computer industry. I shared a house with 4 other bachelors and a great time we had. It was like the old colonial days again. The house had lounge with a bar, a dining room and we had a spacious bedroom each. There were 2 maids and a garden boy whose name was Jackson. We organised parties with snacks and drinks on the pool. There was many a barbeque, called a braai, in South Africa. We trained Jackson to be the waiter and dressed him in a black three piece suit, complete with white gloves. Jackson did a wonderful job and the dinner parties which followed were memorable. Later Jackson found a job in a posh hotel as a waiter. He had been well trained.
We had a pool, where once I found a little girl floating face down in the water. The mother had fallen asleep in the sun. I had just come home from work and jumped in the pool fully clothed to pull the child out of the water. Fortunately she was resuscitated and survived her ordeal. Had I been 5 minutes later she might not have made it. I was upset and sent the mother home with a stern warning never to come back. She never thanked me, but that evening an agitated husband arrived and asked me why I had been rude to his wife. When I explained that I had saved his daughters life, he thanked me. Many years later history repeated itself, but the next time it was my own daughter. She also made it. Praise the Lord.
South Africa is home to many game reserves, Kruger National Park being one of the biggest. There is much game to be seen, like lions, giraffes, crocodiles, hippos, baboons and zebras. On a sunny morning when I was driving my VW Beetle near a camp called Skukuza, I had a puncture. A few minutes earlier we had seen some lions and I was very nervous getting out of the car. Max, a colleague who had joined me on the safari, offered to be the lookout, so I got out and proceeded to change the wheel. Suddenly Max started shouting. My heart missed a few beats and I tried to get back into the car with no success as the jack was blocking the door of my little Volkswagen. In my panic I made a dive right through the open window. Max was still standing outside bursting with laughter. “It is only a little bush pig”, he said with a big smile on his face, “I just wanted you to see it.” “You stupid idiot”, I replied, “I nearly broke my neck”. After 18 months of enjoying life in South Africa, I returned to Europe. It had been a great adventure and I wanted to see a bit more of the world.
My first stop was Amsterdam to say hello to the family. I arrived unannounced and everybody was delighted with my return. Jos helped me to look for a car and I bought another VW Beetle. After two day back home I was off again. This time I wanted to do a trip around Europe. I drove through Belgium and in the late afternoon arrived in Paris, where I spent the night in a rather scruffy hotel. The next day I climbed the Eifel tower. The view was stunning, but going to the first level was high enough for me, I hate high rise buildings. Paris drivers annoyed me and after seeing the Arc de Triumph, I was on the road again. The following night I camped on border of Andora. There was snow on the mountain and is was bitterly cold. So cold that during the night I sat in my car with the engine running and the heater on. In Andora people were still skiing, but Spring was on the way, so I drove on to Barcelona where I found a campside in the sea called "La Balene Alegre", which means the happy whale. It was a great site and there were parties evey night in the pub. In Barcelona I watched a bull fight and saw various very bloody kills. I was amazed to see the Civilian Guards standing at strategic positions, holding their machine guns to keep the crowed under control. Some days later I was escorted off a beach at night by them. I think that they just had a bit of fun, but I was pretty scared, as they were poking their guns in my back and I had the bruises to prove it. The restaurants were great and I enjoyed the Spanish Dancing. After 3 months in Spain I drove to Italy all along the Riviera and my first stop was Rome. The Vatican is impressive, but a bit commercialised with souvenir sellers on every corner. I was more impressed with the old city next to the Colusseum. There is something magic about walking in a 2000 year old city. I spent a total of 3 weeks in Italy and continued my journey through Europe. Switzerland was the next stop and I drove there through a tunnel in the Alps. Switzerland is pretty, but the people were unfriendly and I am not fond of landlocked countries. Lake Geneva is beautiful and expensive. The trip continued and Germany was next. The German autobahn was amazing and for the first time in my life I wished for a Porsche motorcar. I was stuck in the slowest lane in spite of pushing my VW to its limits. I sped through Germany and after another short visit to Holland, crossed the English Channel and drove to London.
My first night in England was spent in my car in Regent Park. A bit cramped, but I was getting low in funds and knew nobody where I could sleep. I made a visit the computer company NCR, for who I had worked in Johannesburg and to my surprise they offered me a job with a very good salary. There was a shortage of experienced NCR 315 computer operators in London. This was an unexpected development, but very welcome. To get a work permit took 3 months those days before the European Union and I was not allowed to start work until then. I looked for a temporary job as a barman, but no such luck. Fortunately I met up with some South Africans in a pub in West Hampstead who invited me to their flat. One of them was leaving and I was offered to take his place and move in at no charge until I got my first pay cheque. This is there where I met my friend Randy, who remained a good friend for all those years. Randolph became a successful dairy farmer. We still visit him and his charming wife Brenda on a regular basis. Randy, like most other friends I made, was a party animal and London was not short of parties those days. All you had to do was go to a pub to find out where the action was and present yourself with a large can of beer under your arm. We have never been refused and met some wonderful people. My work permit arrived a bit earlier than expected and I soon settled in the West Hampstead flat with my new friends.
We met three girls, Pam, Maggie and Sue, who lived in a flat in Bayswater. Randy, Eddie and I got invited to watch the American astronauts land on the moon. We arrived with a good supply of food and drinks and stayed up the whole night to see it all on a black and white television set. It was a remarkable event, something not to be missed. I wonder how many people stayed up until the early hours in the morning to see Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. A month later I met Libby at a party in the same building a few floors higher up. She was the right girl at the right time. We got engaged during Christmas and married the following year. We rented a house in North Kilburn. A year later our son, Richard was born at Charing Cross Hospital. London was a lovely place to live, but I longed for the sun again and in 1972 returned to South Africa with my wife and baby son.
SAILING IN SOUTH AFRICA
In Johannesburg we were welcomed back by my friends and we settled in quickly. NCR offered me employment and we signed a lease for a flat with a swimming pool. Six months later I was transfer to Cape Town, an offer not to be missed. We drove the 1000 miles to Cape Town and found a flat right on the beach in Sea Point. We had 2 more children, Edward and Tamara. Growing up in South Africa was great, the children always tell us. They went to good schools and enjoyed the outdoor life with lots of sport and boating. I took up flying small Cessna airplanes. The idea was to get a job doing crop spraying, but I learned that I could not get a commercial licence due to colour blindness. I gave up flying and returned to boating. The Cape Peninsula is near the Southern tip of Africa where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean. Our boating days in Cape Town started off with a catamaran called a Carousel. The name was a good choice as she spent more time upside down than upright. She had the tendency to nose dive and it took a lot of effort to get her upright again. We exchanged her for a speedboat, which was more suitable for a family with young children. We learned to water-ski and enjoyed skiing on rivers and the sea.
The Oceana Power Boat Club in Granger Bay had a good slipway and that is where I met Arnold, who had a fast racing boat. Arnold offered to take me skiing and I joined him on board. I jumped overboard with the skies on and waited for him to throw me the towline. When I looked behind me I saw a large fin moving in my direction. SHARK, I thought, I kicked off the skies and swam back to the boat, nearly skimming the water and climbed on board in seconds. On closer inspection we found that the fin belonged to a Sunfish, a strange round fish which is absolutely harmless, but the fin does resemble those of a shark. Everybody had a good laugh, but I was not impressed. When I calmed down, I did go back in the water and had a lovely ski, although I did have a look behind me so now and than.
One day a friend, John, invited me to a snoek fishing trip with his cousin Boet.
Snoek is a small cousin of the baracuda, has razor sharp teeth and is very vicious. You catch snoek on a fishing line with a steel leader. When you catch one, you grab him by the nose, throw the fish under your arm and break his neck with your bare hands. At least that is how the professional fishermen do it. Seeing several fishermen with missing fingers, I decided to use a wooden club to stop the fish making a meal out of me. We met at the slipway early that morning, boarded Boet’s boat and headed out to sea. It was a bit choppy and soon my friend John was lying in the bottom of the boat feeling very seasick. Boet offered to turn back and drop John off, but he declined. When we arrived at the fishing grounds we threw our lines out. Luck was on my side and I caught the first snoek of the day. I pulled my line in, got hold of my club, hit the large snoek on the head and missed. The snoek came off the hook and fell in the bottom of the boat. John, feeling rather sorry for himself, opened his eyes, wondering what the commotion was all about. What he saw was a rather angry fish with enormous teeth snapping at him a few inches away. I think that was the day I lost a good friend and got introduced to some South African slang.
Rietvlei was a large lake near our home and ideal for sailing. Unfortunately the authorities had closed the lake for safety reasons. The banks were unstable due to dredging which had taken place to use the sand for a new harbour. Some keen catamaran sailors applied to the council to use the lake, but they were refused and the gate stayed locked. One Friday evening when we had some drinks with sailing friends, we came up with a plan how to go sailing on the lake. We cut the gate lock during the night, and early next morning we brought our boats, launched them in the lake, and went sailing. The plan worked well and by the time the cops arrived we were all on the water. We did see them waving at us, but just waved back. It was a lovely day on the water, but when we got to the shore to put our boats on the trailers, the cops started writing out fines. “Stop!" We shouted. “When we drove past the lake this morning the gate was open, so we thought that sailing was allowed.” We did get away with it, but the cops were not happy, especially when they found a broken lock next to the gate. A month later the council approved the lake to be used for sailing and a new club was formed. It was called the Milnerton Aquatic Club.
Rietvlei was also used for motor boating and water skiing. We started a new class of racing called Formula 400. We used small boats with outboard engines not exceeding 400cc. I build my first boat of plywood sheets. When I took the boat for a test run it proved very fast, but when I hit the wake from another boat, it went out of control. The boat spun over a few times and sunk with me in it. I escaped and swam to the surface, to be picked up by a rescue boat. I decided to buy a professional build boat. Races days were held on a regular basis at the lake as well as at sea. This sort of races was very exciting. We usually did 6 races a day and had the price giving in the evening with the obvious party afterwards. Once the government imposed fuel restrictions due to shortages. We experimented with alternative fuels and found coal tar to perform satisfactory. Coal tar is a by product of gas and used extensively during the war. The octane is very low, but the engines did run and the race was on. The first race went well, but the police arrived quickly and threatened to write fines for those who dared to use fuel on a restricted day. We showed them the coal tar and as we did not use petrol, they had no option than to let us race. Once they left we started adding petrol to the coal tar to increase performance and at the end of the day were running on 10% coal tar and 90% petrol. Who cares, the cops had gone and we had a great day racing.
As the children got older we decided to return to sailing and we bought a 25ft yacht called Carinthia. We sailed her from the Royal Cape Yacht Club to the Langebaan lagoon, 90 miles North of Cape Town. There we joined the Saldanha Bay Yacht Club. Libby had done some sailing in England and France during her teens and loved the lagoon. Our weekends were spent on board, carrying kayaks and windsurfers for the kids. The lagoon was idyllic, with small villages along the shore with restaurants and pubs. We used to drop anchor in front of one of the restaurants and row across to sit on the terrace with friends, watching the sun go down and the children playing on the deck of our boat. On the far side of the lagoon was a small outpost called Donkergat. The name means dark hole and dark it was. A hill shielded the area from Langebaan with the only street lighting in the area. We moored our boats near the Kraalbaai beach and joined in one of the flotillas of yachts. There was always a barbeque going on one of the yachts and you just joined in by adding your catch of fish. There was Stompneus and Yellowtail and occasionally Crayfish. We shared out our salads and enjoyed each other’s company and drinks. Later that night, we would break up the flotilla and find a quiet mooring for the night. The area was so dark that the sky showed thousands of stars. The brightest of all was the Southern Cross. When the moon appeared, the beaches looked brightly lit, a wonderful sight seeing the white sand sparkling in the night. We owned various yachts including a 50ft steel cruiser, a 1929 Hillyard Cutlass build of Pitch pine on Oak, a Vivacity called Tickey and finally a steel Robert Tucker 33 called Clementine.
Once we sailed the Hillyard called Tiki II from Cape Town to Saldanha bay. The boys were only 8 and 10 years old and joined the crew. Libby decided to stay home with Tammy. The old diesel engine had given up the ghost, but so what? If Joshua Slocum navigated the world in a similar boat without engine power, I could make a short trip to Saldanha. The weather was stormy and my crew got seasick. I was left holding the helm the whole night and found the boat getting very sluggish. When I went down to investigate I found 1 1/2 feet of water in the bilges. We were sinking and I had to pump fast. My biggest concern was my two boys. After an exhausting hour pumping, the bilges were dry and I returned on deck only to find that my only jib had blown out. I decided to return to port. To my surprise we made no more water and on further investigation I realised that the problem was gaps above the waterline due to drying out. As the boat had not been sailed for a few years, the gaps were huge. Once the planks and caulking got wet the gaps closed and the leaks disappeared. Later that day we arrived in port, the same port we left 24 hours earlier. I borrowed another jib and took off again. My crew had deserted me, vowing never to sail with me again, so I just had Richard and Edward with me. It took us 2 days to get to Saldanha, sleeping over at House Bay, a bird sanctuary island. A trip usually taking 12 hours, but that’s with motoring when the wind drops. It was a great adventure. Something the boys will remember their whole life, just as I remember my first sailing trip on the Java Sea.
When we bought Tiki II we did not know her history, other than that she was shipped out from the UK in 1972. I replaced the mast step and found a coin, often put there by the owner for luck. It was an Irish penny dated 1970. This was the proof that she came from Ireland. One day somebody brought a sailing magazine from the UK called Wooden Boat Owners. There on the front page was a picture of my boat. Well, not really my boat, but a perfect copy of her. She was in an immaculate condition with the original gaff rig all beautifully varnished. I don’t remember her name but she was built in 1929 by the famous Hillyard boat builders and of the Cutlass class. Apparently there were only 3 build. This one was lying in Malta and had been rebuilt to perfection by her owner. The other 2 had been lost over the years. Unknowingly I owned one of the lost ones, Tiki II.
The Saldanha Bay Yacht Club regularly hosts club races. The children were at a nice age, just old enough to be sensible and young enough to enjoy spending their time with the family. This is a good opportunity to teach the children the art of yacht racing, I thought. On a Saturday afternoon we joined a race and Edward took the helm. Club races are usually sailed around a number of buoys. “Look, the turning buoy is ahead, just 10 degrees to starboard.” Edward remarked. “No, the turning buoy is 15 degrees to port.” I corrected him. “I think that Edward is right, Dad, the buoy is white with a red top.” said Richard. “Oh, look, Dad’s buoy is flying away.” shouted Edward, pointing at a seagull. “Ha ha! You need new glasses.”
Simonstown is not only a navy port, but also has a lovely yacht club. It was there that I met the old owner of the yacht Beelzebub. She was an old wooden gaff rigged double-ender with a Stuart Turner petrol engine. “A real devil of a boat, which has given me nothing than troubles in the past.” he told me. Her hull was rotten and the engine only started after warming her distributor in the oven. She had broken from her mooring in the past and during a recent storm broke lose from her mooring again. She ended up holed, wedged between the rocks. “It is not surprising she ended a violent death.” the owner told me. The insurance company wrote her off, paid the unhappy owner and sold the hulk for scrap. She was stripped of valuables and left to rot. Six months later, Beelzebub mysteriously returned to her swing mooring. When the club manager saw her that morning, he phoned the owner, who would not believe him and came to see for him self. He was too scared to go on board. Beelzebub was back on the same mooring she left so many months ago. The mystery was resolved a few days later by a local fisherman. A storm during the night broke the hull away from the iron keel and as the boat was made of wood, the hull just floated away. The fishermen found her early in the morning floating in the bay and towed her back to her old club mooring. The next day she was towed to the beach and burned. You don't take chances with Beelzebub.
Somebody offered a second world war Willeys Jeep for sale. It had been modified and fitted with a Peugeot diesel engine. Perhaps not the best choice, but as there were no electrics she would drive virtually anywhere. I bought the car and we used it to drive through the marsh-land near our home. Lex, a 4x4 fanatic, loved the car and on a Saturday afternoon we went for a spin with 6 children in the back. I became more daring and drove well into the lake through the reeds. Suddenly we got stuck, in spite of the 4 wheel drive. I managed to keep the engine going, but the wheels kept slipping. We were now all sitting in the water, so I ordered everybody out and told them to push. It worked and the Jeep took off, back towards dry land leaving Lex and 6 young boys stranded in the mud. It took them 10 minutes to get back to shore and we headed home with a crew of very muddy people. Thank goodness for swimming pools.
One Friday afternoon we left Cape Town to deliver a 50ft yacht to Saldanha on the lagoon 60 miles north along the West Coast. Barry, one of the crew members threw out a fishing line, hoping to catch some fish. Nobody expected him to catch anything as the snoek season had come to an end, but early next morning Barry noticed something on the line. The fish was a fighter with an incredible pull. To our surprise Barry caught a tuna. He wound the line in and took the lovely fish of the hook. He immediately threw the line back and within the next 10 minutes caught 4 more. The other crew members all had a go and reeled in a tuna each. The amazing fact was that we did not use bait, but just a shiny spoon to attract the fish. Tuna stay together in large schools and when they are in a frenzy snap at anything. The catch lasted about 30 minutes and as we kept sailing we finally lost the school. Tuna is also called the chicken of the sea. It is easy to clean and has no scales. I took mine home, cut it into 18 slabs with a domestic handsaw and put them in the freezer. One slab on a barbeque was enough to feed our family of five.
Sailor was the name of our cross Golden Retriever. He was born in our house under the kitchen table. The mother was a lovely dog I had picked up when I saw the owner beating her. The father was a Golden Retriever from down the road who jumped over our garden wall. Ironically it was not us who gave Sailor his name, but the old couple who adopted him as a 6 week old puppy. Sailor grew much larger than was expected and after 8 months we got him back. He was just too powerful for the old timers to handle. Sailor loved the children and would follow them to school. Tammy used to throw her sandwiches at him and run away as fast as her legs would carry her. Richard and Edward were often send home with the dog, as he would lie at the school gate waiting for them. The Africans were petrified of Sailor and avoided our road. We lived in the only road in Table View which did not get burgled on a regular basis. Sometimes we took Sailor for a run on the beach and as he became dirty and full of sand took him back home in the boot of our car. One morning I heard a strange sound coming from the car and found Sailor, who had been forgotten, still locked in the boot.
He spent the whole night locked up but jumped out as if nothing had happened. Sailor disliked fire works and would hide in a bedroom under the bed. He also hated a bath and would jump a 6ft wall to get away. He would follow us when we went out with the children and we often had to drive around the house three times to stop him following us. Edward got told off once for doing something naughty. Later that day I found him sitting in the back garden hugging the dog. He was being comforted by Sailor. What a wonderful dog. Sailor lived with us for 13 years and saw all 3 children grow up.
Of all the children it was Edward who got the most in trouble. It took us by surprise when one day we received a telephone call from the head master of Table View High School about Tammy. Tam had gone to a holiday camp with her school friends. The 13 year old girls had planned a party and Tammy decided to help herself to one of my bottles of priced red wine. The party was in the dormitory during the evening and they had a lot of fun. It would not have been a problem had they disposed of the empty bottle, but they got found out the next morning, when a teacher woke the girls up and found an empty wine bottle under Tammy’s pillow. We were told to collect our disgraced daughter from the camp. Tam was terrified and expected a stern talking to. Instead I congratulated her on her excellent choice of wine and demanded a refund from the head master. You never know how parents react, Tammy thought, very relieved. It was not the first time we had to collect one of the children from a camp. The previous year Edward broke his leg within the first hour of arriving at a Scripture Union Camp in Noordhoek. We were called to take him to hospital.
When Richard was 18 he was called up for national service. I suggested him to go as it was only for a year and it would be a good experience. Richard left for Pretoria, 1000 miles away, but two months later he was back. “I have been selected for the army hockey team and they are based in Cape Town.” He announced. What luck, I thought, but than he had been the captain of the school hockey team. Edward became the captain the following year and also won the “Super Sportsman of the Year” award. When he joined the army he became a Para-trooper and made 18 parachute jumps out of a Dakota, the last Dakota to fly in the South African army. A year later the national service in South Africa was scrapped.
Clementine was a steel Robert Tucker 33 and had been sailed around the world by her first owner Don Clement. We bought her from a bankrupt property developer and planned to sail her to the Caribbean. Things did not work out that way. Libby wanted to return to England and spend time with her elderly parents. The children had grown up and started careers and I did not want to sail on my own. In 1998 we sold Clementine, closed down my business and left South Africa. It has been great. Been there, done that!
BOATING IN ENGLAND
I enjoyed Arthur Ransome's adventure books about the Lake District and the Broads when I was young. “One day I like to sail Broads”, I thought. When you get older you forget about those dreams, but when we returned to the UK, I remembered. We purchased an old 17ft wooden boat called a Silhouette. On a summer's day during 2001, we left for the Broads in our Volvo trailing the Silhouette behind us. We found a suitable slipway in Horning. "Where do you come from?” the mooring master enquired. "Cape Town", I said. "That's a hell of a long way to travel in such a little boat.” he replied. "Mmmmm, yes, let's go for a beer", I suggested, realising how silly my reply was. The Broads were great, but we did not expect all those motor boats. Our boat had few comforts. In fact it had none, except for two bunks and a large bucket with a lid. Most of our meals came from the pubs en-route. We resolved our domestic problems by asking the yacht clubs we passed if we could use their facilities and showers. As we were flying the South African flag and had a Royal Cape Yacht Club membership card, nobody objected and we spent our holiday sailing from club to club! We were invited into the clubhouse to have drinks with committee members and spent many happy hours talking about sailing adventures at exotic places and strange ports. The holiday lasted 2 weeks and we had a great time. Been there, done that!
The following year we sold the little Silhouette and started looking for a narrow boat. Reasonably priced narrow boats are usually over 20 years old. Unlike yachts, the hulls are lined with bricks for ballast. There is no way to keep it treated and rust starts from the inside. I would not buy a 20 year old boat, unless I have complete access to the bilges. After an unsuccessful few months searching we decided to build our own. Not the whole boat, but complete the interior from a factory made hull. Our 40 ft shell arrived at Foxton Locks in the spring and I took 4 weeks holiday to fit the interior. Libby painted her inside and outside with the help of some students. Richard helped me loading the ballast of fire bricks and I fitted windows and a full interior of Oak panels and Mahogany trimming. The galley came from Focus and an engine was fitted by a local boat yard. She turned out a very nice and comfortable boat.
To us yachties, narrow boating is something quite new. We are used to wide open spaces where nobody gets in your way. During our first voyage on the Grand Union Canal, we came across a group of fishermen. “We are having a competition,” somebody shouted to me. Well, I thought, shall I go slower, keep my speed, or go faster? I decided that they would appreciate me getting out of the way and increased speed. Wrong decision I realised quickly. I learned some new English words and somebody threw a dead fish at me. It appears that fishermen prefer you to go slowly. “Another lesson learned”, I thought. The fish was rotten and we did not eat it.
Once we met a group of musicians on the Oxford Canal. They invited us on their boat and we spent the night listening to English folk music. The lady played the pipes and her husband some sort of a drum. It was a memorable occasion with plenty of drinks and laughter. We did not get to sleep until well into the night. On a later stage we met a lady called Val, who played folk music on a Melodium. Those evenings in canal side pubs, when various musicians meet up and play together are to remember forever. Nothing beats a good pint of English ale and listening to the sound of those folk musicians.
One morning Libby decided to go for a jog along the river Trent. I explained that we were on a river without a towpath to run on. It also could prove difficult to find a place to pick her up. " Mmm, yes, but I still like to go for a run", she replied and off she went. The river side was very overgrown and I soon lost sight of her. I steamed along to the pre-arranged meeting place. There was no jetty and when Libby finally arrived, I decided to point the boat toward the shore to pick her up. When I thought she was safely on board, I reversed, pointed the boat upriver and continued the cruise. After a minute I heard a cry of help coming from the bow. "Help, help, help, help!" I slowed down and had a look. Libby was hanging from the bow, unable to lift herself on board. I quickly gave her a hand and unceremoniously lifted her on board.
We enjoyed our cruising trips during the summer holidays. As we did not really use the boat full time we sold shares of 25% each. We advertised the shares and found 3 great partners. The scheme worked well as each partner has 13 week use per year and they all helped a bit with the upkeep of the boat. After 4 years we decided that we were ready for a new adventure and we put our last share up for sale. Been there, done that.
THE FRENCH CRUISE
The last share in our narrow boat has been sold. We cut our spring cruise short to give the new owner some time on board. This gave us the opportunity to travel to France and Holland to look for a motor cruiser. We took the ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff and drove along the coast to the South of Brittany. Near Vannes, we found a huge lagoon called the Golfe de Morbihan. It looked like we had moved back into the 70's. There were no marinas in sight, just clusters of little boats on swing moorings. There were lovely old villages and little stone cottages near the water's edge. “Sailing must be magic between all those little islands, this is a yachties’ paradise”, I thought. Beside French, we met British and Dutch couples who settled in the area. “This looks like a nice place to retire to one day”, Libby said. “Something to think about after our big cruise”, I replied.
After a week looking around we continued our journey and travelled to Holland to look for a motor boat. I took a wrong turning in Limburg and ended up in Germany. We had knackwurst and sauerkraut for lunch, paid in Euros and drove back over the border, what we thought was the Dutch border. We stopped at a shop to buy zoute drop (salty liquorice) and were told that shops in Belgium don't sell zoute drop. Oh hell, I took the wrong turning again and we ended up back in Belgium. The borders are so close, it is an easy mistake to make. We returned to Limburg and found a nice pub on the river Maas with accommodation above. It was the night of the local carnival. We knew we were in Holland as they were singing "Oranje Boven", which is not a German nor a Belgium song. After visiting 6 boatyards, we had enough of looking at boats. We were not sure if we wanted a motor cruiser, a barge or a motor sailor, or perhaps we should stick to a Narrow Boat. In other words, we did not really know what we wanted, so we did not decide on anything. The only thing we were sure about is that we are getting a boat to travel through France. The two weeks were well spent and we returned to the UK.
We completed some renovations on our house in the hope of finding a tenant for following year. “I can not bear another winter”, I thought, so we booked a flight to Cape Town to spend 2 months with Edward, Janine and the grand children. Living in the UK for the past 10 years has been great. Libby had some quality time with her parents. We have worked hard, renovated properties and built and renovated boats. We managed to build up enough capital and pensions to do something new. Been there, done that. Let's get on with our travels.
A CHANGE OF PLANS
During September 2008 I had a triple bypass operation. I was not aware of a heart problem and it was a bit of a shock. Some blocked arteries were discovered during a routine medical and fortunately before any heart damage was done. The doctors kept me in hospital and treated the problem immediately. I recovered well, but felt that we had to stay in the UK for regular check-ups for some time. We bought a Volkswagen Bus and converted it into a camper. Next we decided to buy a sailing boat again. A small trailer sailer with a bilge or drop keel should be easy to tow with our camper and not too much of an effort to launch. We did like the Silhouette MK1 made of plywood we owned earlier. A great little boat with just enough accommodation for the two of us and Lady, our Cocker Spaniel. The Silhouette MKll and MKlll were made of GRP. Perhaps we can find one of them somewhere. I also like the Express Pirate and have seen them with a drop keel. If we find one before the summer we can have a few weeks on the Broads or Lake Windermere. After a few weeks looking we found a Manta 19 with a drop keel on a high speed trailer. She was more spacious than a Silhouette and has 4 bunks and a potty. We called her Puck.
We stayed in the UK for the summer holidays and once again went to the Broads. We visited the same clubs and enjoyed their hospitality but found the Broads much more crowded than a few years earlier. It still turned out a lovely holiday. Been there done that, time to go to France.
I have now fully recovered from the operation, but have lost a lot of strength. We decided to shelf the cruise through France and look for a home in Brittany. Once again we crossed the Channel by ferry. The Golfe de Morbihan looked quite different in mid summer. There were thousands of tourists. To find parking was fustrating and the queues on the road to the resorts were long. We did not feel very welcome in our camper van. House prices were high, possibly the highest in Brittany. ”This is too touristy for our liking”, we thought and we travelled further east.
We stopped over at Les Bellions, where the river Vilaine crosses the Nantes Brest Canal. The river is very broad there and has large flood plain. We parked our camper on the waters edge and spent the night there. It was a warm night and we slept with the sliding door open and felt perfectly safe. There was not a soul in sight, but during the night a little car appeared. I looked out of the camper and saw a Frenchman opening his boot lid, taking his fishing rod out and started fishing. At 2 o’clock at night, I thought, well this is France. The next day we drove to Redon a few miles further north and visited various estate agencies. One young man called Stephane spoke fluent English and told us that he knew of the ideal home that had just come onto the market. He took us there and we were quite overwhelmed. It ticked all the boxes. Although we were not really ready to buy, we decided to make a silly offer of 20% below the already excellent asking price. To our surprise our offer was accepted and we signed the papers the next day. The house is in a small village called Sainte Anne sur Vilaine. It has 3 floors and is built in local stone. It has been partly renovated and has a new roof. The location is lovely as we overlook the Vilaine valley. There is a garden of a third of an acre with three Oak trees. There are two barns with lofts and loft windows. They can easy be converted to rental accommodation and I have space for my boats.
At the end of October we returned to France for the take over. Our camper was loaded with building materials and furniture and we towed our sailing yacht behind us. The money been transferred and the transfer date has been agreed on. When we got to the agency, they looked surprised. The papers have not been returned and the transfer can’t take place we were told. We should have confirmed our visit before leaving England and there was no chance to complete the sale now. Fortunately the house owner allowed us to store our goods and boat in the barn. This is great, I thought, our first experience with French bureaucracy. We had a whole week before the return ferry was due and we decided to explore the rivers Rance and Vilaine.
The river Rance starts at Saint Malo and soon becomes the Canal Ille-et-Rance. There are 48 locks including a staircase of 12 locks. At Rennes it becomes the river Vilaine and runs slowly down to the sea. It is a shortcut for yachties who like to travel to the Mediterranean. The last lock is at Guipry. From there is a 30 mile long stretch down to the sea, with a few bridges and a sea lock at the river’s mouth. In the old days the boats were towed up and down the river and there are towpaths on both sides. Tourists are made very welcome but the valley has not been commercialised with hotels and souvenir shops. There are gites to let all along the river. The villages have slipways and jetties. The public facilities and showers are free to visitors and boaters. The waterside pubs and restaurants serve delicious seafood like mussels in a creamy white sauce, prawns, oysters and a lovely variety of fish. Most of the clientele are French. They are very relaxed country people who take 2 hour for lunch and even longer for their evening meals. I have never been served a poor quality wine in France. The French are connoisseurs and would not buy it.
We returned to Sainte Anne sur Vilaine. Our house has a lovely view of the valley, overlooking the village centre with the Catholic Church, the Boulangerie and the local pub which also sells fuel. It is funny to think that the barman fills up your tank. A few hundred yards further is the river with the jetty and the slipway. We had our lunch at the local crepery, a wooden shack on the waters edge, home to a bar and a small restaurant. Everybody sat outside admiring the view, enjoying the sun and a glass of wine. Motoring past us, we saw a 40 foot sailing cruiser flying a British flag, a few hire boats, some dinghies and to our surprise a narrow boat. One of the hire boats moored at the jetty and a jolly French party found a table near us to enjoy lunch. Our lunch consisted of a crepe with ham and cheese, and a glass of red wine each. In the afternoon we did some exploring behind our house and found a nice size lake. “Great for fishing”, I thought, “but not good for sailing as the shore was overgrown with trees and there was no wind”. We went back to the house to make a list of the jobs to be done before it is habitable. The kitchen needs a kitchen unit with sink and cupboards. There is no plumbing, but there is a working tap in the lounge. I think that the kitchen used to be in the lounge and what is now the new kitchen was a cow shed. We also need a toilet fitted on the ground floor and a full bathroom on the first floor. There is on plumbing at all. We do not need a sceptic tank, as there is drainage on the road down to the village. The walls need a bit of skimming and the fire place needs rebuilding. There is an old electrical point with one plug. New wires have been fitted, but they have not been connected. The solution is to first get a builder to complete the walls and the fire place, than get a plumber to do the drainage, have the toilets and shower connected and than get a kitchen fitted. We do need help and it’s going to be fun. France, standby, we are on our way.
Footnote: This travel log has been put on Blogspot for our children, grand children and friends. It is not complete and needs correcting. There are still many stories to follow.
One foot in the canal