An inevitable consequence of motorcycling for any length of time is the kindling and growth of many good and lasting friendships. So it was with Willem and me.
In 1974 my passion for motorcycles led me to take up a sales position at Club Motors in Pretoria. As a twenty year old I was done with my military service and a wonderful new world was there to be explored. Club Motors, at the time, were the BMW and Kawasaki importers. My sales position was at their Honda franchise.
As it is with us bikers, we first see the bike and then the rider. In this case it was an immaculate brown and black CB500 Four Honda. The bike sported clubman handlebars and a slightly raised headlight. The speedo and rev counter were mounted on a chromed bracket that tilted them from their standard flat position to a sportier angle. The mods, though subtle, made the bike look really sweet! Remember that this was the age of the café racer, so your eye was immediately drawn to such tweaks.
The rider was equally striking. Tall and lean, with shoulder length curly dark brown hair, he sported an impressive droopy moustache. Removing his white, peaked AGV open face he entered the shop and was introduced to me by my mate and fellow salesman Andy. Standing tall and looking me in the eye he shook my hand firmly. “Hallo Dave, pleased to meet you” he said, in a pleasant yet unique clipped tone with a heavy Afrikaans accent. So began a rich and rewarding friendship. Despite our diverse backgrounds, we developed a mutual respect that allowed us to safely explore any topic without taking offense. With hindsight this was amazing as we were both highly principled people with unwavering values.
I sold Willem a CB750 F1 Honda. Identical to my own bike it was yellow with blue pinstripes. “Canary with varicose veins” we called them. With girlfriends on the pillion we strafed the corners in Mpumalanga, or “E.T”, as it was known in those days. Willems’ bike met its end in a most bizarre way! Riding to work down Paul Kruger Street, a pedestrian ran across his path. In trying to avoid a collision Willems’ shoulder hit the jaywalker, knocking him off the bike. The bike, with the throttle jammed open from the impact, swerved across the road, mounted the pavement and wheelied into a huge Coca Cola billboard. It punched a hole in the hamburger on the “Things go better with coke” sign, bounced back, and spun its back wheel into the ploughed ground of the Portuguese gardens where the sign stood. Incredibly it stalled standing upright with the back end axle deep in the soil.
1975 came along, and with it the Honda GL1000 Gold Wing. Willems’ Wing was the very first blue one that we got at Club Motors. We decided to tour Rhodesia by bike. Willem had gone to a Trout Rally on his 500 Four, and as was his way, made some good friends. The plan was to spend some time at Victoria Falls and then ride down to Salisbury, to stay with his buddy Mike. We would share some of our petrol coupons with Mike so that he could accompany us to Inyanga in the Eastern highlands of Rhodesia. Mike had a clean gold Honda CB750 four piper.
We left Pretoria on a sunny October morning, hoping to reach Bulawayo by that night. An 800 + kay day meant some brisk riding. My 605cc , Yoshimura modified 500 Four, painted a rich red, and sporting an open 4 in 1 pipe, sang it’s high pitched song as I tucked in, holding onto the clip on bars in the slipstream of Willems’ Wing. We streaked north without incident, and made good time past Louis Trichardt. As the road straightened after the mountain pass we overtook a Chev 4100 driven by a really ugly blond woman. The woman seemed up for a dice so we were pleased to oblige. Running at 160 to 180 soon saw off the challenge. The Chev, blowing steam from the effort, only caught us when we slowed on the outskirts of Messina.
“Caught us”, unfortunately was the operative word. Gesticulating wildly for us to pull over, the ugly blond stopped ahead of us, and jumping out the car, she simultaneously whipped off a blond wig. So we got acquainted with “Ghost Cars”. Cop cars equipped with a device that allowed the driver to record your speed when he judged the car to be running at your pace. The “she” turned out to be a spitting mad traffic official. There and then he dished out fines that exceeded our holiday savings. Willem however delivered the “coup de grace”. In his most polite voice he asked the middle aged cop if he had two teenage daughters. Proudly answering in the affirmative the cop almost emulated his Chevy by blowing a gasket when Willem retorted “great then we are staying at Ooms house tonight because we can now no longer afford accommodation”.
With the resilience of youth we shrugged off the financial sword hanging over our heads and proceeded to cross the border and ride into an amazing sunset towards Bulawayo. Near West Nicolson we rode next to each other so that our lights could spot game crossing the road. The danger of travelling at night in Africa was highlighted when we came across a Ford 20M which had hit a warthog at speed and was now very much the worst for wear. The four occupants were bemoaning the fact that they would not get to Kyalami to watch the 9 hour endurance race the coming weekend.
At ten that night Willem and I rolled into the Bulawayo Caravan Park, where we got into our army issue sleeping bags and, lying next to our bikes on the dewy grass, fell fast asleep. At first light I woke up to the sight of Willem, poking his head out of his sleeping bag, wearing his black riding balaclava to ward off the chill. Peering around, he looked for all the world like a meerkat emerging from its burrow.
What followed was perhaps the most carefree holiday of my life. There was a heightened sense of life in war-torn Rhodesia. By day we swam in the pool at the Elephant Hills Hotel, recently destroyed by fire after a SAM 7 missile, fired at a civilian plane, missed, and then locked on to the heat signal coming from the kitchen chimney of the hotel. By night we partied with a bunch of Rhodie students at the stately Victoria Falls Hotel. Five of us would feed from one buffet braai ticket costing, at the time, $1, 50.
Willem never smoked or drank anything alcoholic, yet he loved the bonhomie of a good party.
Willem was gracious when it came to my over indulgence. After witnessing me offloading a few too many “shumbas”, as Lion lager was known in those days, Willem, with his characteristic smile said, “Dawie boetie, the cream on your pudding must have been too rich for you”.
From Vic Falls we rode in searing heat to Salisbury where Willem introduced me to his friend Mike Taylor. Mike fattened us up on Braaivleis accompanied by “Sadza” or “Mzambaans” and salad. “Sadza” being mielie meal, and “Mzambaan”, potatoes, all wonderfully prepared by Mikes’ excellent cook boy. Mike rode with us to Inyanga in the eastern highlands. Misty mountains and forests. Really beautiful. Willem and I rode south, crossing the Birchenough suspension bridge, and then riding the strip road to Fort Victoria. We visited the Zimbabwe Ruins, (A prophetic name if ever there was one!) and then past the Lion and Elephant Motel at Bubye river, where we spent the last night of our epic Rhodesian holiday.
One aspect of our holiday that Willem enjoyed was the attention that his Gold Wing got. The embargo against Rhodesia meant that the biggest bike locally available new was around 175cc. Willems’ Wing, being one of the first in S.A. was the first ever seen “in the metal” in Rhodesia. Crowds flocked around it wherever we parked. Willem proudly answered the barrage of questions typically directed at bikers. Top of the list was always “how fast does she go?”
Anyone who knew Willem at that time will remember his immaculate metallic green Ford Mustang V8. We spent many a Saturday afternoon together washing and polishing our cars. We would then cruise the quite streets of Pretoria to the Milky Cove roadhouse in Colbyn. With the Muzzie and my MGB GT parked side by side we would lash a dagwood and milkshake. Carefree days!
Marriage and child raising took priority for a number of years and Willem joined the Security Police as an electronics specialist. His work took him all over the world. Embroiled in our careers we saw little of each other for a number of years. The occasional phone call however kept us in contact. Willem loved his work and was very good at what he did. An absolute perfectionist and painstakingly methodical in all he did. If you wanted a job done properly you gave it to Willem. In the fullness of time Willem retired from the police as a senior officer. He started his own business supplying sophisticated electronics to the military and police forces of neighbouring countries. If you wanted any cloak and dagger stuff Willem was your man!
With some time on his hands Willem bought a metallic red V tec VFR800 Honda. We started riding together again. Slowly but surely his bike inventory expanded to a 675R Triumph Street Triple, a KTM 1190 Adventure R, an immaculate original VFR 800 (pre v-tec) and most recently a Honda Grom, or MSX 125 as it is known is S.A. Willem enjoyed all his bikes, but the standout ones were his V-tec VFR and his KATOOM. It was on this bike that he and I did an epic trip.
Together with a buddy on his NC 700 DCT Honda, and with me on my 990 Adventure R KTM, we rode through Botswana, across Zambia to Malawi. We spent two idyllic days on the Lake and then rode back, retracing our route. To limit cost and maximise the adventure we camped and mostly prepared our own food. This led to two incidents involving Willem which had Loy and me literally falling about with laughter.
Our first nights camp was at Pelican Lodge on the outskirts of Nata in Botswana. After an 800 kay ride we were somewhat weary. We immediately started putting up our tents in the failing light. Willem really enjoyed decent stuff and had acquired an amazing German made hiking tent. It is incredibly high tech and will do the job in the Sahara or on the slopes of Everest. Problem is you need a B.SC in Engineering to erect the sucker! Loy and I had our tents up and supper on the go while Willem was still mumbling, and by now swearing, next to a pile of high tech carbon fibre tent poles and fancy fabric. I must admit though, that when he eventually had the tent up, and as was Willems’ custom, perfect in every way, our tents looked like shanty shacks by comparison!
The next bout of mirth was at our camp in Livingstone. Tents up and supper cooking we had already lashed a couple of cold ones. Cokes for Willem and beers for Loy and me that is! The sun had now set and Willem volunteered to go up to the Lodge through a thicket of trees to get another round. A few minutes later, drinks in hand, Willem came running down the path. “Running” doesn’t aptly describe his pace! Hussein Bolt would have been left for dead! With wide eyes Willem exclaimed “Bliksem boys, ek het nou net in ‘n hippo se hol vasgeloop!” Hippos are particularly non reflective in the dark and it transpired that Willem, chilled and minding his own business, walked slap bang into a quietly grazing Hippo. Quite who got the bigger fright we will never know. Willem certainly didn’t hang around to find out!
Willem was an excellent wingman. He never rode in a way that endangered himself or anyone else. On our tiddler tour to Vic Falls with 180cc bikes he was content to ride at the back of the group. Willing and able to lend a hand to anyone who needed assistance. Willem and our mutual friend Gerry bought KTM 1190R’s. We had an amazing ride making a wide loop through the bushveld through Ellisras to run the bikes in. Good mates, good bikes and good weather are always a recipe for good times! In October I did a review on Triumphs’ excellent Explorer and fittingly it was Willem and Gerry riding with me. Despite 38 degree heat we had a great days riding.
Little did we know that it would be our last ride together. On Saturday the 21st November my friend Willem died whilst undergoing open heart surgery.
To those who were fortunate to know him you will grasp what I mean when I say that he left an indelible mark on all who made his acquaintance. Strong, brave, loyal, principled, honest and ethical, incredibly competent and kind hearted, Willem was a man amongst men. I and all who were privileged to know you will miss you deeply my friend!
You probably now know what you and I have always suspected, that God too rides a VFR! Ride those perfect sweeps in the sky till we meet again.
Totsiens Willie boetie.