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Author: Ashley Dowds
The success of the SABC3 TV series Going Nowhere Slowly was the inspiration for the journal of the second season – Red Car Diaries.
A team of well-known presenters travels from Cape Town in the iconic red Chevrolet Impala along South Africa’s south coast, taking in some of the hinterland towns along the way.
The journey becomes an adventure package, with a touch of history thrown in. The travellers experiment with ostrich-riding, bungee-jumping, shark-cage diving and kayaking.
They visit the Knysna elephants, experience the desolate beauty of the Karoo, befriend a notorious former brothel Madame, meet quirky characters, and share the secrets and the anecdotes of the region.
A memorable record of these travels and generously illustrated with photographs, Red Car Diaries retains the energy, spirit and humour that made the show so popular.
Ashley Dowds is a well-known TV personality – as presenter on the second series of Going Nowhere Slowly, a continuity announcer on SABC3, the advertising executive Andrew McBain in the drama series Scandal and a presenter of the shows Life.Style.Matters and Sanlam Money Game. He also regularly presents retail commercials.
Nova (Christine van Deemter):
Somehow the TV series Going Nowhere Slowly recalled the youthful energy of the sixties, free love and the seeming immortality of the Age of Aquarius.
James Dean drove a Porsche Spyder 550, Elvis drove a pink 1955 Fleetwood 60 Special Cadillac. And it’s no coincidence that our car was red: any self-conscious media tart will tell you that if you want to stand out on a TV shoot, then wear red, darling, if you can get away with it.
And did she get away with it! She was the star of the show. A fact that was callously impressed upon us by a producer who was blind to any SA celebrity star system, if there is such a thing. Which was, of course, another possible reason why the show reached the audiences it did. No personality, other than the car and the South African landscape, hijacked the show.
Batch and I meet the crew from Ocean Blue Adventures at Plettenberg Bay just after sunrise. I kit up with rash vest and costume with Gareth Weiss, who serves as marine biologist as well as kayaking guide for the company, or, in many cases, a workhorse for large American tourists who decide halfway along the journey that they would prefer not to do their own share of paddling the tandem kayak.
In a good summer season this means that, aside from having to do the trip to Robberg and back at least three times a day he has to paddle more than twice his own weight. To his credit, he is a humble, unpretentious guide with enormous experience of this part of the coast. He also surfs in between kayaking trips! He wears a wide-rimmed straw hat that flops around his face to keep out the sun, and makes me think of surf magazine icons trawling for waves off Bali, living off the land and a bag of rice. I am not far wrong.
He’d led something of a hermitic life for a year during his marine biology practical, staying in a small hut atop the Robberg - that sharp peninsula forming the southern end of the Plettenberg Bay - and observing the seal colony.
We stow the kayak onto the ski boat and then launch through a tricky shore-break. The wind is supposed to be whipping up the bay in a while, according to the weather report, although you’d never tell with this kind of glassiness on the water. As with most of the on-camera detail, though, what looks like an ocean crossing can be achieved within half an hour and a few clever camera angles.
We lower the kayak from the engine deck and climb in for a few shots with Plett as a backdrop, dipping and swaying in its shameless out-of-season prosperity, holiday mansions un-peopled and austere.
Sandton-by-the-sea. Our crew is concerned about being caught off guard by the weather - as impossible as it sounds - so we haul ourselves back onto the boat. The engines growl angrily, the boat gets up off its haunches and we streak towards the peninsula. The swells are heavier around the rocky seal outpost and balancing a normal canoe would be awkward. The kayak is more solid.
‘Oh, I hate it when that happens,’ Gareth says. I follow his gaze upwards to a shelf of rock where a stampede of seals has begun. They plunge into the sea from a lower promontory. The seals are not as helpless as we often see them depicted in wildlife documentaries. Once, during his year-long vigil, he watched a five-metre Great White shark approach the colony. A pack of between four and five seals who saw it coming charged it offensively and it moved off.
We’re suddenly approached by a vanguard of like-minded warriors and I wonder whether they’ll tip us over. ‘They’re just very curious,’ says Gareth. They swim under the kayak and turn onto their backs to get a better view, then burst up on the other side, expelling air and water from their nostrils like snorkel blasts. Their vision improves under there with the film of water over their eyes.
He makes a mental note of the number of bull seals and a rough estimate of the numbers in the herd. I wonder out loud what it must be like snorkelling amongst a group of seals. He’s tried it already, he says.
‘They swim up to your mask and bark loudly. It can be frightening, and may even knock off your mask.’ What’s very special, he tells me, is listening to schools of dolphins chasing up and down the coastline. If you put your head under the water, you hear the bizarre songs and clicks of the dolphin hosts singing to each other (like Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, or an underwater church service).
The wind beats against the side of the kayak now and the water is choppy. The engines cough and we motor towards the shoreline, stopping halfway for a low-angle camera shot with Batch seated at the front of the kayak. He gets a close-up on the synchronised paddles digging into the clear water and some more two-shots before he loses his balance and tips over sideways into the sea.
We look around for the hammerhead that was trailing us from the seal colony. Batch gets back on board and Gareth and I decide to paddle the rest of the way back. We time the shore-breaks crunching onto the sandbank, find a lull between them and then pull hard at the paddles to beach the kayak. I think about my summer holidays in Durban. Invariably it was spent with schoolmates, surfing at Addington Beach, Snake Park or Bay of Plenty. We’d catch the morning bus into the city and walk from the West Street stop.
At lunch, we’d hunker down over a half-loaf of bread and chips, watching the flotilla of boards clambering for a right break. Besides the toil of dancing on waves and paddling through unremitting sets, the hours spent waiting, watching and talking were therapeutic in a way I imagine a game of golf to be.
‘Have you ever read The Celestine Prophecy’ Gareth asks. We body surf from the mid-break after our rash vests and paddles are locked up at the clubhouse.
‘It suggests that the people you meet have some purpose that will be made clear at the right moment in your life. The time you spent today will have significance for you.’
It all sounds very New Age but it is said matter-of-factly enough for me to make a note of this as a time to remember clearly, just in case. On the beach a Pesca Fresca truck loads fish from the morning catch that will be transported to Spain within 48 hours.
A Word from the Director