[editorial] Driving a Porsche 356 in the Karoo (in South Africa) with one of my best friends Nic Grobler was a road trip of a lifetime. No plan, no map, just letting it happen. We ended up camping in a graveyard in freezing weather. Luckily we made a nice fire. While sitting there, we realized, the lady next to us (well, six feet under) is celebrating her 90’th birthday. So creepy and awesome! This story was produced for Porsche Klassik in Germany. If you’re based in the German world, the issue is out today! For our English friends, find Nic’s awesome story below. DNA – Desmond
Camping with the Super 90
As I finish checking the tire pressure before heading out of Cape Town, a ten-year-old boy with an old BMX takes over the pump. In the corner of my eye, a white flash coupled with a loud bang. I’m in the air, almost on top of the car — ears ringing. The boy glares at the giggles in the distance. Tears start running. Head in his hands, he sobs: “I just bought this tube!” — it seems like a big deal. Desmond, my friend, and road trip partner agrees that we need to help out. After fitting a new tire and tube, the local bicycle shop owner, asking about our trip, says with a smile, “that is not a camping car.” Crossing paths with the boy, confirms the tone for our journey — of synchronicity and U-turn style surprises.
“Nic, so what is our plan?” Desmond asks. When it comes to these types of trips, I usually prefer not having one, favouring only a direction, an idea — to give in to horizontal gravity in some way. Our ‘plan’: head into the semi-desert Karoo to wild camp somewhere, take the 356 for a service in a small town in between, and I’ll try to get a picture of a Koppie (a small hill), for a photographic project — the service, our only practical ‘destination’. I’ve also been curious about this 1963 Porsche’s ‘Super 90′ engine. Perhaps the mechanic, who happens to be a veteran engine builder, can tell us something about the ’90’.
I was ten years old, driving with my father, who has a very adventurous spirit, when he made a U-turn to buy this car. Growing up, I remember some trips, but I also remember it as an everyday runner. Thirty years later, and after a restoration project, our relationship has evolved. The 356 mostly waits ‘safely’ in a garage in Cape Town. Also, I don’t love driving in town — preferring a bicycle. But, every few months, it comes out for a trip, some over 1000km. I’ve taken it camping, and even had two bicycles on the roof!
Ascending into the Karoo on the N1 (national highway), our next mini-adventure appears. We pass a small roadside veld fire, probably caused by a cigarette. With the wind picking up, it could spell disaster. After a slightly dangerous U-turn, we stomp out the fire with our feet, a first for both of us. Later it occurs to me that I keep a fire extinguisher in the car — next time.
Desmond, a professional car photographer, mentions how he enjoys feeling connected to the elements in this 356 — “a bit like when I’m on my motorbike.” You feel closer to the road, and you can hear the wind — a visceral experience. I’ve also enjoyed trips in various cars, but engaging with the world from this one is different. It’s an object of beauty, in harmony with the environment. It is even different in a social interaction type of way. Whilst it may be in the category of ‘sports car’, it is not very aggressive — often enjoying waves and smiles. I sometimes think that if the 356 were an animal, it would probably be a dolphin — fast, but friendly.
The sun is now setting in the Karoo. Our wild camp idea, not working out yet. Passing through mostly sheep and game farms covering vast areas, we are kept on the road by fences and ‘private property’ signs — a tricky place to hide, especially if we make a fire. The weather is also making a turn for the worse. Passing a farmhouse, we realise that we might need to turn around at some point. The farmer’s son stops next to us with his pick-up truck further on, “you need to speak to the boss… my dad can be full of shit.” We turn back. Jan du Plessis, the farmer, isn’t very talkative. Desmond points up to the big sheltering trees near a kloof above the house. Jan says “yes, if you don’t mind the graveyard, you can sleep there.”
It’s freezing and windy. We take shelter between the 356 and the low graveyard wall. The fire, lamb, mushrooms, and sweet potato straight on the coals offers some comfort. Even though we dug a fire-hole and put some big rocks around it, embers are still flying off now and then with the severe wind. After securing more rocks around the fire, we make sure the last coals die out, then pitch our tents. With the sound of swirling pine trees and dreams of the deceased under the ground next to us, I struggle to sleep. The voice of Jan du Plessis wakes us up in the morning, with some flowers in his hands, standing next to one of the graves, “it was my mother’s birthday yesterday, she would have turned 90.”
Asking him about his life, he says, “this is a hard place to live, but I prefer it here, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.” Jan invites us to visit again. “Come earlier. I’ll show you a better spot across this ridge — there are some wild horses there.”
Over the last few years, I’ve preferred servicing the car at Andreno Motors with Arno van Wyk. His engine-builder workshop is out in a small town, Villiersdorp. I refer to it as an ‘air-cooled shrine’, it’s been a family affair for over 60 years. Complete with floor-to-ceiling photographs of their old rally driving days and a unique collection of air-cooled cars, including a ‘prototype’ 1954 beetle with only 36000km on the clock, “the only one left in the world” — we’ll be in good company.
This time, although Arno only needs to replace the oil and filter and set the tappets and timing, you can appreciate his experience. All the years have given him a kind of poetic cadence. According to him, if you maintain an engine, it would keep going forever. Pointing to a display-wall of damaged engine parts, with the words ‘YOU BEND IT, WE MEND IT!’ he says everything that goes wrong is due to human error. Like failing to check the oil or overdoing it when driving — “it’s human, man-made trouble.”
In between servicing the car, having some tea with Arno and his wife, and plenty of rally stories, we walk through the workshop, past what feels like 100s of engines in progress. “We can adapt your Super 90 engine, from a 90 to 100.” Arno says, “the sleeve kits come from America — I’ve done two of them before.” He explains “you can’t see any difference from the outside, but you can feel it. Consider doing it once you have a problem. Otherwise, it is a waste of money.” I appreciate Arno’s practical approach.
It makes me sad to know that Arno’s son won’t take over from him — he can earn a lot more working in an office. I wonder, where will this 356 be serviced 20 years from now, will there be some poetic cadence there as well?
After another eventful camping night, and taking the picture I needed, we drive home, I’m processing the trip: I think about the uncomfortable moments, like not knowing where you’ll sleep as the sun is setting, and how being open to the new and unknown makes it all worthwhile. To be found, you have to get lost first. Those wild horses are waiting.