In this extract from his new book, Being a Black Springbok, Thando Manana looks back at a pre-season camp with the Bulls Super 12 team in 2001 and a rare night spent cuddling in the arms of Victor Matfield.
'Klere af [clothes off]! Loop kaal [go naked]!’
We were told to swim across the river to the far bank. That was a scary prospect: you couldn’t see further than your nose and now you were being ordered to swim across waters that could be crocodile-infested, for all you knew.
‘Swem tot die ander kant [swim to the other side]!’ they hollered as everyone was pushed from the back into the freezing water. Those who couldn’t swim or weren’t confident enough of their hand-paddling ability in open water, like myself, were given inflated tyre tubes the size of tractor wheels. Like an army of ants across the kitchen sink, we swam across, rushing to get to the other side before whatever lay in the water woke up. The water was ball-shrinkingly cold. Any touch that grazed past your leg made your heart stop. In most cases, it was just someone else’s foot.
The drill sergeants went on to the water, torches in hand and with an assortment of menacing paraphernalia. They marshalled us to make sure we didn’t deviate from the route. Splash, splash, splash and we were on the other side, barely knowing how we got there. And that was our welcome to Kamp Staaldraad.
Our overalls and takkies awaited us on the other side. We had to use the same overalls to dry ourselves and had to put them on afterwards before proceeding to our second challenge of what was the longest night ever.
We were herded deeper into the wilderness in couples. You could almost see the sun trying to peep over the horizon. When we eventually came to a stop, we were pointed to a number of trees, beneath which we were told were ‘chocolate boxes’ for each of us. We were instructed to pick a ‘chocolate box’ and told that we could carry it however we wanted but weren’t allowed to put the chocolate box on the ground, under any circumstances. The so-called chocolate box, we soon found out, was a heavy steel box that served no apparent purpose than to inflict physical wear and tear on its carrier. It was little more than a slab of pain, about 20 to 25kg. We continued walking for another good 10km, but this time with a metal baby on our shoulders. I moved mine from shoulder to shoulder, to the top of my head … nothing really made it easier to carry.
‘I should have never picked up that phone call. I should be with the Sharks right now’ – those were the thoughts ringing through my head the entire time.
After that bout of hell, we were told to put our chocolate boxes down under another tree. The sun was out at this point and so too were our tongues from fatigue. We hadn’t eaten since we’d arrived. It turned out that we’d taken a roundabout route to where the river we had crossed in the middle of the night dropped in a waterfall. To our dismay, we had to jump off a 60m peak, back into the water. We jumped, overalls and takkies, the lot.
On the other side we were allowed to take a more-than-welcome break, but it didn’t last long …
Next on the menu was an obstacle course, in which we had to fit our rugby frames through ropes and all sorts of other obstructions designed to make movement tough. The exercise needed more wit than physique but we were short on energy, both physical and mental. It was like a military drill. The head coach, Phil Pretorius, was there egging us on, reminding us of our goals to win this season.
The next offering was a big, empty barrel for each of us to carry. Again we walked for what seemed like forever carrying an object we weren’t allowed to put down. The barrels were as empty as our stomachs and as hard to carry. Finally, we were told to put the barrels down and so-called ‘breakfast’ was served. If you weren’t so broken you would have laughed out loud at what was on the table for breakfast: half a banana, the coldest I’ve ever put in my mouth. After all of that, half a bloody banana. Guys were so hungry that they wolfed theirs down in a trice, barely even chewing. I, on the other hand, I sucked mine to get the maximum effect of what eating would feel like, if, say, I was having a proper meal. It was like savouring a delicacy before it finally dissolved completely into my tastebuds. To add to the torment, while we were eating our half-bananas, the drill sergeants were braaing boerewors around a campfire, joking and laughing, having a good time. They were eating right in front of us.
The anger caused by that tantalising smell of a proper plate could have made you kill someone. We all looked at the captain, Joost van der Westhuizen, to say or do something but there was nothing he could do. After that short break, the chocolate boxes were back for round two. We walked to the end of the earth, the chocolate box gnashing at our collarbones. When we stopped again it was nightfall and we were told we were going to sleep in the wild. We were given a stick, to defend ourselves from whatever we might come across (such as snakes) and a bag of sand as a pillow. We were to be separated from each other, the guys dropped off one by one in different locations. The best way to sleep, they said, was to sleep under a tree.
Victor Matfield and I quickly hatched a plan: when one of us was dropped off, the other had to jump off next, then once the bakkies were out of sight we would find each other by whistling. We were s**t scared of spending the night alone in the middle of God-knows-where. The plan worked like a charm. We met halfway between hell and the devil’s butt crack but, boy, were we glad to see each other.
We were tired and hungry as hell by now, and found a tree under which to sleep. We slept spooning; Victor being the big spoon, me the little spoon. We were sound asleep in seconds, thinking we’d gotten away with it. The dumb thing, though, was that we did not move to another location before falling into each other’s arms. That lack of cunning was exposed when a bakkie doing rounds to check whether we’d adhered to the rules pulled up where we were sleeping.
‘Julle wil nie v****n luister nie [you don’t want to f*****g listen]!’ a voice boomed. So they separated us again, taking Victor on to the back of the bakkie, far from where I could see or hear. I was left alone – just as they had intended.
Being a Black Springbok – The Thando Manana Story by Sibusiso Mjikeliso is published by Pan MacMillan and on sale now at all good bookstores for R275. The eBook is available for R220.