Shu-Shine Luxury Bus to Hekpoort

YFC Bulawayo on the Youth Week prowl!

As a child, early January meant one thing – Youth Week.  Youth Week was, and remains, the major camping venture of Youth for Christ in Southern Africa, a cauldron of 600-800 excited youth from throughout South Africa and, when I was growing up Rhodesia (and later Zimbabwe).  Surely this was one of the most adventurous and exciting components of my early childhood – little wonder I’ve gravitated to a role in camping later in life.

In this first installment on Youth Week, maybe the best way to describe the romanticism of it all is to just describe the epic journey it meant for us mad Zimbos.

Dad was National Director of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe YFC, based in Bulawayo.  Each year Bulawayo YFC would make the trip to Youth Week with between 80-100 teenagers, nearly all crammed into the salubrious green seats of a bus supplied by the Shu-Shine Luxury (an oxymoron if I ever heard it) bus company.  This was no luxury liner (like the ones Salisbury/Harare YFC used to get about in).  This was an African bus in all its glory – roof racks piled with all our baggage, diesel fumes belching, seats tight and congested to fit the maximum number of people and two gears (dead slow and stop) on anything that resembled an incline.

Shu-Shine Luxury

I must have made my first trip in Shu-Shine Luxury at 3 ½ years of age (for Youth Week 1975) and then attended Youth Week continually for the next ten years.  It was tradition on Youth Week’s opening night to make everyone stand up and then sit down as the number of Youth Weeks they’d attended was called out (working upwards).  By the time I hit the normal legal age for Youth Week of thirteen I was already into double figures for the number of Youth Weeks attended, one of the last people standing on opening night.

Inevitably we took delivery of the Shu-Shine bus late on the evening before we left in the waking hours of the next day.  I remember well the mad scramble to make it habitable, which meant removing garbage bags full of eaten raw mealie (maize) cobs and scrubbing down the more obvious patches of African millet beer and vomit snaking down the corrugated floor.  All this happened while a dedicated team of techies installed the all-important temporary sound and intercom system, our only form of entertainment in the long, sweaty and dusty hours to come.

The unofficial Bulawayo YFC Youth Week mascot

Generally the bus had a cage around the drivers cab and engine block.  Up to the age of 12 I became the unofficial mascot of the YFC Bulawayo effort at Youth Week, and one of the duties required I be perched at the very front of the bus.  A mattress would be stuffed on top of the engine block and this would become my nest for the journey – providing me with a place to sleep, sweeping views directly out of the front windscreen and a very, warm bottom as the engine heated up.

In the early sunrise hours, shortly after Christmas, a massive hub-hub of excited teenagers would congregate in the car park of the Bulawayo City Hall to load the bus, scramble for the best seats and prepare for the best ten days of the year.

The road trip from my home town Bulawayo to Youth Week, due west of Johannesburg, South Africa is close to 1000km by road.  The first 360km sees the road drop dramatically off Zimbabwe’s watershed escarpment into the hot and heaving lowveldt plains of the Limpopo River, dotted with dramatic baobab trees.

It wouldn’t take long before boredom gave way to singing, and when the singing stopped. the kangaroo court would begin.  An arbitrary infraction would be found (generally one of the boys tentatively putting a nervous arm around a love interest girl), prosecution and defence lawyers appointed and proceedings commenced over the speaker system.  These cases could hilariously grind on for hours and the guilty parties dropped short of towns where we would be stopping, forced to walk the last few kilometres into town.

Reaching the Limpopo at Beit Bridge meant negotiating the uncertain terror of the border post.  Would we be lucky and slide through in an hour or so, or would we encounter customs officials in officious mood, a queue stretching kilometers and a sweltering wait of four hours or more?

Clear the border, chug into Messina, stop if you’re brave.  Normally we’d keep going for another 100km into the larger commercial centre of Louis Trichardt.  This meant we’d left the badlands of the Limpopo valley behind, driven up through long road tunnels plunging under the sheer rock of the Soutpansberg Range.  As soon as the bus pulled in nearly a hundred Bulawayo refugees descended on the shopping centre for their first helping of South African contraband.

Scenes from a Youth Week shop-crawl. This time the bus has stopped in Gwanda.

Before 1980 Rhodesians lived with sanctions so South Africa seemed a treasure trove of hard-to-get soft drinks, chocolate and modern wonders.  It was a place where soft drinks came in cans, not many-times-used glass bottles, it didn’t feel like we were over the border until I’d heard the delicious sound of a ring-pull can hissing open and the purple scent of Fanta Grape perfuming the air.

As the sun set the Shu-Shine would continue its southern surge, passing through Pietersburg (now Polokwane), and generally grinding to a weary halt in Nylstroom (now called Modimolle).  The local fast-food stores would do a roaring trade before the girls were directed to a park on one side of the road, the boys on another, sleeping bags unzipped and everyone would settle in for the night, sprawled all over the luxuriant green grass.  By the early hours of the morning it would have looked to the casual observer as though a bomb of mustard gas had broken over the town as weary travelers lay comatose, snoring.

Generally I’d be comfortably nestled into my nest of blankets over the engine bay, disturbed only by the snoring of our bus driver.  Though there were one or two occasions when our overnight stop in Nelspruit happened to fall on the 31st of December and we’d be rudely awakened as the good burghers of the Transvaal traversed the streets raising a cacaphony of horns to see in the new year.

Bulawayo YFC have arrived at Cyara. Youth Week 1981

An early rise and breakfast and we’d be on the road again.  We would now be descending on the twin cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg.  The traffic would start to get manic, the cars ever fancier as the dry wastelands of Transkei Homelands would flit by our bay windows.  Just before reaching Pretoria we’d turn right onto the back roads, Youth Week tantalisingly closer.

In the 1970s Youth Week was held at Hartebeesport Dam, the main meeting space a giant blue and white tent, probably retired from circus duty.  In the early 1980s it moved to its present site at Cyara, a little further west near the town of Hekpoort.

The tales of Youth Week shall remain for another day.

But I cannot neglect to mention the return trip.  After Youth Week had finished we’d clamber onto the bus on the final day and head into the enormous gleaming metropolis of Johannesburg.  Before our return we’d have a day of sanction-busting shopping, usually in the enormous East Gate Shopping Centre, so we could get into the Hypermarket, followed by an afternoon at the Oriental Plaza, a rambling market dominated by Indian traders and spicy curries.  For those wishing to haggle the price on a cheap pair of Wrangler jeans, it was pure heaven.

Dinner would be taken on the grassy verges overlooking the stunning musical fountains, a Joeys landmark of variant water fountains keeping in time to music and splayed with coloured lighting.  Then it would be into the bus for a grinding overnight drive, the aim to arrive at South African customs at Beit Bridge in the early hours of the morning so we could be first to go through the next day.  Inevitably we’d arrive at 4am and stagger out exhausted, people sleeping wherever they could in the macadamised car park.

A bus just like our Shu-Shines at the Bulawayo bus terminus

Clear customs, drive north, look wistfully at West Nicholson, a favourite haunt of domestic YFC Bulawayo camps, and pull up into Bulawayo City Hall where it all began.  Normally there’s be a full car park of anxious parents awaiting our arrival, having been tipped off by a phone call placed in West Nicholson or Essexvale.

As the bus trundled to an exhausted halt parents would look up expectantly to the front passenger side window to see if a trophy was displayed in the window.  If Team Bulawayo had won either the sports or quiz competition the spoils of victory would be proudly displayed to cheers and hollers.

So the adventure would come to an end.  Another magical carpet ride aboard our ever-reliable Shu-Shine Luxury bus, where the trip was as much an epic adventure as the destination.


11 Responses to Shu-Shine Luxury Bus to Hekpoort

  1. Ronnie Lindenberg says:

    I went to Youth Week in 1972. I have such vivid and amazing memories of it, and had the time of my life.

  2. i love this article – thanks for sharing. the best times of our lives for sure!

  3. MUM SAYS says:

    Brilliant!, We had great kids, lovely memories of the whole trip, good, bad and ugly! God was sooooo GOOD to us all! If only this generation of young people could experience YOUTH WEEK!

  4. Morag Roy says:

    Oh the memories….The smell of Dentyne chewing gum at Messina Petrol station!!! The seats sure were hard but the fun made up for us. As we watched the Western Cape Team arrive in their cushioned luxury, we knew deep down they had a boring trip, whereas we had all the excitement!

    • mzilikazi says:

      Hey Morag. What was better was the habit Salisbury YFC had of taking two buses for fewer people. And they were “luxury” – they had padded seats and a toilet. But at least twice we passed them broken-down on the road and we’d all lean out the windows hooting and hollering at them, brandishing that year’s mascot out the window. Never thought to stop and help either!

  5. Bee Bougas says:

    Great editorial! and pics – do you have Chris Howard’s email she would be interested?
    Bee Bougas

  6. jann Hattle says:

    I was in that 1981 photo. Have a similar one in my photo album!

  7. jann Hattle says:

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane. The bus trip was such a big part of the Youth Week experience. Loved every part of it. You capture it all so well. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Pingback: Youth Week: Meetings, mud bowls and madness « Co-mission

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