Bring your passport

Crazy car launch that ended with a body in the back

Some time back in 1970 South Africa’s motoring writers got an invitation from Mazda to be at Jan Smuts Airport at a certain day and time — and to ‘bring along your passport.’

Where were we going? Mazda’s charismatic PR man Pieter Wapenaar wasn’t saying.

We all arrived at the airport on the day and stood in the departure lounge gazing at the dozens of Boeing 707s on the tarmac, with a lone WWII vintage Douglas DC 3 way back in he distance.

Guess which one was our plane?

What followed was one of the most memorable motoring happenings of my life.

We boarded and were informed we were heading for Maseru, in neighbouring Lesotho, for the launch of the Mazda RX2.

Great. The twin-prop stalwart of the skies fired up, lumbered down the runway and up we went. 

Next thing, champagne was served, but the first sip coincided with the first air pocket that we hit (with many more to follow).

Odd thing was that with drinks in hand and an aircraft flying like a bucking bronco, no champers was spilled — but every hand holding a glass went up and down in unison, making for a odd sight, almost as if passengers were conducting an orchestra.

It was fun for the first 10 minutes, then some of my colleague became a bit green around the gills, and headed for the toilet.

But the hostess beat them to it.

It was the first and last time I’d ever seen a hostie suffer from airsickness.

The flight continued with never-ending lurches and finally came to a welcome stop 350km later at Maseru, where we spent the evening unwinding in comfort at the Holiday Inn after an introduction to the then radical rotary-motored RX2.

Next morning we were off on a rally-style road trip, back to Jan Smuts Airport.

I shared a car with Adri Bezuidenhout, the AA’s magazine editor, and not long after leaving Maseru we missed a sharp left turn on the route map, as did several others . . . but motored on.

Then the tarmac stopped and the ‘road’ became a two-wheeled track, then later a footpath.

We realised we’d made a mistake, made a U-turn and drove back to find the right route.

Now the said Mr Wapenaar was known for his occasional tricks and colleague John Oxley figured the sudden change in road surface was one of his devious plans.

So he just soldiered on and found the track ended at a little village where, to his amazement, he was feverishly welcomed by the inhabitants.

John had no Basothu and the villagers had no English, but before he knew it the villagers had carted out the corpse of a village elder and shoved it in the Mazda’s back seat. 

Seems they had sent someone to the town to summon an ambulance and the first vehicle to arrive was Oxley in the Mazda, so that had to be it.

John had no option but to convey the old fella to the hospital back in Maseru.

I’m not sure whether the ‘corpse’ was actually stone cold dead, or whether it was someone on his death bed.

If it was the latter, he would probably have been dead by the time they arrived in Maseru, since John was known to be a rather spirited driver.

It was like a scene from a movie, Weekend at Bernie’s to be exact.

Fast forward some 40 years, by which time I was living in Perth, still writing about cars, and was again invited on a Mazda launch — this time in Queenstown, New Zealand.

We all had dinner at a restaurant called the Botswana Butchery, an interesting venue with meat cleavers for door handles.

I was relating Oxley’s grisly adventure in Lesotho to the wide-eyed people at my table when one of then said: did you say John Oxley?

“Yes,” I replied.

“He’s sitting at the table right around the corner,” the chap said.

And there Oxley was, coincidentally relating the exact same yarn to the Kiwis at his table, with some of them chortling: ‘Ah, don’t talk bull, John’ and similar disbelieving remarks.

I was delighted to see him again and to confirm that ‘tall tale’ was very much true.

Unknown to me, Oxley had migrated to New Zealand about the same time I had moved to Australia, both of us still messing about with cars.

I’ve been on umpteen car launches in various parts of the world since 1970, many of those trips memorable for various reasons — but none quite as indelible as the spooky incident in the RX2 in Maseru.


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