DJs in the jungle

2009-10-28 00:00

ADVERTISING in the press had gone on for months — the British radio station, Capital 604, was going to open an office in Port St Johns and broadcast from there 24 hours a day. It would reach Durban, East London and Johannesburg, and all the latest music would be played by top-notch DJs from England and the United States.

In 1976, Radio 5 (previously LM Radio), was regarded as mod, but they only broadcast in the major centres. Capital Radio 604 would show the SABC what broadcasting was about.

The mansion known as the Port Captain’s House on the hill overlooking Port St Johns, was turned into a radio station. Broadcasting equipment was brought in, technical staff were hired and Port St Johns was set abuzz, the town’s population doubling over night.

The DJs, mostly fresh from the United Kingdom, moved to Port St Johns. All were a bit shell-shocked. Here they were in the middle of what looked like a tropical jungle, with nothing but dirt roads (that were impassable when it rained), no shops, nothing. Most of them were housed at Ferry Point, a cluster of houses on the eastern side of the river mouth that had once been a holiday resort. The bridge had been washed away in a previous flood, and to get to the other side, you had to use the Pont.

On occasion, the Pont’s driver would decide that he’d had enough of work, and would knock off early, leaving DJs stranded on either side of the river. One night, or rather morning, one of the DJs, after many a tequila, found himself on the opposite side of the river from where the ferry and ferryman were. No problem to him, he decided to swim across and teach the driver a lesson. So he jumped into the river. The “river” is not just any river; it is the mighty Umzimvubu, which has its headwaters in the Drakens­berg mountains, and has the largest catchment area in South Africa. To boot, it was summer, and the river runs strong in the rainy season. And it was dirty, attracting the odd shark. But being full of tequila, the DJ wasn’t fazed, and swam across. The driver was rudely woken by a drunken, naked, screaming apparition, who got him to start the ferry and fetch the rest of the stranded people.

Not much has changed since Sidney Turner wrote in a letter in 1885: “Port St Johns appears to be becoming a receptacle for the outer fringes of South African society”. Many interesting characters have come to Port St Johns because they were after the mind-enhancing substances that were rumoured to be freely available. As in most towns, most things are available, but some of the new imports went to new highs and started new trends. Should you be invited to lunch with one of the more colourful Capital 604 employees, chances were that you would be served the three-course meal of the day, while he would have uppers for starters, in-betweeners for the main course and rounded off with downers.

Capital Radio 604 sounded exactly like its counterparts in the UK and Kenya: the same British accents, the same type of adverts, the same jingles and the same music. If one travelled to either the UK or Kenya, and was unaware that this was a “chain” radio station, on hearing it one was very often temporarily confused, thinking one was back in South Africa.

Capital 604 was the radio station to listen to. Capital Radio clothes with colours of white and different blues with ‘604’ emblazoned across them were “must have” items in any teenager’s wardrobe, so we all wore sweat shirts, T-shirts and caps with the logo, and were very hip.

Of course, things were rumoured to be not as straight as they appeared. It was said that because Capital 604 broadcast from a country that wasn’t internationally recognised, Transkei, it “avoided” all royalty fees, and just raked in the advertising fees. Today, stories abound of plans to assassinate the top brass, colourful, elaborate stories that sound like a mixture of James Bond and James Hadley Chase stories. Are they true? I like to think that they are more a product of overactive suburban minds trapped in a town that had little to offer in the way of entertainment, and lots to offer­ in the way booze.

But sadly, Capital 604 did not last, and today it’s just a memory of great music, interesting characters and yet another marvellous chapter in Port St Johns history.

For those wanting to take a giggle down memory lane, Facebook has a group dedicated to those years in Port St Johns.

• Rina de Tiago has lived in the Transkei and other parts of Africa.

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