Wotalot we got …

2008-10-17 00:00

The cell twittered just as we were downing the second round of espresso. Tracy answered and the colour faded from her face faster than you can say “fright”.

“Wottie and a police car full of cops have just stopped outside the house,” she said. “They’re at the gate and want to come in.”

This was a most unexpected turn of events. We paid and raced for home, Umphiti Backpackers, fewer than 10 minutes away.

We started Umphiti, located in Bulwer Street in Pietermaritzburg, as a business with friends. Here we live and work, and Wottie’s shenanigans were posing a threat to the time, effort and money that had gone into transforming a criminally neglected red-brick mansion into Umphiti.

Wottie’s encounter came about two years after the opening of Umphiti which was just starting to break even on the back of an assortment of South Africans and a growing legion of foreign backpackers.

Backpacker lodges are typically owned and run by laid-back locals who love the lifestyle enough to make a living from it. Larger establishments tend to rely on managers — a rambunctious lot who represent a subculture that is populated by restless souls and nomadic spirits.

They, nevertheless, boast impressive people skills, are sociable and good at imparting tourism knowledge and information to foreign backpackers. In this word-of-mouth industry, good managers are worth triple their weight in gold.

A network of backpacker establishments criss-cross southern Africa and experienced drifters always find a position, whether they stop off in Malmesbury or Maritzburg, whether they bargain for a full deal, meals or just a bunk.

Wottie started in this category, but he had a few aces up his sleeve, including a talent for telling raucously entertaining stories about improbable characters.

It was a blustery August wind that blew Wottie into Umphiti for the first time, after someone had fielded a call from the stranded driver of an overland truck.

Industry protocol demands an open-ended invite and, having asked for directions, “the man who spoke foreign” waltzed in 30 minutes later, windblown and as black as the ace of spades.

Over our initial shock, we loved him from the moment he opened his mouth and spoke flawless Australian.

“G’day mate and how the hell do you like this bastard breeze?”

Laughing uproariously, he introduced himself as Wottie from Sydney, again in impeccable Antipodean.

Yes, he was indeed the driver of the overland truck — a converted Mercedes Benz — that had broken down and was parked at the City Royal Hotel where he had phoned from originally.

Painting the hotel staff in glowing terms, he said they had recommended Umphiti to him.

“No worries mate, they blew your hardie as far as it would go up your white arse,” he said, laughing infectiously.

The flattery worked a treat and within 30 minutes, Wottie was leaning over the bar and swopping travel stories as a driver-guide with Drifters, one of the big overland travel companies.

Contrary to the norm, Wottie turned down the offer of a free bed and said that Drifters would foot the bill.

“You run a business mate, and there are no free lunches, only expensive beer,” he said, again to raucous laughter.

True to his word, Wottie would ceremoniously pay his accommodation bill every morning and, as the stranded driver of an overland truck, he evidently had much to take care of.

His responsibilities, it seemed, required of him to leave Umphiti in the morning and return some time after lunch.

“Keep me a bunk mate, you don’t know if these dingoes will get it right today,” he would say with furrowed brow.

We shared his frustrations about a broken tow truck, an incapacitated driver and administrative inefficiencies in the Cape Town office.

“Can you Adam-and-Eve it mate? You have to wonder how they run the company,” he would exclaim. “Better drink to that, eh?”

Wottie proved an entertaining guest and was liked by other visitors too. Part of his charm was his willingness to share himself and his exploits with us.

We learnt that he was born in Zimbabwe, but that his mother had met an Australian and that they had emigrated to the land of Oz when he was very young, “It’s just like [former Wallaby scrumhalf and captain] George Gregan, mate, except that he was born in Zambia and I was born in Zimbabwe,” he explained.

He was a keen sports fan and, being the Australian he was, took delight in the performance of teams from Down Under, often at the expense of the South African rugby and cricket squads.

Wottie was also deeply gracious and never allowed the discussions about sport, or any other topic, to threaten his friendly relations at Umphiti.

Being an avid reader of the newspaper, Wottie spoke knowledgeably on most subjects and proved a model guest in most respects.

But the charm of even the most affable guest starts to wear off after about six days or so and we wanted to know what progress was being made on the truck. Wottie’s reassurances that the matter was being dealt with in Cape Town no longer made sense and, on his behalf, we invoked the assistance of Pietermaritzburg-based Manline to see what could be done. This arrangement pleased Wottie less than what we expected it should have, especially when we suggested that a tow truck could be made available to move the truck from the hotel’s parking area to the Manline workshop.

“The company may be useless, mate, but they still have their procedures and I’m trying to find out if they will accept this,” he said.

His reluctance seemed odd and we started to suspect that perhaps he was spinning us a yarn. It was time to check out Wottie’s story.

All it took was a phone call to the City Royal Hotel to establish that there was no overland truck in the parking area and that no one there had ever heard of Wottie.

Most irritated at the outcome of our investigation, we confronted Wottie who meekly conceded that no, there was no truck and, yes, he had been taking us for a ride.

Without further ado, Wottie was ejected from Umphiti but not before we confiscated his passport to compel him to cough up for all the beer he had been drinking for the past week.

With promises of drawing money to pay his debt and to retrieve his passport, Wottie left in a subdued mood. His return was a lot more auspicious, this time in the company of five policemen.

Fearing trouble over seizing Wottie’s passport, we were most intrigued to see him being interrogated in the Umphiti lounge by the police in a manner suggesting that he was in deep trouble.

Apparently he had been swindling several city restaurants for the past two weeks, but his luck had ran out when he was spotted by an affected owner while trying to cut a foreign currency deal at a rival eatery.

Word of his apprehension quickly spread and it seemed he had pulled off a series of audacious scams throughout the city. In one instance, he presented himself as the public relations officer of Kaizer Chiefs on the lookout for a venue to host 50 players and dignitaries. In another case, he pretended to organise a homecoming celebration for his brother, former Zimbabwean soccer star Peter Ncube, while he also claimed to be hosting a dinner for the visiting Zimbabwean cricket team.

Wottie evidently came across most credibly and, on the basis of his convincing manner, hooked free lunches throughout the city. So impressed was the management of one restaurant that it was persuaded to lend him a substantial amount of money over the two-week period — the same money he used to pay his accommodation bill at Umphiti.

Best of all, it transpired that the only tie Wottie had to Australia was a stolen passport to which he had affixed his photo quite professionally. The cops took this matter very seriously and he was promptly hauled off to the holding cells at the Loop Street Police Station.

It also emerged that Wottie was wanted in Pretoria, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, and that he had acquired an impressive track record as a con artist.

By now the various parties swindled by Wottie in Pietermaritzburg had been put in touch with each other by the cops who wanted a speedy resolution. And so, it came to pass that his victims met at Loop Street Police Station to make the required statements and formally rescind the various charges of fraud, misrepresentation, theft and bilking. This was necessary to expedite his deportation to Zimbabwe in what we considered a fair exchange for the loss we suffered at the hands of this likable rogue.

But no journey is complete without wishes of bon voyage and, much to the consternation of the constable on cell duty, we said our goodbyes to one man, addressing him by four names — Jim, Peter, Francis and Wottie.

Derek Alberts

Derek Alberts has an abiding love for the eastern seaboard of southern Africa and is deeply passionate about Pietermaritzburg. Having been a journalist for more than 20 years, he has developed a range of business interests, including tourism, since 2000. He is the co-owner of niche media and design agency Purple Boa Creations with his partner Tracy Freese.

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