At 82, Charles Maasdorp of Graaff-Reinet still delivers the Sunday papers to friends and family on nearby farms – by aerial drop.
Words and Pictures: Chris Marais, www.karoospace.co.za
Graaff-Reinet has a living legend called Charles Maasdorp who, in his four-score-plus years, still goes for extended flips over the Karoo Heartland in his little Cessna 150 Aerobat. The local veld telegraph told me that Charles was in the habit of delivering a Sunday paper to his daughter Marion at Wellwood farm deep in the Sneeuberg mountains – by air.
I was very keen to fly with Charles Maasdorp on such a mission. I made enquiries and scored a triple hit: not only would Charles take me flying, he would make me his official newspaper bombardier for the morning. He also agreed to remove the door on my side so I didn’t have to shoot fuzzy photographs through Plexiglas.
For the occasion, I packed a camera lens with great nostalgic value: a Canon 20-35mm (f2.8) that I had bought from my late, great friend Herman Potgieter on a job in New Orleans back in the hurricane season of 1997. How’s that for serious name-dropping, all in one paragraph?
Now you know I own a classic, old, wide lens, that I’ve been to New Orleans and that the awesome aerial photographer (Potgieter) had been a dear friend of mine back in the day. But enough about me, my mates and my exotic travels, and back to Charles Maasdorp, who really refuses to act his age.
My wife Jules and I spent the Saturday night with Charles and his wife Eira at their Graaff-Reinet home, so we could have an early start the next morning. “But not too early,” said Charles, “because we still have to pick up the Sunday papers from the shops.” The plan was to drop a Sunday Times on Wellwood and then fly somewhat east to Kwaggafontein and deliver two papers at the feet of Philippie Loock, the owner.
Loock was very specific about his order. He wanted the Sunday Times and a copy of what he calls ‘the truth’ – the Afrikaans-language newspaper Rapport. Consider me Switzerland on the subject of that.
Over a couple of beers that night, I learned that Charles’ uncle, one Charles Roland Maasdorp, had been a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps in World War I. Near the end of the war, his mother received an official letter from the British government stating that her son was missing, presumed dead. She later found out through the autobiography of German flying ace Ernst Udet (Mein Fliegerleben or My Flying Life) that Charles Roland had been one of his victims. And that Udet had particularly admired Maasdorp’s prowess in aerial battle.
“I grew up with these stories,” Charles said. “I really wanted to fly.” His father, who was a successful Wool Boom farmer, was against the whole idea. “What do you want to be?” he asked young Charles one day. “A pilot,” Charles replied. “No way. Pilots are the laziest people on Earth.” Charles went away, thought about this and returned 30 minutes later. “Dad, you know what? I want to become a teacher.”
“No way. Teachers are the second-laziest people on Earth.” Eventually, Charles told his father, “OK, so if I can’t become a pilot or a teacher, maybe I should be a farmer.” This seemed to have ticked the right box for his dad. “Yes, that’s a fine decision. Farmers are really good people,” he told his son.
Not a man for half-measures, young Charles took himself off to the Australian Outback where he worked as a jackaroo. Those guys over there are not known for farming from their stoeps, as they say. Charles did the hard yards, learning how to fix a windpump, span fences and handle livestock under tough circumstances.
However, it was at the “ripe old age” of 29 that Charles Maasdorp decided to fly anyway. He qualified as a pilot over the skies of Beaufort West.
Charles proposed an interesting deal to a prominent local landowner called Bob Murray: he would be his official pilot and fly him around to his various farms all over South Africa and South West Africa (Namibia). He would work the family livestock farm when he wasn’t flying Bob around. “Bob Murray bought a Navion, which I could land anywhere there was a length of runway – or even just a strip of dirt road.”
He has now been flying for 53 years, logging more than 8 000 hours in that time. Charles has flown desperately ill people to hospitals in the Western Cape, and is particularly fond of aerobatics and heading off on random missions for the hell of it.
So there we were the next morning at Graaff-Reinet Airport. We couldn’t find a Rapport for Philippie – he would have to be satisfied with his Sunday Times. The airfield manager Dan Davis and his cockatoo (who goes by the name of Cocky, what else?) came to wish us bombs voyage. After some basic preps we went wheels-up, circled the airfield and headed along the Gats River in the general direction of the village of Nieu-Bethesda.
You may have gathered by now that I am bezonkers about the Karoo. But let me tell you, when you see this magnificent dry space from the inside of Charles Maasdorp’s little Cessna, you really feel the Karoo. We passed briefly over one of Johann Rupert’s farms, where I tried using my 70-200 lens on objects below. The wind outside caused me to produce a pathetic set of out-of-focus results. So I relied on ‘The Herman’ instead and, by the time Nieu-Bethesda hove into view, I was managing to keep focus.
I could see the good folk of Nieu-Bethesda were at their devotions in the Mother Church. The Ramstal pub was still closed and even The Owl House appeared shut. The Compassberg, looking for all the world like a jagged slice of the Himalayas, brooded over the little settlement.
Philippie had promised to phone in the cricket scores at regular intervals. The Proteas were playing India in the World Cup warm-ups and Charles and I had caught some of the action before leaving town.
There was no call from Philippie, which we deemed a little ominous. But soon enough we were over his farm, Charles was swooping in low and then he shouted, “Now!” I flung out the newspaper, hoping it wouldn’t land in the plane’s exhaust pipe or something. I wouldn’t pretend to know a single thing about how an aeroplane manages to stay aloft, so don’t look to me for technical flying stuff. We crossed the N9 highway and Charles spotted a lone traffic cop having a quiet Sunday to himself. We flew a little lower and greeted him in a special Maasdorp way. “That guy gave me a speeding ticket last week,” was all my pilot would say about it.
We passed a rehab centre called God’s Motel (formerly Goode’s Motel, where a crow called Jimmy used to live and entertain tourists by swallowing two-rand coins) and some folks came out and stared blankly up at us. Then we were over Wellwood, and there was Marion in the field in front of their house.
“Now!” I missed her by a good 50 metres, but the newspaper was still in a reasonable, readable condition when she retrieved it. I’d been much better with the drop at Kwaggasfontein, I heard later. “It landed two metres from Philippie’s feet. He’s very impressed with your skills,” said Charles.
We overflew the well-known ostrich palace of Bloemhof, where young Julian Murray has been rattling around the place as one of the eligible bachelors of the district. No longer, I am delighted to announce. The lovely Miranda de Gouveia is now his intended, and they’re going to renovate Bloemhof into a top-notch farmstay one of these fine days.
Charles and I returned to Graaff-Reinet via the Sundays River, passing farm after farm along the way. Once we were overflying The Gem of the Karoo, I could see my bakkie parked in his backyard. And when we landed, we got the bad news from Philippie Loock, who had not wanted to spoil our morning in the sky: we had fared miserably against the Indians.
No matter. I had spied my beloved Karoo from up high. And, as a mate of mine told me, “Rather fly with an old pilot than with a young one. He’s got the hours under his belt…”