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Fifty years ago, today: Remembering the first Vespa in the Fish River Canyon

Avatar of inke inke - 09. July 2018 - Discover Namibia


Mannfred Goldbeck

Some folks have big dreams, and regardless of logic and difficulty they are driven to make them a reality. These experiences become some of the greatest of their lives – and inspire others to follow their own dreams.

Such was the case with the group of men who decided to lay the first tyre tracks on the canyon floor. Six members of the Cape Town Vespa club took up the challenge. It was set by their neighbour, a member of an athletics team who had just returned from walking the canyon on a government-sponsored trip, when they happened to innocently remark that they’d lend him one of their scooters next time around. Before the friends even had a chance to contemplate the enormity of the task ahead, they were walking to work, pushing their scooters up the steep roads in the Cape Town suburbs, floating them across rivers and lowering them down inclines with steel cables and winches in preparation for the conditions they would soon encounter in the second largest canyon in the world. Two club members even travelled to southern Namibia to determine the feasibility of the escapade. They returned with the news that it was ninety-nine per cent impossible.

Undaunted, the team travelled to Namibia’s mighty canyon with their three Vespas, named Veni, Vidi and Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered), painted in leopard, giraffe and zebra print, and began their intimidating expedition of lowering their scooters and equipment over the loose shale into the canyon on 9 July 1968. 


Man and scooter didn’t fare well. The first and heaviest scooter, Veni, was lost when the supporting line broke and it plunged down the cliff. They removed the engines from the other two Vespas and carried them down separately. When they eventually reached the canyon floor after two-and-a-half days, a descent that usually takes about two hours, they were exhausted and five out of six members of the team required first aid attention. They had made history, however, laying the first tyre tracks on the soft river sand.

In the following days, progress was also painfully slow, and the second scooter was lost when the inflatable dinghy sprung a leak and capsized. The team lost their third and last scooter when the mud, water and mica dust in the canyon became too much for Vidi. Exhausted and with dwindling provisions, they soaked in the warm waters of the hot spring before battling up the escape route, leaving the remains of their Vespas on the canyon floor. The rusted remains of Vidi can still be seen perched on the rocks at the beginning of the Fish River Canyon trail, where hikers pause and ponder over the strange sight.

I first came across the story on the wall of the Hobas campsite in a faded photocopy of a 1968 article called ‘Scooters in the Canyon’ and began my search to track down the surviving members of the team. After more than a year of searching, I finally managed to meet up with Johnnie Johnson at the Castle Hotel pub in downtown Cape Town to hear his story. Johnnie was already in his late seventies, had survived two strokes and undergone two heart bypasses, but his spirit was still strong. “Life is not long enough for all the things I want to do,” he expressed, “but before I turn boots up, I want to go to the canyon again.”

Vespa veterans Aubrey Jackson, Graham Nell and Johnnie Johnson (l.t.r.) at the reunion in the Canyon Roadhouse in 2010.

He didn’t have long to wait. In 2010, I invited him and two of his teammates to the opening of the newly-renovated Canyon Roadhouse to recount their tale and to rescreen the movie they had made at the time and presented to schools and sports clubs. Full of life, Johnnie outlasted everyone at the bar that night. The last words I heard him utter before I made my way to bed in the early hours, as he raised his cane to the ceiling, were: “Go for it!”

Johnnie didn’t make it to see in the fiftieth anniversary of their madcap adventure, but the memory lives on. I remember the Life motto he shared with me when I first met up with him in the Cape Town pub, far from the rugged beauty of the canyon. “I don’t want to go to my grave too early, perfectly preserved in pristine condition. I would prefer to skid in sideways at high speed, used up, dusty, wasted, worn out and shouting – Wow, what a ride!”

And, what I gleaned from his experience is that you can achieve your ambition for most things in life - even if others say that they are ninety-nine per cent impossible - if you tackle them with commitment, spirit and passion.

Mannfred Goldbeck (r) invited the three vespa veterans to see the canyon again.

For detailed information about the 1968 Vespa Expedition in the Fish River Canyon please click here.

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