Wednesday, March 21, 2012

With three Vespas through the Fish River Canyon

I'm seeing a picture of a vespa club in Hanoi (Vietnam) bring a Vespa Super to Fansipan, the highest moutain in Indochina. It makes me remember a story i read from internet. Searching Google, luckily i find it.
Here is the story:

Logo of Vespa Expedition 1968 to the Fish River Canyon
Preparations are just about complete when the SWA Administration finally gives the go-ahead for the scooter expedition through the Fish River Canyon. Earlier, the Cape Town Vespa Club had made a bet that some its own members would be the first to take a vehicle through the second largest canyon on earth.

The three scooters were sponsored by Grosvenor Motors, tuned for canyon conditions by the members of the expedition and styled to sport a safari look: a zebra, giraffe and leopard. The names they chose for their Vespas were Veni, Vidi and Vici. “I came, I saw, I conquered”.

The six men knew that the expedition would entail severe exertion and hardship. Therefore intense physical training was a top priority. The members of the expedition no longer drove to work, they walked, and instead of taking elevators they used the staircase. During their weekend training sessions they particularly emphasized practical exercises: they pushed their scooters to the top of steep roads and sand dunes and up the rocky paths of Table Mountain. They practised transporting the vehicles across water in a rubber dinghy; with Vespa exhaust fumes they inflated the dinghy in just two minutes. The means of transportation turned into goods to be transported...
Vespa in Fansipan
It is Tuesday, 9 July 1968 when the team members meet at the Cape Argus Building and load their Vespas onto the Jeep of tour guide Louis Greef. Confidently they drive north all night. After a puncture on the way they arrive at the viewing point at the Fish River Canyon around midday on Wednesday – and are overwhelmed by the incredible landscape.

Still that same afternoon they begin with the difficult mission of taking the scooters and the equipment down into the canyon. Hikers usually need two hours for the 500 metre descent. The Vespa team takes a total of two-and-a-half days in extreme climatic conditions. The thermometer drops to 8 degrees Celsius at night, but midday-temperatures in the canyon rise to around 40 degrees Celsius. They misjudge their water consumption and have to go thirsty.

The scooters are hoisted down the steep rock faces and loose rubble by means of safety ropes and winches, and they are dragged and shoved over boulders with sheer brawn... It is an incredibly exhausting endeavour and five of the men sustain injuries which require treatment.

The biggest catastrophe during the descent, however, is the loss of Veni. A safety rope snaps close to a precipice and Veni plunges down 100 feet (about 30 m). A fatal crash, as a brief inspection of the Vespa shows. The scooter has to be left behind for good.

Reunion at the Cañon Roadhouse: Aubrey Jackson, Graham Nell, Johnnie Johnson
They make history on the evening of 12 July. Vici is the first Vespa to make it to the bottom of the canyon, true to the meaning her name: vici – I won. The men are completely worn out but still go and bring Vidi into camp as well.

On Saturday morning, 13 July 1968 the journey through the canyon continues. Two of the men decide to load Vici into the rubber dinghy and let the Fish River take care of transporting her. The other four are determined to move Vidi along on land. The scooter is pushed, kicked, pulled, lifted.... For the Vespa, running in first gear, to make any progress at all in the fine sand it is necessary at times that two men put their backs into it and pull while the other two push. Sand is in every nook and cranny and the engine stalls ever so often.

The trip with the rubber dinghy is eventful, too, and it ends with a mishap. All the equipment falls into the water and gets wet. Now the men change their strategy: they guide the dinghy with the Vespa downstream with the help of ropes. And they carry the luggage themselves.

In their bid to move the Vespas along the men have to get into the water at times.  The river is icy-cold, on average only about 48 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees Celsius). They are shaken by cramps. Despite their gruelling efforts they manage less than 2 km per day on these two days.

The members of the Vespa Expedition 1968 (l.t.r.): Louis Greef (guide), Aubrey Jackson, Johnnie Johnson, Peter Derichs, Tony Beckley, Graham Nell, Terry Davidson
There is another accident on 15 July. The dinghy capsizes as they try to take Vici across the river. The scooter slides into the water and pulls Aubrey, who was swimming alongside, down with it. The men on the riverbank are paralysed with horror. Then Aubrey‘s head surfaces again and clinging to the dinghy he comes ashore. He is under shock and totally exhausted. The men manage to salvage part of the equipment, but Vici’s campaign of conquest is over.

Utterly discouraged they pitch their third camp. Not only did they lose another scooter but practically they had made no progress either, despite energy-sapping efforts. Their worst enemy is time, which slips away relentlessly. The permit which the SWA Administration granted for the expedition is only valid until 18 July, and provisions are also dwindling...

The following two days the men continue to battle their way through the canyon with Vidi. In the course of the morning of 17 July 1968, 36 students from the Pretoria Technical College catch up with them. The students are utterly amazed to find Vespas and tyre marks in the canyon. Disbelievingly they continue on their way. Later on the Vespa expedition finds a message written into the fine sand: “YOU ARE MAD”, it reads.

Midday holds bad news for the Vidi team: the Vespa’s engine won’t start and spare parts are needed to repair it. Water, mud and fine sand have finally put paid to the engine. The spare parts have gone down in the river with Vici.

At Hiker's Point - Descent into the Fish River Canyon
With a heavy heart the men leave the last scooter behind, half hidden under rocks. They solemnly resolve to come back the following year and finish their mission.

They shoulder their gear and get going to the sulphur springs which are in the vicinity of the escape route. They have 10 miles (16 km) ahead of them, the sun is beating down relentlessly, their provisions are finished. Some pieces of luggage weigh 30 kg...

At some stage the palm trees at the sulphur springs do appear in their field of vision. They drag themselves there with their last bit of energy, drop their luggage and clothes and take a bath in the healing water. It is their first bath after the past strenuous eight days and it takes two hours.

Tony Beckley (behind) and Johnnie Johnson pushing and pulling Vespa Vici through the Canyon
On the morning of 18 July the exhausted men climb out of the canyon. They take stock: they have lost three Vespas and managed only about one mile (1.6 km) per day. But it was an experience which they will remember all their life. On Friday morning, 19 July 1968 the adventurous scooter expedition comes to its end at the Argus Building in Cape Town, where it had started ten days earlier.



  1. thats my Dad, Graham Nell

  2. Hi guys, how are you, i have hiked the fish river canyon back in 2012 and came across one of your vespas, see my website with the photo of me standing in front of the vespa. cheers!