All Photographs + Text Copyright 2012 Christopher Keeley

Whitepipes, Weed and the Wild Coast.

I had lost my job as a clothing salesperson at a haberdashery called Jeans. The owner, Karl, had three stores on First Street in Harare, Zimbabwe. One was Jeans and the other two were Karl’s and Little Big Men. My alcoholism did me in. One night at the Inner Circle, a bring your own night club that I frequented every Friday, I was passed out lying on the ground in the foyer of the club and my boss, Freddie, who was a Scandinavian very familiar with the perils of alcoholism, showed up with three ladies of the night, possibly prostitutes. He witnessed his star employee completely obliterated just outside the club. I believe on that particular night I had consumed too many Marijuana brownies, Valium, and pain pills mixed with an assortment of Liquor.

My being passed out in front of one of the hipper night clubs that Zimbabwe had to offer was not the impression, or an example, that could please Freddie, or Karl when the news of my pathetic condition got to him. It could not fail to put my job and reputation on the line. Karl got a huge kick when I was first employed because a chauffeur driven vehicle would drop me off and pick me up after work, which was good for the store's image. Having two American employees working for Karl helped too, the other one being my best friend James, who initially got me the job at Jeans. The car that transported me was our personal car, but it had impressive diplomatic plates. I had no legal driving privileges and was forbidden to drive anywhere by my cautious and ethical father. This job lasted approximately about 11 months, a near record for me.

James quit and I believe I was fired. James convinced me to go on a road trip with him to the Transkei in Southern Africa. The Transkei was an internationally illegal country not recognized by the rest of the world as a legitimate country, but the South African officials had declared this little African “Bantustan” in the southernmost part of South Africa as an independent entity, also popularly known as the Wild Coast, home of Capitol Radio 604 on your FM/AM dial. Despite international sanctions against South Africa, the Transkei was able play western music recordings, based on its alleged independence.

My parents were not too thrilled by the idea of me going on a road trip with Jim and did not back me financially. I was probably about 24 years old and Jim was 21. Jim's idea was to finance the trip by bringing along 100 Mandrax tablets purchased in Harare and then selling them in Johannesburg. Indians love Mandrax, the Eastern equivalent of Quaaludes. Jim had a Mandie connection, a Creole dude of Indian descent who even made his own grass oil. One Mandrax cost ten Zimbabwe dollars. A ten Zimbabwe dollar note at the time was the largest bill available, meaning there were no twenty or fifty dollar notes. Two Zimbabwe dollars were equivalent to a US five dollar bill, and in the local economy two dollars went a very long way. One Mandie was way out of our league. Jim also wanted to smuggle back gold-based South African Krueger Rands, as gold is the international currency everywhere. In some countries you could trade US currency ten to one and that was the plan.

I had very little money and was basically along for the ride. We decided to hitchhike and left Harare around midnight. Our plan was to drop acid the minute we arrived in the outskirts of Johannesburg. We got various rides in trucks, pirate taxis, VW buses, and even a local bus. We passed through customs on foot and hitchhiked to the city. I remember stopping off at a bottle store and buying some tequila or rum. We arrived in Johannesburg safely at sunrise and dropped some acid. We checked into the YMCA and I was laughing at all the rules and regulations, specifically no smoking or the drinking of alcoholic beverages. Our room cost about $5 a day.

In the city we went to an American Italian restaurant and ordered some real pizza. We were tripping and I found it so strange that the pizza in front of me melted, in a drug-induced hallucination. I was in Africa missing America and this was a pizza joint where you could drink all the beer you wanted. Jim wasn't too thrilled because he was paying. That night we met some girls in a bar/discotheque. The girls were bragging that they were international telephone operators and had access to their office building. This was also New Year’s Eve and we made calls all over the universe for free. The only problem was we ran out of people we could call in the United States, but we had a lot of fun making free expensive calls to our friends in the US. I passed out and overdosed on the Mandrax.

The next day James says he is going to ration me to 2.5 Mandrax pills per day. Disappointed, I objected that it wasn't enough. We met some Indian guys who were willing to buy some of the Mandrax. One guy shows us how they smoke White Pipes the proper way. He gets a beer or coke bottle and heats the neck so it breaks off the top, making a chillum like pipe. He then rolls up a cardboard strip from a cigarette pack to make a filter and drops it in the neck. Then he crushes the Mandrax pill into a powder and mixes the powder with some tobacco. He then drops the tobacco Mandrax combination into the bottleneck chillum pipe, clasps his hands while praising God, and takes a hit. The hit gives him a rush and he is forever addicted to that feeling. It takes away all the pain of life and one is completely numb. The rush is instant and lasts a few minutes. We are amazed by the trick of heating up the neck of the bottle to make a chillum pipe. The dude calls us “Exxay” (a term of endearment in that Creole culture) and asks us if we want some Dagga. We say sure and are instant friends. James negotiates a good price and makes some trades of Mandies for weed. We are on our way to the Transkei.

We take a train to Port Elizabeth. James is gambling with some young soldiers. I join in and we rob the soldiers blind by teaching them new forms of poker. I steal more than my 2.5 Mandie limit imposed by James. The trip goes quickly. We hitchhike to the Transkei and are stopped at a roadblock. My knees are shaking because the police manning the block are thoroughly searching and ransacking the vehicle looking for terrorists. The Army security police don't take kindly to Americans riding with Africans. Nothing of any significance is discovered and we are on our way.

We reach the Wild Coast and James meets some more Indians to sell the Mandrax to. We smoke some White Pipes and ask if they know of any Marijuana growers, for the Transkei is known for its Dagga. They do, and off to the mountaintop we go. We meet up with a grower who has a whole mountainside full of weed. We are disappointed because none of it is dry. James is impressed because the grower has learned to kill off all the male plants, thus making a more potent variety of flowers once they bloom without the pollen. I pick some and attempt to dry it in the sun.

What was amazing was that the grower's house was made out of mud. I got sick to my stomach when I realized that the mud was made out of human excrement. The stench was foul. James believed the grower was clever because of his resourcefulness in also using excrement from farm animals for fertilizing the mountain of weed. We attempt to mix the Mandies, tobacco and weed into a bottleneck but the weed still won’t burn. We give the grower a minuscule amount of cash and tobacco and we’re off again to the Wild Coast.

The grower didn't speak a word of English and we didn’t know his language. We negotiated entirely with gestures with our hands and smiles. We even got the grower to snap a picture and he clearly had never seen a camera before. It was amazing. Unfortunately, when I got clean I destroyed all the photos of the mountainside of weed except a print of James and myself. A photographer in Harare never gave me back my negatives.

I remember being so scared because I almost fell off the cliffs into the violent ocean crashing around below me, stumbling from being intoxicated by mixing Alcohol and Mandrax. I had taken four tablets, as my tolerance was growing. James couldn't keep track of the sales he had made and my ration of 2.5 per day. I was very sneaky, almost to my detriment. The moon was full; the water below was crashing thunderously. Not only was I paranoid, but I also knew my death was imminent from an overdose or an accident. All odds were against me. The thrill of excitement from being at the southernmost part of Africa with the ocean crashing below amazed me. I promised James I wouldn't venture near the edge again because I was scared, and with good reason.

  • Mandrax (especially the 'white pipe' combination unique to South Africa) was the number one hard drug of abuse prior to the transition to democracy. By the late 1980s, Mandrax comprised more than 70% of all drug seizures, with marijuana comprising 20%, and all other drugs combined less than 10%.

    This picture contrasts sharply with that found outside the country during the same period. The active substance in Mandrax (methaqualone) played a very minor role in the drug culture in the rest of the world. The source of the American 'war on drugs' at the time was crack cocaine, a drug hardly featuring in South Africa in the 1980s.

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