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A Bit on the Side


Lonely and neglected, Candy was sitting in a dark corner of a Chinese army depot when Tim Clarke first set eyes on her. Instantly smitten, he resolved to make her acquaintance. He was sure that, given time, he could coax some life into her and restore the pride and vitality she’d clearly once enjoyed.

She was to become part of a veritable flotilla of escorts working for Tim, joined by Lolita, Blossom, Gypsey and others, 20 in total. Those were Tim’s names for them. The People’s Liberation Army for whom they had formerly worked had referred to them collectively as the Chang Jiang 750s.

And yes they were, and thanks to Tim still are, sidecars. A version of the 1938 BMW R71 (for the anoraks out there) the CJ750s had been manufactured exclusively for the Chinese army since the mid-fifties to pre-World War II BMW specifications.

Earlier this month the weather changed overnight from winter to summer. It was the most gloriously clear, balmy day when Tim called to offer me a ride in Candy. “When?” I asked. “How about now?” he suggested in true Capetonian fashion. Throwing a token glance at the chaos on my desk I rapidly agreed.

My chauffeur was Lee, who could not have been more friendly. Having kitted me out in a rather fetching leather jacket, an authentic pair of goggles and a ridged leather helmet that made my pea-sized head look like an oversized walnut, he swung Candy around and we headed towards the hills.

As we travelled up the ever-lively Long Street, people were winding down their windows to talk to us or just to give us a thumbs-up, and on the corner an old coloured man in a shabby suit gave us a crisp salute. At the cable car station – open for the first time after a few windy days – the snaking queue of tourists goggled as we vroomed past. I lapped it up, trying to look as cool as an extra-large walnut can. This was great. I felt like I’d just dropped out of the past to come and deliver some lasting moral to the lacklustre people of the future. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d been in sepia but no, it was just that the world around me was extra bright and colourful.

Most people go no further along that road than the cable car station. In fact it continues for another couple of miles and offers spectacular views over the city below and the sea beyond. The sun bounced off Candy’s shiny paint as we took the road less travelled, whooping as each new vista came into sight. I took a short video not for the memory of the sights, but to capture the thrum of the engine, the thrill of its guttural purr.

I’d intended for that to be the extent of my little outing – to turn around at the end of the road and head homewards to my desk. But as Lee pointed out, it really was a most magnificent day. It would be criminal not to make the most of it. So we hurtled down the long scenic road that winds its way down the side of Table Mountain to Camps Bay where, leaving Candy on the pavement in the eager care of five different parking attendants, I introduced Lee to the best ice cream this side of Italy. We ate it sitting on our leather jackets on the beach, watching the world go by. Another tough day in Cape Town then.

I asked Tim for his most memorable sidecar tale, and he took me back to his first encounters with them when he was running a chain of pubs in Shanghai. “I needed to empty out one of my pubs in the early hours one Sunday morning and offered to take everyone on an alternative tour of Shanghai. Five of us piled on Amanda (my sidecar at the time) and launched forth into the dark warmth of an early Shanghai morning. We cruised the alleys, highways, tunnels and bridges. We caught the river ferry, heckled at the pervs along the red light streets, visited the early morning flower market and eventually ended up on the banks of the Pudong river watching the sun rise…. “

There have been many other memorable moments,  but cruising over Chapman’s Peak in a sidecar on a windless, sunny morning never fails to take my breath away.”

Now be honest, couldn’t your life do with a little bit on the side?



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