Maverick Life

LOVE, UNSTOPPABLE

When we finally fell in love, he died in a car crash

Illustration Sinalo Ngcaba for Maverick Life

It was love at first sight all over again. There and then, we knew we would be together…. Until we were not.

As told to Karel van der Vyver for Maverick Life.

When I was 13, my parents, my two brothers and I went to Umhlanga Rocks for a holiday. We stayed in the old Umhlanga Rocks Hotel. The town was small in those days, with very few of the tall buildings that now adorn the waterfront. I remember it being a typical South African beach town, with a corner shop, a hotel or two and very little else. It was a December holiday with the characteristic warmth and humidity of a KwaZulu-Natal summer. I was a young red-headed girl with green eyes, and an unusual – at least for those days – tomboy look.

I spent day after day on the beach with the carelessness reserved for teenage years. It was there that I met Tony Ubsdell for the first time, in the games room of the hotel. He was 15. He and his brother were visiting their grandmother in Umhlanga, but came to the hotel to take part in a table tennis tournament. During a break in the matches, we started talking about the ordinary things teenagers talk about… I can’t remember the details now. I do remember that we laughed a lot. He was a stylish guy, he wore his collar up in a cool, sexy way. He was slightly taller than me, with dark hair and green eyes.

Although it might seem unrealistic now, we loved each other from the moment we set eyes on each other. We talked for the rest of the afternoon, and the next morning we went to the beach. We had a whirlwind romance for the rest of the holiday, and spent our time between the beach, the games room and the hotel’s little disco. When we sat on the sand overlooking the ocean, the sound of the waves formed a background track to this feeling of love I felt for the first time in my life.

One night Tony wanted to take me on a date, and I decided to sneak out of my hotel. We agreed on a time we would meet outside, and when my family fell asleep, I tip-toed out of the room and met him on the steps outside, where I realised that going on a date in my pyjamas might not exactly cut it. He, on the other hand, was dressed in his stylish best and was bitterly disappointed that I wasn’t. Looking back, I’m not sure exactly what his plan was – we were far too young to go to a bar – so we probably would’ve just gone for a milkshake somewhere. But, regardless, I couldn’t go anywhere, and we had a date on the steps of the hotel, spending the next two hours talking. Then he kissed me.

I have no idea how sore and stiff he must have been from all that cycling, but the next morning, he phoned me and simply said: “This isn’t going to work.” I was heartbroken; he was my first love. But the reality of distance and logistics had sunk in and our story seemed destined to end there. Time flew by and as months turned into years, the memories of Tony faded away.

A week later the holiday ended and we both returned home. He promised that as soon as he got home, we’d see each other, which made saying goodbye much easier. I lived in Kyalami and he lived in Brakpan; he lived in Duncan Street and I lived in Duncan Road.

In the first week of January, he phoned and told me that he’d visit me. It was quite far from Brakpan to Kyalami and of course we were still too young to drive. So he hopped on to his bicycle and rode for five hours to get to me, having left Brakpan at five in the morning. That day, we went horse riding with a friend, as if riding a bike for five hours hadn’t been enough, and to make matters worse, the horse he was on took off and galloped away. Still, I remember the day as so much fun. Later, he climbed back on to his bike and off he went back home.

I have no idea how sore and stiff he must have been from all that cycling, but the next morning, he phoned me and simply said: “This isn’t going to work.” I was heartbroken; he was my first love. But the reality of distance and logistics had sunk in and our story seemed destined to end there. Time flew by and as months turned into years, the memories of Tony faded away.

I travelled the world, skipped university and when I finally came back to South Africa I started working towards becoming a travel agent and met the man who would soon become my boyfriend. We were both keen paddlers, and 12 years after I last spoke to Tony, my boyfriend and I travelled to KwaZulu-Natal for the Dusi Canoe Marathon. One day I went for a jog around the race site and heard someone shouting my name. It was Tony.

He had become a helicopter pilot and was working at the marathon, helping to monitor the canoeists. He asked me if I wanted to fly with him.

As the helicopter took off into the blue sky of rural KwaZulu-Natal, I had a similar feeling to the one from that summer night in Umhlanga Rocks when I first met him.

Later that day someone drove us back to Port Elizabeth and the next morning I flew to Johannesburg. My parents picked me up at the airport and looked after me. Everything was a blur. Pain and confusion. And loss.

Back in Johannesburg, my boyfriend and I broke up – and when I thought of getting in touch with Tony again, I realised I knew neither his contact details nor his surname… Only the hope of finding him again at the next Dusi marathon, in a year’s time. But he wasn’t there the following year; nor the year after; nor for the next 10 years. Once again, we had lost each other.

I took on numerous jobs – I owned a small boutique, a playball franchise and worked as a river guide – and had a few relationships, none of which seemed to bring contentment or happiness.

And then, a friend of mine asked me to go skiing with him and another friend of his – we would go to Paris, where his friend was for a helicopter exhibition. His friend’s name? Tony.

And, yes, it was the same Tony.

But I couldn’t go to Paris. I had started a new environmental education job with an Australian company and the skiing trip conflicted with it. But I did ask my friend to arrange a meeting with Tony, and on 1 May 2000 we saw each other again.

It was love at first sight all over again. There and then, we knew we would be together. I was travelling a lot and he was still flying helicopters but we spent all our spare time together and in October that year I decided to quit my job and move in with him, at the Cathedral Peak Hotel in KwaZulu-Natal where he was based.

He flew tourists over the Drakensberg mountains and I worked for him in the marketing department. We travelled everywhere. We flew to Zimbabwe, went skiing in the US and Austria, moved to Zambia to work at Victoria Falls, lived right by the Zambezi and sometimes, while cycling, we would come across elephants. It was the most magical time.

In early 2002, we started talking about having a baby. At the time I was 37 and Tony 39, so we thought it was time. We weren’t worried about getting married.

In May, the two of us and two friends flew to Port Elizabeth to hike the Otter Trail. At the airport’s car rental company, Tony spent an hour arguing with the agent because the car they had given us was a small Citi Golf and didn’t have airbags. Eventually Tony relented. The four of us hopped into the car, Tanya and I at the back, Neil and Tony in front.

We stopped often along the way; for lunch, bathroom breaks, to watch surfers, to look at the clouds. And when we got to the final stretch before Storms River, I fell asleep. About 10km from the turn-off to the Otter Trail, I woke up to the sound of people shouting. I looked up and saw a huge removal truck hurtling towards us on the wrong side of the road.

I blinked. All I could see was the truck and a red car in front of us that had swerved to the other side of the road. But we saw the truck too late and it smashed head-on into our car.

Silence. Heart pumping fast. I remember seeing Tanja next to me, she was dead. Neil got out of the car. I did too, although I can’t remember how exactly. I looked back and saw that Tony had managed to move a little. I climbed back into the car through the smashed windscreen. We tried to do CPR.

I held him until he felt cold.

I felt so unbelievably shattered. I desperately wanted to go back, and what if we hadn’t stopped on the way, what if we hadn’t gone for lunch or watched the surfers, what if we hadn’t wasted time, we wouldn’t have been there, in front of that truck.

Later that day someone drove us back to Port Elizabeth and the next morning I flew to Johannesburg. My parents picked me up at the airport and looked after me. Everything was a blur. Pain and confusion. And loss.

Two weeks after the accident, I found out I was pregnant. I went into labour on Tony’s birthday. Our daughter was born and 17 years later she remains my biggest miracle. She is just like her dad. The love story continues. DM/ ML

Do you have an unusual, surprising, extraordinary, out-of-the-box story about love? Would you be ready to share it with us? If so, please send us 100 words or more about what makes your story unique and special and one of our journalists might contact you to hear more! We cannot promise we will get in touch (even if your story is amazing) but would love to hear from you. Send your 100 words for Maverick Life’s ‘Love, Unstoppable’ series here.

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