Inside Kamp Staaldraad
‘Captain in the Cauldron: The John Smit Story’ is written by Independent Newspapers rugby writer MIKE GREENAWAY and published by Highbury Safika Media. The following chapter deals with the horrific experience of the team at the notorious Kamp Staaldraad b
USUALLY, when a player joins the Bok camp, he’s uplifted by an invigorating environment, but this was hardly the case when I joined the Boks in 2003. It was scary. Results had been horrific (we had lost 52-16 to the All Blacks in Pretoria) and the vibe among the guys wasn’t “What can I do for the team?” but “What can I do to survive in it because this is a World Cup year?”
The Bok camp was a dangerous and unhealthy place, there was no enjoyment, and the World Cup was always going to be a spectacular failure. There was no meaningful and constructive talk about what we could do to win it. There was a lot of hot air about sacrifice and fitness, but with no real conviction. In our hearts we knew we were screwed.
I suppose, in Rudolf Straeuli’s defence, with 2002 having been so bad results-wise, he felt he had to do something drastic.
Kamp Staaldraad is a contentious issue. The first pictures of naked, distinctly unhappy Bok players broke in the international press on the day of the World Cup final between England and Australia. In terms of public perception, here were our rivals strutting on the brightest stage in world rugby while the Neanderthal Boks were bumbling about like idiots.
How can I classify Staaldraad? My brothers went to the army, and when I told them about Staaldraad they said that kind of stuff had only happened in the more severe camps.
The camp was incredibly tough, so to get through it gave me a sense of achievement, even though the premise of it was skewed. We didn’t eat or sleep, we did stupid things like carry poles and leopard crawl, and got drilled by the instructors. It was obviously supposed to be about breaking us down and then building us up as a team, but it didn’t achieve any of that.
All it did was expose the weak guys who couldn’t take the pressure. There were some young guys in our squad, with Derick Hougaard and Schalk Burger aged only 20.
We went from being announced as World Cup rock stars to being told to report to the bus with a pair of PT shorts, a pair of jocks, a rugby jersey, a gum guard, a hat, running shoes, and socks.
Before we set out, I got some advice from a mate of mine who told me we would only get one match, so I should smuggle in a lighter, which I did, lodged in the inside of my cap.
After about two-and-a-half hours in the bus, we were nearing Warmbaths (now Bela-Bela) when we were told to put on blindfolds. About 20 minutes later the bus stopped, and we were told to take the blindfolds off and get off the bus. It was pitch black and we were in the middle of nowhere. Then the shouting started.
Instructors, dressed in khaki, screamed at us to get into a formation, but none of us had been to the army so it was a complete mess. Eventually we got into some kind of formation, while these guys laughed their heads off at us. They then told us to get on to a truck that would normally transport cattle or sheep.
We were told to strip naked in the middle of the bush. The okes hesitated in taking their kit off which resulted in such venomous obscenities that we realised it was no joke.
There we were, 30 okes standing naked and being searched. The instructors started going through all our clothes, but somehow they missed my lighter.
After 10 minutes of marching down the road in the dark we were stopped alongside a bunch of poles at the side of the road. What followed was horrible. There were two guys to a pole and off we went down the road. Every now and again the instructors would tell us to swap partners – “Poles down, swap!”
Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha would just find another pole, because they are the same height and they wanted to stay together, but the instructors spotted their trick and our punishment was to leopard crawl through the fire brush.
The theme of Staaldraad was if an individual stuffed up, he would have to watch while the rest were punished with push-ups, sit-ups, or whatever. “Don’t let your maatjie (mate) down,” they kept on saying.
About an hour-and-a-half after that, we entered a little enclosure in the bush. Dawn was breaking and Rudolf was now on the scene (up until then we had only been with the instructors). He sat on a little ledge and on the ground before us were boxing headgear and gloves.
“ Ja, we need to get to know each other. There are a lot of rivalries here, and in the World Cup only certain guys can start. Players will be competing for the same positions. We need to understand the dynamics of that, so we must fight,” he said.
First up was Thinus Delport against Werner Greeff. Werner, who can be difficult at the best of times, had lost his sense of humour. We could see he wasn’t impressed with this camp at all and now the first fight was between the fullbacks.
Werner wasn’t really interested in fighting at first but then he took a few shots from Thinus and realised, “Okay, I’m not really proving anything, I’m just getting a klap.” He got angry and that’s when the fight really started.
The rest of us watched the two of them climb into each other, with the bout lasting three minutes. Jaws dropped. Selborne Boome, our quiet intellectual, thought he was in a time warp. He went to De Wet Barry and asked: “Is this for real?’
That was the typical type of match-up but there were also some strange ones. After the likes of Dale Santon against Lawrence Sephaka, Faan Rautenbach against Richard Bands, and myself against Christo Bezuidenhout, there was the uncalled-for bill between Corné Krige, the captain, and Schalk, the 20-year-old.
None of the 15 fights were uncontested. In each of them, the guys got stuck in – you had to fight. The first one was obviously going to be the most difficult because the guys didn’t know what to do. Werner had taken the high ground at first, saying, “ Ag, this is pathetic,” before angrily switching to, “If you want a fight, I’ll f*****g give you one.”
Rudolf obviously knew these were the two guys to put against each other to set the tone. The instructors were egging everyone on like mad. They were loving it.
The purpose of Kamp Staaldraad was for Rudolf to see what kind of characters we really were. By then he knew what the rugby capability of each guy was, but he wanted to see how tough we were.
That’s why I say I wasn’t traumatised by Staaldraad, as I learnt a heck of a lot about myself and about the individuals around me. None of it helped me or South Africa in the 2003 World Cup, but would I do it over again? Yes, probably.
I realised that you can go without food for three days – as long as you have water, which we always had access to – and that you can function without sleep.
I was 25 and I had done a hundred fitness sessions before, where I thought I was going to die, but Staaldraad made me realise that your body and mind can be pushed much further than you think, and that no matter what a fitness trainer does, he can’t kill you. You learn you are more of a machine than you realise, your mind is there to hold you back physically, and as tired as you are, you can go further.
For me, Staaldraad was an educational experience and I quite enjoyed the challenge.
On the first night, the winners of a tug-of-war had been promised food. Our group won and they brought a box, which contained two live chickens. “There’s your supper, there’s the fire, do whatever you want,” said Rudolf.
The Afrikaans guys said: “Lekker, we can sort this out and share the meat.” But Rudolf said: “No, no, no! Joe (van Niekerk), you must kill the first chicken.”
Now, Joe was the type of guy who thought chickens came from Nando’s. He had never considered how they got there, so he started to panic and hyperventilate.
“No, I can’t kill a chicken!” he said. “Joe, kill the chicken, just wring its f*****g neck,” Rudolf replied. “It’s easy.”
Joe had never killed anything in his life, and wrenched the poor creature’s neck, without too much conviction. I can’t explain how horrific it was. We all stood there like bloody barbarians watching poor Joe hyperventilate and reluctantly torture the unfortunate fowl.
He just didn’t want to do it and didn’t know how.
Eventually Joost van der Westhuizen had to intervene by grabbing the chicken and putting it out of its misery. It had suffered so much that when we braaied it later on, it was too tough to eat because of the stress it had been subjected to.
The instructors then took us to a dam and it was off with our kit again. We had to wade in up to our chins. It was the coldest water I had ever experienced.
We were given a drill where we were each handed a rugby ball that had to be pumped full of water, and when all the balls were full we could come out. You had to find the ball in the water that had your number on it – there were no names on this camp, each guy had a number.
I can see the philosophy behind what they did, but you can’t do basic army training in three days. You can learn things about yourself and your limits, but that’s about it.
We were never ever going to pump our balls up with water. We had bike pumps with little nozzles and you had to suck the water into the pump and then push it into the ball. The nozzles broke after two minutes.
‘The purpose of Kamp Staaldraad was for Rudolf to see what kind of characters we were’
“Make a plan!” screamed the instructors, who basically just wanted us in the water. We had been in for an hour and a half when I saw that Stefan Terblanche was turning blue. His jaw was clattering away and he looked as if he was about to freeze solid.
While we were freezing our bollocks off, Rudolf and the instructors were having a braai in front of the dam, making boerewors rolls and drinking beers.
The guys were really tired – we hadn’t slept for 40 hours – so we didn’t give a flying continental about being self-conscious about whose member was hanging out or shrivelled up. We also didn’t know we were being filmed because Dale McDermott, our technical analyst, was a part of the team and always had a video camera with him, as he did at the camp.
The next morning they told us we had a fun day ahead. They said we were going to go abseiling and jump out of helicopters into the water, but we had to get to the top of the mountain first.
By now we didn’t care about anything around us – we were just putting one foot in front of the other. The grand finale saw us all flown out in a big army chopper and dropped into the water.
We were then given materials to make rafts in groups, and told we had to use them to go across the dam and back. We had 20 minutes to build the raft, which had to be done in the nude in the water.
When our time was up, they told us to move one group to the right. For example, the last group moved to the first boat, so the boat you built was no longer yours, you had to sail on the boat that another team had made. So we sailed and some of the guys made it, while some didn’t. It was a colossal mess. The boat my team made was the worst one and came back in about 14 pieces. The one we sailed, won.
Afterwards, an instructor’s whistle went and we were back in formation. We marched and did push-ups. We marched again, and soon the water was behind us.
We were thinking to ourselves, “Holy shit, is this it? Is the camp over?” But then they marched us all the way to the middle of the bush, gave us GPS navigators, and said: “Here are the co-ordinates, you guys get yourselves back to base.”
We had come a long way, been left in the middle of nowhere and it was getting dark and cold. We wanted to make a fire but our allocation of matches had been used up the previous night. I had my Bic and I wanted to pull it out but I knew the instructors would then wonder how we started the fire.
Neil de Kock decided to look for matches. He saw a tree that had a ladder going up to a platform, and he thought maybe they had left the matches up there. So he climbed up the ladder and as he got his head over the top there was the guy in charge of the camp, Adriaan Heijns, pointing a 9mm to his forehead, with Rudolf next to him. Neil just froze, then went back down. And as he did, they threw down matches, so my lighter was saved again.
Then the instructors said: “Okay, you’ve got 30 seconds to fall asleep in that tent.”
It was probably a 15-man tent so we had to pack in like sardines. We were told to sleep, which wasn’t a problem. We slept for about an hour and a half, before the instructors woke us up with gunshots.
“Congratulations,” they said. “It’s all over and there’s a braai on the go for you.” We all tucked into lamb chops and guzzled beers – it was the best braai I have ever had.
There was an immense sense of relief. We were alive! These okes had nearly killed us, they had broken us, and here we were having beers with them.
The vibe was really good on the bus, the guys had a feeling of togetherness and felt a sense of achievement. Rugby was the last thing on our minds because we were just so amazed at ourselves and were talking and telling “army” stories.
We still talk and laugh about Staaldraad to this day.
As our bus neared Pretoria, we saw the newspaper signboards. “Geogate” had broken, big time. When we arrived, the media were all over us, requesting interviews. We said they could talk to every single one of us, but we would be there as a whole team, as we had just come through Staaldraad together. They could walk in one at a time and ask whoever they wanted a question.
I have never seen journalists so scared. None of them could get any dirt because they were too afraid to ask any real questions.
From there we travelled straight to the Drakensberg Sun in KwaZuluNatal to meet our wives and families. We were spoilt and were not shy to lap up the luxury.
I went into Staaldraad weighing 118kg and came out at 111kg. I lost 7kg in three days, but I reckon I put it all back on at the Drak Sun buffet.
TESTING TIMES: Exhausted, often naked, the Springboks show team spirit in these still frames from a video on Kamp Staaldraad aired on Carte Blanche.