Frikkie Conradie is one of only seven gunners in the Western Cape, and if you don’t know what a gunner is, it’s the person who fires the cannon.
It may not be everyone’s cup of tea or bag of black powder because there’s literally a lot of smoke and thunder.
I know because I was at Bracken Spring Fair last month when Frikkie and his assistants fired the six-pounder and the half and quarter-pounders.
Standing at the ready to take photos, I jumped at the cracking sound and almost dropped my camera.
There are many aficionados for a hobby and occupation that is associated with a big part of our history in the this country. The Cannon Association of South Africa (CAOSA) is dedicated to preserving cannons and, in their words, is “determined to stop the loss and decay of the muzzle-loading cannons which form part of our national heritage… Cannons by their nature cannot compete with distressed wildlife for attention, research, preservation and funding…
“Our mission is the preservation and appropriate utilisation of the historic muzzle-loading ordnance in South Africa. To this end, we locate, record and identify guns. We … display them at suitable public places and respect the confidentiality of private ownership”.
Frikkie, who lives in Protea Heights, Brackenfell, says many cannons came off the ships that arrived in Table Bay in the 16th and 17th centuries. The ships had quarter-pounders and half-pounders on board, small for them to deploy quickly to defend themselves.
But, he says, many of the farmers who came to the port all those hundreds of years ago often decided to swop the fresh produce they were selling for a cannon, and so the cannons that came from shores far and wide found their way to homesteads all over the Western Cape and the hinterland.
Frikkie arrived at his present passion quite by default. He was born in Cookhouse in the Eastern Cape, and when he grew up, and after doing compulsory military service, worked for the City as a state accountant. But the military bug had bitten during his time serving as a reserve gunner for 10 years in the anti-aircraft corps, as well as a volunteer budget manager in the medical battalion and as a logistics officer.
“The army’s just in my blood,” he says, explaining why he settled on cannons when he had to retire from his volunteer position in the army at 65.
He was enticed into this fascinating hobby after being invited to a meeting to talk about cannons and after completing a six-month course. Today he hires himself out as a gunner to mark public celebrations and historic occasions.
He says he is the proud owner of three quarter-pounders and one half-pounder cannon which are used for many of the cannon-firing salutes.
Recently, Brackenfell High School celebrated its 40th anniversary, and Frikkie was the man responsible for firing the celebratory cannon salutes.
He recalls driving up to Lamberts Bay on the West Coast two years ago for a wedding with a difference.
“We fired five shots on the beach: one for the arrival of the bride, then the groom, then to announce to the crowd that the wedded couple would not fight; and finally two shots for the two mothers-in-law not to fight,” he says.
He mentions that for obvious safety reasons a distance of at least 50m is needed from any building when firing a cannon.
“And I never fire a cannon I don’t know. I fill the muzzle with a wad of birdseed to lessen the blow,” he says, adding that of the different grades of blasting powder, he prefers the “G12” as “it’s more stable”.
His son, Riaan, who also lives in Brackenfell, is a trained gunner as well, and the pair often team up to perform their booming salutes, “wherever they are needed”.
They both are registered as qualified gunners with CAOSA.
Frikkie intimates his retirement is a blessing, and mentions he is also the deputy chair of the Friends of Bracken Nature Reserve, the Secretary of the Brackenfell Ratepayers’ Association and is a keen cycad grower.
* For more information on CAOSA go to www.caosa.org.za