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Sunday Times STLive By ROWAN PHILP, 2010-06-06

Tragedy strikes convoy to soccerfest

Henk Wijts was determined to see Africa's first World Cup "the proper way". So the 60-year-old joined more than 100 hardy Dutch soccer fans who decided to get to the opening match by road, visiting major attractions all the way through Africa.

Wijts's group, Team Massif, part of the Orange Trophy convoy, were making their way to support the Dutch team by joining thousands of other fanatical, orange-clad Dutch fans in South Africa this week as part of a plan to "paint the rainbow nation orange".

But disaster struck the convoy last week when Wijts went missing at Lake Malawi, having ignored warnings about strong currents and insisted on swimming at the famous site. His body was found by fishermen two days later.

A statement released to Dutch media by the 22-vehicle convoy said: "Four participants, including Henk, (went) for a swim in the lake. A half hour (later), two other swimmers heard Henk calling for help ... but seconds later he disappeared under water. The (murky) water and limited resources prevented a successful rescue operation. On Wednesday, his body washed up 500m north of the place of drowning."

A spokesman emphasised to Dutch journalists that Wijts had not been killed by a wild animal.

Referring to Wijts's wife and stepchildren, teammate and friend Erik van der Burgt said: "It is inconceivable that this could happen. We wish Mary, Linda, Frank and Danny a lot of strength with the loss of a loving partner and a great father."

The convoy left the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam on April 3, and is due to link up with a much larger convoy of 200 camper vans carrying 1000 Dutch fans to Pretoria on June 11.

The statement added that "a very emotional memorial service at the edge of the lake" was held by the travelling fans, who arranged for two cords of wood to be carved with Wijts's name, and the words - "From (Holland) to Cape Town - forever in our hearts."

One of the cords will remain in the Malawian town of Chitimba, the other will be taken to the World Cup, and then back to Wijts's home in Holland.

Wieke de Vries, spokesman for the Orange Trophy, said: "His family in the Netherlands are obviously devastated - they have travelled to Malawi (this week) - but they said that Henk had had the journey of his life. He had told people: "Even if you had given me a million (euros) to do something else, I wouldn't have missed such a beautiful place as Africa."

Now, Dutch fans are expected to wear black armbands over their orange jerseys during the World Cup.

De Vries said two hardy groups of fans, the Orange Trophy convoy and hundreds more fans who will fly in and camp outside various host cities, would join up in Pretoria on June11.

She said some 200 camper vans - "about 75% of all of those available in South Africa" - had been rented by the "Oranjecamping" horde.

Alex Walraven, a 33-year-old fan from Utrecht, said he couldn't wait for the "great adventure" of "camping the Cup".

"I always wanted to visit this county. And now I can combine a visit to South Africa with supporting my country. I will cross South Africa in a camping truck with 20 other people."

Another fan, Richard van Zijtveld, said that despite avoiding the expense of hotel rooms the trip would still cost him about R70000, including R20000 for the air tickets and about R25000 for the camper van.

"But this is all worth it to me."

However, Wijts's Team Massif, comprising his brother-in-law and sister-in-law aborted their mission to South Africa after the drowning and will accompany Wijts's body back to the Netherlands this week, as they had agreed: "Leave together, arrive home together."

  • philpr@sundaytimes.co.za