Who was ‘Terence of Africa’ really?

“He was crazy and I was obviously at that age just as crazy as him.” – John Whitmore, discussing racing motorbikes alongside his friend and mentor, Terence Bullen.

Terence Bullen was introduced to the world in Bruce Brown’s timeless 60s surfing documentary The Endless Summer. Known forever after as ‘Terence of Africa’, in late 1963 Bullen transported Bruce Brown, Robert August and Mike Hynson to search for surf along South Africa’s east coast in his blue-grey International Harvester panel van, painted with the black façade of a rhinoceros on the side.

After a few weeks in Cape Town – with decent footage from across the peninsula in the film can, including the classic Chapman’s Peak convoy scene and a few surf sessions at Long Beach – The Endless Summer crew had decided to leave the Mother City and to head to Durban. While Bruce was pondering how to get to there one morning in John Whitmore’s surfboard factory, in waltzed Terence Bullen. One thing led to another, and as the story goes, Terence was persuaded by John to drive The Endless Summer crew all the way to Durban, with young Cape Town surfer James Miller as a tagalong.

John had discovered several surf spots in the Southern and Eastern Cape by then. He gave Bruce and co. detailed directions to find these, including a map of Cape St Francis. On John’s recommendation, their plan was stop in to stay with his friend Leighton Hulett – whom John called ahead to notify of their arrival – and perhaps film some surfing footage at the reef in front of his beachside rondawel bungalows.

“Terence Bullen,” narrated Bruce in The Endless Summer. “He doesn’t surf, he captures animals for zoos around the world and milks cobra snakes for their venom. He handles 1000 deadly cobras a week and when he is not extracting their venom, he keeps them in baskets in his bedroom. He is one of the few people in the world to capture an African elephant alive. Terence wasn’t afraid of anything in the world, except the ocean and he wouldn’t go in that for anything.”

In the movie, Bruce chose to dramatise their arrival in St. Francis by claiming, with dramatic trumpets in the background, that ‘Terence of Africa’ (clearly a pun on ‘Lawrence of Arabia’) led the surfers to their epic surf discovery. The movie shows them trudging across the sand on an arduous three-hour hike from the highway to the coast, across rolling dunes in the baking African sun towards an unknown headland.

The reality was much less spectacular. Following a full day’s driving, they were welcomed by Leighton Hulett late in the evening and only stumbled into the surf in St Francis Bay the next morning. Though there were a few waves at the break that is now known as ‘Hulett’s’ or simply ‘The Reef’, The Endless Summer crew of course discovered the sand bottom point break next to it, which neither John nor any other South African surfer even knew existed.

Here, they filmed the footage that eventually came to define the movie, at what soon became known as ‘Bruce’s Beauties’. As such, Terence Bullen, played a pivotal role in the success of The Endless Summer and his name will be forever associated with their discovery of ‘that perfect wave’ at Cape St. Francis.

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Childhood Mentor

Though Terence was made world-famous due to his unplanned and impromptu role in The Endless Summer, very little is otherwise known about him, apart from the fact that he was a big game hunter of some repute and had a weird sense of humour. Indeed, the movie portrays him as a notorious jester who continually pranked Bruce and crew by throwing snakes at their feet, into the back of the van or into their bedrolls (among other ‘dirty tricks’, as Bruce called them).

Another of his infamous party jokes was to drop his embalmed finger, ostensibly lost to a snake, into people’s drinks and laugh his head off when the discovered it at the bottom of their glass. Similar stories of Bullen’s pranks and shenanigans – often involving animals such as lions and baboons – pervade Cape Town Atlantic Seaboard legend and lore.

But who was this tall, strange man really – and how did he even come to be in John’s factory on that fateful day?

Fact is, John Whitmore and Terence Bullen were firm childhood buddies. They first met when John was about seven or eight years old, and Terence was in his mid-teens, and the two shared many adventures together. Their mothers were both school teachers and good friends, and Terence (who hailed from the Tamboerskloof area of the Cape Town ‘city bowl’) spent most of his time – when he was not off on a hunting adventure in the African hinterlands – on the beaches and in the rowdy bars of Camps Bay and Clifton, often with his young friend John.

Indeed, Terence ostensibly played the role of big brother and male mentor to John Whitmore. He introduced him to all sorts of masculine pursuits, such as rock climbing, shooting bows and arrows and guns, riding motorbikes and catching snakes.

Thanks to his affinity with snakes, Terence Bullen was featured as a teenager in London newspaper The Telegraph in the 1930s.

Terence had always been fascinating by these reptiles and was featured in an editorial in 1937 in London newspaper The Telegraph as a teenager. It reported on how Terence was rearing three pythons, which he had obtained from a Cape Town snake park, in his bedroom. “They are all the same age, but one is only two feet long and the next is five feet,” the 15-year-old Bullen described his pet snakes in the article, which also featured a picture of him holding one around his neck.

Terence went on to explain how he had bred two black rats to feed his snakes, as they had become too used to eating white rats and would no longer do so. He told how he kept his cherished serpents in a box, which he would place on the family stove on cold Cape winter days.

“On warm days they roam about an empty room,” Terence continued, adding that he had also reared an egg-eater and mole snakes. “I am not sure what I shall do with them eventually, probably they will go back to the snake park. I like anything to do with animals. I visit the snake park every Saturday and Sunday. Besides the snakes, they have lots of monkeys, porcupines, birds and lots of small animals.”

Terence began working at and then took over running said snake park, which was on the Cape Town Foreshore, and roped in his young friend John Whitmore to help out there on the weekends. He also enlisted John and several other young surfers to help catch ‘platanna’ or plathander (Dutch for flat handed) frogs, which they often did by dragging a trek net through the fields. A small amphibian that is one of 18 species of African clawed frog, for many years this was the only reliable pregnancy test available worldwide and was exported in great numbers for this purpose, no doubt earning Terence and his apprentices a bit of pocket money.

As a teenager, John and also raced with Terence on motorbikes, sidecars to be precise. With Bullen astride his Norton Featherbed, John would dangle from the sidecar (little more than a platform with a handle really) and the two shared a passion for riding all kinds of bikes and tinkering about with their engines. “Terence,” said John, holding up a worn photo of the two of them racing, “he was crazy and I was obviously at that age just as crazy as him.”

Terence Bullen and John Whitmore, featured in a newspaper report in the 1950s, following a spectacular crash while racing motorbike sidecars at Killarney race track in Cape Town. Image Whitmore archive.

Despite his missing digit, Terence was also adept with his hands and among other things, stitched up Whitmore’s first branded surf shorts or ‘skatools’ in the early 60s. Indeed, he is said to have been a skilled taxidermist, and was also involved in a curio shop in Cape Town that sold African souveniers to tourists as well as leather goods.

After The Endless Summer, he ended up sharing premises with surfboard shaper and former Whitmore apprentice Clive Barber, where he is said to have made his leather accessories and clothing, including leather motorbike pants, as well as seat covers and saddlebags, and even fibreglass petrol tanks.

An bit of an Enigma

From the early 1960s, Terence Bullen – known by most simply as ‘Terry’ – had been a permanent fixture around the Atlantic surf scene. Though petrified of the sea, he would hang around at contests and often transported young surfers around the peninsula and occasionally up and down the coast on surf trips in his famous van. However, as late ‘60s surf culture evolved into the pot-smoking, long-haired hippie vibe, it seems Bullen – like many from the more conservative, old school generation who came of age in the 50s, including John Whitmore – moved away from surfing towards other interests.

Indeed, Terry, a chain smoker who never married, soon disappears from the narrative surrounding John’s life. With many of the same friends, such as motorcycling champ and early Cape Town surfer Dennis West, and a mutual interest in motorbike racing, they surely kept in touch. But the two no doubt parted ways as their pursuits diverged, as friends sometimes do in this life – Terry becoming absorbed in the bike world, and John in building his business and Springbok surfing and later Hobie Catting etc.

Nevertheless, among John’s few male mentors, this fascinating man of the bush instilled in his protégé a passion for nature, wildlife – and reckless adventure, shooting guns and general risk taking he would always draw on. He is also responsible for introducing John to motorbikes, an affinity that would reappear in different guises throughout John’s life and was an interest he bonded over with his California counterparts, such as Bruce Brown and Gordon Clark.

According to early Cape Town surfer and offroad motorcycling pioneer Chrome Hunter, Terry (who held several illegal race speed records in Cape Town), became a steward and ‘scrutineer’ for the Automobile Association. His job was to inspect the motorcycle fuel before a race to ensure the mixture was correct (and the rider was not cheating by using banned additives such as alcohol to improve the bike’s performance).

“Terry Bullen used to come across from the AA and scrutinise the fuel, he would take a fuel sample. He was involved in motorsport in many ways, old Terry,” said Chrome, calling Bullen “the last of the great white hunters.”

Unfortunately, no research conducted by the author for the John Whitmore Book Project has yet revealed what became of Terence Bullen in his latter years. But one thing is clear, if it were not for his friendship with John Whitmore, and his small but crucial bit part in The Endless Summer, ‘Terence of Africa’ might have otherwise slipped into obscurity and his name would never have been known by the wider surfing world.

But as it stands, this tall, enigmatic character – with a missing finger and penchant for pranks and a pachyderm-emblazoned van – will likely be remembered long after most of us have departed this mortal coil.

Thanks for the ride, Terry.

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3 thoughts on “Who was ‘Terence of Africa’ really?

  1. Terrence (“Terry”) lived at the top of Barclay Road in Sea Point. Our family lived on Barclay Road in Barclay Court between 1953 and 1959. I spent hours after school or on the weekends in his garage watching him working on his motorbikes. A few years later when I started surfing I met him again, after his Endless Summer adventure. He took James and I on a few surf trips, notably he drove James and I to the Western Province Surf Championships in Hermanus. By that time, he had dumped the big truck and we made our way to Grotto Beach in a much smaller Austin.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great insight on a fascinating person. Little is known about Terence, but this article probably helped a lot of curious people. It sure helped me! Thanks for the article!

    Like

    1. Thanks Bryce – there is more but I have kept that back for the book!

      Like

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