Why you should care

It’s beer and barbecue and a giant pineapple. What could go wrong?

Stuck for a party in the downtime between Christmas and New Year’s? Head to the tiny 1820 settlers village of Bathurst in South Africa’s Eastern Cape on December 29 to drink pineapple beer in the shadow of the world’s largest pineapple before lining your stomach with barbecued ox and boozing the night away.

Summer in South Africa is all about the beach, beer and, most important, braaivleis (my country’s Neanderthal take on the barbecue). When it comes to braais, it doesn’t get bigger or more Neanderthal than Ox Braai — an annual institution that sees around 8,000 revelers munch their way through the hindquarters of at least 50 oxen. And guzzle their way through enough booze to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool. There are DJs, and a dance floor too, but most people party at their cars.

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Francois Vosloo, erstwhile principal of the Shawpark primary school, organized the first Ox Braai in 1981 as a “token of appreciation” to local farmers who’d donated new all-weather tennis courts for the school’s use. “The very first Ox Braai was on Kleinemonde beach,” he remembers. Vosloo was expecting a couple of hundred people, but 3,000 turned up, and he was forced to send runners to buy 15 extra sheep cut into chops, on an evening he now describes as “absolute chaos.” The following year the event moved to the Bathurst Showgrounds, where it has remained ever since.

The unofficial “prematch” takes place at the Big Pineapple.

When I was a student in the early 2000s I attended five Ox Braais in a row — even if they have all merged into one, decidedly hazy memory now. On the morning of the 29th, my group of friends would congregate in the coastal village of Port Alfred to join the endless stream of cars making the eight-mile journey to Bathurst.

The unofficial “prematch” takes place at the Big Pineapple — a 56-foot-high metal-and-fiberglass fruit constructed by local pineapple farmers in the 1980s — where folks ease into the proceedings with a few flagons of pineapple beer. I’d advise getting to the main event (about a mile from the Big Pineapple) by early afternoon to ensure you get a decent spot.

Want some more advice? Decant your liquor into plastic bottles before you set off — no glass is allowed in. If you have a tent, pitch it upon arrival (it’ll never happen otherwise), and if you fancy a nap under a car, make sure it’s yours and that the keys are in your pocket. Bring food (the meat is served only once night falls) and plenty of ice. Also, don’t bother wearing shoes (two more things to lose), apply plenty of sunscreen and attempt to pace yourself. Ox Braai is a marathon, not a sprint.

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Over the years, Vosloo — who has been chief braaimaster for all 36 incarnations of the event — has seen it all. He’s occasionally had to “wire drunk guys to the trees” to stop them from attempting “firewalks,” and he’s lost count of the number of times he’s seen a human chain touch the electrified perimeter fence (yes, the fence is “on,” and, yes, everyone in the chain will get a shock). His advice for first-timers? “Watch your step,” he says with a laugh. “There’s a hell of a lot of sex going on in the dark.”

“I’m 70 years old now,” says Vosloo, “but I’ll be braaiing again this year, and I have no plans to stop. Ox Braai is in my blood.”

GO THERE: OX BRAAI

  • Directions: Ox Braai is held at the Bathurst Showgrounds. The nearest city, Port Elizabeth, is a two-hour drive away (map).
  • Timing: Gates open at 10 a.m. on Dec. 29, 2017.
  • Cost: Entrance is $13 per person and another $13 per car. Book online or pay slightly more at the door.
  • Hot Tip: Established in 1820, the quaint town of Bathurst retains the feel of a 19th-century English village and boasts the oldest pub in South Africa, the Pig and Whistle. It’s a charming place that’s home to lots of artists and crafters … who all skip town on the 29th of December!

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