Bearing in mind, I was the girl who used to think there couldn’t be anything more exotic than the coloured fairy lights down Southport prom, Sun City was the most incredible wonderland I’d ever seen. I could hardly take it in and even now, over 30 years later; I can still remember the thrill when I first laid eyes on it, sparkling like an enormous tiara against the inky, African sky.
Legend has it that Sol Kerzner, the doyen of gambling, flew over an extinct volcano in Bophuthatswana and had a vision; he would create the South African Las Vegas right there.
In order to fulfill his dream, he first had to build an entire infrastructure, there was no running water, gas or electricity, there wasn’t even a road. He set to work and in 1979, Sun City was born, opened by none other than Frank Sinatra – Ol’ Blue Eyes, himself.
It was only when I got back to England years later I realised many musicians had boycotted playing Sun City. I still find that strange because Sun City was probably the most politically-correct place in the whole of Southern Africa in the early 80’s. It was certainly the first time I’d seen mixed couples dancing and eating together.
There were two main sections, the Entertainment Centre and the Casino Hotel, I believe it’s since changed beyond comprehension, but then it was still in its embryonic stage.
My first job was in the Hotel Slots. I was a change girl employed solely so punters didn’t need to leave the machine they’d been feeding for hours to get more coins. With a pannier-sized bumbag around my waist packed with an R800 float, along with half a dozen other girls I patrolled the floor. We would trade our coins for notes and when the bag was empty, go downstairs and replenish our stock.
There was an entire underground system at Sun City including offices, canteens, cash vaults and a labyrinth of passageways, networking the entire complex. Staff used these when moving from place to place as they weren’t supposed to be seen out of uniform. I worked alongside Afrikaners, South Africans, English, Scottish, German and French. We laughed until we cried and sneaked into the Super Bowl to see Rod Steward, Queen, Julio Iglesias, Chris Rea, Shirley Bassey and Elton John in their pomp.
Sun City had topless dancers who worked eight shows a week, swathed in ostrich-feather boas, impossibly high-heeled, diamante shoes and fishnet tights. It had a dozen bars, every conceivable combination of food, a bowling alley, man-made lake, cinema, swimming pools, post office, tennis courts and a Million-Dollar golf challenge – it even had its own fire brigade for goodness sake.
Beyond the glare of the slot machines was the entrance to Narnia. The fairy lights twinkled their welcome to Raffles night club – pass through there and you were at the very entrance to the casino gaming floor. A permanent cigarette haze hung over the pit and the clacking of chips was hypnotic. Murmurs interspersed with laughter, bets called, cards cut, wheels spun, dice tossed, tips tapped. An authoritative handclap from the tuxedo-clad inspector summonsed a cocktail waitress from nowhere and drinks were delivered to the tables with panache. Once you stepped onto the fibre-optic carpet, you were in another dimension. A mystical world adorned with beautiful people.
Watching the croupiers come and go from the pit in a snaking line made me feel like the Little Match Girl. Clad in their smart uniforms, floor-length skirts and ethnic-print, wrap-over tops – all of them looked so immaculate. I thought only special people could work in a casino, with their manicured hands and fantastic teeth
Within months of this epiphany and on the urging of my brother who’d come to visit, I was back in England in a £17 per week bedsit, wearing my ‘Frankie says Relax …’ T-shirt and training in Southport’s Grand Casino. ‘Holding Back the Years’ and the ‘Chicken Song’ were battling for chart supremacy and after six years of skivvying, I had finally found my vocation. I was going to become a croupier and I was never going to have to pull a pint or wash a filthy ashtray again.
The Grand opened at 2pm and as we were still unlicensed, couldn’t be in the pit when it was open for business, so training took place in the morning while the cleaners were in. Wearing our mandatory two-inch heels (I’m 5’11) we got to work. So much to remember; the sequence of the wheel, neighbour bets, picture bets, measuring, cutting, announcing, adding, chipping.
As ludicrous as it may sound, the training was grueling. Endless hours were spent straining to reach the necessary levels of dexterity, even more hours were spent learning unconventional times tables – 7×17’s anyone? – the precise measure and flick of a slippery card, the mental arithmetic, handling chips, shuffling cards, spinning the tiny, ivory ball around rim of the wheel backwards and forwards (did you know from the moment the doors open til the moment they usher the last punter out, which is often 15 or 18 hours later, the wheel must never stop turning?) Calculating, chipping, shuffling, sorting, counting, clicking, announcing. There were four of us on the training school and my friend was Amanda
‘Papa Don’t Preach’ by Madonna (circa bushy eyebrows) was Number One when Amanda and I made our table debut as licensed dealers in July 1986. By September we had been interviewed and hired by Sun International and were jetted over to South Africa the following month. Our destination was Thaba ‘Nchu Sun, another oasis built in the shadow of Black Mountain and surrounded by a game reserve and an enormous dam. Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State and birthplace of the famous English 1500m runner, Zola Budd, was our nearest town and that was 95km away.
Gambling of any kind, from slot machines to pinball, was banned in the Republic of South Africa, although you could bet on the horses at the Tattersalls. I never understood that, but I’m sure there was a reason. Prohibition is never a good thing and the people flocked to the glitzy casino in their droves.
Like all of the new Sun International venues, managerial positions at Thaba ‘Nchu were initially manned by overseas staff. Living in a purpose-built village which boasted only a swimming pool and a staff pub for leisure, we lived two to a fully-furnished house. We never locked our doors; we didn’t even have a key.
We wanted for nothing. The casino workers were mainly British and all cut from the same cloth. It seems that nobody starts out in life as a croupier; we used to joke that if the world fell off its axis and only we were left, we could start a new civilization between us. In a previous lifetime, we’d been accountants, hairdressers, brickies, librarians, chefs, barmaids, carpenters, soldiers, tailors and sailors; we even had a Count and a former priest among the ranks.
There was no television, telephones or internet to entertain us, but the CD player was just sneaking onto the market. Our sun-soaked days were spent listening to The Waterboys, U2, Simon and Garfunkel, Talking Heads, The Smiths and the Blow Monkeys.
Letters home were written with alarming regularity (my mum still has them all in a box under the bed; I must read them one of these days). The emotion you felt when you received a letter was that of indescribable joy. My mum wrote to me religiously for years and when I look back, I can’t believe she ever found the time, but they really were a lifeline. You could go for months without speaking and literally years without seeing your family so any news from home was a godsend and the inclusion of a photo or two would guarantee tears before bed. All letters were read, read out loud and read again, carried around in your handbag for a week, then stored safely in a shoebox in the wardrobe. During the days, the boys played football or pool against the hotel staff, while the girls did their hair or the Jane Fonda workout.
We worked for a basic salary and a share of the tips. Tip points were allocated according to ability and experience; it was all very democratic and honourable. Some months we would earn R3000 which is probably only enough to buy a new pair of shoes and a kilo of biltong now, but the exchange rate was R1.60 /£1 back then and we were minted. The more sensible kids sent their money home to pay off mortgages and help out their families. The rest of us bought clothes, jewelry, art and other trivial things. We never paid a bill in our lives.
The way the rota was written, we worked for two weeks then got two days off. Two more weeks on and it was our long-awaited four-day break, finishing on Sunday at 6pm and not having to return until 9pm the following Friday.
At any one time, a quarter of the casino staff would be off work and more often than not, would go away. Some had cars and would set off for Cape Town, Jo’burg or Durban; others flew. Wherever you went there would be a Sun International or a Southern Sun hotel, all were five star and utterly luxurious. Employees of the company were granted a 75% discount and we partied like sailors on shore leave.
We went trekking on horseback in the mountains of Lesotho, parasailed over lakes in Natal, dined with diamond diggers in Kimberley and witnessed a lion kill in Etosha Pan, Namibia. When we were at home, we made fancy dress costumes for theme nights in the casino and camped in tents down by the dam while the boys fished and drank beer. We rode our bikes, hosted braais, watched movies and threw birthday parties. Friendships were forged which are still alive today. I was 23 years old and living the dream. I stayed at Thaba ‘Nchu for 18 months.
Morula Sun was named after the amarula berries which ferment to produce alcohol. When they ripen, the herds of elephants gather and ram the trees to make the berries fall. The annual elephant hoedown starts right there.
Originally built as a 12-table casino, its proximity to Jo’burg and Pretoria had been seriously underestimated. Within a couple of months, Morula had doubled in size, a second staff village had been built and the recruitment drive for croupiers was in full swing. Lured by the bright lights of the city and the promise of a reunion with my friend Sharon, I headed north in my clapped-out, red Ford Escort.
Taking up residence in Flamingo Inn with Anna, a former Bunny Girl from Tiger Bay, South Wales (who went on to marry the resident magician, I kid you not) I soon settled into my new life. I flew to Swaziland and watched men carving soapstone heads at the side of the road. I rode a camel in the Namib Desert and whitewater rafted down the Zambezi, I even did the Flight of Angels in a four-seater plane. As an aside to swooping down Victoria Falls so close that there was spray on the windows, the pilot flew us over the elephant’s graveyard which I can still see now if I close my eyes. I developed an enduring taste for gin and tonic and morphed into Meryl Streep in ‘Out of Africa’. From the air, Zimbabwe was truly God’s own country.
Life was good until the yearning to see America became too strong to fight. Anna the Bunny had rekindled my wanderlust with tales from her years on the QE2. I knew I had to go. It was July 1989 when I packed my bags and left Africa with £1000, a sack full of memories and a pocket full of sodden tissues. I never made it back.
The cruise ships were all I’d hoped for and a lot I could never have expected. For the next four years, I worked on board the world’s finest liners. Visiting Russia, Hawaii, the Caribbean, Acapulco, Scandinavia, San Francisco, Alaska and the Bahamas to name but a few, I learned to scuba dive in the Virgin Islands and ski in the Pyrenees. I listened to jazz in Copenhagen and got tear-gassed by the police for smoking dope in Christiania; I water-skied in Cabo San Lucas, drank my own body weight in rum punch in Barbados and fell off more inflatable bananas than I care to remember.
In 1992, I bought a flat in Southport and moved in three years later when I hung up my bowtie and went to College. I felt I was getting older and it was time to grow up. My little sister already had a daughter and I’d spent the last couple of years pining for my own pillow, front door key, phone number and somewhere to display the beautiful mementos I’d collected on my travels. They’d been packed away in my mum’s loft for over ten years.
Every year, I spend time in Southern California with Amanda and her two sons. She never came back home and to be honest, I can’t blame her. Sharon is a teacher in London with two children but I’ve no news on Anna the Bunny although I think of her with great fondness from time to time. I hope she’s still happily married to the Great Shezar.
I loved my years in the casino game and to all the fabulous friends I made along the way, I raise my gin and tonic.
‘To rose-lipped maidens, light-foot lads’
© Becky Tallentire 2014