The Bekker family inspires with their resilience and determination. MARISKA MORRIS investigates
When faced with an enormous obstacle, many might despair. They might dwell on self-pity or struggle to adjust. But then there are those few who inspire with their strength, resilience and ability to seemingly adapt to any challenge. They tackle the challenges that life present head on. One such individual is Hugo Bekker.
In 2007, Hugo suffered a spine injury during a vehicle accident. At the time, his family was farming in Hoedspruit, Limpopo. Just two years prior, he had bought the farm from his father.
Injured and alone
In January of 2007, Hugo visited his neighbour to hunt bushpigs while his wife and children visited family in Pretoria, Gauteng. On his way back home, his wheel went through some water and the vehicle overturned.
“My bakkie fell on its side,” Hugo recalls. “My neck broke at the C6/7 vertebrae. I just lay there, my torso outside the bakkie, while it drizzled. I was there from about 12 PM to 3 AM. I laid there for a long time all the while wrestling with myself internally. Finally, the night shift at one of the packing facilities found me.
“The man who stopped said that there wasn’t enough airtime on his phone, but I guaranteed him there was enough. I phoned my father and just finished talking when the phone died,” he says.
Hugo stabilised at the Air Force Base Hoedspruit – an airbase for the South African Airforce – then airlifted to Milpark hospital in Parktown, Johannesburg. There he spent 14 days in the intensive care unit (ICU) before being relocated for rehabilitation at Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital in Auckland Park. But, the thing that stands out in Hugo’s journey is his deteremination – the thing that allowed him to leave the rehabilitation centre early.
“He should have actually remained in rehabilitation longer,” recalls Leandra Bekker, Hugo’s wife of more than two decades. “Hugo was discussing farming when the doctor said that it sounded like he wanted to go home. Hugo responded by saying: ‘If you don’t discharge me, I’ll discharge myself.’”
So, Hugo left early. On recalling the event, he mentions that he might have left even sooner had it not been for a pressure ulcer (or sore) that occurred during his stay in ICU. While his determination definitely helped, Hugo is also fortunate to be surrounded by large support structure.
At the time of his accident, Hugo was already married, with his parents and siblings living on the same farm. Thus, there were many people available to assist with his daily tasks. He also had ample motivation to continue fighting – his two young children. Now, all grown up, his son frequently assists with carrying his father or helping him into his bakkie – something Leandra is less capable of doing as she grows older.
While at the time it was tough to manage two small children with Hugo reliant on a wheelchair, Leandra says it was a blessing in disguise that they married and had children young – something for which they were often critiqued.
“When we got married, all our friends asked us why we were marrying so young. If we hadn’t, then things might have been very different. We might never have had children. Now we are very glad we married young,” Leandra says.
Aside from his family and children who are quick to assist if needed, Hugo is also surrounded by an incredible community of people who provide support. He is well-known in Hoedspruit with residents eager to assist where they can.
“I always say that Hugo does a drive-thru in Hoedspruit,” Leandra says. “If he needs to buy something, he makes a phone call, sends the list and simply asks for an invoice.”
Hugo notes how he would wait in his car for the store owner to help him with a purchase. The local hardware store is so familiar with him, the staff are instructed to load his car and simply note down what is taken so that they can bill him later.
Boer maak ‘n plan
Hugo returned to Hoedspruit and his life on the farm. Of course, this presented its own unique challenges as a farm isn’t exactly accessible. But again, Hugo didn’t give up. As the Afrikaans saying goes: ‘n Boer maak ‘n plan (farmer makes a plan). Hugo bought a power wheelchair – despite the warnings that it might make him lazy – so that he could drive his chair into his farmlands.
“How lazy do you want me to become?” Hugo said laughing when he recalled conversations around the benefits of a manual chair. Now, 15 years later, the power chair has offered Hugo opportunities that a manual one might not. He noted: “With my power wheelchair, I was able to farm, to see my daughter play hockey and to visit the shooting range.”
A family friend recently bought a tank chair on Hugo’s recommendation. This same friend confided in the Bekkers that, with the new chair, he was able to walk in the bush with his wife – something he did 12 years ago!
Hugo took it a step further by adapting his chair so that he can stand up. This was achieved with the assistance of his father – not the first time the duo teamed up to troubleshoot accessibility challenges. As Hugo explained: “I’ll tell my father my plan and he’ll make it work. My father is now my hands. We would look at a product and then build it ourselves for cheaper.”
In addition to adapting his chair, the duo has built an elevator for the family home, adapted the family mini-van or kombi, a game drive vehicle to accommodate a wheelchair user at the back, and built a trigger for Hugo’s gun so that he can shoot competitively.
Shooting for big dreams
It was one of the first requests that Hugo made after returning from rehabilitation – to shoot once again. At first, the trigger was built so that Hugo could use his tongue, but it has since evolved to allow him to shoot with his thumb. In 2020, Hugo won several titles at the SA Hunters competition. He even loads his own cartridge.
“It is something that takes most people a couple of minutes, but can take me the whole day. But I love loading my own weapon,” he says. For him, adaptive shooting is a sport that truly shows what is still possible even after a serious injury. His passion for the sport is shared by his son. Shooting has become a way for them to spend time together.
“When my son started shooting, we started shooting together. It became something that I could do with my son,” Hugo noted. His son has big ambitions for the sport. He aimed to get his Limpopo colours and travel internationally with the national team – prior to COVID, which halted many opportunities.
Hugo continued to farm with his father for a further 13 years after his injury. Unfortunately, as his father grew too old to help and his son was still too young to take over, Hugo had to sell the farm. He decided to purchase a piece of land in the Moditlo reserve within the Blue Canyon private conservancy and opened Little Africa Safari Lodge – a wheelchair accessible lodge – early 2020.
It is also here that he was inspired to adapt a game drive vehicle that can accommodate a wheelchair at the very back through a wheelchair lift. He was inspired by his wife’s desire to sit next to him on game drives. While the global pandemic has proven a challenge, the Bekker family is excited about this new adventure.
Advice to keep going
Hugo’s advice for others who might need a little more inspiration to keep going is simple. Find something for which to live, stay positive and know that your family won’t abandon you.
He jokingly adds that if you wife leaves you, you will find another. Leandra adds that newly injured wheelchair users shouldn’t be afraid to ask if they don’t know something.
With a strong community behind you and a strong will, you can also tackle new adventures!
Read about the Bekker family lodge, Little Africa Safari Lodge, here.