Making a hash of it

Every now and then I write magazine articles. This one was published in Fair Lady magazine in June 1998. It’s about an international, fun-loving, self-consciously odd running club.

Have you seen a motley crew of runners bounding through the leafy suburbs, scrutinising the pavement and uttering the odd squawk of triumph? Or have you yourself been out jogging, only to be jerked from your endorphin-induced trance by the summons, “ON-ON”? Was it a wild-eyed fellow in disreputable running-shoes, urging you towards an uninviting, steep and scraggy path?

Then you have encountered the Hash House Harriers.


“New feet!” someone crowed. It was Sunday afternoon. Peter and I were about to join our first hash. The hashers clustered round to greet us. Were their smiles just a little too keen?
“Are you runners?” one asked.
“No,” I replied with sinking heart.
“Good. That helps,” was the dry retort.
“Come and meet the RA. Our Religious Advisor.”

He stood apart, yet somehow the focus of attention. He welcomed us with a roguish grin. Was I imagining the gleam of anticipation in his eye? As we chatted desultorily, hashers sidled up with snippets of seemingly trivial information.
“Twin Peaks has new shoes, RA.”
“RA, have you noticed that Bypass is not wearing his hash T-shirt?”
“Bee’s Knees left her underwear in my car last week!”

A toot from the hash horn, and the pack set off. For all points of the compass at once. Peter and I stood bemused. Then came the triumphant yelp: “On-on!” We joined the rush towards a faint arrow chalked on the pavement.

We quickly got the hang of it, just following the other hounds. Then Peter spotted an arrow of his own. The distraction proved too much. Suddenly he was down on the tar, his ankle the size of a pawpaw and growing. The Hash Quack materialised, pronounced it a sprain, and prescribed ice and rest. At the hospital, the doctor concurred, although he could not resist adding the inevitable quip. “You made a hash of it!”

A few days later the Hash Trash dropped into our letterbox. Their weekly newsletter. Our names were in print. The scribe accused Peter of using a “lame excuse” to get out of “the ceremony”. And me of aiding and abetting. Hand-written at the bottom of the page was an ominous warning: they were waiting for us. What had we got ourselves into?

A hash is a bit like a paper-chase. A hare lays a trail of flour, chalk or paper. The hounds follow the trail, which can be quite complicated. There are usually about ten “checks”, where the trail diverges into one or more false trails. It is up to the front runners to find the true trail, and to summon the pack with calls of “on-on”. Hashing is a social pastime. Not much respect is given to the “R” word (running). And the “M” word is positively despised. Taking part in the Two Oceans, for example, is a serious violation of hash etiquette.

But, in the true spirit of hashing, little respect is paid to this rule. The Cape Town HHH regularly man a water table for the Two Oceans marathon. Last year, they afforded the runners a welcome break from the serious business of the “R” word, by dressing up as priests and prostitutes.

In “dead hare” hashing, the hares lay the trail beforehand, and accompany the pack later in the day. The trail is five to eight kilometres long, depending on the terrain. “Holding” checks keep the pack together. The slower hounds have time to catch up, and the others have time to sing a song and generally make themselves look silly, as befits a hasher. The last hound is home in about ninety minutes.

“Live hare” enthusiasts tend to look down on their less bloodthirsty counterparts. A live hare has ten to fifteen minutes’ head start on the hounds. Soon the front runners are baying at his heels. There are penalties for being caught. And for evading capture.

Where the hash differs from a paper-chase is in its scope. It is an international pursuit. Hash kennels the world over have the same characteristics: an irreverence towards authority; an elaborate ritual designed to bind the pack together by making a fool of each and every member; and beer.

The first HHH club was founded in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1938. Now there are over a thousand clubs, on all the continents of the globe – including Antarctica. So if airport strikes leave a hasher stranded in Timbuktu, he whips out his Hash Directory. There is sure to be a local kennel where he can get his weekly fix.

That’s the another thing that distinguishes hashing from a paper-chase. Hash is habit-forming. Before long, a hasher’s life revolves around the weekly trail. Whole families are roped in.

Five years ago, Irish Missed (Anne Thacker, of the Cape Town HHH) was one of six unattached women who were persuaded to attend a hash. They were unimpressed at first, and sat in the car eating chocolates while those rather weird people went off for their run. On the hashers’ return, the six emerged to share their chocolates. One of the hashers caught Anne’s eye. It was instant antagonism. He poured Coke all over her car. She tried to run him down.

The next day, he phoned to ask her out for a date. Now Anne and Chris are happily married, and avid hashers. And three more of the original six women have married hashers.

Peter’s fall, and the threat at the bottom of the Hash Trash, had combined to make us unsure about returning for another jaunt. But the hash motto persuaded us: “If you have half a mind to join the hash, that’s all you need.”

So we went back for more. Peter was still on crutches, so he sat it out in a park. Camps Bay was cool and grey. And chock-a-block with steps! We went up the steps, down the steps, and up… There was no real “shiggy” – that’s hash-talk for mud, sludge, dung, rubbish dumps… anything designed to reduce your running-shoes to the desired state of disrepute. But we did have a scramble down a gully, near Kloof Neck, and up the other side. And, just when we thought we were on the home run, there was a killing stretch of soft sand on the beach.

The last hound staggered in. A circle formed round the Religious Advisor. His aura of authority swelled. Someone laughed, a little too loudly. Glances flickered around the ring. Silence fell. The RA stepped forward.

“Peter, Sarah. Let’s have you then.”
His tone was quiet, reasonable even. But my heart dropped to my, by this time suitably shabby, shoes. Peter swung forward, a pitiable figure on his crutches. I followed. The eyes of the pack glowed in the dusk. A collective sigh breathed on the back of our necks.

The RA dumped a foaming glass of beer at Peter’s feet. Mine was a Coke. The hashers broke into raucous song. I could not make out the words. Probably a good thing.

“Ten. Nine. Eight…” As they counted, we poured the drinks down our throats.
“Two… One!” What remained had to be deposited on our heads. I missed, accidentally of course, and narrowly avoided drenching those behind me. But beware: this action may be self-defeating. It constitutes the heinous crime of “alcohol abuse” – wasting beer – and may lead to another down-down.

The RA cleared his throat. “Peter’s hash name is ….” The pack waited with baited breath.
“Cro… uh, Crutch!” The hesitation and reluctant correction are obligatory, and typical of hash humour.

Other sinners shuffled forward. The hares always have a down-down. And there was some poor soul punished for finishing second. The RA himself had arrived back first, so he concocted that new violation on the spot.

This running-club is not only for the well-heeled. In fact, take a bit of advice: whatever you do, don’t wear new shoes. It is a severe violation, and the punishment fits the crime. The beer for your down-down is poured into one of the offending shoes. Once you have drunk it, the dregs from the “tea bag” are squeezed into your mouth – that is, from your sock, or the sole insert of the shoe.

The hash overturns normal adult values – rather self-consciously at times. It rides rough-shod over the sensitive issues of the day. Hash names are often blatantly sexist. Indecorous language is flaunted. Religion suffers a gentle ragging too. And so these matters are overturned, and cast aside. You could say that hashers follow a philosophy of inversion – although they would emphatically deny following anything but the trail which leads to the beer. Unless by “inversion” you mean turning a beer mug upside-down over your head.

Hashing is essentially a social pastime. Clubs get together regularly in an Interhash, which may be regional, national, or global. The biennial world-wide Interhash is held on even years. Hashers swap T-shirts and tall tales of impassable shiggy, doing a run or two to justify their presence.

The hash is alive and thriving in South Africa. The Cape Town HHH was founded in November 1980 by Bob Browning. Others are the Jacaranda HHH in Pretoria; the Howteng Horrors Full Moon HHH serving Johannesburg and Pretoria; and four in Durban: North Durban HHH, Durban HHH, Highway HHH, Hotties Hash House Harriettes.

Should you hash? You need two senses over and above the proverbial five: common sense – a complete lack of it; and a sense of humour – a surfeit of this one, preferably of the British variety. If you’re into the Monty Python genre, consider yourself well in.

Running and beer are integral parts of hashing. But you’re welcome even if you’re a slow coach, who is on the wagon to boot. On-on!

  1. Loved your article and had a great laugh – as this is very true.
    on on

  2. sharon gail lack

    Sounds great fun even if you are a little slow:)

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