‘You will see the best and the worst of Africa in four hours’.
Never before have we received such a list of instructions to reach anywhere. We were driving through the old Transkei to reach Melissa’s cottage. Here, her words, in italics, are mingled with my own impressions of a long, very memorable journey.
Dead dogs – 6. Corrugated iron churches – 1. Accidents – surprisingly only 2.
We set off from Port Shepstone, along the R61, past Margate and Ramsgate. With a steady fall of light drizzle we could easily have been at the English seaside. This weather was reminiscent of so many childhood holidays. Just keep going south. There is only one road. Vehicles tailed endless sprays of seemingly steaming water, and our windscreen wipers scratched back and forth.
Go past Port Edward over a huge bridge, past Wild Coast casino and enter Transkei. Roadworks for a long while, (good thing because it slows the traffic) Just a few kilometers in and we encountered our first ‘please be patient’ sign. Notices detailed scheduled explosions – all of which seemed to be long ago – and a series of instructions. ‘Stop. Go/Ry’. ‘Waiting time 20 minutes’. A woman in fluorescent orange, accentuated by a shocking lime green high-vis vest and strips at knees and wrists, physically shoved a sunshine yellow, plastic barrier back and forth. Her floppy straw sun-hat sat atop her head shielded by a burgundy umbrella. A good girl scout, prepared for everything. After 10 minutes we could ‘ry’, but only for 3, and then the whole process started over. Different woman. Same plea – ‘please be patient’….
When we could drive, we bounced over monstrous potholes and loose gravel. When we waited, I watched. People walked along the hard shoulder. Women carrying umbrellas, plastic bags and babies on their backs, swaddled in towels and blankets. Young men, too cool to unfurl umbrellas, carried them rolled, walking stick style. No-one was dressed for the weather. There was not a Gortex in sight – just T-shirts, light sweats, and a plethora of bare arms, legs and feet. Flip-flops seemed to be de rigeur, with the odd wellie boot thrown in. The weather was of no consequence. Patterned blankets still hung over barbed wire fences and washing hung limply on makeshift lines and dotted bushes and walls.
‘Spaza’ shops littered the landscape. Jiva Spaza with it’s apricot walls was a blaze of noise. While cows threaded through the waiting traffic, three women – their heads covered with knotted cloths, and waists girded with towels and aprons – laughed and chatted in the open doorway. A heavy bass beat thumped out into the drizzle. A cow bellowed with gusto – head back, neck stretched, mouth open.
We pressed on and pulled into a petrol station – except there was no petrol. You get to Bizana town. (Awful). There was no place to stop for a cuppa, but Coca-Cola told me to ‘enjoy that feeling’ with their Christmas banner spanning the road. Strangely, I was, but it was not so much fun for Jim. His eyes were for the road only. Turn left in town at first t-junction, keep going out of town. About 40 km to the only next t-junction – turn left. Follow the road ……. about 2 hours….beware speed humps and animals……..
If it wasn’t potholes we were skirting, it was speed bumps of various ilk. Ridges and bumps and configurations of the two – one was never enough. Three bumps in a row, then six one after the other, and then a pattern of bumps and ridges together. ‘Why do they need so many, one would do the job’, Jim wondered aloud, as a man jogged past faster than we could drive and we both burst out laughing. By far the worst were what we called ‘the ditches’ – trenches hacked out of the road, hardly visible and no warning given. At the first one, we screeched to a halt as our front wheels teetered on the rim. The car behind left us no room to reverse. Another honked. Cursing, Jim just went for it. ‘Whatever idiot thought that up’, he muttered.
As we slalomed, life was in full swing on the grass verges: kids kicked balls, women washed clothes in an assortment of plastic tubs, wheelbarrows doing service as shopping trolleys were pushed by all and sundry and men urinated – always a terrific stream in a beautifully curved arch.
There were cows, goats, sheep, the occasional horse, a few donkeys, three pigs (one of which was the size of a small bus) and once I saw geese. They loitered, crossed the road whenever they saw fit, or just sat there, chewing the cud. Sometimes there was a youth with a stick nearby; more often than not – no-one at all; the animals just a law unto themselves. If you come across an animal in the road DO NOT! UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES – SWERVE! ! you are a lot safer to hit the animal than try to avoid it. Avoiding it causes rolling and accidents with on coming cars. But anyway just cruise safely along and u be good.
We passed one uninspiring town after another. Go through Flagstaff…….go through Lusikiski. (turn right at only traffic circle in town -can’t miss it) keep driving. In Flagstaff we got petrol. Only one pump was working, but it was something. The credit card facility wasn’t working. ‘Sorry sir, cash only’, the attendant told us. Outside Dankies Foto Studio, a woman, bent nearly double, rifled through empty cardboard boxes. And then as we left town, a sign that caused us to scratch our heads in amazement – after 150km – a warning – POTHOLES. The rain fell all the while, sometimes drizzle, occasionally harder, but now there was a total white-out. We inched forwards passing ‘Love Tombstones – factory prices’ and the Top Top Tavern at Lusikiski. Onwards you go and then FINALLY across a long bridge over a river – Port St John’s. Eventually come to a very windy (as in turns – not wind) road. Only 133 bends to go announced another helpful sign as we loop-de-looped around the hillside. Wind up and down and up and down…..EVENTUALLY u see the sea. Keep going. Cross a long bridge over a river. Port St. John and a breathtaking view of the river, the cliffs and the sea loomed into sight.
We stopped for a well earned cup of tea – finally – and switched on our phone to receive a flurry of messages from Melissa. Previous guests were unable to leave the cottage due to torrential rain. Serge onwards undaunted. Another message, a 4×4 had been found to pull them out of the mire. But would we be able to get through? ‘Don’t worry’, Melissa told me when I called her, ‘keep going my angel’.
A t- junction. …..turn RIGHT……drive drive drive – uphill and down dale. Then up a long long winding hill. Eventually you come to shops and buildings and many BIG speed humps……..The second turn to the left (big red cross – hospital sign: isilimela hospital…..turn left – traffic circle – second off ramp…….dirt road. Keep driving……drive drive drive …..careful always of animals in road . After about 10kms (guess) you will come to a bridge go over and about 1km further on you will see a very faded sign saying “Codessa funeral services” (not terribly inspiring ) – turn left.
Now a small and narrow dirt to road but not bad. Go along up and down up and down. Finally reach a concrete strip up steep section – go up and then along and at top turn right (there is only one right turn) go along and then turn first left – dirt track…….splits …..take right. ……huts on either side. …go a little way and u burst out at the top to the most incredible view……stop. Sugar will be there to meet you.
And suddenly, amazingly, Sugar was there – smiling and pointing and running alongside and in front of the car. Melissa had told me – ‘It sounds a bit wild but it’s cool. Just relax’. She was totally right.