Throwing down the gauntlet, Mike & Kurt were gone. With their long strides – Mike because of his long legs & Kurt, well, because of his long strides – they easily increased the gap between George & I. I strained to keep the gap as small as possible but to no avail. They steadily drew ahead. I could almost hear the strains of Straus’ Radetzky March that Kurt was humming to himself. Eventually I consoled myself with the fact that as the first of the team into Coffee Bay, they would have to resolve the transport issue which now became the focus of our concerns. It was upper most in all our minds at this juncture.
In this part of the Transkei, there was no coastal road. All roads radiated like spokes from the capital, Mthatha, directly to the coast. Firstly we had to find transport to Mthatha & then on to Port St Johns. What would await us there was yet another concern. George’s car did not have some minor fault but something fairly critical, a broken differential. Presumably this had been damaged in one of the myriad potholes en route probably in the Transkei leg of the journey as none were experienced in South Africa itself. Its repair required a properly functioning service centre but what did Port St Johns provide but a back-yard mechanic of dubious ability.
No time to visit the Hole-in-the-Wall or the beach or have a shower. Six days of dirt & grim would have to stay. On a Sunday morning there was no bus service to Mthatha or anywhere else for that matter.
There was nothing for us to do but use the mode of transport of the locals. The Taxi Rank was our next port of call. Four dishevelled stinky dirty white men stood alone in a long queue of black mammas all dressed to the nines in their Sunday best; an incongruous scene, a motley collection of whites & a well groomed bunch of blacks. Small girls with frilly dresses gaily danced around in wild abandon; a cheerful group of people all en route to church.
Then it was our turn to be stuffed into a taxi but first the fight about our fares. Backpacks would cost extra. George came into his own as he argued furiously with the marshals. Eventually allowed on board, all twenty of us & our packs in a 15 seater, we squashed against our neighbours in their clean spritely outfits & well-coiffured hair. Some could be seen clearly turning their noses up at the stench emanating from the four mulungus. We feigned ignorance & joyfully listened to choral music played not as intended softly but at full blast. Surprisingly a number of classical songs had been provided with ethnic make-up & make-over.
The taxi, badly in need of new shock absorbers, bounced along the dirt roads & stopped at all the churches en route disgorging its occupants. More fellow travellers were seated & in turn drew up their noses in disgust at this white trash, tramps who had invaded their world. They fully expected us to haul out bottles of cheap wine, probably Libertas or some such form of plonk from our packs & continue our drinking. The two worlds collided, the smart black church-goers & filthy dirt-begrimed smelly white fellow travellers, locked together in a journey into another world.
At each stop, the Marshals or as we preferred to call them, Packers or Stuffers would, despite the vociferous protests of the passengers, force additional people into the already overloaded taxis.
At Mthatha, food was the order of the day & the local Wimpy sufficed. Again the stares – more like glares – of well-manicured black patrons enjoying a civilised meal on a mid-Sunday morning, the highlight of their week, stared in astonishment of the disreputable bunch.
Little did we care as he gorged ourselves ordering doubles of everything & then some more. With bloated stomachs, the four satiated hikers stumbled across to the main taxi rank in downtown Mthatha. Missing drain covers, overflowing sewerage pipes, dysfunctional everything greeted us; decay & disrepair evident in abundance, as we picked our way through hordes of locals parading around on their day off work.
Finally we were on our way to Port St Johns with thumping music & loud raucous passengers telling the driver what their week was like from their seats at the back of the vehicle. Everybody was jovial, we because we had survived & they for a love of life. Suddenly without the pressure, anxiety & life threatening obstacles, we were tired. Dog tired, to be honest, most slept the blissful sleep of babies as the taxi bounced along the road.
George’s car was tracked down on the plot. The house & the garden displayed its fading beauty; once a well-groomed lawn, surrounded by a maze of flower-beds, was now a wild overgrown garden. The last coat of paint on the double-storey house many years ago by its previous white owners clung tenaciously onto the walls, ready to fall to the ground, a faded visage of a different world. This had clearly been a sumptuous villa of some opulent family was now long since on the road to rack-and-ruin. What a pity! Everything stank of decay, misuse & disrepair, forlorn in its new colours.
The back-yard mechanic had somehow sourced a second hand differential & George’s car was ready to drive.
But first a proper meal before the four of us said our au revoirs & sped off back to civilisation. On enquiring from one of the locals, we were directed to the best restaurant in town. The only one in fact, a remnant of the pre-expropriation era where the South African government has elected to purchase out all the whites in this area who no longer wanted to stay there after Transkei’s independent.
Probably the house of the mechanic was one such house sold for millions & given to some impecunious local who could not afford to maintain the premises.
There the restaurant stood in an overgrown garden, the Frutto Del Mare. The place was deserted inside except for the four of us. This suited us in our state of dishevelment, putrefaction & haste to be on the road for the long drive back to the Reef. Our families were probably frantic with worry but without Cellphones communication was extremely difficult.
Being the most knowledgeable on drinks, the waiter was directed to hand Kurt the Wine List. The long list of the finest wines caused much discussion. Should it be a Merlot or a Shiraz? How about a Chardonnay? The experts debated, finally making up their minds. The waiter was presented with the order.
“Sorry, we are out of stock” she apologised.
A mumble of dissention, barely audible, arose
“OK”, Kurt continued, “Then we will have this chardonnay” as he read the name of some exotic wine.
Again the same apology was given.
This time the murmur was audible as Mike asked a question to get to the nub of the problem & to short-circuit this process.
“OK, what wines on the Wine List are still in stock”, short & sweet & to the point.
“None!” came the nonchalant reply.
We were all dumb founded. One could hear a pin drop.
Why had the waitress handed us a Wine List when none were actually available?
We shook our heads in disbelief.
“OK, do you have Amstel?” an exasperated Kurt almost blurted out.
“Sorry, not in stock”
By now, this reply was not a shock.
As if resigned to the ultimate answer, he enquired, “OK, what alcoholic beverages do you have in stock?”
“Only Black Label & Coke!”, again matter-of-factly, not prefaced with an apology or letting us know the stock situation before embarking on this whole charade.
In resignation, four quarts of Black Label were ordered because nothing smaller was in stock.
We glanced at our menus. As far as our stomachs were concerned, the meal in Mthatha was a starter & this now was the main meal. The menu catered for all tastes from Kastler Ribs for those who liked German food, and is my favourite, to Indian curries, steaks & sea food. The whole gamut was catered for.
Instead of engaging in the same game of We-would-like as the antecedent & Sorry-it-is-out-of-stock as the reply, Kurt was blunt this time.
In a tone of exasperation, he asked, “Of all these items on the menus what can you make for us?”
“None,” came the atonal response.
Finally Kurt took the low road, “What can you make? Anything? What do the locals order?”
His sarcastic tone belied his frustration.
“Normally they order pap en wors but as a favour we can make you crayfish which we caught this morning.”
In a whirl of emotions & a squeal of car’s tyres, we left the Wild Coast & our extraordinary experiences far behind until they were recalled 25 years later.
Episodes of The 1988 Wild Coast Trail – 25 year Retrospective Report
The 1988 Wild Coast Trail – 25 year Retrospective Report Part1: The Journey
The 1988 Wild Coast Trail – 25 year Retrospective Report – Part 2: An ignominious start
The 1988 Wild Coast Trail – 25 year Retrospective Report – Part 3: In Too Deep
The 1988 Wild Coast Trail – 25 year Retrospective Report – Part 4: The route march through a swamp
The 1988 Wild Coast Trail – 25 year Retrospective Report – Part 5: The old & the future South Africa collide